|"what i usually pack" by pinay traveller, on Flickr|
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel."
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.' Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.
The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
We waited until the last pre-trip meeting to give out the packing list for the high school group summer trip. The group was heading up to the Wilderness Canoe Base in northern Minnesota, to spend a week helping the staff at base camp clean up after a stretch of devastating forest fires.
The problem with the packing list wasn't what it said to bring.
The problem with the packing list is what was what it said not to bring. No cell phones or iPods or electronics to distract us from the tasks ahead of us. No flip flops or open-toed shoes, in order to keep us safe on the uneven terrain. No food or candy in the cabins so that we didn't attract critters to our cabins. But the worst thing? No shampoo or soap, because there were no showers, because showers waste water, and soap and shampoo pollute the delicate wilderness ecosystem.
As expected, the high schoolers reacted to this packing list with wide eyes. No cell phones or flip flops? No soap or shampoo? It was as if we had asked them to leave their very selves behind.
Something very similar happens in today’s gospel reading.
Jesus is preparing disciples for a great wave of ministry. Not just the twelve famous disciples, but nearly sixty others as well. They are all about to be commissioned to go into towns and villages to cure diseases, cast out demons, and call people to repentance in Jesus name. As they prepare to set out, Jesus gives them a few last-minute instructions. First, go in pairs. Second, don’t take anything with you, no purse or bag or sandals. Third, freely receive and reward the hospitality of strangers.
Yes, Jesus sends the disciples out with his own what-not-to-pack list. It’s not just luxuries and comfort items that he asks them to leave behind. He asks them to leave behind things essential to their survival. No money means no resources to buy food or lodging. No bag means no means of carrying extra supplies. No sandals means a slow, dusty journey, and means extra-dirty feet for the hosts of households to wash when taking them in.
There is nothing glamorous about the disciples’ mission. Jesus sends them out as plain, vulnerable souls who will be forced to let go of their pride and to trust both God and strangers to provide for them along their journey. When Jesus tells the disciples to leave everything behind, I imagine that they stared back at him with wide eyes. I imagine that it felt as if Jesus had asked them to leave their very selves behind.
Because being empty-handed is a hard calling. We humans don’t like to be left unprepared. It’s why we collect so much of stuff around us, stuff that we hold onto “just in case,” like junk drawers filled with old receipts and cords, or boxes of clothes packed away in the basement, or the secret stash of chocolate we hide in the freezer. We overeat or overwork or overcompensate to create a buffer between ourselves and our fears of failure. We don’t want to find ourselves lacking anything.
Whether we know it or not, we collect all of this stuff as a way of minimizing our vulnerability and resisting reliance on God and one another. We use abundance and self-reliance as both buffer and crutch. Because it’s the message we ear all the time: More is better. You can have it all if you just want it enough. You can do it yourself. Thick skin is a sign of strength. Abundance is a sign of success.
And all the stuff we collect up around us becomes the stuff that defines us. We become our clothes and our homes and our cars and our jobs and our ambitions and our hobbies. And to leave any of this behind means leaving behind our very selves. And that makes us vulnerable. And vulnerable is uncomfortable.
And...I think this is exactly the point of today's gospel. Letting go, leaving behind, is vulnerable work. It is vulnerable to think about leaving ourselves behind to become the unequipped disciples that Jesus sends out. It is vulnerable work to let go of belongings, certainty, and self-reliance for the sake of Christ's mission. It is vulnerable to clear away the clutter to regain a clear view of God in the world. It is vulnerable business to leave ourselves behind so that God can take center stage.
But it is precisely in our vulnerability that we see God's strength. It is precisely in the vulnerable gap between what we have and what we need that God steps in to do his deepest work.
In the uncomfortable gap between what the disciples carried and what they actually needed, God filled the space with acts of power and radical hospitality from strangers. In the uncomfortable gap between Naaman's prideful expectation of being healed by an amazing act of power and Elisha's simple instructions to bathe in the river, God filled the space with healing, wholeness, and refreshment. In the uncomfortable gap between the luxuries the high schoolers wanted and the stripped down bags they actually packed, God filled the space with changed hearts and new eyes to see the splendor of God in his creation.
Did you notice what happened when the disciples returned to Jesus after their mission? They fell all over themselves to share with Jesus the exciting things that they had seen and done. They told about their adventures, and rejoiced over the work that they had done, and shared stories of hospitality...and never once talked about what they lacked or left behind.
The same thing happened with that group of high schoolers. They returned home from their trip telling stories about pulling up brush and debris around camp to protect the land from future forest fires, and they talked about picking wild blueberries and playing in the lake, and they rejoiced in new friendships and told of being moved by God during campfire devotions...and never once talked about what they lacked or left behind.
Isn't this all very good news for us? We have the assurance that God steps in to fill the gaps. We have hope that God works deeply through our vulnerability. We have security in a God who comes to define us when we leave all else behind.
Because we have a God who, through the vulnerability of the cross and the emptiness of the tomb, brings us strength from weakness, life form death, power from insecurity, and hope from chaos. And we have a community of faith right here, where we can splash in the water of our baptisms, and to eat the bread and wine that draw us into the communion of 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 getting the heck out of the way, so that God's spirit can have the freedom and space to blow through our lives.
So what is it in your own life that you need to get rid of so that God can move freely in your life? What items in your schedule need paring down or what ambitions do you need to rethink? What patterns of spending your time or money do you need to change? What emotions, biases or hardness of heart do you need to acknowledge and clear away?
What is God just itching to do in and through you once you become willing to leave yourself behind for his sake?
My friends, it is time to leave yourself behind. To commend your spirit into God's hands. To put away every "just in case" bag that you've packed in your life and to take nothing else with you on your life's journey besides God's mercy. It is time to feel the wind of the spirit blowing through your empty fingers, leading you to new people and new places. For once we leave ourselves behind, we have the joy of feeling the stirrings of our unhindered God moving in us and through us, animating our souls. Don't you want to be free to see where he leads?