Sermon: What Not to Pack on a Journey

Mark 6:7-13

What kind of a traveller are you? Are you someone who fits everything into one neat carry-on bag or do you check luggage plus tote as much on-board as possible? In my minds’ eye, I am the former. Except for those years when Patrick was a young child and I had to haul a car seat onto the plane plus a bag full of toys to engage him during a five-hour flight plus flight plus snacks and drinks plus diapers (oh, the horror!), except for those years, I aspire to travel light.  The problem is, I am also what someone called a “defensive packer.”  I want to be prepared for whatever might happen or whatever I might feel like doing or whatever I might feel like wearing. What if it rains? What if I want to go bird watching and I need binoculars? What if those shoes give me blisters? What if those earrings don’t go with that outfit? (Again, the horror.)

Almost exactly five years ago, Jerome, Patrick and I took the biggest, longest trip of our lives. We spent almost three weeks in Europe. I knew that we would be in a variety of climates, doing a variety of things. My “defensive packer” brain kicked into high gear. I  carefully strategized about what to pack for months ahead of time. And two weeks into our vacation, I felt pretty good about my planning. I had correctly anticipated the situations we’d be in and had what we needed.

And then, while we were visiting the leaning tower of Pisa, someone broke into our rental car and stole everything — three pieces of luggage filled with carefully curated items. Thank goodness I was carrying our passports, cash and credit cards in my purse. But, everything else was gone. After getting over the shock — actually, while we were still in shock — we immediately set about trying to put together the very basics we would need to get us through the remaining week of our trip. I bought two dresses, and Jerome and Patrick bought two t-shirts each. We bought swimwear for our upcoming visit to the “Italian riveria.” (And someday, ask me about what it’s like to buy swimsuits in Italy – the horror.) We bought travel toiletries. And we bought two small backpacks in which to put all of this.

For the next several days, we toured Italy and France with everything we needed in those two small backpacks. It was… liberating. I felt light as a feather. It was so easy to have so little. Nothing to keep track of. Nothing to lose. If we needed something, some kind person would provide it for us or… we just did without.  On our last night of vacation, we were heading back to our Airbnb from the Eiffel Tower at 10 o’clock at night, and it started pouring buckets of rain. We had no raincoats or umbrella, of course. They were somewhere in Pisa. It was impossible to get a cab or Uber, because every other person was doing the same, and we ended up walking for blocks down the sidewalks of Paris, getting soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone. But you know what? I found out that it was kind of wonderful and hilarious to be walking down the sidewalks of Paris getting soaked. I felt so alive, so in my body, so connected to the elements, so connected to the people we passed by who were as soaked as we were, as we laughed and pantomimed greetings to each other. That evening is now one of the fondest memories I have of our three-week trip.

Our story today from Mark takes place just after Jesus returns home to Nazareth, preaches in the synagogue there and is rejected by his neighbors. His townspeople are unwilling to believe that this person whom they have known since birth is actually a powerful prophet and healer. They’re like, “Who does he think he is? We knew him when he was just a little snot-nosed boy.”

With this rejection hanging in the background, we get to our story for today. In this passage, Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs, gives them authority over unclean spirits (or demons), and also gives them packing instructions for what to take on their journey. “Take nothing,” he says, but actually he means, take very little, travel very light, even less than a small backpack. They are allowed a staff to ward of animals and stray dogs as they walk. And they are allowed a pair of sandals. It was actually commonplace back then for people to go barefoot, but if you’re doing a lot of walking, it’s more comfortable to wear sandals. But, nothing else. They are not to pack bread, extra clothing, money, nor even a bag in which to put the money that they might acquire through begging or through offerings. As Scripture scholar Ched Meyers says, they are allowed the means by which to travel (staff, sandals) but not the sustenance for the journey (bread, money, extra clothes).  

During our Tuesday morning lectio divina group last week, we mediated on this passage. During one part of the meditation, we are asked to place ourselves into the story, as if we were one of the characters in it. And then, from that vantage point, we’re invited to experience the story through our senses and our emotions. What do we see, hear, taste, touch, smell as we put ourselves in this story? And what do we feel?  I invite you to do a brief version of this part of lectio divina right now. Close your eyes, if you wish. Take a deep breath; we’ll have a bit of silence as we do that. Remember you are paying attention to your senses and your emotions. 

Now, imagine that you are one of the disciples. You have just watched Jesus — this man of incredible spiritual power whom you respect and love and whom you are somewhat in awe of — you have just seen him be rejected by those to whom he is closest. Now he says to you: Friends, you have authority over unclean spirits. What I do, you can do. I am sending you out on a journey with another disciple and together you will cast out demons and you will heal the sick. And here’s what you are allowed to bring: a staff,  sandals, the tunic on your back. You may not bring bread. Or a bag. Or money. Or a second tunic.  What do you sense? What do you feel?

Do you feel the vulnerability of this journey you are about to take?  Does you stomach tighten with anxiety at the thought of it? You may face hunger. You may face the elements — rain and cold and heat and lightning strike — and have no protection from them. You may be going into hostile territory, where people will reject you, and they may provide you with no hospitality — no shelter, no food. Do you feel your utter dependence? You can not meet your needs on your own. You can not sustain yourself on your own. You are not self-sufficient. You will not be able to figure this out, to plan ahead of time for how you’re going to get your next meal or where you’re going to lay your head. You will need to utterly depend on others to sustain you, on God.  And yet, do you feel the power that has been given to you? This strength that is newly in you?  This spiritual authority that you now have? 

I invite you to open your eyes again and come back to the present.

I wonder: Does Jesus know something we may not, especially those of us who are affluent enough to believe ourselves self-sufficient? That there is a connection between dependence on God and others and spiritual power? That our lack of independence makes us spiritually strong? That this need to rely on God, on others, makes spiritual power accessible to us that would not be accessible were we self-sufficient? Another way to put this is: Is there a connection between dependence on God and others and relational power? Does our lack of independence make us relationally strong? Does the need to rely on God and others make relational power accessible to us that would not be accessible if we were self-sufficient?

As many of you know, Steve and Karen Kreider Yoder are bicycling on a tandem bike and camping across the country. Talk about traveling light! Everything they need — food, shelter, change of clothes, etc. — is somewhere on that tandem bicycle. Karen has been writing almost daily updates, and a recent one speaks into the questions I just raised.

When we’re off the beaten track, my inclination is to “do without.” But then I remember my sister, Ruth Kreider, and I muster up the Ruth Factor and become emboldened to ask anyone anything.

I took on her powers first in the Sierra Nevada. We’d biked up from Cooks Station into National Forest Service land. Close to possible bears, far from any store. So I flagged down a pickup truck that looked local. “I have two questions,” I said. “How do you keep your food safe from bears? And do you perhaps have a cold beer?”  Larry and Sydney were experts in wilderness camping. “You’re welcome to keep your food in our cab. In the morning, just knock on the window, and we’ll open up. Sorry, we don’t have beer.”   One problem solved.  An hour later as our rice and curry was ready, they walked over with a bottle of wine. “We don’t  have beer, but you’re welcome to this,” they said, handing us the bottle.  

Another evening, we camped on BLM land in a dry campground (no running water) and had miscalculated how much water we required for the overnight. Steve channeled the Ruth Factor — he flagged down motorists by holding up an empty water bottle. The first driver stopped and offered not only water bottles, but ice and Gatorade!  Several more offered us water, and we were set for the night. People want to help.

A few days later, Karen talks about biking through Colorado when they got caught in a major rainstorm. They sought shelter at  farm implement dealership, but still got soaked by rain when the gutter above them clogged and dropped buckets on them. She writes: After an hour of rain, wind, and hail, a kind young man pulled his truck and boat under the awning, saw us huddling there, and asked if he could take us somewhere dry. We agreed. He drove us down the road to Ordway, Colorado. We passed by swollen streams and the flooded city park where we had planned to camp. 

In Ordway, the hotel was closed. I went next door to Kimi’s Cafe. Inside we found all the resources and leads we needed—hot, homemade calzones. Another cyclist said we could stay inside “Big Blue”- a church gymnasium they open to cyclists. It also included hot showers, full use of the kitchen, and WiFi.  

We’re grateful for the implement dealership that provided us protection (unbeknownst to them), Jared with the pickup who took us ahead to Ordway, Kimi’s Cafe for being like a community center with a can-do attitude of helping people out, and the River Ordway Church and their Big Blue Gym and the pastor’s generosity toward cyclists.  We ended the day dry, warm, and full of good food and gratitude.

I leave you with some questions to ponder (thanks to Janet Hunt):

  • As I rely on my own careful planning for every eventuality, how am I less open to what God may have waiting for me?
  • If I already have everything I need, how am I less able to receive the gifts of those I meet along the way? 
  • If my attention is on my belongings or my comfort, how am I less able to reach out with a gesture of kindness to another? 

May God give us the courage to travel lightly.