“Your mission, should you choose to accept it . . .” began the instructions in Mission: Impossible. In an instant, the agent’s course was changed and a thrilling episode began, full of twists and turns, brimming with suspense. This summer, we are like that agent, hearing messages from God through some of the many stories in our Scripture that prompt us to take action and get moving. Just as God interrupted the everyday routine of Abraham, God speaks to us, taking us from our regular routines and giving us a new itinerary. The Holy Spirit is still on the move, and now God tells us – “Hit the Road!” For Abraham, these instructions came with a promise; that God would make Abraham and great nation, and that Abraham would both be blessed and would be a blessing to others. It’s a pretty good deal, and not surprising that Abraham and Sarah would take God up on it and begin to pack their bags.
After accepting the assignment, the agents in Mission: Impossible were always outfitted with the best of gadgets, from an auto-lockpick to appearance changing costumes to advanced cable systems that allowed entry into buildings that resembled fortresses. These tools helped them to evade the most ruthless bad guys, save innocent victims, and, of course, save the day. So, our first priority after accepting God’s invitation to travel might be to outfit ourselves with everything that we need.
In our gospel text for today, Jesus sends the disciples out on a mission to preach the good news to the world, and gives them a packing list. Well, sort of at least. Did you catch it? It comes in verses 8 and 9 – “He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” Not exactly what we might expect. In fact, it’s a lot more about what NOT to bring, which is actually all that is shared in the accounts in Matthew and Luke’s gospels (1). Given these instructions, the disciples wouldn’t even need a carry-on bag. I don’t think Jesus was just trying to save cargo room in the vehicle they were taking. I imagine, as Jesus tended to do, that this practical instruction also had theological implications, both for the apostles he was sending and for us today.
First, his instructions would have reminded them of their heritage as God’s covenant people. Jesus’ instructions are reminiscent of the Exodus story, when the Israelites were commanded to be ready with sandals on their feet and staff in hand (Exodus 12:11). “By taking nothing else on the journey, the apostles demonstrate their complete dependence upon God and the hospitality of others(2).” They become grounded in the rich story they were joining and the tradition they were called to continue. Rather than spending a lot of time inventorying their belongings and getting things ready, they would be more like Abraham, who heard God’s call to go, and gathered his family together to begin the trip. It’s that easy, right?
Maybe for some of us, it is. I’m not that lucky, though. You see, I love to travel, but I hate packing. Whether it’s for a few days spent with family or a week in the mountains at Montreat for a youth conference, getting ready to go is hard work. I spend way too much time doing it, ending up with all of my clothes on the bed in a mountain, trying to make sure there are enough options for any possible activity, and bargaining with how many pairs of shoes I can get away with putting in my suitcase. Once Nathan was born, this process got even more complicated. Babies seem to need so much stuff to go even the shortest distances: diapers, the pack-n-play, clothes, pacifiers, a few familiar toys, bottles, bibs – all simple things, but they quickly make another mountain to be packed. Now it’s a bit less daunting, but still takes additional time to pack for someone else and negotiate which toys make it into the car. It can take forever to get ready to go, trying to anticipate what we might need so we can be prepared for any situation we might encounter. Sometimes it takes longer to get ready to go than the trip itself, and makes us wonder if it’s worth all the hassle. We can even forget the reason we are going in the first place.
Maybe this is why Jesus’ packing list for the disciples is so simple – sandals and a staff. “These symbols are reminders that the apostle’s mission is an extension of Jesus’ own ministry(3),” and it is Jesus who will give them all the authority and power that they need, a subtle reference to the work of the Holy Spirit. He wanted them to remember their purpose. In other biblical texts(4), wearing sandals also connotes dignity, and carrying a staff (5) signals one’s authority. On a more basic level, what the apostles are told to take are also practical items that represent barest of necessities. Sandals protected one’s feet, and a staff could be used to fend off enemies, snakes, or wild animals. Joseph Bessler notes the importance of a humble wardrobe by comparing it to the wise desert fathers and mothers who imposed wisdom, saying that:
simplicity marks not only the figure of a sage, but a transparency of purpose. The Twelve come with open hands, neither offering wealth in exchange for receiving the good news nor asking for money. In announcing the kingdom of God, one must come with open hands, because the distinctiveness of the gospel must challenge the prevailing ways of appealing to self-interest and nativist impulses(6).
Jesus’ instruction to “pack light” suggests that perhaps it’s not the “stuff” the disciples had that would make the difference in this mission to spread the gospel. In fact, it might even get in the way of what they were trying to do. So better to keep it simple.
Have you ever gone on a trip and gotten so encumbered by all the stuff you were carrying that you missed out on the fun because you were so weighed down or your hands were full? This happens in our own lives as well, doesn’t it, as we pack so much into our schedules or into our heads that we can no longer think straight for all of the busy-ness of our lives. Even in this summer season, when we are supposed to be taking it a little easier, our lives can become overpacked as we try to do it all. I wonder what things would look like if we instead tried to pack a little lighter in our own lives and lose some of the “stuff.” Letting go of it might allow us to be more present with one another and with God. It can also help us to remember the central calling as disciples of Christ – the one that we share with Abraham and the disciples – the call to share the good news.
In order to really “Hit the Road” in our faith, we have to wrap our heads around our call, and recognize that what really matters, more than anything else, is the message we are sharing. Pastor Michael Lindvall says our job is:
simply to tell others about the God who has come to mean so much to us. This is an action performed out of love, not competition or anxiety. . . [We] need not have polished words, sophisticated theology, or fine-tuned dogma to speak of their faith. [We] are simply called to speak truth in love, from the heart, in [our] own words, and never be ashamed(7).
Has your life been impacted, in big or small ways, by Jesus Christ? If the answer is yes, then you are packed sufficiently to be Christ’s apostle, sharing how God has been present in your life with others. Don’t let your “stuff” get in the way of that holy calling. It really is that simple.
But sharing our stories with others can be intimidating, particularly when we have left behind those things that keep us comfortable and buffered from the world around us. Fortunately, though, our missions come in the context of community. Jesus sent his disciples into communities to form relationships in the midst of this light packing, confident that their needs would be taken care of. Additionally, he sent his disciples two-by-two. That’s right, Jesus was the original inventor of the buddy system. In teams, they could provide one another companionship, mutual protection, and moral support, and serve as reliable witnesses as they took on the mission that Jesus set before them. Today, Christ continues to call us to be in community with one another – families, friends, churches, and communities of all sorts seek to provide support and encouragement to one another. As a part of their examination by the session, each of our incoming officers shared a little about their faith journey and what they believed, and in doing so the spirits of all in the room were lifted a bit. I saw people smiling and nodding, connecting with each other’s stories. The more we share the stories of our faith, the easier it will become. You can even start practicing this morning. Find someone, maybe even the person sitting next to you in your pew, and share some of your faith story over a cup of lemonade and cookie after worship. Don’t worry about “getting it all right” or having a polished story that meets some lofty unrealistic set of expectations. Just keep it simple, and trust that God can and will do the rest.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it . . . is to Go with God into this world. It is an incredible mission to be a part of, this ministry Jesus has called us to join, and the challenge to us this morning is how will we begin? Will we try to load everything in, cramming our suitcases of faith so full that we have to sit on them to close, with things bursting out of the seams like the picture on the cover of our bulletin, or will we pack lightly, leaving space for Jesus to be at work through us? Mark 6 gives us a packing list – Genesis 12 gives us the call – are we ready to hit the road?
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
1. See Matthew 10:9-10; Luke 9:3, 10:4
2. Vanthanh Nguyen, “Exegetical Perspective: Mark 6:6b-13,” Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).
4. See Gen 14:23, Exodus 12:11, Luke 15:22
5. See Gen 38:18, Exodus 4:17, Micah 7:14
6. Joseph A. Bessler, “Theological Perspective: Mark 6:6b-13,” Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).
7. Michael Lindvall, “Pastoral Perspective: Mark 6:1-13” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).