Text: 2 Kings 2:1-14
And she stood far off on the bank of the river.
And she said, “For what do I go to this far land which no one has ever reached? Oh, I am alone! I am utterly alone!”
And Reason, that old man, said to her, “Silence! What do you hear?”
And she listened intently, and she said, “I hear the sound of feet, a thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, and they beat this way!”
He said, “They are the feet of those that shall follow you. Lead on! Make a track to the water’s edge! Where you stand now, the ground will be beaten flat by ten thousand times ten thousand feet.” And he said, “Have you seen the locusts how they cross a stream? First one comes down to the water-edge, and it is swept away, and then another comes and then another, and at last with their bodies piled up a bridge is built and the rest pass over.”
She said, “And of those that come first, some are swept away, and are heard of no more; their bodies do not even build the bridge?”
“And are swept away, and are heard of no more—and what of that?” he said.
“And what of that—” she said. “They make a track to the water’s edge.”
“They make a track to the water’s edge—” And she said, “Over that bridge which shall be built with our bodies, who will pass?”
He said, “The entire human race.”
And the woman grasped her staff.
And I saw her turn down the dark path to the river.
“Have you seen the locusts how they cross a stream?” wrote Oliver Schreiner, South African writer and peace activist. There may be no stronger image for that which Jesus says that we, like he, are called, than that of the locusts who attempt to cross the river and, in so doing, make a bridge for others.
This past week, an 84 year-old widow named Edie Windsor made a bridge for others of us to cross over. It was her story that led the United States Supreme Court to strike down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. It was her story of her life with her wife of 42 years, Thea Clara Spyer, that has now changed the course of history – making a bridge for others to walk across.
As you know, this past week the Supreme Court, in a surprising decision to many, struck down a critical part of the Defense of Marriage Act, allowing legally married same-sex couples to have the same federal rights as heterosexual couples. The case rested on Windsor’s powerful story of fighting for equal recognition by the federal government after the death of her wife in 2009. In 2007, after 40 years together, and unable to legally marry in their own country, Windsor and Spyer married in Canada. Two years later, the state of New York, where Windsor and Spyer lived together, also began recognizing same-sex marriages and that same year Spyer died. Because of DOMA, when Thea died, Edie was hit with a massive federal estate tax—a penalty heterosexuals married couples would not have been subject to.
But, as Windsor noted, it wasn’t about the money. Upon hearing the news that the Supreme Court had struck down DOMA, she said, “One of the things I felt did not have to do with the money but had to do with my country not giving dignity to this beautiful person I lived with. And today, [in striking down DOMA] my country gave dignity and appreciated who she was.”
Edie Windsor helped build a bridge that others will now walk across and yet, before her there were others who made the path to the river so that that bridge might be built. People like: Walt Whitman and his life partner Peter Doyle; Mamie Gwinn, the woman who opened graduate education to women in the United States and her partner Martha Carey Thomas; Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas; and nameless others who quietly and courageously made a path to the river so that a bridge might be built. Edie Windsor picked up the mantle of the likes of Whitman, Gwinn and Stein and walked down the path that they had flattened and steadied the bridge for others of us to now walk across.
It is a powerful story and an even more powerful image – how the locusts cross the river. And it’s not unlike the image we have in the story of Elijah and Elisha – the image of picking up the mantle from one generation to the next. Both images invite us to think about the question, “What does it mean for us today to pick up the mantle of our spiritual forebearers?”
The story of Elijah and Elisha is a beautiful and deeply moving story. It has a poetic feel to it, repeating certain lines over and over – “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me…” with the refrain, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Conveyed in the prose is an intimate relationship of loyalty and trust between a mentor and mentee – a teacher and a student. And there may not be a more beautiful moment in all of scripture than when Elijah, the older prophet asked Elisha, the younger prophet what he could do for him before leaving him. How could one be more thoughtful in such a moment? And what about Elisha’s answer? It embodies both humility and gratitude: “Please, let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” It is a tender moment between two people who care deeply for one another. And then there is the grief of the younger prophet when his mentor is taken from him in a whirlwind into heaven. The narrative says, “When Elisha could no longer see Elijah, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.” It is never easy to lose someone that you love. Especially when that someone is a person you look to for wisdom and guidance and courage. It is a beautiful and inspiring story.
But beyond the beautiful and tender relationship between Elijah and Elisha is the pressing question of Elisha’s willingness to pick up the mantle and carry on the prophetic ministry of those who came before him. Will he keep flattening the path to the river and building the bridge for others to cross over? Or will he be distracted by his fear that he doesn’t have within himself what he needs? The focus of the Elijah and Elisha story is not about what happened to Elijah but what happens to the prophetic voice of God carried on by figures like Elijah – figures like you and me and this church. The story suggests that God’s prophetic voice is not carried out by one particular figure, but it is available for all who choose to pick up the mantle of loving God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself. In some sense, every community of faith stands opposite Jericho with a mantle before it. Occasionally, in rare moments, those who have glimpsed upward and seen the whirlwind of God are compelled to bend down and pick up that mantle, believing that now is the moment for them to strike the waters.
Our church has written a narrative that is about picking up the mantle and carrying on God’s prophetic voice in the world. From its pastors and lay people alike, this church has, throughout its history, been compelled to bend down and pick up the mantle and strike the waters. You ask, “What is that mantle?” It is the mantle of deep commitment from individuals who were not afraid of risking right belief for compassionate faith. It is the mantle of caring for the poor and the stranger at the risk of looking foolish. It is the mantle of speaking out against the powers and principalities of this world that want to separate us into the haves and the have nots. It is the mantle that works for the common good of all people. It is the mantle of not accepting superficial answers to the hard questions of faith. It is the mantle of welcoming all God’s people to the table of love and grace. It is the mantle that reminds us that the story of salvation that we sing about is not simply a personal salvation but the salvation of our common life together.
This is the Pullen mantle that has been passed on to us by our spiritual forebearers. And I am convinced that the future of our church is dependent upon this generation of faithful Pullenites picking up this particular mantle. Our world and our community still need for us to be among those who flatten the ground by making a path to the river and building the bridge that the entire human race will pass over – not just some of the human race, but the entire human race. To pick up that mantle will require sacrifice of us. As someone said in lectionary this week, at times, it will make us uncomfortable. It will ask us to change – to step outside our comfort zones and our places of privilege. Some will join us and others will leave us. We will be encouraged by some and ridiculed by others. But we will not be alone. God’s spirit will sustain us, nurture us and enfold us; for that is the promise to those who choose to pick up the mantle and be God’s prophetic voice in the world.
The voice of the prophet is rare these days, not because all of the prophets have ascended into the heavens, but because few choose to see the whirlwind, and fewer still choose to live as though it has changed them. It may have taken her 42 years, but Edie Windsor chose to see the whirlwind and even more amazingly, she chose to live as though it had changed her. At 84 years of age, she built a bridge. At 84 years old, she bent down and picked up the mantle. May we individually and collectively have the will and courage to do the same. May we, like Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer and the many Pullenites before us, be among those who make a way to the river’s edge and build a bridge so that others may cross over – especially those whom our world considers, like the locusts, the “least of these.”
Picking up the mantle of God is never easy. But what great joy and hope we experience when we do.