By Sylvia Miller-Mutia
In my seminary, seniors had to take a course called “Issues in Ministry,” so we spent the better part of our final semester working in small groups on case planning strategies to face tough challenges that we’d soon encounter in ministry. By the end of the semester, each group was supposed to have developed a comprehensive evaluation and response to their case study—including a sermon series, an education series, a liturgical plan, etc., and each group was complete their assignment synthesizing their project into a thirty minute presentation for the rest of the class.
At last, when the time came for presentations, the first group moved to the front of the room and began setting up a cardboard stage. Then out came brown paper bags decorated to resemble the members of the group. (Well actually, there were puppets representing three of the four members of the group: one puppet held a bottle of pepsi; one puppet wore a pair of glasses; and one puppet was holding a baby. The fourth group member just wore a brown paper bag on his own head).
As the group members took their places behind the cardboard stage to begin their presentation, I thought to myself: A puppet show! What a clever idea. Why hadn't WE thought of that? My group hadn't planned anything nearly so creative for OUR presentation.
But they didn't begin by summarizing their case study.
And they didn't tell us about their exciting sermon series, or engaging educational series, or innovative liturgical plan.
Instead, each group member, in turn, told their story of the experience working with the group over the past months.
One challenge after another had disrupted the group's ability to work together and complete the project. There had been job interviews and family emergencies—a wedding; the death of a parent, the birth of a baby. There had been differences in communication styles, and learning styles, and working styles. There had been distances—generational and geographic—that proved impossible for the group to overcome.
The group had no project to report on. All they had to offer was the story of their frustration and their failure.
Their story was a costly gift to us. During the discussion that followed their presentation, one member of the group set aside her puppet to tell us, “We've made this experience seem kind of funny with our puppet show, but you need to know that this experience has been really, really painful. It’s one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.” But we learned more about “issues in ministry” from the halting story of that one group's failure than from the polished presentations of all the other groups combined. In their real pain and truthful account of failure, all of us found grace.
Saint Paul writes:
I did not come with any brilliance of oratory or wise argument to announce to you the mystery of God... I came among you in weakness, in fear and great trembling...(1 Corinthians 2:1, 3)
Paul speaks what that small group was feeling as they stood before our class. Could I have done what they did - coming in weakness and telling their story? I don’t think so. Unlike Saint Paul, I still have aspirations to “brilliance of oratory and wise argument.” And I have pretty strong aversion to failure.
I would have withdrawn from the class. Or taken an “Incomplete”.
Or, to be perfectly honest, I probably would have manically tried to single-handedly complete every facet of the group project on my own. And, in so doing, I would have robbed myself, my group, and our entire class of the chance to encounter grace.
One thing I’ve found profound since joining the ministry team at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco is our congregation’s practice of “sermon sharing.” Week after week, members of the community stand up right after the sermon--often, I suspect, “in fear and great trembling”-- to share their raw, unfinished stories. They don't stand up to show off their great ideas, to offer brilliant oratory and wise arguments. They stand up to share the truth of our lives. Often we hear messy, broken, beautiful human truth. In the sacred space we create by offering and receiving these stories, we encounter grace. We give one another a tremendous (and sometimes costly) gift —and especially, I believe, we’re giving our best gift to the children and youth in our community as they struggle to make sense of their own experiences of failure.
I was resolved that the only knowledge I would have while I was with you was knowledge of Jesus, and of him as the crucified Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:2)
So we look to an icon of human weakness and failure to discover the power of God; this is one of the truly bizarre things about Christianity. But the strange, troubling image of the crucified can also be tremendously liberating. Because the crucified Christ points us towards the truth that doing everything “right” can still end in apparent failure. And the crucified Christ points us towards the truth that apparent failure is not, in fact, our end. And I suspect that the crucified Christ points towards one more truth:
In Matthew's Gospel we read:
You are the light for the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people's sight, so that... they may give praise to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
Isn’t this passage at odds with the passage from Paul? Do we come before the world and one another in weakness, or as bright shining lights? Which is it?
The crucified Christ points us towards the truth that it's both—that they are, in fact, the same thing. When the shell of our success, and competence, and apparent perfection begins to crack -- that's when our true light, the light that emanates not from our own accomplishments but from the tremendous power of God, can shine forth.
The very broken-ness of the crucified Christ offers us a way in to Jesus—and that same broken-ness allows the light of God to flow out of Jesus. And what’s true of Jesus is also true for us…it's actually the cracks in our shell that offer others a way into our lives...and allow the light of God to flow out into the world.
When followers of Jesus tell and listen to our own truthful stories of weakness and failure – like the bag puppets did for us in my class, we begin to see God’s light and power shining forth with unparalleled brilliance. And telling our story, makes us bold to tell a world tyrannized by devotion to strength and success the impossible, unimaginable hope we discover in Christ crucified.
The Rev. Sylvia Miller-Mutia, is Youth and Family Minister at St. Gregory's, San Francisco. She is a dancer, teacher and recently ordained priest who just began her ministry at St. Gregory’s.