The Nerve of Failure

Scott L. Barton
June 1, 2014
Acts 1:6-14

So – Jesus is launched.

That’s sort of how it seems, isn’t it? The text says that while they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. I picture all those people over the years watching all the rocket launches down at Cape Canaveral, or what was called Cape Kennedy for ten years, staring up at the sky, shielding their eyes from the sun, everyone oohing and aahing as the rocket with astronauts in the capsule at the top or the shuttle on its side starts its brief but decisive journey into orbit, or even at one point, to the moon. Did you know that in homage to its spacefaring heritage, the Florida Public Service Commission allocated area code 321 to the Cape Canaveral area?  3-2-1, ignition, lift-off.  That’s how Luke describes it.

Who can know if Luke meant it literally or not? Some of you will think, of course, that he did. And some of you will say, “W-e-l-l….”  But no matter how it fits into your cosmology, the theology of it is that the real-life, you-could-almost-reach-out-and-touch-him experience that they had of him, starting three days after his death, was never quite the same. The chronology of it is that it lasted forty days, which on the calendar was last Thursday, forty days starting with Easter hence, Ascension Day, but we stretch it a bit to make this Ascension Sunday, as well as the seventh Sunday of Easter.

He was launched. They had absolutely no control of him anymore, if they once thought they ever did. He was sort of like a high school graduate who is launched, heading away from all that’s familiar, but, as parents always hope, always in a sort of orbit around home to which he or she at least sometimes will return. When they decide to.

That’s how he’ll come back, Luke says. When he decides to. In the meantime, he says, do the job he gave you, which was originally described back when Jesus sent the disciples out on their first missionary trip, to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to heal, way back in Luke chapter 8. And now it’s simply, be my witnesses.

Back then, the first time, it was just to the surrounding towns. At his ascension, it’s to the ends of the earth. But the possibilities of failure are always there. That’s what he told them at their first commencement. You’ll go out to the neighboring towns, he said, and they won’t always welcome you. They won’t always welcome your message of newness and grace, this kingdom of God we’ve been talking about. There will be the temptation, then, to think that the message is wrong. Or that you’re not the right person for the job. When that happens, Jesus told them, shake the dust off your feet, and move on.

It’s been called the sacrament of failure.  Shake the dust off your feet. Jesus knew that when they had something like that to do, it might give them the nerve to chance things, the nerve to try something new, the nerve to fail in the first place.

Failure is always an option, graduates, not only in classes or jobs you might yet take, or in relationships you might yet form, or in activities you might try out, or in career choices you might make. If that seems like bad news, it’s not. It’s just news. It’s the real facts of life. But the good news, the faith of life, tells you not to be afraid of failure. If it happens, it happens. No one will hold it against you. Well, some will. But that’s their problem. You are a child of God. Your problem is only if you hold any failure against yourself.

You don’t need to do that, Jesus says. Which is why Dr. Seuss said it, too. Which is why we, your family of faith, say it, too. Don’t be afraid. It’s a wonderful world. And that’s true for each and every one of us who is launched each day of our lives into that world, where Jesus sends us, each day when we are called to be witnesses to him, to proclaim the love which will never let you down, and never let you off the hook, and never let you go.