Winners and Losers

By human standards, life is filled with Winners and losers.

Athletic contests always produce winners and losers. Wake Forest played 65 games in 2023, winning 54 and losing 11, but most fans will remember their heroic overtime loss in the College World Series. It was legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice who said, “It is not how whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” All of us who have ever lost a game or something more important to us than any game want to believe that is true.

Elections also produce winners and losers. It goes without saying that we hope that every vote counts—and sometimes that seems to be the case. In 1800, after a tie in the Electoral College, Thomas Jefferson was elected President in the House of Representatives by one vote. In 1824 Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, tied in the Electoral College, and then lost to John Quincy Adams by a single vote in the House of Representatives. During the 1910 elections for his New York’s congressional district, Charles B. Smith beat his opponent, the incumbent, 20,655 to 20,654.

Of course—despite what Vince Lombardi once said, winning and losing is not everything. It has been rightly said that nothing became the Presidency of George Washington like the way that he left office. As Washington neared the end of his only term in office, many people in America and Europe thought that he would hang on to power as long as possible. Some even speculated that, if he wanted, Washington could become a king When told by the American artist Benjamin West that Washington was going to step down after a single term, King George III of England said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

As much as we hate to admit it, some of life greatest contest are not decided by runs, or points, or votes, but by dollars, and I am not just talking about politics.

Today, among those who follow professional sports, the size of a player’s salary is considered almost as important as the players touchdowns, baskets, and homeruns. In 1922, the New York Yankees astounded the people of the United States when they paid Babe Routh $52,000.00 to wear the pinstripes and play ball. By contrast, that same year, President Warren G. Harding made only $50,000 dollars. When asked how he felt about making more money than the President, Routh opined that he had had a better year than the President! He had, for Harding was still embroiled in the famous Teapot Dome Scandal. Starting in 1949, the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, received a salary of $100,000 dollars a year. The first baseball player to receive $100,000 just for playing the game was Willie Mays, in 1963. However, starting in 1949, Joe DiMaggio drew on many sources of income to make as much or more than President Truman. Later DiMaggio would earn far more as a spoke person for Mister Coffee. Today, the President makes $400,000.00 a year, and the average salary in a Major League Baseball is a little over 4 million dollars, almost exactly ten times higher. And, as crazy and out of kilter as it sounds, some are paid even more. Under his present contract Mike Trout will make a little over $35 million dollars for playing baseball in 2023, and he will match figure that for a number of years to come. Want to hear something even more remarkable? When Michael Jordan signed an endorsement deal with Nike he received 2.5 million up front—but, to date, thanks to his mother’s insistence he receive a royalty on the merchandise that would bear his name, his percentage of Air Jordan sales have earned the North Carolinian more that 1.3 Billion dollars.

The rich and famous often seem to be winners in the game of life. Sports figures, performing artists like Taylor Swift, and computer-internet Superstars like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg parlay their talents and hutzpah into what we might call “really big bucks.” However, with a few notable exceptions, most people with great wealth were born to it. I am not talking about the 1%, but most of America and all of us, for seen in the right perspective, we are all among the most affluent people in the most affluent nation in the history of the world.

Of course, riches show up in more places that one’s bank account. Last Tuesday, I walked down to Hanes Park to get in a few laps. As I passed the clubhouse, I saw read the words, “Play Tennis and live ten years longer.” I was intrigued, so I read the fine print. It claimed that runners live an additional 3.2 years, and swimmers an additional 3.4 years, but badminton players live an additional 6.5 years, and tennis players live an additional 9.7 years. I followed up with a little research on the internet. The people who initially made this claim put that outrageous statistic down not just to exercise, but to the importance of being involved with a group of friends on a regular basis. That may be true in part, but I am willing to bet that that tennis and badminton players live longer, at least in part, because most tennis and badminton players are fairly well to do and receive better medical care than people who swim at the YMCA or jog in their neighborhood.

Speaking of health, it has been rightly said that the greatest division in the whole human race is the divide between those who are sick and those who are well. Anyone who has ever sat across from a doctor to hear a diagnosis of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, knows that to be true. By contrast, nothing makes one feel more like a winner than the words “The stint was a success!” Or “Your A1C is under 7.0!” or “You are Cancer free. You can ring the bell!” As I have said before, growing old is not for those who are weak in character. We need to do all we can to slow down the battle we are fighting against time and the rapid aging of our bodies. Unfortunately, good health is often just a lottery with winners and losers. Wayne Burkett once told me that his doctor said that the smartest thing anyone could do for their health was to choose the right parents and limit their intake of salt.

In the lesson from Genesis 21, Sarah and her son Isaac appear to be winners, and Hagar and her son Ishmael appear to be losers. It had to be that way. Sarah was Abraham’s wife and Hagar was merely his concubine. Isaac was the son God had promised Abraham and Ishmael was the substitute that God rejected, despite Abraham’s plea that God would accept him as his heir.

Under normal circumstances you would call Sarah and Isaac the big winners, and Hagar and Ishmael the big losers. But in this text God is involved, and when God is involved remarkable things can happen. Out of jealousy, Sara had Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, into the desert, and they very nearly perished from thirst. Hagar was so despondent she put Ishmael under a bush and asked that God that she not be forced to look on the death of her son. God heard Hagar’s prayer and spoke to her from heaven saying:

“Do not be afraid (Hagar); for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Lift him up and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make of him a great nation.”

Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water. And she went, and drew water, and gave the boy a drink. And the text say, “God was with the boy and he grew up and developed skills, and he lived in the wilderness (of Paran), and his mother got a wife for him out of the land of Egypt.” Ultimately Ishmael became the father of the Ishmaelites, a great and powerful people. By the way, the name Ishmael means “God hears!” Ishmael’s life most certainly did not end in the wilderness. There was a great deal more to come.

There is a lesson here for all of us. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Or, in the memorable words of the late Tom Pleasants, “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!” Winners don’t have to win all the time. They just have to stay in the game even after they lose. As Robert Schuller once said, “Success is never certain, and failure is never final.” Consider the case of Stan the Man Musial, one of the greatest hitters in the game of baseball. Musial’s lifetime batting average was .331. That means he failed to get a hit twice as many times as he got a hit. Or take the case of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln lost eight elections in his lifetime, and won only three that mattered, once to the congress and twice to the presidency, but Lincoln was around to save the Union when he was needed. Tragically, Lincoln barely outlived the that terrible Civil War, and was killed, murdered, assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at the age of 56, just days after Lee’s Surrender.

In our Gospel Lesson Jesus turned the definition of winning and losing upside down. He said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Years ago, I read an article in Psychology Today in which B.F. Skinner the father of behaviorism was asked, “What is the secret of happiness?” And Skinner responded, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it.” Skinner went on to explain that the secret of happiness was losing one’s life in the pursuit of something larger than oneself, or one’s advancement, or one’s happiness. Jesus adds only that happiness is tied to him. And, as my friend—it is hard to say this, the late Chuck Chambers used to say, “The secret of happiness is J-O-Y, Jesus-Others-Yourself.”

How true. About twenty-five years ago, I counseled with a couple in the throes of divorce. Neither still lives.The wife had been in and out of several clinics where she had been treated for depression. In one session, I just listened without comment when she turned to her husband and said, “I am going to look out for number one. I have been putting others ahead of myself and I am miserable. I am going to change that.” I saw the husband grimace. He grimaced for he knew, as everyone knew, that his wife was miserable precisely because she had always put her welfare at the top of the list. Eventually, they split up and no one was surprised.

Marriage is not a game to be played by winners and losers. With this in mind, not long after going to New Philadelphia, I preached a sermon in which I said that marriage is a 50-50 proposition. Afterward a couple named Bud and Pete invited me to their home for lunch. After a wonderful meal, Pete, the wife, said:

“Worth, marriage is not a 50-50 proposition. It is a 60-40 proposition. Sometimes I take forty and give Bud sixty. And sometimes Bud takes forty and gives me sixty. Otherwise, there is deadlock. And, by the way, you cannot take 60 and give 40; you can only take 40 and give 60.”

It occurs to me that, as Jesus was nearing the end of his ministry, he was actively planning to avoided deadlock among his disciples when told them to be servants of one another, saying that the greatest of all would be the servant of all!

Consider this: Jesus comforted his disciples and us through them when he told them that God had numbered the hairs on their heads, but Jesus never promised his disciples “the big gift,” a huge payday, a long life, or supreme happiness during their time in this world. Quite the contrary. He told them that this world would treat them as badly as it had treated him, maybe worse, with determined opposition and unjust of persecution. He told them that all true disciples would have eventually have to bear the wait of his cross. And then he told them to look beyond that cross to the resurrection life saying, “If you confess me before the world, I will confess you before the Creator of the World.”

St. Paul went Jesus one better. In 1st Corinthians 15, he said that as in Adam, the man of the earth—adam means “earth,” all die, so, in Christ, the man of heaven, shall all be made alive. And in Romans 6 he went even futher when he said that all those who belong to Christ are already winners. He says, “the death Jesus Christ died, he died to sin, once for all…and the life he lives, he lives to God.” Then he clinched it saying, “Therefore as many of us who have been baptized into Christ’s death—must now consider ourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” In other words, we are not waiting to be winners; we are winners already.

In his book, Sapiens, Uval Noah Harari says that the day is coming when the richest people in our world will achieve what he calls a-mortality, not immortality, but a-mortality. Thanks to genetic engineering and organ transplants and the like, some people will be able to live for centuries, unless of course they are hit by a bus, or perish on a risky adventure. But even if some people do live for centuries, the word of Scripture will still stand,“…it is appointed for us once to die, and after this comes judgment.” However, those who belong to Christ know that death is not the end, and that judgment is not to be feared, for Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death, and pronounced judgment, and his judgment upon all who call upon his name is, “Not Guilty!”

That is the Good News! Believe the Good News!


Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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