Texts: Ezekiel 2:1-5 & Mark 6:1-13
It is a rare person who hasn’t at some point in their life experienced failure. Take for instance Walt Whitman. In 1855, Whitman gathered together twelve poems he had been working on and used what he had learned as a printer to self-publish a volume titled Leaves of Grass. The punctuation in the poems was erratic, with few commas or periods but an abundance of ellipses, and the content was unconventional, with some lines being straight-forward, while others were a challenge for a reader to understand. Reviewers who critiqued the poems condemned both them and their author. The critic for the Boston Intelligencer, called the book a “mass of bombast, egotism, vulgarity, and nonsense,” speculating that the author must be “some escaped lunatic, raving in pitiable delirium.” It is hard to believe now that Walt Whitman’s first volume of poetry was a disappointing failure.
Here’s another story. Do you recognize the name Gertrude Stein? She is remembered in literary circles as an avant-garde author who mentored such iconic novelists as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Largely forgotten, however, is the fact that as Stein approached the age of forty and had been toiling away at her writing for two decades, she had failed miserably in her efforts to interest anyone in publishing her work. Before 1913, the only work of Stein’s that had appeared in print was the self-published Three Lives, which consisted of portraits of a trio of immigrant women. The reviews of the book were unenthusiastic with The Nation magazine reporting that it “utterly lacked construction and form.” In 1914, with the release of Tender Buttons, the reviews were once again resoundingly negative. The Chicago Tribune called the book “a nightmare.” With each review, Stein would fall into a deep depression. But eventually, writing what would become her most famous work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein would become a well-known and respected literary writer of her day and of future generations.1
One could rightly argue today that failure is not a word that describes either Walt Whitman or Gertrude Stein. And yet, every literary critic who has studied their completed works would agree that both had far more failures than successes as they shaped their identities into two of the great literary figures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And so it is with most of us. Failure is a significant part of being human and living life — truly living this one life that we have been given. So why is it, then, that our culture is so obsessed with avoiding failure and ostracizing those who encounter failure? And why do we so often internalize failure, leaping from an event or an instance of failure to allowing that one moment or event to define our entire identity and life? By creating stigma around failure and by deprecating ourselves when we do fail, we have cast the act and experience of failing in, for lack of a better word, a sinful light. Our gospel lesson today gives us the opportunity to reflect on what the scripture, or at least Jesus, teaches us about failure.
The Christian story has given to us what the church has called sacraments: highly charged symbolic actions which connect the human and the divine, the material and the spiritual, and which transform the ordinary into something sacred. Hexam’s Concise Dictionary of Religion calls a sacrament “a Rite in which God is uniquely active.” As Baptists, we recognize two sacraments of the church: baptism, the sacrament of turning, forgiveness and new birth; and Communion, the sacrament of God’s new relationship with us and our new relationship with one another. Some would argue, including some Baptists, that there are more than two sacraments in scripture, and would add: the laying on of hands, the sacrament of the anointing of God’s spirit for ministry; and the washing of feet, a sacrament of love and of service to one another that we engage in every year on Maundy Thursday. Actually, here at Pullen we participate in all four of these sacred rituals or sacraments or as some would call them, observances. Regardless of how you categorize them or what you call them, each act is intended to focus God’s presence in our lives – to indeed connect the human with the divine, the material with the spiritual and the ordinary with the sacred.
British theologian John Oman, in interpreting Mark 6 – the story of Jesus’ failure to be a prophet in his own hometown – identifies yet another sacrament of scripture, one that he calls: “The Sacrament of Failure.” He talks about this “forgotten sacrament,” symbolized in the shaking off of the dust from one’s feet, as a dominically instituted, but sadly neglected sacrament. He writes: “such is our desire for self-sufficiency, to manage under our own steam – such is our zeal to earn those things that can only be freely given that Jesus protects us from ourselves,” by giving us the “sacrament of failure” in the shaking off of the dust from our feet.
Jesus knew that one of the hardest things that his disciples would encounter would be rejection of their message and their ministry, significant rejection that would make them feel as though they had failed in their larger mission. This encounter in Mark of Jesus being rejected in his own hometown is not the first time Jesus has experienced disappointment, rejection and failure. This is actually the third time that he has tasted a glimpse of failure in his ministry. In Mark 3:21 his own family labeled him crazy and tried to restrain him. A little later, in Mark 3:31, Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters try again to convince him to stop teaching his radical message. Now, in his own hometown, Jesus is met with outright rejection, prompting him to utter the familiar words, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their own hometown, and among their own kin and in their own house.” And then just before sending out his disciples he instructs them: “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.” By explicitly teaching the disciples that failure is both expected and survivable, Jesus invites them to fail and teaches that failure is part of — not the opposite of — their true work.
Carlyle Marney, the great Baptist theologian and preacher, once said “that it was a freeing moment in his ministry when he discovered that he didn’t have to be a blessing to everyone.” Reflecting on Marney’s words some years later, another pastor wrote, “There are some people you just can’t bless — and some people who cannot bless you. We want to be a blessing to everyone; we want, need the blessing of others, but sometimes this cannot happen. Sometimes it is our fault; other times it is the fault of others. Sometimes the reasons are so deep and complex that the giving and receiving of blessings was never a possibility, and the reasons cannot be fully known.” Shaking off the dust from our feet has been given to us as the sacrament of failure. It helps us acknowledge our failure, whatever shape it may take. It gives us the grace to remember that we can fail at something without being a failure. And it gives us the grace to move on and leave it behind.
Failure has always been one of my greatest fears. The fear of failure was shaped in me at an early age and no matter how many successes I encountered in those early years of life, failure was always in the back of my mind. I remember, though, the first time that burden began to lift from me. I was at a preaching conference in Atlanta listening to Walter Brueggermann preach. The sermon that day would become his final sermon before announcing his retirement. I can’t tell you the title of his sermon or the scripture he was referencing – all I remember are the first words he spoke. He began with the words of Mother Teresa, “God doesn’t call us to be successful. God calls us to be faithful.” I didn’t know it then but Brueggermann was speaking of the “forgotten sacrament” – the invitation to shake off the dust from my feet in the face of disappointment, rejection and failure. I still struggle, at times, with my fear of failure – of not measuring up, of not being enough, of rejection. But those words of Mother Teresa, spoken by Walter Brueggermann, have given me great comfort and courage in facing my failures. And on many occasions I have looked to the forgotten sacrament as a way to keep moving forward. Sometimes we just need to shake off the dust from our feet.
It seems to me that if the church is going to continue to be the prophetic voice in the world, it is going to have to risk failure. No, actually, the church can only be that prophetic voice if, instead of trying to figure out how to be successful, it incorporates “the sacrament of failure” into its life and worship. Of this forgotten sacrament John Oman concludes: “God has made in every heart a sanctuary into which only the persuasion of love has a right to enter, a sanctuary into which God will not, with any other means, force an entrance. In view of this great fact, the Church [and those who are the church] should learn from the life of Christ how to fail, how to make failure her last and greatest appeal, how to fail, not in discouragement, much less in indifference, but in faith, hope and love.”
It is a rare person who hasn’t at some point in life experienced failure. Take for instance Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, the disciples and Jesus himself. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus invites us to fail. The good news of the gospel today is that Jesus teaches us that failure is part of, not the opposite of, our true work. There may not be a more relevant sacrament for the church to put into practice than the sacrament of failure. Imagine as you leave this place today shaking off the dust from your feet — the dust of whatever failure you are holding on to. Jesus says, shake off the dust and move on. It is the good news of the gospel.
1. The information on Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein is taken from the book, Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples, by Rodger Streitmatter.