SPEAKER: Jim Bridges
I think that most of us here today would agree that we have a desire or mission to follow in the way of Jesus, to model our lives after him and his teachings, as best as we all can. That is, in part, why we have been following his life in this series of sermons based upon the lectionary readings from the Gospel according to Mark. Today, both readings from the New Testament, Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthians, as well as the Gospel of Mark, deal with issues of personal weakness, failure, and rejection.
Who among us has not had to deal with some form of failure in our lives? Indeed, when I started out on my own many years ago, a college dropout at the age of 19, a good part of my emotional life concerned a fear of failure. For the first several years of living on my own, I wondered and worried if I could continue to make it on my own, if I would be able to earn enough money to pay the rent each month, to have enough money to buy food and pay for my utilities, and eventually to provide well for myself and a family. Then when I returned to college, I worried if I would succeed in college, and then later in graduate school. Would I ever marry, and if I did, would I be a good enough parent to my children, and on and on and on. Self doubt and a degree of self-criticism and worry over failure were certainly part of my make-up, and at times, they still are.
Failure is a word that strikes fear in many a heart in American society, especially during this time of recession. We have become very success driven here in America. Societal tolerance of failure is minimal. Our American culture often glamorizes the millionaires and billionaires, the super-achievers in sports, star entertainers in movies and television, and famous artists, writers, and composers. However, if you live long enough and attempt to do much in your life, sooner or later you will run up against failure – either of your own or that of a loved one.
People fail every day…They fail financially, in business, in love and marriage, and in relationships. They can fail in health, in school, and in work. Failure can be and is difficult to cope with. Often we try to hide it, not talk about it, and bury it. Even when one has done all of these things, it can eat away at your insides, resulting in poor self esteem and self-confidence. We and others may see it as the ultimate tragedy. We can be judged harshly, by others and by ourselves, when we fail at something.
I know when I went through three months of being unemployed in my late 20’s, I was miserable. I doubted myself and felt terrible. I can only wonder how badly I would have felt if I had been involuntarily unemployed for several years. Worse, our society often seems to enjoy blaming the individuals for their own failures and weaknesses.
I was surprised, however, by Paul, who sees his weakness, or his thorn, to use his words, as a strength in this section of 2nd Corinthians. He believes that through his weakness, or failure, if you will, God enters his life and blesses him with grace. Thus, he writes that through his weakness he gains strength. It is admittedly a paradox, similar to Leonard Cohen’s verse about cracks, which we had hanging on our sanctuary wall last year:
“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
So through Paul’s weakness, God enters his life and blesses it, thereby giving him strength and power. While I can understand Paul’s reasoning, it isn’t something that I would want to seek out and cultivate – highlighting a weakness in my life so that God could enter in through the cracks and weaknesses in my personhood. I would guess that it does happen – but it really isn’t something I have learned to welcome or relish. It most likely happens in spite of me! Might it also happen with you?
Turning next to our gospel reading for today, Mark 6: 1-13, the selection really contains two stories, one regarding Jesus, and one concerning his apostles. The first section concerns Jesus in his home town of Nazareth. Immediately before his arrival in his home town, he has had a string of successes, healing the ill, preaching to multitudes who were receptive to his message. But then, when he comes to his home town, he starts with some success, but people begin to question his authority to speak as he does and to question his powers to heal the lame. He discovers that even his powers to heal the infirm are weakened by the lack of faith of his fellow Nazarenes.
From an objective point of view, Jesus failed to convince people about His message in his home town where he was born and raised. Here, where people knew him more personally, knew him from the time of childhood up until the present, knew of his carpenter skills and his parents, he failed. They questioned and doubted his wisdom, whether he reflected God’s will, and whether he spoke with divine authority. They rejected him.
In reading this exchange carefully, though, it struck me. He experienced no self doubt or self blame. He did not question himself, asking if perhaps he should have replied to their questions differently. No! He recognized the problem immediately. It was the residents’ lack of faith which caused the problem, not the way he presented his message or what he said. The problem, and the solution, lay in the recipients’ openness and receptivity – and not in Jesus.
While this complete lack of self-criticism in some measure is a surprise, the entire story did remind me of something I have witnessed over the years I worked in educational institutions. Seldom to never would an in-service training session be conducted or led by someone from within the same school organization. All such new trainings were done by outside experts – even if the school system had their own experts who were more knowledgeable on a given topic. Why is this? Because administrators knew that people in general are far more likely to listen to an outside expert than to one of their own. Apparently such is human nature, regardless of the setting, and Jesus immediately recognized the problem in speaking to residents of his home town. Thus he said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Mark then noted that “he was amazed at their unbelief.”
So the lessons here are: Familiarity can interfere with faith and receptivity. It can breed doubt. And when faced with exceptionalism, familiarity can result in anger and rejection of the individual. Indeed, we have a saying here in America – “familiarity breeds contempt.” And thus Jesus met with failure. His failure was not because of him, though, but rather because of the disbelief and contempt of him by the residents of Nazareth.
The second part of our reading in Mark, however, I found to be even more intriguing. Jesus is giving instructions to his disciples, whom he is sending out to preach and teach in pairs. He encourages them to travel extremely lightly, with virtually no provisions, thereby making them dependent upon their hosts. His disciples must of necessity have high faith in Jesus to follow these instructions.
Secondly, he encourages them to stay focused and centered in one place – to stay with their host until their work there is completed. And lastly, if rejected or if they fail, he instructs them to shake the dust off of their sandals and leave it behind. In other words, his disciples are not to engage in self-doubt, try to figure out how they could have said things differently, etc. Nor are they to bring doubts along with them after their failure. No – they are to leave them at the household, if you will, and maintain their faith in Jesus’ message and their preaching. Jesus obviously expected them to fail and meet with rejection in some cases. He accepts their failure, and he wants them to accept it as well. Accept it, brush the dust off of your feet, and move on.
Subliminally, Jesus seems to be telling them to have faith in their calling and in their mission. Failure is ok, but then move on, don’t dwell on it.
So to answer the question – should you be afraid to fail? To me, the answer is a clear “NO.” Failure is not to be feared; it is to be expected.
As Paul noted, failure will sometimes allow God to come in and work through you. After all, the light comes in through the cracks.
Failure may clear away the dreams of our highest hopes and allow something new to enter into our lives.
Failure can result in creativity. We all get stuck in ruts sometimes, and a failure can shake us up and move us onward. The death of a caterpillar can allow a butterfly to emerge.
We may also fail for Jesus. While some contemporary theologies promise health, wealth, and success for those who follow Jesus, historically, we Mennonites have recognized many martyrs in our fold, as seen in the Martyrs Mirror. Also, nearly every apostle of Jesus died a martyr’s death. Being a so-called failure for Jesus can be a positive within Christianity.
May we all continue to strive for human betterment and a more Christian manner of living, and whenever we meet with failure, let us pick ourselves up, shake the dust off of our feet, maintain our faith, and go on forward.
May God enter each of our lives through our cracks and our failures.
May it be so.