Most people come to church expecting some assistance in learning how to be happy and well-adjusted. Most people want their faith to help them be a success.
If that is what you came for this morning, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but rather than how to succeed, we are going to be looking at how to fail this morning. Rather than happiness, we’re going to be thinking about rejection. Not that there is anything wrong with success or happiness—I think we all would aspire to this. But even if that is where we wind up, there is going to be a measure of failure along the way, and we need to be prepared for that.
Failure is a fact of life. Adversity is simply a given. No matter who you are, if you have lived life at all, you have experienced some pain or hardship or setback or disappointment. Even those whom we think of as great successes had to deal with adversity.
Ludwig von Beethoven had a rather awkward playing style and preferred to write his own compositions rather than play the classical works of his day, which was what was expected. Disapproving of his technique, his teacher called him hopeless as a composer.
Thomas Edison’s teachers advised his parents to keep him home from school, stating that he was “too stupid to learn anything.”
Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor who complained he was lacking creative ideas.
Albert Einstein did not speak until he was four and could not read until age nine. He was described by his schoolmaster as “mentally slow, unsociable and adrift in his foolish dreams.”
It has always been this way. Even the heroes and heroines of faith experienced heartache and tragedy and rejection and failure.
Jesus himself knew what it was to suffer rejection and failure. He went to his hometown of Nazareth, and people just could not imagine Jesus as a religious leader. “We know this man,” the people said. “He’s just a carpenter, why we know his family, just who does he think he is? He’s getting a little big for his boots, if you ask me.”
Jesus returns to his own town, but people are unimpressed; in fact, they are offended by him. Even Jesus knew what it was to be rejected, to experience failure.
One of our problems is that we do not always have this healthy sense that failure and adversity are just a part of life. We don’t always understand that they can and are to be expected. We need to know that our failures and setbacks do not define us.
A speaker started off her seminar by holding up a $20 bill. In the room of 200, she asked, “Who would like this $20 bill?” Hands started going up. She said, “I am going to give this $20 to one of you, but first, let me do this.” She proceeded to crumple the bill up. Then she asked, “Who still wants it?” Still the hands were up in the air. “Well,” she replied, “What if I do this?” And she dropped it on the ground and started to grind it into the floor with her heel. She picked it up, now crumpled and dirty. “Now who still wants it?” Still, just as many hands went up in the air.
“My friends, you have all learned a very valuable lesson. No matter what I did to the money, you still wanted it because it did not decrease in value. It was still worth $20. Many times in our lives, we are dropped, crumpled, and ground into the dirt by the decisions we make and the circumstances that come our way. We feel as though we are worthless. But no matter what has happened or what will happen, you will never lose your value. Dirty or clean, crumpled or finely creased, you are still priceless. The worth of our lives comes not in what we do or whom we know but by WHO WE ARE!”
We are not defined by our failures. And neither are we defined by our successes. We are valuable simply because of who we are: children of God.
Failure and adversity is simply a part of life, and it does not define us. What is important is how we respond to failure, how we deal with adversity.
Jesus went to his hometown and was rejected. He healed a few people, but he couldn’t do a lot because there was what he saw as an amazing lack of faith. It was a real setback, and it’s not easy to be rejected by people you have known your whole life. And so what did he do?
What would we do? What do people typically do? A common response would be to feel sorry for ourselves. We might get angry, or try to get even. We might doubt ourselves. We might work on our resume or perhaps go see a career counselor. Or go home and eat a lot of chocolate or drink a couple bottles of wine.
What does Jesus do? How does he respond? The very next thing we read is that he sends out the disciples in pairs to carry on his ministry. This is a huge step in the spread of the gospel. It is an important strategy. Jesus doesn’t have to do it all. Jesus’ followers will begin to exercise their ministry.
Jesus responds to adversity by moving forward with a new stage in the spread of the gospel. It is a very important time. Here he doesn’t build on success, he builds on failure.
What about Paul? You’ve got to wonder about Paul, he just seems to thrive on adversity “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul just goes right on and understands that in these times of weakness, he has no choice but to turn to God, and so in his weakness he is strong through God’s strength.
For us, the temptation of failure is to do nothing. With difficulty and hardship before us, with the possibility of failure very real, we tend to not want to stick our necks out. The natural inclination is to get defensive and pull back. We avoid risks. But both Jesus and Paul see failure as part of life, and to venture forth in ministry means there will be disappointments and failures.
The fact is, if we never fail, we are not trying much of anything. Maybe it would help if we came to understand failure as a positive sign that we are learning and moving forward.
We respond best to failure by seeing it as a part of the process and simply moving on. Jesus tells the disciples that if their message is not received, to shake the dust off their sandals and move on. Don’t carry it with you, just leave it and move on. We are not responsible for the response of others, and if we are rejected, just shake the dust off and keep going.
But that is not always easy to do. Jesus knows that, and Jesus knows that given the potential for rejection and failure, we need community.
It is interesting that Jesus does not go to Nazareth alone. The disciples don’t take the weekend off while Jesus goes to Nazareth to visit his family. He goes to do what may not be easy, and the community is with him. And when it comes time to send the disciples out, they are sent out in pairs. They do not go alone.
Setbacks and disappointments are best handled in the community of faith. We can lean on one another and encourage one another and support one another, and this community is vital. It is important to know that no matter what happens, there is a place where we are loved and accepted, and it is important to know that no matter what happens, God loves us and accepts us.
With God, we can not only face failure and move on, but our failure can be redemptive.
Sometimes it is our very failings and disappointment and heartaches that enable us to minister to others. Who can better help one struggling with drugs or alcohol than one who has been there? Who can better encourage one in the throes of a painful divorce than one who has been there?
And sometimes we need to experience adversity in order to gain perspective. Paul was certainly able to set his “thorn in the flesh” in the perspective of God’s love and grace. Having experienced suffering, we can empathize with those who themselves are suffering, and we come to learn that God’s grace is sufficient.
This is not to say that God sends us heartache or causes failures or wants us to suffer. But when those times of adversity and failure come our way, and they will, God can use them to bring something good—to bring healing and wholeness.
At the cross, we see the height of failure, the height of suffering. But the cross has come to be a symbol of triumph, a symbol of victory, a sign that our failures are not final, that not even death is final, and that with God, all things are possible.
A sacrament is “an outer and physical sign of an inner, spiritual grace.” If that is so, then failure can be a sacrament. “I will boast all the more gladly,” says Paul, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” God’s grace is always with us and may be especially near in times of weakness. We don’t set out to fail, but failure is a part of life, adversity is just part of the deal, and times of weakness can be times of receiving God’s grace. For Jesus, for Paul, for you, for me. May it be so. Amen.