Text: Mark 6:6b-13
Whenever someone visits our church website, the first picture they see is one of hands knotting a colorful comforter. We got the new website up and running about a year ago, and we did so with the understanding the websites are pretty much the new front door for congregations. Before most people walk through the actual front door of a building, they walk through a website. So, the question was, how do we want to introduce ourselves when people come to visit? Is there an image that expresses who we have been called to be as a community that lives in the Spirit of Christ? It wasn’t all that hard of a decision.
There are so many dimensions to how these comforters represent our mission and life together that it would take many sermons to unpack it all. Which is a good thing, because we do this comforter blessing every year.
One of the beautiful aspects of these comforters is how the core group of Piecemakers invites the rest of us to participate in their creation – especially through the spring knotting party. I consider that one of the high holy weekends of the year. We get stuff done, like knotting 52comforters in an evening and a morning a few months ago, but there’s a lot more going on than just an assemblage of cheap laborers lured by amazing food. I love how this event involves giving and receiving by all that participate. The Piecemakers create a space to offer something that the rest of us need and desire: good food, meaningful work, joyful fellowship. The rest of us have something that the Piecemakers need: time, willing hands, funds to support the cause.
This image of mission as giving and receiving is also reflected in Mark chapter 6 when Jesus gives instructions to his followers for how to go about their mission. For those of you who pay attention to these kinds of things, this passage is technically the lectionary reading for two weeks from now, but we poached it for this week because it fits. Yet another benefit of being in the free church tradition.
Jesus had already been going among the villages of Galilee, teaching, driving out harmful spirits, and healing the sick. As he did this he gathered a core group of followers who became his disciples, who also became agents of the same ministry. This passage in Mark tells of the time when Jesus first sent them out on their own, in pairs, to do what he had been doing. Mark’s description of what they actually do is surprisingly brief. “So they went out, and proclaimed that all should repent (have a new mind). They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” Teaching, driving out harmful spirits, and healing the sick. Not a whole lot more details.
What Mark does go into detail about is not what they do on their mission, but the way in which they go it. They are to take nothing on their journey except a staff, and sandals, and fortunately, a piece of clothing. It’s a very short packing list. What they aren’t supposed to take is bread, which is just another way of saying food. No bag, which was a way of storing and transporting food and other necessities; and no money, which was and is this liquid asset that can be converted into anything one might need along the way. Also, just the tunic they were wearing. No food or snacks, no backpack, no cash or credit cards, no change of clothes.
Lacking these key items, they were to stay at a home that welcomed them in a village, and stay at that home until they moved on to another village. If no home extended them hospitality they were to simply move on, shaking the dust from their feet as they left – as if to say “you refuse to offer us anything, fine, you can keep your dust too.”
This method of missionary travel feels austere to us, but Mark is actually the most generous in his account of what the disciples could take with them. In Matthew and Luke Jesus asks that they even leave the staff and sandals behind. This is indeed traveling light. Barefoot, with nothing to lean on or ward off wild animals along the path.
As odd as all this sounds to us, Jesus’ followers would not have been alone in this kind of endeavor. Greek cynic philosophers of the time had a similar practice of going from village to village carrying very little with them, although they regularly carried bags and bread to have some independence. Even though cynicism has come to mean something negative, cynic philosophers emphasized a life of virtue and simplicity. Some scholars have even suggested that Jesus was a Jewish cynic, or at least influenced by this school of thought.
The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus records another group of Jews, known as the Essenes, who also had a similar practice. Josephus writes, “They have no certain city but many of them dwell in every city; and if any of their sect comes from another place, what they have lies open for them, just as if it were their own…for which reason they carry nothing with them when travel into remote parts, though still they take their weapons with them, for fear of thieves. Accordingly there is, in every city where they live, one appointed particularly to take care of strangers, and to provide garments and other necessaries for them.” (Wars of the Jews 2:124-125)
All this has overtones of a prototypical Mennonite- your- way of the ancient world. For those of you new to the tribe, Mennonite-your-way is both a semi-formal or completely informal way of traveling around the country and the world. Formally, it’s a network of registered households of the Mennonite or Anabaptist persuasion who agree to host others passing through their area. This network was started in 1976 by a married couple and involves a print directory that includes registered hosts and basic agreements for using the network. Now www.mennoniteyourway.com gives information about how the network functions. The website says, “Mennonite Your Way revives an old Anabaptist tradition by organizing a hospitality network so travelers can share fellowship and travel more economically… To work, Mennonite Your Way needs hosts who share hospitality and travelers seeking fellowship, all in a spirit of Christian courtesy.” It notes that it is “A listing of over 1700 hosts who offer lodging in their homes in over 60 countries.”
Informally, Mennonite-your-way involves calling up your Mennonite friends living in the general area you wish to travel and seeing if you can crash on their couch – or their guest bedroom, if it be the case. Mennonite-your-way is especially helpful if you can’t much afford the bread, the bag, and the money that you aren’t supposed to take in the first place.
With the Jesus-followers, the cynics, and the Essenes, and maybe others, we get the sense that the first century was populated with wondering preachers and healers, and Jesus is inviting his followers to join in this kind of pattern of ministry with perhaps a few distinctives: Greater dependence on the hospitality of strangers. They also didn’t have weapons to ward off thieves, but when you travel that light, there’s not a whole lot for thieves to take. There is that pacifist-befuddling passage at the end of Luke when Jesus says they might need a sword after all, but he doesn’t seem all that enthused when they pull a couple out.
One of my personal experiences resembling all this was when I spent two months in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico the summer after my sophomore year of college. I went with an organization called Youth With A Mission and our mission was to save poor Mexicans from going to hell by having them accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. We would do this by lugging large battery powered speakers out to villages, blasting Christian rock music with English lyrics in order to attract a crowd, and then put on skits with no words about Jesus sacrificing himself for their sins, offering to pray for them afterwards before we moved on to the next place.
As you may imagine, this was a different era of my theological journey, and one that I chose not to emphasize during my candidating weekend here two years ago just in case anyone might get the wrong idea. When I disclosed all this on a long car ride up to a Central District Conference gathering with Phil Hart – someone who has done his fair share of Christian ministry in Latin America, his response was, “Wow, I hated you guys.”
Fair enough. But I loved God and loved the Bible and when I read through the organization’s materials getting ready for the trip it said that all our basic needs, like meals and lodging, would be provided. So, without thinking about it further, I got my passport, packed some clothes, and flew off to Mexico for two months of holy adventure. It didn’t dawn on me until the first time a few members of our team invited me to go out with them for some late night eating, and we were at the café sitting down to order, that I realized they brought money and I didn’t. It’s not that I had intentionally decided not to take extra money, it’s that the thought had never entered my mind. All of our basic needs were covered, and we were on a mission.
Needless to say, that wasn’t the only time in which I could have spent money but didn’t. And needless to say, I had a different experience during those two months than my teammates. Not having money to go out with my fellow Americans freed up time to hang out with more Mexicans and start to have my own ideology transformed through the beauty of relationships – their gift to me.
What draws me now to this passage in Mark and this method of ministry, isn’t so much the austerity of it all, what all you must leave behind, as it is the spirit out of which Jesus invited his companions to minister. They were instructed to put themselves in a position of being utterly dependent on those with whom they were ministering. In other words, rather than arriving at a place with the attitude that they were bringing everything that these strangers needed, it was they, the ministers, who were in the position of need. They didn’t have anything. Their need invited their hosts to extend hospitality and generosity to them, already an act of Christ-like kindness. The disciples do have something to offer, but only as a response to having first received. Ministry is an act of giving and receiving in which both parties need one another to grow.
Imagine how different that classic story of stone soup would have gone if those wandering visitors had brought with them the pot, the wood, and all the ingredients to make stone soup. They could have set up camp in the middle of the village, perhaps played some hip music to attract a crowd, and cooked up a big meal for everyone to eat. People might have come out of their homes to eat it, but when the visitors left the villagers would have retreated right back into their old patterns and ways of relating.
Instead, the visitors came empty handed, with nothing but their wisdom and compassion, and gently invited the villagers to give toward the creation of this meal. In doing so, they left the village with a great gift. They cast out the evil spirits of fear of one’s neighbors, and hoarding one’s resources. They healed the isolation that had separated the villagers from each other. They helped the kingdom of God come near.
Imagine how the history of Christian mission would be different if this were the pattern that was followed.
There’s a lovely quote being used by the planners of the inclusive worship service at Kansas City that comes from an Aboriginal activists group at a gathering in Queensland, Australia in 1970. It says, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
We’re blessing these comforters today and I’m aware that the connection with Mark 6 might feel a little stretched since we are sending these as finished products to wherever they are most needed in the world. We are not dependent on those who receive them in the same way that Jesus’ disciples were dependent on those with whom they were ministering. But here’s another way of thinking about it – and again, this is just one dimension of all this: The making of these comforters is just as much a mission to ourselves as it is a mission to others. In assembling these comforters and making themselves dependent on the generosity of the congregation to assist in their completion, the Piecemakers are operating in the spirit of Jesus in which the lines between hosts and guests, mission workers and mission receiver, get blurred and mixed around. What if, instead of going about the work in the way we do, several people would simply donate a bunch of money that would enable us to buy 150 comforters from a factory, drape them over our benches, and send them off? It would certainly be more efficient. But what would be lost? What gifts of fellowship, and laughter, and shared meals, would disappear? How much ownership would any of us feel in this?
Instead, these comforters have been a great gift to us, each square thoughtfully place cut and arranged, the intersections of square meeting square knotted by 100 different hands. Each comforter invested with the time and the love that makes life rich and meaningful. Take nothing with you except the hope that people will come together to create what is needed, and bring about an image of the kin-dom of God that abides long after we have done our work.