Sometimes You Feel Like A Nut

What would you do if you couldn’t fail? What would you try? What mission would you attempt? What venture would you risk?  What great deed would you undertake?  As stimulating as that question may be David Lose said that it’s the wrong question to ask.  It’s the wrong question because there will be failure.  If we only dream of doing things we can accomplish without the risk of failure we will be either disappointed or realize our naiveté.  Maybe we simply would never try.

 

So here is the better question – it’s more realistic and more faithful: What would you try if you knew you might fail and it just didn’t matter? I don’t mean “didn’t matter” in the sense that there would be no cost, or that it would be difficult or disappointing. No, what I mean is, what would you try if the attempt itself was worth it whether it succeeded or not?

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut…

Romans 3:24; Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 8:35-36; Mark 10:47-48

It was David Lose of Luther Seminary who raised the question.  He asked: What would you do if you couldn’t fail? What would you try? What mission would you attempt? What venture would you risk?  What great deed would you undertake?  As stimulating as that question may be, David said that it’s the wrong question to ask.  It’s the wrong question because there will be failure.  If we only dream of doing things we can accomplish without the risk of failure we will be either disappointed or, realize our naiveté. Maybe we simply would never try.

 

So here is the better question – it’s more realistic and more faithful: What would you try if you knew you might fail and it just didn’t matter? I don’t mean “didn’t matter” in the sense that there would be no cost, or that it would be difficult or disappointing. No, what I mean is, what would you try if the attempt itself was worth it whether it succeeded or not?

 

In one of the more difficult passages in the Gospel of John, Jesus invites us to imagine that belief in him equals the freedom of a family heir rather than the insecurity of a household slave (8:35-36). In the ancient world the distinction was brutally harsh between those who were in the family and had access to the family’s privileges and entitlements and those who were out of a family. Jesus invited all of us to claim our inheritance as “children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (1:12-13). Because Jesus secured our place with his heavenly Father we are in every way free. Free to venture, to risk, to try … free even to fail.  That’s pretty good news.

Paul, in Romans, declares that we are justified not by works — that is, by our successes or accomplishments — but by grace (3:24). And Paul’s good news is that just as our successes do not earn for us a place in God’s kingdom neither do our failures disqualify us. As Martin Luther, reading Paul, came to recognize, if our salvation depended on our efforts, we would have no cause to hope. For as Paul says, and as each of us knows by experience, we have all sinned and fallen short. But God in Jesus tells us that our identity, worth, and well-being is not determined by our successes or failures but by God’s gift alone. And precisely because salvation is not up to us, but up to God, we are free to do and try and risk all kind of things, because whether we succeed or fail, God has promised to bring us and all things to a good end.

In a brief passage in Jeremiah the prophet, speaking for God, spells out Israel’s failure to keep the law.  And then goes on to declare God’s promise to do for the Israelites what they could not do for themselves by writing the law on their hearts and fashioning them into a people of promise. God says that when it comes to their — and our! — sin and failure, God will just plain forget, remembering our sin no more.  I guess that’s more good news.

So let me ask again: what would you do if failure didn’t matter? What would you endeavor, dare, or try? What mission would you attempt, what venture would you risk, what great deed would you undertake?

Would you, like Bartimaeus, shout out for healing even though the people around you try to shush you into silence (Mark 10:47-48)? I wonder, could it be that Bartimaeus was so used to failure and disappointment that he saw no reason not to try one more time? Or perhaps faithfulness itself is defined by trusting God enough to dare impossible deeds?

Whatever the case, would that be your cry, for healing? Or maybe your shout would be for justice, or peace, or equality, or any of the other handful of things that the world calls unrealistic or idealistic. Or maybe you would volunteer at a Caritas, or tutor a child who needs help at school, or care for someone severely disabled, or befriend a kid who everyone says isn’t cool, or visit an elder who most have forgotten, or reach out to someone overwhelmed by grief even though you don’t know what to say.  Maybe pack it all up and join Liz Todd in a new ministry in the West Bank.

So often, these things — whether great or small — seem either so hopelessly impossible or so ridiculously insignificant that we just don’t try. Yet the promise of the Gospel is that we are free … free to risk, free to dare, free to love, free to live, and work, and dream, and to struggle … whether what we attempt seems great or small, likely or nearly impossible. Because we have God’s promise that there is no small gesture and there is no impossible deed. And for this reason we are free…even to fail, trusting that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also bring all things — even our failed efforts — to a good end.

Risk always entails failure. Change entails failure. Creativity and innovation and experimentation all entail failure. And if we forget that we will either never try anything that matters.

Martin Luther died in Eisleben, the very place where he was born.  He preached his last sermon there after negotiating disputes between several local magistrates.  What is little known is that only five people showed up for that sermon.  It was devastating to Luther.  He wrote a note to a friend about it, despairing over what he feared was a ‘failed’ reformation.  Robert Heavlin served as pastor to thirteen Friends churches over a period on twenty-six years in Indiana and Illinois.   Several fellow pastors attended his memorial service in  the Hazel Dell meeting house.  Not one person from the thirteen churches he had served were present.  How about John Woolman’s diligent response to what was a life time call to move Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to emancipate their own slaves?

I can understand Luther’s dismay and disappointment, and Bob’s funeral had a great impact on those of us of his colleagues and Woolman’s sense of failure I nevertheless think that in each of their experiences they had forgotten and it is easy for we to forget that much of our energy and effort will be given over to failed endeavors. Our ultimate hope rests not in our successes but in Jesus’ great failure on the cross, the failure that redeems all failures and successes, binding them together in the promise of resurrection. Luther had forgotten his own words immortalized at the close of one of his hymns  “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. God’s kingdom is ours forever.”

And just about the time we are convince that our work was fruitless we hear the story of Stephen Grellet trekking into the wilderness and feeling called of God to preach to an empty building. Stephen Grellet was a well-known Quaker preacher of the early nineteenth century. . . .

“S. G.,” waiting on the Lord to shew him His will, was directed by the spirit to take a long journey into the backwoods of America and preach to the wood­cutters who were hewing timber in those parts. Seek­ing for direction to know where he should go, he pic­tured a part of the forest he had visited before, but which had left his .mind, and a voice was heard in his own heart, saying distinctly but very gently, so that only he could hear it, “Go back there and preach to those lonely men.” So he left his wife and home.

As he proceeded on his way a flood of happiness came over his soul. Coming near the place he both trembled and rejoiced. But he found it silent and deserted. The one big wooden hut that remained, had evidently not been used for many days. The woodcut­ters had moved on into the woods, and might not re­turn for weeks. Could he have mistaken the voice? No, he could not believe that.

What should he do? He put up a silent Prayer. Through the windless silence of the forest came the answer : “Give your message. It is not yours but mine.” So he strode into the building, went to the end of the room, and stood on a form as if there were one or two hundred eager listeners and preached to the empty building with a power he had never known in his life before. He spoke of the love of God as the greatest thing in the world, of how sin builds a wall between man and God, but the wall is thrown down in Jesus Christ, who longs to come and dwell with man.

S. G. thought of the silent woodcutters, rough wild men, and felt love for each one. How much greater, then, must be God’s love for them! He prayed aloud for them. Finally, utterly exhausted by his effort, he threw his arms on the boards in front of him and hid his face in his hands. A long time passed. The place was still deserted. He noticed a poor mug, left as if to mock him. In his heart he hated the mug, and compared it with the beautiful utensils in his father’s aristocratic house in Limoges in France. Why had he renounced beauty and luxury to follow a voice that led him on fool’s errands to preach to nothing but a cracked mug? He wrestled with this mood, and over­came it. He took the mug, cleansed it carefully at a little stream, drank from it, ate some dry bread from his pocket, and felt himself enfolded in a sustaining life-giving presence. He rode home again like a man in a dream, conscious that he was not alone.

Years later he was crossing London Bridge in a crowd of people, wearing his habitual Quaker hat and coat. Suddenly someone seized him and said in a gruff voice: “There you are. I have found you at last, have I?”

S. G. remonstrated : “Friend, I think that thou art mistaken.”

“No, I am not. When you have sought a man over the face of the globe year after year, you don’t make a mistake when you find him at last.” In a loud voice, regardless of the passers-by the man told his story. He had heard S. G. when he preached to nobody. He had gone back that day to get his lever from the deserted settlement. He had thought S. G. a lunatic, standing on the bench, preaching to emptiness, but had listened through the chinks. “Your, words went through a chink in my heart, though its walls were thicker than those of any shanty.” He was ashamed to be seen, so slunk away back to camp, and was miserable for weeks.

Finally he got hold of a Bible. How the other men laughed ! He found the passage about the lost sheep. “It’s share and share alike in the forest. I told the men all about it, just like you. I gave them no peace till everyone was brought home to God. Three went out to preach to other districts. At least a thousand have been brought home to the good shepherd by that sermon of yours which you preached to nobody.”

This is God’s doing, you see, and so we are free — free to risk, to dare, to love, to live, to work, to dream, to struggle, and even to fail…all in hope. So this week and always, I want to encourage you do not fear and do not give up. Keep the faith, keep the word, keep on trying and failing, for God has promised to keep hold of you and to use you in ways we cannot imagine.

 

 

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