Sermon Archives

If At First You Don't Succeed ~ Acts 4: 32-37

The sermon begins just before the 33 minute mark.

According to Time Magazine these products were among the most successful technology failures of all time.

Before the iPhone there was BlackBerry. In 2011 over 50 million of these phones were sold. The US government bought into BlackBerry. It was BlackBerry that got Secretary Clinton into hot water! By 2016 only 4 million were sold. ButBlackBerry paved the way for the super powered phones that you have in your pocket.

Remember the Palm Pilot? I had one to help me organize my days. No longer.

How many of you had a Betamax? Or bought a pair of Google glasses? They appeared in 2012, sold for $1,500, and were gone by 2015.

According to the article the #1 failure–because it started out so hot that its name became a verb–was TiVo.Cable companies added DVR’s and TiVo went away.

Each of these ultimate failures was very successful for a time and all were replaced by smarter, faster, easier systems.

Back in the first century, before Facebook and Twitter, when the church was relatively small and located in a reasonably small area – Peter and the leaders of the early church had a great idea, it was inspired – no doubt the Holy Spirit guided them to build the church community around the radical idea that members shared everything.

Listen again: “Now the whole group of those who believed were on one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…. for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds… and laid it at the apostle’s feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

And for a time it was very successful. Peter had a lot of power and if you read on in Chapter 5 of Acts you learn about Ananias and his wife Sapphira who sold property and but kept back some of the proceeds – and when Peter confronted them, they both fell down and died.

Wow, with that kind of power, stewardship season would look a whole lot different.

But, after chapter 5, you never hear about this model of sharing used on a large scale. Paul doesn’t talk about it. Certainly once the church became big, it wasn’t used. Karl Marx thought it was a good idea – but once it became a political system – well, we all know where this led.

Now this model of intimacy and of shared ownership is still active in varying forms in Monasteries and Convents; it still works with certain degrees of success in Christian communes and small groups; and I believe the model still challenges us deeply about what is ours, what we really need, how do we share, what is our responsibility to others in the community – within the church or neighborhood.

But the church as institution, the church as denomination, the church as an international body – it seems beyond the realm of possibility that we could simply impose this.

So, sharing all things in common, just as with Betamax, was great, for a time. It spawned new ways of thinking, and it wasn’t a waste.

In God, nothing is a waste. God continually calls for re-design, for the updated model. And this wonder of God is that the spiritual creativity of God’s Spirit working through you and through me – and through all sorts of creative folk – doesn’t stop – it just keeps developing and finding new avenues of expression.

So, do we have to go back to this model of church as the only faithful, biblical way? I don’t think so. But we have to pay attention to it and learn from it and adapt ourselves and the church to continual way that failure leads to things that work better.

And this is true not only for institutions and technology but also for you.

Too many of us bask in failure; cover ourselves with defeat; long for the past, refuse to give up on the lost cause – or we try to continue to work something that isn’t working – a relationship perhaps, a job.

We lose our flexibility, our openness to risk and newness. We close ourselves off to the Holy Spirit.

I want to claim that failure is good – there should be more it!

I never met Gordon Cosby – I think Grace Uhle in this congregation and some others did. Gordon Cosby was this amazing pastor who was a soldier in WWII. He spent many a night in battle, hunkering down in foxholes. He formed deep and lasting relationships with all sorts of people. And in this process he received a call to ministry – and to a ministry of pacifism and community building.

He started the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. Its first, and really only, priority was a total commitment to Christian life. He kept it simple. No church building. At some point they bought a house in Dupont Circle and started this radical, but ancient and amazingly flexible modern model of being church.

Everyone was welcome to worship. Cosby was a gifted preacher. But to be a member of the church: you needed to tithe, and you were called to be part of a small mission group. I remember being taken to the Potter’s House Café that was the brain child of one of these mission groups – back in the 60s it was a place for music and fellowship in the heart of the community. And each mission group was a tight knit community of prayer, learning and accountability.

Anyone could start a mission group. During the Sunday service a person would stand and share with the community that they had received a call to do one thing or another. However, this person’s vision, or call, or idea could only come to fruition if at least 4 or 5 others in the community stood up and agreed to join the mission group. And when 4 or 5 folks agreed to come together, before they did anything – they prayed until they collectively discerned God’s next step.

You might remember New Life Community here in Cleveland: Grace Uhle was part of that, too. It was formed using this model.

Today the Church of the Savior is a collection of 9 independent small churches – staying open to God’s spirit. It is still the most radical and exciting form of church I can imagine.

But here is the thing. I remember reading an interview with Gordon Cosby and he said again and again, that there were many more failures than successes…. like an 85% failure rate. But failure wasn’t a waste, failure wasn’t a defeat, failure was clarifying. People wanted to lean into God more to better hone the vision.

Cosby felt that a church’s vitality could be seen in its failures much more than in its successes. That seems counter intuitive – but I like it. Because failure means you are continually trying, staying open, not giving in, adjusting, and improving.

In John’s gospel, chapter 15, Jesus says, “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit….every branch he prunes… Abide in me.”

We misread this passage if we think it is judgmental. Jesus is just being descriptive: dead branches, things that don’t work, need to be pruned. A committee that is no longer bringing life should go. A structure that is sapping the energy of its people should be thrown into the fire. If a Session can’t find 21 people to be Elders, perhaps it is time to rethink Session?

A marriage that cannot be saved – sometimes separation is the best thing that can happen.

A church that is not willing to fail, to prune in order to bear fruit or bringing life – is dead.

We have to get this faithful attitude that if Christ is the center of your life then success and failure are almost meaningless: making Christ the center of your life you don’t want to measure yourself by either – life happens, stuff happens, tears and laughter come and go – and road blocks and dead ends are merely obvious pointers that you are going in the wrong direction.

I do not believe that God wants you to continually beat your head against the wall – that doesn’t make sense. Try and fail a million times – success is fleeting, faithfulness is the only thing that matters.

I don’t believe that God’s spirit leads us to try to force new realities into old systems. But rather change old systems by new realities. New wine, new wineskins!

Maybe its time to re-imagine what it means to be an active member, or wonder do we really need all those committees? Or do you need to remain on the same treadmill of diminishing returns?

The model of the early church described in Acts was great but it didn’t work for long.

It was replaced…but there is still something creative and liberating and faithful about keeping nimble and loose, ready to follow the Spirit and fail, and fail, and fail again – But in Christ – nothing is bad or good until God gets through with it!

Stay faithful my friends!