Sermon, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (July 8, 2018)

It has been a great journey for Jesus. He has traveled throughout the Galilee, crossing the sea several times, teaching and healing in streets and town squares, in the fields and at the shore line, and in synagogues. He has been in Capernaum, healing a paralyzed man, lowered down to Jesus through the roof; he has healed a hemorrhaging woman, who was healed by simply touching his cloak; he has restored Jairus’ daughter from the dead (but he told everyone to keep that a secret for now). He has silenced a storm on the sea and taught the crowds in parables, speaking about mustard seeds, and so forth, while explaining everything to this disciples in private. He has clashed with Pharisees about Sabbath observance and healed a man with a withered hand on that very same day. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg.
 
It has been a triumphant journey for Jesus throughout the area, and now it is time to go home. Will Nazareth put on a homecoming parade for its itinerant son, a notorious prophet who has garnered quite a following, drawing crowds whenever he is around? For a brief moment, it looks like they will. Teaching in the synagogue, they hear him with amazement, astonishment: “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands?” (Mark 6:2) As witnesses to all that has transpired so far, we know the answer: it is God who is at work here. But the people of Nazareth are not yet sold: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses, Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3) 
 
In The Message, Eugene Petersen writes: “Isn’t this Mary’s boy?” We can taste the dismissal. Yes, he is all high and mighty now, but we knew him when. We know who he really is: the kid from around the corner, who should be working in his carpenter’s shop, rather than traveling around, pretending to be something he clearly is not. People would not be calling him ‘Teacher’ if they only knew what we know about this boy.
 
So, Jesus speaks the immortal words: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” (Mark 6:4) No prophet is honored in their own city. We all know this to be true, because, somehow, some way, we have experienced it for ourselves. We recognize it in that feeling of discomfort you get, deep down in your stomach, when people put praises on you; there you are, basking in the glory of the moment, and suddenly you spot that face in the crowd: a spouse, a partner, a friend, a parent, a child. Yes, all these praises, but they know how grumpy you are first thing in the morning; all this glory, but they know you haven’t put your socks in the laundry hamper for years. No prophet is honored at home.
    
Jesus’ ministry in Nazareth is not going well. He healed a few sick, but he could do no deeds of power there, and “he was amazed at their unbelief.” (Mark 6:6) Will his followers’ ministry fare any better? After leaving Nazareth, Jesus sends his disciples out into the world, two by two, to bring healing to a hurting world. His orders are simple: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money. Wear sandals and do not put on two tunics.”
 
Not too long ago, there was rightful outrage about a minister who claimed that God wanted his congregation and his followers to buy him a new private luxury jet, so he could carry out his ministry more efficiently. Thankfully, most see this claim for what it is: a shameful abuse of religious authority in an effort to line one’s own coffers. I wonder what this minister would make of the instruction of evangelic poverty with which Jesus sends his disciples into the world for their ministry? But rather than worrying about him, how about us? Do these instructions have any say over how we conduct ministry in our church? The answer, of course, is: “yes, they do!” 
 
No, we do not send people into the world without preparations or without even the most basic of necessities, but we would be foolish to pretend that the success of our ministry is dependent on the degree and quality of our preparatory efforts. In a denomination that often thrives by the work of committees, councils, vestries, and task forces, it is good, it is vital, to remember that our success (in whatever way this may come) remains a matter of God’s grace alone. In his instructions, Jesus does not lay down an organizational blue print for ministry and evangelism, centered around the blind trust that God will provide, though this is true, but it is an invitation to learn that our dignity as followers of Jesus is not defined by our social standing or our earthly resources. All it takes is a staff, some sandals, and a home that is willing to take you in for a day.
 
I recently watched a documentary about people moving from an old home into a new home; simply moving, an activity we have all done at one time or another. First, they showed a young couple, in their mid-twenties, moving in together for the first time. Excited to be moving out of their parents’ house, they showed their enthusiasm for the endeavor in a way that only those deeply smitten in love with one another can muster. Yet, this puppy love turned out to be fragile, as this couple struggled to figure out how to deal with all the stuff they had accumulated in preparation for this big move: from pots and pans to kitchen blenders and panini ovens, to china and silverware for different occasions; from enough clothes and shoes to last a lifetime, to an ugly table lamp, in the form of a chicken, the boyfriend threatened to drop on the floor… by accident. This move was contrasted by a second family moving to a new home. This time, an eighteen-year man, a refugee from Syria. Separated from his parents, he had found refuge together with his uncle, a dentist, and his wife and children. Living in a European shelter for some time, he and his family were now preparing to move into an actual home. His possessions fit in a weekend travel bag: some clothes and toiletries, a rug for prayer, and, his prized possession, a pair of track pants his mother had bought him, in hopes of an athletic career. The contrast couldn’t be greater: one couple drowning in stuff, versus a refugee family with precious few resources.
 
I do not wish to romanticize poverty, or idealize simplicity. In fact, I speak as a person addicted to his stuff, accumulated over many years. Yet, I also speak as a person convinced by the way of life Jesus invites us into: a way of life defined by things other than what we might collect, buy, accumulate on our own account. 
 
The gospel does not give us how the disciples reacted to Jesus’ order. Perhaps they surprised, shocked, offended, at Jesus’ order to travel into the world without basis resources, being dependent on people’s gracious welcome and goodwill alone?  Perhaps they knew this was part of God’s kingdom work all along? Either way, they traveled into the world, proclaiming repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick (Mark 3:12-13) May we do the same.