By The Rev. Sherry Deets
6 Pentecost – July 8, 2012
Today we are going to talk about the Sacrament of Failure. I love it – the Sacrament of Failure– and I am indebted to Mickey Anders for that concept and his homily on the topic.
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. Isn’t it 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. We glamorize the Hollywood actors and sports players of the world, and ridicule misfits and also-rans like you and me.
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 very 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.
At his home synagogue, Jesus begins to teach. And he earns a response, but hardly like that in other places. As in other places, the people are astonished at his teaching, but this time they are astonishingly appalled at his message and manner. “How dare this local boy, Jesus, assume such authority?” they ask. And verse three says, “‘Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judah, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ They were offended at him.”
This is actually the third time that Jesus had tasted a glimpse of failure in his ministry. In Mark 3:21, his own family labeled him crazy and tried to restrain him. In Mark 3:31, his mother and brothers and sisters try again to remove him from his teaching ministry. 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 hometown, and among his own kin, and 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 welcome 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 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. 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 (Ministers Manual 1991, p. 320).
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 (Peter Rhea Jones, Ministers Manual 1991, p. 58). 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. And then exercise Jesus’ ritual of failure – shake the dust and go on. Jesus says, “I am with you always. Even to the end of the ages.” What more could we ask for? Amen.
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