Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Old Testament Book of Amos he is admonished by the priest of Bethel to go home as his prophesying is no longer welcome. Amos replies by telling him that he was no prophet but was instead a shepherd who also looked after sycamores. But the Lord took him from that and ordered him to prophesy to Israel. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus ordered the Twelve to go out in pairs. They were given authority over unclean spirits. They were to take nothing except one pair of sandals, one tunic and one staff. They were not to any food or money. They were to stay in one house per district but if they were not welcomed they were to shake the dust from their feet. They preached repentance, cast out demons, and cured the sick.
A few years ago I was talked into joining the AARP (the American Association of Retired People). I was lured in with the promise of discounts where I eat, shop, and travel. But I’ve since learned that the overwhelming majority of the tonnage of mailings from them try to sell me insurance. They warn me of impending disaster if I get sick, drive my car, or travel. (They also want to sell me life insurance, which raises the question of why we sell insurance to protect against the risk of death, which we all know is going to happen).
Two thousand years after this Gospel was written we have gone in the opposite direction when we travel. We download maps and customer reviews of the place we’re going. We purchase travel insurance and make sure our car insurance will cover anything that happens. We make sure the power cords will work so we can charge our phone (which is also our camera, compass, weather maps, and source of dozens of apps).
And in fairness, most of the time our preparations work. Either nothing bad happens or something bad does happen and our insurance covers it.
But in our attempt to control our experiences may unintentionally rob us of the unexpected, of memories that will carry us for many years. Years ago I listened to the comedian Garrison Keillor read a letter to his mother. I couldn’t find copy but he had me with this line: “Mother, everything you told me went in one ear and down my spine.” I nearly drove off the road. He went on to say that because of his mother’s obsession with preparation he was no longer able to fully enjoy a sunset without planning his route home to avoid traffic jams.
On another topic, don’t even get me started on what to pack for a trip. Years ago many airlines learned that transporting our luggage (baggage) was a gold mine for them. They figured out that many of us don’t pack just for days but also for possibilities (I’ll pack a suit in case I meet someone). Suitcases have become so large and numerous that we now have wheels on them so we don’t need to carry them.
Let’s look at this in contrast to Jesus’ command to the Twelve that they should not even carry the basics of what they need. Forget a spare tunic in case theirs ripped or was ruined, they didn’t even carry money or food and depended on the generosity of people they hadn’t even met. Not only did they not have money, they didn’t even have Apple Pay.
So what did they have? Jesus gave them authority over unclean spirits and they did cast out many devils. But he also gave them each other and this should not be overlooked. Traveling in pairs gave them protection but it also gave them community, the ability to learn from each other, to appreciate each other, and to respect each other. When they did lodge with a family, they stayed with them their community grew.
Since I preach only on the first reading and the Gospel I almost never have the chance to talk about Paul and his letters to various communities. But even a cursory reading of Paul shows the relationships and affections he gained on his travels to towns that we all know about: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and so many more. Paul’s travels (often with his companion Barnabas) wove together people of many towns and began the process of the worldwide faith that we now recognize.
And less I sugar coat this, these travels were not always easy, or even successful in the short run. Our first reading comes from the book of Amos, a minor prophet many of us may never have heard of. He is often called the “social justice” prophet because he challenged many of those he met, particularly the wealthy. He told them that God does not accept their sacrifices if they deal harshly with the poor. When Martin Luther King used to proclaim: “Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” he is quoting Amos. My guess is Amos often had to shake the dust from his feet when he left town.
But where does that lead us? I doubt many of us feel called to travel like the Twelve or Amos but we are called to build community. If we’re not called the cure the sick then we are at least called to encourage them. God knows during the COVID lockdown many felt isolated and alone and many of us reached out through safe, if wearying, media. I doubt many of us will expel demons but we can build communities that encourage healing from addiction, the modern form of possession.
We are not a people, either by design or discipleship who are called to isolation. We are called to build community, even if it’s one at a time.