When United Methodists gather in Corpus Christi, Texas for their annual meeting; we pray and sing, we share Holy Communion, we tend to the business of the church, we ordain new clergy, and we hear from the clergy who are retiring. The retirement speeches are my favorite part of the meeting.
Each retiring clergyperson is given time to speak. And there; men and women offer profound, poignant, and painful witness to a life lived in the company of God and in the service of Jesus.
John Deschner, retiring from teaching worship at Perkins School of Theology, spoke words that continue to shape my ministry. “Remember,” he said, “the church has only a few things to offer the world: word, bread, cup, water, light. How we handle these precious gifts of God makes all the difference. We treat them with all the love and reverence we can muster. People will see the ways we handle holy things and from that infer how we will handle the holy ones. Be gentle, my friends, and firm and clear. God does not call us to trivialize the holy.”
Some retires speak of the great trials and deep traumas of their lives: of losing all their earthly belongings when the church’s parsonage burned to the ground. Of a child who drowned in the river at church camp. Of being forced out of their previous denomination for divorcing a spouse and finding themselves without a place to lay their heads.
Each one of these retires testified to the compassion of God’s people; holding them close in prayer, binding up their wounds, welcoming the stranger. They spoke of people who lived for them as the strong arms of Jesus; who challenged them back to life and ministry; Christ’s living body of mercy and grace, the church.
Others tell a more layered story; having served in less generous places; feeling isolated from colleagues; or mistreated by bishops or supervising superintendents. Bitterness spills out into the room, and brokenness and pain; and a woundedness so deep you can touch it. And yet almost always, if you listened long enough, these clergy too speak a word of gratitude; if not for the particular churches or circumstance of their ministry, for the privilege of serving God with all one’s being and for God’s sustaining Spirit.
After all the retiring clergy have spoken; after the bishop greets them and welcomes their spouses; speaks words of peace and blessing; and invites the conference to express their appreciation for their combined years of service: one younger person, from among those about to be ordained as elders in the church of God, steps up onto the stage and kneels before the congregation. One of the retirees takes the mantle of holy service from around his or her own shoulders and places it on the shoulders of the one anticipating ordination. And in that simple and yet powerful act, the mantle passes from one generation of God’s servants to another. It always brings tears to my eyes.
Because their stories remind me that our faith is a revealed faith: we don’t think it up. It’s not merely a projection of our hopes and dreams, or a helpful crutch. Our faith is a gift; it comes to us. In wonderful, inexplicable, and yet very real ways – the ordinary breaks open, the veil grows thin, heaven touches earth – and the astonishing, mysterious, transfiguring power of God rests upon us, comes to dwell in us. And we are never the same.
Our faith comes to us as pure gift. And in thanksgiving, we take on the mantle of service to this most astonishing God.
Today’s Old Testament reading presents us with a very strange story; a story of the mantle of obedient faith passing from one generation to another. To think this story is to miss the point. See it! Imagine it! Imagination is the key to allowing this story to come alive in us and to quicken faith.
“Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way to Gilgal.” Remember how these two first meet. Elijah sees Elisha plowing in the fields. And without a single, solitary word, the old prophet throws his mantle over the younger man. Elisha pulls the mantle tightly around him; adjusting it, testing it, getting the fit and feel of the summons.
Elisha kisses his parents. He butchers the twelve yoke of oxen with which he had been plowing and prepares a magnificent feast; a feast worthy of a great obedience.
And then the younger man sets out with the odd, old, and lonely prophet. Learning who the old man is, this one who opens heaven to earth; whom the people consider one of Israel’s greatest prophets. Following with such devotion that even now, at the hour of Elijah’s departing, Elisha refuses to leave him; three times Elisha refuses to leave him.
And so, the two journey through the holy geography of God’s people: Bethel, Jericho, to the banks of the River Jordan. There, Elijah strikes the water with his mantle; and the river parts – just as it had for Moses, just as it had for Joshua.
Elisha follows his teacher into the harsh wilderness – where Elijah had his start; where Elijah and Moses both learned to rely on God and God alone; into a place of mystery. There, Elijah asks his student: “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken from you.”
Without hesitation, Elisha asks for a double measure of the old man’s spirit. Elisha is not looking to surpass the elderly prophet. Rather, Elisha asks for what he knows he needs. The student needs the spark of God that fills Elijah’s very being; for the work of the prophet proves dangerous, arduous, exhausting. Elisha needs the power which infuses the elderly prophet with creativity, fills him with might, enlivens in him a refusal to be domesticated.
What the student needs is not the teacher’s to give. What Elisha needs comes from God. And so the elderly prophet replies: “If you see me as I am taken from you, it will be granted you.”
In the flurry of whirlwind and fire, of houses and chariot coming between them, Elijah ascends. We tense. Will Elisha see what God gives?
Rising from his grief, Elisha picks up the ascended prophet’s mantle. He strikes the River Jordan. And as it was for Moses, and as it was for Joshua, and as it was before Elijah before him, so it is for Elisha. The waters part. A new exodus begins. A new prophet is anointed.
God will lead Elisha into uncharted territory and into new arenas of holy concern, to speak holy purpose; into places and to people yet to meet Israel’s prophets. The spirit of Elijah now rests upon Elisha. The mantle of prophetic responsibility rests upon new shoulders.
“If you see me … it will be granted to you.” I wonder – do we remember an invitation to see God? In prayer, in birth, in death; in depression, in healing, in struggle; serving in the homeless shelter, mentoring a child, visiting in prison?
God would gift us with the eyes of faith. And yet we have to want them, we have to need them. We have to be willing to walk into mystery, to wander in the wilderness; to see beneath the surface of things, to catch glimpses of the glory of God when the veil is pulled back, in order to receive what God offers. Discernment. Vision. Prophetic powers.
It takes imagination to allow this strange story to do its work in us. Faithful imagination has little to do with our cleverness and everything to do with the generosity of God; who gives us eyes to see and hearts to sense and wills to live by faith.
Our faith is a revealed faith. It comes to us as a gift of God’s grace. In wonderful, inexplicable and yet very real ways – the ordinary breaks open; the veil grows thin, heaven touches earth, — and the astonishing, mysterious, transfiguring power of God touches us, comes to live in us. And we see, at least for a moment, the subtle, sanctifying grace of God: Working, working, working, just beneath the surface of life.
A few years ago, the United Methodists in South Texas began videotaping those retirement speeches. They thought we could save a little time. And my brothers and sisters, it simply is not the same.