Fail early Fail often

van goghLessons from the sower
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” . . . Michael Jordan
I have told this sacred story from Matthew 13 many, many times in my call as a parish pastor. I told it, I think, faithful to the text, and interpretively, into the context of the churches I served. Yet in conversation with congregations across the synod in the last year, something, an important something, about the story began to appear. You see, I have always told the story, something like this:
A sower goes out to sow; a farmer goes into the field to sow seed. She had a bag over her shoulder, reaching in to scatter seeds as she walked. Some seed fell on the pathway, on the path where people often took a shortcut through the field, where the busy-ness of the world had hammered the soil down hard. So the seed doesn’t have a chance. And I would say, “Wasted effort. What a shame.” Other seed fell on ground that looked quite promising. The seed grew and sprouted. But not far below the top-soil was rocky ground, so just when the little plant started to come along, the sun came out, the ‘heat was on,’ and without deep roots, the little plant wilted. “Wasted effort. What a shame.” Other seed fell on ground where the weeds were overwhelming. The little plant that came from the seed did have a beginning, but it could not thrive. “Wasted effort. What a shame.” Other seed fell on good soil. There, the little plants grew and grew and grew. The harvest was a wonder to behold.
It seemed to me, seemed to the faith community as I told it, that the lost seeds were all unfortunate mistakes, but if we stayed with it, one day, something incredibly good would happen. But, looking carefully at the text itself, Jesus made no such distinction between the seeds that come to nothing and the seeds that grew. The text does not say “HOWEVER, other seeds fell on good soil. No, the text says simply: “Other seeds fell on good soil.”
A light went on. Conversations with congregations, summers of standing on the sidelines coaching soccer teams and Michael Jordan’s quote at the lead of this letter came together with the parable of the sower. The sower, of all things, says that the ministry of faith communities, the ministry of the followers of Jesus is rarely about being absolutely certain of the right thing to do and doing it without error. No, the ministry of faith communities and people of faith is marked by “missing the shot” much of the time, about adventuring and experimenting and learning from it for next time.
Get the picture? So sing a new song. Talk to a neighbour congregation about doing something together—eat together, sing together, work on a community project together. Look into enrolling in the Disciple series. Find out what Stephen ministry looks like. Receive an offering of food for the Food Bank at Easter service.
Of course, “It’ll never work.” It might not. But that, you see, is how ministry happens, as the sower teaches.
One closing word. The Gospel of Matthew closes the narrative of Jesus not with the ascension (from Luke’s gospel) but with Jesus gathering his faith community together after that chaotic last week in Jerusalem. He says two things to them. First, “Go out into the world: baptize, teach the people what I have taught you, raise up disciples.” ‘Try something!’ And then with this last word in the Gospel this word: “I will be with you to the close of the age.” Every step. Every mis-step. Yes.

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