Fail Magnificently: A Stewardship Sermon

From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 24 Year B October 18, 2015

Text of the sermon as prepared (may differ slightly from recording): 

It is easy to laugh at Jesus’ disciples, especially in the Gospel according to Mark. They are like a bunch of clowns running around trying to outdo each other and failing miserably. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to Jesus asking for the seats of honor when he comes in his glory. They just don’t get it. It’s not about glory; it’s about service. It’s not about the honored place; it’s about honoring God. Ha ha! Those silly disciples.

We laugh perhaps because we don’t understand the importance of honor in that ancient culture. In those times honor was everything. You measured your life by how much honor you could accrue. The scales of life were calibrated in terms of honor and shame, and you did everything you could to tip them in favor of honor. That is not so much how we see things today, so it’s easy to chuckle at the disciples arguing over who gets the honored seats. We have our own scales, though. Instead of “honor” and “shame,” we often weigh the worth of our lives in terms of “success” and “failure.” We praise people who are successful. We avoid becoming a failure or a “loser” (as the younger generation might say). Jesus laughs at all of us, because he has come to reverse the scales completely. He says to seek the role of a servant. Seek the lowest place, the last position, so that you may be first. If you want to become great, be a servant. If you want real honor, be ready to endure shame. If you want true success, then seek something the world would consider to be failure.

This makes no logical sense! Yet, it is a theme that runs through the whole of scripture. God’s people are often the butt of the joke, the least and the last. Even in the glorious days of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the best rulers were the ones who acted like servants. What, then, does it mean to be a servant? What does it mean for us to follow Christ, who came not to serve but to be served and to give his life so that we might be free of these categories of success and failure, honor and shame? We often interpret servanthood in terms of helping others. Helping others is very good, as we focus on the needs of others instead of our own. Helping others can liberate us from selfishness and open our hearts to grace. I think there can be an additional twist, though–another facet to Jesus’ call to servanthood. I think it could be expressed as a call to “embrace failure.” Embrace failure. I know that sounds crazy. The way to free ourselves from worshipping the idols of honor and success is to turn these things upside down. Become a servant. I said earlier that the disciples sometimes look like clowns, but Jesus is the best trickster of all. Jesus comes and tells us that up is down, last is first, and the order we want to see in the world is falling apart. He shows us, like the best clowns, that falling down does not have to be an ultimate tragedy. When the clown falls down, the audience cheers. Failure becomes a success. When Jesus takes the lowest place, when he is lifted up on the cross, that crucifixion ends in resurrection. The failure of Christ to become the earthly king everyone wanted becomes the greatest success story of the world as he rules in our hearts for eternity. Embrace failure. Seek the lowest place, become a servant…this is good news. We don’t have to climb and claw our way to the top. Our call is not to be upwardly mobile but downwardly mobile. What a relief! What a joy and liberating feeling. Many of you know that I went to clown school once upon a time. The lesson they taught us over and over again was, “if you are going to fail…fail magnificently.” When you fall down, really fall down. When you make a mess, make it a big, glorious, hilarious mess. Embrace failure.

I say all this as we embark on our annual stewardship campaign – inviting everyone to make a financial pledge to support St. George’s in 2016. It’s certainly not the time when I want to be making a big mess! But I have to laugh that right now the public radio station is holding their pledge drive. Maybe you are like me and try to avoid listening to them beg for money. You might have even been hearing it on the way to church, and now we are going to talk about money here too! By the way, we have coffee mugs in the back that we will just give you. You don’t have to make a pledge! But the difference between our church stewardship campaign and the public radio fundraiser is that we are not raising funds, we are raising stewards! A steward is a kind of servant, one who cares for the sacred gifts that came from and already belong to God. As we heard in the lesson from Job today, God tells Job, “Where were you when I was laying the foundations of the earth? Are you the one who tends to all this creation?!” We are raising the awareness that our gifts are gifts from and to God as an act of thanksgiving and trust.

Yes, those gifts of money will enable us to continue Giving as One (our theme this year), to GO as one body to all who seek a place to encounter the beloved community, the kingdom of God. They will support the worship, music, learning and sharing, the exploration of serving, praying and caring…all the things that go on here. And while the monetary gifts are important, it is also important that we invite each other to give them as an act of faith and trust in God. We invite pledges as a spiritual practice, not just to make the church budget.

The fear every year, in every church that I have ever been a part of is that the campaign will fail. What if we don’t get enough pledges? What if we don’t real our goal? What if we don’t…succeed? Which program or staff will have to be cut? And the fear that often operates in our hearts as we consider how much to give wonders, “What if I can’t pay my pledge?” “I can’t possibly pledge 5 or 10 percent of my income, because that will cause me to FAIL financially.” These are not necessarily unrealistic fears. I’m not making light of them at all. The good news, though, is that we do not need to be controlled by them. When we are afraid, when we are tempted to run back to the categories of success and failure as the measure of our lives, Jesus is there to tell us: become a servant. Measure your life according to service and love. In the midst of our fear we can still serve. In the midst of our failure, perceived or real, we can serve. I can’t tell you the number of people I visit in the hospital and they feel useless because their bodies have failed them. I tell them, “you can still serve.” You can still serve through your prayer, through your kind smile to a doctor or nurse, through your very presence; you can be a wonderful servant.

Now I am not saying that we should TRY to fail. If you have a test to take tomorrow, I recommend that you study! The point is that when we fail (and we will fail), it is not the end. Ultimately, we face the failure of these earthly bodies, and death is not the end. Even in death, particularly in death, Jesus served. Jesus gave his life, he failed, so that he could reveal to us the way of new life. Jesus gave his life so that we could be free from our bondage. A failure is an opportunity for resurrection.

I do hope this stewardship campaign will be a success. I hope more of us than ever will experience the leap of faith that giving in and through the church can be. I hope our format will be successful as we act as stewards of the pledge card passport folders around our neighborhoods. I hope it will work, but if it fails along the way, then let’s fail magnificently and have a wonderful time doing it. I hope we will receive more than enough pledges to continue and expand the ministry of this embassy of God’s kingdom we call St. George’s. BUT…to truly succeed, to truly sit in the places of glory and greatness…it is not ours to control. God is preparing us to receive grace beyond our imagining. God is preparing us to give in ways beyond our conceiving. We may find that grace in moments of success. We will more likely, I think, find them in moments of failure and vulnerability. We will most certainly find that greatness and grace in acts of love and service, acts of generous giving and sacrificial sharing, whether we succeed or fail. May God give us what we need to receive that grace so that we might be servants and stewards with Christ.

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Surrendering to the Good Shepherd

From the Rev. Joe Hensley, rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B, April 26, 2015

"Shepherd," by Reza Vaziri
“Shepherd,” by Reza Vaziri

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” There are few other words in scripture that are more comforting. I have said them at the bedside of sick and dying persons. I have said them at funerals. They bring that reassurance that ultimately, God is the only One who turns our scarcity into plenty. The Divine and Holy One is the only one who can reassure us in the shadow of death, feed us in the presence of our enemies, and bless us with abundant and steadfast love. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

Shepherds have been around for nearly as long as humans have walked the earth. The relationship between shepherd and flock was sacred in ancient times. The shepherd cared for the animals which in turn provided labor and sustenance for the people. Survival depended on having good shepherds. To be a good shepherd took skills, sharp senses, and wisdom. Ancient peoples began using the term, shepherd, to describe their rulers. A good ruler like a good shepherd would care for the people. They would lead, protect, and provide.

We know, though, that not all shepherds are good. Not all monarchs are good. Jesus, in today’s Gospel describes himself as the Good Shepherd in contrast to the hired hand who runs away in the face of danger. What Jesus is saying, and what Psalm 23 is also saying, I think, is that there is really only one true and loving shepherd for humanity.

Sometimes, we have trouble believing that God is our shepherd. We can feel like God has left us defenseless. We worry that we won’t have enough. We fear that life is falling apart. Remember that the psalm which comes right before Psalm 23 is Psalm 22. Psalm 22 begins with the words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!” In Psalm 22, packs of wild animals surround the speaker. Enemies are on every side. The speaker cries out, wondering where God is: “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help.” When have we felt in trouble? When have we felt like no one had our back? For many of us, myself included, it is tempting in such times to turn away from God. We look for guidance and sustenance in the arms of inadequate shepherds, hired hands. The hired hand might do the job for a while, but runs away at the first sign of trouble. What “hired hand” do you turn to when you turn away from God? For some of us, we turn to money and the temporary security it offers. Some of us turn to unhealthy relationships or destructive behaviors. Some of us turn to overindulgence. Some of us turn to experts who tell us exactly what to do to find happiness. We fool ourselves by thinking that more knowledge will save us. None of these things give us the pastoral care that God provides. They help us deceive ourselves into thinking we can handle the situation on our own.

Truly, we can probably handle a lot of things on our own. There comes a point, though, where we say to ourselves, “I am ready to give up some control and stop trying so hard.” I’m ready to take my place among the sheep and stop pretending to be the shepherd. Some of us surrender to God easily. Some of us won’t give up until we hit rock bottom. Some of us surrender one day and put our defenses back up the next. I do not understand why we have trouble surrendering to God, why we have trouble believing “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” What I do believe is that when we can give up, even temporarily, God cares for us much better than we can ever care for ourselves. Following God, we are much more free than we are following our own guidance.

So how do we surrender? How do we convince our hearts to believe that “The Lord is my shepherd?” We could spend several sermons on these questions. Certainly part of surrender is found in obeying the command to love one another that we heard in the letter of John today. Another part of surrender is definitely listening in quiet prayer for the voice of the shepherd that Jesus mentioned. I want to focus on something a little more uncomfortable, perhaps. It involves the collection plate. In the Episcopal Church, we tend to start with the material and move to the spiritual. We start with the wet water of baptism. The edible bread and wine of holy communion. We touch, taste, hear, smell, and see things in the act of worship. At first we may not have much understanding of what is going on before us, but with time and practice, we develop a sense of the Spirit at work. Every Sunday we put out an empty plate or pass it around. We don’t say much about it, but many of us put money in that plate or send a check to the church. Yes, that money does sustain the ministry of the church and helps others in need, but that is only a part of the purpose of the empty plate. Yes, we offer our gifts in thanksgiving to the one who gives us everything. But thanksgiving, too, is not the whole picture. We offer each other this empty plate as an invitation to surrender. Sacrifice some money as a material gesture of our desire to trust in God. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Money is not my shepherd. The things money can buy are not my shepherd. My true needs are not supplied by money. So I put some money in the plate. At first we may not be sure what this material gesture means. Over time, with practice, for many of us giving away money to God has become a sign that we want to be free. We want to stop following the hired hands who would feed us to the wolves. We want to be free to give, free to love, free to trust that God really is our shepherd.

I know there are lots of invitations to give money in the church. Since I got here in January, we have invited you to give to the operating budget, to Shrine Mont’s Shout to the Mountain campaign, to outreach, flowers, and trust funds for Easter, to United Thank Offering, and the Community Give effort for The Table. It may sound like a lot. Let me emphasize that this is not a test. You will notice that the plate does not sound an alarm if you give nothing. Nor does a choir of angels sing if you put in a million dollars. Your gift does not necessarily indicate great faith. The open plate simply extends an invitation to surrender who we are and what we have to God so that we can stop following false shepherds. Money is just one thing that goes in the plate. We can surrender our time to God. We can give energy and effort to God. We can offer whatever it is that we value instead of God. Money is often helpful, because it’s very tangible and we give it a lot of power in our minds.

Yes, money does help us keep the lights on and the bills paid. It helps us feed the hungry and be available to care for others. But the church too surrenders to God. We give away a lot for free and proclaim that God’s grace is without charge and plentiful. Over and over God shows us that we can do more than we ever thought possible. So again, this is not a test. The plate is not a fundraising tool. It is not a veiled attempt to get you to give more. The plate openly proclaims that when we surrender to God and Christ the Good Shepherd, God shows us our true life and revives our souls. The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. You, O God, spread a table before us, you have anointed us to follow you and announce your abundant love to the world. You will pursue us to the ends of the earth with goodness and loving kindness all the days of our life. May we surrender to you, O great, holy, and mysterious One and dwell in your house, our true home.