Destruction – October 7, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
October 7, 2018


Hosea 13:4-14; 1 Corinthians 2:6-16

Let us pray.

God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

At X, a division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, failure is a good thing. X pursues moonshots—daring, radical, difficult projects that aim to solve big, seemingly intractable problems. Examples of X’s projects include self-driving cars, contact lenses that monitor glucose levels through tears, and balloon-powered wireless internet—things that might be technically possible but, at least at the time they are first proposed, sound wildly unrealistic. X is an organization that primarily exists to explore; it is interested far less in perfect, immediate solutions than in imagining a new, drastically different world.

Before beginning a project, each team at X sets kill criteria. These are measurable conditions agreed upon in advance by the entire team that, when met, indicate that a project should be shut down. If a project is ended, members of a team are celebrated, not shamed: a party is thrown for them; they receive bonuses; they are considered for promotions. Executives at X believe that innovation thrives when failure is not just accepted but also honored; because engineers know that it is ok to fail, leaders think, they will be willing to experiment boldly enough to ultimately effect real, meaningful change.

Obi Felten, whose official job title at X is “head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world,” often speaks about the importance of embracing failure in order to foster innovation. “Fear of failure,” she says, “is maybe the biggest impediment to innovation.” Felten claims that “the failures we encounter on the way to the moon” are “inevitable.” She likes to share a kernel of wisdom shared with her by one of her friends. “When we’re kids and we learn to walk,” her friend told her, “we stumble and we just pick ourselves back up again and it’s a completely normal thing. But somewhere when we became adults we [came to think] that if we stumble and we fall it’s a really big deal…we’re embarrassed…it’s awful.” Maybe, Felten suggests, we could stop treating failure us such a big deal; perhaps “we could get back to some of that childlike [thinking].”

X operates under the assumption that sometimes failure is preferable, perhaps even necessary—a truth that is often mirrored in the natural world: soil is richer because of the dead material that is in it, while a certain level of fire is required in order to keep a forest healthy. The circle of life demands that some death take place so that life as a whole can persevere and thrive; a certain amount of destruction fuels the ongoing continuation and regeneration of existence.

“I will destroy you.” No, this is not the promise of a villain in a superhero movie but the declaration of our supposedly benevolent God to the nation God claimed to have chosen, to have marked as destined for greatness. The book of Hosea, from which this quotation comes, is certainly not without its problems. It utilizes grossly sexist and violent metaphors in order to characterize Israel as an unfaithful prostitute. Its suggestion that Israel must deserve any misfortune it experiences is problematic to say the least. And yet the prophecy it articulates of destruction—a prophecy that is not unique to the book of Hosea and a prophecy that probably retrospectively helped Israel to make sense of what actually happened to it—raises an interesting question about whether destruction can ever be beneficial. The same question is raised in this evening’s second reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, when Paul notes that the rulers of this age are doomed to perish.

In both cases, the destruction proclaimed appears to presume the real loss of human life. It is difficult for me to believe that any loss of human life should ever be rationalized or celebrated. But I wonder if, while acknowledging the flaws inherent in the reasoning that Hosea and Paul display, we might be willing to consider what truth they can reveal to us when we agree to read them figuratively rather than literally. Is God’s destructive capability ever something we can welcome? Is it ever reassuring to know that this age will not last forever?

In the end, of course, Israel is rescued. It is destroyed, though only for a time. The rulers of this age are doomed to perish, yet, then again, so are we, and Christianity asserts that resurrection and forgiveness are both possible. Destruction always involves suffering, whether that suffering is physical or emotional or spiritual or financial, and I’m not sure that any amount of collateral damage, however miniscule, makes destruction worthwhile. But maybe destruction is a part of the life cycle we need to accept. Maybe the destruction of an old reality can pave the way for a brighter new one. Maybe destruction shatters our illusions of being in control.

I have always loved this General Thanksgiving, which is printed in the back of our Prayer Book and was originally written by Charles Price, the former minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard. I particularly like the way in which it thanks God for our failures.

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

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