Year A, Pentecost 6
Steven Spielberg, Walt Disney, Fred Astaire, Thomas Edison. What do these four men have in common? They were/are incredibly successful in their endeavors. Yet they have something else in common. Before their successes, they failed. Steven Spielberg was rejected by film school multiple times. Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” In one of Fred Astaire’s first screen tests, an executive wrote: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Can dance a little.” Thomas Edison’s teachers told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Thankfully, not one of them gave up. They kept pressing on despite the failure and rejection.
In the last decade, there has been a lot of conversation and research about failure. I became interested in this topic after reading an article about a conference called: FailCon. Apparently it was quite popular for a few years. The website describes it as a conference for startup founders to learn from and prepare for failure, so their businesses could grow quickly. It was an opportunity for people to share their failures and how they learned from their failures. Most of the attendees were people who were technical entrepreneurs—the idea being that if you are starting something or inventing something, failure is inevitable. But just because it is inevitable, does not mean that failure has to be the end of the story. It’s just a chapter of the book, not the conclusion.
Moses, the Prophet Isaiah, King David, the Apostle Paul. What did they have in common? They are leaders of our faith. They are essential parts of our Christian story. They also failed. Moses got lost in the desert for 40 years and never made it to the Promised Land. The Prophet Isaiah was ridiculed, despised and miserable most of his life. King David had an affair and had Bathsheba’s husband killed. Paul went from being a leader of the Jewish faith to being a man without a home who was jailed and beaten numerous times. Some might even say that Jesus was a failure. He was God in the flesh and he was killed by humans. Failure is part of the Christian story. It is part of our story.
It is also part of the Parable of the Sower. Many of us know this story well. At least we think we do. It seems obvious. The sower scattered seed. Some of the seed fell on a path and were eaten by birds. Some fell on rocky ground, sprouted and then died quickly. Some fell on thorns and when they sprouted, they were choked. Then finally, there were seeds that fell on good soil. Those seeds brought forth grain in abundance. If you look at this story logically (which is rarely a good idea when reading parables), it seems like this sower was not very good at this job. Three out of four of the areas he chose to scatter his seeds failed to produce grain. He was incredibly inefficient and he was wasteful. You have to wonder, what he was thinking. He must have known which was the best place to plant seeds. Why not focus on the good soil instead of messing around with the thorns and rocks?
Despite the sower’s apparent lack of skill, the seeds that fell on the good soil had an amazing yield. Some of that grain brought forth a hundred fold. That is an exorbitant amount. It is far above what would be expected with fertile ground. Jesus wanted those listening to this story to know that the yield was so great—that there was an abundance where there should have been scarcity. Given the fact that ¾ of the seeds failed to thrive, it is remarkable that there was any harvest at all. Yet there was and it was extraordinary.
The vast majority of us are afraid of failure to some degree. That fear affects people different ways. Some people won’t take any risk, won’t try anything that might end in failure. Others will take those risks but give up quickly when they sense failure or experience any kind of failure. And some people will be like Moses. They will wander for 40 years because while they seem to be going in circles, but they keep going because they know that the Promised Land is there. It’s just going to take some patience and tenacity to get there.
About one year ago, we embarked on the Come and See program. It was a program that entailed training and education about inviting others into our midst. Virtually every church or faith community tells its members to invite a friend to church. It sounds so simple, but few people ever do that. When we first started the conversation, we talked about our fears. Why are we so scared of evangelism of talking about our faith? For many, it came down to a fear of rejection…of putting yourself out there, allowing yourself to be vulnerable. This can be especially scary when the thing we are sharing with someone is precious and sacred to us and that person rejects it. It leaves us a little raw. There were some people who chose not to participate. There were many who did. The majority of people who were invited never came. Some came for a couple of Sundays and left. A few stuck around.
The lack of response was frustrating to me because we put a lot of time and energy into the program. I was so nervous that I was sick the morning of Come and See because I was so afraid this program would fail. Mark reminded me that this was about more than a couple of Sundays. This was about changing the way people think about church and evangelism. It’s about teaching people to take risks. That was helpful to me. However, in preparing this sermon I realized that it is also about failure and learning how to move past that failure. It is about experiencing rejection and not letting that rejection cripple us. Of course this lesson applies to more than just a church program. It applies to our whole lives.
That sower could have been more careful about where he scattered his seeds. He could have tested the soil and only spread the seeds on the soil he knew would produce a harvest. He didn’t. He threw it all over the place. The reason he felt free to do that was because he knew there was an abundance of seeds. He knew that as long as he kept planting them, God would keep providing them. He knew that if he worried too much about the seeds that might fail and whether the soil was or was not fertile, then he would never plant anything. So he just kept throwing the seed, knowing that there would be a lot that would produce nothing, but all God needed was a few. God would turn that small number into an abundance.
So it is with the way we share God’s love with others. If we worry too much about how our words are perceived—if we worry too much about the person who we are talking to, we will never accomplish anything. The best we can do is put everything we have into our efforts. Those efforts might only yield a small amount. They might not appear to yield anything. It might even seem as though we have failed. But if we keep trying, praying, hoping, believing—God will take our meager attempts and he will make them great.