Summary: We set ourselves up for failure if we are afraid to risk using all we have been given, if we are shy about our average-ness, and especially if we are ashamed of our poverty. Sermon for Martin Luther King Sunday
On one of our trips to Louisville to see about my mother-in-law, we stayed at a motel right next to a Baptist church. It happened to be a church which had been started as a mission congregation by my home church back when I was a teenager. I told Margaret that I remembered that vacant lot between the motel and the church, because that’s the lot where we used to come out and play church league softball. And I had played, or tried to play, out there on that very lot.
As I reminisced with her about that, I began to remember more than I wanted to. I remembered that, yes, we were supposed to be having good, clean, Christian fun playing softball, but that even in good, clean, Christian softball the object of the game is still to win. Not just to enjoy knocking the ball around the field, but to win the game. And I am afraid that I could not contribute very much toward that aim. I was and still am just about the most non-athletic person that God ever put on this green earth. But I was playing softball, sort of, for the church team.
Well, the way they dealt with that was to put me in deep right field, way, way out there where I would be all alone and could do relatively little harm. Right field, because usually that’s where only the left-handed batters hit, and there weren’t too many of them; and then deep right field, because we played under a special set of rules that put players in near right and near center field, along with the shortstop in near left field, and then the regular fielders went deep. The idea was to give more people a chance to play. So I went to deep right field, where maybe, on a good night, the ball would be hit only two or three times. It was so quiet out in deep right field that I took my copy of “War and Peace” and read the whole thing out there.
However, every now and then somebody would get a piece of the softball and it would come out my way, usually not so that I could catch it on the fly, but at least could get the grounder and throw it somewhere. The trouble was that I was so far out in deep right field that when I did manage to get the ball (usually after kicking it a couple of times and stumbling over it once or twice) .. when I did manage to get the ball, I couldn’t throw it to any place that mattered. The runners were too far ahead, or the distances were too long, or my glasses had fallen off .. or whatever. In other words, I was a total disaster even in deep right field.
Now have you figured out that it was not only my total lack of athletic ability? It was also that I was set up to fail! I was programmed to mess up! I was expected to do poorly. They put me so far out there, with my weak eyes, skinny arms, and clumsy legs; they expected me to fail, and I did! I did not disappoint them! I did exactly what they set me up to do: mess up! Yes, it was a setup!
It was a setup, not just because of my lack of ability, but also because the system put me in the wrong place. It was a setup, not only because the system put me in the wrong place, but also because I was afraid. I was afraid of what I was supposed to do, and just about prayed, every inning, that no balls would come my way. If I could just avoid having to risk anything, you see, I would come through unscathed. I knew it was a setup, and I was afraid. That’s a potent formula for disaster!
Just a whole lot of us stumble through life, dealing with feeling set up to fail, programmed to foul up, and the issue is not only the system that does that to us. The issue is deeper, the issue is spiritual. The issue is that we are afraid of something. Maybe afraid of ourselves. That’s the setup.
As recently as a generation ago, within the lifetimes of some of you in this very room, lots of people in America were set up to fail. Segregation laws created circumstances guaranteed to make achievement hard. No high school for black students in your county? Well, tough. I guess you just don’t get high school, or else you have to travel on a rickety old bus over to the next county, if the bus shows up! That’s a setup! No professional jobs for African-Americans, even though they had college degrees? Here, can’t you just be happy with shining shoes or delivering groceries? It was a setup. And it would be perfectly understandable that under such circumstances people did fail, people did get crushed. You could understand it if men would have their spirits broken and women their bodies abused. Racism is an institutionalized setup, it is an arrangement to guarantee failure.