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EMBRACING FAILURE

A sermon by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
February 25, 2018

In the Hebrew Bible, the word commonly translated as “sin” actually means to miss the mark.

Throughout the Bible we encounter people who, to differing degrees, miss the mark. In the beginning, we meet two curious gardeners who (and who can really blame them, right?) break the one rule they were given and ate from the very best tree conveniently placed in the garden’s center. And, as a result of eating from this forbidden tree, the two gardeners became like god, or the gods; and thus, they missed the mark.

Sent east of Eden by the very god who created them, now unemployed and refugees, the gardeners tried their very best to raise their two boys, but they couldn’t prevent what happened next: their eldest son, Cain, after working the fields, murdered his baby brother, Able, and blood ran upon the earth’s surface for the first time; and thus we meet the third person to miss the mark.

Later, in that very same book the god who fired Adam and Eve got really annoyed with humankind; that god thought human beings were corrupt and filled with violence, so that god decided there was only one thing to do: flood the entire earth and kill every living thing save a dude named Noah, his wife, his sons and their wives, and a male and female of all living creatures. Everything and everyone else was doomed.

But in the end god felt a little bit bad about what she did, so she made a covenant with Noah, and therefore all humankind, that she would never do anything like that ever again. In essence, god apologized, which is another way of saying god admitted to a wrong.

Now we’re not even 10 full chapters into the bible and already we’ve got a real pickle on our hands. The first two people couldn’t even follow a diet, and their oldest son clearly had some aggression issues; and then, the all-powerful god gets so angry at humankind’s corruption that she decides the only possible solution is to destroy every living thing ever, save 8 adults and some animals.

One of the questions I often think about is why do we have these stories at all? Just think, the ancient Israelites could have written down anything they wanted to about their God and their ancestors. They could have written stories about perfect people incapable of mistakes. Their God could have been a warrior God like the Canaanite god, Baal; the Israelites could have made their god like Anat, the virgin goddess of war and strife; or Athirat, the mother goddess who walked upon the seas. But no, the Israelites decided these gods just wouldn’t cut it. The Israelites decided to worship a god capable of making the living world, but also prone to aggression and an occasional blunder. But the Israelite god not only makes mistakes, she apologizes, and learns lessons from the very people she created.

Question the truth of God’s existence all you want. There’s no denying the truth contained in first 10 books of Genesis: human beings can be real dummies, we do things we know we shouldn’t and we treat one other horribly from time-to-time; but we’re also capable of great feats of engineering and perseverance and grace. And rather than fall backwards after we make mistakes, we manage to learn from our weaknesses and fail forward.

The ancient Hebrew imagination didn’t have the benefit of science and psychology like we do. They didn’t even have indoor plumbing and electric lights. But they had wisdom, and they saw us for who and what we really are: fragile, flawed, and yet, remarkable. This morning we’re going to talk about failure, but not how I had originally planned to. If the events in Parkland hadn’t happened I would have preferred to meditate on the self-help craze, but I guess that will have to wait for another time. We have more important things to talk about.

But I don’t want to give the impression that I’m filled only with sadness this morning, because that would mask my feeling that the world is a resplendent place. Let our presence here together, in this hour, serve as a reminder to us all that children of light prevail over the children of darkness. But that reminder contains a terrible truth therein: that we are all children of both light and darkness.

Being good requires that we do good, and all of us must admit on some level that the good we actually get around to doing is often outweighed by the good we intend to getting around to. But don’t let that get you down. Pessimism is never a faithful motivator.

That I rise each Sunday and attempt to convey hope and trust and wisdom to people that have done more living than I kept me awake last night. When I look out upon your faces I don’t see people who need what I have to offer. In truth, I see people who have an awful lot to teach me.

The old saying goes that a minister isn’t born, they’re made. And how they’re made is in relationship to the church they’re charged with serving. The truth is I need you all far more than you will ever need me. That reality has never been more apparent to me than in the past several days.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being plagued by depression since news of the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, filled the airwaves. But prior to that, I had been struggling to make sense society’s growing chasm between the ideological camps of our nation, and the seeming inability to have sensible debate about anything at all.

As a result I gave up social media for Lent, so what I’m about to say is based upon conversations with friends and what I’ve read in the news. But I’ve been lead to believe that following this tragic event camps on both sides of the aisle retreated to their ideological tents and started hurling the same old insults at each other. If I am to base the validity of this description on the comments sections of the New York Times that I promise never to read but end up doing so, then I suppose I’m safe to assume my friends and the talking heads have spoken the truth.

It comes as no surprise to me that people retreat to their ideological camps in times of crisis. When everything looks like chaos most of us search frantically for normalcy, finding it in the tried and true, regardless of its actual ability to comfort, inform, or inspire.

A couple years ago at a church auction in Saint Louis, I remember a conversation with one of the elders of the church who said, “I don’t think the solutions to our nation’s problems are all that complicated. I could fix most of our problems in an afternoon if I was the only one in the room.” If only that were possible.

At this point I’d happily hand the keys of our democracy over to my daughter’s kindergarten class, but I fear it might tarnish their resumes and seriously limit their appeal to colleges and employers.

So, it’s no wonder to me that when I watched senators talking with citizens in town hall meetings the people in the audience struggled to make their comments through fits of rage and sorrow. Things have gotten so far out of hand that our own president has to hold a card that reminds him to tell the people he’s talking with that he hears them. When the leader of the free world needs an empathy cheat sheet you know we’re in trouble.

That the youth of our nation are the ones with the most sensible solutions to the public health crisis of mass slaughter due to gun violence should make every adult with a mind that thinks and a heart that beats slip and extra $20 bill in the next birthday card they send to anyone under 18-years-old. But I guess when your body is the one at risk of being shot through with bullets you start thinking pretty quickly.

That people and politicians and the political and social ideologies we claim do more to separate us than bring us together should serve as all the proof we need to fess up to the fact that we’re living in the midst of a collective failure. If this were a United Church of Christ congregation or and Episcopal Church I’d say we are living in the midst of a collective sin. But who has time to argue semantics when solutions on the table include bonuses for teachers willing to carry pistols on their hip.

My daughter’s school can’t even afford their own Kleenexes! So what’s next, on the list of supplies for next year will there be a box of bullets and a gift card to the local gun range? Maybe principles should carry grenades just in case. Or maybe we can build big beautiful walls around our schools. Let’s think of all the possible ways we can to reinforce our children’s desire to stay home everyday anyway.

Following the tragedy in Parkland, members of the news media were already lamenting the routine these tragedies seem to perform: 1st there’s outrage, then loud chants about gun rights and the true meaning of the 2nd Amendment, then calls for more funding of mental healthcare, then waning interest, then radio silence, back to business as usual; that is, until it happens again. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

It seems it’s only a matter of time before a young man or a middle aged man decides to take out his rage and feelings of inadequacy on innocent people.

But this time things do seem to be different. While politicians performed their same tricks and the adults retreated to their ideological tents and hurled their insults couched in solutions back and forth on Facebook and Twitter, the student survivors and the parents of the victims refused to play their assumed roles in this tragic rerun we’ve be watching for decades now.

They stood before the president, before senators and congressmen in town halls, and before the people of this nation and said we’re had enough. They are telling us a terrifying truth we need to admit to ourselves: that we are failing each other. And through their courageous actions they cut through the pessimism that pervades this modern era to convey something we are all in desperate need of: faith in humankind’s ability to change.

If you recall, I began this morning by telling you that the Hebrew word for “sin” means to miss the mark. When it comes to ensuring the safety of our citizens and children in schools, churches, movie theaters, universities, community colleges, grocery stores, and city halls, we have missed the mark.

There is no such thing as a perfect solution to public problems. But to continue to do nothing, regardless of what the problem is, and choose, instead, to watch it happen over and again is nothing short of a collective failure. It is a collective sin.

But the stubborn truth found in the pages of history books and bibles show us, over and again, that we can change. That we can learn from our failures, both personally and collectively, and recreate a world freer and safer for all of us, especially our children and youth.

It is the ability to change, to learn from our mistakes that make humankind so unique. This is why the ancient Israelites preserved these stories for us.

It is our ability to admit that we’ve been complacent and guilty of retreat that brings us back to the table. It is our ability to admit we’ve missed the mark.

It is not our strength and our ability to conquer that makes us strong; rather, it is our reliance upon others that makes us powerful.

If it weren’t for you all I couldn’t stand here and proclaim this truth. It is my admiration for you all that nudges me out of bed every morning. It is my faith in our ability to change that gives me hope. It is the courage of our children that assures me love and justice will prevail. Be like children, dear friend. Be courageous, be willing to change.

Amen and Blessed Be.