On Being Number One

July 7, 1996


On Being “Number 1”

I remember a Trustees meeting in another church when we voted to sell three or four houses which were being rented from the church. They had been held for many years on the basis that we might need them some day for parking space or building expansion, and those who voted not to sell argued that if we sold them it would be a clear signal that we had adopted, as they put it, a No-Growth policy — a phrase that set me to thinking about what churches mean by “growth.” It was clear that night that everybody was talking about visible, physical, measurable growth. If anything other than a larger building and larger crowds was meant, I missed it — and I was listening with unusual care.
It is probably important to say that I am not opposed to numbers. I have spoken to as few as 25 people at a worship service, and to as many as ten thousand at a forum in St. Louis, and there was certainly more excitement in addressing ten thousand. But I have never seen conclusive proof that there is any correlation between the size of a crowd and the value of what is happening. The crowds that came to hear Jesus in the early weeks of his ministry wanted excitement and entertainment. When it became clear that he was offering the discomfort of challenge, they drifted away until only a handful were left. It was the passion and commitment of those few people, by the way, that gave birth to Christianity while the big crowds were going from one place to another in search of new thrills.
I understand the use of numbers to measure success at spectator events like concerts, plays and football games, where people are expected to listen or watch but are not being challenged to re-examine their lives or to take an active role in what is happening. But churches have a different mission. Their first priority is not expanding their membership rolls, but expanding the hearts and minds of their members — a slow, quiet process which does not generate high drama. A minister candidating to become senior minister of a numbers-conscious church is probably wise not to say what I have just said. He is expected to hold out the jubilant hope from week to week that any day now the crowds will become so large it will be necessary to build a new plant.
However un-ministerial and even un-American it may sound, I cannot float those optimistic balloons. My religious approach, and yours, is very open and non-creedal, and the audience for that kind of theology in Wichita or anywhere else is not large. I do not think of that as negativism, nor do my temperate hopes for explosive growth in numbers embarrass me. I do not subscribe to the widespread doctrine that bigger is better, that numbers are the way to measure success in church life, and that unless we are building new quarters to accommodate more people we are failing. By the way, no one in this place has even hinted that we should measure success in those ways, so this sermon is not designed to deflect criticism but to confirm this church in its way of evaluating how well it is doing.
And we need to be confirmed occasionally, because we live among a majority who constantly and insistently equates growth or success with being Number One, which — as they tell us — “is what it’s all about.” Colleges and universities are under far more pressure to win athletic championships and go on to a lucrative Bowl game than they are to show evidence of growth in knowledge and in character on the part of the players they recruit. Season ticket sales are up at the Roundhouse, and not because more fans are interested in character building. It is naive, I suppose, to expect anything else now that winning football and basketball programs can bring such enormous financial rewards. Since I’m neither a coach nor a college president, I have little of substance to say about their dilemma, but as a minister I refuse absolutely to judge the value of this or any other church by the world’s view of what winning means.
I recall when someone asked Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, what he would most like to be remembered for. Bear said, “I’d like it if it’d be for winning.” Bear had a way with reporters who asked questions like that, so maybe he didn’t really mean it. Maybe in a different mood he would have said he would like most to be remembered as a man of integrity who buiilt character into his players…..but that is not what he said. Nor quite what Woody Hayes of Ohio State once said, either. “Winners are men,” declared Woody, “who have dedicated their whole lives to…..winning.” Woody did that, and despite his highly publicized temper I’m sure he had many fine qualities. But it is a fact that winning became so obsessive that it finally unhinged Woody, and I was watching one day when an opposing player dared to intercept a crucial Ohio State pass. It made Woody so mad that he lost it, dashed out onto the field from the sidelines, and took a swing at the guy. On that day, Woody just could not stand the frustration of not winning. The injustice of it made him totally irrational in front of a coast-to-coast television audience.
I have other heroes, as does a man named Bud Greenspan who has a new book out about the 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic history. Some of my heroes come in last, Bud says. He mentions John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania who finished last in the marathon in the 1968 Olympics. By the time he finally reached the stadium in Mexico City it was dark and all the others had long ago finished. He had apparently been in some kind of accident, because his right leg was bandaged, so after he made his way painfully around the track to complete his run, Bud Greenspan went up to him and said, “You’re bloodied and in great pain. Why did you do this?” Bud says the exhausted runner gave him new ideas about what it means to be No. 1: “My country didn’t send me here to start the race. My country sent me here to finish it.”
Roger Staubach, one of my favorite athletes, said once that “in pro football winning is all there is.” I don’t know whether he thought there should be much more, or whether he thought anything in sports should have a higher priority than winning, but I do know that he was an active member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and it would be fun to ask him whether he would describe Christ as a winner or a loser by our standards of measurement. Big crowds at first — lots of publicity, excitement, fanfare — and then a steady erosion, with the initial curiosity fading and the publicity turning sour. If he won — and there is a magnificent sense in which he did — he can only be said to have won in the way he lost. I mean that he clung to his ideals even when it cost him the big crowds and the main chance, and finally brought him to the disgraceful death of a common criminal. The only way to say that he won is to say that in an ultimate sense he had the victory because character was a higher priority than success, because he refused to compromise himself in order to win.
But let’s be honest: that is not what we usually mean when we talk of winning. It is abundantly clear that multitudes will do just about whatever it takes to keep from losing, because not being Number One generates little if anything in the way of public adulation. It is superfluous to bother you with even the most recent stories about the coaches and alums who cheat, sell out, pay off, break laws —coaches because they must win to get the best jobs and the top salaries, alums because for peculiar reasons their diplomas mean more all of a sudden if the football team goes to the Rose Bowl. Someone listening right now may be tempted to say, “Well, you probably grew up with your nerdy nose stuck in a book and never suited up for a ball game in your life,” but most of the people in this room know better. I played….I always wanted to win (although never so compulsively that life lost meaning when I didn’t) .and I still find great pleasure in watching others compete.
What is true is that I grew up in a time when a great many coaches had the luxury of putting integrity ahead of becoming national champions. When I was 12 I really thought that the famous remark credited to Grantland Rice was part of the creed of the country. I knew it the way I knew Biblical verses: “It matters not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.” I tried it out on a friend of mine the other day. He thought it was the quaintest thing he had heard in years, and we both agreed that most players and coaches nowadays would laugh Mr. Rice right out of his job. “How you played the game,” for Grantland Rice, meant giving every ounce of skill and energy to winning, but remembering in every moment of competition that what you are is always more mportant than a ribbon or a trophy.
Competition can create all sorts of good things as long as integrity sets the boundaries for it. The nearest thing we have to a national epic celebrates the cowboy’s winning his battles with the endless prairies and the spooky cattle and the long lonely nights, so competitiveness and winning were bred into us early, and it should surprise no one that many preachers turn the gospel itself into a promise of financial success if we pray often and drop money in the plate on Sunday — money, they tell us, which will be returned to us tenfold as a reward of faith. It seems actually to happen occasionally to somebody, who is then cited as proof that religion pays off in ways the world calls success.
All of which makes it easy for us to believe this formula: Winners are good people, losers are — well, losers! It is very easy to decide, and especially if you are one of them, that those who have earned a name, or gotten money, or achieved power, are also the “good” people. Those who don’t get those things, no matter how long or hard they have worked, no matter how unwilling they may have been to win by the wrong means, must be born losers….and therefore not worth much respect.
I find that idea repugnant outside the church, and inside the church it’s an idea that simply cannot be squared with the ministry of Christ, who came to love and redeem the nobodies, the nameless, the failures, the losers. Even his disciples wondered about it at times. Why not just let them alone? It’s their fault. If they had tried harder, most of them would have made it. And the rest of the time, they simply forgot about the matter in their own eagerness to be Number One. “Who will be the greatest, Lord, in your kingdom. Who will be able to wave his hand and shout: ‘I’m Number One!’?”
The question absolutley astonished Christ. “Gentlemen, you’ve missed the point about this kingdom. It’s an upside-down place, where those you consider successful may rank lowest. Do you hear me? The world’s Number One may be deep in the second division, and the guy down in the cellar rank as national champion.” Or, most incredible of all — so incredible, in fact, that I’m not sure any of us ever manage to think about it past one minute, or take it seriously even in that single moment: “He who would be the greatest among you must be the servant of all.”
So success, as Jesus defined it, has little to do with measurable growth and public acclaim, but everything to do with what goes on inside. It’s the kind of thing Benjamin Jowett, the famous headmaster of one of the Oxford colleges, meant when he wrote to someone: “I hate to meet a man whom I have known twenty years ago, and find that he is at precisely the same point, neither moderated, nor quickened, nor experienced; but simply stiffened.” And then a growl of disappointment from one who had hoped for more from all his students: “He ought to be beaten”
I believe in his kind of growth, and I find it in a church when people say things like this: “My ideas have deepened. I see so much now that I didn’t before. I understand so much that was once beyond me. I’m more patient. I love better, I forgive more easily.” When I hear things like that, I am convinced we are winning, without regard to the standards that were so important to a man who sat down beside me one night in the symphony hall at Century II and asked two quick questions to see how we were doing. “How many members do you have?” and before I could tell him I really wasn’t sure, “How much is your budget this year?” I wasn’t really surprised. I had known for more than 30 years that he measured growth, even in the church, by numbers and pledges.
It would have been unkind to quote it at that moment, but I thought of the Apostle Paul’s definition of success in one of his churches, a definition that had nothing to do with numbers or buildings or budgets: “We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” In a successful church, faith is not static. What nourished you yesterday may not be deep and wise enough for this morning. In a growing church, love increases. The supreme Christian commandment is to love, which is why some years ago I delivered 24 sermons over six months on what it means to love other people. There were lots of stories of love in action, because abstract definitions do not inspire us, but there was one I did not use. It has to do with the fading days of a great baseball player, and I relate to it because although I never saw him, I did see something that makes the story especially poignant for me.
There was a summer, long ago, when the Army sent me by mistake to St. Louis, and left me there with nothing much to do for three months while they decided where I should go next. I spent many afternoons at the Cardinals’ ball park marveling at the grace of Red Schoendienst at shortstop, at the speed of Terry Moore in the outfield, and above all at one of the great hitters of all time, Stan Musial. Everybody in St. Louis loved Stan, not only as a superb athlete but as a modest, unassuming gentleman. When I left at the end of summer, I never expected to see him play again, but eleven years later I had reason to return to St. Louis and although I knew he was struggling in his final year I wanted to watch him again and remember perfection. It was a mistake, perhaps, although I learned something that day about cruelty and ingratitude. The glory days were well past. Stan had slowed on the field and did poorly at the plate, and when he struck out in his last bat there was a shower of boos from the bleachers. I wished that day I were someone really important, because I wanted to walk onto the field and shake his hand.
That will help you understand why I choose to illustrate love in action by closing with this true story. It was not Musial but Babe Ruth who was over the hill when he played one of his last full major league games against the Cincinnati Reds. The ball looked awkward in his aging hands. He wasn’t throwing well. And in one inning his mistakes made most of the runs scored by the Reds possible. As he walked off the field, after making a third out at the plate, his head bent low in embarrassment, a crescendo of “boo’s” followed him all the way to the dugout. There was a little boy in the stands that day who could not stand it. He had loved Babe Ruth in the glory days, and he loved him still, no matter what. With tears streaming down his face, he suddenly jumped over the railing and threw his arms around the knees of his hero. Babe, who made enough mistakes of character in his lifetime, did not make one this time. He picked the little boy up, hugged him, set him back on the ground and very gently patted his head. A hush fell over the ballpark. Even the boo-birds were shamed into silence.
The people who followed Christ were like us: they wanted to be No. 1 in the kingdom Christ tried so hard to explain to them. “Believe me,” he told them one day, “unless you change your whole outlook and become like little children, you will not even enter the kingdom of Heaven.” So…..you have an answer. Want to bre No. 1 in the kingdom of right relationshgips? Keep the loving and compassionate heart of a child.

Turn our eyes inward, gracious God, to find the real proof of
whether it means anything for us to be in this place. Amen.