Text: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
“You could say we are passing the torch,” said Eugene Coffing, chair of the Winbourne Avenue Baptist Church deacon board. Winbourne Avenue is a predominantly white middle class church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, founded in 1947. At one time the church had 1500 members. But on a recent Sunday, their service was attended by only fifteen mostly elderly people. Yet as those fifteen filed out after the benediction, they passed teenagers and families with young children, mostly African Americans, who were filing in. A few minutes later, 200 members of Healing Place church enthusiastically praised God during an energetic and emotional service.
Now you can probably guess what happened to Winbourne Avenue church. Their post-war white, middle class neighborhood transitioned, and “white flight” took most of its members to the suburbs or to other cities. Some churches in this situation hang on for dear life doing things the way they’ve always been done, and Winbourne Avenue did for a time. But in 2007 they began to allow Healing Place to use their large facilities for worship and to offer food, child care, clothing, re-entry programs for ex-offenders, and street outreach with after school programs for homeless and at-risk youth.
Then in April of this year, the remaining members of the Winbourne Avenue congregation donated its $2 million building to Healing Place. Questioned by a reporter after the service, Winbourne’s longtime treasurer said, “As a corporate body we wanted to be sure a church remained here on this corner, and it will.” As he spoke these words, up on the platform a wide-screen TV began declaring the Healing Place theme in bold yellow letters: “Jesus is here, anything can happen.”
A lot of torch passing goes on around us. Literally, it happens every four years in preparation for the Olympics as runners carry the flame from the site of the first games in Olympia, Greece to the location of the upcoming competition. But figuratively it happens in families, in businesses, in communities and, yes, in churches all the time. Our text for this morning is the story of an ancient passing of the torch from the prophet Elijah to Elisha, his disciple.
Elijah is known for dramatic acts like raising the dead and bringing down fire from heaven. He was the key prophetic voice through the reigns of two kings. Although others spoke for God during this period, Elijah looms large in history. He is portrayed as a prophet like Moses and we can see the parallels with Moses as the writer of Second Kings describes the end of Elijah’s life. Elijah and Elisha take a final journey together. At each stop, Elijah attempts to get his protégé Elisha to remain behind while the old prophet continues on. But Elisha refuses this request out of deep commitment to his mentor. When they reach the Jordan River, Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the water. The scene recalls Moses striking the waters of the Red Sea. Like Moses, Elijah is successful, the waters part, and they cross over.
As the two men come to the end of their journey and Elijah to the end of his earthly life, he says to Elisha: “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha desires to follow in the footsteps of the great prophet, so he makes a good choice. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” is his plea. Oddly, Elijah seems unsure about whether Elisha will receive this blessing or not—“you’ll receive it only if you see me as I leave you,” he says. Following this exchange, Elijah is taken up in a chariot with horses of fire, ascending into heaven via whirlwind. Elisha is a witness and the spirit is passed on. This dramatic exit is what we tend to remember about Elijah. The glorious demonstration of fiery power gets our attention and has fascinated artists over the centuries. I recall a picture of this scene in my childhood Sunday school room. Many of us also remember a wonderful movie about two Olympic runners entitled “Chariots of Fire.”
But the heart of this story isn’t about the fire or the drama. It’s about passing the torch. More importantly, the main point of the passage is the continued availability of people who will do God’s work in the world. When Elijah leaves, the people are not left alone. One prophet exits but another is raised. The ministry in God’s name will go on.
This passage demonstrates a critical reason for studying the Bible, especially for those of us who feel it has been co-opted by persons and churches from other faith perspectives. Our more conservative sisters and brothers believe the inspired nature of scripture means that every word of it is literally true. But as Brian McLaren reminds us, saying the text of the Bible is “inspired” really means that we can encounter God in stories of characters like Elijah. So it’s important to read the Bible to see what happened to regular people like us—which is what all of them were before God’s spirit got a hold of them. Would you like a double share of the spirit of Elijah the prophet or another biblical character you recall? If so, which one?
I find it comforting to think about Abraham and Sarah who set out to follow God on a journey whose destination was completely unknown to them. I find it encouraging to remember Moses, who was stretched to use gifts he didn’t imagine he possessed. I am challenged by prophets like Micah and Amos who called on the Israelites to repent of their oppression of the poor. I am inspired by those unnamed Hebrew midwives who risked their lives to save Jewish children from the pharaoh. In each story, the faith continued because of people like these who passed the torch to the next generation or, in the case of the Hebrew midwives, ensured that there was a next generation. I’d take a double share of their spirit any day. If we take the time to examine these characters and what they were able to do and be, we realize that God typically sees more in us than we see in ourselves. As one of our Pullen poets has said, if we’ve got kindling, God’s always ready with a match.
There is also a parallel with Jesus in this torch-passing tale of Elijah and Elisha. The gospels tell us that Jesus also ascended into heaven. Yet we know the end of Jesus’ life was not one of fire and glory, but of disgrace and suffering through a tortuous execution on a cross. The book of Acts reports, however, that following Jesus’ ascension, the focus shifted quickly to the continuation of his ministry. Jesus is gone but his disciples remain. In this case, it is the Holy Spirit that empowers the prophet’s replacements. They got a double share of Jesus’ spirit and then some.
So the passing of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha is a transfer of prophetic leadership repeated in the passing of the torch from Jesus to his disciples. In both cases, continuity is the goal and spirit provides the means. But notice that unlike Elijah, Jesus didn’t pass the torch to a single new prophet, but to a group of everyday folks.
Closer to home for many of us, the torch has passed or is passing from our parents or grandparents. Beloved friends, fellow church members, and professional colleagues have passed the mantle to us with the prayer that we will continue their work. Personally, I’d be happy with a double share of the spirit of some of you in this sanctuary and other saints of Pullen church. I’d certainly accept a double portion of the spirit of John T. Pullen. His devoted ministry with the poor of our city in the early days of this church prompted his peers to name the church in his honor after his death in 1913. When the church voted to change its name from the Fayetteville Street Baptist Church to Pullen Memorial, the resolution they approved said this: “We would pray that some portion of his spirit may abide with us and help us to carry on the work that he commenced.” Those early Pullenites knew well that continuity requires spirit.
If you had a chance to select one or a handful of people you know from whom you would like to receive a double share of their spirit, who would they be? A parent or grandparent? A teacher or friend? Someone whose writing has inspired your living? What is it about the lives they lived, the people they were or are, that inspires you? What makes you want their spirit to “inspirit” you?
I can think of several whose spirit I would like to inherit. I have mentioned before that when I was in seminary, I did an independent study in which I examined the lives of two older women I knew who demonstrated a deep connection between their spirituality and their commitment to social justice. I interviewed them at length and recorded the stories they told me about their upbringing, their families, their education, their joys, and their pain. Then I looked for parallels and contrasts. Ironically, one of them was raised in a family with financial means and social status in the community. She was dearly loved and cherished, and she knew it in her bones. I did not know until I did the interviews that the other woman was treated like the proverbial stepchild in her family. She was made to feel like just one more mouth to feed in a family with too many children and was forced to work too hard for a young person. Her bright mind and sweet disposition received very little family support or encouragement. Her story reminded me of the way the stepmother treated Cinderella.
Yet in spite of the differences in how they were treated as children, upon reflection I realized that these women embodied the same inspiring characteristic: deep, Christ-like love for everyone and everything in God’s creation. One took advantage of opportunity and the other overcame adversity to become two of the most loving human beings I have ever known. Today they are both 90 years old and they continue to teach me about love.
My hunch is that if you reflect on a person whose spirit you would like to inherit, you will find that he or she was or is a very loving person. You might admire him or her for courage, or strength, or wisdom, or patience. But grounding those traits is probably love. It’s the basis for the “light” that surrounds special people. Elijah was a dramatic character for sure and more than a bit stern, but somewhere underneath there was love. Marilynne Robinson, author of the book Gilead, describes how to tell a prophet from someone who just likes to fuss at people when they do something wrong. Prophets truly love the people they chastise. They also love God.
Jesus was a true prophet. He was forever naming people’s sins. I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant to be called faithless or perverse or other unflattering descriptions he used for the sorry people he often encountered. When you put yourself into the role of the disciples in the gospel stories, you know the twelve must have heard the disappointment in his voice when they just didn’t get what he was about. He came to usher in God’s kingdom. He was totally committed to God’s project of universal shalom. But to bring it about, he loved everyone and everything God created. Author Anne Lamott suggests, correctly I think, that this enemy-loving, peacemaking, willing-to-suffer-for-others Jesus is not the one we want. We’d rather have a Jesus who likes who we like and hates who we hate. One who makes us feel right and righteous in our choices of who to support and who to challenge.
But that’s not who Jesus was. Eldon Trueblood, the great Quaker scholar, often said that what’s important for the church isn’t that Jesus is like God. The significant, the truly radical idea is that God is like Jesus. In Jesus we see the character of God. And that character is love. Always love. Always, eternally love.
On this final Sunday of our creation season, I hope we recognize that this life-giving and health-giving love we see in Jesus extends beyond humanity to all of God’s creatures and creation. God takes care of the lilies, Jesus said. He asked us to remember that God clothes the grass of the field. I believe Jesus did so because of his own deep connection to all that God made. He loved creation because he loved God, and what God made was and is part of God. So we can be assured that all we do to protect the planet is part of the work Jesus would be doing if he were here in the flesh right now. I believe he IS here in the flesh, but that flesh is ours and we are to love all of God’s creation as Jesus loved it.
So the torch keeps passing. From prophets like Elijah and Jesus to people like John Pullen and all of us—especially all of you. This congregation has been blessed with prophetic clergy and Nancy continues the tradition of courageous leadership for Pullen church. But as one of you reminded me recently, we clergy and staff are all interims. This is your church. The torch has passed to you and the work is yours to continue. What work is that? It’s the work Jesus announced in his synagogue: bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and announcing that God’s kingdom is here now. This is the work Jesus did and it is Pullen’s as well.
Thankfully, the day is coming when Pullen church will be past this unsettling time of building additions, mortgages, and staffing studies. As we move toward those days and encounter new challenges, I hope that Pullen will continue to show the world that we have inherited the spirit of Jesus and prophets ancient and new. I also pray that each time the torch passes, we will continue the ministry in love – deep, Christ-like love. This church was once described as a “corner of the Kingdom” and we are the Elishas called to make sure it continues to be.
The Church of the Brethren has a mission statement that I find refreshing. They express their calling this way: Continuing the work of Jesus. Simply. Peacefully. Together. We could make this our mission as well. In fact, we could even be bold enough to follow the example of Healing Place church. We could tell the world: Jesus is here, anything can happen. Well…maybe we could leave off the big yellow letters and the wide-screen TV.