The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
October 31, 2021
Exodus 5:1-9; Matthew 17:14-21
The topic for today is a tough one the day after the MSU vs. UofM so I want to issue a trigger warning, especially for UofM fans that this sermon is about expecting failure. (I promise I would have made that joke if my Spartans had lost too).
Failure is a gigantic subject. If you put the word failure into google or a youtube video search you will get hundreds of hits. “How to avoid failure” “How to fail your way to success” “Learning from Failure” Our culture is obsessed with failing, probably because we have all experienced it and desperately want to avoid it.
It is a gift that Moses is not afraid of his failure. Or at least he isn’t afraid of it when he writes Exodus because he includes stories where he fails. He could have left those parts out and painted himself in a stronger tone, but Moses wants us to know failure will be part of the story. It was part of his story and the story of Israel and we should expect failure to be a part of our story too.
I really liked the way this passage read in the Message so let’s listen to this story one more time :
1 After that Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh. They said, “God, the God of Israel, says, ‘Free my people so that they can hold a festival for me in the wilderness.’”
2 Pharaoh said, “And who is God that I should listen to him and send Israel off? I know nothing of this so-called ‘God’ and I’m certainly not going to send Israel off.”
3 They said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness so we can worship our God lest he strike us with either disease or death.”
4-5 But the king of Egypt said, “Why on earth, Moses and Aaron, would you suggest the people be given a holiday? Back to work!” Pharaoh went on, “Look, I’ve got all these people freeloading, and now you want to reward them with time off?”
6-9 Pharaoh took immediate action. He sent down orders to the slave-drivers and their underlings: “Don’t provide straw for the people for making bricks as you have been doing. Make them get their own straw. And make them produce the same number of bricks—no reduction in their daily quotas! They’re getting lazy. They’re going around saying, ‘Give us time off so we can worship our God.’ Crack down on them. That’ll cure them of their whining, their god-fantasies.”
Moses and Aaron walk into Pharaoh’s court with extraordinary boldness. They don’t do any of the bowing or exulting or greetings we see at other times people enter powerful courts. They get right to the point “the Lord has said.” This is a power move for sure. Pharoah thinks of himself as a god so to be told that another god is commanding him to do something is not going to go very well. That fact does not seem to bother Moses or Aaron. They start off with the command.
This immediately goes sideways. Pharoah is offended they didn’t greet him appropriately and they issue a command from another god with whom Pharoah has no relationship. Of course, he is going to get defensive and snap back at the audacious duo.
Moses and Aaron see their mistake and try to do some damage control. They know if Pharoah won’t let them go the plagues will come but saying “you will be punished” is not going to be a great follow-up. So they try to illustrate that the Egyptians and the Israelites are all in this together. One big happy community that should be aware that “God will strike US with disease or death.” Instead of saying God will strike “you”, which is the truth, they soften the delivery and say, “us”
It’s too little too late and Pharoah issues an order that makes the brick labor harder without reducing the daily quota. This is not to say if Moses and Aaron came in bowing and bribing Pharoah things would have gone differently. This is to say WHAT DID THEY EXPECT!?
In their wildest dreams did they actually think going in there and asking for a free weekend was going to work? I don’t think so. I think they knew that was how the meeting was going to go. Maybe that’s why they didn’t bow, they knew it wasn’t going to help anyway. They expected to fail. And they did.
But when they did fail it wasn’t crushing because they were ready for it. When we expect to fail it softens the impact. Yesterday I was watching the football game with friends who were cheering for both sides. At the end of the third period though it sounded like we were all rooting for the same team because we all kept saying “we will find a way to lose this just you wait.” We were protecting ourselves from the impact of losing by expecting to fail.
Acknowledging that failure is possible helps us deal with the blow that failure can throw at us. And it allows us to bounce back faster and stronger.
I heard an interview with a prisoner of war a few months ago and he was asked what the best survival technique is for those situations. He answered “be pessimistic” he went on to clarify “it was the optimistic ones who died first. They would count the days and say “we will be out by Christmas, this will be over by easter, we will be on the beach by the fourth of July” As their prediction dates passed they ran out of hope. He also said the pessimists didn’t fare well either, especially after being rescued. It was the soldiers who expected to fail that made it through. The ones that expected success did not enjoy the days between Christmas and Easter because they were looking into the future. Then when the big day came and went they were crushed by the impact of failure. The ones who expected failure could shrug it off and prepare for the next day.
Leaving room for an expectation of failure helps us absorb the impact when we do fail and it also teaches us that failure is not the end of the story. People who expect to fail, and then fail, learn that the world goes on after failure.
You have probably heard the quote from Thomas Edison “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work” That is the voice of someone who expects to fail. SO I failed, big deal, I’ll try again.
My favorite quote about failure is from Henry Ford “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” This is what it sounds like to be a person who expects to fail. It’s not the end, failure is one of the steps, maybe 10,000 of the steps, but it is just part of the process.
Moses and Aaron walk out of Pharaoh’s court as failures. And it probably hurt a lot, but they kept going. They knew that was just the first step. The disciples on the other hand have not pushed through the failure as well in Matthew 17.
They tried to help the boy but failed. That failure derails their faith and they can not recover. They let their initial failure cloud every other attempt. They did not see failure as a learning experience. They didn’t try a different prayer or maybe even try a second time they send the boy off and Jesus has to fix it. The disciples give up.
Jesus is not thrilled. “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?” It's a gut-wrenching thing to hear Jesus say. It’s like a parent saying “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” UGH!
Then Jesus talks about the mustard seed. We use this section of scripture to empower and uplift. The mustard seed has become a symbol of power and success. Yet when we read this whole scene it’s not a particularly uplifting moment.
Faith the size of a mustard seed yes but what else is in there with the mustard seed. A pumpkin seed of shame, an avocado seed of fear, a coconut of failure. The disciples are focusing on the wrong thing. They just see the failure and forget about the tiny seed of faith behind it.
Moses and Aaron were better prepared to notice the mustard seed. They kept trying. They knew failure did not mean an end to God’s story and so it did not mean an end to their story. Jesus wanted the disciples to grasp this concept because he expected the failure his movement was about to face. Jesus wanted them to expect failure so that when he was put on a cross they would remember the mustard seed in the corner and hold on. Because in God’s story failure is never the end, it is just a step towards the solution.
We must expect to fail. It will help us absorb the impact and we will bounce back stronger than before. We must expect to fail because what seems like a failure could, in three days, turn into the solution. Failure is never the end of the story.
If you feel like you are in the midst of failure, remember your mustard seed. The seeds of failure and shame and fear feel bigger than your faith and are incredibly distracting and discouraging, but all you need is a mustard seed-size faith. Those other seeds want our attention. Failure and shame want our resources to grow bigger and stronger.
But we can look at failure and say “I expected you to show up, Hello. If you would excuse me the seed behind you is the one I’m going to fertilize and help grow” Failure becomes less of a distraction when we expect it to be there and remember our story goes on after failure.
Jesus proved that failure is not the end of the story so let’s stop allowing it to derail our efforts and our faith. Reassess, adjust the plan, try again, and water the mustard seed. Failure is to be expected and it is not the end of your story.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
October 24, 2021
Exodus 4:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:3-7
A few weeks ago I talked with you about how important it is for us to examine our Theology and notice what kind of effects it has on our daily practical lives. My example that time was how believing that somebody is a sinner versus believing that they are made very good can affect the way we interact with and see the people around us. As I was studying the scriptures for today I realized this time I was going to have to be a little bit more vulnerable and talk about a way that a seemingly inconsequential belief caused serious damage in my life.
Because this week we are talking about gifts from God, and for the majority of my life my understanding of God’s gifts caused me to feel unworthy. Now I want to be clear that the toxic theology that I had taken to heart was not something that was purposely given to me to be hurtful. In fact, on the surface, everything that was taught to me was very well intended and looked to be an uplifting theology. The only way I have learned that what I believed was wrong is by the fruits it has produced in my life. When it became apparent that the fruits this belief was producing were rotten, I had no other choice but to re-examine how I understood God's gifts.
God’s gifts were always presented as good things. If something was good in my life it was a gift from God, which sounds truthful enough. However when this idea pairs with another common Christian teaching it turns toxic. I did not just believe God’s gifts were good, I also believed I was unworthy of them. And so the equation that developed in my mind was good equals God, bad equals me, or what I deserved.
This is not what was taught to me but this is what found its root inside me. I was supposed to be striving to be perfect like Jesus, and that was a task I could never hope to achieve because I was a miserable sinner. We can begin to see how these theologies play off each other and start rotting us from the inside.
So I tried to be good. I did what the assignment was. I was the good student, I was the good child, I was the good friend, but when I found myself in a relationship with someone else and I started valuing being the good girlfriend over everything else, it suddenly became apparent that this was not a healthy way to live. Because I believed good things came from God but that I deserved bad things, and so when my partner dealt me bad things that fit with my view of myself, it's what I deserved. My job was to be the good girlfriend despite it all. The occasions when good things happened it was a blessed relief from God. When bad things happened it was par for the course. What more could I expect to have happen to me?
My theology justified the abuse. So for four years I tried to make the pieces fit together. Until one day, the Spirit took hold of me and I refused to meet up with that person again. I told him to forget my number and forget I existed. I wanted nothing more to do with him.
That is exactly how I described my break free moment. The Spirit took hold and saved me, but can you hear it even in that? My toxic theology was present even in the moment I broke free. I could not give myself any credit for the good thing that I had done, that I had finally stood up for myself. It was all God! This is how strong our beliefs can dictate our lives. They literally write our story for us and in my story I never said I did the good things. It was always God. While it is true that God gives us good things we also need to see that God does not do anything alone. We have to save some credit for ourselves.
When I was reading this story about Moses, I heard the same toxic theology come up as I was reading. Oh here is poor miserable Moses, who is the runaway murderer, who is a stutterer, who can't get anything right. God is stepping in and saving him, giving him the good things he needs to be the leader God is asking him to be. Moses does not deserve the position or attention he is getting from God, but yet God takes Mercy and gives him good gifts.
That is how I always read the story until last week when I finally made the connection that the toxic theology that nearly destroyed my life was trying to inform me about what was happening to Moses. I had to stop and reread this with a new lens and stop seeing Moses as the unworthy and God as the ultimate good, but try to understand why Moses is chosen, why are these signs given to him?
When we stop assuming Moses is a worthless loser we begin to see how this partnership actually comes together. The first sign, when Moses gets worried, God says what do you have there in your hand? And Moses looks and says, well this is my staff, this is what I used to guide my flocks when there is a dangerous edge of a cliff. I can stand and direct my flock away from it, if there's a fight within the flock I can break it up. From far away, if there is a predator on the outskirts of the flock, I can raise my staff high and make myself look bigger and scare away the danger. This is just a staff.
God knows this is a good start. God also knows there's other dangers among the flock. Moses also knows how to pick up a snake by its tail and throw it far away. God knows these are really good skills when you're standing with the people and they don't believe who you are or who sent you. Take your staff, throw it on the ground and it will turn into a snake. when you grab that snake by the tail, it will turn back into your staff. God uses the skills that Moses already has to create the sign that Moses needs to convince people. God doesn't say, I'll be with you. I'll put some lightning in the sky. There will be a miraculous sign they will have to understand. God doesn't take any of the credit. God uses what Moses is already good at to create the sign needed.
And if that's not enough God gives another sign. God does not just know what Moses is good at on the outside, God knows who Moses is on the inside. God saw Moses put his body in between the slave and the Egyptian guard, and when the slave was being beaten Moses put his body in between them and said stop. Moses was so passionate about this because he murdered the abuser. God knows that Moses is a leader willing to put his flesh on the line for the things he believes are right. So knowing that, knowing that Moses is already willing to do that, God says here's another sign. Put your hand inside your cloak. When you remove it it will be filled with disease, then when you put it back in your cloak and pull it out again it will be healed. This sign shows the people who Moses is as a leader, someone willing to put his body on the line for them.
And then we have the last sign. This last sign is a bit different because God is asking Moses to go and get something that he doesn't already have on his person. But this, I think, was God's move to try and win over some of the skeptics that will be among the crowd. Modern-day illusionists do this too. If you don't believe that my card trick worked, or you believe this cup might have a hole in the bottom of it, or if you don't believe the tricks that I showed you with the things that I brought, then I'll ask you to give me a $20 out of your pocket, something you know very well. If I can do something magical with that then you ma