Reverend Rebecca Newland
9th July 2006, Pentecost 5
Hands up all who have failed at something?
Hands up all those who have set out to achieve something and have had to give up?
Hands up all those who have broken a promise?
Hands up all those who think the Christian way of life is impossibly idealistic and no one can really live up to it?
There is no way around it failure is as common as sunrises and the fear of failure is like a disease in our minds and memories. We can have one bad failure and we can never attempt the task again. I learnt the violin from about the age of 8 and after I had been playing for a few years my teacher asked me to play in a string ensemble that was to perform a piece at the annual nurse's graduation. We had to learn our parts off by heart. The graduation ceremony was held in the Great Hall of Newcastle University, an enormous venue that had banks of seats that rose up and away from the stage. We marched out on to the stage, violins under our arms. I had my head down. We all lined up and then I looked up and out. I froze where I stood. The place was packed with people and I was completely overwhelmed. It was a huge dose of stage fright, something I had never even heard about. I couldn't play. I couldn't even get the violin out from under my arm and under my chin. I stood there like a dummy for the entire performance. That failure sat with me for many years and made the thought of playing in public almost impossible. Failure can go right down deep into our very being and cripple us; it stops us becoming fully the person God lovingly calls us to be.
And God does call us into a way of life, a way of being, into a life beyond what we can imagine. Many people confuse Christianity with a type of religious humanism. As if it was all about being a good person, doing the right thing, helping others and then going to heaven. Yet the gospel is about a Kingdom —about a new reality, a way of life that demands everything of us. It is way of life that transforms all regions of our hearts, minds and actions. That is the Kingdom of God.
We receive the Kingdom, we enter it and we are called to share Jesus message in announcing it. The 12 Apostles in today's Gospel were called and sent by Jesus to announce his Kingdom — but what a sad and sorry lot. These blokes in Mark's gospel are always only on the way to understanding, always vowing and trying to follow but they have repeated failures. This mob is quite inadequate as messengers/disciples — but Jesus uses them anyway. Flawed as they are he sends them. They are not sent because they have amazing skills and abilities. Jesus chooses them despite their failures. And God chooses us despite our failures. In fact he keeps choosing us even when we keep failing. Just think of that — God chooses us, over and over again! How can he do that? How can he possibly think this is an efficient way of doing things?
Well I guess God's ways are not our ways! So what does this Gospel passage tell us about God's ways? What is it about God's choosing that can help us overcome our failures and weaknesses?
The first clue is the example of Jesus himself. He experiences a major failure in his hometown. "He could do no deed of power there" (6:5) and was "amazed at their unbelief" (6:6). So how does he handle this? Well he accepts the rejection in his stride, he leaves behind the people who have rejected him, and continues his ministry elsewhere — "he went among the villages teaching" (6:6). He simply gets on with it. W.C. Fields once famously said, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then give up. There is no use being a damn fool about it". However we are called to be fools for Christ. Jesus shows the way — get on with it and keep going. May be we need to change the detail, maybe we need to do things in a different way but the underpinning idea is to remain faithful to the life to which Jesus calls us.
Another key point is that Jesus sends the apostles out in pairs, "two by two" (6:7). He does not send them out alone. Indeed none of our ministry is done alone. We have a community of people to share the burden and the task with—a bunch of people to encourage and build us up. I have read that Jesus did not found a religion or a doctrine, he founded a community.
It is a flawed and frustrating community yet it is the place where we are called to journey together, supporting each other as we try and live in the way of Christ. If we look at the stories of the first disciples in the Act of the Apostles they always worked in pairs and groups. A lone Christian is an oxymoron.
And the last point I want to talk about from this passage is the need to travel light. Jesus orders the apostles to "take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread; no bag, no money in their belts" (6:8). They are to take the bare essentials. This is as much about an attitude of mind as it is about material encumbrances. We can all be heavily weighted down by what we think is essential in life, even the Christian life. Maybe we are weighed down by fears, a sense of not being worthy, maybe we have some false humility. Maybe we are weighed down by a fear of failure. Maybe we are encumbered with a list of shoulds, maybes and only whens. Jesus encourages us to unburden ourselves and become free agents — Free agents for the Gospel.
If we are honest people we know we make mistakes, we know we can fail easily at what we do. As C.S Lewis said we live in the shadow lands. The shadow lands of fear and failure. We know too that living out the Christian message in real and viable ways takes guts and courage. The call of the disciples we have been considering is sandwiched between two stories of rejected prophets — Jesus rejected by his hometown people (vv. 1-6a) and then John the Baptist killed by king Herod (vv. 14-29). It is not an easy road. Standing up for what you believe to be true, standing up for what you believe to be right is neither safe nor easy. But God does not ask us to succeed. He asks us only to be faithful.
Jesus as always gives us the clues about God's way in all this — keep going and don't give up, travel with friends and travel light. But maybe you are not convinced. Maybe that doesn't seem enough. Perhaps we think that will not get us over the line or maybe even nowhere near it. I'd like to leave one final word to St. Paul, who I suspect often liked to have the final word!
When Paul is writing to the church in Corinth we hear him defending himself against critics. In his discussion of visions and boasting, his hardships and problems he tells how three times he begged God to remove his 'thorn in the flesh'. We do not know what this 'thorn in the flesh' is. We don't know whether it is a mental problem, a physical disability, or a problem to do with other people. What ever it was it was something he did not want to deal with. The answer he received was this "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (12:9). It does not matter what our weaknesses, our fears, our issues are — God's grace is enough. Just let that sink in… God's grace is sufficient. You are enough, just as you are, for God's good purposes to be fulfilled. We have only to say yes. To go where we are sent, to love God and others, to proclaim the message of God's redeeming love and peace — just as we are, fears, failings, weaknesses, doubts and all.
As we gather around the Lord's table to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus may we leave behind us all that weighs us down. May we kneel and stand with our brothers and sisters in Christ, pilgrims and partners on the way. May we trust that we have been truly called, as it says in our Baptism service to "Confess Christ crucified and proclaim his resurrection", may we never give up, may we "finish the race and keep the faith" and may we come to the table trusting in the absolute sufficiency of God's grace.