How to Lose Without Losing Heart
How To Lose Without Losing Heart
Robert P. Hoch
July 5, 2020
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21201
First Reading Romans 7:15-25a
15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Gospel Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
16“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
25At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” .
Most of us flee from failure as quickly as possible. Or we learn from it and, quickly as possible, put it behind us. We file it for later when we will preach the gospel of success from a pulpit eight feet above contradiction. We have a complicated relationship with failure. Look at a resume in one light, and it’s one success story after another. Look at a resume in another light, and you might find one exit wound after another, and a blood trail leading right to the place where we stand. We struggle to name failure, much less to dwell with it. Why? Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist, says that we get just close enough to failure to know a little about ourselves, but no more (Sally Jenkins, “The Lasting Lesson of this Superbowl” in The Washington Post (4 February 2020) accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/nfl/the-lasting-lesson-of-this-super-bowl-failure-is-necessary/2020/02/04/d566a618-4754-11ea-ab15-b5df3261b710_story.html). This morning, Jesus invites us to linger with failure.
Jesus seems like one of the worst teachers possible if you want to learn anything about failure. When he touched the sick, they were healed; when he saw hungry, they were fed; when Jesus called the names of the dead, even the dead would rise. Success after glorious success. Oh, they thought he was down for three days, but on the third day, he rose.
Obscured in this “success” narrative is Jesus confronted by the phenomenon of failure. Eugene Boring, a biblical scholar, says that today’s text is a meditation on failure (Eugene Boring, “Matthew” in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary). But what failure means and what purpose failure could possibly serve might be difficult to discern.
The meaning of failure in Matthew is framed by a larger concern, namely Jesus’ identity. While John is in prison, he asks if Jesus is the one they were waiting for, or should we wait for another. John understood a successful messiah to be one who would throw the Roman beast into a sea boiling with God’s wrath. If Jesus didn’t do that, then Jesus has failed in his messiah-ing.
Maybe there’s an aura of failure growing around Jesus. The text we read this morning sounds on the one hand like Jesus is fed up with “this generation” — a pejorative term. As he spoke to his hometown people, Jesus uses a metaphor of children trying to initiate a game, but with no appropriate response.
So Jesus says, “You’re like kids; we played a happy game, and you didn’t want to be happy with us, and then we started playing a sad song, and you wouldn’t do that either.” He puts it in the context of John’s message and his own — neither received the intended response.
At first, it sounds like Jesus is saying the problem is in those who fail to respond to Jesus’ message in a coherent way. There’s probably some truth to that. But in a subtle way, maybe Jesus is saying, I failed. I failed to convey the message of the kingdom of heaven to those who knew me best and with whom I spent my life.
But Jesus doesn’t quickly move on, making adjustments for a more successful messaging strategy. It’s almost as if Jesus says, stay with me for a while in this place, in this moment of failure . . . and learn from me.
Learn from me . . . not merely the deeds or the principles of wisdom, but from me, and do so in that moment of failure, do so in that failure to connect, in that failure to comprehend. Jesus says, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest, take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.”
This invitation stands in stark contrast to how Jesus describes the deeds of healing to John . . . when Jesus sends a message to John, he says, “Tell John that the blind see, the sick are healed, the dead are raised.” He does not say, I raise the dead. But, here, in this particular moment of failure, Jesus says, Come unto me . . . all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest learn from me . . .
What does that mean? Maybe Jesus rejected the showmanship of the successful person, whose success we desire. Jesus desires us, not our success; Jesus hungers for us, not our resumes; Jesus thirsts for us, not our theories.
Jesus desires us. But why is it that we desire success more than Jesus and is there anything that science can teach us here? There is a huge literature around turning failure into success. Not as much quantitative study on the phenomenon of failure, until recently. Associate Professor at the Kellogg School of Management, Dashan Wang, conducted a study, Quantifying the Dynamics of Failure Across Science, Startups and Security.
Professor Wang says he grew up with the Chinese tradition of optimism, which is, like most success genres, anecdotal and not data-driven. But he wanted to look at the empirical phenomenon of failure, so he needed to find an empirical measurement of what counted as a success for a given group or organization. For a young scientist beginning their career, he counted grant applications, and grant awards, and influence (how many times their work was cited in peer journals), and their productivity overtime (papers published). Those measurements supply the matrix for quantifying success and, ultimately, the definition of a good scientist, i.e. the identity question.
What Wang predicted was that the early success stories would predict the “winners” — early winners would accumulate more and more wins while near misses would fade out. But it turned out that those who failed early would often go on to outperform the early winners within their peer group. The early near misses were also 10% more likely to drop out of the picture altogether. The differenced depended on how they looked at failure. Or how they responded to it. Some felt rejected; others perhaps stagnated, neither rising nor declining. Others studied that near-miss experience, recalibrated, reapplied, and perhaps failed again, but with each iteration, made a small but significant improvement.
That’s one career field. Wang also studied the failure dynamics of . . . terrorist organizations. How do you measure success as a terrorist organization? Professor Wang looked at their literature and found that terrorist organizations measure success in terms of casualties. Maybe the first time, they only kill or maim ten people (women and children included). But next time, they succeed by killing a hundred (Curt Nickisch, “The Tipping Point Between Failure and Success,” an interview with Dashan Wang in the Harvard Business Review, episode 713 (10 December 2019) accessed at https://hbr.org/podcast/2019/12/the-tipping-point-between-failure-and-success).
Disturbing? Yeah. Is it possible that Professor Wang, without saying it outright, is asking us to question our criteria for success? The criteria of the KKK or white supremacists are obviously bad, and we reject it out of hand. That’s the low hanging fruit.
But it does raise the question: is the ostensibly good criteria we use for measuring success somehow flawed? Paul thinks so. Not just about the obviously bad criteria of a terrorist organization, but also the good criteria that we pass around as established wisdom, seldom questioning whether it is fundamentally good.
Of course, it’s good! Or maybe it’s complicated.
In the text from Paul, we hear him speaking about Torah or law, the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Its root is in the ten commandments. But the story of success it recalls is Israel’s release from captivity. That’s good. And when Jesus is questioned about the most important of these laws, Jesus quotes the law. It is salutary and good. God created it. So those who practice it will prosper . . . yes, or maybe not?
Basically, Paul says that the law, the standard for righteousness, ends up being a nesting-ground for sin. Let’s stress here that this is not so much a comment about the adequacy of the law as it is a comment on the power of sin in any human enterprise. Sin overcomes our best formulas for success, leaving us feeling like wretched failures.
For some of us, maybe sin is an antiquated term. But even the most progressive of us may be wondering if we need to dust off our notion of sin and review it in the evident failure of our so-called capacity for progress, equality, and plain old rational thought, which we believe is our inheritance as children of the scientific age. Surely sin could not touch these cherished and salutary principles! But not only does sin touch our principles, but it all but destroys them, turning us against our best selves. Rational thought will bring us a vaccine. Rational thought also built the atomic bomb. Economic theories of endless prosperity have brought more people out of poverty than ever before and have also led us to the very edge of ecological collapse.
Paul isn’t confronted by our challenges, but he is rooting around deep in the DNA of human instrumentalities of success, in his case, law leading to justification with God. And Paul concludes saying that neither the law, nor being under the law, can prevent him from doing the things that he hates, and the law, in some way, becomes the very thing that aids and abets the flesh in doing the evil that he hates.
In the end, Paul lets out an anguished cry most of us know but few of us proclaim: Wretched human being that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death? Paul finds himself on a cliff’s edge without a recipe for success. There is no law, however good, that can save Paul . . . and then, out of nowhere, he cries out again, this time with something like a sigh of relief, Thanks be to God our Lord Jesus Christ!
Some say this is actually not Paul so much as the sigh of relief in the law or Torah itself — it cannot accomplish its goal but overwhelmed by sin in us, it in fact makes the burden heavier and the person carrying it an abject failure without hope. According to NT Wright, it becomes a doppelgänger of itself, a shadow law that works contrary to its purpose. The law overpowered by human sin heaves a sigh of relief that God has acted with Christ’s Spirit and incarnation (N.T. Wright, “Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary,).
I need to bring this home, so let me try. The sports columnist, Sally Jenkins, whom I quoted earlier, writes movingly on the necessity of failure. She writes of the 2019 Super Bowl win of the Kansas City Chiefs.
She writes about the way the haze of glory obscures how many players roaming that football field had, early in their careers, been cut, discarded, how many were near misses. In the haze of Super Bowl glory, we miss that. She sermonizes on the time-tested wisdom of coaches who told their struggling quarterbacks to keep believing what you see and keep on firing that ball, no matter what.
But I wonder about the failures that she does not name. What about their name, the Kansas City Chiefs with its racist overtones? Or consider another near miss. An NFL player by the name of Colin Kaepernick. He wasn’t recruited and, to my knowledge, hasn’t been since he called out the racism of white America. He was discarded for taking a knee. Maybe we need to go deeper than another moving eulogy on stick-to-it, keep firing that ball.
On this Fourth of July weekend, there’s no amount of fireworks or barbecuing that can disguise our failure — climate change, pandemic, systemic racism, the list goes on. But it is not only that bad people are in charge; it’s that good people, promoting good policies, including social progressivism, fiscal conservatism, family values, democratic principles, the right to free speech and assembly — these good and salutary principles of living have been colonized with something that is more powerful than we are.
Family values, for instance. What could be wrong about living your life according to family values? Is there something in this law-like value that ends up turning on us, making us wretched? What forms of subtle exclusions are masked by the so-called all-important good in family values?
Fiscal conservatism — or the preservation of wealth. Good, but can we ask what are we preserving? Or are we just supposed to keep firing that ball? When was the wealth of many historic churches, like our own, generated? By whom? From whose sweat was it extracted? We’re not preserving the financial equivalent of a statue memorializing a confederate general; we’re not talking about preserving the fiscal dimension of white privilege . . . are we?
Jesus does not reject the good and salutary value of the law — that would include fiscal conservatism, inclusivity, family values — but Matthew would warn us against seeing Jesus as the best example of values we already have.
To come to Jesus is to come to the crucified, to one who compels us to question our allegiance to any other power. For the world, this is a stumbling block. Or a wretched symbol of failure. For those who believe, it is the power unto salvation. We say Jesus is the Christ. We are not waiting for Jesus to confirm the good values we already have, but rather, to grow in faith, we strive to conform our lives to the Christ Jesus reveals.
Christ is Jesus. Christ has come.
Learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls.
What exhausts us as a body?
What leaves us feeling wretched in a world reserved for so-called champions?
Who will free us from this body of death?
And now, before we knew it, we are very alive.
By God’s grace and to God’s glory. Amen.