I want to talk with you for a few moments about failure.
Many of you at one time or another have been to a high school or college graduation ceremony. More often than not there is a guest speaker — someone who is tops in a particular field, an achiever, a mover and shaker. For instance at our daughter Kate’s high school graduation, , our local congressman, was the speaker.
I have never heard a speech given by a loser, a failure. Never heard someone speak about why his last three marriages ended in divorce, or about "the day they came to tell me that I was fired."
And yet graduates know that failure is built into life.
It’s sort of like football. When the game is over, the roaring stadium is silent, empty of fans — a forlorn place of crushed popcorn boxes and drink cups and trampled programs. The coach enters a sullen, utterly quiet locker room. Helmets down on the floor, jerseys pulled off and thrown into a pile in the corner. “I just want you guys to know that I am real proud of the way you played this afternoon, real proud. We didn’t win, but we did prove to a lot of people what we could do. It was a moral victory.”
On the way out, the second string tackle turns to the quarterback and says, “What’s a moral victory?”
The quarterback answers, “It’s what a coach tells you when you lose the game.”
When the scores are read on the 6 o'clock news, nobody ever talks about “moral victory.” They put the numbers on the board. Those with the highest numbers are winners. Those with the lowest numbers are losers.
A coach only remains a coach when the win-loss record is in his favor. The corporate president stands up before a drooping sales graph and says to the shareholders, “well, we lost 6 million this year, but we’re calling it a moral victory and year of character building for our company." A week later, there’s a new name on the office door.
Failure. It’s that sinking emptiness in the stomach when you look down the list of grades on the exam. There are your initials. At the bottom of the class list. It’s that physician, returning from the operating room, surgical mask taken off to reveal a countenance that speaks without having to speak.
It’s packing up and moving from the house to separate apartments, packing the last book of wedding pictures that won’t be viewed ever again.
It’s the morning after the election. The unused boxes of buttons and bumper stickers. That attempt at a smile — as if it didn’t hurt. “I want to thank all of you for all that you have done. We didn’t win, but we made our point. If we’d a few more weeks, we would have turned things around.”
What to do with defeat? One response is cheap rationalization: It was a moral victory. I remember at my first church, entering the home where her husband had just died and she met me at the door with fierce look on her face saying, "Don’t tell me nothing about how 'he’s better off now,' or 'he’s in a better place' and any of that other stuff. He’s gone!”
Three months ago we felt hope surge within church walls at the songs of angels, telling us of God’s determination to make this world right with the birth of his son. Yet, how quickly that angel’s song is overwhelmed by the facts of the failure to have peace on earth. It was a short journey from the songs of angels to shouts from the crowd — "crucify him!"
So Peter don’t mock this tragedy with “preacher talk” of a moral victory, or with words like “Jesus will live on in our memories.” Let’s be honest enough to call a defeat, DEFEAT; failure, a failure; death = death. Who would blame God if now, at last, we were to be left to our own devices? Who?
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, went to see the sepulcher ... HAPPY EASTER.
Peter Larsen is rector of in Southampton Village.