2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Here’s a piece of news, but it’s not the point of what I’m saying here: our son’s file has moved to the next step of the process, so we know we should be traveling to Korea sometime in four to seven weeks. Again, there’s no firm date, but we’re on to the next step of the process, and that has us thinking about travel and packing lists. Later this month, we’ll take a trip to Iowa, and we’ll take the things that are necessary and/or convenient. This will include some reading I probably won’t do, and some work I really should. In all likelihood, there will be stuff that travels a thousand miles and never gets touched. For our bigger trip, sometime late next month? We’ll pack very light, because we’ll be bringing home something big and squirmy. For that one, we ask the kind of question you ask before a wilderness camping trip: “Can I make it ten days without this thing?”

Packing light means bringing what you need to enjoy the journey, without bringing things that get in the way of truly being where you are. How you strike that balance depends, among other things, on the particular trip. The circumstances determine whether something is a necessity or a burden. For instance, I’m not taking my work computer to Seoul, but we’ll “need” my phone or Leanne’s iPod so we can video chat back home.

Jesus gives his disciples a particular packing list because he’s sending them on a particular mission: to announce the arrival of God’s kingdom and proclaim deliverance from sin and death. He takes his packing list straight from the book of Exodus. On the first Passover, the people were to carry a staff and wear their sandals, to be ready to get on the road as soon as God sets them free. Jesus tells his followers to pack so they can be on the move. They need sandals and a walking stick to keep up with God, and they need the authority to cast out demons so they can do God’s work on the journey. What’s not on the list is money, food, or spare clothes – none of their own resources.

It’s a strange packing list that includes poverty, weakness, and vulnerability. Most of us would prefer to leave these at home for smoother travels. Paul wanted to scratch his version of that from his packing list. He had what our translation calls a “painful physical ailment” – the idea could also be some bitter opposition in the church, or even spiritual doubts in himself – whatever precisely it was, it was a problem. Most of us have at least one of those troubles, don’t we? We know we could serve better, share better, be more whole, if only we didn’t have – fill in the blank – a disability, a chronic illness, an emotional scar. Paul had his own. He had prayed to have it taken away, and boy could he pray, but God declined to heal him. God said, “My grace is all you need.” God saw Paul’s weakness as an avenue for divine strength to work, as material for greater compassion and faith, as the context for a truer display of grace.

Jesus’ packing list had just grown to include vulnerability as well. Of course he had already taken on human frailty, but now he came up against his home town’s faithlessness. There’s something debilitating for Jesus in the townspeople’s lack of faith, so he can do no great miracles there. The story unfolds as if to demonstrate that Jesus is not leading a popular movement so much as witnessing to the sovereign grace of God. At the same time, it demonstrates God’s submission to human will. If nothing else, this incident spurred Jesus to send his disciples out where he couldn’t be heard; perhaps two of them even went back to Nazareth in Jesus’ place.

Jesus’ packing list reminds me of the Alcoholics Anonymous traditions. One of them is that there will be no affiliation with outside groups, because the AA mission is too important to dilute with someone else’s organizational issues. Another is the principle of public anonymity, which demands that an individual’s status should never be used for the benefit of the group. These two traditions, I think, are intended to balance each other. One provides for a single-minded focus on one purpose, but the other tries to ensure that no ego issues will turn the movement into an empire. The invitation is to go be people on a mission, but remember that it’s always about the mission, never about you.

It’s hard for me to nail down the church’s packing list quite so neatly, because our journey is harder to define. The mission is to believe the Good News and share it with others, but our individual good news becomes a shared question quickly, and much of what we must keep learning is how to share life with each other. For most of us, that life of faith includes issues of institutional health for the church, political implications for Christians in a democracy, and balancing communal priorities that don’t always obviously line up. We learn again and again that faith is hard work.

It’s because this life is so hard that we can never give up our weakness. We must never let go of our humility and our desire to understand each other, even and especially those we chafe against. We can never stop engaging the painful, broken, and ill parts of life. We shouldn’t push beyond what we can handle (the rule is first to do no harm), but we can seek the truth of our suffering. We should heal pain if that’s possible, but we should learn from it always. At our best, we can do both – we can resist suffering and grow through it at the same time.

Weakness and emptiness can look like many things. You know yours – an insufferable colleague, a chronic disease, or the person in the mirror. It’s natural and understandable to want release, or to want more strength so as to push through and change your world. Sometimes that happens, but sometimes it doesn’t come. Grace can look like that too, much of the time. God can be with us even in the places we least expect, even in our suffering, struggle, and pain.

So may we set aside the things that insulate us to our journeys, even when that means that the journey gets less comfortable before we learn its lesson. And always, may we pick up awareness, hope, and joy, by God’s abundant grace. Amen.