by Linda McMillan
Once every year or two I visit my family and friends in the USA. They are great times. I see people I’ve only been able to keep up with on-line, I check in with my doctor and accountant, and I buy a few things that I can’t get in Asia. Most importantly, I sit with my mother on the back porch, help her get the yard in shape, and we drink iced tea together. Then I say goodbye. It’s not easy.
In this week’s reading Elijah knew that his time on the earthly plane was coming to an end. In the same way that Jesus would later set his face to Jerusalem, Elijah today sets his face towards the Jordan River where he will be taken up into Heaven in a fiery chariot. That’s the story, anyway. But, saying goodbye is hard. So, before he crossed the Jordan, he made a goodbye tour of the prophet schools. First, he visited the school of prophets at Gilgal, then on to the school that he founded at Beth-El, finally on to Jericho.
You may remember that Elijah wasn’t one of the social butterflies of the prophetic world. He was a loner. Yet, Elisha stayed with him through this whole tour. At every step of the way, though, Elijah tried to get rid of Elisha. “Stay here,” he would say. But, Elisha wasn’t going to turn back. So, he kept replying: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”
They ended up at the Jordan River and Elisha still wouldn’t leave Elijah in peace. So, Elijah parted the waters of the Jordan and the two of them went across. When Elijah was only moments away from the end of his life on earth he finally realized why Elisha wouldn’t leave him in peace. Elisha, his student, still needed something: “What do you want, what can I do for you?” he asked.
Elisha had a pretty simple request. He wanted to be his master’s successor. The English language Bibles usually say, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” which makes Elisha sound a little greedy. But, what he is saying in the language of his time is that he wants the same blessing that a first-born son would receive.
Elijah, clearly annoyed that his protege was still following him, agreed to Elisha’s request, but he put a stipulation on it. Elisha must actually see him go up into Heaven. In other words, Elisha had to show that he was in it for real, up until the very end. This wasn’t a big deal for Elisha, because he had counted the cost. Elisha knew what it was to put your hand to the plow. You can’t turn around in the middle of the row, you have to plow on to the end, and that is what he did.
As Elijah and Elisha continued walking, the signs that we now recognize as signs of the Holy Presence began to show up. There was fire, and a whirlwind, and the chariots and horsemen of Israel swooped down… swing low, sweet chariot… and they took Elijah home.
In that moment it must have seemed to Elisha that he was left with nothing. His friend and mentor was gone. In fact, he had no more reason to live since his life had been focused on serving Elijah. It must have been one of those moments — and you are indeed fortunate if you’ve never had one — when you think “What’s the point?” “Why should I go on?” And Elisha tore his clothes. That may not seem like too much to you and I, but Elisha probably only had one tunic. And he ripped it in half.
We’ve all been there, I think. Some of us have been there more than once. It’s the moment after the fire and the chariots. In that moment there was something like the thin, ineffable silence that Elijah had heard on Sinai, a timeless moment just before the scream, the ripping, and then… out of the sky… unexpectedly… falls a new garment, and something new is born.
There is no question that fiery whirlwinds of change are blowing across our country, our church, and the world. We will have to say goodbye to the old ways of doing things. Family, the church, and society are all in flux. The goodbyes will not be easy, for the old ways are comfortable and predictable. There will be moments, maybe sooner than we’d like, when we the fire of change is so hot, and the winds of insecurity are so strong that we wonder if we can go on, or if we should.
But, look, up there in the sky… It’s not a bird or a plane. No, not Superman. It’s a tunic, Elijah’s mantle.
When Elisha took hold of Elijah’s mantle, he may have known that he had received the first son’s portion, or he might have doubted it. We don’t know. But, he took the mantle and did what he’d seen Elijah do, he parted the waters of the Jordan. That is the moment he knew that he was indeed his master’s successor. That is also the moment that the other prophets — because there are always people standing around to second-guess you, right? — recognized him as Elijah’s successor too.
There is a mantle for you. It might not fall from the sky, and you might not witness the chariots and the horsemen of Israel. But, look around. You’ll find your mantle loosely draped across the shoulders of your mentor, or a friend, someone who can guide you and help you see that even though you are not perfect, you bring unique and precious gifts to the table.
Leaders and programs come and go. The old ways go too. Tradition must yield to necessity. In the time of wondering what’s next, and hoping it might calm the whirlwinds, saying goodbye to the old can be hard. But, like Elijah, real leaders raise up their successors, offering holy friendship, support, and encouragement to try something new!
We each have something precious to receive, and to pass on to the next one. This marvelous Anglican tradition, strategies for keeping cool in the midst of our modern fires, the little things which define us as a people. These are the mantles which have slipped off bigger shoulders and onto our own, and which one day will slip off our shoulders and onto the next generation.
So, wear your mantle lightly. Trust those who come after you. And rejoice when they exceed you!
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China. She is currently on summer holiday and enjoying every minute of it!
Some Notes of Possible Interest
The Revised Common Lectionary leaves out a few verses so that the progression of Elijah’s goodbye tour is not clear. Read the whole thing.
From our previous week’s readings, you can easily see that Elijah is a loner: After he confronted Ahab and Jezebel he went out into the wilderness by himself. When he went up against the prophets of Baal, he went alone. And when Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life, he fled to Mt. Sinai to hide. Again, alone.
When I say that Elisha had put his hand to the plow, I am doing more than referencing the reading from Luke (Luke 9:51-62), I also want to remind you of something you may not have read — because it’s not in the lectionary readings — and that is the fact that Elisha was said to be plowing when Elijah came to call him. So I do think that Elisha knew a thing or two about plowing. When you are plowing one row at a time, the way he was, you really do have to keep your eye on the end point. If you look to one side or the other, or even let your mind wander, you can cause the row to go all crooked. I speak from experience.
This bit about “What can I do for you” is the second of two bookends. The other piece occurs when Elijah goes to call Elisha to follow him. Elisha — like his mentor will later do — says, “Oh, let me make a quick goodbye tour first” and Elijah responds, “What have I done to you?”
At first I didn’t know what to make of Elisha’s request, but a friend helped me understand both the Hebrew and the culture, and he pointed me to Deuteronomy 21:17, “He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.”
Later, in 2 Kings, Elisha will be described as someone who poured water on Elijah’s hands. In other words, a servant of Elijah’s, not a prophet in his own right.