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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Blessed Failure (Epiphany 4A)

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church,
St. Joseph, Michigan
January 30, 2005

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

The apostle Paul knew a lot about being rejected. So many people cursed, cast out, and generally loathed him that he had ample opportunity to reflect on the experience. This morning we heard him say in a letter to the church at Corinth that to many the cross of Christ seems like foolishness. But it turns out that it is actually the wisdom of God.

Paul goes on to reflect on why certain people reject his preaching. It seems that certain sorts of people tend to look for certain things: according to Paul, Jews look for signs, Greeks for wisdom. And so they each have their own reasons for rejecting Paul’s preaching. For one, the cross seems only like a sign that God abandoned Jesus; for the other, the suffering and humility involved in the cross seems beneath God. For one, the cross is a stumbling block, for the other foolishness.

All of which makes me think that maybe it’s true, that what you find depends on what you’re looking for.

If it was true that Jews searched for signs and Greeks searched for wisdom, I wonder what it is that we’re looking for?

I suspect that, as a culture, we are not so keen on signs or wisdom. I think instead that we are interested in effectiveness. We tend to be quite practical and pragmatic in our society: we like results and we can be impatient when they are not forthcoming. We tend to be skeptical of things which smack of theory, or bureaucracy, or tradition. We want to do whatever works to achieve the results we want as quickly as possible. This is a difference between us and other cultures.

We see it in industry. How many of us have had a manager who has swallowed hook, line and sinker whatever popular management book was making the rounds? We’ve had the one minute manager, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, 21 Laws of Leadership: the list goes on, and I can only assume the numbers get bigger. Or maybe you’ve noticed new jargon popping up in meetings: we need to “think outside the box”, or we need a “new paradigm.” In some cases altogether new words are created, the sort of things not found in nature, like “incentivize”. Doug Wood told me about that one. I’m not even sure I can use it in a sentence!

The point is that we pick up on these trends so that we can be more effective, and better achieve whatever sort of goal we are working towards. I think this is really prominent in our culture: this is what we are looking for.

We can certainly see it in the church, too. There are some particularly flamboyant examples in those who preach that Christian faith will bring you health and wealth. One preacher has said that a generous giver would be able to say "Goodbye pain! Goodbye suffering! Goodbye sickness! Goodbye devil!"[1] Unfortunately he does not indicate what level of giving guarantees these kinds of results. Other sources offer such help as God’s seven laws of prosperity, which include such gems as “Thou shalt believe God, and have faith: God wants you to prosper, so you can help others to prosper”, and “Disobedience will result in a loss of prosperity”.[2]

It’s not always so flagrant, of course. We can see it in more subtle ways, for example in the places which describe themselves as a worship center rather than a church. Or the ones that favor an auditorium, gymnasium and food court over a sanctuary. Or places that remove crosses and crucifixes for not being welcoming enough. Or we might be tempted ourselves: perhaps we might favor one part of the Christian story over another, or paper over uncomfortable bits in order to be hospitable. This isn’t a time for finger pointing, but for searching discernment.

It’s important, because as I say, what you find might depend on what you are looking for. Now I’m not saying that effectiveness—any more than signs or wisdom – is bad in itself. But when the only tool we have in our box is a hammer, eventually everything starts to look like a nail.

If it really is effectiveness that we usually look for, then we probably shun ineffectiveness, which after all is only a friendly way of describing failure. Failure makes us uncomfortable, maybe even scares us. We don’t want to be failures, don’t even want to seem like failures. All of which might make us a little leery when Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with these blessings we heard today, what Biblical scholars call beatitudes.

Jesus blesses the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure, peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. It can be tough to know what to do with this, and scholars have debated. At any rate, it is clear that Jesus blesses people we wouldn’t normally think of as blessed. If we were thanking God for our blessings, we probably wouldn’t thank God for how much we mourn, or how poor in spirit we are. To be honest, many of these things seem more like signs of misfortune or downright failure than anything.

But again, what we find might depend on what we are looking for.

Another way to look at it is that these are not marks of failure but marks of being a disciple of Christ. In following Jesus we end up embodying these characteristics in one way or another. The hard thing is that we can also end up feeling that we are failures, that we’re out of step with others around us, that we’ve somehow gotten it wrong. Take meekness – meekness wasn’t part of the seminary curriculum, at least where I went, and I would wager it didn’t come up in your training, either. It’s not generally a marketable personality trait. Instead, we tend to want go-getters, folks who will stride up to Atlas himself and take the weight of the world on their own shoulders.

Or take mercy. Mercy isn’t usually held up, in itself, as something important. If we’re merciful, either personally or in our system of justice, we might be afraid that we will become doormats. We don’t want to allow ourselves to be abused, we reason, and so we need to be strong, which means giving out discipline or punishment rather than showing mercy. Now friends, I don’t mean to deny that this is a complex issue, the relation between justice and mercy. But I do mean to deny that, for a disciple of Christ, being merciful is a mark of failure.

As I’ve been saying, what we find might depend on what we’re looking for. And if we are looking only for effectiveness or success, we might miss the blessedness of discipleship: because, frankly, it can look like failure.

Or from another perspective it can look like nothing less than the life of God, for in these qualities we see the life of Christ himself. As Christians, we believe that when Christ came among us, he became poor on our behalf. In that, he knew mourning too, as he was rejected by his own people and those he loved. He was meek, not arrogating to himself the power that could have been his. He ached for the righteousness of God’s kingdom to come in the world. He was merciful when, as God, he could have judged righteously. He was pure in heart, and so he wasn’t afraid to be among those considered impure or unclean. Although he brought conflict and upset, he did so as a peacemaker and mediator. And he knew about being persecuted and reviled, too.

In these beatitudes, we can see the life of Christ, the way of the cross. And we can see also the life of Christians.

Take Terry Anderson, for example. He was held as a prisoner in Beirut. There, for six and a half years, we has imprisoned in the war-torn country in dark cells and dank basements, subjected to abuse, chained to walls or other prisoners. He was separated entirely from the outside world, even missing the birth of his daughter just after his kidnapping. It would have been easy, even natural, for him to be bitter and vengeful from this experience. Yet the day after his release, he said

I am free, thank God. I do not hate them. I am certainly not grateful to them for anything. I believe they are very, very wrong. They did great harm to me and my family, but I am a Christian and a Catholic. It is required of me that I forgive no matter how hard it may be and I am determined to do that.

He went on to say:

The other hostages all gave something to me, helped me. I hope I gave them something in return. I do not see these years as wasted or lost. I learned a great deal from them and hope to take what I have learned about life and its value into the rest of my life.

In Mr. Anderson we see an example of the mercy of the beatitudes.[3]

Or take Mrs. Fannye Booker. An African-American woman, as writer Will Campbell tells it “she ran a little camp school for rural black children during the Depression, when the state wouldn’t educate them. They brought butter, eggs, peas, and cornmeal as tuition. …While running a quilting bee she taught black people how to register to vote. [She was never famous] but she gave hope to hundreds of poor children.”[4] She didn’t seek to make a name for herself, but loved people and touched their lives as best she could. In Ms. Booker we see an example of the meekness of the beatitudes. Friends, if she’s among those who inherit the earth, I think we’ll be in good hands indeed.

Of course we don’t find ourselves kidnapped in Beirut or in the Depression-era South. But this mercy, this meekness and all the other beatitudes are ours as Christians, to embody in our lives of discipleship in one way or another. And if we seem out of step, or unpopular, or even if we seem like failures – that doesn’t mean we’re doing the wrong thing or following the wrong Lord.

What we find depends on what we are looking for. If we are only looking for effectiveness we risk missing the blessed mercy of Mr. Anderson, and the blessed meekness of Ms. Booker, and a million other beatitudes of the saints, known and unknown. We risk missing them because as the cross seemed a stumbling block and foolishness to others, so it might seem like failure to us. But brothers and sisters, it is nothing less than the wisdom of God. And if we look, we will find in it the kind of effectiveness which makes all other success look like failure in comparison. Amen.

[1] Found online at http://www.rickross.com/reference/universal/universal19.html
[2] Found online at http://www.prosperitypoint.com/lawsofprosperity.shtml
[3] From http://www.protestanthour.com/01.25.2004.html
[4] Soul Among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg Preacher, WJK 1999. pp. 45-46.

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