All The Things I've Tried that Failed

Based on a sermon I delivered at South Turramurra Uniting Church on Oct 29, 2017. The readings were Dt 34:1-12, 1 Thes 2:1-8, Mt 22:34-46.

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I think if I were to write a book about my time in university chaplaincy it would be something like All The Things I’ve Tried That Failed – I have sat at plenty of empty tables, in various empty rooms with my Bible Study notes prepared, clips from interviews edited, sound tested and readied, hoping that someone, anyone will show up (while simultaneously terrified that only one someone - especially one new someone – actually might). The worst is when you’re in those empty rooms with a guest speaker whose taken time out of their day to speak at this nonexistent group. I’ve rocked up at social events, or fascinating forums on campus, looking to make connections, to ‘loiter with intent’ and the famous Chaplaincy idiom goes, only to be overcome with social awkwardness, spending most of the time pretending to text (or take a phone call where I recite lyrics to songs from Fiddler on the Roof to better convey that I am indeed in conversation), before sneaking out a side door.   

There have been ‘successes’ along the way, fruitful relationships, emails of appreciation, well attended events, (its then that it’s most important to take photos). Alas, they don’t come with any reliable consistency.

This undesirable ratio of failures to successes, wins to loses, forced me to look outside of ministry, outside of my tradition for a comforting form of measuring. I found it on the field of dreams. In baseball, batting 300 is very good; batting 400 is almost unachievable. What this means is that if you go up to bat 10 times, and hit the ball 3, you’re very good… 3/10 = very good! Well, that seemed achievable. So I’ve been adopting this analogical analytic when talking about ministry – chaplaincy is about trying to bat 300. For every 10 events we hold, projects we launch, or students we interact with, only 3 of them have to ‘hit’. It has certainly helped address my own sense of self when looking back at a week or semester.

But what if I didn’t have to look to the world of Baseball sabermetrics to find a way of measuring the success of my ministry. What if there were another way to approach the measuring of what I do, what we all do as followers and missionaries of God? What if it were ‘measured’ in a way that proved to be a stumbling block to our world, which seems increasingly determined to measure, analyse, and commodify? That is what I want to explore today and thankfully the Lectionary readings were very accommodating. Let’s dive into our readings to sort this through… We’re going to hone in on the three-featured individuals in these readings: Moses, Paul, and Jesus.

Moses

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.

The end of Moses’ story (though, as long as Israel is guided by Torah and shaped by the Exodus, Moses’ story is never complete) is tied up with this beautiful eulogy. It celebrates the marvellous signs and wonders the Lord sent him to perform in Egypt, and for the way God worked through him in Israel’s wandering years. But it is that first line, that is what truly sets Moses apart, he is the man, “whom the Lord knew face to face”.

In the end it was not his miracle working or political wrangling that set Moses apart, a prophet without comparison, it was the intimacy with which he knew YHWH, the One and Holy God of Israel.

We’ve spent some time with Moses this year in the Lectionary. We have heard a lot about his highs and lows…

Let us not forget that this man, who as a boy was sheltered from the bloodshed of the state, met God at Horeb having himself fled Egypt as a murderer. Let us not forget, that the man who boldly proclaimed let my people go, did everything he could to get out of his prophetic commission and was conceded Aaron to do the talking for him. Let us not forget that ‘on his watch’ the people of Israel grumbled and complained incessantly, built a golden calf, and were too fearful to enter the land promised to them. Let us not forget, that Moses only glimpsed that which was promised, himself never tasting, feeling, or smelling the land flowing with milk and honey.

But let us remember that Moses saw a bush that blazed but was not consumed. Remember that Moses stood barefoot on holy ground and had the name of God revealed to him. Remember that Moses alone went up the mountain of smoke and fire and received the Torah. That Moses was permitted, shielded by God’s own hand, to see the back of the Lord as He passed by. It was Moses whose face radiated so, that he needed to veil it to commune with the people.   

It is Moses’ intimate and unparalleled knowledge and communion with God that sets him apart. His works may be mighty, and the deeds God performed through him dramatic, but he is a prophet without comparison because the Lord knew him face to face.

Paul

Another man whose story begins with murder. Another, whose ministry was threatened, perhaps undermined by his lack of rhetorical prowess. Another, who is marked out by a commitment to knowing God first and foremost – all of this captured beautifully in the first letter to the Corinthians:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Here in Thessalonians the stress is also on Paul coming not with flourish, trickery, deceit, or greed. His ministry to this community is marked by gentleness and measured by God alone. Despite mistreatment, Paul offers himself along with his message – tending to the people as God has, and continues, to tend to him.

Paul, while fiercely committed to his mission to establish communities based not cultural priority or worldly power, but on the destabalising foolishness of the cross – nonetheless is determined to not burden those in his care, coming with humility and love – desiring to please only God.

Jesus

Jesus’ response to, ‘which commandment in the Law is the greatest’, is hardly revolutionary. It is something Moses would have said before him and Paul would say after him. But that only goes to show its central importance in discerning what it means to measure a faithful life. To ask which commandment in the Law is the greatest is to ask for the pinnacle of the beating heart of the religious community – it is to ask, what best captures what it means to live in light of God’s vision and hope. How it is to live in starkest contrast to the powers of sin and death that bind and diminish.

To love God and love neighbour is to be drawn beyond ourselves and our own interests – it is, first, to seek fully and forever after a God who is both entirely beyond and within. It is to praisefully devote ourselves to the hidden and invisible God who we can know intimately. It is to experience and allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit of fire, without being consumed, without forfeiting agency. It is, second, to seek fully and forever after the interests of our neighbours who cannot be contained, controlled, or categorised. It is to joyfully commit ourselves to their flourishing and liberation, affirming their humanity as made in the image and likeness of God. It is to experience and allow ourselves to be converted by these encounters, without ever losing the confidence that who we are, as fearfully and wonderfully made, is, when coming to rest in God, enough.

Doing Away with the KPIs

In light of this, to be a Christian is to radically reinterpret what it means to live ‘successfully’. Our participation in the mission of God is measured by unique standards. All the many things I’ve tried can indeed fail by every other standard the world seeks to invent, and yet the downward trend on these many splendid graphs is absorbed and redeemed by a faithful life marked by the knowledge of God and the love of neighbour.

Jesus himself is a man put to death by the State as his movement evaporates and his closest friends deny and flee. The earthly life, measured by best practice standards, fails. But the cross is foolishness to the world, and yet the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength – indeed, going further with Paul, God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

To measure the unparalleled life of Moses by his intimate knowledge of God and not the number of slaves freed, the amount of manna collected, the number of characters recorded on stone, is foolishness to a world of KPIs. To measure the fruitfulness of a life by the self-giving love of neighbour and not one’s ability to get ahead is foolishness to rampant individualism. To measure the impact on a community by gentleness and fidelity and not prestige and influence, is foolishness to late capitalism.

Despite all this, we are often all too ready to throw away the keys to the kingdom for the keys to success. Too often we want to be able to demonstrate our ministries success in the language and reportage tools of our surroundings. It makes sense, because it is measurable, because there are tools out there that can help, because it gives us a nice tangible number or trend to point to when we feel a need to justify ourselves… and this is a very human need. Knowledge and love can feel rather ethereal in a world where everything can be rated. Yet these are true and honest pursuits. They are the kind of 'goals' and 'strategies' that transform lives, communities, societies, they are the vocations that can make one unparalleled.  

It was knowledge and love that compelled Moses to never quit on God's promise of liberation, knowledge and love that sustained Paul as he sort to establish communities that cut across all 'natural' borders, knowledge and love that led Jesus to complete solidarity with the suffering masses. Knowledge and love are pursuits that draw us/drag us into this same work of liberation, community, and solidarity - this work is our knowledge and love, and this work is what we are measured by. In this way, all kinds of measurement strategies are subverted and redeemed.

This, now, is how I try to consider my ministry (though I still have to write a decent number of annual reports), and it is, perhaps, something all of you can take with you as you consider your own participation in the mission of God. So while my chaplaincy book could still be titled, All the Things I’ve Tried that Failed – it could yet be granted a subtitle, And the two things that meant none of that mattered. 

 Thanks to Heather for making me this image

Thanks to Heather for making me this image