Bartimaeus, Luther, and the Failed Reformation

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

What would you do if you couldn’t fail? What would you endeavor, dare, or try? What mission would you attempt, what venture would you risk, what great deed would you undertake?

I love these kinds of questions, because they stimulate our thinking, stretch our vision, and stir our imagination. But as much as I love these questions, I think they’re the wrong ones to ask. Because there will be failure. There just will. And if we only dream of doing things we can accomplish without failure, we will either be sorely disappointed or, realizing the naïveté of the question, never try.

So in light of today’s readings, I want to ask another question — similar in nature but perhaps both more realistic and more faithful: What would you do if you knew you might fail and it just didn’t matter? I don’t mean “didn’t matter” in the sense that there would be no cost, or that it would be difficult or disappointing. No, what I mean is, what would you try if the attempt itself was worth it whether it succeeded or not? Or, even more, what would you risk if the ultimate outcome was guaranteed even if your immediate venture failed?

I think that’s a big part of what today’s readings are about. First, in one of the more difficult passages in John, Jesus invites us to imagine that belief in him equates the freedom of the heir rather than the insecurity of a slave (8:35-36). There is a harsh distinction in the ancient world between those who are “in” and those who are “out” of a family and its privileges and future, and Jesus is inviting all of us to claim our inheritance as “children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (1:12-13). Because Jesus has secured our place with the Father we are in every way free. Free to venture, to risk, to try … and even to fail, because it is the Son who secures our place, position, and future.

So also in Romans, as Paul declares that we are justified not by works — that is, by our successes or accomplishments — but by grace (3:24). And just as our successes do not earn our place in God’s kingdom neither do our failures disqualify us. As Martin Luther, reading Paul, came to recognize so poignantly, if our salvation depended on our efforts, we would have no cause to hope. For as Paul says, and as each of us knows by experience, we have all sinned and fallen short. But God in Jesus tells us that our identity, worth, and well-being is not determined by our successes and failures but by God’s gift alone. And precisely because salvation is not up to us, but up to God, we are free to do and try and risk all things in the meantime, because whether we succeed or fail, yet God has promised to bring us and all things to a good end.

Still not sure? Then let’s go to Jeremiah. Because in this brief passage the prophet, speaking for God, not only details Israel’s absolute failure to keep the law, but also goes on to declare God’s promise to do for Israel what they could not do for themselves by writing the law on their very hearts, by fashioning in them and through them a people of promise. Moreover, God says that when it comes to their — and our! — sin and failure, God will just plain forget, remembering our sin no more.

So let me ask again: what would you do if failure didn’t matter? What would you endeavor, dare, or try? What mission would you attempt, what venture would you risk, what great deed would you undertake?

Would you, like Bartimaeus in today’s other Gospel reading, shout out for healing even though the people around you try to shush you into silence (Mark 10:47-48)? I wonder, could it be that Bartimaeus was so used to failure and disappointment that he saw no reason not to try one more time? Or perhaps faithfulness itself is defined by trusting God enough to dare impossible deeds?

Whatever the case, would that be your cry, for healing? Or maybe your shout would be for justice, or peace, or equality, or any of the other handful of things that the world calls idealistic. Or maybe you would volunteer at a food pantry, or tutor a child who needs help at school, or care for someone severely disabled, or befriend a kid who everyone says isn’t cool, or visit an elder who most have forgotten, or reach out to someone overwhelmed by grief even though you don’t know what to say.

So often, these things — whether great or small — seem either so hopelessly impossible or so ridiculously insignificant that we just don’t try. Yet the promise of the Gospel is that we are free … free to risk, to dare, to love, to live, to work, to dream, and to struggle … whether what we attempt seems great or small, likely or nearly impossible. Because we have God’s promise that there is no small gesture and there is no impossible deed. And for this reason we are free…even to fail, trusting that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also bring all things — even our failed efforts — to a good end.

One of my favorite movie scenes comes from Apollo 13 when NASA’s Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris), boldly declares, “Failure is not an option.” But as inspiring as I find that line, I know the opposite is more often true: failure is regularly the option. More to the point, if you’re going to risk anything that matters, “not failing is not an option.” Risk, you see, entails failure. Change entails failure. Creativity and innovation and experimentation all entail failure. And if we forget that we will either never try anything that matters or end up sorely disappointed.

This past summer I was visiting Wittenberg and heard a story about Martin Luther I hadn’t heard before that seems appropriate for those observing Reformation Sunday this week. I knew that Luther died in Eisleben, the place of his birth, bringing his work and life, in a sense, full circle. And I knew that he preached his last sermon there after successfully negotiating disputes between several local magistrates. What I didn’t know was that only five people showed up for the sermon. What I didn’t know was that he was pissed. He wrote a friend about the event, despairing over what we feared was a “failed” reformation.

While I can understand his dismay and disappointment, I nevertheless think that at that moment Luther forgot that much of our energy and effort will be given over to failed endeavors. He’d forgotten that is, Paul’s reminder that we have all sinned and fallen short … and will keep sinning and falling short. Moreover, he’d forgotten that our ultimate hope rests not in our successes but in God’s great failure on the cross, the failure that redeems all failures and successes, binding them together in the promise of resurrection. He’d forgotten, that is, his own words at the close of the hymn many of us will sing this week, “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. God’s kingdom is ours forever.”

This is God’s doing, you see, and so we are free — free to risk, to dare, to love, to live, to work, to dream, to struggle, and even to fail…all in hope. So this week and always, Working Preacher do not fear and do not give up. If you wonder at times whether many of your sermons fail to reach the ends you’d hoped for them, know that they probably do! 🙂 Yet God promises to use them anyway. So keep the faith, keep the word, keep on trying and failing, for God has promised to keep hold of you and to use you and your people in ways we cannot imagine.

Yours in Christ,

PS: I’ve had a couple of email requests for the column I wrote last year on Reformation Sunday. It’s called “Reformation Truths” and you can find it here. Looking back at it, I think some of the comments were as helpful as the column. 🙂