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St. Paul’s – 7-8-2018 – Proper 9

Joshua–7 years Old-Baseball team-“What’s for snack?”

Adult winning and losing is usually much more complicated than that. But it is important for all of us to learn to deal with losing, with failure, with disappointment—because long experience shows that most of us, most of the time, lose more than we win. And when we lose, it takes more than a snack to cheer us up and make us feel better.

Our national pastime makes failure a sacrament. After being a Cubs fan all my life and watching the show, Bleacher Bums, last weekend at the outdoor theater at Sul Ross, I was reminded that failure is built into the game of baseball. If you think about it baseball is a huge game of failure.  Great hitters hit .300 average.  Look at it this way, it means you FAIL 70%of the time.  That’s a huge percentage.  You are guaranteed to fail.  And the best players get paid huge amounts of money to fail.

Our Scripture lessons deal with people “losing,” encountering very real and painful failure in their lives. Their losses, their failures go beyond competition and games and what’s for snack. Their failures are failures at life, failures at vocation, failures in health and failures in faith.

Ezekiel: the prophet—to whom no one would listen. Paul: the healer—who could not heal himself. Jesus: the preacher teacher, miracle man—who could work no miracles at home. Each learned a valuable lesson from their failure: how to know when a loss is a win.

Ezekiel’s story begins like all good prophet stories; the people are acting like total pagans. They have turned their backs on God and godly ways. God decides to send a prophet to straighten them out. In Chapter 1, Ezekiel has a vision. In Chapter 2, God begins to speak to Ezekiel: ” ‘Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel … who have rebelled against me. … You shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ ”

So far, so good and so normal. This is how it works with God and prophets and the people of Israel in the Bible. Then, God says a strange thing: “Whether they hear or refuse to hear … they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”(verse 5) Success or failure, winning or losing, is not the issue. The important thing is that they hear the truth, that they know “there has been a prophet among them.” As it happens, the people didn’t listen, and God sent them into exile, and the people rewarded Ezekiel for speaking out by treating him very shabbily. By all external measures, Ezekiel failed and failed miserably. But Ezekiel’s loss was a win, because he was faithful to the truth. When Ezekiel was finished, the people knew there had been a prophet among them.

Nobody knows what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was, but that is not important. What matters is that Paul prayed very hard and very long and very faithfully for this thorn to be removed, and it wasn’t. Paul lost the struggle for victory over a physical problem, and this loss created for him a spiritual problem, a crisis of faith. This failure to pray himself out of this physical problem led him to question his faith. It was an experience that could have shattered his trust in God, but instead it humbled him and strengthened his faith. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a loss that turned into a win.

Or as Thomas Edison said:I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work

The story of Jesus returning home to preach occurs early in his ministry. Up until now, the Jesus of Nazareth Traveling Salvation Show and Tent Revival has been a roaring success. The first five chapters of Mark are filled with healing stories and reports of huge crowds of people coming to hear Jesus preach. Immediately before this story, in last weeks gospel passage, he had raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead and healed the woman with the flow of blood.

The true downside of Incarnation is Limitation. That is why Jesus’ ministry and message were not about up and down, success or failure, winning or losing. Fittingly, as one both fully human and fully divine, Jesus got to taste the raw flavor of failure at the very onset of his public ministry. So, he takes the tour to Nazareth, his hometown and falls flat on his face. Returning to his hometown of Nazareth Jesus got hit upside the face with the failure of familiarity.

How could Jesus have anything profound or inspired to offer the people of Nazareth when they had seen him running down the streets with a droopy diaper?

How could the son of Mary, one of apparently questionable parentage and no social standing, be a possible messiah?

How could a meretekton, a stone-mason, a metal worker, a wood carver, a day laborer, claim any authority to speak God’s word with divine insight?

And yet he did. Jesus returned to Nazareth. Jesus made a point of going home and facing the ultimate test – the home crowd. They question his legitimacy. Isn’t this Mary’s son? The carpenter? Where did he get this? They took offense at him; where I come from they would have said, Who does he think he is?And, somehow, their resentment results in his inability to perform miracles and other healings. One little line shows us Jesus being very human; “He was amazed at their unbelief.” Jesus just couldn’t believe it. He was stunned.

Think about how Jesus has lost.

Jesus went home to Nazareth—and lost.

Jesus went to Jerusalem—and lost.

Jesus went to the crowds—and lost. In a majority vote of epic proportions, the crowds called for Barabas, and Jesus lost.

It doesn’t matter what you lose to; it only matter what you lose for.

That day in Nazareth, Jesus had a loss that was a win. From it he learned the limits to his power.

He learned you can control what you say; you cannot control what people hear.

He learned you can control what you do; you cannot control how people respond.

He learned you can control how you show your love; you cannot control how people receive it.

If we are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps then ask yourself: What’s involved in taking what can be called Jesus’ “sacrament of failure?’

First, Jesus says for us to wade right in.Take few protective provisions, and instead trust yourself and your wellbeing to those about whom you know little. In other words, take risks for the gospel.

Second, read the signs.If the people you encounter are welcoming of Jesus’ presence and power, then dwell among them. But if they reject what you know is right and good, Jesus gives a different directive. There are signs that tell you whether the seeds you are planting are taking root, or whether they’re falling on rocks and weeds.

Third, get out of there.Failure does not lead to complacency or passivity. Failure leads to activity and purpose. You fall. You fall forward, get yourself up, shake yourself off, and move on. Or as Jesus put it, “shake the dust off your feet.” Today this might mean resigning a job. This might mean quitting an abusive relationship. This might mean passing over a lucrative partnership.

But most importantly of all, and this is #4, keep your dreams alive.Keep your dream alive with clean slates and clean soles (souls). Nobody is too big to fail. But nobody is too small to prevail.

Jesus’ failure at Nazareth shows us how to triumph at life. The stark humanity of Jesus, the very thing that caused Nazareth to reject him, is what led him to the cross and to prevail over sin and death.

For it was only on that cross that God could triumph over failure, over fallibility, over death.

I like to imagine that when we “get to heaven,” most of us will be like 7-year-old baseball players. We will cry out, “Did we win?” because we really won’t know. And the Jesus will look at us with a smile and say, “Who wants snack?”

Let us pray to our gentle God
that he may be our strength in our weakness
Gentle God of power and strength,
you chose us, weak people,
to put the mighty to shame
and to stand up and speak up
with our words and our lives
for what is right and good.
Make us realize more deeply that without your help
our human efforts cannot but fail
and that our very weakness
entitles us to your strength.
Be our courage and joy
through him who was weak with the weak
but lives with you as the Lord of all,
Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord for ever. Amen.

Opening Prayer                                                                                                                                                      God of the Prophets,                                                                                                                                                You called them to speak even when no one would listen.                                                                                           You called them to cry out even when others turned their backs.                                                                         You called them to work for justice even when they were humiliated, thrown in jail, and killed.                           Help us during this time together to hear Your are calling us now,                                                                            to speak on behalf of children, to speak on behalf of immigrants, to speak on behalf of those who are oppressed, to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak.                                                                                                       Give strength to our voices, and remind us we are not alone.                                                                                 Your Spirit is within us, already at work in us, and together, we are stronger.                                                 Together, we know Your love has no limits.                                                                                                     Together, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Amen.

Offertory                                                                                                                                                              Having heard God’s call to generosity, let us listen and respond with open hearts.

Benediction                                                                                                                                                             God comes to us through weak people.
He entrusts to them the message of his word
and even the body of his Son.
May God strengthen them,
that they may not obstruct our way to God
but speak God’s word with boldness.
May we welcome them
because they bring God nearer to us.
And in our own weakness
may God be our strength                                                                                                                                           as we go forth with the Blessing of God Almighty…..