The Sunday morning sermon was a game winner.
Like many of the congregants of Woodlawn United Church in Dartmouth, rather than sitting in a pew wearing a mask, I was at home watching the live virtual service on my iPad. That’s a religious exercise seven months into COVID-19.
The guest preacher was Padre Roland Murray, retired from the Canadian military and a regular worshipper at Woodlawn.
His message — from my vantage point — was a four-bagger in sports terminology, his clout reaching the bleachers in deep centre field.
Though I’ve been writing sports forever, I don’t believe I’ve ever used a church sermon as a theme for a column.
From the first inning, Padre Murray’s words flowed like they were coming from a jock. His message could be in the sports section of any newspaper.
He had my attention throughout his meaningful address, “Finishing Second.”
It’s a topic that should hit home with most — if not all — sports followers. It certainly reached me. As a life-long fan, I knew exactly what he was saying.
I was a New York Yankees fanatic from birth. How lucky that was. In the first 14 years I followed them, they won nine World Series.
Then, with the arrival of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1977, my heart turned to Toronto. I was ecstatic when they captured World Series victories in 1992 and ‘93.
With hockey, a mixup with jerseys at Christmastime in 1946 began my forever allegiance to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The first five years, they won four Stanley Cups. In the 1960s, when I was scouting for them, they won four more championships.
Now, like millions of Leafs faithful, I’ve been suffering in the darkness for 53 years. No cups, no seconds, no challenges. Just failures.
I’m guilty, Padre. I won’t be satisfied even to have the Leafs finish second, or the Jays to be runners-up. I want gold. Being a fan puts full emphasis on winning. Second never seems to be enough.
That’s why I listened to Padre Murray intently.
“We live in a society where being first is everything,” he said. “Everyone wants to be number one, or part of a group that is number one. Competition is the name of the game. Our motto: win, win, win.”
He referenced 2020.
“We’re living in a pandemic, yet we’re in a world where a bubble in Orlando determined who was number one in basketball, we had bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton to determine who was number one in hockey, and baseball was bubbling all over the place in order to determine who was number one in baseball. All this, despite living in a pandemic.”
In our society, he said, “the final score determines who you are. You lose, you’re a loser. You win, you’re a winner. We’re at a place in society where it is unacceptable not to be number one.”
Society is “keyed to being number one, not number two.”
Turning to scripture, he said “the disciples were no different. They were human beings. They wanted their names in lights, just like people today, to stand out from their peers.”
It’s an issue, he explained, we all have to deal with.
Fact is, “it’s not possible for everyone to be number one. Only a select few can have the top spot. But what about those who come in second, third or 30th, or never make the team at all?”
Don’t get Padre Murray wrong. He explained there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be successful. Striving to be number one can be healthy as long as we strive to put it into perspective.
And what about sports fans who become so deeply supportive of a particular team or teams?
When this year’s baseball post-season started after a greatly-reduced regular schedule, I was like many fans in Canada. I felt good when the Jays made it into the expanded playoffs. I never bet a nickel on their World Series aspirations, but I had my fingers crossed that they would make a decent showing.
They lost, of course, to their divisional rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays. It wasn’t the end of the world. There will be other opportunities in the next few years when their young stars are more experienced. I was disappointed, not heart-broken.
So I turned to Tampa’s next series with the Yankees, my old club for 30 years from the late 1940s to the late ’70s. I climbed on the New York bandwagon, and it felt just about as good as it did in the old days. Once again though, the Rays won the round.
My anti-Tampa choices had to end. Like millions of fans, I wanted their next opponents, the Houston Astros, to get beaten, mainly because of what they had done in last year’s post season.
When the World Series arrived, the Rays were still hanging on, this time against the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers. No problem there. I’ve always backed the American League winners in October. Win or be second – either was okay at this stage.
But getting back to the padre’s sermon, he was moving away from sports.
He was pointing out that life doesn’t always have a happy ending, “but how much more wonderful it would be if each one of us remembered that we’re precious to God — not because of what we achieved, or the place we have in society, or what others think of us, but because we’re all God’s creatures.”
The advice was clear.
His conclusion: “I see nothing wrong with striving for the gold medal and being satisfied with silver. Aspirations are a great gift from God.”
The challenge I identified in Padre Murray’s message was easy to see — to strive to be number one, but be satisfied if we’re not.
Isn’t that what sports — and life itself — are truly meant to be?