Take up the mantle

Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale

June 30, 2019—Proper 8C

I Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Luke 9:51-62


          There is a story from first century rabbi Johanan ben Zacchai, who said that if someone says the Messiah is coming and you have a sapling in your hand, first you should plant the tree, then go and greet the Messiah. First, you plant the tree.

          And when Elijah throws his mantle over Elisha, making him his successor, Elisha asks, “Hold it, can you just wait a bit until I go home and say goodbye?” To which Elijah essentially responds, “Am I doing anything to stop you?” So Elisha goes home, throws a feast for his family and friends, then returns to follow Elijah—and it doesn’t appear to affect his ministry one bit!    

          Jewish tradition acknowledges that there might be things (important, creative, hopeful things) to do before we set out to follow. So WHAT is with Jesus in today’s gospel? Two people offer to follow him, if they can first bury their father or go home and say goodbye, and his responses to them are startling in their lack of compassion and dismissiveness. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” he says. “No-one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” 

          Gone are the images of a kingdom filled with those from the highways and byways. Gone the expansive openness. Here he is all purpose and concentration, faced toward Jerusalem, with no room or patience for anyone who might distract from that. His responses here are often taken as a statement of the kind of commitment following Jesus requires: kind of an extension of the whole “Take up your cross” idea that makes it extra clear that you are giving up EVERYTHING else when you do so.

          But I see something different here. Especially when you combine these particular responses with the first part of the story, in which someone else promises to follow Jesus wherever he goes. And in reply Jesus gets all cryptic: “Foxes have holes,” he says, “and birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

          “I have nowhere to lay my head” … this is one of the places, I think, when the pain of the incarnation shows through. There’s an echo of Gethsemane, and the messy humanity of fear and loneliness takes over for a while, and the man Jesus says, “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Maybe this is too hard. Please, I don’t want to do this anymore.”

          In today’s passage he isn’t asking not to die, but we do see a glimpse of how difficult and lonely this path is for him. “You want to follow me?” I can almost hear him saying. ‘You really think you want to follow me?  You have no idea how hard it is. I have no home. I have left my family behind. I have only my purpose, and this is to go to Jerusalem and die. You do not want to follow where I go. It is harder than even I had ever imagined.”  Jesus’ heart, it seems, is breaking, and he is filled with fear, and this is one of the moments he lets it show through.

          Which is how I can reconnect with this passage. Because until I saw that, it sounded as though he was saying that you can’t follow if you’re not absolutely sure, unless you have and will have no doubts.         

          And I don’t know about you, but when I am walking into something new, I have lots of doubts. And often, not a small amount of fear.

          What is it that you’re walking into? Maybe a new job or a new relationship, raising a child or taking care of an elderly parent, perhaps going to a new school  …  or maybe stopping doing something, whether that’s leaving a job, or quitting a habit that’s killing you … big or small, any new way of being in the world is likely to bring with it some trepidation. But that doesn’t mean you’re unfit for taking it on.

          The Sermon Brainwave folks got me thinking this week about that idea of having a mantle passed to you. Of how reluctant Elisha was to be parted from Elijah, which was likely equal parts grief and fear. How would he cope without his mentor? How could he possibly do what Elijah was able to do? So he dares to ask the only thing that makes it seem doable: Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.[i]

          And it made me think of the Capital Campaign: how we are recognizing that the mantle is ours now. We have been passed this building. We have been passed the mantle of being the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement in Ferndale. We have taken on a ministry that is now ours to grow and change and make fruitful. It’s a lot. We might well ask that our forebears gift us with a double helping of the commitment and spirit that allowed them to plant and build this place. A double helping of what allowed them to change and adapt during the tumultuous years of the sixties and seventies. A double helping of what kept this place alive during the early 2000s, recognizing the need to reach out to the cohorts that now surrounded the church, and were hungry for the gospel.

          They too probably wondered, with Elisha as he struck the water, “Where is God now?” Where is God when our forebears are gone? Where is God when the people we have trusted and counted on have left things in our (capable?) hands? Is God still here? Can God work through us, through me, as He did through them?

          Perhaps you have sat at the death bed of a parent or loved one and wondered the same thing. How can I manage, now that *I’m* the grownup? How can I pass on the strength and love and commitment that he or she did? How can I be as much of a gift to the world? Is God here? Can God work through me, to do the things that so amazed me about my mother, my father, my friend?

          God is here. God is with you, God is with us. The first sign of that is simply in the longing. The longing in you to be worthy of the mantle. The recognition that your loved one or your forebears were doing valuable things in the world, things you don’t want to see die with them. That longing and recognition are a mantle that has been placed over your shoulders. And they are a sign that God is still with you, and that will be enough.

We are still afraid, and we still feel woefully unprepared for the task. But that too is a gift and a promise. It is a sign that we do not journey alone, a sign that we are walking with the Jesus we meet in today’s gospel: lonely and homeless on the road, scared and perhaps feeling a little sorry for himself. Jesus, reminding us that being human is harder even than he thought it would be. And yet he keeps walking.

          We are never through with our doubts and fears, I’d guess. But strangely, in this passage that seems to be about certainty and fearless resolution, we find our scared selves in the company of Jesus, of the incarnate God. And in his pain, we can find something of the courage he had to get up, to straighten the mantle around his shoulders (around each other’s shoulders) and keep walking. May it be so. Amen.

[i] Sermon Brainwave podcast #669- Third Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 13), posted June 22, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1162

Clare Hickman