Jesus went around teaching from village to village.
Calling the Twelve to him,
he began to send them out two by two.
These were his instructions:
“Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.”
In the Gospel reading from Mark we just heard Jesus lays out some pretty clear and also very stark instructions for his disciples. He permits them to own sandals, a shirt, and a walking stick but nothing else. He instructs them to have no money, to stay as guests with other people, and to simply shake the dust off their feet and move on if people will not hear them.
Imagine what life would be like if we all, as disciples of Christ, lived the way he instructed those first twelve disciples to do. I think so often we forget that Jesus didn’t really call us to be comfortable, safe, and content. He never promised to make life easy and take away all our sorrows. He did promise, however, to give meaning to our sorrows and discomforts and to show us what is truly valuable in life.
You have to have a lot of faith in God to walk around with nothing but the most basic clothes and a stick. You have to really be ok with whatever God is going to bring you. It means you have to submit your comfort in exchange for His will. And I think this is one of the most essential things Jesus tried to teach us. He tried to show us that when we are living the truly holy life our values shift.
We no longer define good and bad as easy and hard or pleasant and painful. Jesus definitely showed us that what is good is not always pleasant. After all Good Friday wasn’t a very comfortable scene. But he does direct us as to what we should consider good (that is after we let go of our selfish need to be happy and comfortable all the time). He teaches us that faith in God and compassion for others is what the true good is.
To be a poor, wandering disciple of Christ (especially in those times) would have meant living almost like a wild animal. And that is disconcerting for a lot of us. Wild animals are constantly having to deal with things like the weather, predators, wondering where their next meal will come from, and never knowing what happens in the season finale of Dr.Who.
To us, in our comfortable little human world, it seems like a very difficult way of life. But our comfort comes at price, doesn’t it? We are constantly having to be clever. If you go by what the guidance counselors in high school say you have to have your whole life planned out by the time you’re 15.
We have taxes to file and bills to pay, we have to get the oil changed in our car and make sure the kids get to hockey practice, we have to get our hair cut and make sure we still have time to keep up with the walking dead. We put all our effort, our thinking, our love, basically our entire lives into maintaining this comfort we hold so dear. So where in this busy life do we have time for God?
I think that the passage from Matthew we read really holds true in our modern world. It is a beautiful reminder to live life one day at a time and to have faith in God and what he has in store for us. Jesus beckons us to live like the birds and to be more like the flowers in the field. He tells us that the natural world around us has it all figured out. It’s humans who have gone astray.
We have done everything we can to pretend we are above the rest of life. To create a space for ourselves that elevates us above the world God has made. What hubris! What arrogance we have to think that, out of our own cleverness, we have left the world behind and climbed our way up into Heaven. But we all know what happens when people try to build a tower up to God. The higher we climb, the harder we fall. And we can see that in the world now. Our modern world is a sort of tower of Babel and I think it is going to crash pretty soon.
I would even go so far as to say that we have become afraid of the natural world. Have you ever slept outside in the grass like a deer? Does that idea sound scary and weird to you? Would you ever drink water out of a stream like a bird? When did we become so far removed from this beautiful world God created for us?
And why can’t we just be comfortable and happy with life as it is like all of God’s other creatures? How did I ever get to the point where I can stare blankly into a fridge full of food and still feel like there is nothing to eat in the house? I am definitely not living life in the way Jesus told his disciples to.
I think the story of the fall in Genesis really illustrates this as well. Adam and Eve were living just like all of God’s other creatures. They were naked and eating the fruit they picked off the trees around them. It wasn’t until they tried to be more than God made them, to gain the knowledge of good and evil, that they were disconnected from the world around them and made to feel naked in their own skin and unsatisfied with who they were. God tells them as they are being exiled that from now on they will have to reap and sow in order to eat.
Well, agriculture is something we take for granted now, but there was a time when it was the epitome of human advancement. Reaping and sowing fields would have been to them like all our high-tech devices are to us today – a symbol of human ingenuity. I think that our expulsion from the garden is a metaphor. We are still in the garden, but we just see it differently.
The story of the fall is a commentary on the doubled edged sword which is our crafty nature. It helps us to ask the question “Is what we have gained worth what we have lost?” But there is another symbol in the story which is also important. God placed a flaming sword to prevent humanity from ever returning to the garden.
This means that whether we like it or not we can never go back to an existence without the knowledge we have now – we can’t unlearn. We made our bed and now we have to sleep in it. Luckily Jesus came to show us a light at the end of the tunnel. We may not be able to go back, but if we follow his example then we can move forward into the Kingdom of Heaven. We can learn to reconcile our cleverness with the natural world and realign our mental state so that we can live in harmony with nature once more.
To follow Jesus would have meant renouncing the highfalutin life of the Pharisees, the Romans, or the Egyptians and living more like a sheep in the pasture. Shepherds were very common then, not so much today.
But we can think of them like cowboys. In a lot of ways cowboys were the American shepherds. They lived out on the land with their livestock and weren’t involved in the pomp and circumstance of the people in town. Aside from the guns, liquor, and brothels they lived a life much more like what those first disciples of Jesus would have lived.
It makes me think of Johnny Cash, he sings an old cowboy song called “Oh, Bury me Not”. At the beginning of the song he adds a prayer (that I’m assuming he wrote but I don’t really know). My son and I recite it often before bed. I think Johnny Cash really does a great job of expressing that interconnection with nature that we are missing in our modern world.
With a poetic flare that I could never hope to emulate he describes what I think is the ultimate mystical experience. That is to completely be a part of the natural world and eternally grateful for a simple life. I would like to share it with you:
Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow
I loved creation better as it stood
That day you finished it so long ago
And looked upon your work and called it good
I know that others find you in the light
That sifted down through tinted window panes
And yet I seem to feel you near tonight
In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains
I thank you, Lord, that I am placed so well
That you have made my freedom so complete
That I’m no slave to whistle, clock or bell
Nor weak eyed prisoner of wall or street
Just let me live my life as I’ve begun
And give me work that’s open to the sky
Make me a partner of the wind and sun
And I won’t ask a life that’s soft or high
Let me be easy on the man that’s down
Let me be square and generous with all
I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town
But never let them say I’m mean or small
Make me as big and open as the plains
And honest as the horse between my knees
Clean as a wind that blows behind the rains
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze
Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget
You know about the reasons that are hid
You understand the things that gall or fret
Why, you know me better than my mother did
Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said
And right me sometimes when I turn aside
And guide me on that long, dim trail ahead
That stretches upward toward the great divide
So as you go about your life I encourage you to look upon every bird and every flower the same way Christ did, as perfect and in harmony with God’s will. Take our Lord’s advice and follow the example that they set for us. It is through and in nature that we come to understand God and ourselves. And it is only when we finally come to remember that we are a part of nature that the Kingdom of Heaven will be realized. All around us the natural world of God’s creation is singing praises to the heavens in perfect harmony with one another, it is our task to join them and praise God in unison with all creation.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.