Matthew 10:11-15: Faithfulness vs. Fruitfulness

When I was an undergrad, our college had a vision to build a shining new facility to house the school’s chapel and fine arts programs. It would be state-of-the-art from the ground up, the crowning jewel on an already beautiful campus. By the time I arrived at school, this vision was already approaching fruition. Within a couple of months, the capital campaign had concluded, and that spring, ground was broken. By the middle of my junior year, the new facility was open, and it was spectacular! In the months that followed, though, it quickly became apparent that something was wrong. After the tremendous victory of the new building, it seemed as though the entire school had reached a destination, and now everyone was just standing around asking, “Now what?” We had reached the end of the vision, and it quickly became clear that no one knew where to go or what to do next. We were wandering in the woods.

Ever since those days, I have contemplated Matthew 10:11-15. The question which has long plagued me as I read this passage is this: how does one know when it’s time to shake the dust off and move on?

Over nearly fifteen years of vocational ministry, all at the same church, this question has surfaced time and again. In seasons when the church seems to be firing on all cylinders, people are responding to the gospel, and God is clearly moving, it is easy to recognize a time to stay. In those seasons when things are not going so well, when God seems quite distant and people seem anything but responsive, answering this question becomes dramatically more difficult. On the Monday morning after a particularly discouraging weekend, it can be almost impossible to figure out how you would ever carry on.

Early in ministry, I came up with two maxims that I promised myself I would never violate. Following the advice of some wise elders, the first was that I would not write a resignation letter on a Monday. I sometimes wonder if anyone has ever done a study to determine what percentage of pastoral resignation letters are written and/or submitted on a Monday because is suspect the portion is extremely high. The adrenaline surge, long hours, and extra effort of the weekend combine to make Monday brutal for most of the pastors I know. Just like Elijah after the victorious experience atop Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18, we find ourselves inexplicably sitting under a scraggly broom tree, all alone in the wilderness, having had enough, begging God to take our lives. Monday is the low tide of our week, and as such, how I feel on Monday should never be the determining factor in whether or not I stick around.

The second maxim I adopted was to never quit when things got tough. I always knew that there would be times when things were difficult. Difficulties act as the trees of the forest, which can make it difficult to get your bearings and see where you are going. And if there was one thing I learned from growing up spending all sorts of time in the woods, it was that trees may make it difficult, but they certainly do not make it impossible. Take, for instance, the time we were hunting, and my assignment was to push through a particularly thick section of the forest to the parking lot where our vehicles were parked. There were times when I could not see more than three or four feet in any direction and I was snarled in the dreaded multiflora rose. A quick glance at my compass, though, and I could tell which direction I needed to go. There were times when I could not continue on the same path, so I had to detour one way or another and work my way around an obstacle. There were moments on that walk when I didn’t know exactly where I was. I knew I had to cross several large ravines, but I lost track of how many I had crossed. I needed to remember that I had crossed a ravine or two. And there was even the moment when I emerged from the woods suddenly and unexpectedly to realize I had turned 90 degrees to my left and was headed in completely the wrong direction. I had to correct my course and carry on. All of these things are expected in the forest, and all of these things are expected in ministry. When they happen, that does not mean it is time to call for air rescue to come and get you, to submit your resignation and fly away. It means it is time to sit down and figure out what to do now. Some time in Scripture (our compass); some creative problem solving (our detour); a little review of the last thing God accomplished (remembering the last ravine rather than all of them); and a little (or major) course correction to get us headed once again toward where we need to go are all key in those moments when we find ourselves lost in the woods, unable to see our destination for the trees.

This morning, as I read Matthew 10 in my devotions, I was reminded again of these maxims when Jesus instructed his disciples to (1) stay with the same people until you leave that town, and (2) shake the dust off and move on if no one in a town will welcome you. This morning, though, it occurred to me that these two things are really the opposite ends of a spectrum: we can either keep on or cut out.

To be clear, Jesus explicitly states that there is an appropriate time for each of these. Unfortunately, he does not really make clear how to tell the difference between the two times.

The challenge of discerning the difference between these two times is confused even more when you contrast the accounts of Ezekiel and Jeremiah with that of Paul at Athens in Acts 17. Ezekiel and Jeremiah ministered faithfully for decades with only minimal results. Paul preached twice before calling it quits even though “some men joined him and believed, including Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them” (Acts 17:34).

Thus, the question with which I began: how does one know when it’s time to shake the dust off and move on.

This morning, though, it dawned on me that the determining factor was not present circumstances as much as it is vision for the future. That is, Ezekiel and Jeremiah saw the end. For Ezekiel, it was the day when Israel would return to Jerusalem, revived and restored. For Jeremiah, it was the day Judah was finally exiled and there was no longer any chance for turnaround. Each of these prophets worked faithfully, diligently, toward those ends, staying until they reached their objectives. Paul, on the other hand, saw that the Areopagites of Athens would never be convinced by him; the handful that believed on day one were the only harvest that city would bear for now. He could not see the destination, so he shook off the dust and walked away.

Maybe that is the deciding factor in whether or not we stay or go: do we know where we are going? Losing sight of the end is not enough. Not knowing how to get to the objective is not enough. But if we have reached the end of our vision and truly have no idea where we are going next, we will never be able to do anything more than wander in the woods. That is when it becomes imperative to walk away.

Where, then, is our church going? What is our objective?

Our objective is to supplant the status quo of the world with the kingdom of God.

  • Families will be healthy and whole.
  • Everyone will have food, clothing, and shelter.
  • Neighbors will be reconciled across language, ethnicity, and property boundaries.
  • Unemployment and underemployment will be non-existent.
  • Everyone will know that Jesus loves them, and we do too.

All because people will be following Jesus. And our church – the people who comprise Debra Heights Wesleyan Church – will be at the center of an ever-expanding community in which everyone has had the chance to follow Jesus.

That’s the objective. That’s the end. Can you see it through the trees? Because I can.

And if we ever reach that point, or if I ever forget that this is our destination, it’ll be time for me to shake the dust off and move on.

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