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.

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