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Sermon: Fail Fast, Fail Often

November 13, 2011

Matthew 25:14-30

Apparently, failure is a good thing.  We work very hard at avoiding mistakes—in life, in the church, in politics.  We do our best to minimize risk.  Yet if we take that attitude too far, we end up not ever doing anything because what’s the best way to avoid failure?  Don’t try anything.  If you never try anything, you can never fail.

The entrepreneurs among us, however, are wired differently.  They believe it isn’t “win or lose,” but “win or learn” (Brad Keywell, “Embracing Risk and Failure”).  Our mistakes and failures are the seeds of our success.  We learn by probing the root causes of our mistakes, and then putting those lessons into practice as we move forward.  Entrepreneurs know there will be many failures, and they embrace that.  They have learned that the best way to success is to fail often, fail quickly, and then—just as quickly—to move ahead.

The rest of us, however, avoid failure like the plague.  When we fail, we fall into the pattern that poker players call “going on tilt.”  “That’s when, following an error, a player starts making reckless moves in a last-ditch effort to chase his money —to erase the mistake altogether.”  The hope is to fix the mistake by throwing even more money down the hole (“‘Adapt’: Failure as an Option,” NPR).  By contrast, entrepreneurs, by contrast, cut their losses quickly and move on—after learning why they failed.

God is an entrepreneur.  God’s greatest startup—creating the heavens and the earth—has been a great success, but has also included some spectacular failures, beginning shortly after the seventh day of the work.  God has made some extremely risky moves, and many have not worked.

Jesus described the kingdom in of heaven in these terms.  It’s as if a man, he said, was going on a journey.  He gave his property to three stewards—$500 million to one, $200 million to another, and $100 million to the third.  The first invested that $500 million in the market, set up a microloan company and built a successful chain of stores that sold every kind of beverage except coffee.  He doubled the investment.  The second used the $200 million to invest in municipal bonds and created a hand-held computer that did everything except make telephone calls.  He also doubled the investment.  The third steward was extremely risk averse.  He knew that businesses fail and that banks invest in mortgage-backed securities.  So he put the $100 million beneath his mattress, which made it very difficult to sleep.  One hundred million dollars is a lot of money!

After a very long time, the owner returned and sat down with his stewards.  The first and second shared their success, and the owner said, “Well done.  You have handled these mere trifles very well.  Now I will put you in charge of really important things.”

The third man put a big bag of money on the table.  “Here’s your money—every penny of it.  You have what is yours.”

The owner said, “Why does this smell like mattress?

“You fool.  You knew that I am the Great Entrepreneur, so why did you hide the money.  You could at least have put it into a savings account and received nearly a quarter of a percent of interest.

“Besides, I didn’t ask you to make money, I asked you to do business (Robert Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, 422).  You failed by not even trying.  So give that $100 million to the guy who already has a billion, and you get out.”

 *     *     *     *     *

We are so conditioned to avoid mistakes, to think of mistakes as bad, a sign that we are personally failures, that we frequently won’t admit to them—either consciously or unconsciously.  (Please don’t test this by asking my wife how frequently I admit to my own mistakes.)  In 2006, Alan Mulally became the chief of the Ford Motor Company.  He insisted that it was important for executives to “own up to their failures.  He asked managers to colour-code their progress reports—ranging from green for good to red for trouble.  At one early meeting he expressed astonishment at being confronted by a sea of green, even though the company had lost several billion dollars in the previous year” (The Economist, “Fail often, fail well).  We simply don’t like mistakes, and will do anything to avoid them—even going to the extreme of avoiding action.

But is that the best way to live as creatures of our God, the Great Risk Taker, who sent his only son to a world that had already proved it doesn’t like to listen to God?  Does God call us to live in a way that is opposite to how God deals with creative risk, or are we actually made in God’s image?

Churches, because they are institutions—and institutions made up of volunteers at that—are especially adept at avoiding risk.  This congregation has been given a large amount of financial resources over the years, and we have done an excellent job—led by your particularly risk-averse pastor—at holding on to and preserving and saving those resources.  At times, we have been afraid of mistakes, afraid of squandering the resources God has given to us so that we can do business.

Yet this congregation has taken a wonderful step forward in faith.  Led by the grace of God, you have chosen to invest a large amount of time and money in a project that can be decisive in the lives of families in this community.  We are not stuffing those talents into our church mattress, but are using them and exercising them for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and the children of San Pedro.  Well done good and faithful servants of God.  Even if the project were to end up as a miserable failure—and we have good people working very hard so that we can be successful—we are doing what the Church is supposed to do.  To fail through faithful action—to lose everything—is much better than never to make a mistake—to save everything—but never try.  That is the economy of the kingdom of heaven.

We have all been given an enormous amount of responsibility for resources God has put at our disposal.  Only a few of you may have $500 million—or even $100 million—but every one of us has been given a large and indeterminate number of seconds to live and breathe on this earth.  We have been given some measure of health, intelligence and skill.  We have friends and family members.  We have various physical and financial resources—home, retirement account, possessions.  If you doubt that you have been given an enormous treasure, think of what good the author and lecturer Hellen Keller did in her time on this earth, and she could neither see nor hear, two of the gifts we most often take for granted.

How do you imagine you could risk those God-given resources?  In what ways can you risk failure and rejection, just so that you can get up, dust yourself off, learn from your mistakes and try again?

At the end of the day, we do this—we use and risk ourselves and our resources; we fail, learn and try again—for the sake of people, God’s children.  That is our mission as the Church and as disciples of Jesus Christ, to share God’s grace with people, for the sake of love, joy, peace and well being.

Even though God seems to be the perfect entrepreneur, there is one way that God is distinctly not an entrepreneur, and that is with people.  Entrepreneurs fail and then move on, leaving the failure behind while learning the lessons.  Sometimes we fail.  God reaches out to us, gives so much to us, and yet we fail.  God will never give up on us and leave us behind.  If God did business like that, this entrepreneurial enterprise known as planet Earth would have been abandoned after Adam and Eve, or after the people failed by doubting God’s care in the wilderness, or after the messengers of God—the prophets—were ignored and rejected, or after Jesus died on the cross.

God did not reject us as simply another failed business model.  God tried again and again.  God rolled the stone away and raised Jesus to new life so that we might have new life.  God is the Great Entrepreneur, but only to an extent.  God will not abandon the people, no matter how frequently we fail.

When we know that, we can do business confidently and joyfully, knowing that God really isn’t interested in whether we make money or lose money with the divine capital, isn’t interested in whether we succeed or we fail.  God only cares that we do God’s own business with the resources we have been granted, and that we do God’s business faithfully.

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