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Sermon ~ Go forth, two by two …

Mark 6,1-13
“Go forth, two by two, and in the power of Christ”
8 July 2012
UCSA Glengowrie

1.

There have been times in my life when I have really been puzzled. This may be nothing unusual, it happens to all of us. Not for each and everyone, such experiences seem to be special.

Preaching here today is such an example. After Christine asked me a few weeks ago whether I would like to come back, and I had agreed, I looked up the regular sermon text, or what preachers call the “RCL” — the Revised Common Lectionary.

“It is a listing of readings or pericopes from the Bible for use in Protestant Christian worship, making provision for the liturgical year with its pattern of observances of festivals and seasons. It runs in three-year cycles; the gospel readings in the first year (Year A) are taken from the Gospel of Matthew, those in the second year (or Year B) from the Gospel of Mark, and in the third year (or Year C) come from the Gospel of Luke. Portions of the Gospel of John are read throughout Eastertide, and are also used for other liturgical seasons including Advent, Christmastide, and Lent where appropriate. … The major principle behind the lectionary is that on a Sunday members of congregations should be able to hear the voice of each writer week by week, rather than readings being selected according to a theme. Thus, in any given year the writer of one of the first three gospels will be heard from beginning to end. Likewise the rest of the New Testament is heard, in some cases, virtually in total, in others in large part.”[1]

So much for the RCL, as summarised in the Internet dictionary Wikipedia.

 

Why was I puzzled? Well, when I had said Yes to Christine and looked into my Bible I was wondering: She, and you all, know a little bit about my story with the Uniting Church in Australia. Did Christine look up the RCL first before she called me? Was it her intention for me to preach about the “Prophets are not being honoured in their home town
and that you should
leave and shake the dust from your feet as a warning to those who won’t welcome you or listen to you?

It was as if Christine was telling me something.

But I chose to ignore her message to me for today.

Today I would like to start our reflection about this Bible text in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, with a real-life story … one of those that have puzzled me as well since living here Down Under.

It is an account of a woman here in South Australia who took this very piece of our bible text today seriously for her own life. Her ancestors had come from Germany to Australia in the mid-1800s and settled first in the Barossa Valley. They tried to establish what may have been one the earliest Christian-based intentional communities in Australia, people who live together intentionally, share what they have and produce for the survival and the good of all. Eventually, they moved further north into a valley just over the hill to Kapunda, a thriving mining town, and called it the Bethel Valley.

As did many of those early German settler-migrants, they cleared the bush, established their farms, built a church and a school, and tried to live a “God-fearing” life with each other. Most things, as was true for those times, revolved around the life of the church and its yearly cycle.

The Bethel Congregation was established around the communal traditions of the German “Herrnhuters”, or as they are known internationally, the Moravian Church, referring to their initial place of origin in the 1700s, the Province of Morava in what is now the Czech Republic. Theirs is a remarkable story to tell as well, but I won’t go into it today.

The German nickname, “Herrnhut”, can be translated as “under the watch of the Lord” or, more ironically, “the Lord’s hat”. Whilst only a small Protestant Christian community still today, the Moravians were pious people with a lot of influence on German and international church life, piety and mission.

So it was no surprise that this group of German migrants with a Moravian Christian background settled as a close-knit community in this very beautiful and tranquil valley outside of Kapunda. If you know the place, you may recall the big statue of a miner just as you enter the town. Around there, a gravel road leads you into the Bethel valley and eventually to what is now a Lutheran church. If ever you find the opportunity to visit the place, take the chance.

The lady, whose real-life story I am going to remember, is Frieda Schmidt. I don’t know much about her, because hardly anybody talks about her. But when I read Jesus’ command to his disciples to go out, …

two by two with power over evil spirits.
You may take along a walking stick.
But don’t carry food or a travelling bag or any money.
It’s all right to wear sandals,
but don’t take along a change of clothes.

When you are welcomed into a home,
stay there until you leave that town.
If any place won’t welcome you or listen to your message,
leave and shake the dust from your feet as a warning to them.”

… I immediately remembered her story that still has to be written in detail.

 

When Frieda was a teenager, two such missionaries showed up in her valley. Their movement was called after their Irish founder, the “Cooneyites”, or the “Go-Preachers”, or the “Two By Twos”. Some of you may have heard about them, and they still seem to exist here in South Australia and world wide as a small, rather clandestine and pious sect.

Imagine this small, close-knit band of Germans in the Bethel Valley in the early 1900s. There was little in terms of distraction for young people. The elders still spoke German amongst each other, even after two generations of living in the valley. They sold their farming goods to the people in Kapunda, who hailed from Cornwall in Britain and to whom these Germans would probably have appeared odd.

All of a sudden, two young men get the inspiration to hop off a train which at the time connected Kapunda with the rest of the world, and walk into this little community. With their bundle on their back, they wander into the Bethel valley, having heard that the people there were in disagreement with each other, as was the case in many similar communities. The two young men speak English, of course, and they know the world. They start preaching the Gospel as they understand it. They are the attraction of the day for the young … and sure enough they were to become one of the main reasons for severe conflict in the community, and the dispersion of some of its members.

Why, you may ask. Quite simply, these two missionaries introduced new ideas of life and faith out there. The young people were fascinated, and amongst them Frieda Schmidt and her friends.

They began to meet in prayer and bible study groups, had discussions with each other and developed their own way of celebrating worship service. They realised that you can read the bible differently than what was being taught by their pastors and what was the tradition for these German Moravians. They began to apply their perception of the Biblical teachings to their own life style.

Their parents and elders, obviously, were not too happy to see this all happen. Previous conflict in the community had been mainly about adjustments to the changing economic and political conditions around them. People and families had left, others joined — as is true for all living organisms and communities.

Frieda, however, and her girl friend, and as far as I understand, a young male teacher from Kapunda, decided to take their faith seriously. In the 1920s, they resolved to become missionaries in, of all places, Germany!

The two young missionaries, who had jumped off the train in the early 1900s, had long since moved on to other mission fields. And these three young people could clearly see that their understanding of the Christian faith was not accepted within their home community.

In 1924 the three of them boarded a ship to Germany, my home country. I have no idea what happened to them over there, as so far I have not seen any letters or other accounts, nor been given any details by family descendants. The two women seem to have preached in Northern Germany, and the teacher found his own mission partner to work with in Germany. Scant information suggests that he was eventually taken into a “KZ”, a “Concentration Camp” for political and religious prisoners where, I believe, he died. Frieda and her girl friend and mission partner lived through all the horrors of World War II in Germany. How they were able to preach the Christian faith, as they interpreted it, to my parent’s generation is a mystery to me. A few reports and photos on the Internet show an unassuming woman who was brought back to South Australia by a friend in 1977, together with her mission partner. Then Frieda told most of this story, on which much of this account is based, and both women passed away soon after.

 

It has been one of those many sad stories that I have come across here in Australia since getting involved in early migration history research, in particular around the encounter between the First Australians and the settlers. As so often happens, this story does not have a happy ending. Frieda’s descendants, some of whom I know, are still deeply hurt by the division caused way back then – 100 years ago – and a community fractured.

And yet, it has fascinated me, even touched my soul. There are these three young people leaving their beautiful valley and peaceful home country for war-torn Europe — to preach the Gospel! I would love to read Frieda’s letters or her diary to see what happened to her there. Her relatives must have thought it strange when the three of them decided to take this piece of the gospel seriously, and apparently for one of them, dead-seriously.

I wonder how many lives Frieda and her fellows may have touched; how she survived a society that was so hostile to her representation of the Christian faith. I may not have shared her theology, but her conviction and determination to stand up for her faith deeply impress me.

 

2.

Do I need to say more about Jesus and our Bible text?

As the preacher today you probably expect me to do so. But what more can I say? In my life, working with people from a wide range of Christian and non-Christian faith traditions in different parts of the world, I have met with other people like Frieda, and read and heard the stories of many more who stood up for their faith. Many of them suffered badly, even gave their lives. Two of them became famous: the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was murdered in 1945, and the Roman-Catholic Bishop Oscar Romero, who was shot during a communion service for taking sides with the poor in 1980, at the height of the civil war in El Salvador, Central America.

 

It sounds easy enough to hear about Jesus sending out his disciples to preach and to heal. Like the two Cooneyite men, and like Frieda and her friends, who took this passage literally, Jesus commanded his messengers not to take anything along, no spare cloth, no money, and no food. They were to rely on the proverbial hospitality of the people they met. And as the wise man in Ecclesiastes says (4:9.10.12),

You are better off to have a friend than to be all alone …
If you fall, your friend can help you up.
But if you fall without having a friend nearby, you are really in trouble.
Someone might be able to beat up one of you, but not both of you.
As the saying goes, “A rope made from three strands of cord is hard to break.”

 

Our passage contains all the elements of turmoil caused by actions that follow words. The people who believed in the healing powers of Jesus were quoted last Sunday. Today, his fellow country folk are appalled — the proverbial “Tall Poppy Syndrome” here in Australia. “Who are you that you pretend to know more than us?”, they challenge him.

If you don’t count amongst your own people, if there is mistrust, jealousy, arguments that drive you out of town … what do you do? I wonder whether Jesus’ surprise about the lack of faith amongst his own people may have been more than what these few words say … a deep disappointment for not being accepted for who I am, the unwillingness of people hearing me out, the lack of trust? There I have been one of you as a carpenter, a brother, son, friend, partner … and here you shun me?

People say they admire my courage to get up and speak publicly. But preaching is one thing; living your faith, standing up for it in a difficult political climate, and healing in public, are quite different issues. Jesus asks his disciples to have action prove word.

We could have a long discussion about the question of what their ability “to drive out demons” then may mean for us today. Do we only plaster the wounds and mend the damage, or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: do we stop the wheel that causes so much pain to all these people out there and with all the consequences for us? Is it thus a commitment, as Christians, acting politically to prevent hurt and injury where possible? Is it enough to just pray for the souls of the 90 or so refugees that drowned out there on the seas ten days ago because of political games in government and media that prevented them their right to live? Who, or perhaps better: What are the demons that haunt us in our society today?

The passages in the Gospel of Mark following ours today give us an idea of what we are looking at: Herodes has John the Baptist beheaded; Jesus feeds the Five Thousand; He walks on the waters of the Lake of Galilee; and He heals people wherever he is.

 

Our Bible text story today has summed this up quite matter-of-factly: The twelve apostles left Jesus, it says, and they started telling everyone to turn to God. They forced out many demons and healed a lot of sick people by putting olive oil on them.

As simple as that! As simple as that?

 

I leave you with this final question: How can you apply your faith in Jesus Christ to the life of the people in this world? May the blessings of Jesus guide you.

Amen.

 

Footnote

[1]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revised_Common_Lectionary

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