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Shake It Off – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith NelsonLuke 9:1-6

I honestly have a lot of trouble hearing today’s passage from Luke’s gospel with anything like fresh ears or an open heart. To be more precise, it is verse five that makes me want to stop listening, cross my arms, and scowl: “Wherever they do not welcome you, leave that town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

That temptation to scowl has a backstory. Plenty of Christians rely on this verse and its companion texts in Mark and Matthew as a way of dismissing non-believers or anathematizing fellow Christians with differing views or practices. When aggressive efforts to evangelize yield no fruit or when believers fail to see how they have strayed from the straight and narrow path, these Christians are licensed to deploy a common, ancient Near Eastern practice – shaking the dust from their feet – as they see fit, in their own contemporary, interpretive warfare.  It is a clean and tidy way of making a conversation partner into an opponent. It says, “I’m right, and God is my witness. You’re wrong, and I hope you reconsider.” End of story.

If you have been on the receiving end of such foot-shaking (whether literal or figurative) you will know how it feels to be the object of a unique and pungent blend of condescension, self-righteousness, and false pity. Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I can say with confidence that this technique is excellent at one thing: producing atheists.

So to hear these words spoken by Jesus, my Savior, my beloved, my Lord and my God, I must get out the steel wool. I must strip and scrub all the interpretive detritus from my memory and listen. I must listen long, listen deeply, and with the utmost humility.

Here are some things I think I hear:

Not every command of Jesus to his followers in every instance recorded in the Gospels applies to you and to me. The Resurrection, the Ascension, and the birth of the Church at Pentecost have radically altered our relationship with the kingdom and its requirements of Love. It is indeed beautiful and awesome to hear about the radical trust of the apostles, as they set out with only the clothing on their backs and the power and authority of their Master gleaming in their eyes. But Luke was well aware even by his own time that slavish duplication of the earliest methods of spreading the gospel would be reductionist and simplistic. Scholar François Bovon identifies some core aspects of Christian missionary practice at the center of Luke’s vision: receiving power and authority from the Lord; preaching and healing; the inevitable experiences of both acceptance and rejection; a hospitable house as the center of mission; and the meeting of resistance with perseverance by shaking off the dust. For Luke, these are practices enjoined upon all Christians, before or after Easter.[i] But it is up to us to discover the precise contours of those practices in our lives and our communities.

So if shaking off the dust can be said to apply to us, what might that look and feel like?

Bovon notes that, in its ancient Near Eastern context, the symbolic, non-verbal gesture of shaking dust from one’s feet did not express anger or a desire for revenge, nor was it a curse on an opponent or a claim of triumph over an enemy. It did soberly express the experience of a rupture or divide in a relationship. In Luke’s gospel, it constitutes a “testimony about the other,” rather than a “testimony against the other.”[ii] It could be seen as a non-verbal story intended primarily for God, a narrative enactment of the reality that Love cannot force itself on others. It could be seen as a way of entrusting another to God when he or she, for whatever reason, is unable to accept God’s offer of Love from us personally.

So, shaking off my interpretive baggage, I hear several humbling reminders in Jesus’s injunction to the apostles to shake the dust from their feet.  I hear the crucified and risen Christ, covered with the dust of the world for our sake, saying:

Shake off the illusion that you are responsible for meeting the needs of every living creature. Only God knows what each creature truly needs, and will use your help when and as God sees fit. Shake off the need for universal acceptance. Shake off the pain when the Gospel you have to offer is rejected. Shake off the presumption that you have arrived at the correct interpretation of my vast and life-giving Word. Shake off the dust as you rise from the tomb with me. And whatever you do or don’t do with your dusty feet, keep reaching out your hands in Love.


[i]Francois Bovon. Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Hermeneia Series. c. 2002, Fortress Press. Pgs.342-344.

[ii]Ibid, p. 346.

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8 Comments

  1. William Winston on August 30, 2019 at 12:23

    Thanks for this. You’ve helped me distinguish between the judgment-laden, clinched smile dismissals of the Bible Belt folks who need a lot of notches on their soul-saving belt and condemn those who decline their offers as salve for the anguish of their own failure to convert me; with the detachment of the Desert Fathers who strove for release from the passions of life, who simply, non-judgmentally walked away from the distractions of society. As I start a new phase as a spiritual director, I realize I’ve forgotten a lot of things that I used to have right at hand.

    And I trust there’s a little celebration today for Charles Chapman Grafton’s life and ministry. Cheers!

  2. William Coats on August 30, 2019 at 11:42

    Keith,
    Of course one can soften this reading, but I suspect it is special pleading. This early in Jesus’ ministry when the emphasis is not on him but his message about the coming Kingdom. And alas there is resistance which will mount. This leaves the question: why preach when much is received not as good news but bad news. My suspicion: he gave off preaching bout some coming kingdom ( which never came, anyway) and shifted to preaching about how following him, with faith, led to freedom from all idols and the ego as well.

  3. Pat Nolan on August 30, 2019 at 09:55

    This morning’s word was especially helpful! As I get older and less able to keep track and remember what is important, I certainly find prompts from the Lord like this one important. I can trust him to remind me what I should be concentrating on.

  4. Darrell Johnson on August 30, 2019 at 08:58

    Another sermon that I needed to hear. It spoke to my heart. Humbly grateful for your kind words.

  5. James Rowland on August 30, 2019 at 07:57

    Br Keith
    If ever I needed to hear this message it is today! After a sleepless night of persistent thoughts about a disappointment from an otherwise loving church community I greatly wanted to “shake” off those who I feel were remiss in acceptance of my situation and by extension— me. The only thing I need to shake off is my very wrong attitude. There—it’s off. Thank you for a sermon that I will keep and read many times in the future!

    • Frankie Pang on August 30, 2019 at 16:19

      Thank you Brother Keith. This is great stuff! I look forward to starting my day by reading you and the Brothers of SSJE.

  6. SusanMarie on August 30, 2019 at 07:08

    Thank you for a very helpful sermon.

  7. Jane on August 30, 2019 at 03:05

    Really loved this sermon thank you

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