Failure is an option

Matthew 14:22-33 New International Version (NIV)

 22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

 25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

 28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

 29 “Come,” he said.

   Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

 32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

 

            What do you think of when you think of the apostle Peter?  Quick to speak, slow to think?  Always shooting off at the mouth?  Makes bold statements that he rarely backs up?  All of these are true about the Peter that we read about in the Bible.  At one point, because of a wrong answer, Jesus even calls him Satan (or perhaps he recognizes Satan at work within Peter.  Whatever.)  Peter is always making mistakes.  He fails time and time again.  But, before Jesus ascends into heaven after he is raised from the grave, he tells Peter to feed his sheep.  He puts Peter in charge of the church.  What can we learn from Peter today?

            Our text for this morning begins with the word “immediately”.  There has been a series of events that seems to trace back to verse 54 from chapter 13.  All of this takes place at about the same time or in a pretty short amount of time.  At the end of chapter 13 we find Jesus entering into his home town of Nazareth.  It is a small town and people knew who he was: the carpenter’s son, the son of Mary.  They knew his brothers and sisters, and some of them were right there with them.

            Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth and he begins teaching.  But his sermon didn’t go over too well.  Matthew tells us that the people did not believe him and the things that he was saying.  Matthew also says that because of their lack of belief that Jesus did not do many deeds of power there.  This is where Jesus says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their own country and in their own house.” (v. 57)

            Chapter 14 begins by telling us that at about the same time Jesus was preaching in Nazareth, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, had been preaching to King Herod.  If you think that Jesus’ sermon was not received well, then you need to hear about what happened to John!  As a result of the things that John said to Herod about Herod’s new choice for a girlfriend, John got his head cut off.

            So when Jesus gets word about John’s death, he leaves Nazareth in a boat because he wants to be alone.   So he takes the boat to some remote place but yet the people find him.  People come from far and near and listen to him preach and to be healed.  And when it is brought to his attention that there isn’t any food for these people, Jesus feeds them all from five loves and two fish.  All 5,000 plus women and children.

            Jesus must be thoroughly exhausted.  He was rejected by his hometown, he heard the news about John’s beheading, and then he teaches, heals, and feeds this large group.  So he sends everyone away because even Jesus needs rest.  Or maybe he just had his moments of introversion.  So he dismisses the crowds and sends the disciples ahead in the boat and tells them that he will meet them on the other side of the lake.

            The disciples have a difficult time making it across the lake as there is a big storm that stirs up in the middle of the night.  They aren’t sleeping because of the rocking of the boat.  And they see someone walking toward them on the water.  Some think it is a ghost, but soon Jesus tells them who he is.  And this is when Peter becomes an important part of this story.  He says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (v. 28)

            Peter is invited to get out of the boat and to walk to Jesus.  I picture him, reaching one foot over the side of the boat, checking to see if this is going to work for him or not.  He finds that he can put his weight on the water and he begins to walk toward Jesus.  You know he is thinking, “This is pretty cool.”

            The text says that Peter then remembered that they were in the middle of a stormy sea.  When he noticed the strong winds, he became frightened and cried out, “Lord, save me!”  And when Jesus reached out and helped him, Jesus said to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  By all accounts, this is just another failure on the part of Peter.

            Keep these series of stories in mind.  We will come back to them in a few minutes.

            A story that I have heard too many times comes from my father.  You will understand why I say that I have heard this story too many times when you hear the story.  My father worked for a company that sold, installed, and serviced farm equipment when he was right out of high school.  He would go out to job sites and work on people’s milking equipment and feed handling equipment.  Now if you really want to make a farmer nervous and perhaps angry, and let’s be honest, who hasn’t wanted to make a farmer nervous or angry, you mess with their ability to milk cows or feed the livestock.

            You see, gone are the days when a farmer would have one or two cows and milk them by hand each day so that their family would have enough milk for the day.  Even thirty years ago dairy farming was a business where the farmer’s livelihood depended on producing the most high-quality milk possible.  You have to feed the cows well if you want to get milk and you need your milking equipment to be operating correctly if you want to be able to extract that milk from the cows, collect it in a large cooling tank, and sell it to the processing plant.  So a farmer really wants his or her feeding equipment to be running correctly when it comes time to feed the cows.  And the farmer really wants the milking equipment to be operating correctly when it comes time to milk the cows, twice a day, every day, 365 days a year.  Hundreds, even thousands of dollars can be lost on an average-sized operation if the feed-handling or milking equipment is not operating properly.  All of that is to say that I believe that my father had a pretty stressful job back in the mid 1970’s.

            Dad worked for a man named Don.  Don owned the company and would have had regular interaction with my father and other service men.  And Don would have been the one who would have had to take the phone calls when a service technician messed up and caused a farmer to not be able to feed or milk his cows.  You can imagine how upset a farmer might be after milking 100 cows by hand because someone wasn’t able to fix their milking equipment on time, especially if that person had made a mistake.

            Dad never offered to tell me what prompted his boss to tell him this, but Dad did share a bit of wisdom passed on to by Don from time to time.  He used to tell me, “Don always said, ‘If you’re working, you’re going to make mistakes.’”  Every time that I would do something wrong on the farm growing up and I would get down on myself, my dad would repeat those words of wisdom to me.  If you’re working, you’re going to make mistakes.  The only people who never make mistakes are the ones that aren’t doing anything.

            In teaching me this, my father taught me to value trying something new over being perfect.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still avoid trying new things all of the time out of fear of failure.  I get the same meal at a restaurant because I am afraid to try something and not like it.  I don’t play basketball at the Y because I am afraid that I am going to get shown up.  I don’t even like to meet new people because I am afraid that they aren’t going to like me.  But in all honesty, some of the greatest things that have ever happened to me came because I took a risk.  I asked a girl to marry me in college, and she said yes.  We packed up all of our belongings and moved to Virginia to attend seminary.  I went to the Conference Minister and asked about a job.  We decided to start a family.  All of these things were scary at the time.  I could have been rejected by Sonya, flunked out of seminary (and they do flunk people out), I could have been laughed out of the Conference Minister’s office, and our kid could have been a complete terror.  There is always a huge risk that comes along with making these kinds of life-changing decisions. 

I think that we have been conditioned to look at failure as one of the worst possible things that can happen to us.  We hear phrases like “Failure is not an option” and we live out of fear of failing.  We are so afraid of failing that we allow ourselves to be crippled by that fear.  But like my father likes to remind me from time to time, if you are working, you are going to make mistakes.  We need to value trying more than we value perfection.

            If you look at the biggest, most successful businesses in the world right now, I guarantee you that within that organization you will find a lot of people that know a thing or two about failing.  10 years after starting a company from scratch in his parents’ garage, Apple CEO Steve Jobs was fired by the same company that he had co-started.  He later started two other businesses, one being Pixar, maker of movies like Toy Story, and the other being a business called NeXT, which was later purchased by Apple, which is how he became the CEO of Apple after being fired by the company that he had started.  Steve Jobs is also the leading shareholder in Disney.  Not bad for a college dropout.  One of the traits that seems to unite successful people is that they are not afraid to fail.  A cliché that probably goes without saying, but I will say anyway, is that it is only a failure if you don’t learn from it.

            I don’t think that it is too difficult to see how we can apply this line of thinking to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.  Even in the church we are afraid of failure.  How many times have I felt led to invite someone to church for the first time and then chosen not to because I was afraid that I might not have a good sermon that Sunday?  How about people that are afraid to start a ministry or a non-profit organization or plant a church because they are afraid that it might fail?  How many missionaries have stayed home because they were afraid that they wouldn’t have the words to say or be able to interact with the people that they were being sent to?  We are all so afraid of failure that we don’t even try to do the things that we feel God is leading us to do.

            Let me impart some wisdom on you, a slight adaptation of the wisdom that my dad passed on to me.  If you are working for God, you are going to make mistakes.  Let’s go back to the stories leading up to our scripture for this morning.  We started with Jesus preaching in his hometown of Nazareth.  Who would say that Jesus was successful in his endeavor?  Nobody, he was rejected and run out of town.  John the Baptist was preaching to Herod and trying to show him the wrongfulness of what Herod was doing.  Who would say that John was successful in his endeavor?  Nobody, he got his head cut off.  Jesus tried to get away from everyone so he could mourn the loss of his friend and cousin and he even failed at that because the people still followed him.  And when Peter got out of the boat, he took a few steps but then he sank.

            My friends, if Jesus, John the Baptist, and good old Saint Peter himself failed from time to time in their ministry, then why should we not expect to fail from time to time as well?  The Bible is filled with the failures of people trying to follow and serve God.  As I said earlier, maybe we need to move from a society that values success as much we do to a society that values trying, even if it means we fail from time to time.

            I want to turn our attention now to the other 11 disciples, the ones left in the boat.  The funny thing to me is that most of us would look at these other 11 disciples and most of us would not see them as failures.  But perhaps we need to look at the whole scenario differently.  Maybe Peter was only able to take a couple of steps, but Peter walked on water.  How many of the other disciples can say that?  How many of us can say that we have walked on water?  Peter, who we would look at and call a failure, is the only person in history (along with Christ) to have walked on water.  That doesn’t seem like a failure to me.  I would say that the failure came on the part of the other 11 disciples: They failed to even try.

            Sometimes the things that we view as failures are really not failures at all.  We don’t know how God is going to use the things that we do and say.  So what might seem like a failure to you and me might be something that God uses for his kingdom.

            At our conference last week we heard a Bible study from a retiring overseer named Larry.  Larry shared about his work in Columbia some 30 years earlier.  He, his wife, and two children went to serve in a small village where Spanish was the only language spoken.  That made life difficult for Larry and his family as they did not speak Spanish.

            Larry had gone to Columbia with the understanding that he would be teaching at the Bible College in the village of Armenia.  But when they got there, Larry found out that first term missionaries were not permitted to teach at the Bible College.  He was pretty much told to just hang out, learn the culture, and start a church.  That was not exciting to Larry.  Larry and his family chose to terminate their service early and they felt that they had failed.  And this hung over Larry’s head for some time.  It was not an experience that he was proud of. 

            30 years after coming back from Columbia, Larry’s son and his family moved to Columbia to work with Mennonite Central Committee.  And as his son’s term was coming to an end, Larry went to visit them and to see the work that they were doing.  Larry said that he was deeply moved by all of the lives that his son had been touching and the outpouring of love from the people.  Larry’s son later told Larry that their experience in Columbia when he was just a boy was one of the reasons why they had agreed to do the work that they had been doing.

            One night while in Columbia Larry had the opportunity to sit down with a woman who had been a student at the Bible College that Larry had planned to teach and instead found himself just hanging out at.  This woman went on to be the Moderator of the Columbian Mennonite Conference and the president of the Mennonite Seminary in Bogota.  She thanked Larry for his encouragement while she was a student.

            Then just a month ago Larry was visiting his other son who lives just outside of Columbus, Ohio.  He went with his son to Columbus Mennonite and it just happened that same Sunday that a member of CMC’s sister church was present and shared during the church service.  What church do you think she is a part of?  Armenia Mennonite Church in Columbia.

            You see, Larry’s time in Africa really wasn’t a failure after all.  Larry and his family had planted seeds that continue to bear fruit today.  We don’t know what will come from the things we do and the words that we say.  I would even go so far as to say that our job as Christians is not to be successful.  Our job as Christians is to be faithful.  And sometimes being faithful will cause us to fail by the standards of this world.  We need to move from a society that is afraid of failure to a society that is afraid of doing nothing.  When we are working for God, we will fail from time to time.  But I would rather take a few steps on the water only to sink than to be one of those disciples who never got out of the boat.  I think that God would rather that we take a few steps on the water only to sink than to be one of those disciples who never got out of the boat.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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