A book called the Material World came out a few years ago. It is a collection of photographs taken all over the world. In each picture, a families stand before the place where they live. Some of the homes are shining mansions, some are huts and shacks that are clearly unstable and substandard living quarters. And lined up in front of the homes, alongside the families that inhabit them, is all of the stuff they own. Every single television, shoe lace, couch, and clock. Some families are so surrounded by treadmills, extensive wardrobes, furniture, and video games that you can barely detect the human beings amidst all the material goods. Other families pose amidst meager resources: a mixing bowl, a blanket, a comb, a single pair of men’s shoes that are worn threadbare. The book doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. Some people have far too much stuff, and some people don’t have enough. To actually see a visual illustration of this fact is humbling, though.
Most Americans, even the ones that are well below the US poverty line, have way more material goods than foreign households. Some folks see this as a point of pride—that one of the bonuses of living in the United States of America is the entitlement to have a television in every room of the house. I have a great deal of ambivalence about stuff, though. I am thankful for my sewing machine and my electric guitar. But the fact that I have these items and more when other people are struggling to get by troubles me. Yet even as the Holy Spirit stirs my conscience, the commercials for the new IPod music player stir my greed.
I don’t have an answer for the disparity that separates the haves from the have-nots. I do try to pay attention to the struggle, to ask myself if I really need something, and to consider how my decisions affect all the peoples of the world. I try to support efforts to make trade fair, and to avoid companies that have a bad track record of human rights abuses.
Having stuff isn’t a sin, but valuing our material comforts more than we value our neighbors is clearly a problem. I may never have met the Vietnamese workers who stitched together the shirt I wore while I wrote this paragraph, but I am still challenged to match God’s compassion and love for them.
In the gospel lesson today, Jesus confers a mission to the twelve faithful Disciples. They are to go out into the villages fortified by an authority over unclean spirits. They are to bring the good news of the amazing deeds of God by bringing divine gifts of wholeness and liberation to the villagers. The people will no longer be under the cruel dominion of demons; they will be free. No longer will the ravages of illness diminish their bodies and perplex their minds. Through the power of Jesus Christ, God will cleanse humankind of pain, of sin, of isolation.
Let’s see. We’d need lots of stuff to make that happen, right? We’d need medical supplies, and plenty of food to last a fortnight, and bug spray… oh, and better get an oil check before head out. Let’s be practical, folks. Successful ministry takes materials.
Only that’s not what Jesus is saying in this gospel. The Disciples are sent off little more than the clothes on their back. The list of prohibited items is longer than the list of what’s permitted. No bread, no bag, no money, not even an extra tunic. All they get is a staff and a pair of sandals. And let’s be clear, the staff that Jesus is talking about is a walking stick, not a paid staff of assistants. This is one of those passages of the Bible that very, very few contemporary Christians apply literally to their own lives. We know what we need to get the word out, and it includes more than a pair of shoes and a cane. And yet this is how Jesus sends his Disciples out to spread the liberating and healing power of God.
The Disciples may have been sent out all but empty handed, but they did have the one accessory that trumps any tool or object for ministry. They had each other. They were not sent out to face the demons alone. They were not expected to knock on the doors of potentially inhospitable visitors without a friend to share the brunt of the rejection. They were paired off like the animals in Noah’s ark, bereft of physical comfort and stripped of material resources, but they had the one thing that is absolutely necessary to become a witness for the gospel: a relationship.
This passage is about faith. The Disciples had to trust Jesus. They had to believe in the authority he had given them to spread the seed of the kingdom, and they had to trust that they would be given all that they needed to respond to the mission Jesus had given them. But this scripture is also a sharp reminder that what matters in ministry is people.
Jesus’ entire life and ministry demonstrates the significance of his relationships with his sisters and brothers. When he was ready to begin proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom, the first item on his agenda was to gather a group of Disciples to help bear the burden of his mission. No matter that the men in his inner circle were constantly misunderstanding the nature of Christ and his message. No matter that they occasionally succumbed to the all-too human tendency to jostle for power and prestige within the movement. The men and women Jesus called into the life of Discipleship were his companions, his confidants, his friends.
The good news here is that we have what we need to take part in God’s reconciling, liberating, and healing work. We have each other. We are a small congregation, but so were the twosomes that scattered throughout the hillsides at Jesus’ bidding. We are Christians in a time when it is standard for congregations to own property that accommodates worship, fellowship, and educational events.
The inventory of SBCC includes all sorts of helpful tools to enable us to do meaningful ministry. We have a collection of wheel chairs, just in case one of our members or friends needs assistance. We have a beautiful pipe organ that creates deep winds of sound to accompany our praises. But all these things are merely taking up space without the children of God that gather here to discern and respond to our Father’s will. The grill in the parking lot shed is useless until the early morning crew comes to fire it up for the pancake breakfast.
Many of our sisters and brothers throughout the world respond to God’s call on their lives in a context of poverty and hunger. They are challenged to trust God and take part in the unfolding of his Kingdom even though they live on less than a dollar a day. Our challenge is different; we live in a culture that is rich in material goods and often all too poor in love. We must learn to trust God despite all the things that distract our attention from his Holy Kingdom.
Our challenge is to rid ourselves from the belief that the stuff is what gives us joy and spreads the gospel song, and to resist the temptation to let material goods destroy our relationships and obscure the will of God from our hearts. How many families, how many congregations, have been torn apart by arguments over objects? I once heard a story about a congregation that ultimately split over the matter of a painting—whether or not it should be in the sanctuary or the fellowship hall.
Nothing is as valuable as the bond of communion between one another and with our Creator, yet people become estranged every day over things.
Jesus sent his Disciples out with everything they needed: a good pair of walking shoes and a friend. Their companions for the gospel journey are not simply “human resources,” that strange phrase that turns men and women into commodities. As companions they offered one another accountability, trust, encouragement, relief, the “stuff” of friendship that cannot be purchased at the market.
Jesus still sends his Disciples out with everything we need. The fact that each of us here has been called into this place, to be a part of this community of faith, is the work of God’s hand. Here, we are blessed with sisters and brothers in Christ. As a congregation we have a covenant to care for one another – and we can trust that our care will be returned. And as a congregation, we also have a covenant with God to take the gifts we receive in this place and transform them into gifts for the world. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to invite people into relationship—relationship with the people of this congregation, and relationship with our Redeemer.
Jesus wants us out in the world, hand in hand, bringing the good news from our doorstep to the ends of the earth. We can be grateful for our creature comforts, but we must remember, again and again, that Spirit and friendship and faith are what gladden our hearts and multiply the holy harvest. May it be so.