There’s more to the gospel lesson today than just going out two by two – into the wolf pack --
The disciples know what they’re to do. Jesus has told them. They’ve been with him for a while, so they have his example to follow. They’ve taken and graduated from the Discipleship 101 course.
But. He warns them -- you’re not going to succeed every time. You might think you know everything. You might feel full of knowledge, you might feel wise – but that won’t prevent you from experiencing failures.
So “when you enter a town and are not received, go out in the street and say, ‘The only thing we got from you is the dust on our feet, and we’re giving it back.’” Sounds sort of revenge-oriented, doesn’t it? Kind of nasty? Except that Jesus isn’t into revenge here. Or nastiness. So the shaking-the-dust-off-the-feet isn’t really a sneer from the bottom of one’s sandals. It’s not a “ha, ha, you’re gonna be sorry” kind of thing. What it says is simply, “This time we didn’t succeed.”
So – I want to talk about not succeeding – about failure.
Like – you raise your kids the best way you know how, and one of them turns into a deadbeat. You lie awake wondering how you could have avoided failing him. Or her.
Or like – you’re baking a birthday cake, and after the proper time in the oven at the supposedly proper temperature, the batter is still just lying there in the pan, gooey and glucky. What a waste of ingredients and energy. What a failure. It happened at our house the last Monday in May – it turned out that our “new” stove didn’t have a properly functioning thermostat. The cake was supposed to be a birthday cake, so we went to Slater’s, where they serve a delicious carrot cake, and bought twelve big pieces. It kinda of cost an arm and a leg, but we don’t like to have a birthday without a cake!
Let’s move on to TV. Remember live TV shows? Sitcoms and variety shows before they started taping? The great advantage of taping, of course, is that they can do retakes. They can edit out mistakes. Doing live TV took raw courage and, at times, acceptance of the less than ideal. There were some wonderfully funny things that happened when actors forgot a line or props malfunctioned. Think of Carol Burnett -- Harvey Korman -- Tim Conway. Their directors and producers must have torn their hair from time to time.
It was like live theater. I directed high school plays way back when, and at one performance of “Fiddler on the Roof,” our Tevye, who was a great young actor with a strong singing voice, made his entrance onto the stage. I was used to his expansive gestures when he sang; so here he was, singing “If I Were a Rich Man” with his hands in his pockets. Not one gesture. Not a single one! What a failure. It turned out, though, that the button had just come off his pants, and by keeping both hands in his pockets he was preventing a much larger failure.
Live theater. Live TV. Live life. Bloopers happen. But now that we have taped shows, whether sitcoms or dramas or variety shows or whatever, we see only the planned stuff perfectly executed; mistakes become outtakes that are saved for later blooper shows.
In real life, there are no retakes. There is no editing out of the goofs. And we often have a bad habit of watching too many reruns of our own inadequate performances and our own failures.
Wouldn’t it be great if life were like a taping session from which we could delete any fumbling failures? We could edit out all those things we wish we hadn’t said or done. We could rewrite history!
But alas, such is not the case. And for some of us, our failures are like pockmarks on our psyches. We can’t forget them. We look in the mirror of our memories, and there they are. There’s no blemish cream that will cover them up.
We have high expectations of ourselves, don’t we? We want to be effective people. Yet often at the end of the day we find ourselves lying awake, categorizing our failures and missed opportunities, and unmet expectations. Our ineffectiveness trips up so many sheep that they can’t jump over the fence to put us to sleep.
Or. Do you wake up in the middle of the night and rehearse what you said or did with someone? I’m very insightful at 3 a.m. I know exactly what I should have said or done. And you don’t have to be 76 to do that. I was sharing that idea with a 12-year-old granddaughter one day, and she said, ‘I do that all the time!”
Even in broad daylight we sometimes – all too often – take out our memories of failures and polish them up and gaze at them and feel awful. Sometimes restitution is no longer possible. It seems too late to say we’re sorry; or the failure is irreparable – you can’t glue together the hundreds of shattered pieces of Aunt Tilly’s favorite vase. We’re stuck with what we did, unable to edit it out of our past.
So – a sacrament from the Gospel according to Luke. (What’s a sacrament? An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.) A sacrament for failure, an outward action to deal with an inward condition. Jesus says, “When you enter a town and are not received, go out in the street and say, ‘The only thing we got from you is the dust on our feet, and we’re giving it back.’ We’re to shake the dust off our feet as a sacramental sign that in our hearts we have accepted forgiveness in exchange for failure. That’s important.
Some background here might be helpful. Rabbinical law provided that when a Jew returned from visiting a Gentile land, he was required to shake all the pagan, non-Hebrew dust off his feet. It was a testimony against the non-believer.
Jesus knows they won’t convert everyone with whom they come in contact. They’ll fail with some. So learning to accept failure is an important part of discipleship.
It has been said that failure itself is one of the greatest arts in the world. It’s not a disgrace to fail. The disgrace is in not having tried in the first place. Jesus himself teaches us about failure. When he is rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus makes an important transition in his ministry. Instead of whining about being thrown out of the synagogue by his own people, Jesus steps through God’s open door and preaches the good news of the Kingdom of God to people everywhere else. Hillsides, sea sides, fishing boats – those, instead of the synagogue in his hometown, become his pulpits. We don’t actually see Jesus shake off the dust of Nazareth, but I’ll bet he did it. That’s what enables him to extend his teaching beyond his narrow home territory.
Shake off the past. Brush off the past. Go confidently, unencumbered by failure, which is now behind you back in the dust, and move into the future.
It's like a tattoo I saw recently. This dental tech had an arrow tattooed on her wrist. It was shaped like this [describe], the idea being that the only way to go is forward. Arrows don’t go backward (though I do remember taking archery at summer camp after sixth grade, and my arrows, rather than going forward, usually fell to the ground at my feet). The arrow on her wrist was her reminder to keep going forward.
So. Jesus sends his disciples out two by two to multiply his ministry. He gives them the authority to do what he has done. And he gives them a way to face inevitable failures.
If Jesus were here giving us an extended look at the topic of “Facing Failure,” he would probably tell us that facing failure doesn’t mean it’s okay to quit when the going gets rough. We aren’t to close the door to a second chance simply because the first door has been closed to us.
We are to get on with it in spite of failure. When we meet disappointment, we don’t stop completely. We instead close that particular chapter and keep moving. We remember that failure is not the sin. Not trying at all--that’s the sin.
Sometimes in the midst of measuring our own failures, we forget to focus on how we are – or how we are not—measuring up to Christ. Many of our failures, often our repeated failures, are caused by our reluctance to trust God to continue working where we have failed. Like a gentleman named Art Fry with the Post-it Note glue.
How did we ever get along without post-it notes? They were invented at the 3M Company – the makers of Scotch tape. Post-it Notes are one of the company’s top selling products. They came about because of a failure.
A scientist was trying to come up with a glue that would stick even better than they already had on their Scotch tape. He mixed up a new formula, and it stuck all right, but with very little effort it could be peeled right off again. What a failure. So he handed off the entire messy mess to another scientist, a man named Art Fry, to see if he could find a use for it. And voila – Post-it Notes.
Those of us with adult children might think back to the example of the dead-beat son or daughter. We raised that kid with high expectations, and he or she not only didn’t meet those expectations -- but failed miserably at life. What good does it do us now to bemoan the “What did I do wrong’s”? “Where did I fail that child?” “What could I have done differently?” Our own kids are not necessarily easy to shake off the bottom of our sandals. But wait a minute! They’re adults now. We’re not in charge forever. It’s time to leave our responsibility for them in God’s hands and shake that feeling off.
Besides, we can’t retape the past. We can move forward though, putting our energies into praying for them in the present. What if we shook that dust off our sandals, gathered it up, and handed it to God? After all, God doesn’t abandon us to do the tasks He has given us to do.
In my life, knowing that God and I are in this together makes it easier to move forward. And, by the way, it makes it way easier to have conversation with God.
Here’s a question: What’s the worst thing that can happen if we make a mistake or neglect to do or say the absolutely right thing? No. Wait. Here’s the real question: What’s the worst thing that will not happen?
What will not happen? God will not stop loving us. And forgiveness is part of God’s love. If we were on live TV today, hopefully it would show us shaking off the dust of our failures and going forward – with God’s love and forgiveness – to do the work God gives us to do.