SERMON: “Failure Is An Option”
Jesus sends his followers out to proclaim the Good News of the kingdom of God. As they go, he prepares them for both success and failure in their efforts. Even doing God’s work carries with it the possibility of failure.
A young man and his daughter visit a local café for breakfast on a Saturday morning. It has become a Saturday ritual for the two of them. Mom sleeps in, while dad and daughter eat out. They usually get coffee and pastry to take home for mom before they leave.
On one morning, dad and daughter are deep in conversation. As they talk about schoolwork, best friends and an upcoming birthday party, the daughter becomes very excited. She waves her arms as she describes some event that took place at school recently. Suddenly, her arm catches the edge of a glass of orange juice sending liquid spilling everywhere.
The daughter immediately throws her hands over her face and begins crying.
“Oh, Daddy. I am so sorry. I did not mean for that to happen.”
Very calmly and softy the dad pulls her hands from her face and looks warmly into her eyes.
“It’s okay,” the dad says. “You don’t have to be sorry. It was just an accident. Anyone can have an accident. Let’s get a towel from our server and clean this up. You don’t need to cry. This could happen to anyone.”
The relief is evident on the daughter’s face. The tears give way to a slight grin as they work together cleaning up the juice.
Later as they are about to leave the café, the daughter goes to the counter to get the coffee and pastry for mom. While she is there, the owner of the café stops by the table and leans toward the dad.
“That was a good thing you did today,” the owner says in a low voice.
“What’s that?” the dad asks.
“Teaching your daughter that it’s all right to fail,” the owner replies. “Helping her understand that will free her from a world of frustration and guilt in the future.”
Failure is a part of life. And if for some reason we don’t understand that — or believe that — we will face a life of frustration and guilt, for eventually failure comes to all of us. We will make mistakes, we will start things we cannot or do not finish, we will aspire to accomplishments we cannot attain, and sometimes we will simply do something wrong.
Admitting that failure is part of life is not an invitation to fail, nor is it a reason to not try. Acknowledging that failure is part of life also does not eliminate the need for us to take responsibility for our failures. If we spill the juice, we must clean it up.
But knowing that failure is always a possibility frees us from the inevitable guilt that is associated with failure. If we have done our best, then that is the best we can do. If something doesn’t work out, there is no reason to carry that failure around for the rest of our lives.
Jesus apparently understood the potential effects of failure. Thus, when he sent 70 (or 72, depending on the Bible version you’re reading) of his followers out on a mission to announce the arrival of the kingdom of God, he took steps to prepare his followers to deal with failure. The endeavor he was calling them to was perhaps the most ambitious imaginable. They were not only to say that the kingdom of God had come near but were also to invite all who heard to believe the Good News and to prepare themselves for God’s imminent arrival. Everything in the world was about to change, and people needed to be ready.
Talk about aspirations! To be invited to participate in the most important mission endeavor in history was quite an honor — and quite a responsibility.
With hopes high and emotions soaring, the followers of Jesus prepared to dive into their work. But before they left, Jesus had one more instruction for them. He said, in effect, if you have success and people respond to your message, stay with them for a while, encourage them and help them. But if they reject your message, wipe the dust of that town off your shoes.
In telling his followers to do that, Jesus was not giving a technique for showing contempt for those who refused to embrace the Good News. On the contrary, he was giving his followers a ritual for dealing with failure. It’s as if he were telling them, “If you fail to convince anyone, leave it all there — even the dust, and move on to the next opportunity.”
Leave it all there. What a powerful image for dealing with life’s disappointments and our mistakes. Instead of dragging our failure like a chain around our necks, just leave it there.
For instance, a young woman dreams all her life of becoming a doctor. She works hard in high school and college and makes pretty good grades. But medical school is a highly competitive process. No matter how hard she tries, she is not able to score high enough on the medical school admission test to be accepted.
She could choose to simply give up, give in to her failure. She had one dream and it becomes unattainable. She can, if she chooses, allow that one failure to define her life and drag her disappointment and frustration around like a weight for the rest of her life.
Or she can leave it all there. Having done the best, she could attain her dream, with the realization she cannot have it, she wipes the dust of medical school from her shoes and moves on to other opportunities. As it turns out, while her scores are not good enough to get into medical school, she gets accepted into pharmacy school. She can be a part of the medical profession, just in a different way from how she originally planned.
Having a ritual for failure is especially important in doing what is commonly referred to as “the Lord’s work.” Ministers are notorious for harboring the notion that they are not capable of failure, or at least believing that they shouldn’t be. A person who goes through life believing that he or she is not allowed to fail is a person headed for deep, deep disappointment.
Failure comes in many forms, even for those who are engaged the work of ministry — laity and clergy. Just because we are endeavoring to do something we think God wants us to do does not mean success is guaranteed. Jesus certainly understood this and worked to give his followers a ritual for dealing with their failure.
Once we have done our best, that’s all we can do. If our efforts don’t bring about the desired results, we can sulk, become depressed or angry, or give up altogether.
Or we can wipe the dust of our failure from our shoes. Move on to the next opportunity. Grow from the experience.
Of course, it’s one thing to try our best and then fail because we simply could not do it, but to fail because of poor choices or bad judgment is altogether something else. However, the dust on the shoes principle remains a proper ritual for all failure. Even if the failure is our fault and we did it wrong, or even badly, wiping off the dust of our failure is still the right move. How does it help us to wallow in our failure? We should make whatever restitution is called for, whatever repentance is needed, and accept whatever consequences result from our failure. But when all that is done, wipe the dust of our error from our shoes and move on.
God does not want us to fail, but we will. God does not want us, or our message rejected, but we or it will be from time to time. God does not want us to make bad choices or to use poor judgment, but we will.
But God also does not want us dragging our failure around for the rest of our lives. The grace of God forgives us for our errors, and that same grace will sustain us when the world turns out to be different from what we hoped it would be.
We will pick up a lot of dust as we travel through life, but we need not carry the dust of failure around with us. Jesus said wipe that dust off your shoes and move on.