Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, November 8, 2015“You need to fail spectacularly at something important.”
It’s been 20 years since my seminary spiritual director, Vicki Sirota, said those words to me. They come back to me nearly every day of my life.
And they terrify me as much today as they did then.
“You need to fail spectacularly at something important.”
You want to know a secret about me? Failure terrifies me. I even know why. Because the thing I believe so deeply about each and every one of you – that you are made in God’s image, that you are beautiful and good and that you are infinitely loved. That thing that is so easy for me to see about each and every one of you … I struggle to trust it about myself.
Instead, way too often, I believe that my goodness, my lovability is tied to what I can produce, what I can accomplish. Instead, there’s this big piece of me that even as I urge you to believe in God’s love for you that has not yet learned fully to trust in the grace and love of Jesus Christ. To trust that Jesus was talking to me, too, when he said to his disciples “and I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” To trust that Paul was writing to me, too, when he assured that nothing could separate us from the love of God. To trust that God was talking to me, too when God said, “you are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
And so I think my goodness, my lovability is something that can be lost, and that if I screw up, if somehow my offering is not good enough, if I fail spectacularly at something important, I will have to come face to face with the fact that maybe I’m not good and lovable after all. Maybe all those things are for other people but not for me.
I share this because I wonder if even a part of you feels the same way. Fears that your worthiness is rooted in something other than how God made you wonderful and beautiful and good. That no matter what you tell yourself in your brain, even a piece of you deep inside believes that it is what you produce, or whether other people like you or agree with you or think you are worthy that determines your beauty and goodness and lovability.
So maybe it’s just me who feels this way, but my hunch is … not so much. My hunch is that many of us, maybe all of us, struggle with this. That this fear of failure and rejection that will just affirm all the voices of unlovability and unworthiness inside us is the lonely battle we fight inside every day of every week of every year. And it is a lonely battle that we fight in isolation because revealing it, revealing that which feels so much like weakness, would risk the very rejection we most fear.
It’s why I look at this morning’s Gospel and I am in awe of the woman in the temple. I am simply in awe of her. I am in awe of her strength. I am in awe of her courage. I am in awe of her willingness to be vulnerable and honest about who she is and what she has to offer.
Think about the scene. People are making gifts to the temple treasury – and the fact that Jesus can tell that “many rich people are putting in large sums” means this is not a sealed offering envelope where you can’t tell what’s inside. This is a public act for everyone to see. And if it’s a public act, you just know that people are making comparisons. They are seeing who is making the largest gift and they are making value judgments and equating it with goodness and faithfulness. And they are exchanging knowing glances and cutting whispers.
And many rich people are putting in large sums. The standard for success and worthiness and faithfulness is being set. And I can just see the woman standing in line, looking at the measly two coins worth only a penny in her hand. And she knows that not only can she see that her gift does not come close to measuring up to the others but that as soon as she gets to the treasury everyone else will see it too. As soon as she gets to the treasury, everyone will see how much she falls short.
The amazing thing about this story is that this woman, already looked at as less-than-human as a Jew by the colonizing Roman forces, already sentenced to second-class citizenship by her gender, already abandoned in the death of her husband. This amazing woman who is told in every aspect of life that she doesn’t measure up, is laying herself open for even more rejection and abuse. This amazing woman is about to take an incredible risk of vulnerability. The second she reveals her gift, she will be opening herself up to ridicule and scorn. Her gift is so small. How could this possibly be good enough? How could she possibly be good enough?
And yet she does not turn away. She walks right up to the treasury, in the same line with people who look so much more impressive and who are so much more powerful than she. She walks right up to the treasury and puts in her two copper coins. Says, “This is me. This is the best I have to offer. This is everything I have. And I’m putting it out there in love. So think what you will. Say what you will. Do what you will.”
Her two coins defiantly clink into the treasury and are swallowed up in the mass of other gifts as if they were not offered at all. Compared to the other gifts, her two coins are the very definition of insignificance – of failure. And for that second, all the eyes are on her before they are drawn away by offerings and people much more outwardly impressive. Before she too slips back into the insignificance and failure of anonymity.
And in that moment, Jesus does single her out. Jesus singles her out not for ridicule but for praise.
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
Jesus singles her out for not just praise but exaltation because she gave out of her poverty. And in that one act Jesus turns her from object of ridicule to model of discipleship.
Giving out of poverty is not just about money. It's about having the courage to act out of our vulnerability, out of our fear, out of our weakness, not just our strength.
Giving out of poverty is risking failing spectacularly at something important. It is daring to walk up to the person whose spouse has just died or who has just received a cancer diagnosis or who is sinking into depression and just be with them even though you feel absolutely inadequate, have no idea what to say and are terrified that anything you do say will just make it worse.
Giving out of poverty is about joyfully lifting your voice in song when you fear you cannot hold a tune. It is getting out on the dance floor when you have no clue what you’re doing.
Giving out of poverty is about standing up for what you believe in against important people with eloquent arguments, sharp tongues and powerful friends.
Giving out of poverty is about daring to trust that our goodness is not based on the approval of others, our success in their eyes or what we can produce, accomplish or even in the failure we can avoid. Giving out of poverty is about taking the leap of faith to trust that even if we fail, even if we fail spectacularly, even if we fail spectacularly and everyone points and stares and whispers cutting words under their breath that not only our gift but we ourselves are treasured as beloved and good by the God who danced the day we were born and has never and will never stop.
Vicki told me that what I needed to do most is fail spectacularly at something important because it is when we do that – when we are totally bereft of any other outward approval … when by every metric of success the world deems important that we have absolutely fallen flat on our faces … when our measly two coin offerings disappear as if they were never there leaving the crowd to wonder if we even put anything in at all. It is when there is no one else’s approval to seek or cling to that maybe, just maybe, we will realize that we don’t need any of that anyway. That just by being born, we are irrevocably good and irrevocably worthy. That no matter what, we are still God’s beloved child and that God simply delights in us. Delights in me. Delights in you.
As I read this morning’s Gospel, I wonder. I wonder if the woman heard Jesus’ words. The Gospel reading doesn’t say. I want to go back to the Temple that day and when Jesus says those words, I want to run up to the woman and say “Did you hear that? Did you hear what Jesus Christ, the Son of God said about you? Did you hear what Jesus Christ, the Son of God said about how amazing you are, how your two coins was the best offering ever? Did you see the look of admiration in his eyes and delight in his voice.”
“Did you see how he looked on you with such deep love?”
I hope someone did that. Because if someone did that for that woman, I can’t see how it would have done anything but change her life forever. If she were to know what Jesus thought of her and her offering, I can’t imagine there is any risk she wouldn’t have been willing to take for the rest of her life, any love she would not be willing to offer. If she were to know what Jesus thought of her and her offering, I can’t imagine she would have been anything less than unstoppable and invincible the rest of her life. Because she has failed spectacularly in the eyes of the world and knew that Jesus loved her not only anyway but because of it.
The Apostle Paul tells us that we are called together in Christ as a family of fools. We are people foolish enough to trust that perfect love can cast out fear and that being vulnerable unto humiliating death on the cross is the ultimate strength. We are people foolish enough to risk looking like absolute idiots and failures. We are foolish enough to believe that what we really need to do is not build our resumes, secure our respectability and keep people saying good things about us but put ourselves out there even if we fail spectacularly at something important.
In Christ we are a family of fools and the woman in the temple is our patron saint. We believe that our voice, no matter how shaky and halting, makes a difference. We believe that our labor, no matter how unskilled, makes a difference. We believe that our gift, no matter how small, makes a difference. We believe that the one hanging on the cross can bring down the empire. We believe in the impossible. And we stand together not in our strength but in our weakness, in our vulnerability.
And if we each can’t hear that voice of Jesus singing to us a lullaby of love, then we amplify it for each other in those moments of courage. When we have the courage to offer our meager gift, to risk failing spectacularly at something important, we get to amplify Christ’s voice for each other. We get to go up to each other and say, “Did you hear that? Did you hear what Jesus Christ, the Son of God said about you? Did you hear what Jesus Christ, the Son of God said about how amazing you are, how your two coins was the best offering ever? Did you see the look of admiration in his eyes and delight in his voice.”
“Did you see how he looked on you with such deep love?
The point is we try. We keep giving. Even when we are unsure, especially when we are unsure, we keep trying. We keep giving. We keep reaching out in love even when we’re not sure what love looks like. Even when we don’t know what words to say. Even when we’re scared to death the words we say might be the wrong ones. Even when we’re scared to death that people might point and stare and laugh.
We try. We keep giving. We keep loving. And through it all we try to trust and we help either other trust that our goodness, our lovability is not tied to what we can produce or what we can accomplish but to something much less fleeting and much more secure. To trust that Jesus was talking to us, too when he said to his disciples “and I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” To trust that Paul was writing to us, too, when he assured that nothing could separate us from the love of God. To trust that God was talking to us, too when God said, “you are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Amen.