A Crown For the Man Who Fails – Louis Albert Banks (historic sermon 1855-1933)
“For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” —Luke 7:28
“And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist.” —Mark 6:24
These two brief Scriptures place before us two pictures in the life of a strong and interesting man. In the first one we have the testimony of the best judge of human nature that ever walked among men; He who more perfectly than anybody else knew what was in man. This competent judge, speaking to the multitudes that thronged about Him, declared that John was as great a man as ever lived. And yet it is only a few days thereafter that we see the head of this great man coming into the palace dining-room on a charger, as a prize to a thoughtless dancing-girl, to appease the vengeance of her dissolute and vindictive mother. To the superficial observer the life of John seems to have ended in failure. All his ministry of promise, and it had promised much, is broken down at what seems to be the opening of a great career. To our short-sighted judgment no one could have been so well fitted to be the chief apostle of the new faith as the man who with such, simplicity and fidelity and such dauntless courage had proclaimed the coming of the Christ. He is still a young man, scarcely entering on middle life. His best years ought to be yet before him. But all this promise of a career of greatness, which is enhanced by the sublime words of appreciation of Jesus Himself, is eclipsed by the darkness of the dungeon, and finally destroyed by the executioner’s axe. And yet we all feel that the life of John the Baptist was not a failure, that rather it was a great and splendid success. For more than eighteen hundred years poor old Herod has been dethroned as a corrupt, beggarly outcast It is the universal verdict of public opinion; and John has been enthroned as a true and noble character who filled well his mission. Surely there must be more than appears on the surface of life if this is so.
Now, John is only an illustration of what is going on constantly among men and women in every walk of life. There are many people with honest hearts and good purposes, who are faithful to God and their duty, loving their fellows, and yet their lives fail of the usual crown of devotion and toil, and they are cut down just as the blossom is beginning to bud upon their tree of promise. Some men fight and win. They are crowned with glory. All the way along they are cheered by sympathetic multitudes and followed by applause. Others, just as true, fight as faithfully, only to be defeated and forgotten of men. Now, the whole spirit of our Bible and our Christianity is full of consolation and comfort for people who fight honestly for the right, and, so far as the world can see, fail.
Walt Whitman writes in that strange style of his, which, however, is not strange enough to hide the true poetic insight into human nature which it discloses, a song for the men who fail,
With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums;
I play not marches for accepted victors only,
I play marches for conquered and slain persons.
Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall; battles are lost in the same
spirit in which they are won.
I beat and pound for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them;
Vivas to those who have failed!
And to those whose war vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known !
Did we think victory great ?
So it is ; but now it seems to me . . . that defeat is great,
And that death and dismay are great.
Christ gave a marvelous illustration of how easy it is for men to blunder in their estimate of what constitutes success and failure in His story of Dives and Lazarus. Everybody thought Dives was a prosperous man. And, no doubt, all were just as unanimous that Lazarus was a most miserable failure. Perhaps even the street curs who licked his sores had a contempt for the poor wretch who could not drive them away. And yet in the eve of the All-Wise Judge, Dives was a failure, and Lazarus was a conspicuous success. I wonder if some of us are not making the same mistake in our judgments now.
In Beatrice Harraden’s brilliant book, “Ships that Pass in the Night,” there is given a unique and interesting little parable in which the Genius of Failure and the Genius of Success passed away from earth together, and found themselves in a foreign land. Success still wore her laurel wreath which she had worn on earth. There was a look of ease about her whole appearance, and there was a smile of pleasure and satisfaction on her face as though she knew she had done well, and had deserved her honors. Failure’s head was bowed; no laurel wreath encircled it; her wan face bore traces of pain. She had once been beautiful and hopeful, but both hope and beauty had been lost in sorrow and disappointment. They stood together, these two who differed so widely in their appearance, waiting for an audience with the sovereign of the foreign land. Finally an old gray-haired man came to them and asked their names.
“I am Success,” said Success, advancing a step forward and smiling at him as she pointed to her laurel wreath.
He shook his head.
“Ah,” he said, “do not be too confident. Very often things go by opposite names in this land. What you call Success we often call Failure, and what you call Failure we call Success. Do you see these two men waiting there? The one nearer to us was thought to be a good man in your world. The other was generally accounted bad; but here we call the bad man good, and the good man bad. That seems strange to you. Well, then, look yonder. You considered that statesman to be sincere; but we say he was insincere. We chose as our poet-laureate a man at whom your world scoffed. Ay, and those flowers yonder : for us they have a fragrant charm ; we love to see them near us. But you do not even take the trouble to pluck them from the hedges where they grow in rich profusion. So, you see, what we value as a treasure, you do not value at all.”
Then he turned to Failure.
“I am Failure,” she said sadly.
He took her by the hand.
“Come, now, Success,” he said to her, “let me lead you into the Presence-Chamber.”
Then she who had been called Failure, and was now called Success, lifted up her bowed head, and raised her weary frame, and smiled at the music of her new name. And with that smile she regained her beauty and her hope. And hope having come back to her, all her strength returned.
I wonder if Lazarus had an experience like that when the angels bore him in triumph to Abraham’s bosom.
Many a splendid success is built upon the heroic failures that have gone before. A mining expert who was recently sent to investigate some Arizona properties for Denver capitalists, on his return reported the finding of a most remarkable natural bridge formed by a tree of agitated wood, spanning a canon forty-five feet in width. The tree had at some remote time fallen and become imbedded in the slip of some great inland sea or mighty water overflow. The slip became in time sandstone, and the wood gradually passed through the stages of mineralization until it became a wonderful tree of solid agate. In after years the water washed away the sandstone until the canon was formed; and the flint-like substance of the aerated wood having resisted the erosion, it remained to form the bridge. Where the bark has been broken and torn away from the trunk of the tree, the characteristic colors of jasper and agate are seen. To the naked eye the wood is beautiful, but under a miner’s magnifying glass the brilliancy of the colorings is clearly brought out in all their wondrous beauty. So many a life tree, prostrated and forgotten, comes to be the beautiful bridge over which the future generations walk to triumph.
The common soil of human life is constantly producing fragrant flowers of heroism and self-sacrifice for the exhibition of which saints and martyrs and heroes have been crowned; yet for every romantic and splendid deed which has succeeded in gaining 1 immortal honor among men, there are ten thousand actions just as beautiful that go unsung.
One of the New York daily papers only this week contained the story of a Hungarian whose wife has been ill at the Bellevue Hospital. The other morning he walked several miles to the hospital, carrying in his arms an eighteen months’ old baby boy and a few pieces of stale bread, which in his ignorance he thought his wife needed. He was found staggering about like a drunken man outside the walls of the hospital. When brought in, both he and the babe seemed in a sort of stupor. Finally he managed to make the warden understand that neither himself nor child had eaten anything for three days. The warden sent for some milk. It was offered to the babe, who was too weak to swallow at first, but finally managed to drink. When the milk was offered to the father lie declined to accept it, saying his share should be given to the baby; and the noble fellow, though he was starving, would not touch it until he was assured that the child should have all the nourishment it wanted. To my mind the story of Sir Philip Sidney and his glass of water on the battle-field does not reveal a nobler quality of soul than that possessed by this poor Hungarian.
On a train going into Philadelphia the other day a party of fashionable young people, who had been out to a club-house picnic, filled the cars. They were all of this class with the exception of one tired, faded-looking old woman, who carried in her arms a bundle done up in a newspaper was a loosely tied, slip-shod package that she handled with care. When the crowd surged into the car she took her seat at the extreme end, in one of the places that brought her right in the midst of a group of particularly wild and gay young revelers. With anxious care she held on her lap the package done up in its greasy paper, and ever and anon a tear-drop fell on it. A lurch of the train threw one of the young fellows, who was sitting on the arm of the seat, almost on to the precious bundle. With a startled exclamation, and voice made shrill by fear, the woman cried, “Look out! Can’t you see you are crushing the bundle?”
“I beg ten thousand pardons, madam,” replied the youth, who, owing to his awkward lurch and the sharp exclamation of the woman, had raised a laugh at his expense. “Won’t you allow me to secure you a seat in the baggage-car, where you and your trunk will be in no danger of being harmed by contact with the wide world?” And in an undertone he added to his companions, “It’s the place for cattle, anyhow. The English system of first, second, and third class is far superior to our mode of crowding in with all sorts of creatures.”
The quick ear of the woman had caught the word “cattle,” and she sprang to her feet like a tigress.
“Cattle, is it!” she exclaimed. “I may not be a lady like your pretty friend, but I am a woman, with a woman’s feelings. That bundle has flowers in it for me dead baby. While yez were dancin’ and drinkin’, me little boy was lyin’ cold and stiff, and these two arms, that should have held him, had to wash the dishes at the club-house to get money enough to take me back to the day nursery where I left him this mornin’. I have known me little boy was dead for four hours; and with me heart breakin’ I had to go on with me work to get me money. There’s only a few buttercups in that bundle; but me little boy loved them, and I mane to carry them to where he is, and place them in the little dead hands and around the little body. Oh, me baby! me baby!”
And the poor mother, overcome by her feelings, sank into her seat and gave way for the first time to an unrestrained fit of sobbing and crying that shook her frame and left not a dry eye in the car. To my mind, history does not hold a more poetic vision of mother-love than is revealed in that poor old Irishwoman and her bundle of buttercups for her dead baby.
Harvard College has just received a very remarkable gift. A colored woman, Harriet Hajden, escaped from slavery before the war, and found refuge with her husband and baby in Canada. During the Rebellion her heart went out in prayerful longings to help her own poor people, and she came to be acquainted with Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, and was of great assistance to him in enlisting negro soldiers. This woman has just paid into the treasury of Harvard College, out of her own hard work, a scholarship fund of five thousand dollars, the annual income of which is to be used perpetually to aid each year some deserving colored student. There are no scales on earth fine enough to weigh a gift like that, or to measure the sacrifices and tears and prayers and holy devotion that have gone into the saving of of that five thousand dollars. I can imagine Jesus standing by at the treasury as of old, and looking at all the gifts of hundreds and thousands of millions as they came into the treasury of education last year, and I can hear Him say, as this poor old black woman hobbles up on her crutch with her bag of savings, “She hath given more than they all.” The world may count her life a failure, but it will shine out through the great eternities as a marvelous success.
The eleventh chapter of Hebrews, which is called sometimes the roll-call of the heroes of the faith, has also been aptly called an “Epic of Failure; ” for it is from beginning to end a glorification of men who were foiled and defeated. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and multitudes of others who were just as faithful and true, but whose names were not even gathered for history’s urn, although the world was not worthy of them, walked not by sight but by faith, lived ever in hope of the promise, and yet all died without entering into the promised land which they longed for. They all achieved their final victory by failure. And when we come for our final illustration to Him who is at once our Savior and our Exemplar, the Christ, what more conspicuous lesson of His life than that great triumph cannot be had except at the cost of failure?
The very mob that surrounded His cross shouted this in His dying face when they said, “He saved others, Himself He cannot save.” To human judgment no life ever ended in such conspicuous failure as that of Jesus Christ ; and yet it is the only life that has reached a perfect success. How absolute the failure seemed on that day of the crucifixion! Christ seemed given over to the power of His enemies. Suppose you had stood in that street in Jerusalem, in front of Pilate’s judgment hall, and watched as the howling mob came pouring out after the final decision. And as you watch the poor, friend- less man fainting beneath His cross, you say to yourself, “Alas ! is this, too, a failure? I had hoped that this man might have brought redemption. As I have listened to His wonderful words, and caught the heavenly tones of love in His voice, and looked on His mighty works, I have hoped that here might be the Divine Personage who was to bring salvation to the race. But, alas, He, too, has failed! What a pitiful end for what promised so much!” And if, as you thus meditated aloud, some proud Jew, perchance a member of the Sanhedrim had overheard you, and you had turned to him with your question, “Where, oh, where is the secret balm that is to heal the heart-aches of the world and lift mankind up to righteousness and real triumph?” he would have pointed you to the temple, and said, “In yonder temple. In the Jewish faith and religion is the world’s greatest power, and it shall yet triumph over all.” And if as you listened to him some bright-eyed Greek had passed that way, and you had turned to him with your question, he would have replied, “Have you been at Athens? Have you listened to her philosophers? Have you looked on her paintings and her sculpture? In Grecian art and learning is hidden the world’s most splendid force.”‘ And if while you listened to him some proud Roman soldier had come along with martial tread, and you had made your inquiry, he would have said, ” Have you been in Rome? She is to be the eternal city. Have you seen her magnificent armies? Have you studied her grand and simple laws? In Roman force and organization is the mighty power which is to make all the earth bow before her triumphant eagles.” And if you had pointed them to that poor, despised, condemned maker of parables, and said, “You are all wrong; the simple words of that poor prisoner there will outlive your temple or your sculpture or your armies; that despised man, fainting under His cross, is the mightiest force in the world,” how they would have laughed you to scorn. But the centuries go by, and Roman and Grecian and Jewish civilizations are swept away like chaff before the wind in the summer’s harvest-field, and the crucified failure from Nazareth fills the earth with His power, and counts the armies of His devoted soldiery by hundreds of millions!
With such failure and such triumph before us we can afford to do our duty and leave the result to God.