Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Have You Thanked God for This Failure Already?”
Jeremiah 28: 5-9
July 2, 2017 (4th Sunday after Pentecost)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
Please look at today’s sermon title: “Have You Thanked God for This Failure Already?”…Well, have you?
It is almost impossible to imagine thanking God for our failures. For our successes, of course, but for our failures? We hate failure and unmercifully attack anyone who suggests we have failed in any way.
That is why the people of Judah, God’s chosen ones, detested the prophet Jeremiah: he called attention to their failures. Jeremiah’s mission, from God, was to come to an arrogant and over-confident nation and to tell them, “Throw up your hands in defeat, surrender; you are going down!”
There were prophets at the time far more positive than Jeremiah. They loved kowtowing to church members and citizens alike. They liked nothing more than appearing in the New York Times and on Fox News hand-in-hand with the powerbrokers. They ridiculed Jeremiah as a pessimistic fool: things weren’t nearly as bad as he made them out to be.
Hananiah was such a false prophet; he told people what they wanted to hear and that Jeremiah was nuts to boot: Judah certainly was not going to be conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and it was the height of foolishness even to suggest surrendering to an enemy nation. False prophets never call people to task, never speak of their failures, never demand they change.
Jeremiah would have none of Hananiah’s deceitful shenanigans no matter how positive his words sounded to others. As hard as it was for Jeremiah to preach doom and gloom—precisely because he loved the people of Judah so much, nevertheless, he told them that their days were numbered. They had not trusted God, they had taken advantage of the poor for their own selfish gain, and they were making alliances with neighboring idolatrous nations. According to Jeremiah, they were going down.
None of us likes someone who slings such pessimistic bile our way. It hurts. We get defensive and ugly when someone points to our failures.
Have you ever thought that that those who point to our failures are doing us a favor?
Arvo Pärt is one of the most popular church music composers of our age. At his commencement address at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, he tells the story of being at Pühtista Monastery in Estonia, sitting in the yard, in the shadow of the bushes, with his notebook in hand. A little girl came up to him and asked, “What are you doing? What are you writing?” He told her that he was trying to write music but it was not turning out well. And then the ten-year old girl spoke these unexpected words, “Have you thanked God for this failure already?”
Arvo Pärt says that the human soul is the most sensitive of instruments and if not tuned to God’s purpose, our music will be worthless. In order to make God’s music, we must accept our failures and purify our souls.
Pärt counsels us not to grieve when we write little and poorly; rather we should grieve when we pray little and poorly and live in the wrong way. Arvo Pärt urges us to confess our failures and to reach for God. When we do this, all will suddenly become beautiful because God is finally making an appearance in our music—whatever music we make—and we are no longer playing our own selfish little ditties.
We all sit in our monastery yards with notebooks in hand, incapable of producing a single lovely note. We all fail. So often, when this occurs, we make believe all is well; we call that the “elephant in the room.” We cannot bear the thought of failure. We play “make believe” with our spouses, quarreling and refusing to admit our own mistakes; we play make believe in our church, acting as if we are the only ones who know what is best for our life together; we play make believe in our nation as the right castigates the left, Democrats vilify Republicans, and all of us flounder amid the dangerous myth that only our opinions are the flawless ones. Whenever we make believe we are perfect, we quit praying and humility proves beyond our grasp; all that anyone ends up seeing is our wretched arrogance and our ludicrous foolishness.
Have you thanked God for this failure already?
Remarkably, Judah’s hope came when it failed. As God’s people were carted off to Babylonian exile, they finally had the opportunity to turn to God.
This is worth remembering as we approach the 4th of July and this congregation nears our 150th anniversary. No church, no nation, no person is ever perfect. Never! We are all failures bound together by our imperfect humanity. When I say failures, what I mean to suggest is that our beauty comes only when we let God’s beauty be reflected through our imperfections.
You have seen this beauty in someone who admits to their terrible struggles and countless failures. I once heard a person whom I adore and actually thought was pretty perfect, publicly admit to standing in court for the sentencing of his dear son. He talked about how he turned to his therapist repeatedly to get through the day. In his publicly revealed struggles, this person became more beautiful to me than ever. I suddenly saw hope in my own struggles; rather than repelling me by his failures, he drew me closer. God was now in the forefront and it was a stunning sight to behold.
Nations fail, too, but to admit that feels like treason. We prefer to say, “My nation right or wrong” and “Our nation, the greatest on all the earth.” The finest nations and best leaders never believe themselves beyond reproach; they are always seeking how to achieve freedom more perfectly, always debating how to create justice for all, always pondering how to protect God’s good earth from our selfish desires.
William Sloane Coffin, Jr. once said: “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.” That is, of course, who Jeremiah was and that is who we can be.
Maybe it is not such a bad thing for individuals, churches, and nations to carry on a lover’s quarrel as the prophet Jeremiah did with Judah. And maybe it is not such a bad thing to fail. When we do so, we make room for God and that is a beautiful thing.
Have you thanked God for this failure already?