I don’t have an mp3 player in my car, and frankly, I’m past the stage of putting music on a disc only to have it get all scratched up. So, I have become increasingly comfortable belting out pop songs, even if it draws stares. I am to an extent, beholden to the radio channels, to endless pop music that I have learned to embrace and appreciate for all that it is and all that it isn’t.
I have also come to find most of my clear, or what I think to be clear reflections while preparing for a sermon come at odd times…usually when no pen or computer keys are at my disposable….when I’m in the shower, walking between places and moments of the day, or when I’m driving, listening to the popular waves and frequencies of our time. But, this also lends one susceptible to unavoidable, and perhaps misguided, connections between the Gospel, and well, Taylor Swift songs.“Shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”
I reflect on Jesus’ instructions while driving…and in the background…one of Swift’s songs chimes in…
Cause the players gonna play, play, play And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate Baby I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake Shake it off. Shake it off
This is of course, a playful, and I hope an honest way to enter a sermon…to enter the strange world of the bible and sermon reflection, where one verse can get you imagining, questioning, causing wonder about its meaning, while simultaneously a sincerely curious thought, an image comes to mind of disciples skipping out of a village, shaking off their sandals to what Swift calls, a “sick beat.” In our Gospel reading today, Jesus returns home after crossing lakes, calming storms, confronting “unclean spirits,” teaching and healing people wearied by the world’s pressures and unkindness. From traveling as an itinerant, trying to be present with people who are looking for hope, or just simply trying to “be.” Learning how to simply be with themselves and one another as the world seems to spin…chaotically. I imagine Jesus himself is tired, looking forward to returning home…to home cooked meals, familiar smells and spaces; to family and friends, people he’ll recognize and be recognized by, people who might understand him, get where he is coming from, not think he is “mad.” A return to people that will not look at him with skeptical and dismissive eyes. A return that is accompanied by a sense of belonging.
He returns to the synagogue of his beginnings and can’t help but feel the impulse to teach, to touch the walls of that holy place, of that home, and listen to the conversations, and the ways the voices echo. He teaches, perhaps, with expectation, with hope that what he will say will indeed astonish…an astonishment that opens people up to him and to one another. An astonishment of the good news, new life and a new way being.
And, the text reads they were astounded, they were amazed…But it was an astonishment filled with what seems to be sarcasm and unbelief, disappointment that one of their own wasn’t more like them. Maybe disappointment that he brought along with him a group of foreign and strange followers. Disappointment that their hometown boy was seemingly overreaching in his teaching and his actions, tiptoeing into madness. Not sticking with tradition. His presence made them feel uncomfortable, his teaching and actions sought to re-imagine the “rules.” The stories he carried with him, and his disciples remembered…were stories of healing, parables about a kingdom of heaven, words proclaiming God’s inbreaking and new ways of relating to all people. Stories that challenged notions of identity based on geography, gender, clean and unclean…a dismantling of heritage.
In the one place Jesus might hope to be the most welcomed, accepted, and heard, he finds only rejection and an inhospitable place. He realizes that even in a place he called home, in a place his formation and life lessons happened…unbelief is the norm, his powerful deeds unimpressive…his presence offensive. Returning to what is supposed to be familiar, comfortable, and safe, Jesus is met with skeptical stares and unbelief.
And as readers far removed, our hearts might cry out in that universal cadence of Taylor Swift’s song…shake it off Jesus. It will be alright.
But, it is hard to believe that Jesus just shook off this experience in his hometown. It is where he was thought to belong, but was met with ridicule and rejection, the invoking of his mother’s name and pulling his family into the mix. Some commentators even suggest that the questions posed by the crowd, were questions around Jesus’s dubious and ambiguous birth, questions of legitimacy. Jesus was not simply “amazed at their unbelief,” but deeply hurt. Saddened that such little space was opened for healing, for words of life, for truth telling. So little space open for him. “Why is it so hard for them to believe that one of their own is speaking words of wisdom and words of truth?” That one of their own might bring healing and hope into their world.
But, it wasn’t simply that they didn’t believe…“they took offence at him.” So, Jesus, with his disciples watching, is confronted by the reality that he may not be accepted anywhere, including his own home. And he withdraws…
But, his withdrawal did not mean he stopped teaching…Nor does he not find community. He calls his friends, those who have followed him elsewhere. He asks them to join, to go out and essentially do what he has been doing…to take the same risk some just witnessed in his hometown. He tells them to go, two by two, and not without much else. To move from village to village with just the barebones, relying on the hospitality of the people, of houses and communities in new places. And if hospitality is not extended to them, if they are not accepted, Jesus instructs them to leave and in the process, “shake off the dust from their sandals.” An act of symbolic significance, where it was once practiced upon entering the holy land, holy space, keeping it uncontaminated, keeping things foreign, and potentially harmful, outside. Here, it seems to be turned around, the disciples are instructed to shake off the dust when leaving a place that was thought to be, or perhaps had the potential to be, a place of holy hospitality, but sadly, unholy … unwelcoming.
For some of us, myself included, we might read this story and find comfort. We resonate with our own experiences returning home, or to the places we are from, and it sounds or feels familiar. When we return to the people and the places of our childhood, those who reared us, institutions or communities that helped form us…We return with excitement, new knowledge, openness to other ways of being, only to feel uncomfortably misunderstood.
In this sense, I want to read myself in Jesus’s shoes, by extension, the disciples, remembering coming of age moments, of returning home after college or from my travels and living abroad, moments filled with new experiences and new ideas, instances of theological lessons and clarity, only to feel dislocated and lonely when my sharing is not exactly embraced. So I withdraw, and find myself swept up with others who can relate and have the flexibility to move with the rhythm of Jesus’s instructions. And, for that I am deeply grateful. But, I am hesitant to leave the passage at that…simply providing that sort of comfort. It would be hard for me to stand up here, as a white, heterosexual male, and simply lament about frustrating experiences with people who do not think entirely like I do. I can move freely about this world. I can retreat into communities like this one and feel welcomed and understood. I can walk through our neighborhoods and down streets, into stores and restaurants, free of disturbance, free of threat, free of stares. I can “BE” me, without my presence questioned.
But, as a good friend challenged me to think, not all people have that sort of “mobility.” And, this complicates Jesus’s instructions…it complicates discipleship.
The instructions Jesus gives his disciples, the dependence he asks them to place on others’ hospitality, for their care and needs being met as they enter unknown territory, requires, risk…the sort of risk that is terrifying, and if I am honest, unfamiliar to me. It is the sort of discipleship that I cannot learn through my own experience, but through witnessing and being penetrated by the discipleship of others.
What do Jesus’s instructions mean for those whom wherever they go, they have to struggle to find place. For those who are not received as members of a community, are not extended the kind of hospitality that is required to live, to breathe. For those who seem to never be truly accepted…for those who speak and point out wrong-doing, but their pleas are met with skepticism, their urgency dismissed. For individuals with lives shaped by struggle, constantly feeling the need to argue for their humanity, for their dignity, for others to recognize that their lives matter…
It seems it is their voices and testimony that will help us learn discipleship; when and when not to, shake dust from our sandals. To learn the sort of risk that comes with hospitality. And many of our brothers and sisters have been shaking dust with dismantling fervor for decades. Let us watch, listen, and join. AMEN.