Carrying Christ, Traveling Light

  • Mark 6:6b-13
  • Hope CRC

For those of you who have yet to take this year’s big family summer vacation, here is a quick cautionary tale about packing light—Packing light can be taken too far. Five years ago, my family knew things had gone too far when we found my dad sawing off the handle of his toothbrush. He was thrilled to report exactly how many ounces this subtracted from his camping gear. The basement had become the staging ground for the Schemper family sojourn over the Sierra Range—8 days, from Kings Canyon over the mountains, ending with a summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US, then a quick descent toward Death Valley. Dad had spread out tables with equipment and provisions. He was checking the soundness of our packs, making menus, and plotting courses on maps. But most importantly, he was weighing everything. He had devoured a book on “light-hiking,” hiking fast, with very little weight on your back—hiking without the latest tools and gadgets from REI or the North Face—hiking in a pair of running shoes—because without the extra weight, you didn’t need the ankle support. Everything went on the scale—journals, underwear, flashlights, plastic forks, and toothbrushes.

Now, I must admit, as is frequently the case, that my Dad was right—sawing the toothbrush handle may have been a bit much—but 3 days into the trip, we were glad for light packs. And hikers fitted out with all the latest and greatest gadgetry looked surprised and impressed by the big, happy, family, hiking in the back country in their gym shoes.

And perhaps, on a very simple level, Jesus was simply telling his disciples something similar—you don’t need a lot to venture out on the road preaching and healing. Just get up and go—maybe he was promoting an outdoorsy, simple, nomadic evangelism, back to basics evangelism.

Perhaps, but I am fairly certain that none of you will go home after this sermon and strap on your sandals and grab your walking stick and set out for the next village to preach on the corner. (Although, God works in mysterious ways and maybe, for someone, this will be the moment when you realize that God is calling you to mission work).

If Mark is not just issuing packing instructions for missionaries, then what does this passage mean for us—well off-Christians, not necessarily called to missions or street preaching?
Those first disciples were not just examples and prototypes for people called to missions or evangelism—Jesus’s instructions were for them, but Mark knew they were so important that they should be written down for all of us to hear. What does it mean when we hear Jesus telling us to take to the road, to travel light—with sandals and a walking stick, but no money, no food, no change of clothes, to set out on absolute faith to preach the gospel and heal people?

A clue comes from another lectionary passage for the day: 2 Corinthians 12, where we find a well-loved, well-worn verse: God says to the apostle Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” Paul has been describing his reasons to be proud of himself, but he pulls back, and mentions that he also has a great weakness, a “thorn” which God gave him to keep him humble. But it is in that weakness that he hears those wonderful words—“My grace is sufficient for, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” God’s grace sufficient for the task of Paul—Paul who was Saul, the man who ran down Christians with eager, zealous, righteous anger, a rising star of the religious authorities of his day. The man who was called to be Paul, called to bring people to Christ with the same fervor. By God’s grace, Paul had the strength, and gifts, and ability—in spite of his weakness—to travel the roads God called him to. And Paul knew that it was only by God’s strength that he could do this—even though Paul must have been a wonderful preacher, a church planter and church growth specialist extraordinaire. At the end of his rope with frustration, with the limits of who he was and what he could accomplish, the only thing Paul could hold onto was God’s grace.

It doesn’t take long to come to the end of your rope is all you have is the clothes on your back and a walking stick. Jesus’s packing instructions leave the disciples with very little to cling to. Because Jesus sends them out with virtually nothing, they can’t fall into the trap of thinking that they are doing things by their own power. You are what you own. The shedding of clothes and possessions is a symbol of the shedding of self. You go out with nothing. Every night of lodging, every meal, is a gift. Every miracle is done in Jesus’s name.

What is important is not that the disciples bring themselves, their own possessions and gifts and powers to the task. What is important is that they bring Jesus to the task.

It is also too narrow to think of these as packing instructions for missionaries. But they are packing instructions for the missions to which each of us are called. I mean mission in the broad sense—the journey of our lives—our callings—not just careers, but family, friends, volunteer work, passions and hobbies, and even the way we interact with the check-out person at the grocery store.

God calls us to these things because God knows we can accomplish them. But how well we do is not just a matter of “doing our best.” In fact, there are times when, no matter how hard we try, our best is not enough. We don’t realize our full potential if all we bring to the task is ourselves. The best gift we bring to any task, and the only thing we can finally rely on, is the grace of Jesus Christ.

One of the greatest stories of the church is the story of the life of Augustine—a man who had amazing gifts, but finally could only rely on Christ.

Augustine lived in the 300s, in northern Africa—it’s a story from a faraway place, but it’s a familiar story—small-town, talented boy making a great life for himself in the big city. Augustine rose from small beginnings, went to the city, was educated in the best schools, showed incomparable talent and intelligence, lived and partied well, moved to the capitol city to begin a great career. He knew he had potential, and he was eager for all the prestige his gifts would give him.

One day, walking down a city street with friends, he saw a drunk, sitting on the curb, begging for money. Maybe the man looked like a failure, but Augustine was stunned to realized that the man was happy—look, he said to his friends, that guy has what he wants. All he needs is enough money for some booze, and he’s just delighted with life. We have so much more than he does, and so much more potential, but we aren’t happy. We are longing after success. But, when we are successful, will we really be anything more than that drunk on the curb? Is our success really anything more than cheap intoxication?

Gifts, talents, great potential and privilege, but there was always something missing—no matter how good his life looked, there was a great hole in the middle. And Augustine slowly began to figure out what it was…

At age 43, reflecting on his early life, he wrote this: “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you.” God was the missing piece—success was just one more thing that he tried to fit into a hole that could only be filled by God. And it wasn’t until God fit into that hole that Augustine’s life was complete—that his calling clear. With God, he was the person he was meant to be. When he brought Christ to the task, his gifts and abilities fit together perfectly to support the journey God called him to.

One thing I find interesting is that Augustine never hits absolute rock bottom—except spiritually. He has success within his grasp. He has overwhelming gifts—intelligence, education, connections, and a fabulous mother who prays ceaselessly for him. Jesus does not pull him out of the gutter. But Augustine still realizes the truth of what Paul writes: that the success he experiences in the journey God calls him to is impossible unless he brings Christ to the task.

Sometimes, when we hear, “My power is made perfect in weakness” we assume that it must be a weakness that is great and obvious, especially to the eyes of the world. But we are all weak, even if we are weak in some hidden corner of our lives which others never see. Maybe we’ve learned how to compensate for our weakness—maybe we can disguise it from others—or maybe we just ignore it—maybe we figure we can pull ourselves away from weakness on our own.

What’s amazing, though, is that God actually wants our weakness out in the open. God doesn’t want the strongest—because it’s easy to hide weakness behind strength. God wants people who admit that no matter how good they may look, there’s weakness on the inside. God wants people who know that no matter how capable they seem, their best is just not enough.

Jesus’ advice to travel light, then, saves us from the need to be humbled. It’s advice to the weary traveler, like Augustine, who finally puts down all the extra gear—the ego, the weighty expectations of success—and finds that the only equipment necessary is the grace of Jesus Christ.

In fact, we can’t truly know our vocation until we set aside the weight of ourselves. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, points this out in a sermon on vocation. He says that if you really get down to it, we often see our callings as weighty, unwieldy things that God drops onto us—a role that we have to play whether we want to or not. Perhaps there are other things you could do, but God has called you to this (burdensome) task.

But to be called by God, he says, is not so much about being cast in a role—it’s about being called out to, being named. God says—this is who you are supposed to be. And in that sense, it’s freedom—we’re called to be what we are supposed to be. We can shed every other expectation placed on us and step into our own skins. (To go back to the analogies about hiking, anyone who’s spent a day with a 40 pound pack on their back knows that your body suddenly becomes your body again the minute you shed the pack. Talk about freedom—you may be tired and sore, but without that extra weight, you worry that you might just float away.)

What is the first thing we are called to, then? The first thing God says to us when he names us is—you are mine. You belong to Jesus Christ. Erik and I just spent 2 days with his mother’s big, warm, extended family on the Moe family farm in Chetek, WI. One of the great highlights of the weekend was the baptism of the newest family member—Brooklynn Marie. At the end of the baptism, they did something that I thought a the time was a little time-consuming—you may have seen here how the pastor will say to a baby who’s been baptized—“ child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever” Well, Brooklynn heard something like this 8 times—3 ministers, her parents, and her aunts and her uncle (who are her godparents) all held her in turn and made the sign of the cross on her forehead, and said, “Brooklynn Marie, you are Christ’s own, marked with the cross forever.” But we can’t hear that too many times. We can’t have the cross marked on our bodies and souls too often. Because that alone is our calling. That is the first thing we are—children of God, marked with the cross, and the grace, or Jesus Christ. It’s only when we hear that call from God that everything else about who we are and what we are meant to do falls into place.

That we belong to Christ, that we only know who we are by his grace, is finally all we have to offer—to others, and to ourselves—as we set out on the journey’s God calls us to. Jesus’s directions for the journey are simple: Packing everything we think we might need will only weigh us down. But carrying Christ will free us to go where God calls us.

May God give each of us the grace to set aside everything that weighs us down. Glory be to Jesus Christ, who calls us and frees us to be ourselves.

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