Maybe I just have travel on the mind, but the packing list seemed like a great metaphor to jump into this week’s Gospel lesson. So–read the sermon and let me know in the comments–is there anything you wish wasn’t on your packing list? Anything you’d love to put in your bag to be a better disciple?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A couple of times I’ve been asked by someone new to Christianity or curious about our faith how to read the Bible. They’ve never read any part of Scripture before and pick up a Bible and, as you do with a book, start reading at the beginning. Genesis and Exodus go ok, because they’re mostly stories, but somewhere around the middle of Leviticus, these people usually give up.
When these people come to me and say, “I’m still interested in this, but how do I read this book?” my answer is always to start with the Gospels. In particular to start with the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t even come first in the New Testament, so that might seem counterintuitive. But it’s the shortest Gospel, you could read it start to finish in probably half an hour.
In part because it’s the shortest, most people tend to think that Mark was the first Gospel written. It seems frantic, hurried, almost in its pacing. You can imagine its author racing to get it finished, needing to get this story down on paper so that it might be shared. Matthew, Luke, and John take more time, gather more stories, include more details.
There is no drawn-out Sermon on the Mount in Mark like there is in Matthew, where Jesus teaches and preaches for three whole chapters. There is no nativity, no account of Jesus’ birth like there is in Luke, and Mark’s Holy Week narrative lasts only three chapters, compared to John’s eight. The author of Mark is not messing around with any information you don’t absolutely need.
So what does Mark decide is worth including in his Gospel? A packing list. Jesus, after just being rejected in his home town, is sending the disciples out in pairs to do ministry. And he literally offers a packing list: “bring this, don’t bring that.” It reminds me a lot of the list we were given before the Youth Gathering last week. It too was very specific. Do bring close-toed shoes, a sturdy backpack, a water bottle, and sunscreen.
Do not bring valuable jewelry, alcohol, or firearms. Don’t bring more technology than you need. Don’t bring flip flops. And there are a few things you learn by experience every adult leader should have on their packing list: a portable charger, a power strip so you can charge six phones at once, and a headlamp.
Both what we were told to bring and what were asked not to bring was designed to help us get the most out of our experience in Houston. We needed our phones to keep track of each other, but we didn’t need any extra technology to distract us from our community. We didn’t need much money, but most assuredly did need good walking shoes. Communal games, like a deck of cards were great, but individual games didn’t help.
Jesus’ list is much the same. It’s meant to help the disciples be as effective as they can be. His list, in short: “Don’t bring much of anything.” Don’t pack an extra shirt, don’t carry any money, don’t bring any food with you. It will hold you back if you do. Travel light, because you don’t know when you might have to move on quickly. Discipleship requires that you leave behind the things that would tie you down and hold you back.
It begs the question, as 21st century disciples, what should our packing list look like? What things do we need to leave behind, what things are holding us back from doing ministry in today’s world? There’s a literal way to look at this: we might have actual things that are holding us back. A city congregation I know recently sold their building. It was huge, bigger than St. Paul’s, and the congregation was dwindling. Most of their money had to go to maintaining a rapidly declining building, instead of reaching out to their neighbors. By letting go of that building, renting space somewhere else instead, they freed themselves to do ministry.
There might be physical things in your life that are holding you back. I’ve certainly heard the stories of many people who downsized their homes and felt only relief and freedom. But we all carry around other baggage—as individuals and a congregation—that can hold us back. Baggage that Jesus would look at and say: don’t take that with you, leave it behind. We hold onto things that can keep us from fulfilling our call as disciples.
What expectations aren’t we willing to give up, even though they’re keeping us from joy? What people do we hold ourselves back from, because they don’t fit our preconceived understanding of who they should be?
Honestly, I think the biggest thing that we’re carrying around that keeps us from being effective disciples, from being the people God hopes us to be, is fear. Fear of change. Fear of what that change might mean. Fear of loss. Fear of failure.
Some of these fears aren’t entirely unfounded. Jesus himself failed in Nazareth to convince the people of his hometown. He even prepares the disciples for failure, warning them that they won’t be well received sometimes, but to simply shake the dust off their feet and keep going.
What does your packing list look like? Are you carrying around things you don’t need to, that only burden you? Are we doing that collectively, as a congregation? Are there things we need to let go of? To take out of our bags so we are able to move more freely? Our unfair expectations of ourselves and others. Our worry that we’re not good enough. Our desire to be perfect. Our anxieties over change and the future.
What might be possible if we took those things off our packing list? We will not always be successful. After all, Jesus wasn’t, so we shouldn’t expect too much from ourselves. The disciples weren’t always successful in their mission and outreach either.
But the biggest reason to unburden ourselves of these things—the worry and anxiety and fear—is not an attempt to be successful. The biggest reason is because they’re things that God does not want for us. “Do not be afraid,” is the oft-repeated greeting of the angels in scripture. Do not be afraid.
It’s easier said than done, but what if this week we tried to take just one or maybe two things off our packing list? What new opportunities might suddenly seem doable? What chances might we be willing to take? What people might we be willing to meet that we hadn’t before?
I’ll close with the post-communion blessing that each person received individually at the Gathering in Houston. “Child of God—Be Brave—You are saved by grace through faith—Go and tell the world that this changes everything.” Amen.