Many years ago now Real Simple magazine ran an issue on the kindness of strangers. Readers had submitted short reflections detailing their own encounters. One couple described backpacking through Europe in their early twenties, running out of cash, and needing a place to stay in from the rain. They received accommodations, a delicious meal, and cash from a farmer in France. A few people described road trips that had gone south—like a flat tire or a blown head gasket—and the people who had stopped to help them. There were stories about hospital visits and plane rides and messy divorces all about the times someone else helped them. Each time people described strangers who had shown empathy, care, and kindness.
A sermon based on Mark 6.
As a child of the 70s and 80s, I remember all too well the dark silhouetted image of the “Stranger Danger” man in advertisements—you could see only his black hat and the empty eye holes in his black mask as he peers over a turned up collar on a trench coat. The message centered on child safety, but it really just freaked me out. Of course nowadays we realize all too well that it’s often people we know who pose the biggest risk of danger both to us or our children rather than some random stranger—who, by the way, wouldn’t bother wearing a mask or flipping up his collar. You’d think we’d know that we shouldn’t fear those we deem other in some indiscriminate way just because we haven’t met them, yet, we tend to internalize that “stranger danger” message, and tend to be wary of people we don’t know.
We see this play out in our gospel lesson this morning. Jesus has returned to his hometown after beginning his ministry in the surrounding area. While he was away, he healed many who were sick including Peter’s mother-in-law, a man with leprosy, the guy with a withered hand, and the woman with the 12 year hemorrhage. Back at home on the Sabbath, Jesus went to his local synagogue—the house of worship where he had grown up and had his bar mitzvah—and he began to teach them. Immediately these ones who knew him best began asking questions. “Where did he get all this learning? Isn’t this just the carpenter? Mary’s son?” they ask, proving yet again that it’s the ones who know you best who know how to stick it to you. Notice how Jesus is called “Mary’s son” and not “Joseph’s son” as Luke does in his gospel. In those years since his birth, questions still linger about Mary getting pregnant before the wedding. These ones assembled know Jesus intimately, and they see him as just an illegitimate carpenter, certainly not a teacher or rabbi, and they took offense at him.
And because of they refuse to see and know him in a new way, Jesus is unable to do any deeds of power, except to lay hands on a couple of sick people. Mark simply tells us that Jesus is amazed at their unbelief. He can do nothing else so he leaves home, and begins teaching in the neighboring villages.
That message of the kingdom of God that he proclaims carries such importance that Jesus calls the twelve to him in order to send them out to share it too. He tells them to bring nothing for their journey—no bread, bag, or money, not even a change of clothes. They are simply to travel around and depend on the hospitality of others. Some—like Jesus’ hometown crowd—might reject them and their teaching. If so, the disciples are told to simply shake the dust off their sandals and move on, not allowing the rejection to take up space in their heads. Instead they should simply receive the goodness of strangers who welcome them in and offer food and shelter. That gift of welcome and kindness would sustain them as they delivered Jesus’ words of love and healing and hope.
Personally, I don’t like being dependent on others for their kindness. I’d rather be the one offering the hospitable act. I like to prepare the meal, host the dinner party, and entertain guests. I feel awkward in someone else’s home, especially since I get up early and like coffee soon after. I know where to find what I need in my own home, but if I’m somewhere else and everyone’s sleeping for a couple of hours more, the last thing I want to do is bang around in a strange kitchen opening drawers and whatnot. And if I do go somewhere else, I like to be prepared with all my creature comforts, like bringing a Starbucks VIA pack to make a quick coffee. But that’s not what Jesus tells his disciples. He instructs them to leave everything behind, virtually forcing them to rely on someone else. Without money, bread, or even an extra tunic to cover themselves if they ended up camping out, they would have to swallow their pride and accept what was offered to them.
For too long we’ve been taught that we can be self-reliant in this country. It is not lost on me that today we celebrate Independence Day. While our forebears claimed our collective independence from Britain 245 years ago, it began a streak of rugged individualism in our nation that continues to this day. It’s a fallacy of course both individually and collectively: on the home front, our collective tax monies pave our roads, teach our kids, ensure health care for our seniors, and fund our fire and emergency responders. In the wider world, we rely on science developed in other countries, trade goods and services with countries around the globe, and enjoy the ability to simply travel.
But even acknowledging all of that, I still imagine that I can make it primarily on my own. But Jesus instructions to his disciples seem to say something different, that I am called to rely on others. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed this in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” None of us is truly independent in this life. Imagine purchasing broccoli from the supermarket. From the worms that aerate the soil, the farmer who plants the seed, the bees that pollinate the flower, the immigrants who pick the produce, the driver who delivers the crate, and the store clerk who stocks the shelf, I am reliant on an entire chain of humans and animals for one ingredient in my dinner. And that’s just a tiny part of my day. Think of all the people who’ve impacted the life of an important friend—their parents and relatives, the teachers and mentors, the coaches and librarians and on and on.
You and I are caught up in a network of mutuality with all those who reside in this country, and in our world. What affects one, affects us all. On the day when we celebrate our Independence, we are reminded that we are in fact dependent. We are unable to go it alone. Jesus sends out his followers seemingly ill-prepared in the way of belongings and well-prepared when it comes to a message of love and grace to show them—and us—that discipleship depends on community. That faith is not a solo endeavor, but a team sport.
How might we do that more in our own lives? How might we come to show our dependence on others and open ourselves up to their generosity? Perhaps being honest about our need might be a place to start. To give voice to the places in our lives where we could use support. No one will know of our struggles if we do not speak up.
And then we should receive with gratitude that which is offered to us. To accept and not worry if our quirks will bother others, or if we somehow don’t deserve their care. Friends, it’s not a matter of deserving, but one of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Of opening ourselves up to the kindness of others, including those we may deem strangers.
I suspect if we do so, we’ll have our own stories to tell about the goodness of others, and how a generous act changed our lives. In those moments healing and forgiveness and grace abound all the more. May we show hospitality to others, but may we even more open ourselves up to it. The way of Jesus is the way of dependence on each other, for it is only together that we see fully the joys of the kingdom of God.