Pentecost +6: Take nothing for the journey

Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:1-13)

July’s edition of “Real Simple” magazine contains recipes for some great summer drinks, a page full of ideas for wacky hot dog toppings, and reviews for both lip balm and patio furniture alike.

It also contains a five-page spread teaching you how to “pack like a pro” for your summer travels. A psychologist gives you advice for how to eliminate packing anxiety. Fashion editors weigh in on how to pick a handful of clothing items that can be mixed and matched for maximum style but minimum suitcase space. Travel advisors offer you folding instructions for a variety of garments, as well two strategies for wrinkle-free folding and packing. And organizational consultants give you a packing “roadmap,” showing you how to fit everything nicely and efficiently inside your suitcase.

Too bad I read this article in the airport on my way HOME from two back-to-back weeks of traveling…

For both of my week-long trips, I fooled myself into thinking that I was packing light…even though I packed twice as many shirts as I needed for each week, and two swimsuits instead of one, just in case, and all of my portable electronics and chargers. And if we’re going to be honest here, it’s absurd how proud of myself I felt when I decided NOT to pack a hairdryer for either trip, as if that one appliance were really the dividing line between packing and over-packing.

And so it’s hard not to be haunted by Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “take nothing for your journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in your belts; wear sandals but do not put on two tunics.”

Let me tell you, that sort of talk doesn’t sell many magazines. Usually we pack with an eye on being prepared for any situation. Jesus turns that thinking upside-down. The message in today’s gospel isn’t about being prepared. It’s about being vulnerable.

Now the hometown crowd that Jesus hangs out with in the first half of today’s gospel? They are definitely NOT vulnerable. They are defiant, full of themselves, scoffing at the return of Jesus, the hometown hero. They resist. We read that Jesus was “amazed at their unbelief.” And so when Jesus tries to do any deeds of power? Nothing. Nada. He can’t. Their invulnerable hard hearts get in the way of Jesus being able to do his work.

On the other hand, Jesus sends the disciples out as vulnerable as they can be. “Take nothing,” he says. “Leave everything behind for the sake of the gospel, rely on the hospitality of others, and travel without any security blankets so that your faith and their witness can shine through, clear as day.”

So I think that we are meant to identify with both the hometown crowd and with the disciples in today’s gospel. One group is afraid to be vulnerable, the other is forced to be. And they both teach us that all the stuff – material and immaterial – that we collect as a thick skin around us is the very stuff that impedes our ability to let God work in us and in the world.

Like that hometown crowd, we sometimes collect up anger, skepticism, stubbornness, and a desire for self-determination, and we pad ourselves in with these thoughts and feelings to keep God from getting too close or to keep God from sending us off to vulnerable places for the sake of the gospel.

And then there are the disciples. I have to imagine that Jesus gave them such direct packing because they, just like us, really wanted to pack that extra “just-in-case” suitcase. And we have lots of “just-in-case” suitcases lying around our lives, right? Your “just-in-case” suitcase might look like a resume-building project that you take on at work, or it might look like your super-deluxe-premium TV/wireless/phone/internet package. It might look like that pair of jeans you bought that you didn’t really need, but they were cheap and they fit, or the phone and computer you upgraded to keep up with the latest technology.

And so we collect all of these emotions and belongings, often without thinking about it, because our hearts know on some level that we can use all of this stuff as a shield that will minimize our vulnerability and our reliance on God and on one another. We use abundance and self-reliance as both buffer and crutch. Because it’s the message we hear all the time: More is better. You can have it all if you just want it enough. Thick skin is a sign of strength. Abundance is a sign of success.

Writer and pastor Mihee Kim-Kort describes how she tries to resist those "you should have it all" messages:
I say to all that which tells me..that I want or need it all: SHUT UP. I’m going to just try to pursue that which I would want to pass on to my children: simplicity, contentment, equality, the TRUTH…that letting go is usually the best way to go about much of life…not only for the heavy and burdensome but even for those things that look pretty.
Letting go. These two words sum up the theology of today’s gospel. It’s all about letting go of our resistance and becoming the unequipped (but commissioned!) disciples that Jesus sends out. It’s about letting go of belongings, certainty, and self-reliance – all for the sake of the gospel. It’s about clearing the sight-lines so that we can have a clear view of God in the world and the gospel shining through us.

In Luther’s Small Catechism, he talks about how when we pray “Thy kingdom come,” it’s not that we, through our praying, somehow make that kingdom happen. God’s kingdom coming isn’t dependent upon our praying for it to make it happen, because God can do what God will. But we pray for it anyway, and pray that it would come to us. I think there’s a corollary here. We don’t do anything to make God’s kingdom come or to make God act in the world – God can do that all on his own. But we can stand in the way of God’s work. And so this is why we need to let go of the baggage that gets in the way of our witness and God’s action.

Now is this easy? Not at all. Jesus tells the disciples that there will be people who accept the message of God’s love and people who will refuse to hear them out. There will be people who offer them hospitality and people who won’t.

But Jesus sends us out nonetheless, as living signs of God’s grace and love, stripped of anything that might get in the way of that message. Jesus empowers us to let go for the sake of the gospel.

In practice, “letting go” might feel a little bit like spiritual spring cleaning.

We first have to ask ourselves the question, “Can others see the grace and love of God in the way I’m living?” (I’ll give you a hint – even at our very best, the answer to that question is “needs improvement.”)

And so we have to ask follow up questions: “What stuff do I need to get rid of, what items in my schedule need paring down, what ambitions do I need to rethink, and what patterns of spending my time and money do I need to change in order for God’s hopes and dreams to be apparent to others around me?” And, “What emotions, biases, and hardness of heart do I need to acknowledge and clear away so that God can move freely in and through me?”

And these are questions we have to ask ourselves each and every day. Because a life of faith is a life of conversion – a daily turning and returning to grace, an ongoing process of reorienting ourselves to God’s grace, continually returning to the foot of the cross and revisiting the empty tomb where we remember that God brings strength from weakness, life from death, power from vulnerability, and hope from chaos.

And it’s also about coming back here, week after week, to splash in the water of our baptisms, and to eat the bread and wine that draw us into Christ’s body, so that we can find the strength to get over the idea that we can or should do it all ourselves, and instead go out to pursue lives of just getting the heck out of the way, so that God’s spirit, which hovered over the waters at creation, can also blow through our lives today, and can have the freedom and space to move.

So when you pack up your kids for camp in these next weeks, or organize your suitcase for your next business trip, or pack up to move off to college or into a new house, pause for a moment, and consider leaving it all behind. Think seriously about what it would look like to take nothing with you for your journey. Think about what it means to be vulnerable and to rely on nothing but God’s mercy.

And then, when realize that you probably DO need some clean underwear for your week away and you turn back to your suitcase, at least think about leaving the hairdryer and gel behind this time. Go for the wind-blown look and trust the breeze to dry your hair. Because you never know - it might just be the wind of the spirit, leading you to new people, new places, and new experiences of an unhindered God moving in you and through you. Don’t you want to be free to see where it leads?

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