Sermon: No Extra Equipment

“No Extra Equipment”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
July 8, 2018

Excerpts from Exodus 3 and 4
God said to Moses, ‘The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ God said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’

Then Moses answered, ‘But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, “The Lord did not appear to you.” ’ The Lord said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’ He said, ‘A staff.’ And God said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’ So he threw the staff on the ground, and it became a snake; and Moses drew back from it. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Reach out your hand, and seize it by the tail’—so he reached out his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand— ‘so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.’

But Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak. Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.’

Mark 6:1-13

Jesus left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘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! 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?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He 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.

This morning’s Gospel lesson occurs during a visit to Jesus’ childhood home of Nazareth, and I have to say it does not go well. Preaching and teaching in the synagogue, he at first garners praise and admiration; but when they realize he’s one of their own, a humble Nazarean just like them, they decide he’s gotten too big for his britches and refuse to listen. He’s unable to do much in the way of miracles and he and his disciples ship out rather quickly, aiming to spread their message to towns where they hope to find a warmer welcome. (It should be noted that Jesus fares better in Mark than in Luke, where his compatriots try to toss him off a cliff.)

There are a few things I appreciate about this passage. The first is that, rather than hang around a people and a place unreceptive to his message, Jesus goes looking for more fruitful ground – and instructs his disciples to do the same, saying that if a town isn’t interested in what they have to say, they should “shake the dust off their feet” on their way out.

My ordination mentor called this “following the energy” and lifted it up as one of the best principles for church programming. Maybe I get inspired to host an event or do a class on the theology of some obscure saint – but no one here at PACC seems interested. Instead of blindly following my own enthusiasm and ending up teaching a class or hosting an event for one, I’d do better to figure out what folks in our congregation are interested in, where there is energy. Similarly, if something we’ve been doing as a church for awhile seems to no longer be attracting as many volunteers or generating as much interest, I know it’s time for us to reassess – to look for another village, so to speak, another format where the same great message might find a more willing audience.

It’s what we’re working on doing with the Holiday Fair – keeping the heart and spirit of an event we all love while adjusting the way we do it so that it will thrive for years to come. In doing so, we’re taking a page from Jesus’ wise insight that sometimes a change of venue or approach is essential to keep from being chased out of town or pushed off a cliff – at least figuratively.

The other, main thing I love about this passage is how Jesus sends out his disciples to spread the Gospel message to new places. He tells them to take nothing but a walking stick – no bread, no money, not even an extra tunic should theirs get dirty. He tells them to rely on the hospitality of those who receive them, and if they don’t find much of a welcome in one place, to move on to the next. Can you imagine – being sent out to teach this newfangled gospel for the very first time, and being told to take the bare minimum, trusting God to provide for you through the people you meet – some of whom will surely be just as surly about your message as the Nazareans you just left?

It must have been terrifying for the disciples – and how much moreso for modern-day people like us who, as one of our prayers stated earlier, can’t imagine leaving the house without our cell phones? I know I start to feel a little twitchy when I realize I’ve left my phone, or my wallet, or even my sunglasses at home. It’s easier to surround myself with all the stuff I might possibly need than to face the vulnerability of life unmediated.

In an amplification of this tendency, I married into a family of packers. The list of what needs to be taken on any drive over 30 minutes is compiled days before, with nothing from First Aid to large coolers full of food to head lamps to cribbage boards left unthought of. As every possible circumstance is taken into account and planned for, somehow even the largest vehicles seem to fill up.

Despite this, I once somehow managed to arrive at the airport without the one bag full of my stuff and Davie’s, which I had left at home smack in the middle of the dining room with no time to retrieve it. At first I felt a bit panicky – what would we wear? How would we brush our teeth? How would I entertain a toddler during our flight? But it turned out that Davie slept through the flight; the people we were visiting had extra toothbrushes; and 30 minutes at the local Goodwill resolved our wardrobe issue. Not to mention that it was wonderful to travel through the airport with absolutely no luggage! I realized that instead of having to worry about keeping track of all my stuff, I was free to focus on the experience I was having, on the people in front of me.

Maybe you’ve been there – you’ve forgotten lunch at work or on a trip, only to have a coworker or a seatmate graciously offer to share with you. Or you’ve shown up to give a presentation without your notes or gotten lost without your GPS and realized that winging it actually created spontaneity, the ability to explore when a new path presented itself. Maybe you’ve come to realize that while at first it can be terrifying, life ultimately feels lighter when you’re not schlepping all your stuff around.

And maybe you, too, have been reminded of how God provides when we forget – or intentionally let go of – some of our accoutrement and make room for serendipity and for other people’s goodness. Maybe you’ve had the gift of realizing that you cannot, and should not, be an island unto yourself, always buttressed against the unexpected, always shut off from others’ willingness to help.

Certainly this is one of the reasons Jesus ordered his disciples to take little in the way of material support. But I wonder if the more difficult thing for the disciples, and us, to let go of is not stuff so much as those attitudes that keep us closed off, self-contained, seemingly invulnerable but really just cocooned against the vulnerability, growth, and change that are part of a full, rich life.

To that point, how might our lives be different if we heard Jesus’ call to spread compassion and hope, justice and peace, and didn’t think – “that’s great, but I really have no familiarity with that arena – I wouldn’t know how to talk with homeless people, or I’d feel awkward hanging out with the girls at Germaine Lawrence”? (And trust me, you will!) Or “Yes, I’d love to help that person, but between work and PTA and soccer practice I’ve already got too much going on, God!” Or “That really needs to be addressed, but I am *not* the right person to speak up – what would I say? And who would listen to me anyway?”

To be clear, I’m not advocating a life filled with yet more things to do – I’m advocating a life filled with the things God asks us to do, a life gloriously free of the things that get in the way of us saying “yes!”

If, like me, you’ve ever found yourself running through a litany of perfectly good reasons not to respond to God’s call, though – or at least not until you have infinitely more knowledge, time, tools, or experience – good news: you’re in good company, the company of patriarchs and prophets, not the least of whom is Moses.

This morning’s Hebrew Bible passage lays out a classic case of feeling totally unequipped for where God is inviting you to go: when God calls Moses to lead the Israelites out of enslavement, Moses protests that he’s a mere sheep herder: no one that anyone will pay attention to, and certainly not eloquent enough to convince an entire people to leave behind all they know. His response to God’s call is, essentially, “Whatever this job needs, I ain’t got it. Please, choose someone else – anybody else!”

God is not having any of it. One by one God responds to Moses’ objections, assuring him that God’s got it covered, and ending by telling him to grab his brother as a spokesperson (that’s two people, if you’re counting), and to head to Egypt with nothing more than a staff. Sound familiar?

But of course he and Aaron don’t set off alone – the almighty God goes with them and promises to give them signs and to put the exact words in their mouths necessary to get the job done. And you know, that’s still the way it is today – God often asks us to do what seems uncomfortable at best, impossible at worst, but then gives us the only thing we truly need to succeed – God’s presence along the way.

I once met a silver-haired French woman who spent her days volunteering with profoundly developmentally disabled people with no family or means to care for themselves. This was in Calcutta, India, where she worked with the Sisters of Charity, Mother Theresa’s outfit. I had just spent the morning laundering soiled linens in a vat heated over an open fire, then spooning lunch into the mouth of a woman who could neither talk nor feed herself, and I felt completely in over my head. So how, I asked this woman, did she end up in a foreign country, immersed in a language she didn’t initially speak, working with a population with which she had had no previous experience?

She smiled a bit mischievously and pointed to the sky. “Il faut demander là-haut,” she said. “You’ll have to ask upstairs.”

Rest assured, many of God’s calls don’t involve moving across the world. But I wonder what might happen if we, both as individuals and as a church, simply decide to let go of the thoughts that help us feel safe – “not me, I couldn’t, someone else will” – and instead opened ourselves to the possibility of saying to God’s invitation, “Yes, I’m ready!” I wonder what gifts we might receive, what adventures we might have, and what great good might come to fruition as a result. I wonder what it would feel like to get to say, when someone asks how we got here, “You’ll have to ask upstairs.”

After all, when God extends an invitation, we’re the only equipment necessary to say yes – well, us and a big stick. Amen.