By now, most if not all of you have heard the news coming out of the just-concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Among many other resolutions passed and the election of a new presiding bishop, the items that got the most attention outside of the church from the mainstream media, were the resolutions concerning marriage—the change in the canons, removing the reference to man and woman in the definition of marriage, and the approval for trial usage of new rites for marriage.
We are not of one mind on these issues. Some of view these changes positively, as signs the church is responding to cultural change, embracing and welcoming diversity. Others are much more cautious, even opposed, struggling to understand how these changes fit in with scripture and tradition. While Bishop Miller has suggested that congregations may use these rites when they become available on the first Sunday of Advent this year, as a congregation we will have to discern where we are and how we might move forward together as the body of Christ.
If you are interested in this issue, I encourage you to stick around after service today and join me in the library for a conversation. Bring your questions and concerns as we talk together about the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church as well as marriage equality. This conversation is not just about gender and sexuality, it is about hospitality and mission, two themes that find resonance in today’s gospel.
Jesus comes home in the first section of today’s reading and isn’t welcomed with open arms. Remember that he has been on the road, visiting the towns and villages of Galilee, but also crossing the lake and working in Gentile territory as well. He has healed people, raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, cast out demons, and taught crowds. Now he’s home, enters the synagogue on the Sabbath and preaches. The response from the community is astonishment. They know this guy, he’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary. They know his family and wonder where he gets off talking with such authority and performing the mighty acts they’ve heard about. Their response of astonishment and offense seem to limit Jesus’ ability; instead of performing “deeds of power” similar to those he has done elsewhere, in his hometown, he only heals a few people by laying hands on them.
Jesus resumes his itinerant ministry, teaching and healing, and as he does, he commissions the twelve to share in that ministry. Like Jesus, they traveled about, healing the sick, casting unclean spirits, and preaching repentance. Indeed, these are precisely the same activities that Mark shows Jesus doing in the preceding chapters. The disciples become an extension of Jesus’ himself, proclaiming the coming of the reign of God, and in their actions, offering a foretaste of that reign.
But there’s more. In addition to sending them out and empowering them, Jesus gives them instructions on what to take with them and what to do. They’re to take no provisions with them, no bread or money, to wear sandals and not even carry a change of clothes. In fact, so puzzling are these instructions that when telling the story, Matthew and Luke change the details. In Mark they are to carry a staff and wear sandals; in Matthew and Luke, they are forbidden either sandals or a staff. But all three agree that if they come to a place that rejects them, they are to leave, and as they leave, shake the dust off of their sandals, symbolically demonstrating their rejection of that place.
On one level, these instructions reflect a central concern in the first century or so of Christianity, the local community or congregation responsibility to provide for its leaders, especially for itinerant evangelists. Paul addresses such issues in his letters, stressing at times that he was paying his own way; and in Christian sources outside the New Testament, we see similar instructions for the lifestyle of evangelists. And over the centuries, these instructions have provided inspiration for movements like that led by St. Francis of Assisi, who sent his followers out two by two, and instructed them to wear sandals, no belt, and take no money with them.
We may get caught up in the specificity and simplicity of Jesus’ instructions as well as the dramatic image of disciples shaking the dust from their sandals as they leave a place that rejected them. These details reflect two larger themes that deserve our attention. First, mission. The very word comes from the Latin word, “to send.” Here Jesus sends the twelve out. They are doing the very things that Jesus has done; they are extending his ministry, his proclamation, his presence, and his healing, in places where he cannot go. They are expanding his influence and message.
The second theme is hospitality. Jesus is not welcomed back home—they take offense at him—and apparently because of this response, he is unable to do in his hometown all of the things he can do elsewhere. Jesus instructs the twelve on how to receive hospitality, and what to do if they don’t receive it. It’s that aspect of hospitality that we don’t often think about.
When we talk about hospitality, we tend to emphasize how open or welcoming we are or should be. We think about how we greet newcomers, how we embrace people unlike ourselves. All of that is important, of course but it comes from a position of privilege. We are the ones to whom guests come, we are the ones opening our doors, inviting others in. That’s not what Jesus was talking about here. He was giving instructions on how to receive hospitality.
The disciples he sent out had almost nothing—no food or money, nothing by the clothes on their back, their staff and sandals. They were dependent on the kindness of strangers, for shelter and for food. As recipients of hospitality, they were vulnerable. It’s not a comfortable place in which to find oneself, as anyone who has ever had to ask for help can tell you.
Can our hospitality embody such vulnerability and openness? Can we let go of our privilege and comfort and welcome the possibility of change when we welcome the stranger? Can we be open to their gifts and experiences, open to relationship based on vulnerability and openness, rather than requiring them to conform to our expectations?
We have talked a great deal about hospitality here at Grace; we are talking about issues of diversity and welcome, of reaching out to our neighbors, but most of those conversations are one-sided. We are talking to each other, but not to people beyond our congregation. We are thinking about how we might be more welcoming and do more outreach in our neighborhood and the community but what we are not asking people outside our doors what their needs, and gifts, are. Can we receive what they have to tell us?
Hospitality and mission; there’s something else we ought to reflect on in all of this. We see Jesus rejected because apparently his preaching offended the townspeople. We see Jesus telling his disciples what to do if they’re rejected when they come in his name. Can we imagine ourselves offending others in Jesus’ name? Can we imagine being rejected because we have said, or done things, that make our neighbors uncomfortable?
The most discomfort we might have is hearing these words of Jesus, as he tells his disciples, tells us, to go out and do his work, to travel lightly, to receive what others have to offer, to be ready to receive rejection. It may be uncomfortable, but Jesus is sending us out. When we say the prayer after communion, we accept that responsibility, “Send us now into the world in peace … to love and serve you.” May we accept that mission, may we do his work.