I was only the second person in my family to go to college. It was a big adventure. And the process of packing was an ordeal. What to take? I have been a voracious reader since my mom caught me reading “The Bobbsey Twins” under the covers with a flashlight. Do I take all the books I love? Do I take “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Story of a Soul,” the autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux? (The answer to this question was, “No.” In college you acquire additional tons of books, so you don’t take all your favorite books, especially if you are a bookworm.) Do I take all my music? Which, for a college girl in 1978 meant vinyl AND cassettes AND 8-track tapes. (The answer to this question was a qualified “Yes;” the 8-track tapes got left behind—in more ways than one.) And clothes… you leave for college in the summer, and by the time you come home for Thanksgiving break it is practically winter! So do you take all those clothes? (For me, the answer was “Yes.” And it is this single fact that necessitated the upgrade from driving to Boston in my parent’s car to the rental of a small U-Haul truck.)
What do we really need, when we hit the road, when we say, “Here we go!” and where we’re going takes us on a brand new adventure? My friends and I played a game in college that involved naming the five essentials we would want to take to a desert island—usually, five essential books, or recordings, the assumption being, I survive, that we would be able to survive on our own, a la Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” To which my older, wiser self replies, Yeah, right.
Which I imagine might be something akin to what the Twelve said at the prospect of going on their missionary journey. Usually when I speak of Jesus’ friends and followers, I use language as inclusive as possible. I say things like, “Jesus’ friends and followers,” because the gospels tell us that there were many more than “the Twelve” gathered around Jesus. At times, his followers were in the hundreds. But in this passage from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus sends the “Twelve,” meaning, the twelve apostles. That’s what “apostle” means, “one who is sent.” And here, the twelve are living into that definition. They are being sent with the message of the gospel, into the world.
Now, they are being sent, this first time, on a relatively modest expedition. Go nowhere near the Gentiles, Jesus says, and stay away from those scary Samaritans. Don’t go to any places where a hostile reception is more or less guaranteed. Instead, go to the lost sheep of Israel—in other words, go to be among “our own people.” People to whom the apostles are already related, their own tribes. Twelve tribes. Remember, way back in the late winter, early spring, when we were talking about Matthew’s gospel, and his eagerness to paint Jesus as the “new Moses?” Here he goes again: just as Jesus as the “new Moses,” the twelve apostles and their mission to the twelve tribes are making up the “new Israel.”[i]
But packing for this trip is an ordeal of a different kind. No U-Haul required. I remember when my parents opened a checking account for me, and taught me how to use it. But, Jesus says, Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts. Take no checkbooks or ATM cards. I’ve already mentioned the mammoth haul that required not only a truck but by brother’s willingness to lift and carry and relocate. But, Jesus says, Take no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff. Don’t take your prom gown, “just in case.” I recall the college meal card, and mastering the art of making it last for the full semester, but the twelve are, evidently, going to have to depend on the kindness of strangers, for laborers deserve their food, Jesus says. Implying, that it will be supplied—not brought along in Tupperware containers.
Who, in their right mind, would agree to such working conditions? The apostles are being sent on a mission with what appears to be exactly nothing. Only themselves, and the clothes on their backs.
And what they are supposed to do? Well, proclaim the Good News, Jesus says, Tell those lost sheep, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.
Oh fine. Just go about Galilee being Jesus? Is that what he’s asking? Is he serious? And it’s true. Jesus has been going all around Galilee and points beyond, and he has been sharing this news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near,’ which is polite and pious Jewish shorthand for ‘The kingdom of God has come near.’ Which is Jesus’ way of saying, ‘Here I am.’
Jesus is the kingdom of God come near. Jesus is healing, and life-giving, and accepting the people who were otherwise considered unacceptable—like the demon-possessed and the lepers. Jesus embodies all these things, all without benefit of his dog-eared copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” or his lucky baseball glove or any extra baggage whatsoever. He is all these things in himself, and by sending them out with absolutely nothing, he tells the twelve, You are too. You are all these things.
And so he sends them out, to embody the dawning kingdom of God. That time and place—already here, and not quite here—when we will all be healed, and we will all be given new life, and we will all be accepted. He sends them out to accomplish all these things without the benefit of a mobile army surgical hospital or a tony spa in the Adirondacks. He sends them out without a whole lot of training, and even fewer provisions. He sends them out to simply be themselves, and to bring healing and new life and acceptance for all God’s children with them. Because that is how we go about proclaiming the Good News: we do it with our own lives. This is that wonderful advice attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”[ii]
But, you know, as reassuring as all that is—that we can embody the gospel, that we can bring new life like Jesus did, etc. etc.—as reassuring as all that is, the prospect of actually doing the thing still paralyzes us. Doesn’t it? Who here has their 2-minute long elevator speech ready to go? You know, the short pitch to invite people to your church? Or, even bolder, to tell them why you love Jesus? Anyone?
If we feel daunted—well, we can start small. One-cup-of-cold-water-small. Did you catch that part? If going out armed with only your sweet self and the clothes on you back and the joy, joy, joy, joy down in your heart is just too much to contemplate—well, just consider welcoming someone else who is doing that, by giving them a cup of cold water when they’re thirsty. No, not even that—giving a cup of cold water to a “little one” who knows someone who’s spreading the gospel. That’s it! That’s our way in. The kingdom of God/ kingdom of heaven is so vast, so unfathomably enormous. And we get to participate in it by starting small, by starting right where we are, right here, right now. With what we can do, now. We can give a cup of cold water.
So here we go! Because, you knew it, didn’t you—we are being sent, just like the twelve. And we don’t need special training or provisions. We don’t need a seminary education, or a million dollars, or the “right” program. All we need is to have been paying attention, to who Jesus is, and what Jesus does. All we need is the willingness to be who and what God made us to be, and to let our genuine selves bring forth God’s healing, and new life, and acceptance for all God’s people. All we need is the willingness to pour out a cup of cold water for someone who thirsts, and to know—this, right here, right now, is God’s kingdom, breaking through. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Stephen Butler Murray, “Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-23): Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 3, Pentecost and the Season After, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 140.
[ii] Fr. Pat McCloskey, OFM, “Great Saying But Tough to Trace: Did Saint Francis Really Say That?” in Saint Anthony Messenger, October 2001. Original quote: “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.” http://www.americancatholic.org/messenger/oct2001/Wiseman.asp