Scripture: Mark 9:14-29
Once in a while, or perhaps more often, you may have had an experience where it just seems really clear that God is working through you and using you for God’s good purposes. You do something or somehow contribute to something amazing that can’t solely be explained through your own skill or abilities.
Once in a while here at Arlington Temple, people from the community who are otherwise unknown to me will stop in because they need to talk or pray with someone. I remember one particular time when this happened. A young-ish man for whom multiple things had not been going well lately stopped by looking for some hope and direction, and we talked for a long time, and we prayed, and he went on his way.
A few months later I happened to run into him at the gym, and he recognized me and said, “I’ve been meaning to come see you. Ever since we talked that day my life has taken a turn for the better.” And he went on to tell me that he had gotten some answers about the health problems he’d been having and they were under control, he had started working again, he had reconnected with some old friends.
Well, hey, I believe that there is power in prayer. But I’m not sitting in my office working magic here. That day I rejoiced that God had seen fit to use me in some small way to help this man find some hope in his life again. That, I would say, was a successful day in ministry.
But the truth is there are many, many other days when I have not felt like a success in ministry.
There have been those times when I have prayed with someone in my office about some challenge they are facing and they have come back to say, “That didn’t work.”
There are the times when, either due to my natural reticence or my deep fear of telephones, I have not offered someone the pastoral care they needed. I’ve gotten some flak for that at least once or twice over my time in ministry.
You know how last week we talked about how disciples sometimes miss the point? I’m sure I have done that at times, but there are also those sermons I have preached where it is clear afterwards that at least some of the people listening – completely missed the point. (Don’t worry, I’m not talking about you.)
There are the chances I have missed to invite someone to go deeper in their discipleship, the church visitors I’ve ignored for too long or scared off too soon, the times I have let my own pessimism squelch a new thing for fear it couldn’t be done, the times I have tried a new thing only to have no one come.
I know these are examples are from my own pastoral ministry, but maybe they resonate with you in your own journey as well. We all have those times we missed the boat on caring for a friend in need, had that opening to talk about our faith but chickened out, knew we probably should have upped that number on the pledge card but didn’t, promised to pray for someone but forgot, or maybe even tried to get people excited about a cause that we really felt called to only to have no one respond.
In other words: we failed.
It occurred to me as I was thinking about all this that the word failure can mean a lot of things. It can mean, on one level, sins of omission or commission, ways I have not treated people in the way God commands me to. Or it can mean something I tried my best at that didn’t work, through no fault of my own. Or it can mean something in the middle: something that keeps me up late at night thinking of everything I should have done differently, all the ways I should have been more faithful, wondering how much was me and how much was due to forces outside my control.
In this sermon I mean all of those things. And I believe that the first twelve disciples experienced all those different kinds of failure as well. And I believe that there is hope for us in that fact.
In today’s story from Mark, Jesus has just gone up on a mountain with his three closest disciples and been transfigured before their eyes in this holy experience they don’t know what to make of. When they come down from the mountaintop, they are greeted by chaos below – the rest of the disciples are fighting with some of the religious leaders and a they’ve drawn a crowd. When they spot Jesus, the whole crowd stampedes its way to him, and he has to ask them: “What’s going on??”
A man in the crowd responds, “I tried to bring you my son so you could cast a spirit out of him. But you weren’t here, so your disciples said they could do it, but they couldn’t.”
We quickly move into the part of this dialogue that this story is famous for, the more inspiring and evocative part: Jesus tells the boy’s father that all things are possible for one who believes and he responds, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
But that’s a sermon for another day. Jesus casts the spirit out of the boy, and later, when they are alone, his disciples ask Jesus: “What went wrong? Why couldn’t we cast out the spirit?” And Jesus responds, somewhat cryptically, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”
What do you think? Did the disciples forget to pray? Had they not prayed hard enough? If you remember from a couple weeks ago, back in chapter 6 when Jesus sent the disciples out on their first mission, he had given them authority to cast out unclean spirits. This was something they were supposed to be able to do. But was there some sort of spiritual defect that made their attempt to heal this boy unsuccessful? Did they let their previous ministry success go to their heads and forget God’s role in it all, think they personally were the caster-outers of unclean spirits?
If I were the disciples, these are the questions I would have stayed up late asking myself.
There are certainly some commentators who would say that was the case, that the disciples failed by their own spiritual fault. But that’s not the only way to look at it. Personally I wonder about Jesus’ answer, “This kind can only come out through prayer,” which almost makes it seem like they are facing something new here, a different species of unclean spirit unlike the ones they have cast out before. As theologian NT Wright put it, sometimes as we progress in our journey of discipleship, the tasks we are given simply get harder.
I don’t know what kind of failure this was, per se: the kind where you did something wrong or the kind when you tried your best and it just didn’t work out. But either way I bet it felt like failure.
The disciples also know that other type of failure, the kind where it is clear you have stumbled, fallen, missed the mark.
For the disciples, this kind of failure is most evident toward the end of the Gospel, which gets progressively darker as Jesus approaches his death. There is the failure of the disciples to keep watch while Jesus is praying in Gethsemane – while he is in agony, they fall asleep. There is, famously, Judas’s betrayal. There is, famously, Peter’s denial. There is, less famously, the unnamed, scantily-clad disciple who Mark tells us loses his linen garment and runs away naked from the scene when Jesus is arrested (look it up) – who, scholars say, might represent Mark himself, or maybe any of us who run away when things get risky.
And, at the very end of the Gospel, there are the women at the scene of the empty tomb, who, at the angel’s command to go tell the disciples what they have just seen, flee in terror.
You could make the case that Mark’s Gospel is the story of one big discipleship fail.
But why would Mark want to tell that kind of story? Where’s the good news in that? Why would that have been helpful to the community of first-century Christians he was writing this story down for?
Well, for one thing, as I’ve been emphasizing throughout this series, it means that if these yahoos can be disciples, there’s probably nothing preventing us from being disciples, either.
I called this sermon series Unworthy Disciples, and I wonder if maybe the biggest reason we might sometimes feel unworthy to claim the title of disciple is precisely because of our failures. We, better than anyone else, know the times we have fallen short and the times we have been neither faithful nor effective in sharing the good news of the Kingdom of God.
An author by the name of Dan Hochhalter writes about his own experience of failure when his PhD dissertation was rejected. It wasn’t just rejected like he was asked to do a few more edits and come back. It was rejected like he was told never to come back. He didn’t go into the details – I admit I was curious – but he did add that after that he also lost his job as a high school teacher. This was followed by months of rejection letters from jobs he applied to. He had been sure that by teaching and getting his PhD he was faithfully following God’s call, and it had only led to failure.
Months later when Dan finally did get called for an interview for a teaching job at the college level, he almost didn’t go. He simply didn’t believe he was worthy of being a teacher anymore.
Dan Hochhalter also writes about someone else he met who knew the sting of failure. Earl was a homeless man he sat across from at breakfast during a youth mission trip he chaperoned. Dan learned that Earl had two daughters, but he hadn’t been in touch with them for years. When Dan asked why he didn’t call them, Earl looked down and responded, “Because I don’t feel worthy to be their father.”
It struck me, reading those stories, how much failure can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We think we are not worthy to be something or be called something, and so we don’t make an effort to be that thing. I wonder if it is the same with discipleship: if we stop trying to grow as disciples when we’ve already convinced ourselves we’re at best just OK at it anyway.
And yet can you imagine if those disciples had never tried to cast out another unclean spirit after this embarrassing incident? If Peter had never considered himself worthy after those three denials to declare himself to be a follower of Christ again? If the women who fled from the tomb, silenced by shame, really never said anything to anyone? We wouldn’t be here today. Because a church built on disciples who never fail – is a nonexistent church.
But I wonder if we can even go a step father than that. I wonder if we could say not only that the church is by definition made up of failed disciples, but that the church in fact needs failed disciples.
I asked earlier why Mark would have told this story of discipleship failure to his first-century congregation. Maybe it’s not only to comfort people with the idea that there is a low bar for discipleship. Maybe, also, it’s a reminder that the church these twelve went on to build was not of their own doing, that the demons they did cast out were not cast out by their own power, that the people they healed were not healed by their own magic touch or their own beautiful prayers, that the people they converted were not drawn into the fold by their own ability to drum up enthusiasm for the Gospel. These “successes” were not their own, but God working through them.
Our own failures and our own failings cannot stop the Kingdom of God. And God needs people who know that. God needs people who have experienced grace firsthand and want to share it with others.
Our failures help us learn where we need to grow. For the disciples, maybe, it was figuring out what would help them confront this new kind of unclean spirit. Or it was Peter’s realization that he wasn’t actually as brave and steadfast as he imagined himself to be that deepened his resolve to boldly and publicly proclaim his faith in Christ no matter the consequences. The life of discipleship is one of growth – growth in love and grace and holiness, over the course of our lives – and we call the tangible things that help us along the way means of grace. Prayer is a means of grace. Communion is a means of grace. Maybe we could say that failure, counter-intuitively, can also be a means of grace: because through it, we realize that God loves us anyway, and through it, we experience God’s power, and through it, we learn to love others better, and through it, we grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
The church needs failed disciples. It needed them back in Jesus’ day, and it needs them now.
Praise God for grace when we fall short, and that by God’s grace, our failure is never the end of the story.
 N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone
 Dan Hochhalter, Losers Like Us: Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure