The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

A GOSPEL FOR LOSERS

Delivered 2/19/06
Text: Jonah 3:1-10; II Corinthians 4:1-10
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

A fellow is standing at a bar, just looking at his drink.(1) For a solid half-hour, he just stares at it. Suddenly, a big trouble-making truck driver steps up next to him, takes the drink and chugs it down. The poor schlemiel starts crying.

The truck driver says, "Come on man, I was just joking. Here, I'll buy you another drink. I can't stand to see a man cry."

"You don't understand," says the first fellow. "This day is the worst day of my life. First, I sleep through the alarm this morning and get into the office late. My boss fires me on the spot.

"I leave the building to go to my car and find, that in just the few minutes I had been inside, it had been stolen. The police were no help; they say I am probably out of luck. No DUH!

"Luck? I get a cab to return home, and when I leave it, I realize that I have left my wallet and all my credit cards on the back seat. I try to get the cabbie's attention as he drives away, but no. Off he goes.

"I get inside the house, much earlier than anyone had expected. Surprise, Honey, I'm ho-ome. I find my wife in bed with the gardener.

"I leave home, and come to this bar. I stood here seriously thinking about ending it all. And I was ready to do it. Then you show up and drink my poison..."

A loser! There are loads of them out there. This week the world's attention has been focused on Torino, Italy and the games of the winter Olympics. I was intrigued, and actually taken a bit back last week, when in an article describing the upcoming opening ceremonies, the writer said that this would be the highlight of the games for the vast majority of the 2500 athletes gathered there. After all, only one person can win each event, and there are only three total medals per event - that means all the rest come away empty, regardless of their years and years of training. What is the word? Do I hear loser? It sounds so heartless.

Mike O'Neil of Kalam, Washington, is a heavy equipment operator. A little while back, he ran his bulldozer right over his own car. It seems he was dragging a large log out of the woods and up an incline. His blade was raised which obscured his forward vision, but he began noticing pieces of a Datsun appearing under the bulldozer's tracks. In his own words, "Not a good feeling."(2) Loser.

Do you ever feel like a loser? Ever watch "Seinfeld?" The hit show owes a lot of its success to a twisted sense of humor and a charming cast that could make even horrible behavior seem amusing. The character of George Costanza is the "loveable loser" in the bunch. George's character is based on the real-life co-creator of the show, Larry David. Larry has the same pessimistic attitude toward life as George does. In 1993, when Larry won an Emmy for Best Writing in a Comedy Series, the opening line of his acceptance speech was, "This is all well and good, but I'm still bald."(3) LOSER! Ever feel that way about yourself?

Loser stories are all over the pages of history. The classic is that of Roy Riggles, a name that lives forever in sports infamy. On New Year's Day, 1929, Georgia Tech played UCLA in the Rose Bowl. In that game, Roy Riggles recovered a fumble for California. Somehow, he became confused and started running...65 yards in the wrong direction. One of his teammates, Benny Lom, ran him down and tackled him just before he scored for the opposing team. When California attempted to punt, Tech blocked the kick and scored a safety - two points - which proved to be the ultimate margin of victory.(4) Roy Riggles, forever after, came to be known as WRONG-WAY Riggles.

Ever feel like Wrong-Way Riggles? If you do, I have a word from the Lord for us, a word that will help us keep going when we feel we have let God and everyone else down. The word is found right at the beginning of our Old Testament lesson found halfway through the book of Jonah. Listen: "Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time ..."

We know what led up to this. God told Jonah to go to Ninevah; Jonah deliberately disobeyed. He ran off in the opposite direction in a hissy fit, because he knew, BETTER THAN GOD, that Ninevah had no right to survive - they were the Nazis of their day. They were AWFUL! Jonah split rather than take the chance on a Ninevite Nazi revival. Then there was that storm at sea, the big fish, and history's first submarine ride. Finally, Jonah is barfed up on the beach. LOSER. BIG time. And here we read, "Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time..." God is giving this loser another chance.

There is Gospel in that. A word of grace. Good news for those who need a second chance, or a third chance, or a hundredth chance. It is a gospel for Peter (who denied his Lord), for Paul (who persecuted his Lord), for Jonah (who ran away from his Lord), and even for you and me.

By the way, there is more to that story about Wrong-Way Riggles than most people know.(5) That strange and infamous play came in the first half, and everyone watching the game was wondering what would Coach Nibbs Price do with Roy Riggles in the second half? The players filed off the field, went into the dressing room and sat down on the benches and the floor...all but Riggles. He put his blanket around his shoulders, sat down in a corner, put his face in his hands, and cried like a baby.

A coach usually has a great deal to say to his team during halftime, but that day, Coach Price was quiet. The timekeeper came in and announced that there were only three minutes till the second half. Price looked at the team and said simply, "Men, the same team that played the first half, will start the second."

The players got up and started out - all but Riggles. He did not budge. The coach looked back and called to him again. Still he did not move. Coach Price went over to where Riggles sat and said, "Roy, didn't you hear me? The same team that played the first half, will start the second."

Then Roy Riggles looked up, and Price saw his tear-stained cheeks. "Coach," he said. "I can't do it. I have ruined you. I have ruined the University of California. I have ruined myself. I could not face that crowd in the stadium to save my life."

Then Coach Price put his hands on Riggles's shoulder and said, "Roy, get up and go on back. The game is only half over." Reluctantly, Roy Riggles went back, and those Georgia Tech players will tell you they have never seen a man play football as Roy Riggles played in that second half.

Great coach, eh? Then I read the story of Jonah and the stories of a thousand lives like his, and I say, "Great God, eh?" We take the ball and run in the wrong direction. We stumble and fall and are so ashamed of ourselves that we never want to try again. And God comes to us, bends over us, and in the person of Jesus says, "Get up. Go on back. The game is only half over."

Then I read what Paul wrote to the Corinthians and wonder if maybe this was God's intention all along. God makes wonderful use, perhaps the BEST use, of LOSERS! Paul writes to his friends at 1st Church, Corinth and recounts a long list of trials and tribulations which he has suffered. But he is not ready to give up. "It is through God's mercy that we have this ministry," he says, and that is why "we do not lose heart." He considers the Gospel of Jesus Christ a precious treasure that needs to be shared with the world, and then he admits, "we have this treasure in jars of clay..." What? A precious treasure in such a fragile and humble container? Apparently, this has been God's intention all along.

There are examples everywhere. John Blue is one. John Blue is a name you probably do not know. A part-time pastor and social worker in eastern Oklahoma.(6) John was never much of a student, but more than anything else, he wanted to be a Presbyterian minister, a vocation that demands more than a little school work. John finally graduated from the third college he attended and then headed off to our Presbyterian Seminary at Austin, Texas. During his senior year, he took an ethics course required of all graduating pastors, a tough course. At midterm there was a major test. When the professor handed the grades back, he told the class that the grades ranged from 55 to 95.

After the class was over, the students filed out and began to compare notes. "I made a 95," said one. "What did you make?"

"85," came the reply.

"Hey," someone asked, "I wonder who made that 55--can you believe that!"

There was silence, then John spoke up: "That was my grade. I made 55." Oops. There was shamed silence.

John Blue knew as much about ethics as anyone else in his class. John knew how to be a failure, a loser; he had had lots of practice. In a unique and wonderful way, John's less-than- spectacular history and his willingness to own up to it made him remarkably free. People trusted him. He knew something about the sadder side of life that others did not and could minister to those of his classmates who were frightened of such things.

John went on to spend most of his time counseling troubled teenagers. They are already losers at 15, but that was OK with John. He knew about being a loser and did not try to pastor them with his success. Instead, he offered encouragement, hope, hard work, and love. John Blue let them know there IS a gospel for losers.

I love the way the apostle Paul affirms that in his own experience. "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed." Down but not out.

Did you look in the mirror this morning and see a loser? Well, seeing a loser might be like seeing beauty - it is in the eye of the beholder. The American sports world's attention will soon turn from the Olympics to Major League Baseball as spring training gets underway. Of all the spectator sports, baseball is my favorite. I know, I know - some folks think the pace of the game makes it about as exciting as watching paint dry, but there is an elegance to it that I find uplifting, and especially when it is done well. But what is "well?" Do you realize the best hitters in the game only succeed about one-third of the time? Seven out of ten at-bats end up in failure. Hmm. That would make them big time losers in almost any other job (except perhaps weather forecaster), if anyone cared to think that way. But no one does.

It was baseball's opening day in 1954. The Milwaukee Braves and the Cincinnati Reds played each other, and a rookie for each team made his major-league debut during that game. The rookie who played for the Reds hit four doubles and helped his team win with a score of 9-8. The rookie for the Braves went 0 for 5. The Reds player was Jim Greengrass, a name you probably have never heard. The other guy, who did not get a hit, might be more familiar to you. His name was Hank Aaron. Loser, right? Except for being the player who became the best home run hitter in the history of the game.(7)

I remember a wonderful Michael Jordan Nike commercial a few years ago showing this nine-time All-Star, four-time MVP, two-time Olympic gold medalist, this once-in-a-century icon arriving at the game, heading to the locker room. His stride is easy, his smile secretive and knowing as he moves down the gauntlet of fans and well-wishers. He walks like a winner. After all, he is Michael Jordan, the man who made the impossible seem routine and the merely difficult look easy. Yet in the voice-over he says: "I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost more than 300 games. Twenty-six times I have been trusted to take the game-winning shot...and missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."(8)

What? Failure is why he succeeds? Being a loser has made him a winner? Absolutely. There is a reason to go through ordeal; there is value in adversity. We become tougher in the trial, and learn that failure is not fatal. And occasionally, one even becomes truly great. Wrong-Way Riggles would say AMEN!

There is an historic Presbyterian doctrine that we count as one of the bedrocks of our faith tradition. It is known as the "perseverance of the saints," and affirms that our family relationship with the Lord will never be broken, no matter how much of a loser we might turn out to be. Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte once described the perseverance of the saints as falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up, all the way to heaven.(9) I love it.

A gospel for losers. Is there really such a thing? Listen one more time to some heartening words: "Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the SECOND time ..."

Amen!

1. Leo Heler, via Ecunet, "Jokes," #6751, 8/24/98

2. "Dozer Drivers Flattens Car," The Knoxville News-Sentinel, 7/21/90, A-2

3. Greg Gattuso, The Seinfeld Universe, (Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, 1998), p. 160

4. Haddon Robinson, "A Little Phrase for Losers," Christianity Today, 10/26/92, p. 11

5. ibid.

6. Thomas W. Currie III, "Learning to Be a Failure," The Christian Ministry, September-October, 1997, pp. 26-27

7. James Merritt, Friends, Foes & Fools, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holmes, 1997)

8. Leonard Pitts, Miami Herald, Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, quoted in Clergy Journal, 5/97

9. Quoted by Haddon Robinson

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