A Sacrament of Failure
This morning, I want to begin by asking you a question: What is success? What is it that makes a person truly successful? When I watch television, I see a definition of success. There, a truly successful person is one who drinks diet Pepsi to maintain a perfect physical body, always uses their Canon camera to take perfect pictures of the beach with palm trees and then is able to run and hop into their brand-new sports car. A number of years ago, I was talking with a parishioner and he told me that success was having investments of three million dollars. Another fellow I knew told me that success was moving up the corporate ladder at regular intervals. Some people believe that success is winning the lottery. The Pulitzer Prize author Anna Quindlen has written words to cause us to ponder: “If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all.” What is your definition of success? Have you attained it, or are you still working on it?
Let’s narrow it down. What makes a successful Christian? Listen to a late-night Christian televangelist broadcast and you will be told what success is…and it’s not far off some of those definitions of worldly success. If you just believe in Jesus then you will win God’s lottery and you will be successful in life. Appealing to our consumer mentality, they say that if we just add God and Christ to our lives, then we will be complete. Have God and you are going to be successful.
Jesus, in this morning’s scripture passage, portrays a different kind of success. He calls together seventy-two of his followers and tells them that he is going to send them into the world. Interestingly, this is about the size of the average North American congregation at worship on a Sunday morning. The followers have been following Jesus and learning from him. They have enjoyed the fellowship with one another, but now comes the reason that Jesus called them to follow after him. Jesus is going to send them out into the world so that they might work at bringing God’s purposes, love and care to the world.
Jesus gives them instructions for their mission: “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house’…Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves their wages. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The Kingdom of God is near you.’” The mission was to go and be Jesus’ presence of peace in that house. The mission was to be carried out during day-to-day activities. Eating, drinking, earning one’s wages, having concern for one’s neighbour. As these things were done, the follower, through their actions was proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom.
Most of us are comfortable with these instructions of Jesus until we get to the bit about proclaiming the Kingdom. How do you proclaim the Kingdom? When we lived in Toronto, each day, to get to work, I would have to drive on the Don Valley Parkway. Almost every day there was a man standing on one of the overpasses who was dressed in white robes, wearing a silver crown and waving a banner which said, “The Kingdom of God is near.” Most of us speeding under him probably thought to ourselves that he was a little strange. Are we afraid of proclaiming the Kingdom because people are going to think that we are strange and not many of us want to stand out in the crowd for our strangeness?
Jesus didn’t think of proclaiming the Kingdom as getting dressed up in strange clothes and doing wild things to attract attention. He thought of proclamation as those ordinary little things. Proclamation is carried out in life as we do day-to-day tasks. Proclamation is when a co-worker asks you what you did on the weekend and you tell her that you helped out at the church bazaar. This opens the door to further conversation. Proclamation is when you ask your family to take a moment before dinner to say grace. This shows that thanking God is something important to you. Proclamation is when you take a bowl of chicken soup to a neighbour who is sick. You don’t need to preach to them, the gesture is enough to say, “I’m concerned. I care about what happens to you.” This might be the start of a friendship. Who knows where this will lead? In a previous congregation, after a luncheon someone took a plate of leftover cookies to a widow who lived near the church. She never went out. Every now and then, when there was leftover food, some of it went to this widow. A couple of years later the board received a letter from her lawyer. She had left her estate to the church. I was astounded at how small gestures so greatly impacted upon this woman’s life. Proclamation happens in day-to-day life. This is the success of the Christian.
Speaking of neighbours, there is the story of a man who is watching a football game, and his wife is in the shower. The doorbell rings, and the man, who is too into the game, tells his wife to go answer the door. She answers the door wearing only a towel. It’s her neighbour Joe. She asks him what he wants. Seeing the woman in just a towel, he says, “If you drop down your towel to your waist, I will give you $500.” The woman, who figures she will be getting $500 free, agrees and drops down her towel. He gives her $500. Then, Joe says, “If you drop the towel down completely, I will give you another $500” The woman drops her towel down completely. He gives her the $500 and leaves. The husband watching the football game asks the wife who was at the door. She replies, “It was just our neighbour, Joe. “The husband says, “Did he say anything about the $1000 dollars he owes me?”
Included in the mission instructions from Jesus is a cautionary note: “When you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet, we wipe off against you…Yet be sure of this: The Kingdom of God is near.’”
About a hundred years ago, Dr. John Oman, who was then principal of Westminster College, in Cambridge, England, described this action that the disciples were to perform as “the sacrament of failure.” According to Dr. Oman, Jesus gave his church not only the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism; he also gave his followers this sacrament of failure. Jesus’ purpose in instituting this symbolic act was to prevent the disciples from falling victim to undue anxiety about the need for immediate success.
It seems that the more zealous we are for God, the more we tend to want instant success. We have all seen it. People become impatient with the Church, they become impatient with their fellow Christians and they can become impatient with what God is doing in their lives. “God, I’m so committed to you, why aren’t you using me in a fantastic way?”
One of the understandings which we have of our church is that we are to be a sign of God’s presence in the community. From time to time, I take a handful of our church brochures and go and knock on doors around the church, just to introduce people to the United Church. I receive some interesting reactions. Most people are polite and courteous. Some ask what the United Church is. Others say they didn’t know that this building was a church. Some tell me they already go to a church. More and more are asking what a church is. I am amazed at the number of lapsed United Church people I have come across. Do I expect to see these people in church…no, but perhaps this is what Jesus meant by us being God’s presence in the world. We are a sign of the Kingdom. Just being there.
As Jesus sent out his followers, he was simply reminding them that they would not always meet with a favourable reception. Not every home would receive them, nor would every town listen to them. What then? They were to accept their failure by shaking the dust off their feet and going elsewhere. It was no use getting angry, or blaming themselves. The key was that the success of their mission was in God’s hands.
The earlier followers of Jesus took consolation in these words of Jesus. In Acts 13:51 we read
that Paul and Barnabas were not welcomed in Antioch. What did they do? “They shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.” Again, when Paul was opposed in Corinth in the eighteenth chapter we learn, “He shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent! From now on I will go to the Gentiles.'”
There are three things to remember with the sacrament of failure that can be applied in our daily lives:
First, the success of the Christian cause does not rest with us, but with God. Jesus told his followers that success was ultimately in God’s hands and not in human hands. He told them that if a town did not receive them, they were to move on to the next town. Don’t panic. Don’t fret. Do what you have been called to do and leave the rest to God.
Our problem is that we identify ourselves with God’s cause in such a way as to say that if we are successful, then God is successful and if we fail, then God has failed. All of us have family members or friends who will have nothing to do with God and we can see how much better their lives would be if they would only get involved with God, but every attempt on our part is spurned. At this point, we need to remember that God’s standards of success and failure are not to be identified with our own standards.
In the sixteenth century, there was a conflict during the time of reformation between Martin Luther and Andrew Karlstadt as to how to proceed with Church reformation in the city of Wittenberg. Karlstadt was a hothead and he insisted that it was not enough to preach the Word, which Luther believed would bring about reformation, but the Word had to be accompanied by a specific programme of cleansing the church. Images must be removed, organs and all musical instruments must be rejected, priests must marry, the mass must be repudiated, and so on. As a result of this, violence broke out in the city. Luther was called in by the church leaders to bring peace to the situation. How did he do it? He preached eight sermons to the troubled city. The church leaders thought he should have been doing more. Luther put all his confidence in the Word of God and he later commented, “While I slept or drank that good Wittenberg beer with my friend Phillip, the Word of God weakened the Papacy.” History proves that Luther’s method was successful. We’ve all heard of him, but who has heard of Karlstadt? With those seemingly impossible situations in life, sometimes what God requires of us is just to be God’s presence in that place and time. Nothing more.
Second, this sacrament is a counsel against despair. Jesus was saying to his followers as he sent them out, “There is no way you are going to win them all.” Jesus’ own ministry was not without its failures. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ mission charge to the Twelve is preceded by the account of his rejection of his own townspeople in Nazareth. Mark concludes this is how Jesus met failure, not in a feeling of despair and discouragement, not in an attitude of stoic indifference, but in faith, hope, and, indeed, love. When we have no success, we are to move on and take up the task in another place. We will not be a winner in every human relationship as Paul found out when he wrote, “Demas has forsaken me.” However, Paul didn’t give up his ministry because of this.
The third and concluding point is that which is laid upon our shoulders. As with the seventy-two, we are sent out realizing that we will not win them all. We are sent out not to win the Kingdom, but to receive it. We are not required to succeed, we are asked simply to be faithful.