On Failure

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Boston Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts, let, celebrates his solo home run with J.D. Martinez during the fifth inning of the team’s baseball game against the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Things to consider: major league hitters are considered elite if they succeed at getting a hit only 35% of the time (.350 average). In the Gospel reading, Peter falls flat on his face, and not for the last time, yet we still consider him a giant of the faith.

It’s about time we started getting comfortable with failure, or else we’ll never be in the game long enough to succeed. Pastor Anna explains.

Matthew 16:21-28

We’ve been together for more than five years now, so stop me if you’ve heard this one. 

It was a hot day in Alabama and I was doing my best to play college softball. I was a freshman who had forgone a four year institution to go to a junior college in hopes of, like many athletes before and after me, earning a Division I scholarship in the next two years. 

I was nervous. I was terrified of messing up. 

And so naturally, I did mess up. Over and over. 

I was an infielder and I watched as one ground ball glanced off my glove. Then I managed to spear the next one only to throw it far over the first baseman’s head. This was a particular accomplishment since she was more than six feet tall. Another ground ball. Another error. 

At that point, the coach stopped everything. He was a grizzled old baseball coach; not very unlike the coach Tom Hanks plays in A League of Their Own. 

I expected to get yelled at. I did not expect a life lesson. But this is why sports and other extracurriculars are valuable; they teach us lessons that aren’t available inside of any classroom. 

And this was lesson one of college. 

The coach’s voice roared from the dugout directly in my direction. 

“If you are afraid to fail, go over there, get your [stuff], and leave right now.” 

I had not yet learned to normalize failure. This was funny, since I had played a sport for my entire life that calls people all stars if they can manage to succeed in batting 35-40% of the time. 

Years later, in my 30s, I would pick up a barbell again and learn this lesson once more. It’s common to say in the gym that the weights win most of the time. Everyone wants to be strong, but nobody wants to do the work of getting beaten by the barbell over and over. 

I would learn it over and over in my work life, too. Failure is not only temporary; it is  normal. 

No pastor, and no church, has managed to retain 100% of members all the time. Communities are messy and distinctive, and no community, church or otherwise, is for everyone.

Not even ice cream is for everyone.

If you’re a member here and we or I haven’t managed to disappoint you at least once, please, give us time. 

If you and I are in relationship with one another that is more than shallow, chances are good that we’ll manage to disappoint one another more than once. 

The key, of course, is to keep going. 

Each person here has screwed something important up — at church, in your family, in life. Probably many times. 

Yet many of us walk through life afraid to fail, and in so doing, we fail more — whether by action or inaction. We stay in jobs and relationships that make us unhappy. We stress over whether or not we’re messing up our children with our parenting, grandparenting, or other role modeling. We stress over being good partners and spouses and coworkers and Christians and citizens. We stress over everything, always fearing failure.

But nothing is about being perfect. If you’ll allow me to be frank: perfect people are two things — boring, and liars. 

Not failing is not trying. The key, of course, is to keep trying, to keep moving forward. 

Case in point: Peter in today’s Gospel reading. You may think you’ve messed up, but until Jesus himself has called you Satan, Peter takes the failure cake. 

Just last week, he gave the answer upon which we would build the whole church, the answer we talked about uniting us all as a worldwide body. He answered the question “Who do you say that I am?” With “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus literally gave him the keys to the kingdom. 

Oh how quickly we go from success to failure. Despite the best of intentions — telling the Son of God that he should stay alive so that he can help more people — Jesus smacks him down. 

“Peter” means “rock,” and in a matter of just a few verses, Peter has gone from the rock upon which Christ promised to build his church to a stumbling block for the Son of Man. 

Well if that isn’t enough to make a disciple up and quit. 

But I think we all know that that wasn’t the end of Peter’s story. And it also wasn’t the end of Peter’s failures. But here, more than 2,000 years later, we still talk about him as a giant of the faith. Not because he never failed, and not because he did fail so much. 

Because he kept moving forward. 

What’s more, Jesus then tells the disciples to take up their cross and follow. If anything was a sign of death and failure in those days, it was certainly the cross. Being nailed to a cross either meant you’d committed a crime or that you’d drawn enough negative attention to yourself that the Romans saw fit to kill you. It wasn’t the sign of faith or goodness that we see it as today. 

And yet, in Christ, everything is transformed. Failures are not final, and the cross, once a sign of failure and death by empire, is a sign of redemption. 

Friends, the message of Easter is that the worst thing is never the last thing, and we are an Easter people. 

And that goes for your life, too. You are not the worst thing you’ve ever done. You are not your failures. So stop going through life afraid to fail; we are an Easter people. 

The one who transformed the cross is transformed into a sign of life and hope, the one who turned water into wine, and the one who turns bread and wine into his very self will have no problem transforming your failures. 

Just keep moving, and know that God moves with us. Thank God. Amen.

On Unity

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The symbols of St. Peter, by John Piper, St. Peter’s Church, Babraham, Great Britain. 

Matthew 16:13-20

Details have been obscured in the following stories to protect the guilty. 

Somewhere in America that I feel compelled to tell you wasn’t the South, in a church that is a member of a denomination, a pastor who happens to be a friend of mine decided, given the current times, to make a theological statement on the church’s sign. Given that it seemed unclear from the news, this particular pastor decided to make the statement, “God cherishes Black lives.” 

Just that. 

No hot button slogan, no political essay, nothing else. Just a signal to the Black members of that community that this particular church, predominately white itself, believes Black lives to be equally valuable to everyone else’s in God’s eyes. No one who wasn’t a member of this church was asked to sign on. 

Seemed simple enough to this pastor. No one in the congregation gave a word of objection. However, a couple of people that this pastor had never met before saw fit to send messages decrying their disagreement with this simple and profoundly true theological statement. 

In another town and another place, a different pastor posted a political article on the pastor’s personal social media page. It may or may not have conflicted with the message in the previous story. Immediately, someone who isn’t a member of their church commented, “What happened to the separation of church and state?” 

She’d forgotten, as people often do, that pastors and churches aren’t one and the same.

In fact, I couldn’t find where this pastor said anything about representing the church with this view. 

Why would someone decide to critique a sign at a church they don’t go to? 

And why would someone equate what a pastor says on their personal social media page with their church’s official statements — and in any case, if you don’t go to that church, why would it matter? 

Beats me, but it’s a tale as old as time. For some reason, many Christians feel personal ownership over the messages put out by any church (and in some cases, over pastors speaking only for themselves). I’ve been guilty if it myself.

I chalk it up to our individualized view of faith. We can’t manage to comprehend that a church community might hold a view that is outside of our view of God, or even sometimes that other individuals can hold such views. But it’s true — they can and they do.

And it’s gotten worse in our current polarized times. Because I believe in Jesus and you believe in Jesus, all Christians should agree on, well, everything!
And so we bicker and we nitpick and we call churches we don’t attend over what’s on their sign. 

This morning, as preachers everywhere tackle “Who do you say that I am?” some will take a classic individualized angle: who do you say Jesus is? 

My records do indicate that this is how I’ve preached this passage in the past. And it really is a question worth considering, individualistic or not.

I’ve found that my own answer has changed throughout my life, and you probably have found the same. It’s much like who we say our parents are changes throughout our lives. 

When you’re a baby, your parents are your protectors and providers, and the only thing standing between your vulnerable little baby body and the great beyond. When you’re a toddler, they become your teachers (though they’re also still your protectors; toddlers do, as you all know, act like tiny little drunk people and need similar types of supervision). 

When you’re a child, your parents move further into the teaching role. By the time you’re an adult, they become the people you call when you can’t figure something out, or when you need comfort. And when your parents go to be with Jesus, they become the ones who have gone before you into the great beyond, continuing to pave the way. 

I can’t imagine why Jesus would be any different for us. If Jesus asked each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” — if there are twenty of us, we’d give at least 23 different answers. For some of us, he’s a Friend. For others, a protector, for others, a comforter, for still others, all three and more. 

So, to be clear, “Who do you say that I am” is certainly a worthwhile question on an individual level. But as I’ve shown, we probably think too individualistically for our own good in these times. 

Peter’s answer isn’t individual; it’s communal. Peter’s answer so profound that it gets him dubbed “the rock on which I will build my church.” 

He says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

Peter does a rare thing, in his time, our time, or any time: he doesn’t speak as an individual; he speaks for the whole church. He distills all of our individual answers down to the most important thing: Jesus is the Son of the living God. This was an answer that the worldwide church might someday proclaim — and would, and does.

Regardless of our individual politics, and regardless of our individual answers about who Jesus is, we can all say to Peter’s answer, with confidence: “Yes, that is who Jesus is.” 

“The Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

We’re all too quick to individualize and personalize everything, and insist that we get exactly what we want, even from church signs that we drive by or pastors who speak for themselves on the internet. 

But today, God is calling us to pull together, and Peter is calling us back to the most basic of statements, a foundation that we can actually build on together. And weirdly enough, I often find that when I can get back to the basics and connect with others, I do find myself affected individually. I find myself understanding others better when we can get back to a sound foundation.

It’s just about building that foundation with a simple statement. 

A foundation like, “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Or a foundation like, “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” 

At the table, all are seen and all are loved. It’s not a common thing in this world that we live in — which is why we’ve got people calling up pastors over their church signs. 

Who we each say Jesus is will vary widely, but together, we proclaim that Christ is the Son of the Living God, present at our table in bread and in wine. In an age where we agree on so little, I do believe, is a message that we can all get behind. It’s just as simple and profound as that. And it’s as easy, and as difficult, as that.

So let us meet the Christ, the Son of the living God, and be here united. Then, and only then, can we tackle the hard stuff. Amen.

Toddlers, Bananas, and God in the Storm

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Conspiratorial nana.

Matthew 14:22-33

You ever see something on the internet that was so funny that you watch it over and over?

Yeah, I did the other night. 

I was minding my own business and getting ready to go to bed wicked early, like I do, and suddenly I get this video of a toddler. 

But not just any toddler. 

It was a toddler whose mother thought it was hilarious to turn on one of those facial filters that puts your eyes and mouth on a fruit or a vegetable. This particular toddler’s nose and mouth were on a banana. 

“NANA!” the toddler exclaims. 

Then the banana-toddler looks troubled, then conspiratorial. The banana turns to something off screen and says, “Mommy?” The banana then proceeds to ask its mommy why it is a banana. 

I watched it over and over and laughed harder every single time. It’s the little things these days. 

Today in both our texts, God shows up, facial-filter style, looking like a ruckus. In one, God shows up in the sheer silence after a storm and fire; in the other, God shows up in the midst of a raging storm on the sea. In both, God gets mistaken for part of the ruckus. 

My message today is very simple: there are, needless to say, storms raging all around us and within us. There is the storm of the pandemic, the storm of racism and white supremacy, the storms of political division. Then there are the more individual storms that are always with us: storms of conflict within families. Storms of depression and anxiety and other health problems. The list of storms is seemingly endless, and they do constantly rage all around us and within our chests. 

In both of our texts today, we see storms and fire and humans who are afraid. In the Gospel text, Jesus sends the disciples ahead in a boat while he goes off by himself. The Son of God seems to do that a lot — go off by himself. Must be a Messiah thing.

They don’t ask him how he plans to join them; by then they must be used to bonkers things happening and knows that the Christ has his ways and they know even more than that not to ask questions. So they go ahead and they leave him behind. 

Nighttime rolls around and a storm brews. The wind is against the disciples, Matthew says, and the boat was battered by the waves. 

Not a terribly big deal, maybe, hopefully, since so many of the disciples were fishermen to begin with. But then they see a figure coming towards them over the waves, in the storm, in the night. 

They “cry out in fear” — the brave disciples squeal like children, thinking that they’re seeing a ghost. 

A storm they could handle, but a storm with a poltergeist is just too much. 

You know the rest of the story. It’s not a storm with a ghost. It’s Jesus, showing up in the midst of a storm, helping Peter to walk on the water, which he ultimately fails at, but hey, he tried. Then, of course, the storm gets calmed and the disciples’ minds are absolutely blown. What an emotional journey — they go from the terror of a storm at night in a boat with an attached  poltergeist to the joy and wonder of the Son of God controlling the weather. Wild. 

Then there’s Elijah in the Old Testament reading for the day: Elijah, the great prophet, who’s got a storm in his own life — namely, in a nutshell, that he’s been chased down and his life is in danger. 

In the Gospel text, Peter had prayed the most common prayer in all of humanity — “save me” — but I think that here in the Hebrew Bible text, God says to Elijah what God most often says to us: “What are you doing here?” 

In this and most cases, it isn’t about sin, or about being somewhere you “shouldn’t be” in a moral sense. It’s about God finding us in the midst of chaos and asking us to reflect. God’s asking Elijah to reflect on how he got to where he is. Elijah is so sure of his purpose that he repeats it twice, and he gets reassurance from God: “Go, return on your way.” 

He gets direction and a renewed purpose in the midst of his storm. But first, God showed up looking like the storm itself. Like a toddler with a facial filter, only not. 

It’s a trope in literature and movies that a main character might have a guardian angel or other type of mystical mentor — someone who shows up in the midst of chaos to advise, protect, or help. Generally, whenever this character faces a quandary or gets into trouble, they learn to ask their mystical guardian, “Where are you?” 

In the same way, God loves showing up in the midst of a raging storm. Maybe if we learned to look for grace in the midst of chaos, we might see God more clearly and more often. Just a thought. 

In the same way that God shows up in the midst of storms, God also shows up in bread and wine. So here we are, in the midst of our storms, and the first place we’ll look for God is in the bread and wine. Thanks to our current storm of covid, it won’t look like it has for us for years. It’s a little odd and a little awkward and may even produce a little anxiety. 

But God is still here, all the same, in the midst of the storms around and within us. 

So come to the table and be fed. Then go out into the storm and look for God — even if God shows up looking like the storm itself, at first — God is there. 

Oh, and when you get home, do yourself a favor and look up toddlers and facial filters, because God also shows up in laughter in hard times. You’ll be glad you did.

Amen.

“Let’s Eat”

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Photo from the Montgomery, Alabama Convention & Visitor Bureau. 

Matthew 14:13-21

My very first church was a mid-sized parish in Montgomery, Alabama. Some of them, in fact, may end up watching this here broadcast. 

I loved them for many reasons, and one of my favorite days of any month was when the Young at Heart group, a group of folks who referred to themselves as the more “chronologically gifted” members of the congregation, would go out to eat for lunch together. I would always join them, and I loved every minute of it. They tolerated me and even enjoyed my company — me in my mid-twenties, fresh out of seminary, as green as they come, and they in their seventies and eighties. 

There was a liturgy to it. I would be in my office at the church, plugging away at a sermon or getting up the courage to call someone or doing some other pastor thing when one of them would stick their heads inside the open door and say four simple words. 

“Okay, Preacher, lesseat.” 

Back in those days, I did not, I freely admit, feed myself like I should. Now an enthusiastic breakfast eater, in those days, I usually didn’t eat until lunch. Whenever I’d hear those words — lesseat — my mouth would begin to water and I’d begin to get my head around just how hungry I was. 

I would obediently get up and follow them out to their car, and we’d eat indeed — usually something delicious and Southern like fried chicken or Gulf shrimp — and Jesus was always there, I’m sure of it. God’s grace lives lots of places, and I imagine good fried chicken to be one of them.

You know I always like to say that Jesus loved meals so much he became one. 

Today’s Gospel text ends with food, but it starts on a curious note: “When Jesus had heard this.” 

Heard what, exactly? 

He’d just heard about the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod and the government. John was, of course, both Jesus’ cousin and the one who baptized him. When Jesus hears about this, Matthew tells us, Jesus withdrew. 

Even the Son of God, we learn, needs to grieve. 

He gets into a boat and goes off by himself, as many of us sometimes do when we just need a moment to ourselves after a great loss. 

The crowds hear where he’s gone, and they come to the shore to see him. When he sees the crowd, he doesn’t preach a great sermon. He doesn’t tell them anything — he heals their sick. 

When evening came, the disciples were feeling practical, they instruct the Son of God to send them away so that they can get some food. 

Jesus says, in a tone I imagine as almost grumpy: “You give them something to eat.” 

To make a point, perhaps, the disciples talk about how little they have: famously five loaves, and two fish. 

You know the rest of the story. Jesus takes what little they have and turns it into a meal so big that the entire crowd of more than 5,000 people gets fed, and there are leftovers to take home. 

Where Jesus is, there is always enough. 

It’s worth noting that I didn’t choose this text for this day. Promise. 

My pastor friends are jealous. 

We’re trying out communion today, the first time we’ve taken communion since March 8. 

That means that it’s been about 146 days since many of us have taken communion, but who’s counting? 

This time without communion has taught me a lot, and I bet it’s taught you a lot too. It’s made me think of our ancestors in faith who, for various reasons, have been left without communion: either because there was no church, or because there was a church but no pastor on most Sundays, back in the days when one pastor might serve five or ten churches and rotate around them. 

We are not the first to go without, as you know well by now, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been hard. 

But we haven’t gone hungry. 

Where Jesus is, there is always enough. 

Just like Jesus was in the fried chicken during the Young at Heart lunches, Jesus has also been with us this whole time. We worship our God, not our rituals, and our God shows up in our rituals and well outside of them. We’ve met God in the woods on a hike or two, in the faces of our families even if it was over FaceTime, in the bravery of essential workers, in the courage to have a dialogue over race and policing. 

We do not bring Jesus here by having communion; Jesus has been here this whole time. Where Jesus is, there is always enough; that much is clear. In the absence of communion, God has found new and creative ways to feed us. 

And now we return to this table that before we might’ve taken for granted and we’ll meet God here, too. May we never take it for granted again, for it is our family table. It is where we meet God and it is where our ancestors in faith met God.

I did not choose this text, but God did. With Jesus, the time is always right and the amount is always enough. 

Just as Christ fed the 5,000 plus the ladies and the kids in the midst of his own grief, Christ is here to feed us in the midst of pandemic anxiety. And there will be enough. 

Whether you commune with us today or whether you don’t, whether you’re watching at home or just waiting until you feel safer, know that Christ is with you, too, and will find new and wonderful ways to keep you fed until you join us at our table. 

And with that, I don’t think there’s anything left to say, except: “Lesseat.” Amen.