By Jo Wells
So the door has been closed in your face. Perhaps you were going around the neighborhood (as one did, pre-pandemic), delivering the church Christmas leaflet. Or you were enquiring about collective worship at your son or daughter’s school. Or in your class at school you tried to defend the traditional Christian notion of marriage. Or you’ve had stones at your window because the vicar lives there. Or you’ve been fired from a job because you wore a cross around your neck.
The door has been closed in your face, closed because you’re a Christian who’s willing to let your faith be known. How do you feel?
Today’s gospel encourages us not to feel a failure. Not even to dwell in the rejection. But to shake the dust off our feet and go on our way. Shake shake shake. Not to linger. Not to mope. But to get on our way because the gospel beckons, the kingdom of God draws, the call of God continues, there are many fields that are ripe for harvest.
The door was closed in Jesus’ face over and over and over again. It’s a good job he wasn’t offended too easily or didn’t take it too personally.
And let’s be honest: this is the reaction God gets from us, all of us, a lot of the time. And if you’re going to be a disciple and join in the mission of God, this is the reaction you’re going to need to get used to. Jesus spells that out from the very outset, and in particular here in Matt 9-10 where he explains the call and sends out the apostles in mission. He says, “As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace 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.” That’s the life of a missionary. Lots of shaking dust.
Now that’s easier said that done. For myself I recall a door-closing where my reaction involved anything but shaking the dust.
Back when I was at uni I put myself forward to volunteer on a helpline, a sort of student-run version of the Samaritans. At interview I remember being asked about my approach in varying situations and whether I was really willing to stay awake all night. Then on the way out I was ‘casually’ asked if I had any faith commitment and explained I was a Christian. I predicted there and then what surely followed: a note declaring that my listening could not be objective because I would be too judgmental. It still rankles: and who had been judgmental, I still wonder?!
As I recall that incident, almost 40 years ago, I still feel hard done-by.
I wonder if you can relate to a time you’ve felt hard done-by for your faith, and tried to disentangle the strands of disappointment and humiliation. On the one hand there’s the personal sense of failure — that if I’d been more charismatic or more skilled or more prayerful, things would have turned out fine and dandy. The reassuring thing about failure is that it allows you to preserve your narcissism, your deep-seated pride that says this is really all fundamentally about me. If it went wrong it was because I got it wrong, all of which preserves the underlying conviction that if I can get it right then it’ll be because of my brilliance.
But failure is only half of it. The other feeling is rejection. It might be the hostility that comes from someone who doesn’t like the God they don’t believe in and slams the door. Or it might be another kind of rejection, the indifference that finds your friend checking their phone as soon as the conversation touches on something spiritually significant, dismissing you with a ‘whatever’. Which is a polite version of “Please just leave me alone.” Or perhaps you know the passive-aggressive response, which prevaricates to avoid confrontation.
Indifference can present as care-less or care-free. But scratch the surface, and you find it’s either a mask that hides profound feelings of exhaustion, fear, or bitterness — a way of protecting oneself from being hurt or overwhelmed or terrified. Or else it’s a carefully-orchestrated attempt to avoid taking anything in life too seriously, to take refuge in one distraction after another, a way of escaping direct attention to death, regret, fragility, even love — in other words, an elaborately massaged form of despair.
And what does Jesus tell us to do? “Shake the dust off your feet.” The sands of time are heavy. Shake the dust off your feet. You don’t know why it is that your efforts are met with indifference. Shake the dust off your feet. Don’t assume this is all about you. Shake the dust off your feet. This isn’t failure, it’s rejection, and they’re not the same thing. Shake the dust off your feet. Don’t carry that dust everywhere you go, souring friendships, sapping energy, leaking hope. Shake the dust off your feet. Don’t take out your anger on people when you have no idea what’s making them be so bafflingly indifferent. Shake the dust off your feet. Don’t judge them — that’s God’s job, not yours, and only God knows why they’re so distracted or passive or resistant or silent. Shake the dust off your feet. Don’t go on a self-righteous rant that assumes you’re a perfect embodiment of the gospel and anyone who doesn’t repent and be baptized this instant must be stupid. Shake the dust off your feet. Shake, shake, shake. To use a sporting metaphor, “Leave it on the field.” Don’t carry it round with you. Jesus faced indifference. He said we would face indifference. Don’t be surprised; don’t be devastated; don’t be bitter. Shake the dust off your feet.
Isn’t this why Christians burn out? Because we offer wave upon wave of effort and hope and energy, and find ourselves met with indifference and passive-aggression and a shrug of the shoulders that says, “Whatever.” Because we can’t get over the indifference. We can’t believe a bit more effort won’t break it down. So we don’t shake the dust. We go on trying, way too long. We lose all perspective. We take it to heart. We lose the joy. We start to go through the motions. Before we know it we’re inhaling dust and we can’t breathe and we’re drowning. If that is where you are right now, listen to these words of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Shake the dust. Shake it. Shake, shake, shake. Leave this one to me.”
Think about dust for a moment. What did God say to Adam in Genesis chapter 3? “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s what we say to each other on Ash Wednesday. Dust and ashes: dust is death. And yet in Genesis 2 we learned that God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed life into his nostrils.
So when you shake dust don’t lament your failure, but praise the God who made all things out of the dust of the earth, and in Christ made all things new, and still does. By shaking the dust you’re letting God do what only God can do. Shaking dust isn’t sadly washing your hands of failure or angrily tossing aside a broken project. Shaking dust is a prayer that God will do a miracle by making beauty arise from ashes and making life from the dust of the earth. You have prepared the way of the Lord; that’s all you can do: so let go, and pray: that all may see the salvation of our God.
Meanwhile let’s make sure God doesn’t find hostility or indifference when visiting our house. That when we’re invited to join the harvest we don’t just sigh, “whatever!” When the moment for hospitality arises, we’re not too busy, or distracted, or fearful. Or when God’s peace is offered, we don’t prevaricate.
When we reject God, by hostility or indifference, we make dust, we make death, we become the dust of the earth, to dust we return. And what does God do? 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.” You made anything out of dust and ashes lately? ‘Course not. Can’t be done. God made anything out of dust and ashes lately? ‘Course God has. All the time.
The Rt. Rev. Jo Wells is the Bishop of Dorking, in the Diocese of Guildford, of the Church of England.