Shake It Off
My brother Todd is a theatre professor, and these days, he’s more likely to be directing a show and teaching young actors than performing in the shows himself, but he spent a lot of years as a professional actor before falling in love with teaching. The theatre life meant many short gigs for him, where he would go do a show for six weeks, and then have three or four weeks in between before his next job started. When I was serving at a church in New Jersey, about 45 minutes from New York City, it was really convenient for him to live with me - where he could audition and get to rehearsals, and have a free place to live while he was between jobs. For my part, I liked to put Todd to work at my church. Over the years, on most Christmas Eves and Easter Sundays, I would get Todd to perform dramatic monologues as Joseph or the Innkeeper or a Wiseman or Herod in the story of Jesus’s birth, as Peter after his denial, or after the resurrection. My congregation always loved hearing Todd, finding that he helped bring the scripture text to life for them. I, of course, also think Todd is great, but it was a bit harder for me to get drawn in. Why? Well, he’s my baby brother! I watched him grow up. I saw him when he was a 4 year old shepherd in a Christmas play, waving to my mom from the stage during the show. And I saw all his rehearsals for his church monologues, and his goofy antics and mistakes as he was getting ready. I know Todd is a good actor - but it is still hard for me not to just see Todd.
At the same time, I’ve had a similar experience from the other side. One of the earliest weddings I officiated was for a friend from college. I went straight from college to seminary, and her wedding was sometime during my first appointment as a pastor, and so I was pretty new still, but I’d certainly officiated enough weddings to know what I was doing. Still, many of the attendees at the wedding were college friends who had never seen me in my role as pastor. They’d seen me as a classmate, a peer, a friend, someone they hung out in the dorms with and went to classes and campus events with. It was hard for them to see me as the pastor in charge. When I led everyone through the wedding rehearsal, I was so frustrated, because they - my friends - kept pushing back on my directions. They kept questioning whether the directions I was giving were the best ones, and offering their own ideas instead. I had reasons for the way I was leading - but they didn’t trust my reasoning, because they weren’t seeing me as the pastor in charge of the ceremony - they were seeing me as their buddy Beth.
I had these scenes on my mind as I looked at our scripture text for today from the gospel of Mark. Jesus and his disciples show up at his hometown in Nazareth. By now, Jesus is well into his ministry. He has his disciples, he’s performed miracles and healings and has been teaching and arguing with the religious authorities, and he’s generally “established” so to speak. But when he comes back home to Nazareth, and starts preaching and teaching there, he gets a different reaction than the crowds that have followed him everywhere thus far. In Nazareth, he’s met with skepticism. “Where’s this guy getting this? He thinks he’s sooo smart. What are these tricks he’s trying to show off with? That’s Mary’s kid. We know his brothers and sisters - he’s no one special!” You can just hear it, can’t you? They can’t take Jesus seriously. Maybe some of them are just unable to get their head around seeing someone they watched grow up in a new light. They’re like my college friends, having a hard time comprehending that I was actually officiating a wedding, or me, having a hard time seeing Todd as anything but Todd. But others apparently have a still more “aggressive” tone of unwelcome to their response. The text says that they take offense at Jesus, literally that they are scandalized by his presence and teaching among them. But they are the ones who are a stumbling block in Jesus’ path. In the presence of so much unbelief, Jesus can’t be in ministry the way he wants, and he heads out of town.
The second part of our text picks up similar themes: Next we find Jesus sending out the disciples, two by two, to just the same kind of work he’s been doing. He tells them to take nothing with them - no bread, no bag, no money in their belts. No extra preparations. This put them in a way of not depending on themselves, but on God, and on the hospitality of those they would meet in their travels. That’s a lot of trust to give both God and neighbor. I trust God, but I still pack my suitcase. Times are different, of course, but I admire how clear Jesus was in creating a pattern of ministry of the disciples where everything pointed to the fact that they were to rely on God and stay focused on the mission of spreading the good news - God’s reign, God’s way was at hand, changing the world, not in some far off future, but right then, and Jesus wanted people to get ready for God’s way, God’s love, God’s grace, embrace these gifts, and live them as a life-changing truth. That’s the message the disciples were to carry with them, calling people to repent - to turn back from their own ways, and instead go God’s way - as they traveled from place to place. And if they encountered people who didn’t like what they had to say? Jesus told them to just “shake off the dust” from their feet, a sign that they were leaving a place behind, and move on to the next. Was Jesus influenced by his own hometown reception in giving instructions to the disciples? It’s hard not to think so, given the juxtaposition of these two vignettes. Mark, in his succinct way, gives us one verse to cover the results of the disciples’ work, reporting that indeed they went out as instructed, anointed sick folks with oil, cured them, and cast out demons.
What do we make of all this? I have to admit that there’s part of me that loves the idea of just shaking the dust off my feet and moving on anytime someone doesn’t like what I have to say. Don’t agree with me? That’s fine. I’m committed to my beliefs, I feel like I’m responding to God’s call, and I’m going to move forward with or without you. Sounds great, right? And sometimes, I can do just that, realizing that I can’t wait to get everyone’s approval or affirmation to do what I think is right or I’ll be waiting forever. But other times, well, it seems so dismissive, Jesus’ attitude. Aren’t we supposed to be persistent? Shouldn’t we try, try again when it comes to sharing the gospel? Is Jesus just writing some people off as a lost cause? That doesn’t really seem like him, does it? So what am I missing here?
C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia are some of my favorite books. In the second book in the series, Prince Caspian, Lucy and her three siblings, who have had adventures in Narnia during The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, find themselves back in Narnia for a second time. On a difficult journey to save Narnia, Lucy suddenly sees Aslan, the lion, the Christ-figure of the books, leading her down a trail that looks like it is dangerous. But no one else can see Aslan except Lucy, and she, the youngest of the group, can’t convince them to follow. And so Lucy ignores Aslan’s direction, and they keep heading the opposite direction. Eventually, though, Lucy and the rest of the travelers realize they had been going the wrong way for hours, and they’ll have to go back the other way that seemed to be more difficult, now having wasted a ton of time. Eventually, the rest of them can see Aslan too, and they all learn a hard lesson about trusting the one who is their leader. Lucy tries to tell Aslan she couldn’t have followed him on her own - no one would go with her, and she was stuck going the wrong way, even though she knew Aslan wanted her to go a different direction. But Aslan helps her realize that Lucy wouldn’t have been alone - she’d have been with him. And if she’d chosen the right way, even if no one else would go with her? Aslan leaves her to consider the possibilities of such devoted faithfulness.
I don’t think Jesus wants us to shake the dust off our feet because we’ve written others off, because we’re done with them, because we’ve rejected them. After all, Jesus is all about second chances, and third chances, and thirtieth chances in his way of forgiveness. Instead, I think he is speaking to us like Aslan speaks to Lucy, urging us to trust that if we put our faithfulness to God’s call and mission first in our lives, if we commit to not wavering from that call no matter what, we’ll be going God’s direction, and God’s direction is always the right path. And, our very commitment to traveling with God might turn out to be the demonstration of discipleship that others need most to consider their own choices, their own life directions. As disciples, our purpose is to follow Jesus. We’re meant to keep on figuring out what God is calling us to do, even if that means we have to keep on traveling, keep on searching, keep on the move, keep being in ministry in new ways, keep trying new things, keep stepping out in faith where no one else will go with us. Jesus goes with us, leading the way, tucking in behind us, and living within us. We have all we need to faithfully choose God’s path.
At the same time, I think we’re also meant to wonder when we’re a little bit like the folks in Jesus’ hometown. When are we so sure we already know who someone is, what they can do, that we can’t see how God is at work in them? Maybe you’ve been like me, unable to fully appreciate the gifts of someone because you were so close to them, you couldn’t imagine them in unfamiliar roles. Maybe you’ve been like my college friends, not realizing someone had grown up, been equipped and trained, matured, and you’re still thinking of them like the person they used to be. Maybe, sometimes, we’re like those who heard Jesus, and rejected his message because we just couldn’t imagine someone who didn’t meet our expectations being the vessel of God’s good news. As I mentioned, Mark tells us that folks “took offence” at Jesus, that they were scandalized by him. That word is tied in the with the biblical concept of stumbling blocks. Stumbling blocks might sound pretty benign, but in the gospels and in the writings of Paul, serious consequences are given to those who are stumbling blocks in the paths of those who are trying to follow Jesus. In fact, there are a couple of words for stumbling blocks, and one has a more “accidental” tone - a stumbling block that just happens to be in your way - and another has a definitely more “purposeful” tone - a stumbling block set intentionally by an enemy who is trying to make someone stumble. These are the stumbling blocks that Jesus and Paul warn about most often. And while those hometown folks who hear Jesus today and reject him view him as a stumbling block, what I see is Jesus determining that neither his neighbors in Nazareth nor the naysayers who the disciples will meet in their ministry journeys can be allowed to be stumbling blocks that prevent Jesus and the disciples from doing the work of God to which they are called. I don’t ever want to be a stumbling block preventing someone from doing the work God has called them to do.
And so sometimes, I have to do some self-examination, and figure out if it is my perspective that is too limited. Imagine if Todd decided not to be an actor because I couldn’t stop seeing my little brother when I watched him perform! Imagine if I gave up on being a pastor because my college friend couldn’t picture me being the wedding officiant in the know! Imagine if you give up on God’s path for you because of discouraging words or actions! Don’t give up, friends. Instead, shake off the dust, move on, and keep moving toward God. And imagine if we realized that we were the ones discouraging others from their discipleship! May it never be so!
Instead, let us cultivate faithfulness - in our own hearts, and in each other. Let’s build each other up, so that we all might have the courage to follow where God leads. And when we encounter resistance, let’s keep moving forward, remembering that it is God who calls us, God who guides us, and God whose message we are called to proclaim. Amen.