Brief synopsis of the readings: Amos brings us our first reading. Here the prophet is dismissed from the land of Bethel and told to return to Judah and proclaim his message there. Amos responded that he was no prophet but that the Lord took him from his role as a shepherd and demanded that he “prophesy to my people Israel.” In Mark’s Gospel Jesus summoned the Twelve, sending them off in pairs and giving them authority over unclean spirits. On this journey they were to take nothing except a staff; no food or money. They were allowed one tunic and a pair of sandals. He instructed them to enter a house and stay as long as they were welcome. If a place did not welcome them they were to walk away and shake the dust of that place from their feet. They did this and cast out many demons and cured many sick.
I write this a few days after returning from a trip across the United States for a family reunion. I live in a time and a place where travel is incredibly easy, and yet I spent several hours preparing for the trip. I made the plane reservations, Google mapped the place to meet my family and figured out how to get from the airport.
And then there’s the packing. It was a short enough trip that I was able to fit everything in a small suitcase that was TSA compliant. As I was packing I thought about famous pilgrimages from the past. When we think about Louis and Clark exploring the Northwest of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase in 1804 or the race to summit Mt. Everest in 1953 we read about how much stuff they had to carry and how many people they hired to carry that stuff. It reminds me of the late comedian George Carlin and his comedy bit “A Place for My Stuff.” It’s hilarious. In part of his routine he talks about traveling and the challenge of taking some of your stuff with you and worrying that you will lose some of your stuff. You can find this on You Tube.
And with apologies to George, for most of our history most of us didn’t have the ability to travel. We were born, lived, and died within a few miles of the same place. And, frankly, this was true for Jesus. The Gospels don’t give us an exact map, but we believe he was born in Bethlehem, fled to Egypt as an infant, grew up in Nazareth, and died in Jerusalem.
It’s likely that most of Jesus’ followers did not envision a life that pushed their boundaries much more than this but they were wrong. While they interacted with Roman soldiers from far away they probably believed that they would not wander far from Jerusalem. But Jesus had much bigger dreams for them. And his dreams encompassed not only distance, but also trust.
It was a small group, only the Twelve, and Jesus gave them power to expel unclean spirits. But he also gave them instructions that they were not to pack for their trip. They were, in a sense, not to have to find a place for their stuff because they weren’t permitted to have stuff. No food, no money, no spare tunic. And they wore sandals so they could shake the dust from them when they weren’t welcome. You have to think that this reading drives the travel industry insane.
When we read this Gospel I think most of us look through the eyes of evangelization: Jesus unleashed his followers on the world to bring the truth to them. And there is wisdom in that. Since this reading Christians have enveloped the world with the message of salvation to the point that it’s hard to imagine that any corner of our world has not heard of Jesus, even if they don’t follow Christianity.
But if we think of evangelization as one way, as a method to bring the truth to those in ignorance, we lose something. We don’t know how far Jesus’ disciples went, but we have legends. Andrew went to modern day Turkey and Greece, Thomas proclaimed Jesus in modern day India, several went to modern day Iran, etc. As I said, we know almost nothing of what really happened.
But I like to think that as these apostles traveled to far and distant lands they learned as well as taught. Religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam began in a specific place and time, but as they grew and aged they needed to learn to adapt. They needed to both teach and learn. Jews have strict teachings on what meat is kosher, but what do they do about meat that Moses never imagined? Muslims fast during daylight in the month of Ramadan, but what if you live in Alaska and Ramadan coincides with July? Christians believe that all life is sacred, but where do we place birth control?
I’m choosing 21st Century issues, but we all grapple with the concept of finding our faith relevant in the face of new realities. In a sense we would have easier lives had the world not changed from the place and time of our Scripture, but Jesus was clear that this wasn’t an option. He charged his followers to go to strange places, meet people with different customs and traditions, and embrace them. A faith that does not change when it expands in place and time is doomed.
I’m aware that I write this against a background that does not value this. In the last few years many of the most powerful nations on earth have embraced xenophobia, the belief that those who don’t look like us pose a threat. We need to keep them away from ourselves and our stuff. I’ve written about this before, but 17 years ago when we moved into our current home I saw signs and stickers for four different alarm services. Every morning we see that wealthy nations have turned away unseaworthy boats while others boast about tearing apart families under the guise of enforcing the law.
Simply put, xenophobes have no place with those who read this reading. Those we don’t know have much to learn, but also much to teach. I believe Jesus’ command to carry only one tunic, no money, and no food, forced his followers to encounter those they met. Their teaching may have earned their keep but it also brought together those who they otherwise would never have met. Jesus recognized that evangelization does not mean “the learned teach the ignorant” but instead that we reach our best selves when we learn from each other.
Let’s not be xenophobes.