This summer we have been preaching out of sort of what might seem like a grab bag of scriptures, but it’s what many Christian traditions call the Lectionary – an assigned assortment of readings for each day – which in many schedules helps you read through the Bible in a year.
It’s been challenging and really fun for me to come to the written words of God through a slightly different angle than is the norm for me – through the lectionary. I often feel inspired by something I’ve taken in throughout my week, in the world around me – whether it’s a song, or a poem, a conversation with someone or some beautiful mural on the way to work – and I often use the organic process of “Living” as the fodder for most of my sermons, wihch means I’m often coming at scripture with a little bit of an agenda, right? I often really try to match a scripture to what has felt most poignant in the days prior to preaching.
However, it’s felt really fun to see God pop out of these sort of “assigned” scriptures and do His own “matching” – where I don’t have to come with a framework or agenda to cram Him into, and that’s felt really lively and rich for me – to find the layers of scripture as alive and pulsing and God doing His great work of speaking so provokingly to exactly where I am and where I’m hearing many of you are too.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been in a few conversations with folks very close to me who have been wrestling quite deeply with a sense of inadequacy. And how they feel that their inadequacy has been birthed out of moments of failure – in relationships, at work, in parenting, in meetings, in keeping themselves healthy.
As I listen to these stories – I often treat them as isolated events/moments – that someone has to get through – “yup that didn’t go as planned – but here’s how we can think about moving on, what’s the lesson here”. But what I’m finally patient enough to hear is that there’s something going on that’s deeper, that this sense of failure is actually taking up residence inside the person.
We all rumble with failure, right? I mean we make hundreds of judgement calls a day – big and little decisions – whatever the spectrum – we are all bound to fail, but the feeling that people are really talking about when they are talking about an instance where they failed – is a sneakier message – and a deeper feeling that sets up within themselves – that they themselves are failures.
When we dip in and out of this belief – that we ourselves are failed human beings – I believe that failure does it’s fine work of acting like velcro, and very quickly attaching a host of yucky things to it – the hair and the dirt and the debri of the floor. Where shame and isolation start to intertwine – into our sense of self. And it shifts our belief about ourselves and what we are worthy of – how we interact with others and with God. And instead of seeing ourselves as receptacles of love, we believe we are not deserving of such great goodness or abundant love.
And this is something I think Jesus pays attention to – and has a lot to say about!
Vote For Poison Ivy!
My first – big failure that I can remember- came when I ran for Governor – just after my Junior year in High school.
I was selected to go this summer leadership and citizenship program – called Girls State. So one or 2 girls are selected from each high school in the State and they all gather at a college for a week of the summer – and they set up this government simulation.
As part of the simulation delegates all these girls from across the state, role-play election campaigns and participate in elections for local, county and state government.
At the end of the week, 2 girls (most likely Governor and Lt. Governor), are selected to go to Girl’s Nation which is in Washington DC. And as you can imagine, if you were elected as Governor and then went on to Girl’s Nation, it might look pretty good on your college applications. And so I was interested and motivated by this.
I decided I would run for the top slotted official – Governor.
I’m pretty sure I had no idea what running for governor looked like (I think it was like running for HS class office or something – where I just put my name on a ballot). But I quickly found out that it meant creating a campaign to run on with a campaign slogan – complete with posters and talking to lots of people and doing a “talent” the night of the election, and giving a speech.
And I was all in – really – I put 100% into crafting this Campaign of mine.
So I stayed up late in the dorm, alone, wondering “what does a campaign slogan even look like? What can I put out there that is catchy or memorable in a really short amount of time?”
And I remember thinking “Aha!! I’ve got it!” And I came up with this brilliant campaign slogan and pounded out some posters to go up around campus:
The next day people were greeted with this incredible campaign slogan – “CATCH THE RASH, it’s CONTAGIOUS!” Vote for (poison) Ivy!”
“Catch the rash”
Complete with posters that had drawings of people, smiling – with red, dotted rashes on their arms and face.
There it was – all of me, my brilliant ideas out there for representatives from all over the state of Maine to see and likely remember… for a really long time.
And the shining moments kept going, really, with my election speech – which I had framed as a montage of all of Madonna’s top songs at the time:
“Vogue”, “Material Girl”, “Like a Prayer”, “Papa Don’t Preach”
(it was beautiful really – the weaving that I did.)
Who knew that this campaign slogan would no find me the newly elected governor of girl’s state?!?
I lost the race.
And even though it is very obvious now – that all of that would not result in me succeeding at this race, I was devastated. It had never crossed my mind in that whole process that I would lose!
I had been really all in – super owning it – and then the “vulnerability hangover” came pretty quickly (Brene Brown reference): “oh my gosh, I can’t believe I just made posters with people’s bodies and rashes all over them” – and that was just doubly devastating.
I cried and cried and cried and cried because I had failed.
And even in the midst of that I knew that somehow the depth of disappointment wasn’t just about failing the race – but a sense that I was a failure and that I wasn’t enough, which was speaking more about how I felt about real life and not about this mock government environment.
It’s with this lens of failure that I want to read this well known passage that we have for our reading today in the gospel of John. Now all of the gospels tell this story – the feeding of the 5,000 – so perhaps it’s something worth mining today.
John 6:1-21 (NIV)
6 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down, There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. 18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid. I am with you.” 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and in the gospel of Matthew , it says they said out loud, “He is the Son of God” – and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
There are so many layers here! This scripture and this miracle has been taught and preached on so many times.
A miracle happens here – and it’s not just the multiplication of a scarce amount of resources that Jesus performs to feed the crowd of over 5,000 people. If we can think of a miracle as a highly extraordinary event that involves wonder and mystery and that brings very welcomed consequences, then I think includes a moment here that we’ll unpack today.
So we enter this text where the disciples and Jesus have been just slogging it out in the fields of ministry they’ve been busy healing people and feeding folks and teaching as much as they can. And what these disciples want most, I think, is to rest. To have some time with Jesus up on this mountainside in this remote place and connect with him.
Except of course the crowds follow them, and as soon as they stepped off their boat there are people waiting there for them.
The work continues, much like in our lives – right? Your research for that project is never ending – it will take a few more 70 hour weeks – your kid still isn’t sleeping through the night and he’s 7, the fight in your partnership is still live and the way out is not apparent.
And you realize you are really freaking tired and kind of grumpy. And your reserves and your resources are completely shot. And any other request or demand presented to you – can only be seen in your eyes as an opportunity for failure. “I don’t have enough – this is just going to go badly and fail”.
This is how I think the disciples feel in this setting. It looks like their day and their work is still to go on. Jesus seems to solidify this by asking Philip – “Hey do you know where we can buy some bread?”
A trick question? A rhetorical question? A ridiculous question? Perhaps… all of the above!
What we do know is that it’s a test question! Jesus asks this to test Philip, knowing full well how Philip will respond.
Why does Jesus – in the midst of all of this – decide to test Philip and on what?
His knowledge of the bread suppliers in the area?
Does he want to expose the deficiency of his faith?
His inadequacy as a true believer in Jesus?
His lack of trust in Jesus as the giver of all sustenance?
His inability to be ready for any situation as a follower of Jesus?
These are all certainly viable thoughts, but I tend to think – at least through the lens of Jesus that I know – that he’s not particularly interested in testing Philips on these grounds.
Infact, I don’t really think Jesus is a fan of tests. Certainly not the kind of test that only reinforces our inclination toward a sense of failure. Or where our worthiness of Jesus’ attention and love relies on our success at every turn.
I think perhaps this “test” question of Jesus’ is more a litmus test of how much real relationship is evident between them – how much vulnerability there is between Jesus and Philip.
Jesus knows that this question is going to get Philip to a very raw space where the “nothingness” of resources will be abundantly apparent: “Nope – no access to bread makers – nope! – No money – even if there was bread to buy,” and lastly, “nope! I’m not even a good follower of you Jesus,because I want all these people to just go away – they should go find their own food – send them away!” (another gospel reveals this posture). And perhaps the internal wonder of Philip’s is “am I even then – a good follower of you, Jesus?”
Perhaps this test question is aimed to reveal more of what work Jesus might have to do – versus the work that he expects of Philip. It’s less about whether Philip has deficiency or failings and more about how much landscape Jesus has to move around and reinforce this truth that he will love and care and be with Philip no matter what.
And he gets some results as he asks this question to Philip, right? “Where can we buy bread?” Philip doesn’t say, “You know what Jesus, I’m just feeling really inadequate here, I’m feeling really guilty that we didn’t come prepared to feed these people – and I’m feeling a lot of shame around that…” This vulnerability could have been what Jesus was looking for in their dialogue, but didn’t get.
And so he has data in Phillip’s more logical response – “we don’t have enough money” – which let’s him know that he should spend some more time working with Philip and the disciples. So he says “YOU then go and see what you can find,” and they roam the crowds, perhaps feeling crappier about themselves at every turn. I mean they only came out with 5 loaves and 2 fishes (out of 5,000 people!) – my sense is they might have given up at some point. That the mission of finding enough food to feed all these people, would fail – that was abundantly clear – and yet I wonder as they walked through these crowds – if their own sense of being a failure rose?
I’m quite certain that Jesus already knows that if there’s one thing that we are successful at as human beings it’s naming the places that we feel like we are terrible, inadequate and a failure.
Coming to Jesus with open/honest/raw answers from exactly where we are at – whether it’s “I don’t get it,” “this is overwhelming,” “I want to change the subject,” etc. – I think is what he’s hoping for to break the cycle for us and for these disciples feeling like failures, because by extension with Jesus we start to regard him as a test to either pass or fail. Vulnerability seems to suck the weight and power that failure wants to take up in our bodies.
**Work places and companies and the medical world are catching on to this key of vulnerability, and are trying to shift the culture of Failure. Failure as you can imagine occurs in all of these places on a regular basis – there are hiring and budgeting mistakes, and shipments arrive late, diagnoses are missed, organizations allow their missions to drift, but failure – even though it’s perhaps the largest commonality – is often hidden. Fear of donor reaction is one big reason- but on the elemental level – no one wants to admit failure.
However, efforts to de-stigmatize failure have been at work for awhile – events likeFail Festivals are being held in the international non-profit development world solely to celebrate failure as markers of leadership, innovation, and risk-taking (which all feel like pretty wonderful parts of following Jesus as well) and innovation and creativity and risk-taking all begin with vulnerability.
Engineers Without Borders publishes a “failure report” every year alongside its annual report.
Brian Goldman is a MD at Mt. Sinai hospital has a radio show where over the past few years he invites and asks the doctors he has on the program, “What is the worst mistake you’ve ever made?” And it takes a little while for people to get into a space of vulnerability – these failings where there have been consequences of pain and hurt.
These efforts are intentional to bring out of hiding the shame and isolation that people experience with failure, as a way to not only be vulnerable for the sake of revealing a hard story – but vulnerability for the sake of connection – and this being what Jesus hopes most for us too – to stay connected to ourselves, to each other and to him as our whole selves.
Jesus isn’t concerned with whether we fail or not – that’s not the test – the test is whether we can continue to see our whole selves – failings and all – worthy of his love. It’s this turning of culture even with how we relate to him – that he’s not a test to pass or fail – that much like these companies that come together to share of their short-comings, we too need to come fully into the arena with Jesus, from an authentic, fully human posture.
I think this is why Jesus’ miracle doesn’t end when the feeding of the 5,000 is over. He’s not done with the disciples, right ? He says “Go! gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” The miracle is how Jesus with such intention cares for the fragments after the feast.
These fragments are important to us in this conversation of failure. Because they are symbolic of the ways the disciples were breaking off parts of themselves as they felt like failures. Parts of themselves that they came in touch with as they walked through the crowds earlier scouring for food, pieces that they felt shame about perhaps: “I don’t get what Jesus is doing? – I don’t get this ministry teaching at all! – I’m such a failure – I can’t find any food -What is wrong with me?! – I just want to lay down – I’m so tired – I’m so lazy.” Whatever the internal thoughts were – they were succeeding in separating, breaking parts of themselves off.
And Jesus says: go back out there and pick them up! What are you doing? These fragments are valuable pieces! Do not throw them away as waste.
It’s such a slippery slide when we start to see ourselves as failures and start to see Jesus as a test that we need the right answer to all the time. It sets up this belief that we are too broken, too fragmented, so unworthy of Jesus’ love.
But looking at these pieces that we want to discard – is the course correct back to Jesus.
There were 12 baskets of bread leftover – each of the disciples carried their own basket of overflow.
Jesus I think says, “Know this love I have for you – carry it close to you.”
I had thought that my moment at Girl’s State was my biggest failure, but really I had had lots of moments of failure up to that point that I had never talked about, but felt very deeply. And it had set up a posture of approaching life for me that made me feel like I had tohustle for my self-worth. And so I overcompensate with going big a lot to prove that I could pass the test, that I could be enough.
Jesus invites us to see ourselves as whole through his eyes. This is the “success,” if we are going to talk on terms of success or failure. To see ourselves as He sees us, to gather ourselves up like baskets, where not one part of us – not even the parts that we see as failure that we want to hide – goes to waste or is lost.
You’re Worth It To Jesus
It’s so moving to me – this picture of how much Jesus cares about the disciples and how intent he is at delivering this message.
At the end of this very eventful day Jesus has got to be spent, right? He’s grieving the death of John the Baptist, he’s taught, he’s fed 5000 people, he’s hiked a mountain to pray.
And yet he doesn’t get out his checklist to keep a running tab of where they made the mark or missed it. He doesn’t take out a checklist to see where they failed or succeeded.
No – he, at the end of a long day – no matter how that day unfolded – he wants them to know He loves them.
And he’s demonstrative in that love:
He runs across water through a storm to get to them.
He quiets the wind.
He says “don’t be afraid” – you are worth it.
He says “don’t be afraid” – you aren’t a failure.
I am with you and I want to be with you.
You are enough.
You’ve done enough.
And this too – is every day with you and Jesus. This is how he promises to wrap every day with you.
Many people say that what failure is, actually, is to learn nothing from our times of failure. And so if there’s anything to learn, perhaps it’s that Jesus loves you endlessly – like five thousand times what you could see in yourself, with 12 baskets overflowing!
This is important because He wants us to believe in ourselves – to believe that we are worthy of that kind of reckless love that doesn’t pause and turn it’s nose at the thousands of moments in our weeks where we fail, and doesn’t demand that we pass a test to be given the keys to the kin-dom. No, it’s the kind of love that runs on impassable seas – with what feels like miles of expanse between you – and closes the gap in the blink of an eye.
This is salvation to us. This is being born again, and again, and again to the moments between each other, where Jesus invites us to sit on the grass with each other and dig into our big baskets – and say well here’s all the ways I feel crappy about myself today, and here’s what I have to offer. “Altoids and some floss” and your person says “Oh that’s just what I needed, I’ve had this popcorn kernel stuck in my tooth all day.” The fragments offered as a part of the whole, this is the ongoing miracle – to vulnerably share with another where we feel shame and still believe that we are enough.
The Shame of Inadequacy
I’ve been talking with a dear friend of mine lately who I’ve known since the age of 3. And over the years we’ve revisited this conversation of “am I worthy of love?” or “am I a failure”?
From very early on he took in a message that he was too “small” – both in sheer physicality and in terms of adequacy. And patterns over the years have looked like him finding a way to build himself up – to compensate for this smallness of himself that he saw. Along the way he’s thrown away pieces of himself that he thought no one could ever love…. It’s been a challenging conversation over the years – because the consequences of this belief that HE’s not enough – that He IS a failure…. have played out in very painful ways. Ways that look like loss of relationship, jobs, addictive tendencies, jeopardized health – … but even more a continued loss of his own self-worth.
Recently he said “I feel like such a bum – sitting on this couch shivering and sweating and tremoring” – the results of withdrawal from a drug he’d become physically dependant on … I can’t pay my bills, I can’t work – I can’t be there for people I care about – I’m a failure.
I felt Jesus well up in me – and this passage – “Oh no, no, no, – guilt and shame are as toxic a combination – as a benzo and alcohol” – and that is not going to help you right now!”
Go, gather up all the pieces…That little piece of you – that’s been smashed, rejected, stomped on – throw that in the basket – we don’t want to waste that. And that little piece too – that others have bitten and chewed on – and spat back out again” – “yah – we want that…
Throw that into the big basket of Jesus — that’s lined with LOVE THAT CANNOT FAIL.
THe abundance of our worth, as seen through the eyes of GOD – will persist even with fragments…. There’s still a feast that Jesus wants and values… It’s a game -changer – to believe that in despite of your fragmented self ….. where failure has torn you up – you are enough.
This is the work of only Jesus – this is the miraculous move – full of wonder and mystery – where the consequences are welcomed – BECAUSE this is where hearts are changed and transformed – where we see ourselves as whole and not scattered pieces of ourselves… THis is what Jesus showed the disciples – and me at Girls’ state – and my dear friend going through withdrawals on a couch, alone – I made you for the very work of love, believe this! STOP! Saying you are not worthy of such goodness – it is the very thing I made you for!
“Where shall we buy bread?” Is not a question that tests our faithfulness to God – it’s a question that tests how ready we are to see, and break open and share and multiply our loveliness with God – and this whole world.
When Failure Comes ‘Round – What are some practical things to try in the midst to still keep Jesus in your sights?:
Fail out loud and fail forward.
Consider that failure could be a rite of passage to more of Jesus.
Ask Jesus for help – to not give failure the power and weight it wants.
Course correct with Jesus and friends who can be your mirror.
TO believe that Jesus sees the whole – not just the broken pieces…. AND for us to see this – we need each other. We need people who can mirror back to us – the good of who we are made to be and believed to be by Jesus. Again and again I say to my friend, “Oh brother, you are so worthy of love – your are better than you believe – and gosh, I love you for who you really are”…
The poet, David Whyte has a poem that ends by saying, “This is the time of loaves and fishes. People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand.”