First Congregational Church
July 8, 2018
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
“The Sacrament of Failure”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Holidays have a special way of making us look at life a little differently - including the Fourth of July. It just happened that I encountered a number of little kids this past week that had some tough moments, especially on Wednesday and the days after. It was my observation that not only was it ugly hot, but sleep patterns and schedules for children of all ages have been upset.
One little girl I encountered was so out of sorts, that when the diaper on her baby doll didn’t fit right she literally walked around the house with her head hanging down, so that she looked like the number seven.
Friday night, waiting my turn at the ice cream place by Family Fare, there was a four year that had a complete and total melt down. He didn’t want the ice cream cone that his mother bought for him because it was like the one the other little boy had, but he didn’t want her to throw it away, either, and only his mother could tell what he was saying through the wailing and tears, poor guy.
I think there are far more days than we care to admit, when we all feel like that. Perhaps it was the sea of people that have been around this week that has caught my attention, seeing things that I might not otherwise have noticed.
So I got to thinking about the word burglarize - noticing how it is what a crook sees through and polarize is what penguins see through. And I and I could see how an eyedropper is a clumsy ophthalmologist and parasites is what you see from the Eiffel Tower. And again in the medical vein - yes, pun intended - there was the thought of how a paradox is the equivalent of two physicians and a pharmacist is a helper on a farm.
Today’s passage follows a series of big stuff: Jesus calming the storm, healing a demon-possessed man, healing a woman with a hemorrhage, restoring a little girl to life, all of which happened around the Sea of Galilee. Today’s passage takes place in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, the same distance from the Sea of Galilee as from here to Benzonia.
Mark 6:1-13 New International Version (NIV), A Prophet Without Honor
6 Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.
Jesus Sends Out the Twelve
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.
8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
Thank you, Paul. In the scripture passage from Mark, there are some details that have perhaps caught some of your ears. The home folk recognized him, pointing out that he was “Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” Jesus’ sisters don’t get names, but at least in this place, we get to know that he had some.
More than one commentator has sifted through these little descriptors to suggest that because it doesn’t say that Jesus was the son of Joseph, but rather the son of Mary, that Joseph had probably died by then. In fact, one of the commentators suggested that between the age of 12 and 30, the time of which we know pretty much nothing about Jesus’ life, was time that he spent in Nazareth, learning and working as a carpenter, the eldest male child providing for the rest of the family until they were able to provide for themselves.
Thomas Campbell was a poet at the turn of the 19th century, but his father had no sense of poetry at all. When Thomas' first book emerged with his name on it, he sent a copy to his father. The father looked at the binding, rather than the contents and said "Who would have thought that our Tom could have made a book like that?" Sometimes when familiarity should breed growing respect, it breeds an easy-going presumption or even a total lack of acknowledgement. It is to our own detriment that we are sometimes too near people to see their greatness.
One of my old commentary buddies, William Barclay, made the statement, “There can be no peace-making in the wrong atmosphere. If people have come together to hate, they will hate. If people have come together to refuse to understand, they will misunderstand. If people have come together to see no other point of view but their own, they will see no other. But if people have come together, loving Christ and seeking to love each other, even those who are most widely separated can come together in him.” Just in case anyone was wondering, Mr. Barclay wrote that statement between 1956 and 1959.
It was a Methodist Bishop named J. Lawrence McCleskey from whom I “borrowed” this morning’s sermon title. He almost made me laugh aloud with the opening statement about his take on our scripture passage. He said, “Jesus was a failure. At least in this instance that is the conclusion we draw if we take this passage from Mark seriously.”
That seems rather gutsy, at least to my sense of Minnesota nice background. I was raised to take a phrase like “he was a failure” and try to give it at least a little positive spin, something like, “he had some successes.” But Dr. McCleskey lays it right out there; Jesus was a failure at home. Even so, he taught the disciples how to shrug off that which may seem like failure and to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Failure is a rather ugly word, and we give its avoidance a whole lot of energy - consciously and unconsciously. But failure is a very human experience, and not one we should necessarily try to avoid, even if our world doesn’t even honor it. True, some of us may feel like we’ve had a much too familiar relationship with failure. Even at that, such feelings put one in an exclusive fellowship.
Thomas Edison's teachers said he was "too stupid to learn anything." He was fired from his first two jobs for being "non-productive." As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Albert Einstein did not speak until he was 4-years-old and did not read until he was 7. His parents thought he was "sub-normal," and one of his teachers described him as "mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in foolish dreams." He was expelled from school and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. He did eventually learn to speak and read. Even to do a little math.
When Julie Andrews took her first screen test for MGM studios, the final determination was that "She's not photogenic enough for film.” Twelve publishers rejected J.K. Rowling's book about a boy wizard before a small London house picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
Apparently there is a professor at MIT who offers a course on failure. He does that, he says, because failure is a far more common experience than success. An interviewer once asked him if anybody ever failed the course on failure. He thought a moment and replied, "No, but there were two Incompletes."
The world doesn’t praise weakness nor reward defeat. Yet it was out of betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion that Christ demonstrated the ultimate shaking off of dust. It was out of the weakness of death that God brought salvation and life.
Our world loves success stories. Yet most of us know, at some time in our lives, what it means to fail, to lose, to be weak. For that reasoning alone, the sacrament of failure makes sense. Bread, wine, water, failure, all are inextricable parts of life, and yet God blesses them and turns them into gifts that ultimately bring greater life.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts is a retired Methodist preacher who put in 48 years behind a pulpit. If anyone understood the idea of relying on one’s on power that could ultimately result in failure, surely he had ample opportunity. He said, “The days and weeks in my ministry in which I have ended up in a state of frustration and emotional and physical exhaustion have been when I was operating out of my own power.” That statement is true for all of us, regardless of our occupations, ages or abilities. So let us delve into that power that is greater than ours.
God of Second Chances and Opportunity, thank you for giving us more than mere life on this globe. When it seems that we fail, help us to look for the lessons and to shake the dust off our feet, to go forward in the work you have for us. Help us to look often with fresh eyes to those around us, lest we miss potentials and greatness. When an apology is needed, help us to offer it with genuine authenticity and determination to avoid a repeat of the cause that required it. Remind us, God of Love and Light, that you give us a high road to travel not because of some weird, irrelevant reason, but because it is a holy road, one that is lined with people who need healing and inclusion and identity as a brother or sister in your kingdom. For all the blessings of second chances and forgiveness and wind-blown dust off shoes, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.