Worship | June 26



The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859.


Sermon: Of mantles, discipleship, and NYC
Texts: 2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14; Luke 9:51-62
Speaker: Joel Miller

For spring break this year Abbie and I took Eve and Lily to New York City.  Ila had some special time with her grandparents in Bellefontaine.  Despite spring break being a break from school, I found myself unable to resist the urge to be our high school daughters’ self-appointed teacher for the week.  Especially in regards to how that city that plays such a large role in their culture.

The first time we got on the subway I pointed to the white brick-pattern tiles lining the cavernous walls.  “You know those tiles in our shower at home?” I asked.  This is why we call them subway tiles.  New York City.  I hadn’t planned this little lesson.  It just kind of happened.     

The girls had seen live Broadway shows in Columbus and Chicago and listened to soundtracks, but as we walked through a crowded and lit up Times Square on Broadway Ave. to watch the show Hadestown I couldn’t help but point out that this is why they’re called Broadways.   

On our biggest walking day, I made sure we stopped by the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.  The little park across the street serves as a National Monument and includes a photo exhibit along the fence portraying the Stonewall uprising in June, 1969.  The bar served as a gathering place for gay men and had regularly been raided by police, but on a June evening, 53 years ago from this Tuesday, the crowd pushed back, leading to a week of protests against oppression of LGBTQ people and launching the national gay rights movement.  As we looked through these images we talked about June as Pride month and why the event in our city is called Stonewall Columbus.

So aside from being a place where lots of important things have happened, New York City is apparently ground zero for dad-splaining.  Don’t worry, I wasn’t too annoying throughout the week.  According to me, at least.

These are some of the thoughts that came to mind when I was reading through today’s text from 2 Kings 2 of Elijah passing his leadership on to Elisha.  This is the story where Elijah is taken up to the heavens in a chariot of fire.  As he’s ascending, his mantle, his cloak, signifying his authority as a prophet, falls to the ground where it is picked up by his disciple Elisha, who puts it on himself and continues the ministry Elijah had begun.  It’s where we get the phrase “passing the mantle.”

So reading the Bible is kind of like walking through the streets of New York City.  It’s where things come from. 

Back before Hebrew prophets got entire scrolls named after them – Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah – before them, Elijah had been a larger than life figure in the story of Israel.  These tales are told in the biblical books of 1st and 2nd Kings.  Elijah had predicted a devastating drought in the days of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  He survived on bread brought to him by ravens, and took refuge with a widow from Zarephath, a foreigner, who fed him from her little jar of meal and oil which miraculously never ran out.  When the rains did return, Elijah was relentless in his critique of Ahab, like when he called him out for his land grab of a vineyard belonging to a man named Naboth whose family plot was right by the king’s house, which the king decided he wanted, so he took it.  Elijah would also outduel the prophets of the storm god Baal by causing fire to come down from heaven and consume a sacrifice he had saturated with water just to make it all the harder to burn, a feat the prophets of Baal could not match with their well-cured sacrifice. Elijah had also called down heavenly fire to consume messengers of the next king of Israel sent to fetch him.  Elijah had once fled for his life up to Mt. Horeb, where he encountered the Divine as a still, small voice, perhaps calling into question whether all that fire from heaven had much of anything to do with God after all.

And now, in today’s reading, it’s time for Elijah to go away.  For good.  Not die, not the great Elijah.  But go away.  It’s Elijah’s day of departure, and his disciple Elisha refuses to leave his side as Elijah goes from village to village.  With the clock winding down, Elisha makes a big request – he would like to inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.  Like how in the law of Moses in Deuteronomy the firstborn was granted a double portion of the inheritance (Deut 21:15-17).  Elisha essentially requests to be treated like Elijah’s firstborn, the heir of his ministry and powers.  Elijah says he’ll leave that up to the Big Spirit, which soon sends that fiery chariot to carry him away.  The mantle falls from Elijah, to Elisha, and the spirit that infused the life of Elijah wraps around the body of Elisha in the form of that cloak, settling on his shoulders.  Elisha, and the company of prophets he now leads, does indeed carry the prophetic stream of Israel forward.  A mantle later taken up by the sheepherder Amos, the centuries-long school of Isaiah, the weeping prophet Jeremiah, the exiled Ezekiel. 

And the Galilean Jesus of Nazareth, who also performed wondrous signs, praised impoverished widows and dined with foreigners, and refused to bow to the ways of the kings of his day, Herod and Caesar, leading to his eventual crucifixion at the hands of Rome – and his resurrection – as the mantle of his spirit wrapped first around that small group of women who found the empty tomb, then stretched and expanded to encircle a growing community of disciples, growing ever wider to include all nations, as Matthew writes at the end of his gospel. 

When it comes to mantles being passed along, literally or more likely metaphorically, we each have stories to tell.  Every parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, coach, and mentor wishes to pass the best of themselves on to the next generation.  It’s kind of humanity 101.  That’s what we do – or try to do with varying degrees of success.  Meanwhile every child and student goes about sorting, sifting, resisting, embracing, tweaking or completely remaking what gets passed along.  Also humanity 101. 

And then there are the things no one even thinks to question – the kinds of practices and routines so deeply ingrained that they get learned even if they never consciously get taught. 

I wonder if this is what’s going on in this reading from Luke, which the lectionary pairs with the 2 Kings passage.  The days of Jesus’ ministry are winding down, or winding up, heading to a tremendous climax and ending, which Luke signals by noting that Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem, his site of departure.  Rather than a single disciple, Jesus is accompanied by many.  When they are denied lodging in a Samaritan village James and John remember that old story about Elijah calling down fire on his enemies.  They pose a question to Jesus full of prophetic outrage fitting the occasion: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  As if they could just do this at will.  Jesus doesn’t even consider this worthy of a response.  Luke says he turns and rebukes them, and they went on to another village.  The path Jesus is traveling, the mantle he wishes to pass on, will not be one of vengeance, or violence, or harm. 

It’s along the road to this next village that Jesus encounters three potential new followers, any one of them a potential Elisha to carry his message forward.  We might think he’d welcome them with open arms, no questions asked.  But he has challenging responses to each one; challenging, it seems the most basic things they have previously learned without having ever been taught.  As if Jesus is ripping away one mantle they didn’t even know they were wearing, offering one so unfamiliar they’re not sure which part is top and bottom or where the armholes are.   

To the first potential disciple Jesus responds: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests.  But the Human One has no place to lay his head.”  Jesus doesn’t promise comfort or assurance or stability.  Having just been turned away from a village where they were hoping to get some rest, Jesus goes straight to the fine print of discipleship.  No guarantees here.

The second wishes to follow Jesus but says they first must bury their father.  To which Jesus shockingly says, “let the dead bury their own dead.”  So maybe the father hasn’t died yet such that this might be a matter of years?  Is Jesus challenging the longstanding obligations that bind child to parent?  Is the mission of Jesus so urgent as he heads to Jerusalem that business as usual must be set aside?  Maybe Jesus is suggesting that if one thinks they must first care for and bury their parent before they can follow him, then they cannot follow him.  But if they realize that in caring for and burying their parent that they are already following Jesus while they do this, that they can indeed be his follower.

The final potential disciple tells Jesus he first must say farewell to his family, to which Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

In the column of my Bible next to this verse I have written “Julia Kasdorf.”  She’s a poet and a Mennonite, currently a professor of English at Penn State.  Her life story fits the pattern of some of you here, growing up in a small community, finding her way into a world much bigger than her younger self could have imagined.  Finding her creative voice for an audience much more varied than the tight knit community of her upbringing.

I’ve shared this poem before, during my second sermon ever from this pulpit, nine years ago.  I think that’s enough time for a repeat, and since many of you wouldn’t have heard it then, and since it helps form a New York City themed bookend, I am compelled to share it again.

It’s called Green Market, New York, published in 1992.  That year is worth noting since there is a reference to the price of a pie in the poem.  You can do your own adjustments for inflation.

Green Market, NY

The first day of false spring, I hit the street,
buoyant, my coat open.  I could keep walking
and leave that job without cleaning my desk.
At Union Square the country people slouch
by crates of last fall’s potatoes.
An Amish lady tends her table of pies.
I ask where her farm is.  “Upstate,” she says,
“but we moved from P.A. where the land is better,
and the growing season’s longer by a month.”
I ask where in P.A.  “Towns you wouldn’t know,
around Mifflinburg, around Belleville.”
And I tell her I was born there.
“Now who would your grandparents be?”
“Thomas and Vesta Peachey.”
“Well, I was a Peachey,” she says,
and she grins like she sees the whole farm
on my face.  “What a place your folks had,
down Locust Grove.  Do you know my father,
the Harness shop on the Front Mountain Road?”
I do.  And then we can’t think what to say
that Valley so far from the traffic on Broadway.
I choose a pie while she eyes my short hair
then looks square on my face.  She knows
I know better than to pay six dollars for this.
“Do you live in the city?” she asks, “do you like it?”
I say no.  And that was no lie, Emma Peachey.
I don’t like New York, but sometimes these streets
hold me as hard as we’re held by rich earth.
I have not forgotten that Bible verse:
Whoever puts his hand to the plow and looks back
is not fit for the kingdom of God.

When Elisha picks up the mantel left behind by Elijah he will not merely repeat the life of his mentor.  He inherits the spirit, perhaps even a double portion, and the spirit is never predictable.  It brings few assurances or guarantees.  It will take him places he will not like.  It will ask of him things he would rather avoid.  The prophets of Israel were all poets, by the way. 

Jesus will gather a whole community of Elishas.  They will become the church.  They will not always be welcomed in every village, and sometimes they will be the village that does not welcome, and it will take other villages like Stonewall to wake them up to their true calling. 

The mantle Jesus offers is not an easy one to bear.  It has very real life consequences for how we treat one another.  It’s not complicated, it’s just hard.  Love and forgiveness and seeking justice is hard work.  But the Spirit is more generous than we can fathom.  It’s like the widow’s grain and oil that keeps being replenished every time it is shared.  It can be doubled, tripled, spread exponentially and still be more than when it started. 

That spirit is among us and within us.  It is not bounded by these walls, by this country, by this religion.  The queer and the poets are especially aware that the Spirit of love and grace and creative outpouring is not the possession of any institution or dogma.  It is more alive than the words on the page of any holy book, more lively than New York City on a Friday night.