Evensong - St Nicholas Church - October 4th
I had to laugh when I first read this evening’s gospel text. You see I had just spent the weekend de-cluttering the house. I’m not particularly good at this, I tend to be the type of person who thinks I should keep something - just in case I might need it in the future.
I might lose weight, gain weight, need to go to a fancy dress party, need dressing up clothes for the kids, and so on. I might want to read those novels again (unlikely), and who knows if the children will want to return to sticking bits of felt onto card. Again, unlikely, but you never know.
So when I read the passage telling the Twelve Disciples to go out into the world and take nothing with them, I had to smile. If God is calling me to do just that, there’s a higher chance today than last week, but there is definite room for improvement!
It’s okay, I know the central point of this passage isn’t about clearing houses out, but it does make you think about what you actually need to respond to God’s call.
Let’s go back to the start of the passage from Matthew, where we learn who the Twelve Disciples are. You would think that if Jesus was going to pick a group of people to go and do his vital work, they would be people with something to recommend them. That they would have some kind of medical, missional, educational or pastoral work on their CV. But no….if they do we hear nothing of it. They are simply twelve men selected to go and heal people, spreading God’s love. They are known as apostles which is like being an ambassador for Jesus - not just a messenger.
Their job description is quite a mighty one…..it reads…..
“As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The Kingdom of heaven has come near’.
Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons”
No mention of how these men might be able to fulfill these requirements. Then Jesus tells them about the package…..
“You received without payment; give without payment.
Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics,
or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.”
Good, so they have a job description, which we are fairly sure they haven’t the experience for, the payment is not financial, but is overwhelming given that it comes in the form of God’s grace. The provision of equipment is negligible, and we discover that as they go from place to place doing God’s work, that they might not be welcome in the places which they travel to.
Perhaps they get training before they go…..I mean I had to study hard to become a Reader and write lots of essays and reflections…..Dennis too studied to become the Rector here? Presumably Jesus will put the disciples through a training course?
No, of course not! The best advice he has for them is that if they come to a place where they are not welcome they are to “shake the dust” from their feet as they leave. While this might seem a little throw away, I think this is actually a stunning piece of advice. It relates to what the Pharisees would do when they left what they believed to be heathen areas. Here though, the apostles aren’t to do it in some self righteous fashion, but in what theologian John Oman called the “Sacrament of Failure”.
How wonderful to be trained or advised in what to do when you fail. It just isn’t something we tend to come across. Children are taught about being tenacious and resilient…..but not really what to do when faced with failure. As Christians we often face negative and cynical responses to our beliefs, so perhaps WE should train ourselves to do this. It might help us manage whatever life throws at us a little more easily. The apostles were advised to perform this small ritual, not in anger or irritation at the situation, but out of love so that they can move on to the next thing and leave that failure, disappointment or setback behind. And as we learn, any judgement on those who made us face failure, lies with God - not us. We can shake the dust off our feet and move on.
So, we have a quite remarkable job description. It seems we don’t need any experience. We are given training at facing failure, and the payment is God’s grace. We expect nothing, but potentially give people hope and faith.
Sounds ideal really. Job satisfaction guaranteed maybe? However we discover there will be moments of disagreement and persecution. Jesus says…
“See, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves;”
I wonder if at this point any of the apostles began to wonder if this was something they could get out of doing? I mean it doesn’t seem as if they applied for the job….they were called....head hunted if you like. Now it seems part of the job could land them in some tricky situations. I suspect that once they had been called though, there was no going back. Some theologians think that this section was added on later, and may well not have been mentioned at the same time as the original calling.
Once again we find the apostles being given advice about difficult situations. What should they do if they are persecuted and caught up in the troubles outlined here. Well they are told to be
“wise as serpents and innocent as doves”
Christ is telling them not to provoke people, or encourage violence. They are to be wise, and move on if they are not welcome in a place, but certainly not to court trouble or martyrdom. Life is too precious for that. Instead they are encouraged to use words and love to engage people.
The point at which our text from Matthew’s Gospel ended this evening says this…..
“you will be hated because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved”
There is something about this line which, if you have read or seen the Hunger Games, might chill your bones. The Hunger Games is the story of an annual competition where the wealthy select a group of youngsters from the poor area, who literally have to fight for their survival….the winner being the one who stays alive and isn’t killed. Here in Matthew’s Gospel though, this isn’t as brutal. This is encouragement to us all to keep going. God’s grace isn’t only for the last one standing.
This is the job description which faces us. We are called to show God’s love and spread the message of his grace to all. We will face problems, but we must shake the dust off our feet and move on so that we don’t get bogged down in negativity. Some days that seems impossible to do, but God says to stick with it, and he will give us the words, the wisdom and the action to see it through. We take nothing with us - what we need will be given to us, and what do we get…...well….materially we get nothing….but we gain God’s grace. That is our reward. It is what we are called to do….can we? Undertake the most immense job, for no material reward?
I’m going to finish with a story that was in the news this week. It’s about a man, Tim Butcher, who lost his ring….it sounds like a parable already, and it quite possibly is. It was his father’s gold ring, and his father’s before that, When his Dad died he inherited it. He wasn’t really a ring wearer, but put it on his hand as he grieved. He lives in Cape Town, and shortly after flying back from Britain after the funeral, Tim went for a walk along the beach. On returning home he realised the ring was missing from his hand, and we can only imagine the feelings which consumed him. Just as in all good parables about missing things, he looked everywhere but couldn’t find it, and assumed he must have left it on the beach.
He returned to the area which stretched around 200 metres from the car park, but couldn’t find it. He enlisted the help of local metal detector users. One came and looked, another lent him his equipment, but all he found was an old phone from around 2001, a 50 cent coin and a stack of bottle tops.
He couldn’t bring himself to tell his Mum he had lost the ring….then a third detectorist came along to help. There’s always a third in a parable right? This man had only one condition. If he found something, he did not want payment or a reward. Tim wondered if he was being taken for a ride. People never behave like that.
Eight days after the ring was lost Alan arrived and looked at the area. He considered the wind, the tide and currents...then set to work. After finding some odds and ends, the miracle Tim wanted - happend. Having made a hole about 40cm down something had caught Alan’s expert eye. Tim’s Dad’s ring.
These are now Tim’s words…..
“This could not be happening. My eyes, prickly with tears and blurry with expectation, couldn't see straight to begin with. And then there it was, Dad's ring, his dad's ring, 90 years of accompanying the Butcher boys on life's journey and lost by me on a beach in Africa after a few weeks' custody.
Alan grinned, the kids capered, the dog joined in and for a moment all was madness. I hugged this big, bearded stranger.
And private though this miracle was, there was a greater miracle at work. My saviour refused all reward. He was firm, he was insistent. No, he would not accept a fee; no, he did not want petrol money; no, he did not want a celebratory drink nor fish and chips to drive home with. He wanted nothing more than to give something back.
I went down to that beach that day to find a ring. What I actually found was more valuable still - that there remain some decent souls out there.”
That’s all we have to do. We don’t need training. Just give and not receive. We have what matters already.