If you watch TV or look at just about anything on the internet, you know they are filled with ads. Mostly the ads are selling a product. And the product comes with a dream of the good life if only we will buy it. I sometimes wonder if it is actually possible to live the life shown in the advertising dream. I wouldn’t mind having a big SUV driving in the mountains of New Zealand, or enjoying a cool drink on a white sandy beach somewhere in the tropics. Bring it on!
The problem is, only some Australians enjoy the advertisers’ dream. Most of us cannot afford it. Most of the world cannot afford it. And many silently carry some kind of burden that cannot be helped by having loads of money and material possessions.
Jesus did not want his followers to carry burdens. When Jesus sent out the 12 disciples to do what Jesus had taught them, he gave them the instruction to travel simply. Only in that way would they learn to trust in God rather than themselves. Only in that way could they hear the Father’s voice and discern how and where God was leading them. If they were going to help make God’s kingdom real, then they would need to live by kingdom values themselves.
We don’t often have the opportunity in today’s world to live simply. I remember the times when I took a holiday on my bicycle. Everything I took had to be carefully considered. So I would start by spreading out on the floor everything I would like to take. Then about ¾ of that would be put away again because there would be no room on the bike, or it would be too heavy. Then I would worry that I might really need that third pair of socks, and put it back in the pile to go. But finally I was out the door and worry free. Usually. On one holiday I took the train to Dover intending to cross the English channel by ferry. When I arrived in Dover I realised I had packed too much. I had to find a post office to send several things back home. I didn’t need them; they were heavy and took up too much space. As I came out of the post office, I felt even lighter and more free.
Why do we own so much stuff? Why do we need so much space? Who has the latest model smartphone or tablet or TV or game station? We are a product of our times, just like everyone else. It is my prayer that God knows that I was raised in this culture, so I tell myself that I hope he understands what I need in order to live within it.
But Jesus always points us to a better way, the way of life in his kingdom.
When Jesus sent the 12 out on mission he told them to wear sandals but not take an extra tunic, and take a walking stick but not any food or money. Where did Jesus get this idea? I think we can guess that was how he lived. He was setting his disciples up to be able to imitate him in his trust in the provision of God. They were going off on foot to country villages; we have the streets of a suburban, 21st century parish. Yet might our message not be more believable if we travelled in simplicity; and might we not learn to trust our heavenly Father for his wonderful provision if we carried less with us.
Jesus also gave his disciples a very simple message to share as he sent them out two by two. They were to preach the need for repentance. We might find it strange to make that our primary message. In the last century hand-waving preachers talked of hell fire and damnation. What won me over to adult Christian faith was hearing about the love of God in Jesus. Repentance soon follows, through the action of the Holy Spirit on a person’s heart. The world of today knows all about a judgemental God, which it rejects. But it knows very little about the God who is love. Travelling simply allows us freedom to focus our attention and love on those to whom we go, and to reach out to them without pre-conditions other than to seek the kingdom.
Jesus wanted his disciples to rely on the hospitality of others. This is more of that total dependency on God which Jesus had demonstrated in his life. He knew that the too burdened, the too worried, the too anything, find it hard to hear the voice of the Lord. In Nazareth, the place where he had grown up, Jesus was too familiar; they were used to him as the local boy and could not accept him as other than that. Can a church community become too used to worship, so overly familiar with religion that it no longer surprises or excites us? The church is always here. We know it and its message so well, yet it could become so familiar to the point that we no longer hear God within it.
In simplicity we unburden ourselves. It’s like my cycle holiday – taking time to spread everything out and look at what we think we need. And then prayerfully reconsidering and discarding.
There are very high levels of stress in this country. Stress is good when it stimulates human creativity. But too much stress comes from attempting to carry too many burdens. Even children experience depression in our generation. Persistent or long-term illness is a stressful burden, one that is not easy to lay down. Paul described the effect of his infirmity in our first reading. He says he was tormented by it, without telling us what it was. The Greek word for ‘torment’ literally means ‘to strike with the fist;’ Paul is telling us just how great a burden is a persistent illness or disability. Psychologically it is like being struck with a fist. It is difficult to impossible to hear the Lord speaking through such a burden.
Paul finally understood there was a purpose – that he might come to see that in his weakness, the power of Jesus might be made perfect in him. Otherwise Paul would be boasting about all his own accomplishments, and God would have been pushed out. This too is simplicity, the stripping away of pride that must happen in the presence of the Lord.
Jesus would be everything to us, if we would let him. But for that to happen, we will need to make sure that we take only our sandals, and no extra tunic. How we do that will be different for each one of us. Our stage of life will affect how we choose to live simply.
Living simply is a kind of self-denial. And yet we cannot forget that God has created pleasures for us to enjoy. We may think we are trapped in our lifestyle. So it becomes a matter of careful listening to God. We listen for the way the Spirit might be asking you or me to off-load something we are trying to carry but which we don’t really need. We can spread our life about us on the floor, as if we are going on a holiday, deciding with the Spirit of Jesus what to take and what to leave behind. Taking the sandals, yes, but just one tunic.