Texts: Ezekiel 2:1-3:3; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
To my modern ear, that is one of the lessons learned from our gospel reading. Mark’s gospel was originally written to a small Christian community. In order to grow, they had to invite others in, but those others often declined the invitation. What should the Church make of these people who did not accept Jesus’ message of repentance?
This is a major theme in Mark’s gospel: as Jesus went around preaching and teaching and performing miracles, even the people who agreed with him and believed in him—his followers and his closest friends—missed the point about who he was and what he had to say. Throughout Jesus’ entire life, nobody figures out who he is except the demons he was casting out. It isn’t until his death that a Roman centurion—an enemy soldier of an occupying army who didn’t even worship the God who sent Jesus to spread the gospel—finally gets it. “Surely, this man was the Son of God.”
It is no surprise, then, that if Jesus couldn’t make his best friends see what it was he was trying to show them that said friends—meaning us—might also meet with failure on occasion. And when we do, what is Jesus’ response? “Shake the dust from that town off as a testimony against them,” he says. “Don’t feed the trolls.”
This is a good thing for us to hear and understand. Whether we are talking about spreading the gospel or debating marriage equality or talking about climate change, we are not going to convince everybody. We as individuals are not and cannot be personally responsible for converting or persuading everybody we meet. If we take that on ourselves, we will die broken and defeated people, because we will fail more often than we succeed. Jesus’ experience at Nazareth and his instructions to his disciples give us the freedom to shake the dust from our feet and move on. Don’t feed the trolls.
I remember when Pr. Stephanie and I moved to Willmar, MN. We were looking at apartments and were interviewing with the property manager of the apartment building where we would eventually live. Willmar has experienced a large influx of Somali refugees in the last 10 years or so, and like any small, rural, homogenous town, this sudden and severe flood of strangers was creating tension.
As we talked to the property manager—the woman who was about to become our landlord—not 5 minutes into the conversation, she warned us about “those ethnics,” and how they came here and went straight to the courthouse to line up for their check. She implied that they were lazy and unmotivated and squandered the aid money they got from the government. “I’m not racist, though,” she said. “I have nothing against the Somalis. We have a nice Somali couple who live here. They’re different. It’s all those other ones that are like that.”
Pr. Stephanie and I sat wide-eyed, not believing that we had actually heard a real human being in real life saying these things to us. But what were we going to do? We could speak up, maybe anger the person who has the power to get us an apartment in this building; but for what? Did we honestly stand a chance of changing her mind? So, we did what most people would do. We smiled and nodded, and didn’t feed the trolls.
Now, here’s where I’ve gotten stuck. It’s a really good idea not to feed the trolls; feeding the trolls brings nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth. However, Willmar was a good example of what happens when people who say and think things like that are allowed to say and think those things without any resistance. Willmar had no Confederate flag over the courthouse, no KKK chapter or burnt churches, but it was and is a racist town. Caucasian and Somali kids play together in elementary school, but by high school those same children have claimed separate sides of the building, and there are hallways they dare not walk down because those hallways are “white” or “Somali.”
Somehow, without any feeding, the trolls are thriving.
And that is where I’m stuck. We wouldn’t have changed that by refuting our future landlord. I don’t think we could have changed that by holding rallies every weekend or standing on a soapbox with a bullhorn; but I start to think that this is what happens when we shake the dust from our feet too soon, when we give up the fight before it’s been started. The kind of environment that doesn’t challenge bald-faced sin is the kind of environment in which a young man might walk into a church and murder people because of their skin color.
So what is the alternative? Should we debate every crackpot to our last breath? I don’t think so; but it is worth noting that Jesus told his disciples to shake the dust from their feet only after they had entered the town, after they had preached his message of repentance and after they had been rejected. We have been freed to fail, but we have also been given the duty to try.
The words we hear from Ezekiel today are poignant. Not all of us are called to be prophets, but we as the Church of Christ are called to be prophetic. That means speaking hard words to sometimes rebellious people. The word of God is sweet as honey when we first receive it, full of grace and peace, truth and justice, mercy and love; but when we try to live out that word, we find that the same word is often a word of lamentation and mourning and woe, a hardship that asks too much of us, that may put our very lives at risk. We hear God encourage Ezekiel to not fear the looks and the words of the people to whom he is sent, not to worry about the briars and thorns that surround him. Following this passage, God also promises that God will make Ezekiel’s forehead as hard as theirs, hard as flint to beat against the stubbornness of the Israelites.
This is what our baptism is: it is a call for us as a community to steel ourselves for the work of proclaiming the hard truth—God’s truth—to a stubborn and rebellious world. The message Jesus sent out through his disciples was a message of repentance; not because God cannot love us as we are, but because God is inviting us into a way of being that is so much fuller, more just, more peaceful—so much better. God does not equip us for this work with bible bullets or amazing rhetorical devices or clever sound-bytes, but with love and patience and persistence. Through baptism, God gives us hard foreheads and soft hearts to proclaim the message of the kingdom.
Martin Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. And, a Christian is a perfectly dutiful slave of all, subject to all.” The good news of Christ’s gospel frees us from being responsible for the actions and the opinions of those around us; but it frees us for service to all. Jesus frees us to shake the dust from our feet so we may move on to the next town and try again. It’s a different type of freedom that we hear talked about on the 4th of July, the kind of freedom that is all about us and our personal liberty. The freedom God offers is not just for our happiness, but for the health and wellbeing of all creation.
Jesus gives us the instruction to turn our energy where it will be most effective, shaking the dust off our feet and moving on when we must; but we also know that Jesus never shook that dust from his feet. That dust clung to his heels as he hung stretched on the cross, a reminder that in spite of our outright rebelliousness and rejection, God in Christ refuses to give up on us. This is why even though there comes a time when we as individuals must admit defeat, smile and nod, and walk away, there never comes a time when we as the Church are not called to set our foreheads like flint and dive once more into the fray. God continues to send us out so that whether they heed it or not, the world may know that there has been a prophet among them. Otherwise, the trolls win.