Sunday, 8 July 2018

Trinity 6: Take Nothing

“Take nothing” says Jesus to his disciples. All they are to have as they go out with his message is the clothes they stand up in and a stout stick to lean on.

It’s a timely message, because this is the time of year when many people, including me, are thinking of packing for holidays or days out. Travelling light sounds like a great idea in theory, but when we actually come to the point, most of us find it very hard in practice.  Books have always been my downfall. God bless the person who invented the Kindle, which has reduced my packing considerably, but I’ll confess that I still pack one “real” book, just in case the batteries fail, and if we’re going by car it will often be my one volume “Complete Works” of Jane Austen! The book addiction is in the genes, I’m afraid. When my brother went on a teenage exchange visit to France his school rang my mother, concerned about his luggage. There were six books in it, they said, taking up most of the space in his suitcase. Mum was baffled at their concern. Six books seemed quite a modest amount to her for a week or two, as it does to me…

Maybe for you it is something else ; clothes or shoes or gadgets perhaps, or, if you have small children the piles of stuff they seem to need, but most of us struggle to whittle down the load to fit the baggage allowance, never mind “taking nothing.”

To make it worse, of course, Jesus isn’t talking about holiday packing here. He’s sending his disciples out on a far more serious and challenging mission, to preach and to heal in his name ; it’s not going to be a holiday!  Jesus has already encountered opposition, and his disciples are likely to encounter it too. But it’s probably going to be just as hard to cope with those who are for him as those against him.  

He’s been healing people.  Miracles have been happening. He’s been besieged by desperate crowds. What if they come to his disciples with the same high expectations?  If I were one of the disciples, I’d be worrying that they would feel they were getting the monkey rather than the organ grinder. What if I couldn’t come up with the goods?

These disciples have no experience, no training. They must feel they need all the help they can get; at the very least a manual and some emergency supplies. But Jesus tells them that even what they have, even the small comforts, the props , the money, the bread, the spare clothes, all have to be left behind.  If it all goes pear-shaped, they won’t even be able to buy a pint to drown their sorrows, or hire a donkey to make a quick getaway... The  things we pack “just in case” are usually there because we are afraid – of boredom, of the humiliation of not having the right clothes, of being stuck somewhere, helpless and alone, of not being able to look after our children and loved ones, of people judging us because of it… The disciples were surely no different.

And maybe that gives us a clue about why Jesus might have thought it was so important for them to leave all that stuff behind – the money and the bread and the spare tunic. It may seem cruel, but if they don’t have the stuff they normally rely on, they will have to rely on God, and open themselves up to the people they encounter too. They’ll have to look beyond themselves for help, and that’s a lesson Jesus knows they need to learn.

“Take nothing”, says Jesus.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever thought about nothing, so to speak, but nothing is an interesting concept, if you get my meaning. It’s also often been a tricky one for people to get their heads around, though. The Greeks and the Romans, didn’t really like the idea of nothing. They struggled with it philosophically. They didn’t have a symbol for it in their mathematical systems and neither did anyone in Western Europe until the Middle Ages. How could nothing be something, said the Greek philosophers? How could you add and subtract and multiply and divide with it if it was nothing? And if you couldn’t why try to write it down?  The symbol for zero actually came to us from India, where, for complicated religious and philosophical reasons, they didn’t seem to worry so much about this, . It came via the Islamic world in the early Middle Ages along with the rest of the Arabic numerals we now take for granted. Zero was only adopted reluctantly though. Medieval Christians were very suspicious of it. After all, God had created the world out of nothing so anything that was still nothing was surely against God’s will. There was a great deal of scepticism about the possibility that there could ever be a complete vacuum, a place where there was nothing – fortunately they got over that, or we wouldn’t have hoovers and thermos flasks. But modern science still has big questions about nothing – apart from anything else for something truly to be nothing it would also have to be nowhere and at no time… 

Anyway, let’s stop before our heads explode thinking about it. Suffice it to say, that Western cultures, those that were shaped by the intellectual world of Greece and Rome, have always tended to prefer presence over absence, activism over passivity, speech over silence, something over nothing. Maybe it is because Greece and Rome were go-getting civilisations, empire builder, with big ideas for themselves, and Christian Europe inherited that. Power was important. Ambition was lauded. Might was right. You couldn’t conquer the world with nothing.

And yet, that is exactly what Jesus is telling his disciples to do here, to take nothing, to go out without the protection of “stuff”, whether that’s the tangible things like  money and spare clothes or the intangible things like experience, skill, knowledge, reputation, status. Leave it all behind, he says. Take nothing. That might seem negative, even cruel, but we can also look at it positively.  What if Jesus is saying, “Instead of carrying stuff, carry space, space to encounter something you haven’t yet thought of, space that lets God get a word in edgeways, space which enables the gifts of others to grow?”  What if Jesus is saying, “as long as you rely on what you have, you can’t be open to the things you don’t have- yet - which may be the very things you most need?”  As long as we think we have it all covered, that we’re prepared for everything, that we can do it all under our own steam, we can’t discover the riches of God’s grace. Empty hands are open hands, hands ready to receive.  

I don’t think it’s an accident that this strange instruction to  “take nothing” comes straight after the story of Jesus attempting to minister in his own home town. It wasn’t a happy experience. Jesus had been teaching and healing to great acclaim elsewhere, but when he comes back home to Nazareth, he is met with disbelief and ridicule. “We’ve known you since you were in short trousers” they cry. To them he’s not the Messiah, just a very naughty boy, to borrow a catchphrase. What’s worse, buried in their response is a darker suspicion about his family. “Is not this the son of Mary…?” they ask. Normally people would have called a man the son of his father, but  Mark never mentions Joseph. There are no birth stories in this, the earliest Gospel. And, whatever people thought later about virgin birth, this reference to Jesus being the son of Mary suggests that in his lifetime, people may have thought he was illegitimate, that he had no known father. Whether that is true or not, it’s clear that though he’s been welcomed and honoured and listened to by crowds in other towns, in his own home town his wisdom and power are dismissed. . The upshot is that, though in other towns he’s been welcomed and honoured and listened to by crowds of people, here he can do very little.  People know what he’s done and said elsewhere, but it  counts for nothing. Even though he does heal people in Nazareth, he is treated as nothing, of no account, a man with no father and no particular standing, maybe not even quite respectable, and who is getting ideas above his station.

In a way, this is the story of his earthly life. He will eventually end up nailed to a cross, alone and humiliated, treated like rubbish to be discarded outside the city walls, someone his executioners think will be wiped from history.  At that point he will truly be able to take nothing, because even what he has will have been been taken from him. He’ll have no power, no followers, no freedom and eventually no life. But God will take his “nothing” and bring out of it the glorious “something” of the resurrection. Where there was no life there will be life everlasting. Where there was no dignity there will be the glory of the kingdom of heaven. Where there were no companions there will be, eventually, a vast army of people embracing his message, trying to live it and to take it out into the world.

“Take nothing”. I wonder what the somethings and nothings in our lives are today?  We may have material riches, achievements we are proud of, abilities we rejoice in, the respect of others, an answer for everything - and there’s nothing wrong with any of that in itself. But if that’s what we rely on for our sense of self-worth, if that’s what we rely on to fulfil our calling, firstly we’ll be on shaky ground, because all that stuff can vanish in an instant, but more importantly, we’ll miss out on the strength and affirmation God wants to give us.  God calls us to learn to be at home with nothing too, to trust him when all we seem to have is weakness and failure, disability, doubt,  need, hunger, when we don’t know what we’re doing, or how to do it. Only then, can he have room to move in us, space that he can fill. Only then can he surprise us with his grace and lead us on a path we haven’t known, into a kingdom that is beyond our imagination.

“Take nothing”, says Jesus, because our “nothings” are often the gateway to God’s blessing, a beautiful gift which those who are cluttered with “somethings” can never receive.