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Sermon: "Pack Light"

A Sermon preached at Church of St. Clement in Alexandria, VA on July 8, 2018
7 Pentecost, Year B (RCL): 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
I speak to you in the Name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

         If any of you have traveled recently, needing to use ‘the friendly skies’ to get from where you are to where you want to be, you know how expensive it can be to fly anywhere.  The costs associated with air fares and the incremental fees you might incur if 1) your luggage exceeds 50 lbs., or 2) you have more than one bag per person in your party, 3) you want First Class or Economy Plus for other amenities or additional foot room, 4) internet capabilities, food, on and on …
         My wife Chrissie and I just returned from nine days on the big island of Hawai’i, visiting friends.  [Yes, I feel the sympathy I was afforded just a moment ago as I lamented the costs of flight travel suddenly evaporated when I shared where we went.  I understand.]  But for folks who are more accustomed to packing a car liberally to drive somewhere, the need to pack efficiently, meaning “lightly enough” to fly was a challenge.
         Today’s gospel has Jesus just coming through a series of shining moments.  In quick succession, he had stilled a storm at sea, cast demons out of a mad man, healed a woman from a seemingly incurable disease, and raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead.  Consequently, Jesus’ fame spread like wild fire and wherever he went, the common people would welcome and hear him gladly.  But it was time to go home.
         Deep in the heart of every person, there is a wistful desire to be welcomed home with open joy.  There is something special about coming home.  Home is the place where love lets us be ourselves, pride shares our achievements, and understanding covers our faults.
         Jesus probably has hopes for the same response to his homecoming.  Not more than a year before, Jesus had left his village of Nazareth as a nobody, but now he returns home as a person who is rumored to be the Son of God, with a message of Good News and a ministry of miracles.  Earlier, before he had established his reputation, the Nazarene townsfolk almost apologized for his supernatural claims, suggesting, “He is beside himself!”  That was a gentle way of protecting the reputation of his family.  Jesus now requires no such excuse.  He comes home a second time with all the evidence he needs to support his claims.  I imagine Jesus thinking, ‘Surely, my family will welcome me now.’         Loyal to his townspeople’s’ tradition of worship, Jesus chooses the synagogue as the place to demonstrate his authority as a teacher.  Astonishment ripples through the congregation.  They cannot deny the godliness of his presence, the wisdom of his words, or the power of his miraculous deeds.  Still, they are reluctant to accept the apparent change.  Familiarity breeds contempt that sprouts forth from disbelief: “Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”
         To their credit, the townsfolk, they ask the right questions.  ‘Who is this man?  What is his wisdom?  Where does he get his power?’  Without these questions being asked, there is no faith.  Is Jesus human or divine?  Are his words human philosophy or eternal truth?  Is his power to work miracles a natural ability or a God-given gift?  Only after these questions are asked can a decision be made.  C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity: “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, …”
         The tragedy of the townspeople of Nazareth is that they ask the right questions with the wrong attitude.  Prejudice so overrules all the evidence that they answer themselves: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”  [How many of you knew that Jesus had all these siblings?]
         These questions are rhetorical, self-contained with the sneer of prejudice and the sting of unbelief.  At the very least, they are saying that Jesus’ birth is human and therefore he cannot be the Son of God.  Even more incriminating, they are resurrecting the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy before marriage and smearing Jesus with the charge of illegitimacy.
Jesus wanted to make Nazareth his place of personal triumph.  Yet, the best Jesus can do is use the occasion to remind his disciples that they should not be surprised by the lack of honor in their country, among their relatives, and in their own homes.  [This certainly crossed my mind after I accepted Robin’s invitation and I saw the gospel reading for today; you are in my neighborhood and St. Clement’s has played a large role in my church work in Alexandria and this Diocese.]  Can you put yourself in Jesus’ place as he walks out of his hometown for the last time?  He feels the wrenching hurt of his own prediction which is recorded in the gospel of Luke: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (9:58).  All the values of home are left behind.  Rejection is the cross on which Jesus is already dying and he dares to not look back.
         Jesus knows what he must do.  The mantle of his leadership must be passed on.  No longer can the disciples be leisurely learners at his feet, no longer can they be spectators at his miracles.  At a moment’s notice, the Twelve must be ready to preach, teach, heal and cast out demons.  Rejection by the people who should best know him has brought Jesus’ leadership into crisis.  He must answer the questions that separate great leaders from small pretenders:
         Can the leader’s vision be grasped by others?
         Can authority be transferred from the leader to others?
         Can the leader’s teaching be taught to others?  By others?
         Can the actions of the leader be duplicated by others?
         Can the leader’s results be multiplied by others?
         Jesus entrusts his message and mission to the Twelve who responded to his call, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17).  Mark tell us that “he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two,” with the resources that will transform them from followers to leaders.
         After showing his confidence in them and conferring upon them the power to cast out demons, Jesus gives his disciples the principle of functional simplicity.  He tells them to take nothing for their journey except a staff and sandals, the essentials for physical protection.  They are to take no bag, no bread, no money, and no more than one tunic ~ earmarks of independence and evidence of complete faith in God.  They are to “pack light.”  He wants his disciples to provide the critics of The Way no easy targets for their slings are arrows.
         Warnings about the trappings of affluence need to be heard again today.  The question of functional simplicity is, “What are the essentials I need to function effectively as a witness for Christ without losing my primary dependence upon God?”  If we’re honest with ourselves, many things will disappear from our lives, more things will fall off our “want” list, and our bags to be checked through on vacation will be emptier and much lighter.  Henry David Thoreau addressed the same principle when he proposed an equation for happiness: “Simplify your life.  Don't waste the years struggling for things that are unimportant.  Don't burden yourself with possessions.  Keep your needs and wants simple and enjoy what you have.  Don't destroy your peace of mind by looking back, worrying about the past. Live in the present.  Simplify!”  To avoid criticism and win freedom, Jesus instructed his disciples to trust God for their needs and reduce their wants to the level of their needs.  Chrissie and I knew we were overpacking to go to Hawai’i.  It took those nuisance incidental fees to make us lighten our baggage for United.
         But then, Jesus’ tone darkens.  His rejection at Nazareth must still be on his mind when he proposes his disciples take decisive action against villages that refuse to welcome them or hear their message.  “Shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” as its own sign of rejection.  Imagine the sight of disciples standing at the outskirts of a village, shaking the dust of said village from their feet.  Rather than persist in a lost cause, grousing about ungrateful people, or counterattack with a sanctified hatred, Jesus recommends a clean cut, a quick move, a clear symbol that will take the disciples to the next village and leave judgment to God.
         The principle of progressive mobility is worthy of contemporary consideration.  Somewhere along the historical development of the Church, it lost its identity as a pilgrimage and became a ‘church-in-place.’ As some scholars have considered the problems of American society, the frontier has been so lost that our problems coagulate within us.  Has the church become a company of squatters rather than a caravan of pilgrims?  What spiritual values do we lose when we quit moving physically?  Most certainly, our spiritual needs have not diminished.
         The question is whether we have become a ‘church-in-place,’ fighting age-old battles and battering up against time-worn barriers.  In eighteenth-century England, masses of people migrated from farms to industrial cities to seek employment.  However, even as the church failed to follow them, John Wesley did.  Through his preaching in the marketplace and open fields, God moved upon those masses and changed the face of England.  Revivals were born when the church moves on.  By all accounts on Facebook in the past few days, a revival of sorts is underway at General Convention in Austin, TX and Bishop Michael Curry is calling the “Jesus Movement of the Episcopal Church” to keep moving forward!
         Along with his confidence, power, and instructions, Jesus gave his disciples then, and us now, a personal model for ministry ~ their ministry then and our mission and ministry now.  It is notable that Jesus does not confer upon them or us the power to preach, teach, and heal.  He doesn’t need to.  We have the model; it is up to us to put it into practice and to earn our own authority with the people.  Great teachers are always emulated by their students.  New professors confess that they use the outline of esteemed mentors when they first start teaching.  Once they begin to gain confidence in their role, they build in more and more of their own personality and research until they develop a greatness of their own.  The disciples honor Jesus with that distinction.  When he sent them out, and as we are sent also, the model of preaching repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick is followed. 
         You, St. Clement, or at least representatives of your vestry, voted last Saturday to elect The Rev. Robin Gulick Razzino as your Rector.  She is no longer Priest-in-Charge, but now is your chief sacramental and liturgical leader of this parish church, called by and accountable to this church, our Diocese, and her Bishop.  I add my joy to your joy and celebrate with you in this wise decision.  Let Robin+ be your teacher on your shared pilgrimage.  Help Robin+ to honor the way Jesus taught.
         Jesus attested to his greatness, again and again.  Others grasp his vision, receive his authority, teaching his truths, follow his actions, and multiply his results.  Acknowledging his own limitations, Jesus multiplied his presence while “packing light.”  May we do now as those who went before us did then and take up our mantle of mission and ministry in this world.  Trust God in all things.  Take up your staff, wear your sandals, and bring only a second tunic.  “Pack light” and go out joyfully in the service of our Lord!