Jesus returns to his hometown, disciples in tow, to teach in the synagogue of his childhood. News of his rather spectacular success has reached even tiny Nazareth. He addresses a full house. “Astonishing” they say. “Who knew he was so wise, so articulate, so winsome.”
A few heartbeats later, the mood turns ugly. “Isn’t he the carpenter? Mary’s boy? Didn’t the family go to Capernaum to try to bring him home? I hear they think he’s unbalanced. Who does he think he is, anyway? We know him.”
Can failure lead us more deeply into the way of God? Can failure open us to hear God speak?
Jesus came home to Nazareth, and the Scripture says he could do no deeds of power there. Every gospel tells us that on this particular day, in this particular place, Jesus failed. We do not want to hear it, cannot imagine it, for we have a deep allergy to failure.
Whenever I hear this gospel story, I think of my friend Barbara; a big woman, with jet black skin, who moved like slow, deep, dark water—the kind of water that teems with life. She had a voice you could not ignore; deep, raspy, and full of mischief. To hear Barbara speak was to hear a smile. To greet her with cheek kisses meant dodging giant earrings that seemed to hang from her significant afro.
She traveled with a posse; young people clearly adored her; for in Barbara you met an earthy, spiritually substantial, definitely fussy, deeply convicted minister of the gospel. Her faith had been honed to its holy essence on the whetstone of failure.
Barbara grew up in a small East Texas town. In her early years, she ran a bar. Some people thought she ran a brothel as well. I can’t say whether or not that’s true, but in the way of small towns, thinking it makes it true. So that’s how the town saw her.
After closing late one night, Barbara had the television turned on to an evangelical preacher. “I don’t really remember what his sermon was about” said Barbara. I do remember all of a sudden shaking so hard, I had to turn off the television and drop to my knees. God came to me, spoke to me—right there in my living room—and told me to change my life.”
And change her life she did. Barbara sold the bar and entered seminary. Wouldn’t you love to have read that application? The time came for the bishop to appoint her. He sent her to the church in her hometown—the one attended by her family, and many of her former clients. “O Lord, you can’t send me there” Barbara pleaded. “Those people know me.”
For a brief time, things went well. People seemed pleased to see the home town girl reformed and doing well. Then Barbara began to let the full force of her faithfulness loose in her ministry, to befriend people from her old life in the name of Jesus.
That’s when the murmuring began. “Uh hum. You see. We know what kind of bar she ran. Who is she to preach to us?” The anonymous letters began to arrive, and the messages of disapproval; sometimes in the tone of a meeting, or in the phrasing of a “prayer petition”.
After two years of harsh judgment and cruel treatment, the bishop moved Barbara to a different church. She had failed; unable to do much of anything in her hometown. Somehow, she shook the dust off and moved on.
She found herself in a church in the rough, rough part of San Antonio. Word got around—social workers, teachers, police, neighborhood folk, church members—knew her as a person women could trust—“working women”, abused women, women in trouble with the law, women in fear for their children, women needing to flee under cover of darkness. They all made their way to her.
Night after night, calls beckoned her to an emergency room, a shelter, the holding cell of the county jail. She went to hear a story, to soothe a soul, to offer God’s peace, to embrace small frightened children, to raise bail, to witness to the power and strength of God to bring fresh starts to failed lives. The women believed her because Barbara’s life bore the mark of failure redeemed.
In this church, Barbara found support; people insisted on accompanying her on her nightly sojourns. They decided to open a shelter for women that remains open to this day.
Until the day she died, Barbara lived a faithfulness born of failure. You couldn’t resist it—by God’s grace, her strength made perfect in weakness.
“When Christians talk about what the church has to offer the world,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor “one thing we do not often mention is an adequate theology of failure.” Like everyone else, the church loves success. Our various plans for church growth and revitalization, lists of effective strategies and best practices, tips for being more relevant and attractive testify to our own hungering after a definition of success that, reduced to its essence, means not dead.
With success as a measure, what do we say to the happy-go-lucky guy who comes home from work to discover that his wife has taken the kids, the car, the furniture, the bank accounts and left town, leaving only a note saying “I tried to tell you it was over.”
Or to the mother, sitting in an ICU waiting to sign organ donor papers. Her inebriated son wrapped his car around a telephone pole, and she knows intuitively that her own drinking plays a part in this moment.
Or to the co-owner of a “Christian’ business, whose partner has robbed him blind and skipped town; the man now owes people he sees on the town squared everyday and at his church every Sunday. (in appreciation for the thinking of Jay Hanke, Weavings)
“Failure tears at the fabric of our identity”; cleaves an opening in our soul, casts a shadow over hearts and lives. (Hanke, Weavings) Failure raises the question of the authenticity as people of faith. Who quickens our being? Who motivates our doing? For whom and for what will we spend ourselves and be spent? Faith questions, all. Can failure move us away from the hollowness of a never ending pursuit of better grades, good jobs, perfect bodies, cool cars, prime real estate, killer investments, corner offices, superior children, incessant pursuit of new electronics? Can failure lead us more deeply into the way of God? Can failure open us to hear God speak?
A man asked his spiritual director “What do you want out of life?” The elderly monk replied “To grow old loving my God.” (Jones, Weavings)
Jesus never had the opportunities of old age. Responding decisively to his failure in Nazareth, Jesus set a course for himself and his followers that would lead to disaster.
Living “on this side of the resurrection,” it is hard to remember that the cross represents failure before it represents anything else. On the cross, the very incarnation of God hung in complete helpless, hopeless, and humiliating failure. Jesus did not manage to change the hearts and minds of everyone he encountered. We still await the fullness of God’s reign on earth he proclaimed so boldly. At his death, Romans still prevailed and his own disciples fell away. Failure. (Blomquist, Weavings)
And yet, at the foot of the cross, our failures get taken up into the very heart and life of God. At the foot of the cross, we know more of God’s grace in failure than we will ever know in all our striving to succeed. At the foot of the cross, we link our lives with the many others whose company Jesus keeps: those of failed marriages, squandered inheritance, resistance to healing.
In my study at home, I have a little book by Thomas Kelly called A Testament of Devotion. At different times in my life, I have drawn deep encouragement from its profound, clear wisdom. Only a few years ago, I learned that Thomas Kelly’s life was shaped by a deep and abiding sense of failure. He poured energy and resources into the pursuit of a teaching position at an institution he considered first rate and into completing a PhD at Harvard. Kelly had good jobs, and he had a PhD. And yet success to him meant something different, something more.
His desiring drove him to a nervous breakdown. He continually uprooted his family, created a mountain of debt, and his wife lived in fear that he might take his own life. No one knows exactly what happened. And yet in the winter of 1937, Thomas Kelly knew himself “shaken by the experience of presence: Unbidden, God came. “It is an awful thing” Kelly told a friend “to give oneself to the living God.”
In the depth of misery and felt failure Kelly discovered the secret of a pliant spirit; a willingness to listen for the voice of God, a readiness to accept the outright gift of the love of God; a steadiness of following the lead of God. (Book Review, Weavings, Gilliam)
As we wrestle with our failures, it helps to remember the company we keep. (Blomquist, Weavings) Paul prayed three times begging God to remove a handicap that had tormented him without success. God’s reply? My grace is enough; it’s all you need. For my strength comes into its own in your weakness.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication.
“Spectacular Failure”, Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Century, 2-22-05
Weavings, Vol. VII, Number 1, January/February 1992, “Failure”
“On Having Faith—In Failure”, Jean M. Blomquist
“Intentional Failure: The Importance of the Desert Experience”, W. Paul Jones
“Failure: Where the Fabric is Torn”, Jay M. hanke
Book Review: “Thomas Kelly, A Biography”, review by Kim Gilliam