Dust off your Feet and Move on

A sermon based on Matthew 9:35 10:16

Don Friesen
June 12, 2005
Ottawa Mennonite Church


Last fall The New Yorker ran an article about a church in Atlanta that has experienced amazing growth. It is called the World Changers Church International, and while its ministries are indeed global in scope the Atlanta base church numbers 23,500 members! They have had to build several times to accommodate their growth. In 1995 they moved into the 8,500-seat dome-shaped sanctuary now known as the World Dome a campus, really built at a cost of $20 million and without needing one dollar of bank financing! The church has a staff of 350 employees and its facilities include a state-of-the-art television studio; a computer graphic design suite; a publishing house; a high-tech music studio; a food distribution centre; a large banquet facility; commercial cooking facilities; a daycare centre; a Christian bookstore; an audio and video duplication centre; and a professionally-staffed fitness facility. The church's television broadcast now reaches nearly one billion homes on a vast network of stations in practically every country in the world. (Kelefa Sanneh, "Pray and Grow Rich: Dr. Creflo Dollar's ministry of money," The New Yorker, October 11, 2004; see also www.creflodollarministries.org/)

It's an amazing story of growth for a church less then twenty years old, but the growth is consistent with the gospel preached there, which is that God wants to bless us. God wants us to prosper. The church is led by the Rev. Dr. Creflo Dollar, a much sought-after conference speaker and best-selling author of many books on a variety of topics, including debt-cancellation, prosperity, and victorious living. Dollar has also collaborated with his wife, Taffi, on a comprehensive reference book for the 21st century family entitled The Successful Family. And the Rev. Dr. Dollar models the gospel he preaches; his custom-tailored suits, Rolls-Royces, and private aeroplanes are tangible signs that God blesses His servants.

The Rev. Dr. Dollar has also become something of a hip-hop icon. He appears in the music video, "Welcome to Atlanta," by Jermaine Dupri and Ludacris, and 50 Cent, a well-known rapper, has a song in which he rhymes "Creflo Dollar" with "pop my collar." This is one cool guy! The church's web site, www-dot-creflodollarministries-dot-org, informs us, "With offices in the United States, Australia, the Republic of South Africa, Nigeria and the United Kingdom, and several more scheduled to open in the next few years, Dr. Creflo A. Dollar is truly setting the standard for excellence in ministry, and making a mark in the lives of millions that can never be erased!"

That's quite the standard! Our own congregation is almost fifty years old, and while we have experienced modest growth, we can't even afford a portable microphone, let alone a high-tech music studio! But then the members of Dollar's church all tithe it's a requirement of membership! And unlike Dollar, I have yet to write my first book. And my hip-hop career is going nowhere! I also made the mistake, when I set up our web site, of calling it ottawamennonite-dot-c-a instead of DonaldGFriesenMinistries-dot-c-a. After thirty years of tending to God's vineyard I would like to think that I too have "made a mark," though sometimes even I am amazed to realize how little impact one has.

Preparing Disciples for the Possibility of Failure

Today's Gospel reading tells us the story of Jesus sending out his twelve disciples to share the gospel, I assume that he wanted his disciples to succeed at this venture. Matthew tells us that the gospel was perceived as "good news". (Matthew 9:35) That is, this was news that was good to hear! Mark tells us that Jesus did good things, like "curing every disease and every sickness." (9:35) Jesus told his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful" (9:37), meaning there were many opportunities to share this welcome gospel. The word, "harvest," sounds productive. Things have come to fruition. One doesn't harvest unless there has been growth! Jesus wanted his disciples to participate in the bounty of this harvest, and he outfitted them for the task. He "gave them authority" (10:1) to do what he was doing and he gave them instructions, essentially telling them to travel light in order to focus on their primary task. It sounds to me like the makings of a successful venture: a positive group, with a positive message, performing welcome services that have already been received positively elsewhere.

There's a curious twist in the passage, however. Jesus prepares his disciples for rejection not a good motivational technique! Jesus tells them to be prepared to consider that a place they visit may or may not be "worthy" (Matthew 10:11-13) of their visit and he tells them, "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town." (10:14)

Now, in those days it was a customary gesture of hospitality to welcome a guest by first washing the dust off the guest's feet. It was a practical gesture in that it made both the guest and the house a bit cleaner. If the disciples weren't welcomed in a village, the dust would not have been washed from their feet, so perhaps shaking off the dust was the best they could do under the circumstances. Perhaps! But I doubt that Jesus was simply passing on a practical lesson in foot care! This gesture packs a lot more punch as a symbolic gesture. It is an act of renunciation, signifying the intention to have no more to do with this village, or home, or person. If I'm not welcome here, I'll move on!

It sounds harsh, and one would be tempted to think that it was said in a moment of confrontation, except that Jesus includes it in a list of common-sense instructions shared in the comfort of their home territory. One would be tempted to consider it a throw-away line, except that it's also mentioned in the Gospels of Mark (6:11) and Luke (9:5), both of which interpret it as "a testimony against" the place you're leaving! Shaking the dust off one's feet is also mentioned in the Book of Acts twice as an act of protest! (Acts 13:51 ; 18:6)

I admit that I don't quite understand the depth of feeling associated with this dust-shaking gesture. Perhaps it's an ironic expression, in that the particular mission described in Matthew 9 and 10 was a mission to people who used this gesture themselves when leaving Gentile territory. If the dust-shaking instruction is just advice, it makes sense. Jesus' disciples were no strangers to failure, and perhaps Jesus wanted them to be prepared if they found no welcome. No doubt the disciples tried to do their best, but perhaps Jesus knew that their best would not always be good enough! And so they become the beneficiaries of this advice: If you don't receive a welcome or a hearing if you hit a brick wall dust yourself off and move on! If you have done your best and nothing happens, don't keep beating your head against the wall or beating up on yourself! Dust off your feet and move on! There will be times when you fail. You're going to make mistakes. You're going to say the wrong thing on occasion. There will be places where you are not going to be welcome. There will be times when people won't like you. There will be people who reject you. Sometimes you can't do anything about that. And after trying as hard as you can, and it still doesn't work move on! If you stand around and whine and wail, your tears are going to make mud out of the dust at your feet and it will be even harder to shake it off! Move on to new opportunities!

Wise Is the Person Who Knows When to Stay and When to Move on

The trick, of course, is knowing when to move on. As Kenny Rogers sings, about the artful card-player, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em...." ("The Gambler") Wise is the person who knows when to stay and when to move on. It seems to me that Jesus' words about dusting off your feet may be open to abuse. Some of us move on prematurely. At the first sign of opposition or disagreement we take our toys and go home. If the boss is going to be like that, well then, I quit! If my spouse is going to be like that, well then, I'll find a new spouse! If the church is not going to appreciate my contribution, well then, I'll find a church that does! It may be helpful to examine ourselves in those situations, and if our foot-dusting is accompanied with too great a feeling of self-satisfaction, perhaps we dusted ourselves off too soon and for the wrong reasons!

Some of us may move on prematurely, for there are times when persistence is the wiser approach. In one of Jesus' stories, a persistent widow finally received a hearing from a judge because she did not move on. She just kept knocking at the judge's door until he opened it. (Luke 18:1-8) Thomas Edison (1847-1931) is remembered for several significant inventions, but his breakthroughs came only after many, many failures. He persisted, however, learning from his failures, looking on them as more than failures, for he would say on such occasions: "Now we know a thousand things that won't work. So we are that much closer to finding one that will."

There is something to be said for persistence, but there are also some of us myself included who don't know when to quit. I remember an embarrassing occasion years ago at a family reunion when I was determined to get up on water-skis. I had skied before, but I could do nothing on this occasion but plow water. And plow I did! The truth was that the boat pulling me was under-powered, but I was so determined to show my siblings that I could water-ski that I exhausted myself pushing around a lake-ful of water!

There are times when persistence becomes an obsessive-compulsive activity. Some of us find it hard to admit to failure and will go to ridiculous lengths to avoid failure a little like the tournament golfer who came to the 16th hole, only to send his first shot into the river! Undaunted, the golfer boarded a row-boat, and with his partner at the oars followed that floating ball for a mile-and-a-half, swiping at it whenever opportunity presented itself, until he managed, finally, to beach it. Then, making his way back through a forest, he surprised his fellow competitors when, landing his ball on the green from a totally unexpected direction, he completed the hole in just under two hours and 166 strokes!

It has been said of Napoleon that he had a technique for success, but no technique for dealing with defeat, which left him rather unprepared for his Waterloo! Jesus, on the other hand, provided advice about failure and defeat. It's not the end of the world! Move on!

While the Scriptures speak little of success, using the word sparingly even when talking of the most revered biblical heroes, the Bible does acknowledge failure; it speaks, for example, of friends who fail (Job 19:14), of families that fail (Job 19:14); of failing flesh (Psalm 73:26) and failing strength (Psalm 31:10) and failing courage (2 Samuel 4:1) and a failing spirit! (Psalm 143:7) And in a rather unforgettable image the Old Testament philosopher who wrote Ecclesiastes pictures failure as a grasshopper that drags itself along (Ecclesiastes 12:5), a striking image of one who is intended to hop and bop and hip-hop one's way through life reduced to a centipede-l crawl!

It's good that Jesus prepared his followers for the eventuality of failure, otherwise they would have been flustered by failure more than once! His followers felt like they were part of a massive failure following Jesus' crucifixion. Nothing expresses the shattering of their dreams more poignantly than the lament of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus three days after Jesus' death. (Luke 24:13-24) When a stranger fell in step with them the disciples warmed to the his attentiveness, and they told him a story expressing the full range of their disillusionment.

Jesus himself was no stranger to failure. When he visited his home town, those who had grown up with him were incredulous! They "took offense" (Mark 6:3) at him; and Jesus was quite "taken aback" (6:6, NEB) at their reaction. And in a frank admission of failure, Mark tells us that Jesus "...could do no mighty work there...." (6:5, RSV)

Even the upbeat Apostle Paul made allowance for failure and feelings of failure. Members of the Corinthian congregation, for example, used to compare Paul unfavourably to other teachers more to their liking! (1 Corinthians 1:10-17) No doubt it humbled Paul more than he wanted to be humbled. I can empathize with him; a former member of this congregation used to tell me at length about how good things were at OMC before I came! Paul made allowance for our limitations and failures when he compared us to earthen vessels, vessels prone to damage. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10) But, added Paul, it is in such earthen, breakable vessels that God has chosen to store the treasure of the gospel. The disciples may have fumbled and bumbled about at times, but Jesus chose them.

Chaff Is Chaff, and Dust Is Chaff

I find Jesus' statement about shaking the dust off one's feet striking and a little puzzling, but perhaps one can put too much emphasis on the dust. I found several occasions in Scripture when dust and chaff are mentioned together. The psalmist compares that which is of little consequence to "whirling dust" and to "chaff before the wind." (Psalm 83:13) Isaiah foresees now-powerful nations reduced to nothing, "chased like chaff on the mountains before the wind and whirling dust before the storm." (Isaiah 17:13) Isaiah also talks of terrifying nations who in time will "be like small dust, and the multitude of tyrants like flying chaff." (Isaiah 29:5)

Chaff is that which is worthless, that which is blown away during a harvest. People of my generation often hung up a poster which said something to the effect that a friend is someone to whom you can pour out all of the contents of your heart chaff and grain alike knowing that a friend will sift it, keep what is worth keeping and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.

It may be an apocryphal story, but it is said that Michelangelo saw his Moses in an un-hewn block of marble, while what the spectators who watched him sculpt the famous figure saw was the mounting pile of refuse and dust collecting at his feet. Day after day chips of marble followed more chips of marble, finally to be joined by fine dust as the sculpture was sanded and polished into the form envisioned. Initially the marble dust was much more in evidence than Moses! The artist's conception of the great law-giver, however, has become immortal, while the dust has been forgotten.

Letting the Dust Settle

In reflecting upon the dust and ashes of human enterprise, we can also take encouragement from the biblical promise that "God will not fail." (Deuteronomy 31:6; 1 Chronicles 28:20) "The Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not fail you...." (Deuteronomy 4:31, RSV) This promise was a strong encouragement to the people of Israel, allowing them to wait patiently for God's transformation of their failures.

May God give us the patience to let the dust settle on our failures and successes, knowing that though we may suffer failures and affliction, God will not allow us to be crushed or destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

All quotations of Scripture, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version.