Sermon: "A Spiritual Inheritance," June 26, 2016

2 Kings 2:1-14
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.’ But Elisha said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent.’
 Elijah said to him, ‘Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he answered, ‘Yes, I know; be silent.’
 Then Elijah said to him, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ He responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

"A Spiritual Inheritance"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

We live in British Columbia. Which, by all measures is one of the most secular places in Canada. The least religious place. Gradually, over time, we have seen the erosion of a Christian culture here locally, and North America more broadly. It is now possible to have grown up, and never heard the Christian story, to never have gone to church. And even to have friends who have never been to church. The times they are a changin.’ Or more accurately, the times they have changed. And for those of us who gather in places like this every Sunday, it means that there isn’t a ready source of Christians to refill our pews by virtue of growing up in our culture. As churches shrink, and we grow older, it can make us pretty anxious.

So we fret and worry about needing more people. Because without more people, we believe, our existence is threatened altogether. A while back I read an article by church consultant Jan Edmiston. In it she outlines five reasons why churches generally want to draw more people:

1) If we don’t regenerate, everyone will eventually get old and die.

2) It’s energizing to have young people around.

3) Younger members can do the work that older members can’t/won’t do anymore.

4) Older members tend to be on fixed incomes and younger working members are needed for their pledges.

And 5) Young families (i.e. mom, dad, and kids) remind us of church when we were (or wish we were) part of young families.

To take over our jobs and duties. To pay the bills. Remind us of past glories. And give us hope for the future. It’s understandable. But, as Edmiston points out, it’s also a problem. It’s a problem because it sees other people as a resource. As a fix, as a way to solve our problems. It sees people in terms of what they can give us.

                It’s not something we want, consciously, I don’t think. Not churches in general, or St. George’s in particular. But it’s the way that institutions function when they get nervous about the future. I know one person here admitted to me—and I have their permission to share this—that they have loved to see all the new people who have come through our doors in the past couple years. At the same time, they are still worried. Because the same people are performing the same tasks that they always have. And the budget looks pretty much the same. Glad to be welcoming, kind, open-minded, and open-hearted. Glad to open the doors to new people. But still waiting for things to pay off. Whether we’re doing it consciously, or unconsciously, we can see new people in terms of how they can help our institution stayafloat. Seeing people in terms of what they can give us. And what we can get.

                This can be pretty uninspiring for newcomers—to be thought of as a resource to keep an institution going. But our reading for this morning offers us a different way in understanding where our future lies. We are always tempted to see people in terms of what they can give us. But the story of Elijah passing his mantle on to his apprentice Elisha (confusing names, I know) shows us that we’ve got it backwards. It’s not about what we can get from others. Our future lies in what we can give, what we have to give away. What we have to pass on.

We’re five parts in to our six part series on Elijah. “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind,” it says. It’s retirement time for Elijah. And he and his apprentice, Elisha, are journeying together towards Gilgal. It’s a long walk that these two take together. And for some reason, Elijah keeps trying to give Elisha the slip, so he can be alone when God takes him. “The Lord’s sending me even further on to Bethel way over the hill,” Elijah says. “I couldn’t possibly ask you to go with me.” But Elisha refuses. “As the Lord lives and I live, I will not leave you.” There’s something going on here. Elisha will not let his master out of his sight.

And this scene happens a couple more times. “I’ve got to go,” Elijah says, a second time, then a third. “As the Lord lives, I won’t leave you,” replies Elisha, a second time, then a third. And the final stop is at the banks of the Jordan River. Here Elijah rolls his cloak in to the long shape of a staff, then he taps the flowing river with it. It parts, and the two cross over on dry land. And on the other side, we find out why Elisha is so persistent. Elisha won’t leave him, because there’s something he needs from Elisha before he goes. Elijah knows it. “What can I do for you?” he asks his young protégé. Interestingly, these are the same words that Jesus utters when a blind man reaches out to him for healing. “What can I do for you?” For Elijah, like Jesus, his ministry to those who come seeking him out is focused not on what he can get. But on what he can give to his student.

And the student gives a strange answer to his master’s question. “Please,” Elisha replies, “please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” In the custom of ancient Israel, when a Father was dividing up the family estate, the eldest son would a double portion. So he’s talking inheritance here. But he’s talking inheritance not in terms of money, or land, or Elijah’s classic car collection. He wants a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit. The thing that drives him. Eugene Peterson, in his Message translation of the Bible, has Elisha say this: “I want your life repeated in my life.” He wants Elijah’s spiritual legacy. Share with me, he says, the spirit of God I see in you. His teacher has made such an impression through the witness of his life, that Elisha wants a piece of that.

And Elisha gets a piece. Suddenly, a divine chariot swoops down from the sky, cutting between the two of them. And a tornado pulls Elijah up in to the heavens, and Elisha falls down to his knees in despair at the loss of his teacher. But there on the ground is Elijah’s mantle—his cloak. The same one that Elijah rolled up, and used to part the waters of the Jordan. Elisha takes it in hand, rolls it up. And does the same. Tap, on the surface of the water, and it parts. And he crosses over. This, of course, is an echo of Moses leading Israelite slaves out of Egypt. Where, with an Egyptian army in hot pursuit, Moses struck the water of the Red Sea. It parted, and they escaped to freedom. This is the inheritance he wanted in on all along. Now Elisha holds this same power in his hands. He’s inherited Elijah’s spiritual legacy. Life with a God who will make a way through the waters. A God who makes a way where there was once no way. This is the mantle that Elijah has been commissioned to pass on. And the mantle, the gift that Elisha receives. Not Elijah’s job, not his title. Not his tasks to complete, or his bills to pay. But his spiritual legacy. Which is the power of God.

And this is the same mantle we’ve been given to pass on, too. We may not see this in terms of a fiery chariot or the parting of the Puntledge river. But in this community of faith we have all seen God make a way where there’s no way, it’s our inheritance. For us and others we love. We have seen God make a way out of the dead-ends of alcohol and drug addiction. We have seen God make a way through grief and suffering over a sudden, or unjust death. A pathway out of life on the street through the doors of a soup kitchen. A road to healing and reconciliation through loving the unlovable, and the forgiveness of the unforgivable. This is the “double share” we’ve been given. This is our inheritance.

This is something I think’s easy for us to forget. In all the worthwhile work it takes in keeping a place like this going, it’s so easy for us to forget why in the first place. Speaking as someone who walked in to a church for the first time a decade ago. We so easily forget that the most attractive thing about us, or a community like ours isn’t the tasks we need done, or the bills we need paying. It’s not the roof that’s being fixed, and it’s not the seats on committees. These are all good things. Necessary things. But they aren’t the inheritance we’ve been given to pass on. Those things are all here to help us pass on our inheritance, what we have to give. And we have to give is the beauty, and power of life with a God who parts troubled waters. A God who defeats the power of death and hatred on a cross with the power of self-giving love. A God who makes a way out of no way.

This is our inheritance. This is the mantle that is placed on is in our baptisms. And the mantle we have been given to pass on. Our future is not about what we can get from people. It’s about what we have to give. It’s about passing on our spiritual legacy. One that will endure, one that will heal souls, and transform long after the fiery chariot swings down low to take us home.