a sermon on failure

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22 | Psalm 84:1-7 | 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18 | Luke 18:9-14

This week is the third of a four-part series: (Re)Formation, Worship at the start of #Reformation500This sermon focuses on how we are Formed by Failure.

Click here to read a testimony offered in worship by Yali Amit, responding to the question, “How has Lutheranism failed you?”

Read with plenty of sass:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people [the Greek says ‘the rest of humanity’]: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” (Luke 18:11-12)

I’m guessing that most of us can imagine someone like this pompous leader. Whether it’s someone you know personally, or someone whose Facebook posts get you all riled up, or someone you see on the news, this behavior is very familiar.

They are arrogant, pushing their religious commitments onto everyone else, trumpeting their successes for the world to hear. They are self-important; they think they’re better than everyone else. They are ignorant, unaware that their “accomplishments” are actually a result of their life circumstances. And they’re hypocrites – they act like they’re so close to God, but look how they treat the most vulnerable people and the outsiders!


Thank God that we are not like those people: religious fundamentalists, xenophobes, sexists, supporters of the status quo, liars, nasty people, or even like “those” voters. We are aware of the ways in which we are privileged; we abstain from all types of cultural appropriation; we buy only organic and fair trade products. Or, we are the ones who really care about life; or, at least our actions are consistent with our beliefs.

But the unrighteous one, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating her chest and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, she went down to her home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:13-14)

It is fitting that we should hear a text today about righteousness and justification. Here at St. Luke’s we’re in the middle of a (Re)Formation series looking ahead to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and these topics are an important part of our religious heritage. Martin Luther was a person who was obsessed with his own sin, and convinced of his utter unrighteousness. He would go to confession multiple times per day, making sure he confessed every last one of his sins, and spent his free time in painful anxiety, worrying about those sins that he forgot, or the ones that he was unaware of. Luther’s world had taught him that if he didn’t take responsibility for those sins, he would not be justified, or made righteous – meaning he would not be in good standing before God’s judgement.

In Luther (2003 film), Martin Luther climbs the Scala Sancta on his knees.

In the course of the Reformation, Luther and his community came to understand justification very differently. We cannot make ourselves right with God, the Lutherans taught, but only God can make us right with God. I didn’t grow up Lutheran, but those who did may have memorized this formula to internalize this concept: “We are justified by grace, through faith, apart from works, for the sake of Christ.”

Justified by grace, through faith, apart from works. This understanding of righteousness – that God freely restores us to right relationship and good standing with God, apart from what we do or fail to do – is very different from the self-righteousness we see in today’s text. The religious leader, actually not unlike Luther, is very concerned with doing the right thing. He is moral and upstanding. Unlike the tax collector, his job doesn’t profit from the suffering of others, but seeks to enrich the spiritual life of the community. He goes above and beyond the demands of justice, fasting twice as often as required, and not taking advantage of any tithing loopholes. He is trying to do the right thing, to do what God requires.

He… is not so different from us. We also are concerned with behaving as we “ought.” In fact, we’re so concerned with doing the right thing that, as soon as we hear a parable like today’s parable – one that seems to be drawing a line between “bad Pharisee” and “good tax collector” – we immediately disassociate ourselves from the bad and think of all the ways we are trying to be like the good!

But we are like the Pharisee. We also trust in ourselves. I like to visualize this self-trust as a sort of internal checklist. For me, there are lots of things on my list that I have learned I must do, or be, in order to be okay. I must be kind. I must be smart, and self-aware. I must be always open and honest. I must be emotionally vulnerable. I must be excellent at my job, and active in my community, and on, and on. The idea of failing at one of these things terrifies me. If I do fail, I feel worthless.


And it is that shame, that fear, that keeps me trusting myself. It is that same deep insecurity that kept the Pharisee in the parable from trusting God, depending instead on his own achievements to save him. The Pharisee does not go home justified, because justification would require some action on God’s part – and God hasn’t even had a chance to act! He has done everything right, not failing at a single thing on his checklist. He has done God’s work for God.

In contrast, the tax collector’s failings are obvious. God’s grace is offered as a gift to both of the people described in the parable, but only one person goes home justified. The tax collector’s failing means that he is the only one who has had a chance to really experience God’s grace.

A community organizing mentor told me a story about a time when he was on a long car ride, and the people in the car were telling stories about the biggest failure they’d ever experienced in their jobs – direct actions going terribly wrong, campaigns completely missing their goals, etc. My mentor said that car ride was really important for him, because he realized that he didn’t have a “biggest fail” story to tell. He realized he had never taken a risk big enough, that failing was even a possibility.

If we never fail, it is because we are not risking.


Even now, it’s tempting to add “Make sure to take a risk” to the internal checklist!! No!! That’s not the idea. Instead, take a look at the checklist. How does it keep you safe? How does it keep you doing God’s job for God? What would it be like to loosen your grip on one of those checklist items, to trust in God instead of in your own ability to do that thing?

The story we tell ourselves about failure is: The reason we never fail is because we’re great! Failure is bad, and it’s best to avoid it if you can. But here, failure is reclaimed as an opportunity to allow God to do God’s work. When we risk, we allow God an opportunity to show faithfulness. When we fail, God is still faithful – we experience grace! We are formed by failure, because it is precisely in our deepest failure that we experience the depth of God’s grace and trustworthiness.

In the reading from Jeremiah, we heard God’s people claiming their failure – and not only theirs, but the failings of their ancestors for generations:

We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you. (Jer 14:20)

The reading goes on to plead for God to do God’s thing in the midst of their failure:

Can any idols of the nations bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers?

I would add, can we do everything right? Could we possibly maintain our own righteousness?

Is it not you, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this. (Jer 14:22)

Thanks be to God.


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