Mark 6: 1-13: Jesus left that place and came to his hometown. His disciples followed him.2 On the Sabbath, he began to teach in the synagogue. Many who heard him were surprised. “Where did this man get all this? What’s this wisdom he’s been given? What about the powerful acts accomplished through him? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” They were repulsed by him and fell into sin. 4 Jesus said to them, “Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns, among their relatives, and in their own households.” 5 He was unable to do any miracles there, except that he placed his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6 He was appalled by their disbelief. Then Jesus traveled through the surrounding villages teaching. 7 He called for the Twelve and sent them out in pairs. He gave them authority over unclean spirits. 8 He instructed them to take nothing for the journey except a walking stick—no bread, no bags, and no money in their belts. 9 He told them to wear sandals but not to put on two shirts. 10 He said, “Whatever house you enter, remain there until you leave that place. 11 If a place doesn’t welcome you or listen to you, as you leave, shake the dust off your feet as a witness against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should change their hearts and lives. 13 They cast out many demons, and they anointed many sick people with olive oil and healed them.
When I was a senior in high school, I started attending a church youth group with a friend of mine, while still maintaining my Jewish faith identity. I was curious about this whole Christian, church, and Jesus thing, so I found myself involved in this group of high school students as we sang songs, attended church and Sunday school, and had some fun together as well. Eventually, I decided to take a mission trip with them that summer to an orphanage in Ensenda, Mexico. On this trip, I had many life-changing moments that remain with me still today, both positive and negative. One of these moments, little did I know at the time, altered the very course of my life. Since the church was a Church of Christ, I knew a little bit about what they believed to be the role of women in the church, or lack thereof. I had an issue with the fact that the church wouldn’t even allow a woman to make an announcement from the front of the church. But I was in the midst of exploration, and I had made friends with the teens in the youth group, so I figured I would stick it out for a while anyway.
One night on the mission trip, we were singing songs together around the fire. I was just listening at this point, because I didn’t know if I actually believed what they were singing. The tradition was that one of the youth members would begin a song and everyone else would join in. One particular time, one of the girls tried to begin a song. But the youth leader silenced her by saying, “We don’t do things like that around here.” She was stunned. I was stunned. We went back to our bunk that night and the girls proceeded to get into a screaming argument about the role of women in the church, what the Bible says, what it doesn’t say, and how as women we interact in society today versus thousands of years ago. I sat on my bed and remained quiet since I didn’t know anything about these Bible verses or the role of women in church. All I knew is that I was raised by a mother who told me that I could grow up to do anything I want, and that I had an important voice in society, and at that point, I believed that women had a vital voice in faith communities as well.
Looking back on that night, I realize now that this was when I made the decision to shake the dust off my feet from that congregation, that denomination, and find a church that would honor and lift up women in leadership. A lot of times in each of our lives, shaking the dust off is what we have to do in order to move forward, in order to take care of ourselves, in order to make positive change happen. Many times, this can be a very difficult thing to do.
In the case of Jesus and his disciples, he instructs them to rely on the hospitality of strangers as they are sent off two by two to share the good news, to heal, and form new relationships and believers. They barely have anything to their name as they are sent off, so the importance of hospitality and welcome was key to their survival and mission. If someone did not want to hear them or welcome them, they were to shake the dust off of their feet and move on to somewhere else. My question for the disciples and my question for our lives today is, how do we know when it’s time to shake off the dust and move on? How much time and energy do we invest in something before we decide it’s time to walk away? Part of the challenge of our life of discipleship and our lives in general is that we have to know when it’s time to roll up our sleeves and start working, and when it’s time to shake the dust off, redirect our energies, and go on our way to something else.
On Friday morning, I watched on TV as the confederate flag was lowered and taken away from the State House in South Carolina. This was a historic moment as a symbol of hatred for many, yet also a symbol of heritage for others, was carried away to be placed in a museum, where many believe that it should have been placed years ago. The families of the victims of the tragic shooting just weeks ago stood in solidarity as the flag was lowered, celebrating that a symbol of hate no longer defined the state in which they live, and their loved ones could rest in peace. Sadness, relief, celebration and still some controversy were the emotions of the day. The decision to take down the flag came after 12-13 hours of deliberation from government leaders. They had to ask the same questions that Jesus and his disciples ask in our Gospel lesson, and that we still ask today- is it time to shake off the dust and move on? To redirect our energies elsewhere? To work for a world of peace and racial harmony rather than stand under a symbol that to many, represents a past littered with racism, intolerance, and violence? It was a bold decision and a historic one that our children will learn about and ask us about. Tough decisions are often the right ones, and oftentimes they are the decisions that move us forward and in the right direction. South Carolina made the decision to walk away from the current reality of the confederate flag and toward a hopeful future, while honoring the past, yet leaving it there: in the past.
In our own lives, sometimes we have to make the difficult decision to stay or walk away. We live in a country that looks down upon failure at every turn. We are taught to work hard, to never give up, to power through, to just do it, and our rewards will be great. To take a step back, to walk away, or say that we no longer want to work at something is to say that we have failed. But sometimes the real failure is staying in a situation where we are being harmed, ignored, belittled, or unhappy to the point where we have forgotten what our goal and purpose is. The disciples of Jesus had to hear this message loud and clear: if someone does not welcome you or listen to you, shake off the dust and walk away as a witness against them. In my life, a valuable lesson I have learned is that you cannot change a person, but you can change how you deal and interact with them. If someone does not listen to you or does you harm, or does not welcome you, it is their problem, not yours. Finding the strength to walk away comes with a discerning heart and trusting that God is at work in you and in that person or situation.
In our United Methodist tradition, we have two sacraments: baptism and Holy Communion. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. What would happen if we added a third sacrament of sorts, and that is the sacrament of failure. Failure, in our individual lives, as well as the church, is a reality that we all must face. In fact, sometimes, failure is the only thing that allows us to get back up and see something in a new way and to take on change. Understanding Jesus’ ministry and how his own death on the cross for our sake and salvation provides all Christians with a sacrament of failure that can empower us all with a “nerve of failure” as we witness to the world. When Jesus was crucified, many, including the disciples, saw the whole mission and ministry of Jesus a failure. They ran away with the belief that they had been a part of this failed movement. But they had no idea what was in store for them, as Jesus was about to prove that not even death on a cross was a failed experiment.
So we must be okay with the fact that sometimes, we will fail. In fact, failure is to be expected. Failure is sometimes what is needed for eventual success. We tend to get stuck in the mindset that we must be liked by everyone and be accepted by everyone, and we push ourselves to the edge trying to make people like us, trying to make people come to church, trying to bend over backwards to accommodate everyone, while all we really need to do is offer Christ’s compassion and love, and to love one another. If we do this, and people still don’t listen, still don’t pay us attention, still don’t accept us, then it’s time to shake off the dust and move on- to focus our attention elsewhere, to try, try again. There comes a time when we need to shake the dust off our feet, commend failed relationships to God and to other Christians, and spend our time building other relationships.
When it comes to shaking off the dust and moving on, we also have to make sure that as a church, we are not the ones being left in the dust. It is no surprise that people are leaving the church in droves. Thousands are walking away and leaving us, the church, in the dust. I don’t think it’s because of a lack of programs or popular music or because people think church is boring. I think the root of the problem is lack of trust. The Catholic church makes headlines several times a year with abuse scandals, we have evangelical (idiotic) TV preachers blaming AIDS and homosexuality for hurricanes and tsunamis, and high profile church leaders immersed in sex scandals and prostitution. We see large churches and denominations condemning entire groups of people. Any institution that silences the voices of another is better left in the dust. Today, many argue that the United Methodist Church is dangerously close to being left in the dust over the issue of human sexuality as well. Yet many remain to give a voice to those who do not yet have one and to work for change. And it’s not time to give up and walk away yet. The real miracle is that anyone still trusts the church at all.
When Jesus comes to his hometown to teach, the people don’t trust him. He has to earn their trust, and his experiment fails. He then has to teach his disciples a tough lesson on trust and failure. They have to earn the trust of those they come across. If they don’t, then they must do the difficult thing and walk away, leaving them in the dust. We as a church face the same difficult task: to earn the trust of others so that we are not the ones left in the dust. This is easier said than done, given what we are up against in American Christianity today. As a universal church body, we have some work to do. This starts with our willingness to fall on our knees in humility- to make it clear that we have made horrific mistakes in the past, and to make it clear that we are willing to fall to our knees again and again and confess that while we are an institution with divine aspirations, we are also a human institution that has failed, continues to fail, and will fail again. Second, we need to work at winning back people’s trust. We need to remember who we represent when we make decisions, when we put ourselves out there, when we make statements about who we are. Third, we need to help people remember that at the end of the day, it’s not we who are found to be ever-faithful, but God through Jesus Christ. Jesus had trouble getting people to trust him, but he was found most worthy of the trust that people put in him. If we can show people Jesus, the true, radical, compassionate, healing Jesus, then we cannot and will not be left in the dust. (http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1747)
The only dust we should be left in is in the dust of our rabbi, our teacher, Jesus. In ancient Judaism, young boys would study the Torah and would seek out rabbis to instruct them. If they were found worthy of teaching, they would become a disciple of their rabbi and take on their rabbi’s “yoke” or teaching. A disciple is a person who wants to be like the rabbi and does what the rabbi does. Those who followed their rabbis around on the hot and dusty roads had this blessing bestowed upon them: “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.” When we hear Jesus saying to his first disciples and when we hear him saying to us, “Come and follow me,” he says to us, “Come and be like me. Come and be covered in my dust. Come and shake the dust off from your past life, from those who have dishonored you, from those who have not accepted you as you are, and come and follow me.”
So as we continue to discern in our lives when to shake the dust off and move on, as we continue to seek ways that we as a church will not be left in the dust, may we find comfort and confidence in the dust that we do take along with us: the dust of our Rabbi, Jesus. May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi as you head on your way, out into the world. Amen.