First United Methodist Church
Plymouth, Indiana

The Sacrament of Failure

The Sacrament of Failure, Mark 6:1-13
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, July 4, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer

A hunter wanted to show off his new dog, so he invited a friend to the lake to see what his dog could do. The owner took a decoy duck and threw it out as far as he could. His dog ran across the top of the water all the way out to the decoy and carried it back. After three times, his friend seemed unimpressed. Finally, the owner asked, “Well, what do you think of my dog?” His friend replied, “Why did you buy a dog that can’t swim?”

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus has just accomplished some of his most amazing miracles. While crossing the Sea of Galilee, he calmed a terrifying storm; he rebuked the wind and told the waves to be still—and they were. Once they were back on land on the other side of the sea, in the region of Gerasene, he healed a demon-possessed man. After crossing back over into Galilee he was met by Jairus, one of the rulers of the synagogue, who pleaded with Jesus to come to his home, to his young daughter who was deathly ill. Jesus went with him, surrounded by a huge crowd of people, who were pressing in on him, and at one point felt power flowing out of him. In that moment, a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years had been healed, simply by touching the hem of his garment. After speaking with her, telling her “Your faith has made you well,” he continued on his way to the home of Jairus, where everyone was weeping because the girl had already died. “She’s not dead,” Jesus said to them, and though most of the mourners thought his statement was foolishness—he took her parents and the disciples into the room where she lay, took her hand and said “Get up,” and she did. He told them not to tell anyone and to give her something to eat. Then he and his disciples moved on, traveling to his hometown of Nazareth.

It’s been a pretty incredible journey: intense. These men have covered a lot of miles, they’ve seen and they’ve done a lot of things—a lot of amazing things. Home would seem to be a good place to go; a place where Jesus and his disciples could receive a well-deserved rest. Some of mom’s macaroni and cheese and a night or two in that comfortable old bed with a real pillow, and some pleasant reminiscing as he sees the wooden toys Joseph made for him to play with as a child neatly stacked on a shelf in his old room. Nieces and nephews running in and out of the house, ready to shoot some hoops with their uncle. No demands, no worries.  A bit of a breath, just for a little while.

On the Sabbath, Jesus enters the synagogue and begins to teach. The home town folk—the people who Jesus had grown up around—the people who knew him and his family from the beginning—who were a part of his roots and upbringing—they’re there. And they are astonished at his teaching: how he speaks with such authority.

Maybe you remember that first time Jesus sat down and taught in the synagogue back in Capernaum.  The people were astonished there, too; they were amazed at his teaching. In Capernaum, they had responded to him with respect.

On that day the demon-possessed man entered the synagogue and Jesus commanded that the demon depart and it did. Everyone was amazed and the news began to travel about how he was able to give orders to evil spirits and they obeyed him.

But here, in his hometown, people respond to his teaching very differently.  “Who does he think he is?  Isn’t he the little guy who used to live down the street? What kind of power does he have?  Isn’t he a carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son? Don’t we know his brothers? Don’t his sisters still live here? Who does he think he is, all high and mighty, thinking he can come back here and teach us?”

What kind of power, huh? And do you wonder why they ask if he’s Mary’s son and not Joseph’s? Maybe it’s a little “dig” carried over since childhood…a bit of an insult. Maybe a resurrection of old rumors whispered behind his back as he grew up in a small town. “We know he’s Mary’s son, but is he Joseph’s?  Wonder who his father really is?”

Jesus isn’t naïve. He knows their minds are closed and they aren’t willing—or ready to hear what he has to say. This isn’t his first rodeo when it comes to being rejected as we read through the gospel of Mark. Remember how we talked a few weeks ago about how his own kin think he’s crazy and want to drag him away while the teachers of the law think he’s possessed by an evil spirit. That’s when he claimed a new family; when he looked around the room where he was teaching, and said, “You are my mother, my brothers and sisters…you who are listening and hearing and doing the will of God” (3:20-21, 31-35).

Jesus has come back home. He’s no longer the little boy who lives down the street, who plays with the wooden toys Joseph made for him. He’s no longer the young man who helps care for his younger brothers and sisters, who works in his father’s shop. He’s grown up. He’s confident in what he’s doing. His mission is clear. His journey has been laid out before him. He has work to do. And yet he yields to them, knowing he can’t preach to folks whose ears are closed: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (v. 4).

In the face of disbelief, Jesus isn’t able to do much. No deeds of power, though he is able to lay his hands on a few sick people and cure them. Perhaps the belief of these few made them well. 

And so, because of this, he and his disciples continue on their way, amazed (maybe saddened/disappointed) at the doubt they’ve encountered in this familiar place.

Sometimes things don’t happen as you might hope they will, and that’s what happens in Nazareth. Realizing this won’t be the last time he and his disciples will experience rejection, Jesus presents his disciples with a plan that will provide the support and framework they will need to be effective in their work, even in his absence. He wants them to be strong; to live out their calling. Their message is too important for their hearts and minds to be bumped and bruised when people don’t listen as they would hope and expect they would.  So, this is what Jesus does:

  1. He sends them out in pairs so they won’t be alone on their journey.
  2. He instructs them to travel light, so they’ll depend on God rather than on people for their needs.
  3. He tells them to stay in one place when they visit a town or particular area to establish a “home base.”  This will show honor and respect for the follower hosting them, while making it easy for a seeker to find them.  And then,
  4. He tells them to move on in the places where they aren’t wanted, welcomed or listened to.  To shake the dust off their feet and to move on to the next place.  To leave that place and let God deal with those folks. There’s only so much that a disciple can do.

You can’t please everybody all the time. You can’t be all things to all people. Even when you’re doing God’s work.

Looking at this text, it appears at first glance that Jesus failed miserably as he attempted to teach the people of Nazareth. He offered what he had, but they didn’t want it. He gave his best, but that wasn’t enough. Sometimes, it feels like your dog can walk on water, but people aren’t happy because he doesn’t know how to swim, too. There are times when we’re able to roll up our sleeves and get some great work done, and then there are times when it seems we have all we need to do good things, but for some reason, it just doesn’t happen. We can’t do it. But that doesn’t mean we’ve failed. A disappointing end to a ministry or calling doesn’t define our calling, and doesn’t mean it wasn’t valid or that the work wasn’t important. It just means not now. Not here. Not yours to do.

Being a pastor, I know how it feels to have dreams and visions and hopes for ministry that aren’t realized. I might be convinced that God is calling a congregation to do something, but if the church isn’t convinced, if the leaders aren’t on board, it’s not going to happen. It’s not a pastor’s job to railroad something through, no matter what.  Sometimes it means we need to do a better job of vision casting and inviting folks onboard.  And sometimes, it’s just not the right time. Not ours to do.

Things don’t always go as we think they ought.  

And, just because we’re good people, doesn’t mean everybody is going to like us. We might believe that if we sow love and compassion, we’ll reap love and compassion, but that doesn’t always happen. either. Not everyone will like us.  That might have more to do with them, then it has to do with us.  But there comes the time when we simply need to accept that fact, shake the dust off our feet, commend failed relationships to God and other Christians and spend our time building other relationships. I’m not sure it’s a good use of the time we have to try to get someone to like us when they just don’t.

These issues aren’t particular to pastors or to the church. Sometimes you fail to accomplish what you think needs to be done in whatever kind of work you do. Funding is pulled, equipment fails, requirements change, board members don’t agree, partners or supervisors change their minds. And somewhere along the way, we all run into someone who just doesn’t like us. That’s life. No matter how adorable we might think we are.

So how do we respond?  How do we live with this?  What does this text teach us?

First, we see that we have a God who doesn’t force himself on us, but instead, invites us into relationship. You and I have choices to make in life, and probably the most important decision for us to make is whether we want to listen to the voice of Jesus—if we want to listen to his teachings, if we want to be his disciple, if we’re willing to risk putting Christ at the center of our lives. We don’t HAVE to do that. It’s a choice. Our decision.  Ours alone to make.

Secondly, I think this text teaches us that God has a way of redeeming our “failures.” Difficult experiences, when acknowledged and dealt with, have the potential of making us better/helping us to become wise. Wisdom grows out of experience, whether that experience is good or bad. But we have to be willing to accept and own up to the bad experiences in order to learn from them and do something different next time around.

Third, it’s important to keep moving. Get up and get back on your feet when something knocks you down. It’s okay to take a deep breath before you move again, to acknowledge you’ve been hurt and deal with it.  But, don’t stay there. Don’t let your mistakes (or hitches in your get-along) make you shy of new experiences.

Fourth, find someone to talk to. Someone to share with. Someone you trust.  Someone who will listen, offer feedback and who will be there to cheer you on, whether you’re up or down. That might be a spouse, a partner, a sibling, a friend, or a counselor. Don’t do life on your own.

Sending disciples out in pairs wasn’t a random thing to do: we need other people.

And finally, when you’re discouraged, remember that God is still in charge.  People will do what they do. You can’t control everybody and everything and how people will respond to you. Do your best, give life your best shot, try new things, make mistakes along the way and learn from them.  And remember that Jesus continued on his way to Jerusalem, he would eventually face what would be perceived by some as the greatest failure of all: death on a cross. But that perceived failure was the ultimate gift of his life for our salvation.

Thanks be to God for those days when everything goes just right.

Thanks be to God for those days that fall short of our hopes and expectations.

Thanks be to God who continues to work in the midst of it all, offering grace, offering hope, loving us always.

Thanks be to God. Amen.