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The Opposite of the Opposite of Failure

Luke 9:28-36

Luke 9:28–36: Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

 

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.

 

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

*****

On the verge of the new millennium, New Years Eve 1999, the evangelical church I grew up in hosted a massive festival spread out over the church campus’s sprawling, suburban Dallas parking lots featuring a plentitude of fair rides, bounce houses, inflatable obstacle courses, hot dogs and cotton candy. At fourteen, I and my friends from the youth group were just old enough to pretend we didn’t bother with such childish activities as bounce houses, but still young enough to actually enjoy them. At one point, the pastor of the church stood above the crowd in an extended cherry picker in the parking lot and gave a rousing speech about God’s purposes, the opportunities of a new year, and an invitation to come to one of two worship services, 8:45 and 10:30 every Sunday.

If you remember that year, you’ll recall that a particular unease ran alongside the eager anticipation of the new millennium. Y2K, the now laughable theory that once the world’s computers updated their dates to read “00” they’d shut down. This malfunction would lead to the deletion everyone’s stored data like credit card and bank information, crumbling infrastructure, mass chaos. While we celebrated the new year, we couldn’t help but think this would be the last one we’d see, at least with human civilization in tact. And so there in the parking lot of First Baptist Church Euless, I greeted either the dawning of a new era or the end of the world with hot dogs and bounce houses.

About eighteen months later, at the end of Dr. Berner’s freshman history class, an announcement came over the loudspeaker. Something had happened in New York, the principal would keep us up to date, and we should proceed to our next class as planned. Little did we know history would start back again that day, the War on Terror providing the framework for a renewed purpose, the spread of democracy and the end of terrorism and within a few months we had troops all over the Middle East. I’m a person that appreciates symmetry and so it’s not lost on me that I began high school just a few weeks before 9/11 and I graduated college in December of 2008. The fall of the towers and the fall of the financial system each just as unlikely and each an ending whose affects we still feel.

This story finds the disciples in an in between moment. They’d been sent out to the villages to proclaim the Kingdom of God. They’d performed healings. They saw Jesus feed 5,000 people. Surely the tick-tock of the countdown clock signaled the coming of the Kingdom of God. Surely they stood on the dawn of the beginning of history. And then Jesus dropped a bombshell: he and many others that followed him would suffer and die. The promise of new beginnings running up against a future in which it all comes crashing down. They’d followed Jesus so far, at this point, there wasn’t really anywhere else to go.

Lately I’ve thought a lot about that New Year’s Eve celebration and what it’s like to come of age in a post-9/11 and post-2008 world and what the disciples might have felt in that in-between moment. I thought about all of it during the federal government shutdown when 800,000 government employees missed paychecks earlier this year. Some found work elsewhere. Some stayed home. The New York Times ran a story in which they asked federal employees about their financial situations. One woman wrote in, “My bank account balance is minus $169 and I have $0 in my savings.” Another wrote, “I worry when will they cancel my government insurance — health, dental and life — since insurance companies aren’t getting paid with no paycheck. I think I’m going to have to put the house up for sale, the house I have struggled to retain after [my spouse’s] death.” And yet, many employees continued to show up for work in spite of the fact that they couldn’t see any hope on the horizon. In a conversation with a friend of mine about the shutdown, we talked about why people would keep showing up to work in spite of a lack of payment. After I few minutes I asked, “Yeah, but what else are they going to do?”

What else are they going to do? I don’t mean that in a demeaning way. I just mean to point out that there’s really not much else for them to do with their days. Look for other work perhaps? Go on strike? Riot? It’s a condition that characterizes so many people I know, people who don’t know much of life before September 11th, and who entered the workforce around 2008. We know things are ending, that our jobs won’t pay us quite enough, that our finances will always include the debt our generation incurred to go to college or to pay for a medical bill. But what else are we gonna do?

In a conversation about what this feels like, a friend of mine described it by saying “We’re just putting in all this work, all this preparation, and the best we can hope for is just the opposite of failure.” The opposite of failure. Not success. Not even contentment. Just staving off collapse for a little bit longer. The opposite of failure.

Like the disciples, we’re “weighed down by sleep.” Tired, exhausted. “Weighed down” sounds like a pretty good way to name what I’ve been describing so far. Philosopher Alain Ehrenberg calls it the “weariness of being a self.” We’re tired of expressing ourselves, of having to be ourselves. Depression, as Ehrenberg describes it, occurs when we exhaust ourselves, when we run out of steam. He writes, “Today, change is perceived in an ambivalent way because the fear of falling, of not emerging unscathed, has taken over from hopes of upward social mobility… we are changing, of course, but that does not necessarily mean we are progressing.” When there’s no reward or future on the horizon, we’re left wondering like the disciples that followed Jesus to this point: What else were we gonna do?

It’s at this point, when we’re tired and weighed down by what is that we need a sign. A vision that tells us things can be different, that things are different. But what’re the conditions under which a difference in the world emerges? It seems like everyone I know is concerned with how things change, with how we get out of the morass of accepting only the opposite of failure as the best case scenario, but few of us know what to actually do about it.

The only options I see on offer right now are reform and retreat, and this story cuts against both of them.

Reformers

Reformers convinced themselves some time ago that things can get better, only just a little bit. The new year, the new millennium brings with it an opportunity a chance at something new. It’s not the end of the world, it’s a chance for something new. I think most people in power today in most of our information work as reformers. Reformers always say “Yes, and!” They bring about change by affirming what is and building off the values the institution has here and now.

Have you noticed how bosses don’t say “no” anymore? They don’t confront workers. Administrators don’t confront students. When they encounter a problem they start talking about how this problem concerns them too and reasure you that they’ve formed a committee to get all the stakeholders together around the table to devise strategic strategies for strategically implementing creative, innovative solutions to the problem. They’re like an octopus. An octopus doesn’t confront a predator. They spray it with ink and swim away. This is what the reformer does. They spray a deluge impressive sounding words at the problem and then swim away. Have you noticed that we rarely refer to people as “bosses” these days. Now they’re leaders. Bosses make people do something they don’t want to do. Leaders get people to want to do something (or at least say that want to do them).

You see this in our churches across the country. Every pastor, every long-time church member holds out hope they can reverse the trends of shrinking attendance and giving. And the way to do that is to say “Yes!” To another program. Yes to new people. Ultimately, though reformers only offer a little bit else to do. A new tweak to a program here. An amendment to the present there. They change by addition. But if the present is so depressing, building on what is won’t get us to where we need to go.

But the first step in seeing something new, is to say “No!” No, to how things are. Jesus takes his disciples to a mountain, outside of the normal routine of things. Ultimately reformers just want what is, only a little more so. Elijah has none of it. He confronts what’s wrong with fire. He flees and lives on his own trusting that God will take care of him. To the reformer’s and their strategic strategizing he shouts the word of the Lord.

Like Elijah, Jesus reorients our values and puts us on a path to attain new ones, and any vision of the future that’s not the opposite of failure is going to be one in which we work to attain new values, to change who we, individually and collectively, are. We are not who we need to be in this current moment, and the reformers can’t bear that because it sounds so negative. But Elijah and Jesus remind us that we may not be who we need to be right now, but through struggle we can become a totally different people.

Here at Ephesus, you’ve made the decision to say “No.” [For more information on the plan to replant the church see here]. It hasn’t been easy. Some of you look back and see how things could’ve been different. Maybe you think they should’ve been different. But by saying “no,” by agreeing to close down on Easter and re-launch in the fall, this church is letting go of how church has been. It’s a trek up the mountain.

Retreat

My friend said she felt like all she could hope for is the opposite of failure. It’s easy to think of the opposite of failure as success. I think about what the opposite of failure might look like for people struggling to get by financially. The book The Financial Diaries chronicles the financial struggles of 235 American families for a year. In doing so the authors discovered that while inequality has grown in the last 30 years, instability has outpaced it. People’s paychecks year to year and even month to month fluctuate in ways they didn’t three decades ago. Every week feels like they live on the edge of total collapse. One way that churches have addressed these situations in the past is to offer financial counseling. A church ought to help people work on their budgets, plan ahead, and make wiser decisions. Once they do this, they can attain the opposite of failure. They’ll be financially stable, successful.

Peter wants to build a dwelling place on the mountain. To stay there in the vision they’ve seen. They’ve got it figured out and he wants to just enjoy it. Plus Jesus just told him about a week ago that they’re probably all going to die. It’s a temptation we all face: success. But success is itself a form of retreat. Success is no way to change. Success looks at the values we already have, values . So Jesus tells the disciples to go down the mountain. To take what they’ve seen and bring it to the world.

I think about Elijah on Jesus’s left and Moses on his right. Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s court, and as he gazed upon the throne that his adopted grandfather sat on, I’m sure he imagined what kind of power he could wield from it. He could get better working conditions for the Israelites. He could help them develop their religion and invite their God to stand alongside the other gods of Egypt. He could use his success to help others. He’d be blessed to be a blessing. But reform leaves in place everything, and retreat leaves everyone right where they’ve been.

Here at Ephesus and whatever we become, we’re going to have to give up on being successful. I don’t mean that we don’t want to grow or that we don’t want to see people’s lives changed. I just mean we’re going to have to give up on the idea that doing what God calls us to in isolation will suffice. We can’t hang our hats on being a transfigured people if we aren’t going from here to build a transfigured world. And so when people come here asking “What else am I going to do?” and we give them an answer, it has to include a different way of being in the world, not just being in church.

What’ll be Different?

The disciples hung in there. Despite being weighed down by sleep, they stick with Jesus and in doing so they catch a vision, a sign that helps them carry on from the stuck position of new possibilities and potential collapse.

Last week at the Q&A we had after church, one of you asked what we might do as a church that will draw people in particularly young people. For a church that’s tried to grow with new and young people, why will this time be different? I’ll give you one theory answer and one possible, practical answer.

The theoretical answer is that I see this church catching a vision of what could be different. That this church in nearing the end of its life as it has been accords quite well with a generation stuck between believing everything is possible and nothing that’s possible seems hopeful. Which is to say, I believe we can be a church that offers something other than the opposite of failure, a church that when the bills come in, the job lost, the paycheck delayed, and the question arises “What else am I gonna do?” We’re standing there waiting and say: we’ve got something else for you to do.

So what might that look like?

A few years ago, while working at First Baptist Greensboro as a pastoral resident, I had a vision. It didn’t go into a trance nor did God appear in a cloud or burning bush. I’m neither that creative nor interesting. I just had an idea. The idea was this. Everyone I know struggles with debt. It’s just there, it’s a drag. It weighs us down to the point of sleep. And as far as I could see the only ways of dealing with debt are things like financial counseling. So the idea that I had was this: what if a church had a fund that they collectively raised money for and each month it went to pay off someone’s debt?

There’s plenty to figure out, of course. They’d have to figure out whether or not they’d pay student or medical or credit card or car debt. They could use it to pay off debt for a teacher or a social worker or a lawyer or a recent refugee. They might have to attain some new values for sharing and discernment. They might have to become a different, transfigured people.

But in doing so they’d offer neither failure nor the opposite of failure, success. They’d break something open in people’s lives and put a future on offer that no other institution or community is really doing right now. That church and that people would provide something else to do, a something else that might more nearly resemble the life of the one who fed the five thousand, who freed the captives, whose first teaching included good news to the poor and freedom from what’s captured people. A church whose transfigured life offers a bright spot between the possible and collapse.

The Opposite of The Opposite of Failure

And so a transfigured savior calls forth a transfigured people. A people that live differently in the world. And I believe we’re going to do that together. I don’t believe we’re going to reform Ephesus Baptist. I don’t believe we’re going to just shut things down and hideaway from the world. I believe we’re going to come down from the mountain and carry a different vision of what a people can be together. We’re going to offer people a different future than the one they have on offer. We’re going to offer feasible miracles that change people’s lives not to make them more successful, but to invite them to live together in such a way a way that they no longer have to worry about their own success or failure to begin with.

I’ll confess that this is probably going to be a struggle. Successful people know the values they already have and want to maximize them, to attain more of what they already possess. But God calls us be a people that attain values we might not have right now for reasons that may not be clear to us. I believe and hope we can do that together. We can be a people that live with the opposite of the opposite of failure, a people of glory.

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