Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”
Do you know how hard it is to get dust off your shoes? I learned this during the brief time I spent in Uganda, walking on dirt roads every day. And every day, Alex, the houseboy (and let’s talk about how uncomfortable that was), would take my shoes and try to scrub them clean, but the dirt never really came off. My shoes still have some of the red dirt from those roads.
In this passage from Luke, Jesus gives his disciples instructions before sending them out and is brutally realistic about the fact that some of these visits are going to be a total failure.
I’m trying to think of anyone who told me that sometimes my ministry is going to be a bust. I’m not coming up with anyone (though it’s possible I simply ignored them and believed it would never happen to me). But I’m here to tell you: sometimes what you work on is going to be a total bust.
Here are two mistakes I’ve made when it comes to failure. The first was to keep banging my head against a wall when something wasn’t working. I believed that any failure must be my fault; that if I spent a little more time, put in a little more effort, explained myself a little bit better, then everything would work. But Jesus is very clear: if something isn’t working, don’t pretend that it is. It’s not that you’re doing something wrong; it’s that you are not welcomed. Move on to someplace that’s going to welcome you and your work.
My other mistake was to believe it’s easy to brush it off when something fails. “Shake the dust off your feet,” I’ve heard many times, and thought it was supposed to be a simple thing. I didn’t realize that dust clings. I didn’t know that it would take effort and time to wipe it all off.
But here’s the third thing I see when I look at this reading today: Jesus calls us, not to succeed, but to bring the kingdom of God near. Success or failure was not the point. Actually, I now believe that success and failure don’t look like what we think they look like. If we have brought the kingdom of God near, we have succeeded by the only important measure.
Are you spending your time on a project you should leave behind? Take the first few steps on to the next town.
Are you still worried about the dust of failure clinging to you? If something you tried to do didn’t work, be sure to say “That failed,” not “I failed.”