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Monday, July 9, 2012

Lighten Up

Pr.9, Yr B
Mark 6:1-13

Jesus's advice to his disciples on what to take, or not take, when traveling sounds almost like perfect counsel to flyers today: dump the money and anything else that could set off the metal detectors, skip even a carry-on bag because you may have to gate check it, don't wear two tunics lest you be pulled aside for a random strip search, and wear sandals for easy on and off as you remove your footwear to go through security! The only mismatch is the part about taking a staff; I know, from the experience of trying to get one onto a plane without the risk of checking it, that you're better off leaving that home too...

As I tried to understand the message for me in these verses, and what shedding all that gear was about, the travel-light model morphed into something quite different. I started thinking about gardening and yard work. Our small vegetable-growing endeavor is simple and close to organic; we pick weeds by hand, use a natural pesticide, and mostly allow nature to take its course among our tomatoes, corn, apples, and melons. The rest of our yard, though, is not nearly so simple. First off, there are the power tools: the electric hedger, gas weed whacker and mower, the power blower. Added to that are a large number of hand tools, from loppers to rakes, shovels to clippers; hanging on hooks, they cover a fair swath of wall space in the garage. And though I have mixed feelings about the lack of stewardship this may represent, we combat a variety of problems with Round-Up, chemical fertilizers, and spreadable weed killers. All of this represents our attempts to rein in the wild, unruly side of nature where it comes into conflict with our ideal of a tidy yard.

The irony is that, for all our assortment of equipment and potions, we're not all that successful. The weeds still sprout where we don't want them, the grass and ivy grow faster than we can keep up, the lawn persists in dying in spots because the sprinklers are always getting messed up, and the roses get diseases for which I'm unprepared and need deadheading far faster than I can tend to them. Chaos is always just around the corner, and nothing sold at Home Depot can protect us from that.

Isn't a lot of our life like this? We surround ourselves with stuff--sometimes literal and visible, other times less tangible but just as viscerally present--and we hope it will keep the borders of our lives trim and neat, or protect us from the dangers of dead spots and broken parts, or be a barrier against fears that grow unbidden and unwelcome.

Jesus knew this. Fully human, he was no stranger to our concerns, and though these worries may have manifested themselves a bit differently 2000 years ago, I imagine that their true nature was pretty much the same. He was sending his friends out on a scary, lonely task for which they were not particularly well suited nor prepared. And yet, instead of taking them on a week long training retreat, or giving them a copy of Discipleship for Dummies, or at least letting them pack a favorite teddy bear, he simply paired them up, commanded them to leave everything behind, instructed them on what to do if they got the sort of unfriendly reception to which he'd been subject, and gave them authority over unclean spirits...then, "Adios!"

Really, what kind of leader does that? Or, perhaps more to the point, why would a good leader do that? It's like setting them up for failure...and yet they succeeded. We're told they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. Therein may lie the method in Jesus's madness: if, despite having almost all reasonable supports stripped from them, they were able to fulfill their mission, it couldn't be attributed to anything they had, nor any special talents or knowledge with which they were endowed. The only explanation could be God's power. Not until they were completely vulnerable would the gifts of God's Spirit be fully revealed.

I'll admit to thinking fairly often, "I can't do that..I don't know how." Or "This wouldn't work for me because..." Or "We don't have enough [fill in the blank] to do that." Maybe I'm right; maybe the challenge is insurmountable, very possibly I don't know how, and quite possibly we are lacking the resources to succeed on our own. It might even be dangerous. But where I go astray is in imagining that more tools, more treasure, more talents, and more time might make the difference. Think of the Huntington Gardens, with all their money and some of the most skilled horticulturists in the world and a battalion of workers...and it still (thank goodness) is never perfect. God's goal for us isn't perfection in what we do, either. God wants us to reveal God's glory--not our own--in the world, and to work with, not instead of, God.

We're never going to know enough, have all the right tools, and be able to protect ourselves well enough to control chaos and banish evil; if those are the requirements, we're done for. Good for us, then, that we're not on our own. Jesus is already on the job!

Not having tools and tricks doesn't set us up for failure; exactly the opposite: it pushes us toward the One who has been and still is restoring the fullness of creation and who gives us the gifts to participate in that process. Sometimes we need most of all to lay down our excuses and just get our hands dirty and our feet wet. I can't eliminate the problem of homelessness, but I can keep it at bay for a few people by fixing a salad for Door of Hope or helping pack lunches for Union Station. I'm not likely to memorize the whole Bible, but I can learn a few verses that help me put down deeper roots of faith. I can't restore anyone to wholeness, but I can take time listen to the story of someone who's hurting. I don't know how to share God's love with everyone, but I can probably figure out how to demonstrate it to a few people, or to let God's forgiveness touch me in new ways. And if those don't work, so what? We can try again, in a different way…and again, and again. As long as we remember that it's about God, not about us, we'll be okay and we'll be successful in the ways that really count.

Do you know those words from A Mighty Fortress Is Our God?:
Did we in our own strength confide
Our striving would be losing
Were not the right man on our side
The man of God's own choosing

and then:
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through him who with us sideth

So go forth into the world, and rejoice in the power of the Spirit!



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