God of All Failures

God of All Failures

Sermon of Douglas B. Olds (copyright 2011)

On the occasion of his ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament

In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

St. John’s Presbyterian Church, San Francisco

Sermon Text: 1 Cor 1: 18-31

HYMNS: PH 229: From All that Dwell Below the Skies

PH 354: Guide My Feet

PH 525, Here I Am, Lord

PH 419 How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord

“God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.”

Paul as usual has put the message of Jesus Christ into a shocking format! To my reading, the Bible says much about failed and foolish actors of faith, the shameful and the boastful. The Bible talks about the creation of something where there was once nothing, and that is how we people of faith may see ourselves: as nothing in the sight of God, then made something right with God through the implanted wisdom of faith.

Let us consider the great actors in Biblical history:

Could Moses the greatest of all prophets boast among humans? Pharaoh and Moses’ own followers could not take him seriously as a leader for his timidity and stuttering.

We witness in Exodus the eloquence of Moses’ brother Aaron that was turned foolish when he constructed the golden calf; The sister Miriam’s jealousy is all the more foolish because she thinks she is shut out from a place in the councils of the nation to which her great gifts entitle her.

Joshua, about whom the Old Testament is most unequivocally positive, was a contradiction: utterly indifferent to destruction he unleashed, and a walker with the God of all peace.

The impetuosity of Jephthah, a political genius who foolishly swore to sacrifice the first person to alight on his doorstep upon his homecoming—which turned out to be his beloved daughter.

The triumphs of Gideon: from whose rich spoils of war made a golden ephod—“which thing became a snare unto Gideon, and to his house.”

The riddle of Samson’s great valor: whose day of grace was one of disgrace as well.

Hosea, who walked with God but who was turned into a cuckold and lived with the knowledge that he was the butt of jokes. That paragon of piety, Daniel, who witnessed injustice against Susannah and invoked the air as his witness!

The “amiable weakness” of righteous King Hezekiah—the defender of Judah—who pursued a foolish alliance with Egypt in the face of siege, who prayed rather than strategized. When representatives of the court of Babylon came to congratulate him on his recovery, “he needlessly showed them the wealth of his house and the glory of his kingdom which excited their greed, and hastened the doom of Jerusalem.”

The isolation of Jeremiah, the self-righteousness of Job, the sleepy rebellion of Jonah, the volatile passion of Obadiah, never “prudent”;

To say nothing of New Testament figures: The incomprehension of the disciples. Their denial of faith. Their collusion with political fear and corruption. and more:

The universal collapse engendered by the innovation of Adam, the futile cunning of Abram and Jacob, the hick rusticity of Isaac and Amos and Zechariah, the poetic hostility of Deborah;

That paragon of political administration Joseph was a dreamer, that righteous preacher Noah was a drunkard; there is the the sex-obsessed David, the military genius;

the originality of Elijah with a persecution complex,

the outsider’s reverence of Elisha;

the first-in-line prophet Samuel (who left behind his philosophy of God’s monarchy to crown a human tyrant);

the wisdom of Solomon who became apostate to the ultimate wisdom in order to appease his lust for foreign queens and concubines.

I invoke these characters—fools and failures to the faith that they relied upon-- in support of my own calling: I boast in my failures and foolishness because I boast in the Lord! I have failed, repeatedly failed, and failed in things that matter!

For as Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah in our text from 1Cor,

God will frustrate all intelligence, and will shame all wisdom.

I have experienced this shame and frustration first hand, in my evasions to participate in what is life giving and life affirming. I witness to the characters in the Bible who failed their faith and were fools as well.

Our Biblical pedigree as believers is failure, contradiction, shame in this world.

No one is exempt of this condition: even that greatest of all failures--the messiah of the Jews who came to share in the full condition of humanity, even its shame and its acts of dying in failure. We see that no shame or failure is exempt from the participation of the living God.

Jesus failed in his messianic vision quest, and it was only in dying that he laid claim to his primacy. It was by dying to human selfhood and giving up his grudges on the Cross and forgiving, that he merited—WON—the victory of flesh over death. It was his forgiveness of the whole of humanity, his forgiveness of the human condition, that majestically blends love and humility into a force for renewed and resurrected life.

We Christians are ever denied this victory in our own rights: our success must always point to that of Jesus.

This is a heavy burden in our success-starved culture for which “naming rights” are eagerly sought in the quest for primacy and renown.

It is not Doug Olds’s success today, if today’s ordination is any sort of success, but Christ’s as he has acted for these eleven years within me.

Here is a story from my past:

Once I anonymously gave a large and personally significant sum of money to the Homeless Shelter that I worked with, and rather than fulfilling the hopes of the indigent, that gift instead emboldened the leaders of the organization to expand beyond what was operationally funded. My monetary gift perversely bankrupted the organization!

Here I tried to act in faith—acting with generosity and anonymity--and events frustrated the gift derived from that faith so as to be a failed and foolish act on my part! God frustrates and brings failure upon my attempts to purchase an alternative to messy participation in life.

So what is, as Paul names it, the “great foolishness” — what he calls the message of the Cross? It is forgiveness, the incarnation of the death-of-self--its self-assertive grudges and anxieties.

Jesus’ was the great death—the ultimate foolishness according to the world, to our world where the greatest compliment is that one is a “survivor.”

Well, I believe that the message of the Cross is that there are greater failures in the world than death. How often we are tempted to sell out the good for the purposes of success and indolence and careerism. And yet, here I find myself being ordained—being a successful applicant to professional ministry in what I believe is the most faithful and heroic denomination of Christianity extant—the Presbyterian Church.

It is no unadulterated triumph for me, as the prospects for success and career are truncated by the Presbyterian Church’s declining membership and shrinking job prospects for ministers.

So what do I look forward to? That God does not abandon his failures: That God will work in my life regardless.

I feel so alive as I preach this that I feel that I can live through tomorrow boasting in the Lord!

In such an attitude of boasting in the Lord, where is prudence?

Where in such an attitude are strategy, and measured skepticism, and rational anxiety?

They are nothing.

Aren’t we as Christians committed to things of the heart? Isn’t our attitude going into a project more important than the consequences that the project engenders, especially since these acts are seen as foolish by others?

I think so.

I think the message of the Cross of Christ is indeed that attitude—as long as participation follows—matters--that the heart’s involvement in responding to a neighbor’s need regardless of the consequences to self is what matters when seeking the fountain of human loving-kindness within. That’s why the Bible talks about the good acts that come from unfaithful hearts not being pleasing to God.

Instead--what pleases God are the good intentions of faith in Jesus Christ, even if those intentions fail to bring about the immediate good. It’s not the consequence of an act that disposes God to us, but the intentionality of faith which the act is grounded in!

This is the foolishness of God, the radical orientation of faith. To put it another way, God approves of the ground of our loving intention as that reveals God’s will and substance. And so we can be failures in all the consequences that the world takes seriously: the success, renown, esteem, career, ornament, trophies, honors, friends and riches.

For we must rely on the purposes and timing of God to make good the consequences of our faith—consequences that might not appear in our sight or even in our lifetimes, but consequences which are guaranteed by the ultimate judge of all that is, the judge that selects all our loving acts for preservation in God’s eternity, for they are acts of God’s substance.

Those acts preserved for eternity are acts of love that proceed from the divine nature planted within us. With this knowledge, we can act with love toward God and neighbor so that they inform us.

For if we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, we fulfill the law of Christ; and our hearts grow in gratitude for the great gifts of life that Creation and Eternity ensure for us.

So it is with this heart’s resolve--to serve the neighbor’s face in need--that I embark upon the next phase of my calling, that of ordained ministry. This same heart’s intent has been God’s calling since I received God’s imputation of faith in late 2000: and yet I have failed that intent repeatedly.

I have failed as a husband, as a worker for the poor, as a worker for the environment, as a father at times because I have foolishly pursued my anxious self-interest.

I have favored prudent inaction to loving, risky participation in life.

Anxiety corrupts the heart when it designs to act “prudently.”

So my hope and wish for all of us is to act with a lack of human prudence—with wild gratitude and tough humility—casting our lot with what is loving and merciful and participatory.

I pray that we find in our hearts that joyous expression of loving kindness and steadfast sympathy for what is afflicted and ailing in society-- so that how we act points to the reality of Christ in our lives, so that how we act points to his glory.

Again, this is the radical orientation of faith that God prescribes.

That God demands.

If we neglect that task, we fail in what truly matters. and I for one am tired of my failures.


Let the victor of the heart work through me!

I commit my calling to what matters.

I commit this ordination to what matters.

May our Lord and God keep our commitment pure and simple and active to the great deposit of faith which God has planted within us.

All glory and honor be to Christ forever and ever. AMEN.