Holy Failure

A sermon based on Exodus 17:1-7 and Philippians 2:1-13 preached on September 28th, 2014.

Sermon audio

Henri Nouwen’s resume was long and impressive. A Dutch born Catholic priest, his interests were mostly in psychology, pastoral ministry, social justice, and community. After decades of service in the priesthood, he taught for 20 years at institutions like the University of Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. He’s the author of 39 books— they’ve sold over 7 million copies and have been published in more than 30 languages.

Henri Nouwen was a spiritual giant—well regarded in his field. People flocked to whatever speaking engagements he scheduled and his classes were always full—no matter what the subject of the course was. He was a highly-esteemed Christian thinker who could have lived the elite academic lifestyle until he retired comfortably and without a care. But that’s not the path Nouwen chose for himself.

As he worked his way up the ladder to his teaching post at Harvard, Nouwen began to reflect on where it was taking him. He wrote,

Something inside was telling me that my success was putting my soul in danger.

So he left Harvard, and university teaching altogether, and became a caretaker and chaplain at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. There he served people with developmental disabilities for the next 10 years until his death at the age of 64—trading his station high atop the ladder at Harvard to tend to the daily needs—the feeding and the changing—of some of the most vulnerable people there were.

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Nouwen’s choice to leave the ivory tower of Ivy League academia for humble service mirrors the journey of a man named Jean Vanier—the man who founded the L’Arche Daybreak Community in which Nouwen served as Chaplain.

Jean Vanier came from privilege too. He was the son of a former Governor General of Canada. Jean Vanier joined the Navy and became an academic in Europe. He did very well for himself.

While he was teaching in France, he met two men who lived in an institution for people with developmental disabilities. He saw how their needs were not being taken care of by that institution, so Vanier invited the two men to move into his own home. For the next few years, Jean Vanier took care of these men himself—tending to their daily needs.

Vanier was a man of great privilege and power—destined for greatness, but through taking care of these 2 men he saw their weakness and vulnerability. And day by day as he tended to them, he experienced a profound sense of belonging with them—a deep sense of shared daily life, and he began to sense an overwhelming change in his own values. The tenderness, love, and unity between he and these 2 men changed his life. These two men who Vanier cared for would became the first members of the L’Arche Daybreak Community which he founded, the same organization Henri Nouwen left Harvard for.

Vanier was quoted as saying, “We don’t do great things at L’Arche.” In fact the idea is more of a break from all that the world calls “accomplishment”. Instead, everyone in the L’Arche Daybreak Community makes a choice to leave that world behind to be with those inside—to be present to the weakness and powerlessness of those who live in the community.

The L’Arche Daybreak Community has been called a movement toward failure. In a world that would have much preferred the story of Henri Nouwen’s meteoric rise to the top of Harvard’s elite or Jean Vanier’s inevitable success as an academic in Europe, both chose to take the path downward. At least by the world’s standards, both chose failure.

How many of us give up all that we have for the sake of others?

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Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi in Greece. For the most part, the church in Philippi is a peaceful one—they’re learning their way just like any young church would. There is some infighting between the leaders of two of their churches, but as a whole, Paul counts the Philippian church as a great success story. This passage in chapter 2 is a glimpse of how Paul is encouraging them to keep doing what they’re doing.

Paul emphasizes being joyful in community—to share all things, to uplift one another, to be confident in God’s promises, and continue serving one another without regard to the well-being of any one person in their community—to share all things together, to be a truly interdependent people.

Paul doesn’t want each person to look out only for their own good, but to watch out for what is better for others—to celebrate and suffer all things together. And in order to make this point, Paul uses what is now the most ancient statement about Jesus the church has ever used.

If you look on your scripture insert, you can see that vv.6-11 are indented. This is a poem, a statement of faith—maybe a song that the very early followers of Jesus sung together. And the words are surprising.

This isn’t a song about an awesome God who does a mighty thing through Jesus. You’d think that if the early church was a persecuted group of people, they would have wanted to sing about how Christ was a superhero Messiah, how he came to boldly rescue the world from its sin and show how powerful God is—how strong Jesus is.

But this is not a power ballad, is it? This is no “Jesus is my superhero” kinda song. This early Christian song is about how Christ gave up his powerful place at the right hand of God and chose to come to earth, taking the form of a slave and becoming one of us—with all the vulnerability we live with, all the suffering we feel, the pain, the joy, the disappointment and ambiguity of life as a human being.

This ancient song speaks of how Jesus, even though he was God among us, refused to use a high and lofty power to get himself out of tough spots, but instead became weak—even humbling himself to the point of death—a humiliating death—the worst kind of death: death on a Roman cross.

It’s hard to fail more than Jesus failed. This isn’t “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” This isn’t Jesus Christ Superstar. This is Jesus as suffering servant. A holy failure.

Why sing this song?

This hymn takes a turn in verse 9, doesn’t it, when the focus turns to what God thought about Jesus failure on the cross: Because Jesus emptied himself even to the point of death—death on cross, no less, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names so that everyone would one day bow to him and confess that Jesus is Lord.

Jesus’ crucifixion was a complete emptying of himself, a death with nothing heroic or meaningful behind it. But God, God turned it all around and raised him up and made him King of all Kings. God gave meaning to Christ’s death on a cross. With God, Jesus’s total failure became a total victory. And the only reason why it happened is because Jesus chose to first give it all up—to empty himself and become not a power-player—high on the totem poll of worldly opinion.

Jesus chose to become a servant, he chose to love us so much that even if it led to his death, he would die for us.

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Anne Lamott is an author who lives in California. In one of her books entitled Bird-by-Bird, she tells a story about a boy and his sick sister. The girl had leukemia and needed a blood transfusion to live. There were other possible blood donors, but her brother would be the best possible match. So, the doctors and the parents talked to the small boy. They explained to him that his sister needed his blood if she were to survive. And they asked him to consider it.

The boy thought long and hard, but finally agreed.

They laid the boy on a bed next to his sister. In each child’s little arm they ran a line with a needle. The boy watched as his blood made its way up the tube and then down into his sister’s arm. He watched very quietly – intensely.

Finally, he turned to his parents and asked, “When do I start to die?”

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The cross of Christ is not a story about an angry God needing a sacrifice to appease some sort of righteous anger. And it’s not about a Messiah who would bravely come to throw himself up on a cross for the sake of us all. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked God that if there was any way out, then now would be a great time for God to let him in on it.

The cross is about how far Jesus was willing to go, as fearful as he may have been, to show us that his love for us knows no boundaries—that his love for us is a love that is willing to go all the way, even if that meant he would lose his life.

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The story of the cross of us is this: We should serve one another as that little boy served his sick sister—with every bit of our being we too should give ourselves for others—watching out not for our own self-interest but living out God’s purposes for us by watching out for the good of others—even if that means choosing a different path for ourselves, even if by worldly standards that choice seems like the wrong one—a journey away from what the world calls “success.” God will use it for good.

That is the story of the cross. That is the attitude of Christ. That is the sacrifice of Christ—the One who gave of himself even to the point of death on a Roman cross so that we may have life and have it in abundance.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen!

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