Saturday, July 15, 2006

Without a Change of Clothes: Reflection on Proper 10, Year B

Jesus 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: 7-13)

When I went to General Convention, I decided I would take enough clothes for about five days. I figured that I would plan on doing some laundry while I was there. After all, most hotels I’ve been in recently had some small laundry available to guests – a single washer and dryer, coin-operated, somewhere out of the way. Even if they didn’t, there would be a service, even if it were expensive. And surely there would be a laudromat somewhere close. After all, Columbus is a college town. How hard could it be?

Well, it was certainly harder than I had planned. Yes, the hotel did offer a laundry and dry-cleaning service, but it was certainly pricey. And almost as a corollary there was no laundry facility in the house. I did find a laundromat – within walking distance, I thought, of the hotel. And so I found myself taking an afternoon, walking through Columbus, hoping I’d figured this correctly, glad that I’d decided to bring at least one bag that had wheels.

I did find it, thankfully, where it was supposed to be, although it was a longer walk than I had expected. And, in fact it was a laudromat and coffee bar and cybercafe with free access for customers. Who could ask for more?

Jesus sent out the disciples with almost nothing: no traveling supplies, no extra cash, not even a change of clothes. The disciples were to depend on the kindness of strangers, as Tennessee Williams wrote. They were to trust they would find welcome, and were not to stay where they didn’t. I’ve been watching “Survivorman” on the Discovery Channel, where an expert places himself in an extreme and isolated situation and shows how he would survive. The disciples didn’t have it quite that bad, but it almost sounds like it.

Why would Jesus do that? Surely he didn’t want them camping in the countryside, going to sleep hungry and cold, shivering through the cool nights. He’d been out there himself for a while. He knew, perhaps, that some would be hospitable; but he certainly knew that some wouldn’t: “shake the dust off your feet,” he said, knowing the likelihood that it would happen.

They did find hospitality, of course. They did proclaim the Kingdom, and call for repentance, and heal and cast out demons. But they did it without any equipment, any supplies, any preparation for the road.

Or, perhaps we should say, “And they did it without any preparation.” After all, the point was not for the disciples to look good. It was for them to reflect God doing good. When Jesus sent them out with little or nothing, the result was to make clear that the much and more that they accomplished was a work of God’s grace, and not of their own quality or preparation.

God has done that a lot. Amos left Judah to travel to Israel, to the royal shrine at Bethel, to proclaim God’s judgment on that kingdom. Amaziah, the official, sanctioned royal prophet threatened him, calling on him to flee home. “Go be a prophet there,” he said, “but don’t bother us with your pronouncements here.”

But Amos says, “But, I’m not a prophet. I’m no sort of religious professional. I keep some livestock. I tend poor fig trees. I’m here without any official status, but I’m here because God put me here and gave me this message to proclaim.” And by the time the message was fulfilled Amos had long been back on the farm. This was not about Amos. It was about the judgment of God.

And what about us? Think how much we worry sometimes about whether we have what we need to do the ministry to which God calls us. What about the seminary education? Or the good Sunday School? Or the lovely church building, with its good location and its adequate parking? It’s so easy, isn’t it, to say, “Well, we know we’re called; but what can we do? We don’t have any resources.”

But perhaps Jesus has already given us all that we need. We have his story to tell, just as we have heard it. We have his presence to proclaim, just as we have felt it. We have his Body and Blood to share, just as it has been shared with us. If that seems too little, we aren’t paying attention. It is these things that have called new souls to Christ, sometimes with and often enough despite the grand buildings and the rich trappings. Indeed, we’re entirely too prone to let those things get in the way. In the current troubles in the Episcopal Church, think how much energy and how many resources have been spent, or will be spent, over who gets to keep the building – money that could go to proclamation and to service.

This ministry is not about us, and it’s not about our resources. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians, again and again: this ministry we have we have at God’s pleasure, and for God’s glory. As we heard with Paul last week, God says, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” So this week we hear that it is by God’s grace that the message is heard through us, and not through our skills or resources or preparation.

Now, we are rich people, we Episcopalians – rich in the worlds terms at least, most of us. These days we often do go out with good preparation and resources. Perhaps we need to step back and remember how this ministry started: without supplies or cash or even a change of clothes. If we have more when we start, we can certainly give thanks. But when all is said and done, and we see God working in the world, and even in and through our ministries, let’s remember whose word we proclaim, whose presence we reflect. This is not about us. It’s about God; and if we will only respond to his call, we will find welcome and we will see wonders wherever he sends us – even when it seems he sends us out with nothing at all.

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