Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Much Should We Pack?

Ordinary 11
June 18, 2017
William G. Carter

As much as I like to travel, I’m never sure how much to pack. When my wife and I fly out to Albuquerque for vacation this Friday, we will do our best to keep a week’s worth of possessions down to one suitcase. That’s the goal. It’s not certain that will happen.

Packing is determined by two contradictory principles: how do we move quickly? How can we be prepared for every contingency? How many pairs of pants can we take, or in my wife’s case, how many pairs of shoes? Should we pack an umbrella? Does it rain in New Mexico? How about a suit jacket, in case our hosts take us out to dinner? Meanwhile, we booked a very small rental car – will the suitcase fit in the back?

Packing is an art form. For wisdom, I recently printed off an article: “How to pack like a Ninja.” There’s great advice: roll up your t-shirts, and take one less than you think you’ll need. Roll up your socks and stick them in your shoes. To save space, wear a jacket onto the plane. Don’t waste valuable suitcase space.

On the other hand, it’s possible to forget the essentials. Like the kid who was in such a hurry to get out of the house and spend a Friday night with friends. Around eleven that night, I got a phone call. A sheepish voice whispered, “Dad, could you bring over some underwear? I forgot to bring some. But whatever you do, don’t tell me friends.” Of course I won’t tell your friends; I’ll save that story for a sermon. Ah, Father’s Day!

So I was paying close attention when Jesus sent out twelve of his followers. He gave them the authority to do his work, and sent them out to travel around as he has been traveling around. And what’s the best advice at the heart of his commission? Don’t take anything with you.

In Eugene Peterson’s translation, Jesus says, “Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood… Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously… travel light.”

Well, of course. Too much baggage can get in the way. Like that family trip years ago to attend a cousin’s wedding. On the way through the Mojave Desert, our rental car got a flat tire, about a hundred miles shy of Barstow, California. The tire was changed with a spare, but the punctured tire wouldn’t fit underneath where the spare came from. And there was no room for the tire inside the car because there was too much luggage, so it had to go on somebody’s lap.  

“Travel light is good advice.” Yet Jesus pushes it to extremes: “Carry no bag for your journey. Take no sandals, no walking stick. Forget about an extra shirt. And most of all, take no money.”

That reminds me of the hazing story when my father joined a college fraternity. They blindfolded him late one night and put him in the trunk of a car. Then they drove around for forty five minutes, stopped somewhere, and told him to get out. He had no wallet, no money, no compass, no flashlight. And they said, “See you back at the fraternity house. Figure out how you’re going to get there,” and sped away.

Obviously he made it back, or I wouldn’t be telling the story. He never said how he did it, but he did say it wasn’t easy.

And Jesus isn’t hazing anybody. He’s sending them out to do ministry. He has been healing a lot of people, an awful lot of people, and there’s more work to get done than he can get done. He’s a human being, not a Superman. A human being can only put in so many eighteen hour days, can only be in one place at a time. So he calls out twelve of his followers to extend the work. Jesus gives them direction, commissions them to go, and says, “Don’t pack anything.”

Well, that’s not to say he doesn’t give them something. You know what he gives them? You know what he gives us? A small little sack of words.

“When you go somewhere, say, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” That is, God is ruling over heaven and earth, and God is right here. And the second thing you say is ‘Peace be to this house!' That’s what I give you. That’s all you have to carry. Nothing else is necessary. You are sent into the world with a handful of words."

In a way, that is a relief. The words Jesus gives are simple words. They're easy to remember. Not too burdensome to carry.  And it's good to know that God's work can be done without a lot of props. We need no bag, no sandals, no purse.  We need no flip-charts, no brochures, no PowerPoint presentations. That's good to hear, because the props can get in the way.

Years ago, when my sister worked at a Presbyterian summer camp, she brought back a book that they used for devotions. It’s a snarky little book, full of wisecracking little parables, which is probably why it is still on my shelf. Here’s one of my favorites:

 In a certain town, an advertising executive decided to sell God.  She invited some clients to a presentation.  Then she got busy.  First she converted the "God message" to a variety of abstract images projected onto a screen.  Next she added a catchy soundtrack with guitars and drums. Finally she hired a caterer to serve drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the softly-lit room. As her clients arrived, she chatted with them casually. Then came the visual pitch. Afterwards people complimented her creative approach. She was pleased and said she was glad they liked it.  With a chuckle she added, "I hope you'll buy my product."  People looked confused and uncomfortable.  Finally someone said, "Oh, are you selling something?"[1]

The props can get in the way. Contrast that to what writer Frederick Buechner reminds us about Alcoholics Anonymous: They meet in basements and spare rooms, because an addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives. They have no budget, no hierarchy, no building of their own. They simply tell their own stories, where they went wrong, how they are trying to go right, how they find the strength and hope to keep going on. There’s not much more to it than that and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.[2]

This is what Church is meant to be, he says. Sinners Anonymous.

"I send you without a bag or sandals or purse," says Jesus, for God's work is best done with words. At the bottom of it all, we need no steeple, no pulpit, no organ, no blackboard, no office. In fact, we don't even need a coffee pot. Don't get me wrong; these things are nice, but in the ultimate economy of God, all we are given are a few words.  I, for one, find that refreshing.

What delights me even more is that Jesus implies that our words can carry the freight of the Gospel.  I had forgotten that words have such power.  Of course, not just any words will do.  Jesus gives us the right kind of words. He gives us words of blessing and words of truth.

Whenever you go into a house, said Jesus, say a blessing.  Say "Peace be to this house!"  It makes no demand.  It requires no decision.  It simply announces the salvation that Jesus came to bring.  As one scholar puts it, “When you speak like that, you release God's good news into the air.  God offers peace to all within hearing.  Anyone hungering for such wholeness is free to respond on their own terms.[3]

And when you go into a town, said Jesus, tell people the truth.  Oh, you can eat with people and heal the sick.  You can paint their houses and mow their lawns.  But don't forget to speak up and say, "God's kingdom has come near to you."  You see, that's the truth!  Regardless of how effective your good deeds, regardless of whether or not anybody wants you around, you need to speak up and say, "God's kingdom has come near to you." 

After all, it's God's kingdom, not yours, mine, or theirs. Its coming doesn't depend on you. The kingdom is at hand, regardless of how many good deeds we do along the way.  God's reign has broken into human history.  So speak up and say so.  Announce that God is here, that new possibilities for life are at hand.

It encourages me to hear such good news, especially given our circumstances.  The plain fact is that the world is not knocking down our door to hear the gospel.  I checked this morning's newspaper and there's as much pain and suffering as there was yesterday.  All the more reason for Jesus to send us out into the world.  He allows us no bag, no sandals, no purse, and no props.  He sends us out as lambs in the midst of wolves, carrying only a few fragile words. Still the question remains: Are words enough? Do they have sufficient power?  Is there anything we can say in God's name to make a tangible difference in a painful world?  What do you think?

Walt Wangerin, the Lutheran storyteller, tells about his church organist, an imposing woman named Joselyn Fields.  At forty-seven, she was stricken with cancer.  Spring, summer, and autumn, he went out to visit the woman.

He said he didn't know what to say, nor did he understand what he had the right to say.  He wore out the Psalms; the Psalms were safe. He prayed that the Lord's will be done, scared to tell either the Lord or Joselyn what the Lord's will ought to be. By his own estimation, he bumbled.

One day when she awoke from surgery, he decided to be cheerful, to enliven her and to avoid the specter that unsettled him -- the death.  He chattered. He spoke brightly of the sunlight outside, and vigorously of the tennis he had played that morning, sweetly of the flowers, hopefully of the day she would sit again at the organ, reading music during his sermon.  But Joselyn rolled a black eye his way.  She raised one bony finger to his face. And she said, "Shut up."  He shut up.  He kept visiting her.

And so he writes, "The autumn whitened into winter; and Joselyn became no more than bones; her rich skin turned ashy; her breath filled the room with a close odor which ever thereafter has meant dying to my nostrils.  And the day came when I had nothing, absolutely nothing to say to Joselyn."

He said, "I entered her room at noon, saying nothing. I sat beside her through the afternoon, saying nothing.  She lay awake, her eyelids paper-thin and drooping, watchful eyes -- we, neither of us, saying anything.  But with the evening came the Holy Spirit.  The words I finally said were not my own."

Walt said, "I turned to Joselyn. I opened my mouth and said, `I love you.'  And Joselyn widened her ebony eye. And that lady, she put out her arms. She hugged me. And I hugged those dying bones. She whispered, `I love you, too.'  That was all we said. But that was the power from on high, cloaking both of us in astonished simplicity, even as Jesus had said it would.

Joselyn died. And Walt says he did not grieve.  For the yellow fingers of death had already lost their grip.[4]

"Behold," Jesus said, "I send you into the world to do my work.  You don't need a fat purse, or a bag, or brand new sandals." All he gives us are a handful of words. Words of blessing: "Peace be with you!" Words of truth: "God is ruling, and close at hand." Above all else, they are words of love. That's all we need. That's all we're given. 

They are enough.

William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Lois Cheney, God Is No Fool, publisher unknown
[2] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark
[3] Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel of Luke, p. 848
[4] Told in his wonderful book Ragman (New York: Harper and Row)

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