Saturday, January 30, 2016

“Planning to Fail” - January 27, 2016

Text: Mark 6:1-29

Unless you have been hibernating for the past few months, you know that tomorrow is the Iowa Caucus.  We have been bombarded with phone calls and mailings and people knocking on our doors, and in these last few days it has hit a fever pitch.  You can’t watch TV without being subjected to a barrage of political ads.  You can’t get on the internet without having advertisements for various candidates pop up all over the place.  It’s all you hear about on the evening news.

But by Tuesday, Iowa will be old news.  Candidates will high-tail it out of here.  If we get a big snow tomorrow night, there will be stories on Tuesday about staffers and media stuck at the airport, trying to get to New Hampshire.  More than a few candidates and spin doctors will say that the results of the caucus don’t matter much because Iowans are not representative of the nation, and why does Iowa get to go first anyway?  And then the rest of the country can go back to ignoring us.

I’m always glad to get rid of all the political ads and especially the phone calls, but in a weird way I am always a bit sad to see it end too.  It’s like we had this heightened sense of importance, we were the center of attention, and now it’s all gone.

Out of however many people running for president when it started – somewhere north of 20, counting both parties – nearly all of them are going to lose.  Some have already dropped out.  Only 2 are going to make it to the general election.  Nearly all of them are going to taste defeat and disappointment.

Next November, only one will come out a winner – but then you are faced with the question of what do they really win in the end, anyway?  President Obama will have been in office for 8 years, but if you look at before and after photos, it already looks like a lot more than 8 years.  And that is true for nearly all of our presidents.  Twenty some-odd people are vying for a job that is nothing but stress, worry, aggravation, trouble, and disappointment.

You might say that running for president would be good preparation for life, because we are all going to face defeat and disappointment. 

Which brings us to our scripture for today.  We continue reading in Mark’s gospel.  Jesus has just healed a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, and then raised Jairus’ daughter back to life.  He is on a winning streak, you might say.  His reputation is growing.

And then he heads back to his hometown of Nazareth, where he speaks at the synagogue, and everyone is amazed.  They are astonished at what he is saying, startled at the power and authority with which he speaks.

Where does he get this stuff?  And what about all those miracles people are talking about?  Isn’t he a carpenter?  Isn’t he the son of Mary?

While one would think that Jesus’ ministry would be a source of pride for his hometown – “local boy made good” – people were surprised and even somewhat offended to hear his teaching. 

Why were they so surprised?  Part of it was familiarity.  They knew this guy.  They knew his family.  It seemed that perhaps Jesus was getting a little too big for his britches.  I have known people who returned to the church they grew up in to become the pastor, and it isn’t easy.  Folks will remember changing his diapers in the nursery, or that snotty-nosed little girl from Sunday School, and it is difficult to think of them as a pastor.

A good part of the reaction to Jesus had to do with first century class structure.  “Isn’t he a carpenter?” they asked.  Jesus was part of the skilled trades – in that day he would have been thought of as an artisan.  Which sounds kind of cool today, but in first century Palestine artisans were considered working class or even poor.  In a very class-conscious society, it would be somewhat unusual for someone like to Jesus to be asked to speak at the synagogue.  But it would have been downright offensive for someone of lower social class to speak in the way that Jesus did.  In a nutshell, Jesus didn’t know his place.

And then maybe you noticed that Jesus was called “Mary’s son.”  Joseph is apparently out of the picture.  We don’t hear of Joseph after Jesus goes to the temple with his family at age 12, and many believe that he died shortly after that.  He may have simply been called “Mary’s son” because Joseph wasn’t around, but some have also conjectured that this is a way of saying that people considered Jesus to have been an illegitimate child.  People still remembered the controversy over Mary becoming pregnant before she was married. 

The reason that the people didn’t trust Jesus and the reason he could do no more miracles among them, is because Jesus is a hometown kid and they thought they knew him.  And based on what they knew of him, he shouldn’t be able to say and do the things he was saying and reportedly doing.  There was a lack of faith in Nazareth.  The people could not believe that God could be found in the commonplace – that God could be at work in someone like Jesus.

Now, in our reading today we have three separate stories.  Jesus is rejected in his hometown, Jesus sends out his disciples, and then there is a report about the death of John the Baptist.  The sending of the disciples is surrounded by rejection and defeat.

We will come back to the disciples, but I first want to look at John the Baptist.  What we have here is kind of a flashback.  King Herod heard about Jesus, and he thought that Jesus may have been John the Baptist come back from the dead. 

We last heard of John the Baptist in the opening chapter of Mark.  People were coming from everywhere to hear him and to be baptized.  Jesus was among those people.  John’s message was eliciting a very positive response.  But John’s ministry did not last.  Like others before and since, down to our own day, and like Jesus, John’s message and movement was crushed by existing power structures.

King Herod had a kind of love/hate relationship with John.  He thought that John was a good and righteous man.  But John had criticized Herod for divorcing his wife and then marrying Herodias, who had been his brother Philip’s wife.  John had been arrested after speaking out about this, and Herodias wanted John killed.  But Herod respected John, and would not allow him to be harmed.

This leads to the story of how John the Baptist came to be killed.  At a great birthday celebration, Herodias’ daughter came in and danced for the gathering of military commanders and leading men of Galilee.  As one commentator put it, “When we read that the girl was dancing, we can be pretty sure she wasn’t clogging.”  She is not named here, but the historian Josephus identified her as Salome, and in legend and tradition her dance became the “Dance of the Seven Veils.”

Herod is so taken that he offers to give the girl whatever she wants, and after a quick consultation with her mother, she requests the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Herod is put in a terrible position – he has sworn to give the girl whatever she asked, and in front of a large group of people.  He chooses to save face rather than save the life of John.

John’s ministry had been stopped in its tracks.  Those who challenged the status quo too much were met with serious opposition.  And then Jesus came to his hometown, where he was met with rejection.

In this atmosphere of opposition and rejection and failure, what happens?  This is exactly the moment when Jesus sends out his disciples.  He doesn’t wait until he is at the height of popularity.  He doesn’t wait until they have had time to study and learn and grow in faith.  He doesn’t wait until they have a slam-dunk opportunity, a sure-fire success just waiting to happen that will give them confidence.  Jesus sends them out when the air is thick with rejection. 

It is interesting the details that we have about Jesus sending out his disciples.  He sends them out in pairs.  They do not go out alone.  They have one another – for support, for encouragement, for safety, for comradery.  When faced with a difficult or daunting task, or when faced with a situation in which we can expect opposition, how much better does it go when we are not alone?  We have all had that experience – when you are facing a challenge, it is nice to have someone working with you.  Jesus understands the importance of community.

Jesus gives them authority.  Jesus empowers the disciples for the work to which he has called them.  Now, this is still fairly early in Jesus’ ministry.  The disciples are just rookies.  They are freshmen.  But Jesus doesn’t believe in red-shirting.  He doesn’t have them ride the bench.  Jesus doesn’t wait for the rookies to develop skills and gain maturity and figure it out.  This is on-the-job learning.  They are up to the task because Jesus has sent them and Jesus has given them authority.

I think there is something for us here.  We can feel like we are unqualified.  We can feel like others are better prepared, better equipped.  We can feel like we really don’t have the gifts needed to care for others, to work for justice, to teach a class, to sing in the choir, to take on leadership.  We can feel like we may not have what it takes or maybe the time isn’t quite right for us to get involved.  Jesus, apparently, would beg to disagree.  Ready or not, he sends the disciples out.

And then interestingly, he tells them to travel light.  No food, no money, no luggage, don’t take an extra coat.  Just take your walking stick.  There is an urgency to their mission; they don’t have time to put together a checklist of items they might need and they don’t have time to figure out supply-chain logistics.  A heavy load would just slow them down anyway.  They are going to have to keep moving.

Not only that: traveling light is a way to depend on God.  They won’t be depending on their own resources.  They are to accept hospitality when it is offered.  If someone invites them to stay in their home, they should stay there for the duration while they are in that town.  They are not to shop around for better offers or plusher accommodations.  They are going to have to have faith for this to work.

Jesus is preparing his disciples to face rejection.  He knows that it is not all going to be sunshine and rainbows.  He tells the twelve that if they go to a place that does not accept them, that will not listen to them, they are to just shake the dust off their sandals and move on. 

I think that is a pretty healthy way to deal with it.  Don’t beat your head against a wall.  Don’t waste your time arguing.  Don’t try to be someone you are not, in an effort to win over someone.  Just be who you are, share the good news, and if you are rejected, then move on.

It can be very helpful to have a healthy sense that failure and adversity are just a part of life.  And we need to understand that our failures and setbacks do not define us.  Our value does not come from what we do or who we know, but simply from who we are – children of God.

It is interesting to note how many people we might think of as great successes had actually endured spectacular failure.  At the beginning of our service we sang “Ode to Joy,” by Ludwig von Beethoven.  Beethoven had an awkward playing style and preferred to write his own compositions rather than play the classical works of his day, as was expected.  His teacher called him hopeless as a composer.

Thomas Edison’s teachers advised his parents to keep him home from school, stating that he was “too stupid to learn anything.”  Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor who complained he was lacking creative ideas.

Oprah Winfrey was fired as a new reporter because she was “unfit for TV.”  You may remember that Michael Jordan was once cut from his high school basketball team.

And J.K. Rowling, a recently divorced single mother living in poverty, wrote the first Harry Potter book on an old manual typewriter.  Twelve publishers rejected the manuscript.  Finally Bloomsbury agreed to publish the book but insisted that she get a day job because there was no money in children’s books.

It has always been this way.  Even the heroes and heroines of faith experienced heartache and tragedy and rejection.  Jesus sends out his disciples, and he helps them to plan for failure.  Tough sledding is just a part of life.  We are not defined by our failures.  And neither are we defined by our successes.  We are valuable simply because of whom we are: children of God.

J. K. Rowling spoke at commencement at Harvard a few years ago.  She told the new graduates, “You might never fail on the scale I did.  But it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.” 

Maybe what we need in our lives and maybe what we need at First Baptist Church is more failure.  Don’t get me wrong: we certainly don’t seek out disappointments and setbacks.  We are not out there looking for opposition and rejection.  But the only way to avoid it completely is to do nothing.

More failure would mean that we are making an effort, that we are attempting something, that in the interest of being true to who we are and following Jesus’ call, we have tried something new.  Jesus helped his disciples plan to fail.  Maybe Jesus was on to something.  Amen. 

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