I recently watched the film We Are Marshall. The film details the true story of a tragedy in 1970 that happened to Marshall University. After an away football game, most of the team and coaches, as well as several boosters, took a private plane back to the university. The plane crashed just minutes from landing, killing everyone onboard. The town was bereft as they mourned their sons, friends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, and teammates. The University’s Board was set to cancel the 1971 football season, when the few surviving players petitioned to play anyway. The president was then tasked to find a coach who would be willing to step into this tragic situation – coaching a season that many thought was inappropriate given the deaths, to find enough players when Freshmen were not yet allowed to play per NCAA rules, and to find a supporting coaching staff, including trying to recruit the only assistant coach who had not been on the plane. The season moves forward and after the first game, which Marshall loses, the head coach and the surviving assistant coach have a heart-to-heart. The assistant coach explains that the deceased former head coach had always said that the most important thing in football was winning. And if the current team was not going to win, the assistant didn’t want to coach, because they would be dishonoring the former coach’s memory. After a long pause, the current head coach confesses that before he came to Marshall, he would have said the same thing: that winning is the most important thing. But now that he was there, in the midst of the Marshall community, the most important thing to him was simply playing.
We are a society that glorifies winning. Not just in sports, but in all of life, we want to be winners. No one likes to lose because losing, when we are really honest, is not fun. Of course, we try to teach our children that we cannot always win. Many a play date argument is settled by the conversation that sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. We even have a word for being comfortable with losing. We say we are being “good sports.” But being a good sport takes work. We do not like losing. Losing itches as something deep inside of us – both internally and externally reinforced. We want to be winners.
Of course no one knows more about losing than King David. History labels him as a winner, but as we reread his story, we know that David was an intimate friend of losing. We hear the deep pain of his losing in his final words today, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” We know the pain of losing a child – the sorrow and the grief of that kind of losing. But David is not just mourning the loss of his child in these words. He is morning the loss even more deeply because he knows he is indirectly guilty of his son’s death.[i] If you remember, in the reading we heard last week, Nathan told David that because of his sinfulness with Bathsheba and Uriah that his household will be plagued by a sword. Through Nathan, the Lord proclaims, “I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”[ii]
God stays true to God’s judgment. Between last week’s reading and this week’s reading, David’s family starts to fall apart. His first child with Bathsheba dies. One of David’s sons rapes his half-sister. When David does not punish that son, another son, Absalom, takes action, killing his half-brother. Absalom then flees, and spends years amassing a revolution against David. Absalom manages to take Jerusalem, and further humiliates David by sleeping with ten of David’s concubines in front of everyone. David is forced to battle against Absalom to restore the kingdom, but he does so begrudgingly. Today we hear David trying to make victory as painless as possible, asking his men to deal gently with Absalom. But Absalom had made too many enemies in the family and kingdom, and when the time came, he was killed in battle. Though many saw Absalom’s death as a victory, David knew the truth. Victory in this case was not winning for David. Victory was just another reminder of the ways in which David’s life had become about losing – about the painful reminder of his sin hanging over his head.
David reminds us of what we have all learned about losing. Though none of us like losing, we know losing is a necessary and probably valuable part of life. You see, losing helps us in many ways. First, losing reminds us of our finitude. Though we might like to think we are without limits or we can control everything, losing reminds us of the “futility of our personal striving and the frailty of our existence.” Second, losing gives us the opportunity to reexamine our goals and outlook on life. Losing can help us see when perhaps we have become overly self-serving, have developed unrealistic expectations, or we have just become distracted by the wrong things in life. Finally, losing reminds us that our lives are in need of redemption. Losing can give us a much-needed opportunity to renew our relationship with God. As one scholar explains, “In this moment of realization, we are liberated to renew our trust in God’s power and in [God’s] purpose for our lives.” That does not mean we should give up, stop trying, or be overcome by the fear of losing. Instead, maintaining our trust in God gives assurance that “ultimately, there is no losing without the possibility of redemption.”[iii]
Think for a moment about the ultimate symbol of our faith – the cross. The cross is both a symbol of loss and victory. We always remember the victory of resurrection and redemption, but first, the cross was a symbol of death and defeat. The cross was a humiliating reminder of the brutal death of the one we insist is the Messiah. Our main symbol was the symbol of ultimate loss – the place where losers go to lose: lose their life, their dignity, and their power. That symbol of being a loser is only redeemed because the Redeemer redeems it. Of course, we should not be surprised. Every week, we as a community gather and remind ourselves at how we are losers when we confess our sins. We kneel down and young, old, male, female, single, partnered, good, and bad confess that we lost. Every single week we confess how, once again, we have lost.
I sometimes wonder how David coped with the sword in his house. Sure, he had moments of redemption. Solomon taking the helm at David’s death was one of the best redemptive moves in his family. But I wonder, on that deathbed, how all the losing in David’s life weighed on him. In last week’s lesson, David did what all of us do. He confessed. He confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord.” His confession did not make Absalom’s death any less painful. But his confession, like ours, is redemptive. Like David, when we acknowledge and confess our senses of incompleteness, “we are able to be freed from the entrapments of a win/lose culture. God accepts us despite our failings. This relationship is not earned; [this relationship] is a divine gift. Accepted and forgiven, we are liberated to celebrate life. Affirmed and fulfilled by God, we are released to care for others. These affirmations point to the redemptive side of failure, to the God who accepts losers.”[iv]
When we wear a cross, or we reverence the cross in church, we reverence both the winning and the losing of the cross. We honor the ways in which the cross represents not just the loss of Christ, but also the brokenness in each of us – the ways in which we have failed. Only when we honor that loss can we then hold that cross as a symbol of victory. That cross becomes a symbol of the ways in which Christ redeems us, but also the ways in which we too made new through our losing. When we embrace the cross in its fullness of expression, we also recognize the fullness of our lives – the good, the bad, and the ugly. We know that without the embracing of our losing we can never fully claim the victory of our winning through the cross. Amen.
[i] Ted A. Smith, “Commentary on 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33” 2009, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=365 on August 6, 2015.
[ii] 2 Samuel 12.11-12.
[iii] The ideas in this paragraph and the quotes within come from Carnegie Samuel Calian, “Theologizing in a Win/Lose Culture, Christian Century, vol. 96, no. 32, October 10, 1979, 978.
[iv] Calian, 979.