Passing the Mantle | Sermon from 10/20/19

At the end of the school year, the reading buddies program invites all the reading buddies to come have lunch with their student. It’s a special way to mark the last time together before the start of summer break. 

So last May, I joined my reading buddy at the lunch table at South Dodge Elementary. We sat together, ate lunch, talked about her summer beach trip plans, the books she had at home to read over the summer, and then lunch came to an end. But not before her teacher told me that my reading buddy had a gift for me in the classroom. I was surprised. It was unexpected. 

We went to the classroom and she came out with one of those off brand Yeti cups. On it were stickers that said, “Mr. Ted.” Her teacher explained she had put those stickers on the cup herself. I was floored, deeply honored, and overwhelmed with gratitude. 

It was a touching moment; one of pure joy. It was in that moment I realized the impact our relationship had on her; more than just reading, it had become a mentoring relationship. 

Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.” (27:17) Here was such a case. I’ve cherished that cup ever since receiving it, using it frequently, a reminder of a special relationship that lasted for a season. 

We’ve all known people who have influenced us in our lives, for better or worse. Those who’ve had a positive influence we often call mentors. I’m sure we’ve also been mentors to others at times, a deep honor and privilege to walk alongside someone on their life’s journey, offering wisdom and guidance to build up that person. 

Sometimes, that mentoring is so influential, it causes the mentee to take up your mantle; to move to walk in your shoes. Perhaps some of you have known this in turning over the family business to a relative or close friend, or in any other numerous ways in which someone who came behind you picked up your work, your life’s purpose, your mantle, and kept going.

That’s exactly what happens in our story this morning: Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle and keeps going. 

As he walks with Elijah in our scripture this morning, he knows that he will soon inherit his work. And that’s a big job. Speaking truth to power, especially when that power usually doesn’t want to hear the truth, is an unpleasant, even dangerous, task. Yet, he will try to keep Israel focused on worshipping God alone, on allegiance to the God who saved them from Egypt and covenanted to be their God, something the people often resist. He knows it, but he walks down the road with his mentor until, in a flash, his mentor is taken to heaven without seeing death.

Let’s read together 2 Kings 2:1-12

Elisha rips his clothes, an old-school sign of mourning. He’s deeply sad that his mentor is gone. Even though he stood amazed at the way his mentor went, still, a major, important, deeply valued relationship is gone from his life. Elijah spent much time raising up Elisha to pick up his mantle, to take on the role when Elijah was gone. They walked together, they shared the journey of life together, Elijah telling Elisha all he needed to know. 

At the start, in 1 Kings 19, Elisha seems like an overly eager child, wanting so bad to be like Elijah. But here, when we reach this moment in the scripture, Elijah’s mentoring has had its impact: Elisha is more mature, understanding of the nature his role, formed and shaped by Elijah’s presence in his life. 

As iron sharpens iron, so Elijah sharpened Elisha. That’s what mentoring does.

Elijah’s constant presence with Elisha was key. Mentoring doesn’t happen from a distance, it doesn’t happen  in short spurts; it happens over a long period of time with both people regularly present. Mentoring takes effort. 

Think in your life of those who have mentored you. Think of the time they invested, the care and concern they showed for you personally. Even in professional mentors, like corporate coaches, care often shows up in a personal way. We come to care deeply about each other’s lives, develop personal affinities for each other, and that leads to iron sharpening iron. Both mentor and mentee are changed, and for the better. 

In my life, I could name many people who have had such an impact, sometimes for a season, sometimes over a longer term. One person in my life I properly call my mentor. She has been such a blessing and I am a much better person because of her presence in my life. Even though she’s moved away, and we might go for long periods without talking, the relationship is still there, and she is still ready to offer guidance. 

In some ways, especially as a professional, I have picked up her mantle, taking it with me into how I engage my job, my colleagues, and the communities I serve. 

Presence is key. Time invested through presence leaves a lasting effect on the people we mentor and on ourselves when we are the mentee. Elisha knew that. Scripture doesn’t tell us, but Elijah certainly had a mentor who raised him up in the way he should go. And Elisha undoubtedly mentored someone to take up his mantle. 

The succession matters because the work that Elijah did, that Elisha took on, was work being done before Elijah and was work carried on from Elisha; work that is certainly continuing to be carried out today, even though those serving in the ways of Elijah and Elisha have no idea they come from a long line of mentors raising up prophets to take on the mantle of speaking truth to power.

And that’s just the point. The work here is God’s work. Elijah knew that. Elisha knew that. They were simply continuing the prophetic work of speaking truth to power that God had established from of old and has continued into our present day. Mentoring is the responsibility of all who claim God, for if we are to pass on the work God has given us to do, we must raise up others who will come behind us, just as someone raised us up to take on the work we do or have done. 

This is the model Jesus set. He invested his life in twelve men. He spent the vast majority of his earthly ministry time with them, teaching them, training them. Eleven of them succeeded him to carry his mantle into the world, founding the church. And the very first thing they did after he left them, rising up to heaven in ways reminiscent of Elijah in this story, was to select a replacement for Judas Iscariot. Then they mentored Matthias, that replacement, and then went out and changed the world. 

Twelve men, mentored by one man. And the world was changed and continues to be changed.

Elijah and Elisha, carrying on the Godly tradition of speaking truth to power, furthered that work. And the world was changed and continues to be changed. 

Mentoring matters. As iron sharpens iron, so Jesus sharpened the disciples; so mentors sharpen mentees; so we sharpen each other. 

Here’s another way to say that: Quality of relationship matters more than quantity of relationship. 

Except what about social media influencers? People whose YouTube, instagram, and Twitter profiles have millions of followers? They’re paid by big companies to hock products so that we will see them, want them, and purchase them. 

We might roll our eyes at these so called influencers, but don’t we want to have the largest possible impact on the people in our sphere of influence? Don’t we want that sphere to extend as far and wide as possible? 

Consider how we talk about politics and politicians. We measure the impact of their words, we are concerned about the reach of their ideas; all ways to talk about influence. 

In the media, we talk about what channels or newspapers or outfits are having the largest influence, how those outfits shape the people who read and watch their reporting. 

In town, we show respect and deference to those individuals who wield influence across our community. The people who can make things happen or stop things from happening, the people whose yes or no can have significant consequences; these are the people we celebrate.

Not all of us aspire to that kind of influence but we respect it, we honor it, we hold it up on high. Especially the lone person who can wield significant influence. The person who, seemingly all by him or herself, can stand in front of people and/or TV cameras, and cause people to pay attention, to change their mind or, at least, to react. These are the significant people. These are the people who matter. 

And certainly they seem to shape people, negatively or positively. As iron sharpens iron, so these big shots sharpen us? As iron sharpens iron, so people with millions of twitter followers sharpen us? As iron sharpens iron, so influencers sharpen the world?

Consider this against the way Jesus handled his ministry. 

Yes, crowds followed him around, lots of people heard him speak, telling parables and the like. The reason there was the miracle of the feeding of five thousand on the banks of a lake is because that crowd had followed him around the lake and gotten hungry from all the walking!

But the gospels don’t present a man who was hungry for the attention of crowds. They don’t demonstrate a savior who was eager to increase his crowd size so that his influence might spread. They don’t show someone who, all by himself, changed the world. 

Which is odd because Jesus’s influence during his earthly ministry could have spread far beyond what it did. The world back then was just as large as it is today. Palestine, the region in which Jesus lived and moved and had his being, was just as small as it is today. In fact, geographically, Jesus covered less ground than the modern state of Israel. The Roman Empire knew very little of Jesus. I’m not even sure the emperor knew when he was crucified; Jesus was of little consequence outside of Jerusalem by that point. 

Not to mention all the tribes in Africa who knew nothing of Jesus. The Northern European bands of nomads and warriors living on the fringes of Roman society heard only silence out of Palestine. The people of the desert, the Hindus in India, the Buddhists in Tibet, the Chinese empire, the Mayans who were possibly the greatest empire of that time; none of them knew anything about Jesus. 

Which is crazy because Jesus could have used his influence to spread his name and his message far and wide. Trade routes across the Eurasian and African continents existed that could have spread Jesus, his teachings, and his ways, to millions of people. At the start of his ministry, he had the crowd size, he had the fame, that could have been maximized to spread the gospel. 

But Jesus didn’t try to be an influencer. He wasn’t interested in quantity of relationships. He wanted quality. Rather than cultivate a huge following, he mentored twelve men, two women, and perhaps a few others.

And that’s the example for us. 

Just like the example from Elijah. As they walk along in our scripture this morning, Elisha asks questions. Elijah answers them and then there’s silence as Elisha seems to absorb the answers. Elijah provides powerful presence, a conclusion to the mentoring he’s been providing, so that Elisha can take up his mantle and continue God’s work; so that Elisha can inherit his legacy.

We’re all concerned, on some level, about legacy. Even I, at my age, am concerned about legacy. That is especially true at home. Because of my background, I have a deep sense that God has called me to a particular work in my family; to leave a legacy of unconditional love.

Or even in my job, closer to the beginning than the end of a career, I think of legacy. I recently answered a question on a form for the DS that asked me whenever I leave this community, what do I hope people will say? I quipped, “that even though I wasn’t baptist, I was still pretty great.” It’s funny, but that’s a question of legacy. 

And mentoring is how we properly leave a legacy. Quality of relationship matters more than quantity of relationship. Because here’s the truth that Elijah and Elisha walking along the road reveal to us: the work that we have, the duties we feel, the legacies we want to leave, and the mantles we carry; all of it is God’s work, not ours. It was work being done before us and it is work that will be done after us. 

Our duty is to raise up someone or someones who will take up that work, take up the mantle God has given us, so that when we are gone, that work continues. 

Or, if we are young and just beginning life, our duty is to find mentors, people who will walk the journey of life with us and raise us up in the ways we should go so that, when we encounter God’s call, we are ready to respond and take up someone’s mantle.

Because the mantle we hold is a mantle that we are stewards of for a time. 

One day, I will be gone from this church. Sad as that is, the fact remains that this is your church and I am a steward of it for a time. Work was done here before I came and that work will continue when I am gone. The question before me is what difference I make with that stewardship while I am here. Am I investing myself? Am I giving quality, not quantity? 

Those are the questions that should guide us all. Quality of relationship matters more than quantity of relationship. Influence over a few people who will carry on your mantle matter more than shallow influence over many people. 

Because as iron sharpens iron, so one person does another. 

Who are the mentors in your life? Even if they’re now gone from this world, consider the legacy they left you. What mantle did they give you to carry? How did they positively shape your life? How are you better because of their presence in your life? 

And then, after considering this, who are the people you need to mentor? How are you investing in some quality relationships right now? Or are you seeking quantity of relationships, trying to extend your influence further? 

That is the challenge today: consider who mentored you and whom you are mentoring. Make sure that you have at least one person in whom you are investing your life. God uses those relationships to pass mantles, to pass legacies, so that God’s work might continue in this world. 

And here’s one additional challenge, a very tangible one. If your mentors are still among us, write them a card this week and tell them how much you appreciate them. We all know from experience that one of the best things is to receive such a card in the mail. 

And then, write your mentees cards and tell them how proud you are of them. Spend time this week making that investment through cards. 

God has called upon us to mentor so that we might positively influence the world. Remembering that Jesus, and then twelve men, created a movement that changed the world, we remember that quality of relationship matters more than quantity of relationship. Because it’s God’s work we are charged with. 

As iron sharpens iron, so you sharpen others. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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