Most, if not all of us, have felt at times as if despite our best efforts to succeed in life—including success in our personal goals, or our business or vocation, or a relationship or even our faith—We always end up right back at the beginning where we started. Do you ever feel that way? Two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes our progress is stalled, or worse, due to someone else’s decision or action. And, at other times, we can see how a poor choice of our own caused everything around us to unravel once more.
The French Philosopher, Albert Camus, reflected on that common human feeling and used the Greek myth of Sisyphus to demonstrate it. My mentor and dear friend from my college days at UCLA, the Rev. Dr. Charles Orr, former pastor of Westwood Presbyterian Church, speaking of Camus’ use of the myth of Sisyphus, as it relates to the plight of modern men and women writes: “Sisyphus…had come of age. He scorned the gods, hated death, and was passionately attached to life. For his audacity and passions, the Greek gods placed [Sisyphus] in eternal punishment and assigned him one specific task. Sisyphus was compelled to push a huge rock up a mountainside. And when he got the rock to the top, it would come crashing down again. And Sisyphus had to start all over.”
Now that is not a definition of human life, we, as Christians, can embrace.
Charles continues: “Life seems that way at times. [Like Sisyphus] You give it all you’ve got and begin to think maybe that’s enough, and then it comes rolling back on you.
“You struggle to overcome a deficiency, in self-esteem, for example. And suddenly, your heroic efforts are interrupted by someone who puts you down—hard.”
Friends, our daily striving to experience personal growth or progress—to find meaning if life or hope in the world—and hold onto it—can seem as futile as Sisyphus’ eternal task.
For example, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and others, gave their very lives for progress in Civil Rights, for peace and justice.
They worked hard and it had to have felt like pushing a boulder up a mountain at times…Dr. once proclaimed, “I’ve been to the mountaintop!”
50 years later, the rock crashes back down as we see again the rise of white nationalism, violence and bigotry. Unreal.
I figured after our nation elected Barack Obama, President, white nationalism and the KKK was dead. Boy was I wrong.
Or this, Women achieve the right to vote, and they make tremendous strides, and yet women still don’t enjoy the respect of equal pay for equal work. I read that in 2018, women reportedly made on average 80 cents for every dollar a man made doing the same job.
One other example of the omnipresence of the myth of Sisyphus in our world--a pastor in Morro Bay works hard all his life to reach out with Christ’s love to the members of his church, his community. He looks forward to retirement and spending more time with his children and grandchildren.
Yes, like Sisyphus, the pastor pushed that rock up the steep mountain, giving all he has in ministry, that others may know the love of God. And yet, on the very day he reaches the top of the mountain and announces his retirement, that Sisyphean rock tumbles violently back down when a car hits and kills the pastor as he takes a Sunday afternoon walk.
In the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes we read: “All is vanity.” That “the sun sets on the good and evil alike.” That “There is nothing new under the sun.”
That sounds like Camus! No, it’s Holy Scripture.
Thus, in a world with such senseless violence, with such pain and sorrow—A world where our best efforts can result in failure or great loss due to no fault of our own—how do we hold onto hope?
How do we hold on to the belief that life truly has meaning?
How do we not just one day throw up our hands and say to ourselves: “I quit.”
To us Shakespeare’s words: “No more slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for me!”
I’m not pushing that rock up the mountain anymore.
Maybe someone here this morning, or in your family, or a friend or co-worker feels like that—feels like quitting.
What to do?
One thing that can help us not quit—help us to keep striving—even though often we find ourselves back at square one—is to hear the stories of those who when faced with adversity--fought on.
For if another can do it—if they can persevere—if they can keep the faith—keep striving to do good amid adversity and sorrow--so can we.
We met such a person in our second lesson this morning: The Apostle Paul. Like Sisyphus, Paul knew what it was to work hard, to struggle, and then have it all come crashing back down upon you. The Apostle Paul had to deal with criticism from both within and outside the church. Some in the church thought he was a thief or a fraud. The Romans viewed him as a troublemaker. Some in the church in the city of Corinth questioned his character, his honesty, his effectiveness. Some in the church could not let go of the fact that before his conversion when he was still known as Saul—he had promoted the arrest and persecution of Christians.
Further, Paul was mocked for his physical weakness and his lack of erudition. And there was that mysterious condition which he described as a “thorn in his flesh.”
Yet, despite the doubters, the haters, the naysayers, despite his sufferings, physically and spiritually, Paul did not lose heart. He kept the faith. In his letter to the church at Corinth, speaking of his own struggles as well as the struggles of devoted Christians in general, Paul writes: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;"
Friends, Paul kept the faith. And he believed that the path forward in life, even at its steepest, the path to all success--mind, body and spirit--comes from trust in God.
Returning to my mentor, Charles Orr, an admirer of Paul’s, he writes: “Christ, the son of God, is the foundation, the center, upon which Paul lives his life. According to the Apostle Paul, “to believe in Jesus” who faced, endured, and overcame death, even death on a cross, is “to believe in the future. Christian faith is not simple-minded, a chirpy belief that everything will get better in every way. Rather, it is the determined conviction that no matter how bad things get, God is yet working for good.”
Some of you here this morning know through personal experience how bad things can get—yet it is right there that God embraced you with his love. And the cross of Christ teaches us that even from man’s evil, God can bring good. Yes, the sorrow of Good Friday gives way ultimately to Easter hope.
This leads me to a story about a man named Don Newcombe who lived by the mantra: “Don’t quit.” Despite the attempt of racist people to negate or destroy him, like the Apostle Paul, he, Don, fought on. At times, Don Newcombe, surely felt like Sisyphus. For no matter how hard he worked to succeed in his profession, the white man was relentless in bringing him back down.
Imagine succeeding in your job as people are shouting insults at you. Church member, Dennis McKeown, makes high performance spokes for racing bikes. Imagine Dennis making those spokes with a group of people surrounding him saying things like: “You call that a spoke! My two-year-old could make a better one!”
Don Newcombe had ugly racist comments and threats hurled at him every time he stepped onto the field. They tried to knock his spirit down with their words. And sometimes they succeeded. And yet, Don Newcombe, always got back up to start pushing that huge rock of racism back up the mountain again—determined to succeed.
You could say that Don Newcombe, like the Apostle Paul, was “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…”
Who was Don Newcombe? Those of you who are longtime Dodger fans may know who he is. And I’m talking the Brooklyn Dodgers.Don Newcombe was an African American athlete who sought to succeed in a racist nation.
He was the first player in Major League Baseball history, black or white, to have won rookie of the year most valuable player and the Cy Young award.
Mike Kupper of the LA Times writes: “Armed with a blazing fastball and excellent control, the 6 foot 4, 240 pounder played mostly for the Brooklyn Dodgers in his 10 year major league career. He was the first outstanding African American pitcher in the major leagues and the first, in 1949, to start a World Series game. St Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer, Stan Musial called Newcombe’s fastball the most frightening pitch he ever had to face. Not only could he pitch—he could hit. In 4 of those 10 seasons in the Major leagues he hit over .300.
Yet, what he accomplished on the field is only part of Don’s story. For off the field he was a pioneer of Civil Rights who helped pave the way for Martin Luther King Jr. How? He never quit. He even overcame a drinking problem caused by the stress. Dr. King once thanked Don Newcombe for making his fight for equality easier. For you see, Don’s athletic talent, his courage, was so great that it forced racist white people to rethink the ability of black people to succeed in sports, indeed in American life.
LA Times columnist, Bill Plaschke, upon Don Newcombe’s death just this past week at the age of 92, wrote a tribute to Don which included these words: “Even when his memory was fading and his steps were slow, he would show up three hours before every LA Dodger game as if dressing for church… His pew was a seat behind home plate. His congregation was countless players, reporters, and officials who would stop, sit and listen. His message was love."
Friends, Don Newcombe was a great storyteller of glory days on the field. Yet, sometimes he shared what he and other black athletes endured off the field in 1940’s and 50’s America.
Concerning an incident which happened during his first road trip with the Dodgers he said to Bill Plaschke: “I still remember them pulling up to the hotel for blacks in St. Louis, and Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella and I [the only blacks on the team, were told to] get off the [Dodger’s] team bus.” [The three black ball players, bags in hand, stood alone.]
Said Don, sadly, yet without bitterness: “None of the Dodgers got off the bus with us. None of them. They were all going to the white’s hotel, and they just watched us walk away.”
Said Don, wistfully: “I love the Dodgers, but I’ll never forget how they stayed on that bus.”
Bill Plaschke concludes: “Somehow, Newcombe quietly endured, forcing baseball to integrate against its will, changing the game forever with his powerful presence.”
One day before a game when a young player asked why he always wore such a fancy suit to the ballpark in his retirement, Don Newcombe, now in his 90’s, responded: “When I was young, I had nothing. I borrowed my brother’s suits, I wore my teammates’ suits. I told myself, if I ever made it…[well, you know the rest]”
Friends, there was no quit in Don Newcombe—when knocked down, he would just get up, dust himself off, and fight on.
I close this morning with verses from a poem entitled, Don’t Quit, by John Greenleaf Whittier. Words which reflect the Apostle Paul’s, as well as Don Newcombe’s, will to succeed—words which are a loving challenge to us. For, we each, from time to time, will find ourselves pushing our own boulder up the mountain of life as Sisyphus did.
“When things go wrong
as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re
trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low
and the debts are high
And you want to smile,
but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing
you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don’t quit.
Life is strange with
its twists and turns
As every one of
us sometimes learns
And many a failure comes about
when he might have won
had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up though
the pace seems slow—
You may succeed with another blow.
Success is failure turned inside out—
the silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell
just how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far;
So stick to the fight
when you’re hardest hit—
It’s when things seem worst
that you must not quit.”
Friends, when your life is tough, rest if you must, but trusting that God’s love will help you endure—even triumph—while you have breath—don’t quit.