JESUS ADVISES HIS DISCIPLES
Mark 6: 1-13
Generally speaking, advice is best sought when needed. Advice is not usually welcomed unsolicited. “Can I give you some parenting advice?” a mother in law asks her daughter in law. “Can I give you some financial advice?” a successful investor asks a struggling one. How many times do we want to answer, “No!” When are people receptive to advice? 1) When they admire the work of another; 2) when they already have established a good relationship; or 3) when they have hit rock bottom or are in a corner, ready to try something new.
What we know from today’s text is that the disciples had built at least a fledgling trust in Jesus as one with authority. Some had grown up with him; some had met him and decided to follow him. But they had seen him do wonders, like calming a sea, bringing a girl back to life, and healing a man possessed by demons. He had established some credibility with them. But Jesus was entering a place where everyone had known him “back when.” Back when he was just Mary And Joseph’s son. Back when he and his brothers James, Joses, Judas, and Simon likely did brotherly teasing, and playing, Jesus was known to others. Now grown, he was coming back home.
When I was graduating from seminary, people at my home church said, “Why don’t you consider coming back home to be Pastor at the church where you grew up?” The response in my head was “NO!” But what I said was, “People who knew me when, as the church Assistant Janitor, used to clean church bathrooms, polish church pews, and shovel snow from walks, would not see me as their Pastor; nor would the ones who remembered when my friend and I were sent out of my own father’s Sunday School class for misbehaving! We must earn credibility if we are going to give advice. Starting with my childhood burned into people’s minds would have put me twelve steps back. When Jesus went home, Mark recorded in verse 4: “He could do no mighty works there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.” Like kryptonite was to Superman, his hometown was to Jesus. He could not do anything like he could do elsewhere. Jesus had a hard row to hoe as he came back into the Galilee, especially around Nazareth.
Remember: advice is best sought when needed, but its often not welcomed when offered up by others. Yes we can get advice in the third person by reading an advice column like Dear Abby or watching a show like Doctor Phil. But when someone wants to give you yourself advice, do you find your shields going up, yourself getting defensive, and wanting to get away? So what do we learn from Jesus today as he comes back to his home?
First, the right to advise someone has to be earned. Billy Graham won many more people to Christ once he had some revivals under his belt and some testimonies from people to share. An unknown Billy Graham had much less power to advise people in their lives than the man he became. Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart stores, was the quarterback of his high school football team and he was an Eagle Scout. When it was time to consider a career, he took a job with J.C. Penny in Des Moines Iowa and learned all that he could. Several years later he borrowed $25,000—a large sum of money in 1945—to buy his first store: a Ben Franklin 5&10 Store in Newport, Arkansas. Sam thought the chain should have moved more into rural areas the way Family Dollar has done in the last 20 years. But the Ben Franklin management said “no,” so he struck out on his own. Nobody cared about his past credentials when he was growing up. They just wanted a profitable business that met people’s purchasing needs. Sam opened one store in Rogers, Arkansas marketing the store in his own way: meeting customers personally, meeting with workers personally, and meeting with American manufacturers personally. The idea caught fire and one Walmart became the giant business it is today. He did not instantly have credibility as he went against the advice to stay with Ben Franklin stores. By the way, Ben Franklin went bankrupt in 1997. Sam had to show that his new idea could make money; he had to show manufacturers that they could start production again and make a profit; he had to build the trust of employees, and he did, visiting each one in his famous old red pick-up truck.
There are a few stories of people who refused early advice who gained enough credibility to offer advice to others by writing books, run seminars, or post blogs. But if people are going to seek advice from you, you’ll first need to earn the right to offer it; same with me. Basically preachers have, as one of our purposes, teaching the Bible—yes—but also offering advice for life, especially spiritual advice. When I started here at age 29, I had little “cred” with people seeking guidance—a new guy from the Midwest, with a wife and three little children. The ability for people to seek, and listen to, advice often arrives over time.
Second, the right to advise others comes best through establishing relationships. Jesus fished with his disciples, listened to them, prayed with them, and shared food or lodging they received. He was one of them, but clearly their leader. They were not yet ready to hear him say that one day he would ask them to be willing to lose their lives; but they were connected enough to keep learning and listening. Interestingly, however, Jesus believed they were ready to hear his instructions about exorcisms of all things: casting out demons! Boy, talk about dropping your disciples in the deep end of the pool! He “gave them authority over unclean spirits.” “But we don’t want authority to do that,” I’d imagine the disciples saying in their heads! Still, he continued to pump them with instructions: “Take only a staff for your journey.” It was a symbol of a shepherd, someone who was not learned, but also not threatening. He went further: he told them what not to bring. They were just to arrive unannounced on people’s doorsteps! Yes, there are those who witness in our day like that two by two, but rarely do they expect to stay. Years ago in my first church we did have a touring gospel group stay in our home and the home of other congregation members while they brought their message to us and other congregations. It turned out that they took today’s passage literally and came in a van with almost no fuel, with virtually no money, and no food until they got their next contract! What a mess that was when they incurred medical bills! So looking back at our text, Jesus did give them authority, but how quickly might they have “worn out their welcome?” My father would never stay with relatives longer than three days, because he said “visitors, like fish, start to smell after three days!” How long might the disciples have stayed to earn the right to heal someone or advise them? The Bible does not say. But Jesus did give them instructions on how to leave. “If people refuse to hear you, when you leave shake the dust off of your feet as a testimony against them. Hmm. That was not just an act of cleanliness. I once thought it simply meant, “We’ll move on to the next home.” But maybe it means more. My visit with our Holy Land guide Mike four years ago as we traveled around the Holy Land on a bus gave me another thought. As I was sitting on a seat across from him, I had my legs crossed with the sole of one shoe facing him. “Here’s a useful bit of information in the Middle East,” he said. “Someone who shows the bottom of their shoes to another in conversation is offering a gesture of insult and derision.” My sitting position was saying: “I do not respect you.” I just thought I was crossing my legs! So perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus words about shaking the dust off of their feet as a testimony against them is more like “we are through with you” then “goodbye.” What people can learn when they actually visit a different culture! So I made sure to keep the sole of my foot on the floor so I could establish a good relationship with our guide! Sometimes our motions or gestures carry great power with others.
Finally, the only fast-forward way to be able to advise others—besides earning the right to advise, or establishing a relationship to advise, is through a skill set. What that means is I might trust the advice from a mechanic I don’t know if he has the proper training. I might trust the advice of a doctor I don’t know because he has the approval of the medical board. I might trust the advice of someone to repair my house because they are licensed and insured. Some people these days even check with “Home Advisor” or “Angie’s List” for recommendations! So with a skill set, my willingness to hear and receive advice goes way up. When people need serious counseling, my own belief in the therapists at our Presbyterian Counseling Center has given others the courage to make the call to a counselor they don’t know. And the process of healing can go faster because your relationship with me lets you trust a counselor faster.
Jesus had his obstacles to getting people to listen to him. So do we. For advice, seek those who have earned your trust or with whom you have established a relationship. Alternatively, you might choose by credentials. Advice is a delicate thing to offer, and to receive. Jesus gave us advice to move forward in life. I trust Jesus. I invite you to do so as well.
Jeffrey A. Sumner July 8, 2018