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Inheriting the Mantle

February 23, 2015

“Inheriting the Mantle” 2 Kings 2:1-17 © 2.22.15 Lent 1B for 111th Anniversary of First Presbyterian Church by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The late Joseph Campbell, the noted historian of mythology, once said in an interview with Bill Moyers that one of his heroes as a young boy was Douglas Fairbanks. In the movies, Campbell would be inspired and excited as he watched Fairbanks as a swashbuckler, dueling with his enemies. You may recall that Willie Nelson, on the other hand, told us in a song that his “heroes have always been cowboys.” And Bette Midler, in the 1980s movie Beaches, portrays a rather brash entertainer from the poorer side of town who has an on-again, off-again friendship over the years with a rich girl, played by Barbara Hershey. When Hershey dies of a heart ailment, Midler realizes that for all the fights they had had, her friend has been her hero. “Did you ever know you were my hero?” she sings in what became a hit tune. “And everything I want to be?…Thank God for you–the wind beneath my wings.”

We may join Campbell and Nelson and Midler’s character in pointing to someone who has deeply influenced us in some way, a person who has been or is for us a hero or a mentor. He or she has provided an example of behavior, recommended and lived an outlook on life which we have adopted, inspired us to achieve our goals, even protected us in time of trouble. Maybe the hero is someone in the public eye who has somehow escaped the corrupting influence of fame. Could be he or she is a wounded veteran who has overcome great mental and physical challenges or a cancer survivor who inspires us with her courage and humor. The hero could be someone who has been successful in our career field or a teacher who has taken some extra time with us. Perhaps the person is known only to us and a few others. It may even be that we need look no farther than our own families to find a hero and/or mentor.

Such people seem to function to help us get a sense of our own direction in life, to claim our own place and sense of worth. Then, if they’re people we actually know and interact with regularly, perhaps they realize that their task is done, and the relationship changes. Or maybe it’s we who let them go; they become merely admired folk, a treasured part of our past. The parent and child now stand face to face as two adults. The one once mentored now becomes a mentor for someone else, offering advice and counsel.

The text for the morning offers us a glimpse at that kind of journey for two of the great men of Israel’s history. Elijah, you may recall, had cast his mantle, a heavy cloak, over Elisha, indicating that the latter would succeed the former (1 Kings 19:19). Now, they were traveling together from Gilgal in the north to Jericho in the south, with a stop at the significant shrine of Bethel in between. Elisha is dogging Elijah’s steps like a new puppy. He’s hanging on every word, agreeing with each proposition. But Elijah appears to be trying to shake off his follower now. Perhaps it’s a test of faithfulness. Maybe he’s trying to force Elisha to get out on his own or spare him the shock of Elijah’s departure. It’s hard to say.

Finally, they cross over Jordan, into a wilderness that serves a kind of symbolic or metaphorical purpose. Here the two prophets are transported out of normal time and space into a land where anything can happen, where mystery is the order of the day. A chariot and its horses can be made of fire; a man can go to heaven wrapped in a whirlwind.

It’s here, in a land apart, that a transformation takes place in Elisha. He’s cut off quite suddenly and very decisively from his mentor; he may grieve and pay his last respects to the greatness of this one, but Elijah is gone. The task that was his is now Elisha’s. The mantle is to be donned; the authority accepted; the mission embraced. Something new is happening, even as the old tradition continues to guide and assure. Elisha’s first act is to do the same thing as his hero and master—to part the waters of Jordan. But from then on, he is his own person. The company of prophets may look for Elijah, but they will come back having found no one.

The symbolism and movement of this story is suggestive. The mantle of Elijah stands for power and authority, blessing and gift, burden and task. Our heroes and mentors are those we want to bless us and approve of our efforts. If they were to ask us what we wanted from them, we might say in effect “give me a double portion of your spirit.” In other words, I want to be like you, only more so. To say such a thing would also indicate how much we stand in awe of these who to us are giants. In order to do or be anything like them, we need a double dose of whatever has made them who they are, whatever has driven them. Our abilities are so meager, we believe, that we will never achieve our dream of emulating this one who to us deserves some exalted title and credit for solving problems singlehandedly. We are glad to take up their mantle, carry on their mission, their example. It may be a burden, but it is also a privilege. We will remain faithful to the vision.

Not every mantle we assume, though, is taken up so joyfully, willingly, or intentionally. For example, those who study the way families operate tell us that our birth order confers on us a certain task and responsibility. Suppose two people who were firstborns in their families get married. They are both expected to pass on family traditions. Plus, the oldest is quite often a super-responsible sort, perhaps also used to getting his or her way. These two people are likely to experience power struggles in marriage, a kind of competition to see who will be monarch.

Or imagine that a couple going for a pre-marital interview is asked to do some investigation of the history of their families as part of the counseling. The minister recommends this because she knows that emotional processes are passed down from generation to generation. We may occupy the same relative position in a family tree as, say, our grandfather or great-grandmother, such as being the firstborn of a new generation or the first daughter after two sons. The pastor discovers that on the bride’s side, all the way back to her great-great-grandmother, marriages broke up in some way after the birth of the first child. The minister might tell the couple to be on the lookout for some rough sledding at that time in their own relationship.

Finally, when someone in the family leaves, by death or relocation or marriage or some alienating event like a betrayal or a really bad argument that leads to long-held grudges, the people who remain look around for another to replace the one who has gone. The replacement may be a new child or a friend or a clergyperson. I had that kind of experience during an internship at a church in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and was only vaguely aware of it at the time, since I knew nothing about generational dynamics or much else, frankly. A family in the church had lost a son, who would have been about my age. During that summer, I unintentionally became, especially for the mother, that dead son and a brother to her remaining boy.

We are of course quite aware of how the mantle is passed in the workplace as well. Promotion is inheriting a mantle. Sometimes the responsibility is thrust upon us; a co-worker becomes ill or retires, and we are called on to take up his or her work as well as our own. In a church, a patriarch or matriarch or some other older faithful and cherished member passes away, and those of the younger generations must step into rather large shoes. A congregation that’s been ministering as long as this one has had many such transitions, and more to come.

Once we are wearing the mantle of a hero, a mentor, or a predecessor in family or work or church, we have a choice. We can just keep on doing things the same way, mimicking the one who has guided us, turning up the collar, buttoning the buttons, swirling it around us as we walk the way they did. We can resent our family position and responsibility or complain about the mess we have to clean up in our jobs. The mantle is ill-fitting and uncomfortable, but we refuse to have it altered. Or we can complete the journey as Elisha did. He grieved his loss and called upon the “God of Elijah” to part the Jordan for him. But then, he said first to himself and next to those who wanted to look for the great prophet: “Elijah is gone.” In essence, Elisha was saying “You have to deal with me now.” He was setting about carving his own niche.

Ultimately, that’s where taking up the mantle will lead us, if we are to wear it with style and grace. We find our own distinctive calling and task in the line from which we come, our own center from which to operate. That bride who was told to expect rough sailing could learn more about her family history and find a way to break the cycle. The church members who feel a little lost after great leaders pass on can honor the tradition, but find fresh ways to address the challenges of their day. What could be a burden can also be a source of power.

Speaking of our positions in our families, the pioneering therapist Edwin Friedman observed: "This unique position can dilute or nourish natural strengths; it can be a dragging weight that slows our progress throughout life, or an additive that enriches the mixture of our propelling fuel. The more we understand that position, therefore, and the more we can learn to occupy it with grace and ‘savvy,’ rather than fleeing from it or unwittingly allowing it to program our destiny, the more effectively we can function in any other area of life" (Generation to Generation: 34).

Or as someone in a former congregation said, a mantle may be heavy, but it has a lot of beauty to it, if you know how to wear it.

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