The link reads: “Essential packing information: Open ASAP!” It includes such instructions as:
- You may check one 40lb suitcase and one carry-on, maximum of 15 lbs.
- Bring extra clothes. You may want to change twice a day due to the heat.
- Pack shoes for walking, shoes for wear, and don’t forget your shower shoes, too.
- Bring additional cash for meals, personal items, and souvenirs.
- Remember those notarized permission forms, all your medications, and for goodness sake, keep your Passport with you at all times.
These are some of the highlights of the packing list sent out to the youth and leaders traveling on First Baptist’s upcoming mission pilgrimage to Thailand, later this month.
Our church has been praying and planning for this. We’ve heard the updates from our mission partners, Chris and Dora Barbee, who will receive our group of youth and leaders. We’ve supported this trip generously with our missions giving. Many of you will come tonight as our youth lead us in music and worship, and are commissioned before they go. It’s taken an incredible amount of preparation, as any one of us would expect.
We know what it takes to travel, even a few nights away from home. We have our own trips. As summer begins, many of us are making plans for the beach, or the lake, or the family reunion. Perhaps you’re off on an adventure, or a trip to see old friends. Whatever the travel, we’d never set out without preparation. We know what happens to people who do that, and we’ve seen them come back dejected or battered by the road. So we make the necessary plans, carry the essential provisions and precautions, and keep our passport with us at all times.
Yet before we set out, let’s take a moment to consider how our packing lists and travel plans – how our lives themselves – compare to the instructions that Jesus gives the disciples in our passage today.
“Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts. Take no bag for your journey. Don’t take two tunics. Don’t take sandals. Don’t take a staff …”
This account of Jesus blessing and sending forth the disciples is one of the most challenging and demanding stories in all of the gospels. We can imagine what must have been racing through the minds of Jesus’ followers as they hear these words. Up to this point, things had been going just fine. A curious, recently compelled group of followers, they have witnessed some amazing and reassuring things. Just before this story, they’ve seen two blind men healed. Prior to that demoniacs were freed from their demons. Earlier, they saw a man with leprosy made clean with a touch from Jesus. Sick people cured. Dead people raised.
Nothing seems too much for Jesus and they get to see it all up close. It’s a sort of reclined version of the gospel where they were able to sit back and cheer, swapping the stories of exploits past and present.
But then Jesus comes around one day with this abrupt announcement and a new look in his eye. “Get up from your easy chairs and now you go out from this place with the good news that you’ve seen.” And then the passage says Jesus tells them “As you go, you yourselves will cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” In other words, they will do the very things they’ve seen him do.
So they start gathering all the things they will need for the journey. With such a demanding call, surely they’ll need at least a couple bags full of gear. They’ll need some extra tunics, in case it’s hot. They’ll need a staff to support them and ward off the things they’ll encounter on the road, plus plenty of coins at the ready in their pouches so they can supply whatever might be needed.
But then the sharpest call of all comes from Jesus: leave everything behind. “No packing lists for this journey,” Jesus seems to say. In Mark and Luke’s versions of this story, it’s a little easier on them. Mark lets them keep their shoes, at least, and Luke says, “Shed your possessions,” but only for the time being.
But in Matthew, the charge is unabashedly, “Leave it behind. Take no copper in your purse. Take no bag to carry your provisions and precautions. Carry no staff to protect yourself from the things you encounter on the road. If you’re to go where I’m calling you and do what I’m asking of you, then you have to leave it all.”
I guess we feel a world away from those instructions today. But let’s consider what they tell us about how Jesus imagines the lives of his followers in this world.
So often our work and mission in the world as followers of Jesus operates with an easy transaction. It’s a formula that says, “I have something valuable, which others need.” So we set up the conditions in which we offer it, sometimes across a counter in a feeding program, or sometimes around a circle in a kids camp, or sometimes across a pulpit in a service, but so often with an implicit divide between the one who presumes to have and the ones we presume have not. A distance between the ones we deem providers and the ones we classify as needy.
It’s the divide I must have felt when, in my first year as a pastor, a woman sat outside our church building for a couple afternoons in a row, shielded by the shade in the cool of the day. A frail woman, often muttering to herself, she had drawn the attention and concern of all of us in the building. Some had learned her name was Diane, but still we wondered what to do.
I had begun a practice, which I learned from a missionary, of asking people what their need was. In his years of work, he would often ask people, “What is your greatest need today?” and see if he possibly could provide for it. So I decided I would go out and ask this of Diane. I approached, and crouched down and in my most pastoral tone of voice said, “Ma’am, what is your greatest need today?” And she looked at me and said quite decisively: “I need some sweet n’ sour chicken!”
Which taught me how often I presume to know what is needed, when sometimes what we have most readily available to give is not what is needed at all. Or sometimes, what is needed is not what we are prepared to give.
It’s what I learned around the table once in the after-school program of a church I was serving. It was tutoring a 3rd grader, Bridget, in math – and many of you know, tutoring a 3rdgrader in math is an exercise destined to make you feel useless – because Bridget asked me a question, and I hesitated and she turned to me and said, “Don’t you know how to do this?” And when I stuttered she kept at it, “Where did you go to school? Did you even graduate?” She cut me down to size.
But she was also cutting up and deconstructing my assumption that the somethingI want to give is always better than nothing at all and that I have the answers, much less the correct formulas, the meals, the handouts, the offering of such value, the crouched posture, the patronizing tone.
And we disciples so often start to live our lives this way, accustomed to having the provisions and finding the need somewhere else, in someone else, somewhere outside of ourselves.
But then Jesus says, “Go out this way: Vulnerable. Barefoot. Penniless. Depending on the kindness of others for your daily bread, a cup of water, and a corner in which to sleep.”
Just think of what a journey like that could do to a person. When you travel like that – when you live like that – you can never return the same.
No, when we’ve fashioned our lives around these travel plans of Jesus, we can never again volunteer at the food pantry, hand the grocery bag across the table, and assume that makes us a hero.
After a mission trip like that, we can’t just return with a slideshow and talk as though the people we met had nothing before we arrived.
After we’ve depended on another’s hospitality, we can never again take our turn volunteering on the soup line and hold ourselves apart from the person on the other side of the counter.
After we’ve set down our own power, our own assumptions of prominence, we can never again see the person in need – whether the immigrant family divided, the refugee parents stone-faced with grief, the child trapped amidst the rubble of war – and pity their plight while holding them at a distance, because we would remember a time when we were in need. When we look at them, we would see ourselves.
When we go as Jesus tells us, we realize we need one another. We come to understand that I am you and you are me.
But maybe we feel a world away from that. I know I did some years back, when I was a youth minister and the youth group of my majority white church had developed a relationship with the youth of a majority black church in town. The minister and I had become friends, and our groups would share in the occasional social gathering, or community service project, or maybe a joint Fifth Quarter after a high school football game.
It led us to be invited to their church one Sunday. It was Youth Day – the day when the teenagers and children led the service. A young choir stood before the congregation and began to sing a song by Hezekiah Walker called “I Need You to Survive.” It’s a powerful song of community – a song that says it is the will of God that every need be supplied to every person. Soon the congregation and choir were singing back and forth to one another, “I pray for you, you pray for me, I love you, I need you to survive.”
It was incredible, to see these generations who had known so much of the evil of this world – its discrimination, its violence, the blatant broken racism of Jim Crow and the more socially acceptable but no less broken forms of racism that endure to this day. And here they were drowning it all out, as their voices swelled together amidst the power found for generations in their church, “You are important to me, I need you to survive.”
And as I was swept up in the music, I realized all at once that this was not my song to sing. Because I lived and live in a world that told me then as it tells me now that I am self-sufficient and independent; that I should look to my own interests; that I need to pack my own provisions because no one will do it for me. It teaches me to hold at a distance the things that cause me to feel vulnerable, and preserve all my power and advantage. And when I live this way, it’s as though I’ve never really heard and never really followed this call of Jesus.
The call is so much more than a way of traveling on a mission or pilgrimage. It’s a way of traveling through this life. For we’ve all got out own trips – and not to the beach or to grandma’s house, but the journeys God is calling us to take, the paths Christ is inviting us to walk, the missions Jesus is sending us out with in this world. We might feel very far from this call of Christ – culturally, historically, logistically. We’d never go anywhere without all the necessary precautions, we’ve seen what happens to the wide-eyed who do. But I wonder if this distance might tell us something about how far we also are from the kingdom Jesus envisioned, where people move freely sharing the love of God and doing the very things to which he gave his entire life.
What if we heard him and actually did it?
Leave the staff. Sure, it can come in handy, protecting you on the road. You can use it for warding off the suspicious things that approach and seem to threaten you. But don’t live that way. Leave it.
And leave the sandals. They protect your feet, but they also insulate you from the road, and make you forget what it is to be free and uninhibited through this earth.
And leave the bag. Oh, you can carry a lot of provisions and precautions in it, but you can never carry enough.
And take no copper in your purse. Leave it. It jingles around and tells you that you can rely on yourself and that the things you have, you have only because you worked hard.Set it down, and with it leave behind the notion that you are self-made.
And when we set these things down – when we leave them – we realize what the disciples must have come to know: that all we have left are the things we have been given by God. This body. This spirit. The grace that redeems us. The love shared in the community of Christ. The power of resurrection and new life. And the really good news of the gospel is this: that’s still enough to go and do the things God is calling us to do.
To cure the sick, working together to create a world where all people receive the care that they need.
To raise the dead, finding those people who are asleep in their tombs – really really dying – and telling them what it is to be alive in Christ.
To go cleanse the lepers, finding those cast out and on the edges of it all and being a part of their restoration, and acceptance, and inclusion in community.
To go cast out demons, refusing to accept the systems of the world as the way it must be, and proclaiming the power of God always to bring about something new.
And before long, it starts to look like Jesus from Nazareth might have known something – might have been onto something – when he arrived on the scene and announced with his words and proclaimed with his entire life that the kingdom of God is near. And then maybe we’re not that far after all.