6 Pentecost, Proper 9 – July 5, 2015
The Gospel passage appointed for today has a lot to tell us about what it means to be a disciple, a disciple in a challenging, difficult, confusing, and at times painful world which is also and simultaneously a place of beauty and wonder and beloved of God.
While there are various elements in what amounts to two connected scenes – Jesus’ preaching in his hometown and then sending his disciples out – there is between them a fascinating movement and even transformation in the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. By the end of these scenes, the disciples are no longer observers, they are no longer just followers. Discipleship, as it turns out, is not just about learning from and following another, but also taking on the role and authority of the one you follow.
What is fascinating in the first scene is the treatment Jesus receives from his neighbors and hometown friends. Why such disdain? Perhaps it’s just that familiarity does indeed breed contempt. But perhaps it’s also that we have such a hard time receiving grace from unexpected places. Jesus wasn’t what they expected a prophet, let alone a Messiah, to look like. And to accept him as such was to call into question much of what they thought they knew about the world and about people and about themselves. He is different from what they think a prophet should be. And so rather than revise their expectations, they dismiss him. Jesus appears to have failed.
Several years ago I was watching a program on television that filmed several young people placed in a house together for six weeks. One of the girls made the candid remark, “I have never failed at anything I have ever tried to do.” It was one of those sentences that makes you stop while you are crossing the room and ask, “What did she say?” I think I will never forget her honest confidence as she said it. But I remember thinking, “Yeah, I was young once too.”
If you live long and attempt much, you will run up against failure. People fail every day. They suffer from failed relationships, failed marriages, failure at work and failure in health. Most of us can identify with failure, and we know from experience that failure is hard to cope with in a world like ours. When we fail at something, most of think of it as the ultimate and irreversible tragedy of all time. We see it as the one aspect of life from which there is no reprieve and no reversal.
It’s interesting that in our passage for today Jesus both experienced failure himself and expected his disciples to fail. In the last part of this passage, Jesus gives his disciples instructions about what to do when they are rejected.
Jesus has been moving from one success to another in his ministry. As Mark leads up to this point, we have witnessed some of Jesus’ most amazing miracles – the stilling of the storm, the healing of the demon-possessed man, and the restoration of Jairus’ little daughter to life. Now, searching for some rest, Jesus journeys back to his own hometown of Nazareth. Here in his home town, he meets with out and out rejection, prompting him to utter his famous line, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own relatives, and in his own house.”
Then Jesus turns to commission his disciples for the beginning of their missionary activity. He tells the disciples that it is time for them to begin their ministry, going two by two into the countryside preaching and casting out unclean spirits. He advises them to travel lightly taking nothing but a staff. They are to carry no bread, no bag, and no money in their belts. They are to wear sandals and not even take an extra tunic.
But in verse 11, Jesus prepares them for failure when he says, “Whoever will not receive you nor hear you, as you depart from there, shake off the dust that is under your feet as a testimony against them.” Jesus makes it clear that they will not be insulated from failure just because they are going in his name. In fact, Jesus knows that failure will be a real possibility, so he provides his disciples with a sacrament of failure – shaking the dust off their feet.
Jesus’ inauguration of a “sacrament of failure” does not mean that he is sending the disciples out to fail. Rather, he is showing them how to carry on in the face of failure. Nobody likes to hear they are going to have to face failure in life. But understanding how Jesus provided us with a sacrament of failure can empower all of us to carry on when we fail.
Failure can lead to better things. Sometimes our highest hopes are destroyed so that we can be prepared for better things. The failure of the caterpillar is the birth of the butterfly. The passing of the bud is the blooming of the rose. The death of the seed is the prelude to its resurrection as wheat. Someone has said that plants grow best in the darkness of night just before dawn. Our failures can be the door to a new success. The name of John James Audubon is forever associated with the magnificent paintings he made of the birds of North America. No one else has so accurately painted the birds and the natural environment in which they were found. It might not have happened had he not gone bankrupt in business! In 1808, he opened a store in Louisville, Kentucky. It was after he went bankrupt in 1819 that he began traveling and painting birds. We are all richer because of his business failure. Shake off the dust and go on.
Failure can be creative. Sometimes we get stuck it a rut and it takes failure to jolt us out of the routine so that we can be truly creative. An adventurous life requires risk-taking. Great courage is needed to face real change. A great failure can be the influence that enables us to risk and change. When we listen to the exalting music of Handel’s Messiah, we usually assume it was written by a man at the pinnacle of his success, but that is not the case. In fact, it was written after he had suffered a stroke. It was written while Handel lived in poverty amid bleak surroundings. He had suffered through a particularly deep night of gloom and despair over his failure as a musician, and the next morning he unleashed his creative genius in a musical score that continues to thrill and inspire us generations later Shake off the dust and go on.
As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat” (From Knute Larson, “Dancing With Defeat,” Leadership, Fall 1993, 104-107).
Failure is not the end of the world. Failure is not a debilitating disease that ruins us for eternity. In fact, we should not be afraid to fail. We should expect failure at times. Then exercise Jesus’ ritual of failure – shake of the dust and go on. (I am indebted to Homiletics, July 3, 1994 for the idea of this sermon}