February 11, 2024

2 Kings 2:1-12
Mark 9:2-9

“Picking up the Mantle”

Earlier this week, when the Session of First Church had our regular monthly meeting, our agenda included a discussion of a book recommended by the Synod Mission Committee: “21 Things You May Not Have Known About the Indian Act” by Bob Joseph. As we were reflecting on the devastating impacts of colonization on Indigenous people in this country, thinking about how settlers took land, imposed culture, and banned traditional languages and spiritual practices, I thought it would be appropriate to read the Gospel text (the Transfiguration story) from the First Nations Version of the New Testament.

This Indigenous translation of the good story was published in 2021 and dedicated to the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island. The publishers pray that it “will bring healing to those who have suffered under the dominance of colonial governments who, with the help of churches and missionary organizations, often took our land, our languages, our cultures, and even our children. As our Tribal Nations work hard to reclaim what has been stolen, it is our hope that the colonial language that was forced upon us can now serve our people in a good way, by presenting Creator Sets Free (Jesus) in a more culturally relevant context.”

I’m going to read the text from Mark 9. You’ll notice that Jesus is called “Creator Sets Free” which is the meaning of the name Jesus. And the disciples and prophets have similar names that reveal their identities and purpose as well.

Six days later Creator Sets Free (Jesus) took his three closest followers – Stands on the Rock (Peter), He Takes Over (James), and He Shows Goodwill (John) – and led them up a high mountain to be alone and pray.

Right before their eyes his appearance began to change. His clothes became shining white, whiter than anyone on earth could make them. Two ancestors appeared before them also, the prophet Great Spirit Is Creator (Elijah) and the ancient lawgiver Drawn from the Water (Moses). They were both talking with Creator Sets Free (Jesus).

His three followers rubbed their eyes and looked again. They were filled with wonder and trembled with fear and excitement.

Stands on the Rock (Peter) spoke out, “Wisdomkeeper, this is a good place to be! We should set up three tipis – one for you, one for Drawn from the Water (Moses), and one for Great Spirit Is Creator (Elijah).” He said this without thinking because they were all afraid and did not know what to say.

Then, from above, a bright cloud came down around them and a voice spoke out from the cloud, “This is my Son, my Much Loved One. He is the one who speaks for me now. Listen to him!”

Right then the cloud lifted. They looked around to see their ancestors, but they were gone, and standing alone before them was Creator Sets Free (Jesus).

A typical interpretation of the Transfiguration story points out that this experience on the mountain-top was a moment of revelation for Jesus’ disciples. The shining Jesus and the voice from heaven confirm his identity as the one sent from God to save them. It is a gift of clarity, and perhaps even certainty, where they might have been tempted to doubt. When they go down the mountain and continue the everyday ministry with Jesus, their faith will be strengthened by this assurance, even if they don’t tell others about what they saw.

The appearance of Moses and Elijah with their Lord indicates that Jesus is the fulfillment of the hopes and expectations of the Hebrew People. He is the one who truly lives according to God’s Law of Love that Moses brought to the people, and he is the one the prophets said would come in the name of God.

But the word that I noticed in the First Nations translation of this text was “ancestors.” Moses and Elijah are described as “two ancestors” who appear and talk with Jesus on the mountain.

You may know that the ancestors are an important part of many Indigenous cultures and spiritualities. There is not only great respect and dignity shown to Elders within Indigenous communities, but ancestors are also revered, remembered, and believed to be spiritually present within the Creation – often guiding and helping their descendants to walk the journey of life in a good way.

It makes sense for Jesus to be talking with the ancestors, perhaps honouring their lives and witness, perhaps gaining their wisdom, perhaps being encouraged by them as he prepared himself to walk the difficult journey that lay ahead for him.

Of course, the prophet Elisha was the first one who would look to his mentor Elijah as a wise teacher and guide. We may get distracted by the spectacular end of the story in which Elijah doesn’t die, but it taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire with fiery horses.

But at its core, this is a story about a young man accompanying his mentor at the end of life, staying with him until the end, and committing himself to follow in his footsteps, to continue his ministry.

My discussion with the youth this morning may have already started you thinking about someone who has been a mentor to you. It may have been a parent, a grandparent, or another relative. Or maybe it was someone else who modelled for you a good way of living and serving in the world.

Maybe you were there with that mentor at the end of their life, or maybe you didn’t have that opportunity. But at some point, you found yourself giving thanks for their guidance and committing yourself to follow in their footsteps in the best way you could.

I wonder if you still think of them sometimes – when you’re struggling, or when you’re really living into their witness and way. They may not literally appear before you, but you can’t deny that they’re present with you in your heart and in your mind. You can almost hear their voice speaking to you sometimes.

Elisha had the difficult experience that many of us have had as well. He knew that his mentor was coming to the end of his life. And as difficult as it was to accompany Elijah through his final days, he went along, he stayed with him, and he watched until Elijah was taken up.

And then, of course, he grieved. The text says that “when he could no longer see [Elijah], he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces,” a typical act of mourning and grief in his time.

But in the next verse, which actually wasn’t included in the reading set by the lectionary, Elisha picks up the mantle (the cloak) which had fallen off his mentor’s shoulders as he went up. Elisha takes the mantle, walks back to the Jordan River, uses the mantle to strike the water, and the water parts, allowing him to cross back over.

In other words, Elisha is going to continue Elijah’s work and ministry. He’s asked for, and presumably received, a double share of Elijah’s spirit, and he’s not going to be held back by his grief and sadness. He’ll go and do the things that Elijah taught him. He’ll heal the sick, and perform miracles, and proclaim the Word of the Lord to the people.

As Christian people today, we have the gift of many good mentors and ancestors in the faith. They’re not perfect ancestors, by any means. And as we learn more about how many of our ancestors treated the Indigenous people of this land, we’re more and more aware of their shortcomings and blind spots.

But this morning, I want to invite us to remember our parents, our grandparents, and our mentors in the faith. Let’s remember them with respect and gratitude for the ways that they lived their lives of faith in the best way they could, and the ways that they taught us to follow the way of Jesus with our lives also.

If we haven’t already done it, now is the time for us to pick up the mantle of those who have gone before us. It is our turn to become leaders, to become teachers, to use all the spiritual gifts we’ve been given to serve God and our neighbours in the world, and to share the good news with all.

Like Elisha setting out across the River, like Jesus and the disciples going down the mountain to continue their work, may we be empowered by the Spirit of God to live in a good way, knowing that we are not alone.