By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
July 5, 2009
Read: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 and Mark 6:1-13
One of my favorite pieces of scriptures today is from 2 Corinthians – “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Comforting words when I know that I have failed. Somehow God’s grace will be sufficient in the midst and God’s power made perfect in the weakness.
And in Mark’s gospel today we hear about Jesus’ poor reception in his hometown. He was rejected. He could do no deed of power there. And Jesus sends his disciples out two by two and gives them authority over unclean spirits. He orders them to take nothing for their journey. That is quite an order. They are being asked to be vulnerable. No back-up plan in case things don’t go well in one of the communities they visit. What if they are rejected, what if there is no place they are welcome to rest for the night? Jesus gives instructions….”If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet..” In other words, don’t carry any baggage with you as you move on in life. Don’t hang on to those negative feelings, to that rejection, let it go, shake it off. Begin again. Don’t let a seeming failure stop you in your tracks. Continue the journey in trust and faith in our God.
In 1961, the Swedish warship Vasa broke the surface of the water after 333 years on the bottom of the sea. Divers had discovered the ancient wooden vessel just a few years before. When it was built in 1628, the Vasa was a marvel of the latest technology. It was the atomic bomb of its day, the biggest and mightiest of warships with two decks and 64 massive cannons. The Swedish king was in a desperate fight with Poland and was eager to have the new weapon involved in the war.
On Sunday, August 10, 1628, the beaches around Stockholm were filled with spectators and foreign diplomats eager to watch the maiden voyage of the mightiest ship ever built. The voyage was to be an act of propaganda for the ambitious Swedish king.
The Vasa set her sails, fired a salute and made her way into the harbor. But after only a few minutes of sailing the ship began to heel over. She righted herself slightly, and then heeled over again. Then to everyone’s horror and disbelief, the glorious and mighty warship suddenly sank killing about fifty of the 150 people aboard.
Many people wondered why the Vasa sank. Deep down in the Vasa several tons of stone were stored as ballast to give the ship stability, but it was not enough to counterweight the guns, the upper hull, masts and sails of the ship. As it turned out the plans used for building the Vasa were intended for small ships with only one gun deck. Because the Vasa had two gun decks with heavy artillery higher on the ship than ever before, the standard calculations did not apply. When the ship began to heel over, water poured through the open lower gun ports and quickly sank the ship. (From the web site for the Vasa Museum, www.vasamuseet.se, June 17, 2000)
So now they have raised the Vasa and made it into a museum. Modern day Swedish children can see this ancient vessel that was supposed to be the most glorious warship of its day, but instead it became the biggest failure of the day. I think it is wonderful that there is such a museum — a museum to failure.
Can you imagine how embarrassing this episode was for everybody involved? It was a horribly public failure. But then, many of us can understand because we have known failures that were almost as public as this one.
Failure is a word that strikes fear in the heart of everybody. Our society has become so success-oriented that we have very little tolerance for failure.
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.
I find it interesting that in our passage for today Jesus both experienced failure himself and expected his disciples to fail.
Jesus prepares them for failure when he says, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on 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 all Christians with a sacrament of failure can empower all of us to carry on when we fail.
In his book A Theology of Failure, John Narrone says, “A theology which takes failure seriously does not encourage fatalism, passivity, indifference to the world; rather it affirms that the man who cannot freely lay down his life is one whose ideals and values are already compromised.” (John Narrone, A Theology of Failure [New York: Paulist Press, 1974], 11).
Jesus tells his disciples that they should not fear failure, He says to shake off the dust and go on.
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 (Ministers Manual 1991, p. 320).
Shake off the dust and go on.
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 surely 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 (Peter Rhea Jones, Ministers Manual 1991, p. 58).
Shake off the dust and go on.
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 the dust and go on.
Take comfort in our Lord’s words to us – “My grace is sufficient for you.” Amen.
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