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Wednesday
Jun122019

The Day of Pentecost - June 9, 2019 - Meredith Wade

Good morning! As you might have gathered, this is the last official Sunday of my ministry with St. James’s. And when Matt first asked me to preach this particular service, I thought, how could I possibly do justice to the two years I’ve spent here in one sermon? How can I thank you for the ways you have shaped and changed me, whether intentionally or unwittingly? And the truth is, I can’t. But I want to thank you for one thing in particular, a gift you might not realize you’ve given. It’s only recently that I’ve fully begun to receive it.

I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to fail.

It would be too easy to stand up in front of all of you, and talk about how I succeeded here. I could list all the things I accomplished with the Food Justice Team, all the ways we grew and learned together, all the moments that prove I am smart enough, capable enough, and good enough for this work. That would certainly fit the mentality I had when I first walked through these doors, driven by a roaring engine of self-doubt, insecurity, and fear. I had no idea what I was doing, and I’m not trying to belittle myself here. Even Holly, our then-rector, didn’t know exactly what form my role would take, what she expected of me, or how she would evaluate my progress. The question I saw behind everyone’s eyes - and not because anyone was outright saying it - was, “Are you accomplishing what we called you here to do?”

I’ve been an anxious overachiever since grade school - I’m used to worrying about what other people think. But this fixation on whether I was doing what I had been called here to do and whether I was doing it well carried a new - and significant - moral weight: it was no longer just my own reputation or future career at stake, it was also the health and well-being of the St. James’s community, and the community of guests who rely on our food pantry to get through the month. My learning curve as an activist and organizer suddenly took on a very tangible form of collateral damage. Each mistake or miscalculation now had a face - usually an older woman of color, often an immigrant, always someone with gifts and soul beyond what our current economic and political system can see. Talk about a heavy burden.

And while much of the weight I began to carry in my work here was rooted in a strong call towards social justice, there is also a uniquely capitalist bent to the fear of failure that rattled my body and brain during my first several months. Calculated inputs of time and effort, which lead to predictable results, feed into what we now understand to be unsustainable economic growth. And I was surprised at how easily these models and standards of productivity could be applied to activism. Surely the outcomes of organizing could not always be known in advance - and yet, I have felt a strong pressure - as much from myself as anyone else - to explain my work in terms of easily digestible concrete outcomes.

The thing is, when you are working towards a root-deep transformation in culture, you can’t always see progress on the surface. Eventually, I realized that pretending I knew how things would shift, that I had all the answers or that they were even have-able, was a greater hindrance than it was a help. To do community-based work, that taps into people’s hearts and desires and mobilizes them towards a common goal, you have to be able to connect. You have to be honest about your own heart’s desires, or risk manipulating the hearts of others. You have to be able to fail.

And fail I did. There were the meetings that went totally off track, complete with screaming kids in the sanctuary next door. There was the confirmation class I was woefully unprepared to co-teach, try as I might to connect the sacraments of baptism to the concept of solidarity. There was the community potluck at the food pantry that devolved into unattended children popping the balloons we’d just spent 20 minutes inflating. Suffice it to say there were a lot of days sitting in my office wondering how the hell I’d gotten here, and who tricked these people into hiring me when clearly I had no clue what I was doing.

But in a recent conversation with John Bell, my supervisor and an essential pillar of the Food Justice Team, he reminded me that in all of these cases, failure was part of the work. If I had spent hundreds of days showing up for what I believe this community can be, and not failed at least as many times, I would’ve questioned whether I’d even tried. Failure is an opportunity to learn not just what works and what doesn’t, but what metrics actually matter. adrienne maree brown talks about building movements that are an inch wide and a mile deep. Those Food Justice Team meetings where only three people showed up? Let me tell you how deep their commitment, thoughtfulness, and courage runs. That chaotic potluck? A reminder that even if we weren’t ready to start something new, we could bring warmth and authentic connection back to the spaces we normally shared in the food pantry.

Jack Halberstam says that failure is a uniquely queer enterprise, that it allows us to dream beyond capitalism’s measures of productivity and success. It makes room for us to bore holes in the toxic positivity of American culture, positivity that at times functions as a brick wall between ourselves and authentic connection with each other. This life is not easy. We are not always surefooted. If we do anything worth our salt in this world, we are going to fail, and fail often.

Roxane Gay says that in these dark and tumultuous times, hope is a cop-out. Simply hoping allows us to ‘abdicate our responsibility’ for what comes next. I have often been guilty of squeezing my eyes shut and hoping for the best, rather than taking a step - however shaky -

into the unknown to discover what is possible. If success means never taking risks big enough to make a mistake, I don’t want it. We are called here not to live safely within what we have seen to be possible. In fact, there is reason to believe that limiting ourselves thusly is killing us. We are called here to take risks worthy of all that we stand to lose, which is to say, all that we have the privilege of loving in this world. And the only way to know we are taking steps big enough is to fail.

As I move on from this particular role at St. James’s, I want to say thank you for holding space for my growth, for being willing to try things differently, and for being fertile ground to fall on, over and over. As you carry on following God’s call towards justice, authenticity, and community, I invite you to honor your failure as a sign you are taking steps that matter. Fail big. Fail often. Fail in pursuit of a world more beautiful than our own. The stakes are too high not to.