Proper 20b 2015: False starts and failures and Jesus

Proverbs 31:10-31 Psalm 1 James 3:13-4.3, 7-8a Mark 9:30-37
We still want to be first, to be the first and the best. We want our football, hockey, soccer, and baseball teams to win. We want our children to be in the National Honor Society, or to get better grades than we did, to prove to the world in some way that they are the best… so that they can go to the best colleges and have the best lives ever. Our biblical support is broad. Today alone the message comes through: Proverbs 31: the husband of a capable wife will have “no lack of gain.” She is praised: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” We want to be first, we want for ourselves and those we love to be the first and the best.

James might temper our ambitious longings just a little. He asks “Who is wise and understanding among you?” and lets us know that we need to turn to God, to submit ourselves to God, which somehow doesn’t sound like it is all about winning. If we are really listening, we might by now be discouraged about the path that is set before us. Who can be that good “in the way of a good wife?” Who can have enough wisdom? We need a wisdom that conquers cravings and hostility, that conquers murderous actions and covetous behavior in order to be righteous or “good enough.” It will be very hard to be first, which is not to say that we still don’t want to be there.

At a conference this week, a group of mostly clergy people, most under 50 with a few of us past that, shared stories about our churches. We looked at how we measure success, what it means to be vital and effective as a church, and what role telling our stories has in such an analysis. We heard stories of parish vitality, we participated in bible studies, in worship, and in sharing stories of effective ministries, whatever that means. We also talked about failure. Every story of success that we heard has a path of false starts and failures along the way. It’s harder to talk about failure, even as we tried to get our thoughts around the mantra of: fail early, fail often, and if you can, fail cheaply. Fail. Learn from the failure. Fail often, because beyond and within a story of failure is a story of transformation. And at the end of the day, what we are trying to measure is how we have been transformed – ourselves, our parishes, and our church – has been transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Like Peter and the other disciples, we do not want Jesus to die. That looks like failure. When Jesus tells us, or alludes to us, that he must die (he was born to die) earlier in the gospel of Mark, we respond with fear. We are afraid. Jesus tells us that we have to lose our life to save it.

Today when Jesus tells us that we will kill the Son of Man, that the people will kill him, that he will die and in three days be raised, we do not understand. And we are afraid to ask. We are afraid to ask Jesus. We are still afraid. Jesus responds gently. He gathers us together, taking the physical posture of a rabbi, a teacher. Jesus shows us, in a way that we might understand, about being first and last. The boasting that we have done along the way, our own arguing about being first and last, is thrown away, dismissed. It is of no importance. In fact, Jesus shows us how wrong we are and how “last” we must be. Jesus brings a child “among them,” right into the middle of them, and then pulls that child closer, right into Jesus’ arms. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Welcome a child, and we welcome God so closely to ourselves that we are the ones being held in God’s arms.

Failure is not the end of the story. Failure gives us the opportunity for another beginning, for discerning new opportunities, and for making changes. It is in the context of failure – the failure to understand, the disciples failure to accomplish what they were sent out to do, that Jesus teaches us about faith. Failure by itself can be ending. Failing from the arms of Jesus, with our surrender to Jesus’ will and our heartfelt discernment of it, leads to new life. At an extreme, Jesus’ death was human failure. Through it, God gave us an abundant life that we cannot imagine. We are called to seek that abundant life, to seek God’s kingdom, now.

Neither is fear the end of the story. It is in moments of fear that Jesus points us to faith. When the disciples were caught in a storm at sea, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40). And as Jesus restores Jairus’ daughter, he tells the distraught father (who had just been told that his daughter was dead), “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36). (thanks to David Lose for citations from Mark)

It is now our task to figure out how, in what way, we will believe. We are called to live an abundant life; abundant, that is, in the ways of walking with Jesus. We might not be famous. We might not be first; we might, in the eyes of the world, be last. And then we might be exactly where God is calling us to be: reaching out to serve another, reaching out to give a hand to those who do not know that fear and failure are only part of our stories. We have so much more to tell and to share. Welcome into the arms of Jesus.

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