Good morning! It is so good to look out from here and see you on this Sunday morning! In the three years I’ve been away from western Maine and training for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church at Yale Divinity School down in Connecticut, I have felt held up and supported by this congregation. I am deeply grateful. Thank you. It truly is a blessing to be together today!
When Rev. Nancy and I were talking about when I could come to visit with you all, I confess that the lectionary was not one of my considerations – it was all about what dates would work with my schedule at St. Alban’s, the church where I’ve been called to serve as Assistant Rector.
So, I had to laugh when I read over today’s readings. Jesus quotes a proverb well-known in his day, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown” while I admit it’s a little daunting to return home and to attempt to share something of the Good News of Jesus Christ with people so familiar with me, I don’t place myself in the gospel reading as a prophet returning home. Rather, I place myself as one of the disciples Jesus sends out to serve and to teach. Therefore, I am going to concentrate my reflections on the advice Jesus gives his disciples – that is us – as he sends us out in to the world. The advice he gives his chosen Twelve is relevant to us today as we go about our ministries inside and outside the church as followers of Jesus Christ.
Jesus addresses four elements in embarking on ministry: how to go out, in whose name and by what authority our work is done, what to take with us for the work ahead, and how to respond when we are not received as we would hope.
I will touch a bit upon each of these points and spend a little more time on just one of them.
First, Jesus instructs the disciples to go out in twos, in pairs. While some might think of this as just plain good advice for personal safety in Jesus’ time and in our own, I think Jesus is on to more here.
When we work beside another, whatever we do is informed and sustained in a different way. I know that one of the things I treasure most about my time at seminary is the friendships I have formed, knowing that these women and men are resources to me now that we have graduated and we are beginning our various ministries – as priests and deacons, school and hospital chaplains, Christian education directors, and missionaries. Already, these friendships have been invaluable to me as I learn to navigate this time of transition from seminarian to ordained minister.
Traveling with others is sound advice – we see ourselves and our ministry more clearly with companions, and we are sustained in our work by their support. I would bet examples of your journeying with and working beside one another in your various ministries within the church and in your life come to mind. The people who travel beside us as we plan outreach programs and design church initiatives and strive to be faithful Christians in our lives outside of church help us to see things – and ourselves – a bit more clearly and to understand a bit more fully what we are called to do in the name of Jesus.
This brings me to Jesus’ second point: The disciples have the authority to expel evil or unclean spirits and to preach the good news of the Kingdom – that is to do service and to teach, or what we might call “mission” and “evangelism”– this an extension of Jesus’ ministry. It is not our own.
Ministry is not something we do in our own name or for our glory. It is not by our authority that we do what we do. Our activity is an extension of Jesus’ activity. We act as a member in the Body of Christ. One of my seminary professors, who is also an Episcopal priest, was fond of reminding us seminarians that when our ideas about God begin to look a little too much like ourselves and our ideas, we’re likely no longer worshiping and following God, but some version of ourselves.
I have found this a helpful reminder and it makes me reflect more deeply upon my faith
– How is God challenging me to grow and live a life more rooted in God’s love?
This question is opposed to something like:
— How is God challenging the world, and how do other people need to change?
The first question seems to help keep me humble and discerning, so I double check that my actions are an expression of something greater than myself.
When the second question – the one about God challenging the world and not me – when this second question feels more fitting for how I am orienting my life, then I take a step back and question if what I am calling faith is just keeping me comfortable and even making me feel a bit prideful and self-righteous.
In other words, these questions help me to consider again in whose name and by what authority and to whose glory am I acting?
Jesus’ third point is where I want to spend a little more time since for me, this is a hard lesson.
Jesus tells the disciples, “Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic.”
Only a staff?
Only a stick to take the weight off my feet and my shoes to protect them?
Aren’t Food, a bag, money, and an extra layer of clothing “necessities”?
I can just hear myself recoiling and complaining at this advice –
How am I to survive?
What if I get into trouble or get attacked?
What if I get cold at night or the weather becomes bad?
These instructions really push me to recognize how I must depend on God to provide what is needed for the journey ahead.
This lesson of relying primarily upon God and not myself or my resources reminds me of two stories from my preparation for ministry: The first was a part of my discernment process. In the Episcopal Church, those who believe they sense a call to ordained ministry go through a process of discernment in a small group within their parish. My group and I met many times over several months and for each session, I had some homework to prepare and lots of reflection to do. One of my tasks was to interview both a deacon and a priest.
This part of today’s Gospel reading of taking very little, traveling light, and trusting God, reminds me of one part of the conversation I had with Rev. Spencer Reece, an acclaimed poet who was a visiting writer at Gould Academy where I taught, and who happened to be an Episcopal priest who serves as the chaplain to the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Spain. (Some of you at Christ Church will remember him from when he visited western Gould that winter and worshiped with us while he was here).
As Spencer was describing the unexpected twists and turns his life has taken since he started to follow God more and more closely, I asked him if this discernment and trusting in God got easier.
His response is something that I have thought of many times since our conversation:
Yes, he said. The tasks didn’t get easier, but his ability to trust in God has. As I left my home, my community, my career to follow God’s call to serve as a priest in the Episcopal Church, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t downright scary at times.
Leaving so much of what I knew so well felt like jumping out of an airplane into the unknown and more than once there was a sense of freefall before I had any sense of what God was up to and how, truly, I did only need my staff and sandals to plod the road ahead. God was with me and did indeed provide what I truly needed.
The second story about “traveling light” and trusting God is something I learned as an intern hospital chaplain at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston during the summer after my first year in seminary. In our program, we were not allowed to bring anything with us into the patients’ rooms. For example, we were not to bring with us a Book of Common Prayer or other aid.
Rather, we were to show up with our hearts and minds, relate with the people in the hospital rooms, and let the Holy Spirit do its work through us. While I have always been someone who has felt comfortable praying in my own words to God in private, this was the summer that I became at home saying aloud with others extemporaneous or unplanned, un-written prayer.
It truly was a gift learn to listen more closely to God with patients and their families and to raise up our prayers to God in those raw and very real moments of diagnosis, loss, uncertainty, and grief.
God was at work, and, truly, I didn’t need much with me to companion the people in their moment of need. God was there, and God provided. The last and final bit of advice Jesus gives the disciples is how are we to respond when people don’t receive us or the Good News as we would hope.
This takes my thoughts back to the opening of today’s Gospel passage when Jesus is in Nazareth: Even Jesus faced challenges in his ministry. He was not always received well; he was not always able to do all he had hoped to teach and heal.
Jesus advises us through understanding personally our plight: Shake off the dust from our feet and travel to the next place to share the Good News. I think of this shaking off of the dust from our feet as a way of marking the moment as over, not as a curse.
We recognize that we’ve tried to do what we are called to do, and we move to the next place where we know that other people wait to hear the liberating, good news of Jesus and his teachings.
And so I pray, just like the twelve disciples went out in two’s and traveled light with their staff and sandals to proclaim the Gospel and to encourage people to return to the ways of God, successfully ministering to the people by healing and teaching, so, too, I pray God-willing and by Jesus’ authority, will we. In Jesus’ name we pray, may it be so. Amen.