A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
February 8 2020
Let’s start at the middle passage, a very fine place to start.
Jesus sends the 12 disciples out in pairs, like animals off the ark, to heal, to cast out demons, to call people to repent.
We often give the disciples a hard time. I may, possibly, in previous sermons, referred to them as “keystone cops”. They often seem to bungle around and miss the point, and give Jesus gray hair before his time.
But here! Wow!
They are THE 12! Superhero disciples who follow Jesus’ instructions, and go out and cast out many demons, and cure many who were sick, and do what needs to be done.
Sometimes Jesus’ instructions to the disciples seem easier to me than these are. Like when he tells Peter to just walk on water.
But this—“take nothing for your journey except a staff. No bread. No bag. No money in your belt. Just sandals and one tunic.”
I just got home from my study leave trip last week. Let me just say I took more for a week of study leave and nobody was expecting me to cast out demons. If Jesus had sent me to cast out demons on my study leave, I would have checked a bag. Maybe two.
But it kept coming back to me, as I thought about this text, that the one time things work out well for the disciples is also the time they follow Jesus’ instructions and trust him, and let go of the things to which they are holding so tightly.
“I know you said ‘take nothing’ but surely what you meant was ‘just carry a small bag, one that would fit in the overhead compartment on the plane. Right, Jesus? Because I need to prepare for a few things and bring along some things that will help me do what you want me to do. Oh, and I need another week. Because I need to read up on demon casting outing and go over my advanced life saving class materials one more time to make sure I’m ready for the healing and exorcism part of it all.”
And Jesus says, “no Marci. I meant what I said. This job I’m sending you on is not about your particular preparations and plans or control issues. Ahem. This is you going out and doing what I need you to do in the world”.
I hate it when Jesus does that.
I want to make it about my preparation, and my storing up, and my controlling the variables. So it can be about my success. And what a great disciple I am.
And Jesus says “no. Just take your staff. And stop making this about you. And trust that you will find hospitality along the way. And trust that I will give you what you need. And trust that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.”
The success of the disciples world tour of healing leads to people taking note.
I’m sure the disciples took note as well—hey look—we did what Jesus told us to, exactly as he said, and surprisingly, it all worked! Who knew?
And people started talking, and not always in a good way. Not only was Jesus healing people, but now even his followers were doing so.
Herod freaked out a little bit. He’d already killed John the Baptist for horrible reasons, as was clear in that little flashback about dancing stepdaughters and heads on platters.
And Herod’s advisors start speculating—it must be Elijah, back from the dead!
No, I hear it is another prophet.
No, I think John has risen from his tomb and is coming to get me.
Okay, Herod. Calm down a little. Not everything is about you.
Why do we keep making things about us?
Clearly Herod’s guilty conscience is taking over. But even his advisors find it easier to believe that dead men have risen from their graves than it is to believe that God could be doing a new thing. They found it easier to believe in the return of dead prophets than believe that Jesus’ disciples could heal people in Jesus’ name.
Why do we do that?
We may not be looking for zombie John the Baptists, or the prophet Elijah back from the dead, but I think there are times when we don’t believe God will do something new with us, and so we try to resurrect those prophets of old—the days when everyone was in church, and belonging to a church meant something to the culture around us, and Sunday schools were full to bursting.
Zombie Sunday School, brought back from the past, will not save us.
Yet God is doing a new thing.
And God is calling us to let go, and to be a part of it.
Jesus tried to talk about it in his hometown.
But they couldn’t get past the kid he used to be. They couldn’t believe that kid—the one who always disrupted the Time with the Children and the one who took too many cookies at coffee hour—could have grown up to be the Messiah. Even though they could, with their very own eyeballs, see him healing people, and casting out demons.
May those with eyes to see, see.
Herod heard the stories about the healing and the demon casting outing, but rather than believe that God was doing a new thing, he started looking for ghosts.
May those with ears to hear, hear.
In this passage, it is the disciples who get it, not his hometown. And because they trust God is doing a new thing in the person of Jesus, they become a part of his healing mission and make a real difference in the world.
Do we have ears to hear and eyes to see? Do we take Jesus at his word, that all we have to do is go forward as he calls, and we can join in his work?
Jesus’ hometown did not have ears to hear and eyes to see. And it has me wondering what would happen if Jesus showed up in Boise, or Washington DC, with his message of loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute you. What kind of reception would Jesus get today, in American culture, at the National Prayer Breakfast, with his calls to feed the hungry and his tendency to heal all the wrong people?
What figure from his guilty conscience would today’s King Herod be conjuring up to distract us from Jesus? You better believe Herod’s tendency to get people to look to the past to save us is alive and well in our culture.
I don’t think it would go well for Jesus if he came to our hometowns. First of all, he’s brown skinned, and from a part of the world where our government is limiting visas and immigration. I’m not all that sure a Palestinian man would make it to the US without being put in detention and having to wait for a hearing.
Even if he did get past the barriers we are putting up to foreign immigration and refugee status, I worry he would face racism that would call out to him on the streets “go back to your own country” as many brown and black skinned Americans hear yelled at them today.
Jesus would have some hard words for us. I’d be less worried about it if I thought his harsh words would only be for my political opponents. In my heart, though, I know he’d be a non-partisan critic.
Jesus would be upset about the way the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in our world. He’d question why, in a wealthy agricultural state, 1 in 8 Idahoans are food insecure and aren’t sure where they will be fed this week. 72,000 Idaho children are included in this number.
Jesus would be upset about our lack of concern for the planet entrusted to our care.
Jesus would start turning over all kinds of tables in our country, wondering why people are going bankrupt when they get sick, wondering why people are put in prison because they are too poor to pay court fees, wondering why we refuse to turn over our tables of racism, and classism, and sexism.
It’s a little overwhelming, to realize I’m more like the crowd in Jesus’ hometown than I want to be, and to realize just how many different ways we have gone astray from God’s hopes for us.
The things that would upset Jesus (our “unbelief”) are directly correlated, I believe, to the way he then tells the disciples to take nothing with them on the journey.
We can’t keep clinging to our comfort, our privilege, our wealth, and our status in a world where people are starving, dying, poor, and without comfort.
And so I remember what Jesus said to his disciples, after the stunning show of unbelief at his home church. He sends them out in pairs, not in megachurches. He sends them out with nothing but a staff to lean on as they walk, trusting that God will provide what they need.
The antidote to our fear and to our hubris and to our unbelief, it turns out, is simple, if not easy.
Go to the world, letting go of your privilege and comfort and control. Look for hospitality. Offer healing. Trust in God.
There’s a corollary to that as well.
Welcome the people God sends to us. Offer hospitality to them. Be willing to be healed. Trust in God’s intention for the world.
It’s all that easy. And it’s all that hard. Amen