18 Oct 2015
“And [James and John] said to [Jesus], ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” (Mark 10:37)
In the name …
I was reading an article the other day about how children learn and the phrase used by one educator caught my attention. It was “we teach kids to fail upward.” In other words, there’s nothing wrong with failing at something if the silver lining is insight on how to do it better the next time. Mistakes don’t define us unless we let them, unless we admit defeat and give up. Mistakes can actually challenge us to do better. And I think that’s part of the story we’re hearing in today’s Gospel. James and John are two familiar names among the disciples. These two men are important in the story of Jesus and the church. And today we see that even they are not immune from mistakes. This story was thought such an embarrassment that when Matthew retells it some ten years later he tries to soften the impact by having the mother of James and John do the asking; Luke never bothers to repeat it at all; and the church today gives the option of reading the whole passage as we did or of skipping over the more embarrassing parts. But there are more mistakes than just that of these two brothers. When the other ten disciples hear about the ploy of James and John to weasel into the top positions in Jesus’ kingdom, they get angry with them. This is as serious a mistake as the first one.
Among Jesus’ closest followers we hear today that they all made mistakes. Just so that we can get a feel for where we are in the life-story of Jesus, this account is found in Mark chapter ten. Mark chapter eleven is the story of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And hopefully we all know what happens after that. Jesus has to realize as all of this is taking place that these are the leaders who will follow after Him, and they’re not getting it. But Jesus doesn’t give up on them. Jesus knows that the gospel He preaches is radically different than what they expected to hear about the kingdom of God. And so Jesus tries again. He won’t let the mistakes win. He tries to use them so that the disciples “fail upward.” Jesus never gives up on any of us no matter how many mistakes we may make.
Jesus takes the disciples’ mistakes of pride and anger and uses them to drive home one of the most surprising and counter-intuitive lessons in all of Christianity in the hopes that maybe now they’ll get it, maybe now they can “fail upward.” He tells them, “‘Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.’” (Mark 10:43-44) Servant and slave are not appealing words no matter when they are used. This is a Christian truth of humility and sacrifice that is hard to live today after 2,000 years of hearing the gospel. Can you imagine how difficult it would have been for those first followers of Jesus? But maybe after the mistakes of pride and anger, just maybe the disciples can “fail upward” and start to really understand that they are followers of a Saviour who “‘came not to be served,’” says the Gospel, “‘but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10:45)
Mistakes can make progress possible. The disciple James is the only apostle in the New Testament whose death is recorded. He died for Jesus. His mistake of pride was completely reversed and maybe that all began because of his mistake. The disciple John has several books in the New Testament attributed to him, and his community is the one that stresses Christian love as the epitome of faith. He too “failed upward.” Mistakes can make us realize that one path didn’t work so let’s try another. In the secular world, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs are just a few innovators who were all familiar with failure, with mistakes, but they learned from them. This Friday at the Academy of Music in Northampton Live Art Magazine is putting on a show filled with local talent. And they are insisting that there be no recordings whatsoever of the program so that the “artists are free to push the boundaries of their art.” It’s not easy trying something innovative and unusual, and that’s why there will be no recording of this show. They’re almost encouraged in this kind of format to take a chance that may not work. But without recordings people can’t dwell on the mistake and this lets the performers try stuff that may flop terribly or may be their next big hit. Taking a chance means possibly making mistakes, but mistakes help us to “fail upward.”
But the church has a problem with all of this because too often we think of the church as already perfect because she is inspired by God. When we do this, mistakes sound like God’s mistakes. This can make us so afraid of mistakes that we don’t take chances. We only look to what was done and that’s never going to get us to what should be done. The other day I saw a couple of young guys hauling an old, beat-up row boat out of their back yard. I yelled over as I was walking my dog and asked them if they were going out fishing. The answer back: “If she floats.” There was no telling what was going to happen until the boat hit the water. In the same way, we have to sometimes take the church’s proverbial boat down to the water and see what happens. We won’t know until the boat hits the water. This means that mistakes are possible, but nothing is ever going to happen by keeping the boat in the backyard. It’s O.K. to take chances whether it be our lives or the life of the church.
The State Department released its report on religious freedom in the world this past week and the story is not only discouraging, it’s scary (http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/238390.pdf). When religions think that they are already perfect, they can do horrible things to people who believe differently. I’m not worried about mistakes; I’m scared by the fallacy of perfection. Let us have enough faith in Jesus and even in ourselves so that we can “fail upward.” Let us pray that we’re never willing to be defined by our mistakes, but let us have the courage and conviction to allow Jesus to help us learn from them so that we can become ever better followers of Him just like James and John. And for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo