The Mainline Church and Dusty Feet: A sermon for July 8, 2012

When I was younger I used to hear people use the phrase “shake the dust from your feet” and I would have no idea what they were talking about. Someone would leave a job or their relationship would break up and another person would tell them, “just shake the dust from your feet and move on”.

It’s a weird phrase. What dust are they talking about? And what does shaking dust from your feet have to do with moving on from a bad relationship? It wasn’t until much later when I read this passage that I understood where that language even came from and why it made sense.

Jesus is sending out his disciples to the people. He’s sending them out two by two and he’s telling them to be prophets. That means he’s telling them to speak a hard, but liberating, truth to the people they meet. He tells them to leave everything behind. Don’t even take food. Just go.

Jesus tells them to stay in any place that welcomes them for a while, but if they are rejected, if people refuse to hear what they are saying, to leave. And he tells them that as they walk away they should shake the dust off their feet as a sign that they had not been welcomed.

When I think about Jesus I usually don’t think about him like this. I think about the shepherd who leaves the flock behind to find the one missing sheep, the one who never lets us go. But then I remember that there was a time that Jesus faced rejection too. He tells the disciples that a prophet is not without honor, except in their hometown. He knew that from personal experience. He knew what the disciples were going to face.

This is not Jesus rejecting or leaving people behind. Instead this is Jesus telling his disciples that sometimes this is the hard truth: you will be rejected and you will have to move on and hope that the ones who rejected you will later change their minds and follow you. Jesus knew that sometimes it was impossible to get everyone on board, but that sometimes you had to move forward anyway before the train derailed.

Its sort of a Leadership Principles of Jesus 101 class. As much as you want consensus, as much as you want everyone to join you, that won’t always happen. And sometimes you have to just move forward and do the right thing anyway.

I was thinking about this last week. I was watching the webcast of the biannual national meeting of my former denomination, the Presbyterian Church. It’s a church I still love, but I, like many others, had my own moment of shaking the dust from my feet in order to join a church that was truly committed to moving forward and embracing all in their ministry.

What struck me this day, though, had to do with youth and young adults. The Presbyterians stop periodically to worship. They had been in the midst of heavy, contentious debate, so the worship came at the best possible time. And on this day these young people, mostly high school and college students, had planned and were leading a very good service.

Except right before worship started, many of the meeting attendees slipped out. The youth found themselves with a far smaller crowd than they should have had. But that was okay. They moved forward, and they worshipped God anyway, and it was wonderful and prophetic.

In the midst of this, one wise adult quipped: Next time we wonder why young people are not staying in our church, we may want to remember this. They were right. The young people were bringing a prophetic voice, and it was being ignored. It makes perfect sense that they might shake the dust off their feet and move on to a place that hears their message and wants to work with them.

Now, Im not calling out the Presbyterians here, because this is an issue for the larger church. This happens in denominations, and in churches, all over. The younger generations, including my own, don’t want to engage in church arguments. We don’t want to watch lukewarm churches debate endlessly about doing something good, no matter what it is. We want to be in places of justice and action and goodness.

Those youth had just watched their church being torn apart over an issue that in their minds is greatly settled. But then they offered worship, and no one listened. They were so exhausted from the arguing, that they walked away from the balm of Gilead. I think that’s an example of why so many young people, and people of every age, have shaken the dust of organized religion off their feet, and decided to forge their own spiritual path instead. When the church doesn’t receive prophetic voices, those prophetic voices will walk away from us shake the dust off their feet, and walk into the future.

Sometimes I wonder if when Jesus, a person of prophetic action, was talking about not being welcomed in his hometown, he was talking about the church?

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if the church, and particularly mainline churches like ours, like the Presbyterians, like the Episcopalians, became places focused on listening to God’s still speaking, prophetic voice, no matter where I came from? What if we were less focused on weighing the pros and cons until the time for action had passed and we had become irrelevant? What if instead we chose to become a people of action, welcoming the prophetic voices that all of us have? A people known more for our good works, than our hesitation.

What if we shook some dust from our own feet, and left the places that were holding us back behind? What if both in our personal lives, and in our lives together, we looked at the places where we felt stuck, where we felt paralyzed with fear or anxiety or inertia, and we decided that we were going to leave those places behind, shake the dust from our feet, and follow Jesus.
If we did that, I believe we could create something that people would take notice of, and want to be a part of. Even the ones who had shaken the dust of organized religion off their feet might come back and join us.

There’s a business book that I’ve been looking at that might have some relevance for those of us in the church. Now generally I’m wary of mingling the corporate and the church worlds, but the reality is that God can speak through anything.

The book is called “Blue Ocean Strategy” and it was published about seven years ago. In it the author talks about two different kinds of oceans. Blue oceans, and red oceans. Red oceans are overcrowded, and contain a glut of organizations that to the outside observer may as well be all the same. They look like, they talk alike, they offer the same thing. Eventually they make one another irrelevant.

But blue oceans are different. They offer a new product. They do it in a different way. They explore the spaces that have never been explored before. And eventually, they stand out and they attract people to them.

The book is about marketing, but I’m not talking about increasing profits. At least not with an “i” I’m talking about increasing prophets, with an “e”.

What is to stop a casual passerby from driving past one more church and thinking that church looks exactly like the last one and the one before that and the one before that and I’ll bet their all the same?

Being a church that blends in doesn’t help to grow prophets. People have rejected “all the same” whether it comes in a white meeting house church with traditional hymns or an auditorium with guitar music. They want something different.

So how do we do that? I don’t ask because I want more people on our roles. The mark of a faithful church is not its membership numbers. I ask because I want us to become a place that welcomes Christ’s voice, and shares it with the world.

Do we offer that free meal? Do we go out of our way to welcome people who may feel unwelcome? Do we finally start that men’s fellowship we’ve been kicking around for years? I can’t answer that. That’s up to you.

But I do know this. Christ has sent us here with a message for the world. One that is important enough that he didn’t want us to waste any time. If we are really going to follow him, everyday we have to look at the places that are holding us back, shake the dust from our feet, and go. If we do that, we will find much more than a blue ocean. We will find the kingdom of God, and we will be welcome there. Amen.

2 thoughts on “The Mainline Church and Dusty Feet: A sermon for July 8, 2012

  1. Hi, I was at General Assembly last week. I was quite surprised at your reference to the youth-led worship service which, you said, many ‘of the meeting attendees slipped out.’ Well, certainly this distressed me since I wasn’t aware of a youth led worship service, and I, for one, attended all of the worship services and didn’t notice that a lot of people did leave before worship except for the last day in which some people (including our own youth adult advisory delegate) did have to leave to catch a plane to go home. However, this last worship service was not a solely youth led one, and she assured me that, no, I did not miss any worship services that were youth led which I should have been at. Though the youth did conduct their own worship services, we (the non-adults) were not invited to them, and they were not on our schedules so I had no way of knowing when or where they were.

    Youth participated in all of our worship services. Some of these were before, during, or after long plenary sessions, and yes it does seem like there is a lot of movement in those transition times, but after a quick bathroom break any who did get up, took their seat again for worship. And other than the last worship which closed our time together, all worship times were well attended.

    I’m sorry that it seemed otherwise from the web stream. Very sorry indeed.

    1. I was following on the #GA220 stream and there was a huge discussion about folks leaving while the YAAD’s conducted worship Friday. Some folks like me were just watching online, but others were there in the building. Could others comment more?

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