The Failure of Failure
A sermon Mark 16: 1-8 by Nathan Nettleton, 30 March 1997
Yesterday, the Port Adelaide football club played its first game in the AFL, the national football competition. They are a team who have won ten out of the last seventeen premierships in the South Australian League, but yesterday they were beaten by 79 points or something in that vicinity. No doubt it was difficult for a team so accustomed to success to swallow. But it was after all their first game in the big league, and nobody seriously expects them to do very well this season, so the commentators were gracious to them, and no doubt they are being relatively gentle on themselves too. Lots of talk of having a fair dinkum go and giving a good account of themselves and showing encouraging signs of what they are capable of.
But at the MCG on Thursday night, when North Melbourne went down, there was no such talk. In a game that Im sure Mike ONeill would be only too happy to describe in minute detail for you, the reigning premiers had a shock loss to Melbourne, one of the perpetual bridesmaids of the league. And there was just no way to put a positive spin on it for North. When youre the reigning premier, no amount of talk about having a red hot go or moral victories or giving a good account of yourselves will win you any sympathy or redeem the situation in any way at all. For North, people only look at the score line, and that tells that they had a shocker and theyd best get back to the training track and just keep their mouths shut.
Unless youre in special circumstances like Port Adelaide, thats the way it is with failure. Does the Managing Director of a Corporation stand up before the shareholders with a sliding sales graph and say, Well, we lost six million this year but were calling it a moral victory. We had a red hot go and it was a year of character building for our company? The next week theres a new name on the office door.
Failure. Its that sinking emptiness in the pit of your stomach when you look down the list of exam results, and theres your name, at the bottom. And its not alphabetical.
Its the surgeon returning from theatre and pulling off the surgical mask to reveal an ashen expression that speaks without having to utter a word. Theres no need to ask whether the operation was a success.
Its packing up your belongings from the house and moving into separate flats; and not knowing who should take the wedding album when neither of you will look at it again because its just too painful.
Its watching John Brumby trying to explain that although the polling booth returns show that the Labor Party made up no ground at all in the election, it has enabled them to see the way forward and rebuild for the future and they are committed to keeping the government honest for the next four years. If wed had a few more weeks we could have turned this around, and I want to thank everybody for their hard work. Someday well look back on this as a good experience. And behind him you can see people carrying off boxes of unused badges and bumper stickers and streamers and others just staring blankly into their beers.
Failure. Defeat. The slide to the bottom.
What do you do with it? One response is the cheap rationalisation. It was a moral victory. I know of another minister who tells a story about when he was a young pastor with his L plates still on and he went to a house where the husband had just dies, and the newly widowed woman met him at the door and barked, Dont you go giving me any of that preacher crap about hes better off now or hes gone to a better place or any of that stuff. Hes gone and thats it! And he was. She knew and she wasnt going to have it softened up by any cheap talk. He was gone.
More likely, in the face of failure, we will find far more skilful rationalisations. There must be someone else to blame. Its the governments fault. Its a communist plot. It was because my potty training was dysfunctional. This has been going on since Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake of course, its nothing new.
According to the Enneagram model of personality profiles, I am the type of personality that defines my whole being in terms of success. I am allergic to failure. You can call me stupid, or call me uncaring, or shallow, or weak, or chaotic, or irrational, and Ill cope OK. I wont like it, but it doesnt threaten my sense of self too much. But call me a failure, and Ill be devastated. Ill either fall apart, or lash out or most likely try to explain that youre misreading the situation and its not really a failure. Or if something Im central too is too obviously a failure even for me to hide from, Ill quickly share the blame around so that it wasnt really a personal failure, there was a whole group of us involved and we failed together. It was democracy you see, and if wed all done it my way we probably wouldnt have failed.
Combine my personality type with moderate intelligence and you have an absolute expert at avoiding the possibility of failure, and at explaining it away if it is staring me in the face. None of us like failure, but Im especially allergic to it.
So what are we doing following Jesus? It doesnt matter how you look at it, the stories of Jesus are not success stories. The angels might sing at his birth of the King of the world who brings the good news of salvation for all, but theres precious little on the scorecard after that. Before hes old enough to talk, his mere presence has inspired the slaughter of all the baby boys in the whole town, and hes only escaped by his parents fleeing the country and living like refugees.
When he starts preaching, his own home town write him off as too big for his boots and when he wont shut up they try to kill him and he has to flee the town. His message is predominantly about God and how God relates to us, but hes sneeringly dismissed as a heretic by pretty much every religious leader or teacher in the land. Not really what youd call success.
A lot of people liked to hang around and listen to his stories, but the only people he could get to follow him were people that no one else wanted anything to do with. People who couldnt get anyone else to be their friends. Prostitutes. Pawn brokers. People who smelt of old fish all the time. Yeah, Jesus was a real social hit! And this mob he got to follow him couldnt understand him and were always fighting among themselves and trying to get Jesus to do things their way. Boy, if you cant even get your closest friends to understand what youre on about, what hope have you got.
Some of the stories of Jesus were even too embarrassing for the gospel writers. Mark tells a story of Jesus having to have a second go at healing a blind man because his first attempt failed. The bloke though the people looked like trees, so Jesus had to have another go. Matthew and Luke were too embarrassed to tell that story so they just abbreviated it to make it sound more successful. And John drops it completely. I wonder how many other stories there were like that that didnt get told by any of them?
And finally when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, and its really crunch time, what happens? He goes head to head with the religious leaders and the Roman authorities and he loses big time. Within a week of arriving, amidst a cheering crowd who thought he was about to overthrow the Romans, clean up the temple and reign triumphant as King, hes gone. Arrested, betrayed by one friend, denied by another, and deserted by all the rest. Hes publicly humiliated by the military, condemned on trumped up charges, but no one will defend him, hes beaten, spat upon and abused, and Amnesty International are nowhere to be found. The crowds turn against him and cry for blood, and hes dragged out of the city and publicly executed.
By mid afternoon its all over. We can go back home now. So much for the big picture, for Gods plan, for the angels message, for the hopes of Israel. Gods not going to make the finals again this year. Death remains undefeated, omnipotent. Along with taxes the one one thing that is certain and the only one you cant avoid.
Jesus hangs there as a symbol of the unavoidability of failure. A symbol of all the brick walls and dead ends and unfulfilled hopes and unkept promises that humanity endures. Death laughed as his tomb was sealed with the stone.
And you can hear the widows voice at the door, Dont come in here with any of that preacher talk. Dont mock this Friday tragedy with cheap platitudes and pious cliches. Hes dead. Lets call a spade a spade. Defeat is defeat. Failure is failure. Death is death. God can pack up and go home too.
Now, after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went out to see the tomb...
And the whole story suddenly goes haywire! The stones been rolled away, the body is gone, the angels are back, whats going on. A voice says hes risen. The Marys run from the cemetery terrified, unable to tell anyone anything that makes any sense. Emotions are all over the place. Even years later after plenty of time to get their stories together the gospel writers still cant make enough sense of what happened to get a coherent account of it. Some say he appeared to May, some to Peter. Some say he appeared in Jerusalem, some in Galilee. Some having him coming through closed doors, others having him barbecuing fish on the beach. When the whole world is turned this much on its head, everything is all over the place and you cant make much sense of it. But something has happened and nothing will ever be the same again.
On Friday, the curtain in the temple was torn in two, opening the way to the Holy of Holies. This morning its more than a curtain. This morning the whole impenetrable brick wall of inevitable failure has cracked open. And all the thousands of people who have bashed their heads hopelessly against that wall for generations, have suddenly found a breach in the wall and are coming surging through. And you and I, so drained by the horror and failure of it all as we stood round the cross on Friday, suddenly find that the story, far from being over, is only just beginning and if we will follow Jesus through that wall and into the great unknown on the other side, the brick wall of failure need never be impenetrable again.