Stranger at Your Door
(Proper 10B, Mark 6.7-13)
July 16, 2006
Jesus said to the twelve, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mark 6.11)
This gospel passage always seems to come up in the summer time when I am just returning from or preparing to leave on vacation. And every time that I read it, I am convicted by how poorly I follow Jesus’ instructions for the disciples.
I mean -- I just have never been a light packer. The reason that I drive a big SUV and have a car top carrier is precisely so that I don’t have to do a lot of extra planning and figure out my wardrobe in advance. I just take half my closet and sort it out when I get there.
But look what Jesus says about that:
We read that He told the disciples to, Take only a staff; no bread, no bag, no money – one pair of sandals and only one tunic to wear.
Well I pondered that last night as we made our lists of essentials for our trip next weekend to my nephew’s wedding in Lubbock. And I asked Sherry what she thought about the idea of us just traveling as the disciples.
You know, wearing the same clothes every day. Leaving our money behind – wearing sandals everywhere. Well, she just pretended not to hear me.
I don’t blame her. I can’t imagine how the disciples just picked up and went on their trip without packing anything. With no lodging reservations. And without their credit cards!
So it is difficult for us – particularly for me – to identify with Jesus’ instructions to them. Therefore, we need to look a little deeper at what Jesus is saying, in order to understand how we are to apply this lesson to our lives as Christians in today’s world.
Well, the first thing that I see is that Jesus was obviously sending out the twelve to get some practical experiences. They had been listening to him preach and teach, and they had seen him heal the sick and drive out demons from the possessed, and now it was time for them to put that training into practice. Time for them to start their transitions from students to leaders; from disciples to apostles.
And I imagine that the disciples probably felt a little under prepared. I know that I would. Are you sure that I am ready for this?
But Jesus obviously trusted them enough to send them out.
The same is true for us. We can only study and/or come to church and listen for so long. Because the purpose of all of this is to do ministry. Sooner or later, we must also put what we have learned into practice. And if Jesus has his way, it will be sooner rather than later. Notice that he is not big on the details. He says, “Just go and tell your stories of faith. Some will hear you and some won’t.” The important thing is to go.
Think about that. How often do we hesitate to speak up about our faith or decide not to volunteer to help with a ministry - because we don’t think we know enough to do it well? Or we worry about embarrassing ourselves? Our tendency is to over pack for the trip. But Jesus says, pack light – All you that you really need are your stories of faith and the power (the authority) that your faith gives you.
I read an interesting article about Pastoral care recently. And in it, the author (his name is Bruce Larson) talks about the principles that he uses in helping lay people get involved in pastoral care ministry. And one of his key principles is to actually limit the essential qualifications. In other words, he does not believe in an elaborate screening process. He says that he is basically interested in hearing their answers to these three questions:
1) Do you have a relationship with Jesus? Remember that Jesus didn’t ask Peter to recite the Old Testament. He asked him if he loved him.
2) Can you love others as God loves you? Again – Jesus said it often. Love one another as I have loved you. That especially means loving those that are hard to love – not just those who think the same way that we do.
3) Will you go proclaim the good news of God in Christ? Jesus said, go into the world in my name. And he didn’t follow that up by handing the disciples a tract to read, or having them watch a 20-part video series, did he? No. Jesus said to go and tell people what you have seen and heard. That simple.
Therefore, the basic lesson of Jesus’ packing instructions is that we don’t need a lot of preparation and fancy equipment to be about the Lord’s work. Jesus is saying that we are to be about our ministries in full knowledge that we don’t know everything that God is about.
But we do it as his disciples – as a community of believers who trust and love in Christ as Lord.
And who are willing to love others as ourselves.
Then we are sufficiently packed. And are ready to tell others about what we have seen and heard of God in our lives.
The other instruction that Jesus gives the twelve as he sends them out is how to react to a negative reception. The disciples were not to take it as a condemnation of themselves, but as a condemnation on those that rejected them. Remember in the reading last week that immediately precedes our lesson today, even Jesus himself had been rejected in his home town. The people there knew him too well as the carpenter’s son, to believe that he could be a prophet from God.
So maybe those words of scorn were still ringing in his ears when Jesus told his followers, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”
As a testimony against them.
Hear that? Therefore, this is not just an instruction to the disciples, but also as a warning to us as a community to be careful about whom we turn away – or ignore. Those who decline to receive the disciples . . . who refuse the strangers at their doors. Those who turn away from these strange men with a strange message – they are the ones who are left out of the kingdom.
That idea of receiving (or not receiving) a stranger at the door, reminds me of a movie came out a few years ago. You might remember it – it is titled Chocolat. It is an absolutely enchanting movie – if you haven’t seen it, then rent it – I highly recommend it.
The movie is set in a small town in France in 1959.
Now to say that this is a town that is mired in tradition is an understatement. The movie tells us very clearly that it is a town in which, “everyone knows their place in the scheme of things, and if anyone forgets what is expected of him, then there is always someone who will remind him or her.”
The town is watched over by a very proper man – a Conte – who is the mayor. And he also the moral policeman and the person who stops by to remind those who forget the rules – exactly what is the accepted way of life in the town. Except the problem is that their way life is . . . well, it is life-less. Because the people in the town have grown cold from their traditions. Nobody is smiling or having any fun. And the church scenes are particularly dreadful.
One of the things that is definitely expected of the townspeople is that they attend the local Catholic church. Now, I sort of like the idea of mandatory church attendance – I figure that it would take the pressure off coming up with a compelling sermon every week. However, the downside of mandatory attendance is obvious in the church scenes – church is definitely not a community of eager learners and alert listeners.
Well, things in town suddenly become interesting when a single mom moves to town with her young daughter to open a chocolate shop.
And while she is quite nice and pretty and careful not to break any laws, she is not at all willing to go along with many of the unwritten traditions. Such as going to church. And not only that – and very much to the mayor’s chagrin, she has the audacity to have the grand opening of her chocolate shop just as the holy season of Lent is beginning. Such a temptation at such an important time of denial!
Well, things progress on their own for awhile, but the mayor soon decides that for the wellbeing of the town, the newcomer must leave. She is causing way too much distraction and turmoil. And so with the use of a few well placed innuendoes (and outright lies) in the ears of certain people, he goes about trying to ruin the chocolate lady’s business.
But the worst part – at least for me – is that the young local priest is a lackey for the mayor – afraid to challenge his power. Not only does the priest not stand up for the little person who is being oppressed, he lets the mayor write his sermons for him. And of course these sermons are full of the hellfire and brimstone – compelling the people to repent against sin and to resist the temptations of the evil one. (With many obvious references that the temptation they are to resist most is chocolate)
The mayor assumes that the chocolate lady will just meekly close up shop and leave town, but she doesn’t. And interesting things begin to happen in the town, when she resists and refuses to give into the pressure from the powers that be.
And lo and behold, the town begins to change – very slowly of course – and just a few people at a time.
But it does begin to change, because the people start to re-examine their traditions. And they begin to see through the struggles of the chocolate lady how their traditions sometimes just serve the purpose of keeping people down – keeping them in their place - and elevating the status of the chosen few.
Well, I won’t tell you exactly how it ends – but the final showdown between the mayor and the chocolate lady ironically occurs on Easter Sunday. The day of the resurrection. And of all people, the young priest gets the final say (now you know why I think it is such a good movie).
Anyway, on Easter Sunday, the poor priest finally rips up the sermon that the mayor has written for him, and instead speaks from his heart – probably for the first time. And this is what he stands in the pulpit and says,
“Although it is Easter, I don’t want to talk about the miracle of the resurrection – the divinity of Christ. Instead, I would rather talk about his humanity – how he lived his life here on earth. (About) His kindness. His tolerance.”
The priest goes on, “We cannot measure our goodness by what we don’t do – by what we resist. And by who we exclude.
I think we have got to measure goodness by what we embrace. What we create. And who we include.”
I cannot say it better than that. We measure our goodness by what we embrace. What we create. And by who we include.
See, the welcome is the test. And even a community that is founded on the love of God – will shrivel and die if that love is not shared outside the community. And that is true of Grace as it is for any church.
Our vision statement at Grace Church is that through the grace of God, we will help each person experience God’s love and guidance.
That is a lofty vision – and only possible if we do more than just say hello to the people who visit here on Sunday. All of us are the welcomers of this church.
If we just come here to see our friends, or because this is where we think we are supposed to be on Sunday. Then we will become cold and unloving and tradition-bound people – just like that town in the movie.
So our message this morning is to be bold. To be part of a ministry – even if it is a little out of your comfort zone – and even if you are not sure that you are sufficiently prepared.
And to remember to receive the strangers at our door. In fact, better than that – go out as the disciples and bring them in.
And then, not only welcome them – but listen to what they have to say.
It may be the voice of God.