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The Politics of Failure – Br. Mark Brown

Matthew 5:43-48

“Be perfect.”  Be perfect, he says!  But in almost the same breath he has just guaranteed our imperfection, our failure.   It’s probably the most startlingly original thing Jesus ever said, and troubling. “Love your enemies.” Love your enemies.  We can guarantee falling down repeatedly on this score. Most of us most of the time fail to sustain feelings of charity toward our enemies. And not only our true enemies, but also our familiars who can be so damned irritating!  Be perfect, he says.  But we’re bound to fail.

Could there possibly be a connection between failing and being perfect? Paradoxical as it may seem, I think so.  Failure is a way forward toward perfection.  Perfection or completion is, spiritually speaking, something out there before us we are on the way to.  We’re all only somewhere on the way. Perfection, at least in this earthly existence, is an ever-receding horizon, always out of reach.

But we are on this trajectory. To grow, to expand into the fullness of our being, to grow into our completion, our perfection, requires failure.  This is the great paradox of the spiritual life: we need a daily dose of failure.

How does this work?  If we own our imperfections, our failures, our incompleteness, we can begin to accept the imperfections, the incompleteness, the failures of others.  A daily dose of our own failure, taken with a glass of patience and understanding, can take us to that place where we can at least begin to love our enemies.

We may not be able to feel charitably toward our enemies, but we can at least begin to move in that direction.  In recognizing our own failure to love, we can begin to have compassion for others who fail to love. My failure to love my enemy can give me insight into my enemy’s failure to love me. Acknowledging my own failure, I can begin to have compassion on the failure of others. We can, in a sense, recognize something of ourselves in the “enemy”.  And if warm fuzzies are out of reach at the emotional level, we can at least determine to do no harm.

This process, this dynamic process of recognizing our common humanity, our common frailty, can lead us into a more expansive way of thinking.  A more expansive way of thinking that is not entirely self-bound, that is not entirely self-referential.  By recognizing how similar my failure to love is to my enemy’s failure to love, I begin to see that we are in the same boat, we are suffering the same malady, the same universal malady.  I may not be capable of warm fuzzies toward my enemy, but I can at least begin to respect his or her dignity as a human being. I can at least begin to see that we are probably more alike than we would want to think.

Our own failure to love, then, can be a way forward to greater compassion and greater humility.  And greater compassion and humility are the way forward to completion, fullness of life, perfection. To greater love—maybe even as far as loving the enemy.  It’s a dynamic process of growth, fluid and dynamic; and some backsliding is inevitable

But Jesus’ call to perfection and in nearly the same breath setting standards that guarantee imperfection is a keen insight.  Failure to love can, if we are so disposed, actually help us to grow in love.  Failure to love opens the door to humility. Humility opens the door to compassion.  Compassion opens the door to love. And love opens the door to that expansiveness of life that is the goal of our existence—our completion, our perfection.

Have you had your daily dose of failure?  If not, there’s still time…

On another note and in another key: what I’m saying works not only at the individual level, but at the corporate, even national level.  Our country has failed miserably these last few years. We have certainly not loved our enemies.  We’ve lost a war we began under false pretenses.  We’ve failed—not only in Iraq, but in many other places and in countless ways. The Middle East quagmire is just the worst of it.

But if we, as a nation, can own our failures and accept them in humility, it will be our salvation. We will never be able to make full restitution for the disaster we have visited on the world–that, too, will be a failure.  And a source of humility.

We desperately need the vocabulary of repentance in our national discourse. Words like failure, contrition, remorse, humility, restitution, “we were wrong”, “we’re sorry”,—this vocabulary needs to make its way into our public discourse.  And soon.  Our failures may yet be the salvation of this country.   Our failure to love our enemies may yet open the door to humility—and humility opens the door to many good things.

The world is waiting.

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  1. Bev on August 2, 2014 at 19:28

    I thought that in the Biblical sense, “perfection” meant “maturity”.

  2. Dianne Rader on August 2, 2014 at 14:49

    This is the most uncomfortable idea I’ve ever read, but felt immediate personal empathy. Several major failures in my life which were painful mental/emotional torture brought me to my knees to learn of His infinite Grace and Mercy, and my imperfections which then became cleansed and strengthened by His Lesson. This sermon so truly reveals America’s necessary journey back to its salvation and that effort needs to be soon.

  3. Margaret Dungan on August 2, 2014 at 14:30

    I am so glad that these sermons are repeated from time to time and especially this one which should be required reading at regular intervals. it reminds us just how necessary true humility is in our daily lives.


  4. Mino Sullivan on August 2, 2014 at 12:22

    Dear Mark,
    Your words, “expansiveness of life…is the goal of our existence—our completion, our perfection” are incredibly helpful. I pray regularly to learn to live each day out of a Christ consciousness, but to be expansive, to always reach out that’s much more clear and specific. It also sounds exhausting.
    Thank you,

  5. Miguel Rodriguez on August 2, 2014 at 11:01

    Thank you, Brother for your prophetic and powerful sermón!

  6. Leigh Gilmore on March 15, 2013 at 11:00

    I very much appreciate the graceful and undeniable movement in this sermon to thread the Biblical from the personal to the national. I actually feel more connected — more equipped to reflect meaningfully — on our national failures through this anchor in the Biblical call to perfection and the road it requires. Thank you!

  7. Joe Stroud on March 26, 2012 at 08:55

    Br. Mark, THAT is going to leave a bruise!!! Have you been here in my town following me around and watching me?

    Seriously, THANK YOU for a direct hit on my ego/soul. This sermon would have been worth the read if it contained nothing but the lines: “This process, this dynamic process of recognizing our common humanity, our common frailty, can lead us into a more expansive way of thinking. A more expansive way of thinking that is not entirely self-bound, that is not entirely self-referential.” But you elaborated on the tension between the command to “Be perfect” and our inability to meet that standard in such a fundamental, troubling and comforting way. (It’s not often I would use the words “troubling” and “comforting” in the same sentence!) “A way of thinking that is not entirely self-bound, that is not entirely self-referential.” Ouch. Again, thank you.

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