Undervalued Disciplines for Overwhelming Days: Failure

by | Mar 20, 2022


Jarrett McLaughlin
Undervalued Disciplines for Overwhelming Days: Failure
March 20, 2022
Numbers 20:2-13


Stuttgart, Germany – 1963. The Miles Davis Quintet is about to play what might be one of the most recognizable Jazz compositions of all time – “So What.” (Hold up Kind of Blue Album)

Ron Carter’s fingers dance down the bass – buh dum buh dum ba-dum dum.
Miles’ Trumpet establishes the theme – Mrrr-mrr

A very young Herbie Hancock sits at the piano and remembers with no small amount of embarrassment what happened next:

“When Miles was playing one of his amazing solos…” he said, “right in the middle of his solo I played the wrong chord…a chord that sounded completely wrong… a big mistake. I immediately put my hands over my ears. I blew it right in front of Miles Davis. I couldn’t even put my fingers back on the keys.”

Can you relate to Herbie?
Have you ever made a mistake and been so embarrassed you’d just as soon crawl into a hole and never show your face again?
Have you ever just…failed?

What if –
Instead of pretending like our failures didn’t happen – what if we let them see the light of day? Instead of sweeping them under the rug, what if we embraced our failures and allowed them to instruct us?

I would argue that getting friendly/familiar with our failures is good for you, for me and it is good for the world we share.

We’re continuing our sermon series on Undervalued Disciplines for Overwhelming Days and we’re going to check in on Moses in an admittedly peculiar story from the book of Numbers. As we prepare to hear this word let us pray:

God, we’re not always that mature, you know.
We can be stubborn and hard-headed and, worst of all, hard-hearted.
But we are here to listen and to learn and to obey. Amen.


Now there was no water for the congregation; so the people gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had died when our kindred died before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.”
Then Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting; they fell on their faces, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.
So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”
Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank.
But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”
These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and by which he showed his holiness.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.


Like I said – a peculiar story.

Before we unpack it, let’s take a little time to revisit Moses’ resume.

Moses talked to God through a burning bush.
Moses demonstrated that he had both diplomacy and…other negotiation skills (read, ten plagues) that he used to successfully broker the release of the Hebrew people from captivity in Egypt.
Moses delivered the Ten Commandments to God’s people.
Moses fended off numerous challenges to his authority from within the Hebrew people and performed countless signs and wonders in the wilderness including but not limited to manna from heaven in the morning and quails in the evening, healing from venomous snake bites, and not once but twice he brought water from stones in the middle of the desert.

On paper Moses is a success story if ever there was one.

But this…this is a story of failure. A failure so complete that it costs him passage into the Promised Land. The only problem is that it’s not altogether clear how exactly Moses erred in this situation? Heck, at the beginning of their wilderness journey Moses did the exact same thing to rave reviews.

You can read all about it in Exodus 17 – the people complain that they’re dying of thirst. Moses takes the problem to God. God tells him to strike a rock with his staff. Water comes out – mischief managed – Moses is the Man!

Why should striking a rock be any different now than it was 40 years earlier in the wilderness?

As you might imagine, Rabbis have had a field day with this story throughout the centuries – offering numerous interpretations of what is really happening here.

The late rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed that the passing of those 40 years might just be the key to understanding this text. Unlike in the previous story, this time God tells Moses “to command” the rock to yield it’s water. Don’t strike the rock, speak to the rock.
To us it probably looks much the same. Speak, Strike…with Miles Davis we might say “So What.”

Rabbi Sacks sees great significance in this. “What [Moses] had failed to understand,” he says, “is that time had changed in one essential detail. He was facing a new generation. The people he confronted the first time were those who had spent much of their lives as slaves in Egypt. Those he now faced were born in freedom.”

“Slaves respond to orders. Free people do not… Slaves understand that a stick is used for striking…but free human beings must not be struck. They respond, not to power, but persuasion…what Moses failed to understand was that the difference between God’s command then and now (“strike the rock” and “speak to the rock”) was [absolutely] of the essence.”
I bet as soon as he struck that rock, Moses knew it was a mistake.
It was the wrong chord to play in the wrong moment before the wrong crowd.

When Herbie Hancock made that huge mistake; when he couldn’t even put his fingers back on the keys, this is what happened next. Hancock remembers:

“Miles paused…for just one second. And then he played some notes that made my chord – right. He made it correct, which astounded me. Miles was able to make something that was wrong into something that was right; with the choice of notes he played – he made it right. What I realize now is that Miles didn’t hear it as a mistake. He heard it as something that just happened – an event. It was part of the reality of what was happening at that moment. And he dealt with it. He felt it was his responsibility to find something that fit.”

After that night in Stuttgart, Herbie Hancock never thought of a mistake the same way again.

When God said to Moses, “You shall not lead this assembly into the promised land,”
he could have crawled inside a hole and disappeared.
He could have thrown that staff on the ground and never picked it up again.
He could have said this failure will define my life forever.

But he didn’t. He dealt with it. He learned from it.
And then he spent the remainder of his life making it right.

What Moses realized is that he was a leader for a particular moment
– and that moment was passing. It is no mistake that, following this episode,
Moses began asking God to appoint a successor in Joshua.
Moses understood his time was coming to a close.

I’ve been thinking this week what an amazing thing it must be to see a leader integrate failure into his leadership as completely as Moses.

I’ve been thinking what an amazing thing it must be to see a leader recognize that it’s not all about him, or his legacy, but about the ideal future of the people.

None of this should be amazing, but when there’s a tyrant on the loose who proves himself incapable of accepting anything other than “winning” – well, Moses looks more and more like a success story.

And I cannot even begin to make sense of the knotty logic at work to justify this war.
It began with some far-fetched fairytale about finally reuniting Ukraine with Mother Russia – that the nation is somehow incomplete without them. But then as soon as they actually mount an extraordinary resistance, it quickly turns to firebombing civilian targets for having the audacity to resist your will. Nothing about that sounds remotely like having the ideal future of the people at heart.
When we have no capacity to practice failing; when we are incapable of making mistakes, learning some hard lessons and adapting, we can make casualties of countless others.

That is a pretty big “So What?”

Of all the undervalued disciplines we’re exploring during this season of Lent,
I can think of none that is more uncomfortable than getting comfortable with our failures.
I can also think of none more critical for these truly overwhelming days

So –
For the love of God;
For the love of our neighbor;
And for the love of our own selves,
Let’s trust that God is bigger than our failures; that God can even work through those failures; and that nothing we say and nothing we do is ever the final word on who we are. Amen.