Exodus 13:17-22; Mark 6:7-13
The First Congregational Church, Columbus
July 27, 2003 - 7th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching
"If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, shake the dust off your feet as you leave ."
Dust. It's a universal part of life. Wherever you go you find it. You can't get away from it. It surrounds us all the time.
One day a young boy was bouncing a ball in his room until it went under the bed. When he lifted the bed skirting, he spotted ones of those giant dust bunnies that tend to accumulate in places like that. He went to his mom and asked, "Is it true what they say in church that we come from dust and return to dust? His mother said it was. "Well then, there's somebody under my bed but I don't know if he's coming or going!"
Palestine is a dusty place. It's desert-dry and windy in many areas, so that dust is always flying about. In Jesus' time when walking was the primary means of getting around, people naturally got quite dirty. The dust permeated their clothing and got all over them, though it was most evident on their feet.
As a means of hospitality a host or hostess in those days would welcome someone by first washing the dust off the guest's feet. This practice served a practical end in that it made both the guest and the house a bit cleaner, but it was also a symbolic gesture. It clearly conveyed the greeting, "You are welcome here."
Today's Gospel reading refers to this practice but expresses something just the opposite. In our account Jesus sends his disciples on a mission and instructs them to travel light, to trust in God, and to rely on the hospitality of the people wherever they go. His final words to them impart a note of reality to their work: "If any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them."
Obviously if the disciples weren't welcomed in a village, their feet would not be washed; so they are to simply shake off the dust--as best they can under the circumstances--as the leave. Dust is used again symbolically, but this time it is used to convey renunciation.
Jesus prepares his disciples for the rejection that is inevitable wherever the heart is not open to God at work in life. Some people will receive them joyfully, but others will turn them away and not even extend common courtesy. When that happens, Jesus says, go on. There are others who will be ready to hear what you say. The fact that you have to shake the dust off your own feet will be symbolic testimony to everyone that the doors of that place have been closed to you.
The mixed reception given the disciples is, in many ways, also the story of the Church through the ages. Some people eagerly hear its message; others reject it totally. When people are not open to something, there's usually little that can be done to change their minds.
Shaking off the dust from their feet was a symbolic act on the part of the disciples to disclaim responsibility. There were other places to visit and other people to reach. It was time to move on. It may not seem very compassionate, but this is the way it had to be. It was a practical decision. When people aren't ready, they can't accept what is offered them no matter its value. You can't save those who don't want to be saved.
Jesus told his disciples to go on despite the failure they will have in some places. Close that chapter and go on to the next. He might have said, "You are not responsible for the results of your preaching, for that is out of your control. What is your responsibility is the faithful effort. That is your accountability." That's the message to anyone who undertakes to carry the Word of God.
In a wider sense Jesus' counsel also applies to most of life and all of us. You have to know when to stay and when to go. You have to know when lack of success goes back to you or is determined by circumstances over which you have no say. You have to know when to give up and when to persevere.
Life is like that. If you were to interview most authors, you'd find that their first submissions were almost always met with a rejection letter. Some tried dozens of times before anyone took an interest in their work. Most songwriters don't sell their songs on the first try, either. Most artists don't find a buyer immediately for their paintings. Most actors fail to get called back to their initial auditions.
Successful people discover somewhere along the way that you can't get stopped by the roadblocks put in front of you; there's a point at which you have to go on and try again somewhere else, whether it has to do with jobs or relationships or houses or interests. No one has enough time and energy to get bogged down forever with efforts that are going nowhere. The challenge is when to make the move and where to go next.
Often we have to change our situation in order to grow. We may be stifled where we are and must shake the dust off our feet because no one else is going to do it for us. Sometimes these are very difficult decisions.
In Sinclair Lewis' classic Main Street the central character, Carol Kennicott, has ended up in a small Minnesota town by marriage. For whatever good qualities it has, she soon discovers its confinement.
Over time she gets to know a lawyer in whom she can see a potential far beyond what gets realized there. She confronts him one day with the reality of his languishing in that small place. She wonders why he doesn't move on to a town which is bigger and better and where his talents might more realized.
The attorney knows the truth of her discovery about him, but he also knows that he will do nothing about it. He frankly admits to her that life is just "good enough" that its pain doesn't compel him to leave. It's just too easy to stay put.
Well, sometimes that's our story, too. We don't have the resolve and energy to move on even when it might be in our own best interest to do so. When life is just "good enough," when we can conceive of it being worse instead of being better, we can get stuck where we are.
It takes a good deal of courage and strength to move ourselves under those circumstances. We don't like to leave a job uncompleted or a relationship unfulfilled. And even when we're satisfied with our decisions, we may find they are hard to interpret to others.
Of course there is always the danger that we may change something in our life just because it has become difficult. That is simply escape. Moving for movement's sake alone will only bring a change of situation and not advancement. We have to honest with ourselves.
John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath uses dust in both its literal and figurative sense to tell his story. It chronicles the travels of an Oklahoma family in the 30's who leave the Dust Bowl bound for California. The book is full of biblical allusions, not the least of which is the journey from the area of devastation to the verdant land on the West Coast. It parallels the Old Testament wanderings of Israel to the Promised Land revealed by God. In both the novel and the Bible the dust is left behind, shaken out of the people's lives. Through their struggles and searching they come to a new and, hopefully, a better place.
Perhaps this is a parable for us, too. In it God leads us, as well, to the promised land of our lives. From time to time we are shown in no uncertain terms what is not working. Through disappointment and frustration and pain it is evident where there is no more opportunity.
Like the Israelites we are reminded that our journeys of life are not solitary, for God is our sure companion along the way. The words used to describe this presence in our Exodus reading this morning are a "pillar of cloud" in the daytime and a "pillar of fire" at night, which not only accompanies but leads. The words may not be how we might describe God, but they point to a reality that we know is true. God is with us when we do move on but, even more, God is the one who will lead us to where we need to go.
Wise is the person who knows when to stay and when to move on, who has the courage to do what is required. Wise, too, are we when we remember that our strength lies in the Lord who sees where we cannot see and knows, better than ourselves, where our steps should proceed.
Do you need to move on in some area of your life today? Then shake the dust off your being that you might reach your destination with God's help.
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