Sunday, July 04, 2021

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

 Mark 6

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph,[a] Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

Most often, preachers are just preachin’ to themselves.

Take the lesson about travelling light. As the boxes pile up, and the donation guy at the Value Village becomes my new best friend, I hear the instruction to travel light. You read “no bread, no bag, no money” and I hear “no books, no nick-nacks, and no electronic gewgaws.” Clearly, when they say “the Bible speaks,” it’s speaking to me.

A colleague once told me that early on her possessions were limited to what she could fit in her Pinto. As a student she moved frequently, and often across the country, and so decided to limit herself to the contents of a car, neatly packed, but not so neatly packed that the Pinto would not move. Her life had defined limits in terms of what she would allow herself to possess, and as she recounted the story, it was obvious she looked on those days with some satisfaction.

So 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.

Permitted: a staff, sandals, and one tunic.

Not permitted: bread, knapsack, money, extra tunic.

And this got me thinking about ancient lists, and a particular passage from John Dominic Crossan:

The Cynic would not appear anywhere without his knapsack, staff, and cloak, which must invariably be dirty and ragged and worn so as to leave the right shoulder bare. He never wore shoes and his hair and beard were long and unkempt. (Jesus, p. 115)

Permitted: a staff, knapsack, and one dirty tunic.

Not permitted: shoes (sandals) and apparently personal hygiene.

The reason I share these lists is to illustrate that each movement (in this case being a disciple of Jesus or being a Cynic) had a set of standards with regard to lifestyle. And apart from a few variables, the lists seem fairly similar. The key difference (aside from personal hygiene, which the Gospel doesn’t mention) is the use of a knapsack. In the case of a Cynic, the knapsack was an important symbol of all that you need to travel through life. So setting aside the modern definition of the term, essentially a Cynic was a person committed to travelling lightly and possessing few things.

Cicero tells the story of an encounter between Diogenes, the central thinker among the Cynics and Alexander the Great:

But Diogenes, certainly, was more outspoken in his quality of Cynic, when Alexander (the Great) asked him to name anything he wanted: “Just now, Diogenes said, “stand a bit away from the sun.” Alexander apparently had interfered with his basking in the sun.

The most powerful man in the ancient world offered him anything he wanted, all he wanted was a better tan. In many ways, this story best describes the Cynics’ beliefs: a desire to step outside cultural norms and embrace the freedom that comes without property and a raft of possessions. Hence the knapsack. A Cynic had to be free to travel through life with only the things he could carry in his bag.

Now recall that Jesus didn’t permit his followers even a knapsack. No bread, no bag, no money, no extra tunic: only a staff and a sturdy pair of sandals. The message of new life in Christ required no possessions, only the things that would make walking safe. In all things, the disciples were to be totally dependent on God and on the generosity of others.

And this, it seems, is the key contrast between the Cynics and the followers of Jesus: one achieved freedom through self-dependence (everything needed was in one bag) and the others achieved freedom through complete dependence. They were to trust in God to provide what they needed through the people they met on the way.

It would be impossible to have a discussion on possessions and Pintos without talking about the Desert Fathers and Mothers. By about the beginning of the fourth century, the desert began to fill up with monks and would-be monks who attempted to follow the example of St. Anthony. They made their homes in caves and abandoned buildings and practiced the most severe form of aestheticism: living without possessions and living completely on the generosity of others.

We learn about the fathers and mothers by the stories recorded by their many followers and admirers. They formed a collection of “sayings” that are told and retold down to our day. This retelling comes from Thomas Merton:

One of the brothers asked an elder saying: “Would it be all right if I kept two coins in my possession, in case I should get sick?”

The elder, seeing his thoughts, and that he wanted to keep them, said: “Keep them.”

The brother, going back to his cell, began to wrestle with his own thoughts, saying: “I wonder if the Father gave me his blessing or not? Rising up, he went back to the Father, inquiring of him and saying, “in God’s name, tell me the truth, because I am all upset over these two coins.”

The elder said to him, “since I saw your thoughts and your desire to keep them, I told you to keep them. But it is not good to keep more than we need for our body. Now these two coins are your hope. If they should be lost, would not God take care of you? Cast your care on the Lord, then, for he will take care of us.”

At some point a possession becomes more than a possession and becomes a hope. At some point it takes on qualities beyond its utility and is given some power of position that it does not deserve. An RRSP becomes a symbol of “freedom” rather than simply a reasonable approach to retirement. A certain car may seem to make you cooler, when in fact, through a strict application of the rules of the road, every vehicle will get you from A to B in about the same time.

Now, rather than giving you several more examples and adding to the self-indictment nature of this sermon, it might be more interesting to go back to the beginning, and try to understand the DNA of this dependence on God we are called to. We need look no further than Exodus 20.

It is Commandment One that we should have no other gods beside the One True God. In the Ancient Near East, this commandment was a little more tangible. Your neighbours, the tribe just over the hill, likely had a God for everything. Fertility problems? Try Min of Eqypt. Trouble with your tomatoes? Osiris. Heading to war? Horus (weirdly also the god of childbirth). Thing’s a little chaotic? Try Seth (actually, I think he brought chaos, but the page I looked at is not clear).

Imagine how unfair it must have seemed to the Israelites to be surrounded by people with a god for every occasion and be left with only One God. As a rule, whenever someone offers you the “one solution” to all your problems we should become appropriately suspicious. It just seems more practical to twin specific problems with specific solutions rather than imagine that one thing is going to be able to do it for us. The first commandment, however, is the reminder that in the world of God, we are meant to travel light.

So just as the twelve were sent out with no bread, no bag, no money, and no extra tunic, they were also sent out without Baal, Min, Horus and the rest. They were to be totally dependent on the One True God, not a Swiss Army Knife of divinities to keep them from harm.

As messages go, “be dependent” may be the toughest one to sell in this society. We spend childhood moving from dependence to independence, we hear the message from every side to forge your own path and set your own goals and be your own person. But here, within these walls, the message is quite different: be the person God wants you to be, follow in the way of Jesus Christ, let the Spirit guide you. This is what it means to be dependent on God—not helpless—but open: open to the idea that God will give you what you need to make your way in the world.

So find a staff, some sturdy sandals, put on your best Sunday tunic and go with God! Amen.


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