"Travelling Third Class"
About thirty years ago, I taught Sunday School with a woman who had a view of life that was joyous, accepting and affirming. One day we were talking about her experiences as a teacher in a remote part of India, working for CIDA. She was in her early twenties then, and she was describing her travels in that country.
“I always went third class, on the train. First class was for wealthy people, second class wasn’t much better than third class, and filled with tourists. Third class was where the fun people were: ordinary people, with their children, and sometimes a goat or a cage of chickens. I made friends, and everyone shared their food with me. I travelled with only a few personal things, and an extra cotton sari. When the train stopped for an hour or two, everyone would get off to stretch their legs, make a few purchases, and many women would go down to a secluded spot by the water, change into a clean sari, rinse the other one out, and spread it to dry in the sun. By the time the train was ready to leave, we were all fresh for the rest of the trip.”
I thought of Sue as I was reading the Gospel, and suddenly connected with her in my heart, as I remembered some of my travels in the Northern part of this province, when I was called to serve the Central Mainland Marine Ministry about fifteen years ago. It used to be the Thomas Crosby ministry, with a boat that went up and down the coast, visiting small first nation’s communities and lighthouses. By the time I was appointed, the boat had been sold, the lighthouses had been automated, and I had to get around on ferries, fishing boats, and float planes. I learned to travel light. It was not first class by any means, and many times, I would set out from Terrace, drive to Prince Rupert and then just hope that the weather would cooperate to get me to my destination.
I fell in love with the little float planes. Usually, there would be room for the pilot and one other person in the front, and either three or six in the back. I never held any chickens on my lap, but I did have to hold a large plastic bag with a bunch of goldfish in it. The other passenger was carrying a huge aquarium, as a surprise for his daughter. And then there was the time with the cake. Most of the cargo was stuffed in a small area in the back of the seats, but if there was something really big, it had to go on the passenger’s laps. So three of us stuffed ourselves into the back seat, and then a huge bakery box from the Safeway in Prince Rupert was carefully passed along, and we had to hold it steady for 1 ½ hours on a bouncy trip to Hartley Bay, for someone’s granny’s 80th birthday party. We didn’t want to ruin the icing, after all.
On another trip, I travelled, down to Vancouver, then to Port Hardy, and took a third plane into Bella Bella. I stayed with the minister and his wife, and was supposed to be there for two days, and then get picked up by plane to go to Bella Coola, for the dedication of their new church. Well, it rained. And rained. A lot. My runners were soaked, and everything else was damp. On Saturday morning, we received a message that the plane might not make it because of fog, and I wouldn’t get to Bella Coola.
“Don’t worry”, the minister’s wife said. “The BC ferry comes by at about 11 pm tonight, and you can go as a walk-on passenger and get back to Prince Rupert tomorrow morning, and take the Greyhound bus back to Terrace. You won’t be able to get a sleeping cabin, but I’ll give you a nice thick blanket. Most people spend the night in the lounge, where there are sofas and a carpeted floor, but don’t go there because there will be partying all night. Just go into the cafeteria, move a couple of chairs out of the way, and roll up in the blanket under a table. No one will bother you. The kitchen staff won’t be in until 6:30 am, so you can get a good night’s sleep.”
It sounded like a good plan to me. My friend Sue would have enjoyed that. But the fog cleared and I got to Bella Coola.
In the Gospel of Mark, we often get to take journeys with Jesus. Mark is very fond of travel itineraries. No trains, planes or automobiles, not even a donkey; just a pair of sandals and a walking stick. No travel agents, or hotel reservations. Just stay in a friendly inn or home. And if no one wants you there, go someplace else. Move on.
Today’s passage is a combined description of Jesus in his hometown, and the disciples being sent out to other villages. It is only thirteen verses, twelve sentences, and with Mark’s amazing economy of words, one could preach all summer on the events that took place. It is rich with challenge for us today.
It begins with the story of Jesus teaching in the little synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. As often happened with him, he managed to offend some people, and just could not get the message across to many of his former acquaintances. You see, Jesus kept overstepping the lines, breaking the rules, moving out of his social status, and this made people uncomfortable.
So he decided to send his friends to other places, and gave them specific travel instructions.
They were to go in pairs, partly for safety on the road and partly, I think for friendly support. They were to heal people of “unclean spirits”, and anoint the sick. They were to proclaim the Good News, and bring a message of hope and repentance, encouraging people to turn their lives around.
He told them to travel light, and to depend on others for hospitality, food and lodging. They were not to move around in a village, but to stay in one place, perhaps so people could approach them more easily.
And if they found they were not welcome, they were to depart. They were only responsible for delivering and acting on the Good News, not for the responses of those around them.
What a valuable set of rules for living today.
We need to travel on our faith journey together, not alone. We need to depend on one another, support and trust each other. We are always called to heal, in many ways. Not everyone has medical knowledge, but we all have the ability to listen, to touch, to comfort and encourage, to bring food to the hungry and offer kindness to the stranger. The demons of our world, the unclean spirits, are on the news every evening. We need to confront them on behalf of others who are suffering, to be aware and in small ways involved in the repair of the world.
We are called to proclaim the Good News, not necessarily by doing a door to door sales pitch, but by the words and actions of our everyday lives. What do we stand for? How do we show it? What message do we give to our children and to those who are seeking, doubting, frightened, marginalized? We carry the Good News in our very being, we are “participants in the mighty acts of God.” That is both a heavy burden and a joyful responsibility.
Daily, we need to examine both our hope and our call to repent. Repentance is simply a turning around, going in another direction, making right the things that have been done wrong in the past. If something is not working, in our personal lives or our church, or our community or our nation, maybe it is time for change. Facing reality is not always easy; I think we all have moments when we want someone to wave a magic wand and make it go away. Well, you have the power, the authority and the wisdom to change things for the better. You are walking with God, every step of the way. You may stumble, you may even fall flat on your face, but you will be raised and supported as you take the next step.
And so Jesus tells his disciples: If you are rejected, don’t be discouraged. Get up and start over. Shake the dust from your sandals – leave the unpleasant experiences behind, so that they do not become heavy burdens on your journey. When he was questioned in Nazareth about his credentials, he didn’t give up. He expanded his mission. Reach out, and reach others. God trusts you to do this.
Travel light. It’s amazing what we think we need to get through life. Try to live more simply. This doesn’t mean you have to give away all your possessions, sell your house, take to the road and risk starvation and disease. It doesn’t mean abandoning your loved ones, or giving up the things that are important to you. This is the twenty first century, and our economy is based not on simple agriculture, but on production, distribution, and purchase. There is nothing wrong with that.
Travelling light means considering what is important. Maybe it means having a clear sense of purpose, and working together to achieve it. Eugene Petersen says “Don’t think that you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment.”(1) You can keep most of what you have, as long as you focus on the main message.
In Godly Play, we often ask the question “what can we leave out of the story and still have all the story we need?” The joy in life comes from celebrating the basics, not the frills. We need to travel in third class: to put aside our prejudices, our fears, our expectations of comfort and privilege, to embrace what we can learn from people who are different, and to rejoice with them as we journey together. Travelling third class does not mean being condescending, it means leaving your comfort zone, and taking some risks. It may mean learning new things, having contact with other cultures, trying new food, and accepting a different worldview. We are all people of God, we share this world, and I think that it is only by working together that we will make it a better place.
Just look at your announcement page, and you will see how much this congregation carries out the call of Jesus: the lunch programme in Whalley, the anticipation of welcoming a family from Syria, the food pantry, the healing ministries, are all ways in which you stretch and grow.
Often, people who visit or work in other countries, are amazed at how little people can have and still be a loving and productive society. As a congregation, you are willing to share what you have, to risk, to go beyond the familiar paths in life, to touch others and bring them joy. It doesn’t take riches, or lots of technological equipment, it just takes faith.
Finally, and perhaps most important, Jesus tells us to keep on going; keep the destination in mind. Where is God calling us to go?
Part of this story is a call to discipleship, to doing the work of God in the world. This is the living witness of the church; that we come together to proclaim the great truth of God, and resolve to work for justice and service as a loving community.
This is what Jesus was anticipating as he sent the disciples out to connect with others, this is what he was trying to offer in Nazareth. It will not always be easy, you may find yourself pushed beyond the comfort zone, there will be those who are critical of your motives and goals, but with God as your helper you will continue on this journey, to welcome others, and to find excitement, learning and joy.