July 4th, Interdependence Day, is almost here. Wait, did I spell that correctly? Well, according to Jesus, I believe I did.
An experienced backpacker once wrote that you should prepare for a hike by making two piles. The first pile should contain only those things you absolutely cannot live without. In the second pile put the things you would like to have but aren’t absolutely essential, you know things like a battery-operated television and a propane refrigerator. Now, what you do next is you discard everything that is the second pile, pick up the first pile and head for the woods.
Unfortunately, too many people have interpreted today’s Gospel as a sort of camper’s guide for evangelism. When Jesus has his disciples hit the road with the message that the “Kingdom of God is near,” he tells them to carry no purse, no bag, and no sandals. It is quite natural for us to think that what Jesus is doing here is akin to telling his followers to discard everything that is in pile number two, pick up the first pile and head for the woods. It’s so easy for us to think that this is Jesus’ way of telling them how to get everything they need into the back of a Mini Cooper for the job of evangelizing their communities.
The fact is Jesus’ instructions here had nothing to do with the practicalities of packing for a journey; they had nothing to do with avoiding the encumberments and trappings of the physical life as you go forth to preach a spiritual message. Believe it or not they also had nothing to do with identifying with the poor. Jesus’ disciples didn’t have to go out of their way to identify with the poor. They were in fact dirt poor themselves. No, Jesus knew that the act of going from town to town carrying no purse or bag was in and of itself a profound symbol of his primary teaching!
The words we translate as “purse” or “bag” would probably be better translated as “backpack.” It was commonplace for ancient philosophers and prophets to throw a bag over their shoulders, and in those bags were all their possessions. The dual function of these bags was that they provided storage, and they symbolized complete self-sufficiency – complete independence from the rest of the world. Jesus, on the other hand, traveled across every known border and boundary and went out of his way to share common meals with peasants and privileged alike, with true believers and non-believers, with outsiders and insiders. He was open to receiving their hospitality. In fact, he depended on their hospitality, and he did so on purpose. By telling his disciples what not to carry on their missionary journeys, Jesus was trying to show them the value of interdependency.
There is an often-told story that succinctly shows forth the value and meaning of interdependence. Many years ago, an accomplished organist was giving a concert. (In those days someone had to pump large bellows backstage to provide air for the pipes.) After each selection, the musician received the thunderous applause of a delighted audience. Before his final number, he stood up and said, “I shall now play,” and he announced the title of his final selection. Sitting down at the console, he adjusted his music and checked the stops. With feet poised over the pedals and hands over the keys, he began with a mighty chord. BUT THE ORGAN REMAINED SILENT. Just then, a voice was heard from backstage, “NEXT TIME SAY ‘WE’!” The talented musician on the organ and the man pumping the bellows backstage are interdependent!
Jesus wanted his missionaries to stand in stark contrast to the symbol of self-sufficiency and independence. For at the heart of God’s kingdom was reciprocal acceptance and therefore reciprocal healing. So, Jesus says, “carry no purse, no bag.” His followers are to be walking demonstrations not of independence, but of interdependence!
Isn’t it interesting that this Gospel should fall on a Sunday so near Independence Day in the United States? But I would submit to you, that there really is no contradiction here, for what has made the United States great has not been our ability to secure our borders, but rather that we have taken in the poor and the tired; that we have so often allowed ourselves to be porous to the non-discriminating, all-inclusive love of Jesus Christ. America is a great nation because we have dared to collectively cling to the vision of “liberty and justice for ALL,” and men and women far braver and nobler than I have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for that vision. Looking back in American History, we really have been at our best when we have “crowned our good with brotherhood” and when we have loved mercy more than life.
My dear friends in Christ, our prayer for this Independence Day, in light of today’s Gospel, should be that we never permit fear to so overcome us such that we are rendered incapable of praying, as Katherine Lee Bates prayed so many years ago: “God mend our every flaw.”
I’m sure you have seen the phrase placed on banners that hang on the walls of Christian churches and are printed on bumper stickers from sea to shining sea: “Turn America Back to God.” That is not theological language that I would choose for myself because I believe in a relentlessly pursuing God who follows me even into the darkest corners of my life.
But, putting that aside for just a moment, I would say that if Christians are really serious about aligning themselves with God, then they would do well to remember that their primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God as Jesus describes it. It is a citizenship in a kingdom where interdependency and across-the-board communion are constitutional standards.
As most of you know only too well, if there’s anything we Episcopalians do well, it would be finding reasons to eat together. Whether it’s using the season of Lent as an excuse to have a bowl of soup together or holding a potluck because the bishop is visiting. It doesn’t matter. I believe it’s a healthy sign because I think it shows that we understand that at the very heart of our faith is interdependency.
So Shrove Tuesday Pancake Suppers, Small Group Dinners and Coffee Hours are all blessed sacraments, sacred signs of a greater vision and hope, a vision and a hope that is focused intensely in the Celebration of Holy Eucharist each week, a vision and a hope that one day none of God’s people will have any need for a backpack, because like the scattered grains of wheat that come together to form the one Communion bread, we will ALL come together to be seated at the same table, sharing of what we have and who we are, and being able to see in everyone on either side of the table and across the table, an incredible image of our Gracious Host. The Kingdom of God is THAT nearby.
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