Exodus 3:7-15, 4:1-17, Joshua 1:5-9
Unafraid: Fear and Failure
I’ve been thinking about failure this week. It’s not the easiest topic to wrestle with. I don’t think we like to talk about or think about failure and failing. As soon as we poke that topic, it can expose some of our deepest self-doubts, fears, and insecurities. I’ve been thinking about how we do talk about failure. The first thing that came to mind was the category we call “Pinterest Fails.” Pinterest is a very visual site for sharing creative ideas, and lots of people use it to share recipes and crafts and decorating ideas, along with directions so you too can create these beautiful projects. Only, if you’ve ever actually tried one of these projects, many folks find they are not actually so easy in real life. So people have taken to posting their “Pinterest fails” online - a picture of what that awesome birthday cake was supposed to look like along with the clear disaster that happened instead. A Pinterest Fail. It’s a way of making light at our disappointment that something we spent a lot of time on did not work out at all. Laughing at ourselves.
Usually, though, our real wrestling with failure goes a lot deeper. When I was in high school, my mom got a letter home from the guidance office stating that I was failing my physics class. My mom knew this wasn’t true. I knew this wasn’t true. Although I never particularly enjoyed science classes, and I took as few of them as I could get away with in high school, I did well in them, grade-wise. I didn’t really understand physics, but since it was mostly, at that level, memorizing formulas and I was good at math, I did just fine in physics. But when my mom showed me the letter, even though we both knew it was a mistake, I kind of freaked out. I insisted she call my guidance counselor right away. She did, and she confirmed that an error had been made - the student whose name was next to mine in the alphabet was failing physics, not me. But my guidance counselor wanted to talk to me anyway. He wanted to give me a message. He wanted me to know that if I had been failing a class, it would have been ok. If the letter had been right and I was doing poorly in a class, he said, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And he wanted to make sure I knew that.
Of course, I thought he was crazy and wrong. Failing would be terrible. I didn’t fail classes. School work was always pretty easy for me, but I also obsessed over my scores on tests and the SATs and compared myself with my classmates and worried a lot about my class rank. One or two points difference in class grade could mess with your class rank, and it was really important to me that I hold a certain place in my class. Failing would be unacceptable.
What kind of guidance counselor, I wondered, would tell a student that failing was ok? Surely that wasn’t what they were supposed to do, right? I brushed him off as someone who didn’t get me at all, and moved on. But as I look back at that incident as an adult, I think my guidance counselor was trying to offer me a gift. He was trying to extend a message of grace. I think he saw a young person that might be putting too much pressure on themselves, and wanted to make sure I knew before it happened that failing was not the end of the world. I couldn’t hear it then, though. I wonder, can I hear it now? Can we? Can we fail, or be worried that we might fail, and understand that nothing about our value as a person changes?
In his book, Unafraid, Adam Hamilton writes, “The fear of failure - along with all the awful accompanying scenarios we imagine of shame, the inability to provide for ourselves and those we love, and the stigma of losing - is one of the most prevalent human fears. In our congregational survey, it loomed as the number one fear of those under fifty (and still tied for fourth among those over fifty.)” (86, emphasis mine) “Do you ever fear failure?” he asks. “What kind of impending personal defeat keeps you awake at night? … when the voice in your head said that you should give up, what [do] you do? [Do] you take the risk and keep going, or turn back while you still [can]?” (87)
Today, we read in the scriptures the story of a man who was convinced that he was and would continue to be a failure. That’s Moses. Moses, you probably remember, was a Hebrew baby born in a time when the Pharaoh was scared of the burgeoning population of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, and had ordered male babies to be killed at birth. But Moses’ mother tucked him into a basket and set him in the river, where he was found by none other than the Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses was raised as her child, with status and privilege, his own mother serving as his wet nurse, in the strange way biblical events unfold. Of all the Hebrew baby boys, he had the best good fortune.
But then Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster, when he saw the man beating a Hebrew slave. In fear, he fled. And for forty years, he’d been hiding out with his father-in-law and family, working as a shepherd. His status in life had gone way down. He was 80 years old, and he was a failure.
And then God calls him. Our passage today opens just after Moses has noticed a spectacular burning bush out of which the voice of God speaks. After some introductions, God gets to the point. God says, “I’ve heard my people’s cry in Egypt, and I’m going to lead the Israelites to freedom. And I am sending you to rescue them from Pharoah.” In response, Moses immediately begins outlining to God all of the reasons why he will fail at this mission. It’s one of my favorite passages, because God is so patient with Moses, responding to every excuse with a path forward. Moses says he’s not qualified. God says not to worry - God will go with Moses. Moses says he doesn’t even know who to tell people God is. God gives Moses a name to share, and context: “I AM WHO I AM” is God’s name, but this God is the same God who was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people know God. “But the people probably won’t believe me,” Moses says. “They’ll say I’m making it up.” In response, God gives Moses some signs he can do with his staff, with his cloak, even with changing water into blood. And then Moses tells God that Moses is an awful public speaker - who’d listen to someone so slow of speech and slow of tongue? God says that God is the one who gives speech to mortals, and God will tell Moses what to say. And then Moses just says outright, “Please God, just send someone else.” No matter what God says, Moses knows he’s not good enough for this task. He’s a failure, not a leader. God is a bit annoyed, at last, at Moses’ continued reticence, but God still smooths the way for Moses, offering Aaron, Moses’ brother, as helper and mouthpiece for the tasks ahead.
God uses people who “fail” spectacularly and who have failed in the past and who fail again in the future to do spectacular things. In fact, Moses only gets to see the “successful” fruit of his journey through the wilderness from a distance. And gosh - even after he says “yes” to God, after God assuages his fear of failure with all those promises of help - Moses still has a really hard time leading the Israelites to freedom. They struggle and push back at him and complain and rebel and Moses occasionally in turn pushes back at God and complains to God, and I have no doubt that Moses still felt like an utter failure more than once. But with God’s help, he did what God asked of him. He led the people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in a promised land. And he is the one of the most important figures in Judaism and Christianity. Moses, the failure. Moses, who fled and hid for decades. Moses, who was not eloquent. Moses, who was filled with doubt. Moses, who wished someone else could be asked instead. Moses, who failed again and again. Moses was the leader of Israel, and through him, God set the people free.
Here’s something that’s hard to say: Sometimes I feel like a failure. And sometimes, being sure that I will fail at something makes it hard for me to even try, even when I’m pretty sure God is calling me. Sometimes, I’m not so different from the high school me who felt to her core that failure was unacceptable. Maybe sometimes you feel like a failure too, or you worry so much about failing that you think that anybody other than you would be a better choice to do the work of God. Adam Hamilton has felt this too. He writes, “More than once in my life I have felt called to do something that was clearly the right thing to do, but I made excuses to God or to my conscience or to other people. Why? because I felt anxious, certain I couldn’t do it, clear that it would be too hard, convinced I would fail. What I wanted most at those times was for God to send someone else.” (88-89)
Still, he concludes: “Failure can be painful, yet nearly every rewarding thing that we’ll experience or do in life comes with the chance that we might fail.” Our faith in God reassures us that “even the worst thing that could happen is not the end of the road … God still rules over the universe even if we fail, and somehow God can bring good even when we fail.” (90)
Please hear this friends: God’s love for you is not contingent on your “success.” God loves you immeasurably even when you fail - and you will fail. And, God has just as much use for people who fail as for people who don’t (seem to) fail. In fact, maybe when we’ve failed, we’re a little more ready to hand ourselves over to God. So if failure is sometimes inevitable, how much better it is to fail when we’re a) trying to do what we’re called to do and b) trying to do what will bring us deep joy in doing rather than failing doing what makes us miserable. When we say yes to God, God equips us with tools so that failure at God’s mission is at least less likely than failure at our own endeavors, relying only on our own resources. Most importantly, when we say yes to God, God is with us.
Another thing: Just as God’s love for you is not contingent on your “success,” so it is with true friends and loved ones on this journey of life. The best people to have as your friends and confidants are those whose love is, like God’s, not conditional. Who is still standing with you when your life has been an utter disaster and you’ve screwed everything up? These are the folks that are embodying Christ for you - the ones who will sit in the rubble of failure for you and help you get up again.
Our second reading today was from the book of Joshua. As I said, Moses doesn’t get to the promised land himself - he just sees it from a distance. But his protégé Joshua gets to take the people into the land. And as they stand ready to end their years of wandering, God gives Joshua a blessing. Listen for the repeated words of encouragement in this short passage:
“No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous ... Only be strong and very courageous … Do not turn from [my law] to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go … For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful … I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
We may fail. We’ve done it before. Probably, we’ll do it again. But we can be strong and courageous, because God’s love never fails. And God is with us wherever we go, choosing us, always. Amen.