Sermon preached for the Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Jesus left that place and came to his hometown. His disciples followed him. On the Sabbath, he began to teach in the synagogue. Many who heard him were surprised. “Where did this man get all this? What’s this wisdom he’s been given? What about the powerful acts accomplished through him? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” They were repulsed by him and fell into sin.
Jesus said to them, “Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns, among their relatives, and in their own households.” He was unable to do any miracles there, except that he placed his hands on a few sick people and healed them. He was appalled by their disbelief.
Then Jesus traveled through the surrounding villages teaching.
He called for the Twelve and sent them out in pairs. He gave them authority over unclean spirits. He instructed them to take nothing for the journey except a walking stick—no bread, no bags, and no money in their belts. He told them to wear sandals but not to put on two shirts. He said, “Whatever house you enter, remain there until you leave that place. If a place doesn’t welcome you or listen to you, as you leave, shake the dust off your feet as a witness against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that people should change their hearts and lives. They cast out many demons, and they anointed many sick people with olive oil and healed them.
As many of you know, I spent the last half of the month of June moving houses. Now, I’ve spent the last decade of my life moving, between dorms and schools and internships and apartments and rentals, and so you’d think I’d have learned to live light. And I do try. But there is nothing like moving to bring you face-to-face with the amount of stuff that you own.
Then, of course, the ever sassy Holy Spirit comes along and lands a scripture like this one in my lap through the lectionary. It’s a brief moment, but when Jesus sends his disciples out to try ministry on their own for the first time—up till now they’ve just been roadie-ing for Jesus, you’ll remember—he commands them to whittle down even what little stuff they might have brought with them so far. “Take nothing for the journey except a walking stick,” he tells them, “no bread, no bags, and no money in their belts.” They can wear sandals, but not even two shirts. This is beyond simple living. This is real bare-bones stuff.
Most modern churches do discipleship in the exact opposite way of how Jesus arranged it. We build churches, pour money into them, fill them with stuff, and then hope people will show up. In some cases, we heap the actual tasks of ministry on paid staff—clergy, Christian educators, musicians, professional evangelists—outsourcing the work Jesus called us all to do. The modern church has relied on professionals, programs, and just plain stuff to attract people to Jesus’ way. And it’s not working too well.
What Jesus suggested instead was to put our trust in each other and in the communities to which we are sent. Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs—not as lone wolves or solo stars, but in pairs. Jesus promoted, in essence, the buddy system. In one way, the disciples went out in utter poverty—one stick, one shirt, one pair of sandals—but in others, they went with all the riches of the companion traveling with them—their wisdom, their faith, their gifts, their sense of humor, their encouragement, their tough questions, their friendship.
This, I think, is the problem with stuff: it tempts us to forget that the greatest gifts are found within the people around us.
I have dozens of books on ministry in my office. But not one will teach a Sunday School class. People have to do that.
We have shelves of food in our pantry downstairs. But they won’t feed anybody until we reach out to families in need.
We have thousands of dollars in the budget. But not a penny does ministry until we decide to buy a music license, stock the nursery, cool the sanctuary, pay the staff.
Stuff can support our discipleship, or get in the way of it. It gets in the way when we start relying on stuff more than we rely on the people around us. I count myself incredibly blessed to be in a church where we recognize the gifts of the people in our congregation—that you all, sitting in the pews today, are the most valuable resource we have. This sanctuary is our treasury, as far as I’m concerned. You are the disciples who carry out our ministry, and when we are at our best, the stuff we need and use and have simply helps you do so.
Ministry is not easy, with or without stuff. So I do give thanks for Jesus’ wisdom that we go out in pairs, and gather in groups. Jesus could have done his ministry alone. He had the power. But he chose to gather a community around him, twelve disciples to share in his work. Like any group of friends, they weren’t always perfect. They fought and bickered and got exasperated with each other. But they also ate together and prayed together and encouraged each other and on the really, really good days, they got to heal the sick together and cast out demons together.
Being a disciple of Jesus is not easy. It has never been supposed to be easy. Jesus knew that firsthand, when he was dismissed by his own home congregation, ridiculed by the very people who had raised him. He warned his own disciples, sending them out for the first time, that not everyone would welcome them. That there would be times when they would have to move on without any wins, without any converts, without any victories. Two thousand years has not changed that. When we are really dedicated and visible in our walk as Jesus’ disciples, it will turn some people off. They won’t want to be confronted with what we choose to say and do. Not everyone will welcome our values of love, joy, patience, peace.
It’s easy to get intimidated or discouraged, when our faith makes us feel unwelcomed or isolated. And so it is important to find your people. Find your buddy. Find your twelve. Find your congregation. Find the folks that will help you shake the dust off your feet on bad days. Find the folks that fill you with God’s love for you. Find the folks who remind you what you committed to when you became Christian. Find the folks who encourage you to keep going when you are tired. Find the folks who will walk with you along the way.
I spent the last week in St. Louis with a group of classmates from seminary. We met mostly through our involvement at a local church, and became friends. Now we’re pastors, chaplains, and mission associates in New Mexico, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia, South Carolina, and Florida. Our lives and ministries look very different. We wear our discipleship very differently. We get exhausted and exasperated with each other, sometimes. But ultimately, these are my people. They encourage me to be a more faithful disciple, a more creative pastor, a gentler caregiver, a savvier leader, a more authentic self. They pray for me. They build me up. They share the resources they have, their good ideas, their hearts.
It is a bit odd to be in a job where a week spent with old friends counts as continuing education. But in a job where my duties are to be a disciple of Christ, sharing in the gifts of my peers, my people, is crucial.
I’m so grateful to be in a church where we do ministry together. I have never once felt here like you all expected me to be the lone wolf on your behalf. I know who I can call on to be my buddy when it’s time to do any number of ministry tasks, and I hope and pray you know you can call on me, or our elders, or any of our members, if you have something you need to do.
We can’t do ministry for each other. But we can do it with each other, and that’s when the magic happens.
Wednesday night my cohort took off and headed out to see the St. Louis fireworks display. The crowds were thick as we were leaving, and somebody had the wisdom to call out “buddy system!” Despite the fact that we range in age from 20s to 50s, we paired up. Almost automatically, our tallest member, whom we could see above the crowds from anywhere, walked with our shortest, who it would be easy to lose. I had to laugh. Neither of their heights are generally strengths or weaknesses for them. But in that instant, they had chosen each other so they could both get safely back to the metro stop with us. It was the silliest, most perfect illustration of why we work together I could have seen. We work together because we do better together. Different strengths, different skills, different passions, different energies. We are stronger when we pool them together.
Following in the way of Jesus—loving strangers, healing the sick, lifting up the oppressed, praying ceaselessly, taking up our cross—it’s not easy. Discipleship is not easy. So find your people, and trust in them. No bag of pamphlets or wallet full of cash could ever begin to match the gifts they will give you.
Not every person will love you. That’s a hard truth, but it’s real. Sometimes you will have to shake the dust from your feet and move on. But there are people out there who will love you unconditionally. People who will be a gift to you. People who will see you as the gift you are.
We are strongest together. Thanks be to God.