Jeremiah 20:7-13 and On Failure by Edmund Dorset
Hello beautiful people and happy Sunday. It is good to be together in these hard times. This is our weekly reminder that we are not alone and that we are still the church, even while we are distanced from weaving our prayers and voices together in the same place. Even in this formation, we are holding sacred space for our own restoration and for that of the world. Once again, welcome to you whoever you are.
I invite us to begin this time by turning our hearts and minds toward whatever message is meant for each of us today, as we pray this prayer from Psalm 19:14. God, Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, wherever they are, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
What if the only way forward is failing? It makes me cringe to say it out loud. At another point in my life, such a statement would have seemed near blasphemy. And yet, I have learned and am learning that when it comes to our spiritual journey, when it comes to relationships with depth and evolution, when it comes to building a just world for all, often the only way onward and upward is down, falling down and getting up- stumbling for the sake of love.
The words we heard from the Prophet Jeremiah this morning are coming from just this place. While other prophetic writings are about hope, judgment and a challenge to the political and religious leaders of the time, which he does too, but Jeremiah’s words are an expression of agony, frustration and worry about what it truly means to be faithful to God and to his conscience. The Prophet says that it feels like ”Terror is all around!” in part because of the line we read after, where he says, “All my close friends are watching for me to stumble…” As Trace Haythorn asserts, “Jeremiah laments his call from God, because responding to it has made him a “laughing stock.”
Now let me say that again, because this is the Prophet Jeremiah lamenting his call from God, because responding to it has made him a “laughing stock.” The great prophet devoted to bringing truth through repentance and equity and a vision of another way is in anguish because everyone is watching him do it imperfectly.
Commentator David Guzik points out that Jeremiah felt compelled to his prophetic work- not that he desired it, but that he sensed that God “prevailed upon him to take it on.” He felt moved, summoned, lured. And we know that at points he thought of “either giving up or changing the message,” we even read that he is so frustrated that we read, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name” meaning God.
Clearly the Prophet Jeremiah was struggling with being in a different place from the crowds and as James T. Butler notes, he was so stressed by his call to live and speak and love like he did, that “Jeremiah tried to withdraw from his commission, but he did not prevail…”
He knew he had to do the work, not because he wanted to, not because he desired it, but rather because he sensed that God had prevailed upon him to take it on. And when he did, he stumbled while everyone was watching.
And this week I have found myself wondering if stumbling publicly is actually a sign we are on the right track. Because in spite of what the pundits and powerful might say, they don’t know the way forward, the only thing they know is how to do what we have always done. And that is not what God is asking of us. I believe that the Universe is asking us in this moment to be willing to be the laughing stock of the world for a world that is not yet.
Now we human beings are fond of celebrating prophets and movers, those who changed the world when they are long dead and their uncomfortable calls have ceased and their spirits are only confined to the tidy pages of speeches and books and memes. But our faith and our history shows us that brave souls who dare not to wait, are often ridiculed and reduced while they are alive. They are mocked, maimed, killed.
And then later holidays will be made in their name. And yet, what if our call in this very moment is to stumble our way to another way? What if the only way forward is failing? Because it means we are taking a risk to live differently and daring to embark upon a worthy and hard journey because it is the right thing to do, not because we know how to do it exactly right? What if being a disciple right now is being willing to stumble and fumble our way to the other side?
Two weeks ago there were nearly 40 of us who showed up to dive in to the work of becoming anti-racist internally, organizationally, as individuals, as a congregation and a community. We all arrived well read and educated and with good intentions. And yet as the conversation unfolded, it was clear that our collective efforts are often held up by our own fears, our own lack of knowledge of our shared history and our own biases. Jackie and I began to process afterwards and we both agreed it was a start, but actually quite messy. And it was so imperfect that we even wondered whether we should share the recording.
But this week I saw these words from our great prophet. And I wondered. What if this unprecedented moment on planet earth is asking us to fail our way to another way? What if this is a time to check our egos and get ready to stumble boldly for a world that is just around the corner? Learning toward another way means we are sure to get it wrong, while others look on. But it also means we are daring to leave the place where we have always been. It also means we are taking our faith seriously enough to be willing to become the laughing stock of the world for the sake of a just world for all.
Those who challenge what is and get busy moving toward what could be, are mocked because it is always a risk to do something another way. It is ugly at points. It is unfamiliar. It is frightening, exhausting. And it does mean that we will stumble, while the world looks on. It means we will be guaranteed to stumble while the world watches. If we are the sort of people convicted by the truth, if we are a people compelled by love, then there will be times when we are called to stumble forward.
The poem from Edmund Dorset claims that he was lied to when he was taught about failure, “False counsellors of old! How foolishly they told, That one could learn from failure, being bold.”
And yet Ibrahm Kendi writes about becoming actively anti-racist, "it is our responsibility to listen, to learn, to act and to fail forward and repeat". Did you catch that? Our task is to listen, to learn, to act, to fail forward and repeat.
While this is a hard time to be alive, I also believe that this is a moment that we were born for. This is a moment that generations have waited for. This is a moment where literally impossible things are being made possible. Because some are willing to be mocked publicly for their efforts at another world. Impossible things are unfolding because people are willing to try things that don’t work, when we are willing to be engaged in things beyond what we already know. When it comes to our spiritual journey, when it comes to relationships with depth and evolution, when it comes to transforming our own hearts, our policing our public policy, when it comes to starting another worship service, or creating a community of belonging, when it comes to building a just world for all, what if the only way onward and upward is down, falling down, getting it wrong and getting up? What if the only way to do better, is not just to know better, but to fail better, with grace and kindness? What if the answer is this: To listen, to learn to act, to fail forward and repeat? While the world watches, we will stumble, and will remember this: maybe the only way forward right now is failing?
May it be so.