Two weeks ago, we presented the first phase of our Strategic Plan. Then last week, I joked with you in the sermon about how boring it is to preach a series about strategic planning; but at the same time I argued that the substance of the plan was important. Last week’s focus on our shared commitment to welcoming new people, and growing relationships, is at the heart of following Jesus. This week I’ll do something similar. Another pillar of our emerging strategic plan is about Stewardship, but not in some mundane, tactical, don’t forget to fill out your pledge card kind of a way. Stewardship, in the theological sense, is about attending to the gifts God has given us, honoring the legacy of faithful people who have gone before us, and securing a future for God’s church and our children. That too is at the heart of following Jesus, and is well worth thinking and praying about this All Saints Sunday. Let us pray.
Last week I was on a call with some other pastors. It’s a group I talk with often; we serve similar congregations around the country; our group meets to exchange ideas and help one another, and usually there’s some area of focus that we discuss. This week it was Israel and Gaza and the role of our churches in responding. That tragic situation is so complicated, and our responses were all over the map. One of the congregations has a long relationship with a Palestinian community in Gaza and was strongly sympathetic to their suffering; another serves a church right across the street from a synagogue, and felt more immediately connected to the security needs of Israel—and both sides of the conflict have their own internal complexity, and both of these pastors could see the other’s point of view. Another pastor was honest that his congregation had no immediate alliances in the conflict; he was troubled at how the news cycle keeps redirecting our sympathies, so that suddenly Ukraine, or refugees on our southern border, or hurricane victims, who were at the center of our attention only weeks before, are now eclipsed by a new concern. I know I felt a twinge of that pain just yesterday; I was working on this sermon when I saw the news of Friday night’s multiple shooting in the West End, which killed a boy the same age as my oldest. Is Knox doing enough about gun violence? Can any pastor or any local Presbyterian Church be expected to speak and act faithfully on all these matters?
The problems in our world are so many, and so are the potential ways to respond. Sometimes a global need appears right outside our door; last week when our mission trip volunteers returned from McAllen, Texas, they had befriended a refugee family headed…to Cincinnati. We’re now building a relationship with them to see how we can help and what we can learn. Other times the connections are quite distant; we find ourselves sending money and raising up prayers, and those things are important too. Sometimes we feel anxious and guilty over huge problems we can do nothing to change. Sometimes we make excuses to absolve ourselves of responsibility. Sometimes we need to take time to genuinely lament the brokenness of the world, and ask God to shape us into more sympathetic, grace-filled people.
It’s impossible to make sense of it all. Whether its on the op-ed page or at the latest dinner party, people are often trying to figure out whether the world is getting better or getting worse. I have said before, and continue to believe that things are mostly staying the same. Consider the eldest among us or our parents and grandparents who lived during the Holocaust or who saw the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the War finally came to an end; and how much more had we learned about our capability to destroy one another? Did our ancestors not live with as much disbelief and confusion as we do? So I wonder if the test of faith is not to figure out whether things are getting worse or better, but to figure out how to keep going in the midst of our own time, bringing as much hope and love into each new day as we can, and doing our best not to get discouraged. And it seems like the best way to learn how to do that is to pay attention to the faithful people who went before us.
There’s a Bible story about these things, it appears in the Second Book of Kings. The Prophet Elijah was one of the giants of faith in the Bible’s Old Testament. Elijah was a prophet, which is to say a truth-teller and a public witness. It was the worst of times in the history of Israel—Elijah was a prophet during the reign of King Ahab, and according to 1 Kings 16, “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him” (I Kings 16:30). So Ahab was a person who lived a life that brought immense suffering to his people, and it was Elijah’s thankless task to be the voice of God in such a time. And he did it. In the midst of terrible suffering that sometimes threatened to take away his hope, Elijah persevered in faith; Elijah was so faithful that when it is time for his life on earth to end, the Lord sends a chariot of fire to carry him to heaven, in a story that mirrors the Ascension of Jesus Christ. There is arguably no greater hero in the Old Testament in no harder a time. Now imagine that you were Elisha, Elijah’s student, his apprentice—you are next in line for the job. These are big shoes to fill, or, as the story tells it, a heavy mantle to wear.
There is this beautiful act of symbolism that shows how Elijah’s ministry is handed down to Elisha. Just before Elijah is carried up to heaven, the two prophets, the mentor and his student stand at the edge of a river. Elisha has been begging his teacher not to leave him behind. Elijah takes his mantle, probably a long robe that he would have worn and that would have been associated with his faithfulness and power, and as the story goes, he rolls it up, and he touches the water with it, and in a clear reference to Moses, God parts the water and the two prophets walk through to the other side. Elisha, knowing the immensity of what is taking place around him, feels completely helpless to be the one who will take over Elijah’s holy work, so when Elijah is swept up to heaven, Elisha falls to the ground and weeps; he is entirely overcome. Just before Elijah goes, Elisha begs his teacher: “grant me a double portion of your spirit.” And after Elijah is gone, he sees that left behind is Elijah’s mantle, and all of a sudden it hits him: it was never Elijah’s power that made him great in the first place; it was the power of God, given once to Moses and later to Elijah, and available to anyone willing to believe. So Elisha himself takes the mantle, touches it to the river and parts the water, and he returns to the other side to continue the work, which he will do, with God’s help.
The suffering in this world and the challenges we face can often be immense in a way that is too much for words, and too much for any of us. We can only get by with the help of God, and we learn that from the people who have gone before us, who have seen great tragedy of their own, and have fought the good fight, kept the faith, and finished the race.
This morning, Katie Fiorelli told you about Tom and Cece Mooney, who loved this church, and who left to us a generous gift. What she did not tell you about was their son, David Scott Mooney; his name marks our church’s David Scott Mooney Fund for Troubled Youth, a fund Cece and Tom established in their lifetime, after they lost their only child to mental illness and drug abuse. Every year, the Knox Mission Committee directs gifts from that fund to support individuals and institutions who are battling drug abuse, mental illness, and other threats to the lives of young people. In my experience, Tom and Cece never got over the death of their son, I suppose no parent ever does. And yet somehow, God inspired them to do something that was within their reach to try to prevent or minimize the suffering of others. It was the thing they could do, about the problem that was closest to them. Their more recent end-of-life gift placed additional funding into the David Scott Mooney Fund, but not only that. It’s also a gift meant to benefit the church’s music ministries, very broadly defined. Why? Because for Tom and Cece, two people who knew a thing or two about tragedy, the gift of music was something that kept them going and gave them hope and joy, a reason to get up in the morning when they probably didn’t always want to, and they wanted to pass on that gift to the rest of us.
We’ve got to pick up the mantle of that kind of faith. Relying on the power of God, and not ourselves, we have to think faithfully about the deep pain and deep joy in our own lives, and ask what God is leading us to do. It’s a question that has to be asked again and again, sometimes daily, as we grow in faith and increase in our understanding of suffering and love.
Some of you have may have heard me talk before about another mantle, another robe, that is part of the Christian story: According to the Rule of St. Benedict, the guide for life in the medieval monastery, there was a ritual that went along with joining the order. Upon entering the community and making one’s vows, here’s what they did: The novice would be offered a simple robe, the one he would wear as a sign of his commitment. But rather than taking his old clothes away, those clothes would stay with the monk, hung in his room, all the days of his life. And that was so that every day, upon rising in the morning, he would know that he was presented with a choice. I can put on my monk’s robe, the symbol of my commitment, the mantle given to me, and I can live one more day in this community, committed to the work of God. Or I can put on my old clothes, and go home.
Friends, we live in a threatening world, and in each new season of life we are met by world events and local problems and personal suffering that threaten to undo us. And God grants us the gift of those who have gone before us, so that we may know that they have fought the good fight, they have finished the race, they have kept the faith…and so must we. We must pick up the mantle. Amen.