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Shake Off the Dust

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Jun 25

Text: Matthew 9:35- 10:16

Maybe some of you have noticed that it’s gotten a little dusty around here. As most of you know, we are in the midst of a major building renovation. Go ahead and take a finger swipe across a pew and my guess is you will see what I mean. If so, sincere apologies to those for whom being around dust is more than a minor nuisance. If not, please say thank you to our sextons for staying on top of the cleaning. It’s demolition dust. Already, it’s saw dust. It’s decades old dust from inside the walls that have now come down, and it’s all making way for the new things God is doing in this place. I’ve come to notice lately that ministry can often be dusty work! At least it’s a rare moment with God when the dust ever seems to settle! There’s always something that kicks it back up – some new encounter, new tension, new movement or wind of the spirit!

In our passage for today, Jesus gives some clear instructions about what to do with the kind of dust that gets kicked up when we share his message with the wider world and when it is rejected. Shake it off, he says! Check it out in Verse 11: “Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house it, greet it. Say peace! If the house is worthy, let your peace and blessing come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 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!”

Here in the 9th and 10th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is in the midst of a discourse about discipleship. Having just been the central character in a number of preaching and healing stories, he realizes he can’t do it alone. He begins to foreground the role of the disciples, calling them by name, granting them authority to lead, as we just did with Eric. Some of his instructions are so specific, they almost read like a training manual, not unlike the three ring binders we share with our new Deacons. Jesus also gives the disciples a heads-up about the hardships they will face and he sets the work in a spiritual and theological context. It’s all about the fact that God’s kingdom is near, that God’s mercy and justice are at work already, whether you see the results or not. Trust that. Remember that. And all will be well. Just be sure to shake off the dust when things don’t go as well as you had hoped!

Here’s the thing. Dust is hard to shake. Jesus knows this which is why he includes it on this essential list of instructions. He knows that while dust is everywhere, especially in those dry and sandy climes of first century Palestine, dust can be a real impediment to God’s purposes. It’s that the dust of perceived failure or rejection, the dust of disappointment, the dust of downright indifference to the cause. This dust that can leave a thick residue, enough to blur the clarity of our vision and obscure the path forward.

I wonder how many of us can relate? Jesus talks about going from house to house. Sound familiar? Just consider the experience of all those door-knockers last fall, in New Hampshire and other swing states. I know some of you did this. Or more recently, down in Georgia’s Sixth, where the most expensive Congressional race in history could not change minds and hearts enough to turn red blue. Consider the rejection, the hostility, the indifference we might feel, if not at the doors themselves, then at those sorry election night parties where the balloons never drop. The DNC is still trying to shake off the dust of their outrage and bitter disappointment.

What Jesus knows, what we are quick to forget, left or right, is that our human salvation, that deep and loving and global transformation and liberation for which we all yearn, is so much larger than any one nation’s political leader or party. Don’t get me wrong. Social and political movements can gravely help and hinder the cause of God’s love and justice. Still, it’s also true that these human institutions are fleeting in God’s sight. In the midst of the dire signs of Roman imperial domination all around him, Jesus maintained an unflinching faith that God’s kingdom was near, that God’s justice was real, that God’s truth and love was enduring and everlasting— despite the 1st century headlines, despite signs of violence and mayhem all around him, despite the presence of crucifixes throughout the streets and cities, left as lasting reminders of the deathly power of the state. Still, for Jesus Rome in all its vainglory was no match for the glory-glory of God! Without such conviction, without this capacity to see his life and the world around in a fourth dimension, to see God’s in-breaking ways rising out of the terror, how else could he, or for that matter, how else could those civil rights freedom fighters, for example, shake the dust off and keep on marching after repeated persecution, humiliation and rejection?

Maybe they knew that God loves dust. After all, God works with dust, and even with defeat and death, to create new things. It helps to consider what is dust, from a biblical perspective. It isn’t always a bad thing! This past Saturday, I officiated at a burial at Cambridge Cemetery for Estelle Paris, beloved saint of this church, member for over 60 years. The Paris plot is tucked back on a path in a Southeastern section, under a gorgeous tall tree, I think it was an elm. There, the family and I shared in the intimate ritual of committing Estelle’s ashes to the earth and commending her life to God. I said these words: “Lord, you turn us back to dust, and from everlasting to everlasting, you will be our dwelling place.” I was quoting Genesis, of course, where dust is a symbol of creation and mortality and humility. In Genesis 3, God says to Adam, “By the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” From Genesis 2: “ In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens… God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Dust is the stuff, the substance of death and also the substance of new creation!

I’m grateful to Rev. Sam Wells, former Dean of Duke University Chapel, for helping me see this connection. In a talk he gave on this passage to a leadership conference, he said, “God makes us anew from the dust of the earth. God makes something beautiful out of our dust and ashes. When we shake the dust off our feet, we’re saying, ‘Thank you, Lord God, for the privilege of being part of the way you redeem the world. I’ve tried with this, your precious child, and I’ve been rejected. You’re going to have to re-create this one on your own.’” Wells continues with an ask to his audience:”You made anything out of dust and ashes lately? ’Course you haven’t. Can’t be done. God made anything out of dust and ashes lately? ’Course God has. Does it all the time.”

I wonder how many of us are at point where we could use a good shake, where we need to hear these words of Jesus to shake it off! After all, encountering rejection – having doors slam in our face, having letters to congress go unanswered, having legislative aides hang up on us when we make our umpteenth call about healthcare– it’s practically written into our job description as Christians, according to Matthew. We’re told to expect it. Yes, the rejection stings! Yes, we wonder if there’s more we can do to get through to that person on the other side of the door or the aisle. After all, we come bringing peace, and good news for the poor! Who wouldn’t want to hear that!? Here, Jesus offers a timely reminder– it’s not entirely up to us to penetrate and change the minds and hearts of other people! When we’ve done our best, the best we can do is trust in and leave the rest to God, to God who has the power to form beautiful things out of the dust and ashes we leave behind.

Hear me out. This has nothing to do with giving up! That’s not the message of Jesus’ commissioning here, which is only the beginning by the way. This is just the second the five teaching discourses in Matthew, the first being the Sermon on Mount. No, we need to keep learning, keep moving, keep going from door to door, by all means! We just can’t let the dust of our disappointment embitter the mission, cloud our vision or blur our faith! The most effective people I know are those who know how to metabolize rejection and failure, how to accept it as part of being human, as good fodder for growth and transformation. It’s a matter of assessing what was and isn’t in our control, owning our part, and if need be inviting others to do the same, and then moving on. Too often though, all that dust gets caught in our eyes, and we know what the Bible says about that: "And why worry about a speck in your friend's eye when you have a log in your own?

Jesus says: shake off the dust! Don’t waste time browbeating yourselves or others. Its not always about you and its not always about them either! Instead thank God for this and future opportunities to serve. Remember with Jesus that the work is too big to do yourself! Recognize your limits and understand when you’ve done what you can to prepare the way for God’s justice and mercy to be known on any given day! Own your small part and see God’s large part in the work of human salvation, trusting always that God has the power to transforms dust and even death into good and beautiful things!

You know, Jesus was a master of mixing metaphors and somehow no one ever calls him on it. As our passage for today opens, in one line, he’s talking about having compassion for the crowds, harassed and helpless, like sheep without shepherd. The very next line he jumps to the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Therefore ask the God of the harvest to send out laborers.” I prefer the farming metaphor in this context. For what do farmers do? They work in the soil, they work in the original dust of God’s creation! Farmers are good at taking the long view. They are constantly in touch with the dust, wind, rain, sun, birds that miraculously conspire together against all odds to produce nourishment and beauty, day by day.
Before I close, I share with you this poem by Denise Levertov called The Love of Morning:
It is hard sometimes to drag ourselves 
back to the love of morning 
after we've lain in the dark crying out 
O God, save us from the horror . . . . 

God has saved the world one more day 
even with its leaden burden of human evil; 
we wake to birdsong. 
And if sunlight's gossamer lifts in its net 
the weight of all that is solid, 
our hearts, too, are lifted, 
swung like laughing infants; 
but on gray mornings, 
all incident - our own hunger, 
the dear tasks of continuance, 
the footsteps before us in the earth's 
beloved dust, leading the way - all, 
is hard to love again 
for we resent a summons 
that disregards our sloth, and this 
calls us, calls us. 
Friend, Jesus is calling us even now to labor, to be a part of a great harvest. He calls us to shake off whatever sloth or despair, to drag ourselves, if needed, back to greet the morning anew, back to greet our neighbor anew, back to greet those who might reject our values anew, all with hope and conviction and peace, every day. Despite that leaden burden of human evil, he says: shake it off. Shake it off and let yourselves be lifted again by the birdsong, by the love of morning, by the good labors that await us, by the footsteps in the earth’s beloved dust that lead the way, by the promise of a new harvest of love, until to ashes and dust we too return. Amen.

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