On Broad Street in Rome, Georgia, there is a plaque commemorating the life and achievements of Rosalind Burns Gammon. Frankly, this plaque is a meager tribute to a woman who had the most enduring influence on Southern culture of any Floyd County citizen who ever lived. Without Rosalind Burns Gammon, no 90,000 fanatics would be gathering on fall weekends in Athens to cheer on the Dawgs. Without her, there would be no SEC Network or million dollar bowl payouts, or numerous national championships for Southeastern Conference schools. Without Rosalind Burns Gammon our Southern culture would be markedly different. What did she do? She lost a son. But she lived with a love that surpassed her loss.
Her son, Richard Von Albade Gammon, was one of the Dawgs’ early gridiron stars in the late 1890’s. His team had already won its first couple of games in 1897, besting the likes of Clemson and Georgia Tech, (some things never change!), but they were locked in a tight battle with the University of Virginia on October 30, 1897, in Atlanta. Richard Gammon charged into a huge pile of players in an attempt to make a tackle, and when the players unpiled, he lay motionless. They carried him to the sidelines, where physicians immediately attended to him, but they could not revive him. He was rushed to Grady Hospital with a severe concussion and died in the early hours of this very day, October 31, 1897.
The death of a popular star football player as a direct result of play on the field prompted a movement across the state of Georgia to ban intercollegiate football. The Georgia legislature was in session at the time, and a day later, November 1, 1897, a state representative introduced a resolution to outlaw college football in the state. The legislative vote was 91-3. Immediately, all three colleges in Georgia with football teams – Georgia, Georgia Tech, and yes, Mercer – voluntarily disbanded. Other colleges throughout the Southeast prepared to follow Georgia’s example as The Atlanta Journal ran a headline blaring, “Death Knell of Football.” Following the state representatives’ lead, the Georgia Senate voted to outlaw college football in the state of Georgia by an overwhelming vote of 31-4. All the bill needed to become law was the signature of Georgia governor William Y. Atkinson to bring college football to an end in the state of Georgia.
Enter Rosalind Burns Gammon. If anyone had a right to lobby for the extinction of college football, it should have been her, having lost her beloved son. Instead, she lobbied publicly against the bill. She begged her representative to use his influence to prevent her son’s death from being used as an argument to ban intercollegiate football. She said it would be “inexpressibly sad” for his death to be used as an excuse to defeat “the most cherished object of his life.” Though she had lost her beloved son to football, Rosalind Gammon knew how much her son loved the sport, knew how much his passion for football had defined and focused his life. She could not let his devastating death be employed as a reason for denying that delight to others. Her passionate, unexpected intercession on behalf of college football convinced the governor to veto the bill, preserving football in Georgia, and by extension, throughout the Southeast. Rosalind Burns Gammon exhibited a love that surpassed her great loss, because she believed that college football brought joy and delight to the population at large and should be preserved, even if it had caused her particular sadness.
So, too, our Lord Jesus Christ defined his ministry by living a love that surpassed loss. He offered the world one simple commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” And what kind of love did Jesus embody? A love that was willing to lay down his life for his friends. And who were his friends? Anyone willing to hear his Good News and practice it. Jesus lived his life in absolute obedience to his heavenly Father, even though that obedience led him to a cross, where by the sacrifice of his life he could unleash a redemptive benefit to society. By surrendering his life, his surpassing love brought redemption to humankind. In laying down his life for others, Jesus mirrored the very character of God who “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Jesus did not come into the world stressing individual freedom and an insistence on singular liberty. Rather, he came preaching a life of complete submission to the call of God to serve the common good. He understood that true spiritual fidelity to God meant living as a servant unto others. In fact, that is exactly how Paul described the nature of his own faith in I Corinthians: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more” (9:19). When Jesus was trying to express the essence of the Christian faith, he announced that our true freedom is found paradoxically: if we spend our lives trying to find ourselves by asserting our individual freedom and defining our existence by satisfying our individual prerogatives, we will surely lose the essence of who we are. But when we take up our cross and follow the self-giving example of Christ, when our faith is distinguished by sacrifices called forth by a love that surpasses loss, then we will find throughout our spiritual pilgrimage who we are meant to be.
Years ago I ran across an arresting statement: “Organizations will always do the right thing – after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” It is a cynical statement, I know, but experientially, it has the ring of truth. But what distinguishes extraordinary organizations is their willingness to choose the right thing initially. I think of the early church as described by Luke. Their numbers were small. Their financial power was meager. They were beset by far stronger social groups, including the Jewish religious hierarchy and the seemingly omnipotent Roman government. But they had one weapon with which they could resist all opposing pressures. Luke defined that weapon perfectly: “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.” The early Christians realized from the outset that their movement would only survive if each member subsumed his or her personal interest in behalf of the common good. The early church knew from the outset that their endeavor to further Christ’s movement was in peril, but their great tactic of survival lay in recognizing the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all believers, and they came together of one mind, one heart and one soul — that was the weapon they used to resist the persecution exerted by great opposing forces. Yes, it meant surrendering some measure of personal freedom, yes, it meant even surrendering some measure of personal property. But they lived in unity with a love surpassing loss.
When you stop to think about it, many of the most positive movements in our modern culture are rooted in a love that surpassed loss. In 1980, a drunk driver, one who had repeatedly been arrested for driving while intoxicated, killed a thirteen-year-old girl named Cari Lightner. Candy Lightner, her mother, was devastated. But she resolved that she would turn the loss of her beloved daughter into a movement that could save other mothers from suffering her form of grief. She founded the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which now has chapters in every US state, and which has significantly reduced the number of people killed by those driving under the influence.
Most of you would not recognize the name of Steve Gleason. He was the New Orleans Saints cornerback who blocked an Atlanta punt during the first game played in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. His play so inspired the entire region that the mayor of New Orleans awarded him the key to their city. But that play is not what has truly distinguished him. About the time his first child was to be born, Steve Gleason was diagnosed with ALS. He lost his athleticism, lost his mobility, lost most of his personal freedom, but he didn’t focus on what he had lost – rather he has lived with a love surpassing loss, dedicating his life to raising funding for ALS research. He was recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his work raising public awareness of ALS. His life has become defined by how he has dedicated himself to living for others.
I think of the late Jim Valvano’s memorable “Don’t Ever Give Up” speech. He knew he was dying of cancer. He told his buddy Dick Vitale, “I won’t live long enough to walk my daughters down the aisle.” He was so depressed that initially he turned down the invitation to speak at an ESPN broadcast. But then he decided to use his celebrity to advance the public good. He stood before the world and announced that he was going to establish the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research. He said, “That’s what I am going to try to do every minute that I have left. And I thank God for every moment I have.” Cancer could claim his life, but he would leave his mark upon the world by exhibiting a love that surpassed loss.
We as Christians ought to be the most eloquent voices urging people to live for the common good. We should be leading the way in patterning for the world an intense commitment to live for the common good. We ought to be articulating most eloquently the theme of subsuming our individual rights and freedoms in favor of living in such a way that we benefit those around us. We ought to be the ones calling society to realize that the world is so interrelated that living with an acute sense of our interconnectedness is crucial to the future of humankind. That is exactly what Pope Francis said a couple of weeks ago to the political leaders of the world as they prepared to gather for the Glasgow summit on preserving our environment. The Pope called upon the world’s political leaders to put aside their myopic short-term political objectives and take action to preserve our world’s ecological health. He called them to look beyond short-term political gains and act for the common good for our generation and for generations to come. As ambassadors of Christ we ought to be patterning for those around us a commitment to live in such a way that we keep the welfare of the common good in the forefront of our values. We should practice our faith in such a way as to embody the virtues of God’s Kingdom and love in such a way that we benefit God’s creation and God’s creatures.
This talk of living in behalf of the common good, of laying down our lives in love for the good of others, sounds highly dramatic. And occasionally, living in such a fashion involves decisions that are indeed dramatic. But more often than not, living our Christian faith involves subtle changes in attitude and behaviors that convey compassion and a sense of connection to those around us. The late writer David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech at his alma mater in which he talked about standing in the checkout line at a supermarket and watching the lady next to him berating her children. He admitted that his initial reaction was one of severe judgment. He told his young listeners that had they been there, their reaction would have been one of severe judgment, too. But then he offered his listeners a different attitude to adopt, one of compassion. He said, “Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating red-tape problem at the department of motor vehicles through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. None of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible.” David Foster Wallace reminded his young hearers that we can all live within our own narrow reality circumscribed by our own narrow perspective. But then he noted, “If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow consumer-hades type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars, love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
Our Lord Jesus was suffused with a sense of “mystical oneness of all things deep down.” Jesus described himself and us in organic terms: “I am the vine; you are the branches grafted into my life, that you might bear spiritual fruit.” He saw all of us as engrafted into his vibrant, communal body of Christ for the very purpose of going into the world and bearing spiritual fruit that abides. On this All Saints’ Sunday, we have gathered to honor not only Christ, but people whose expenditure of themselves on our behalf is what endeared them to us. Their love, their laughter, their faith, their spiritual fruit enriched our existence. If they had lived solely for themselves, we would not so grieve for their loss. But the fact that they lived for others, the fact they lived for us, helps explain why we love and miss them so. Each of the people we have honored today, in their own way, lived in such a way that the Presence of Christ shone through them. And their examples call us to live with a love that surpasses loss. They call us to realize that the impact of their lives extends beyond the boundaries of their earthly existence and continues to nurture our own personalities. They call us to live with a love that surpasses loss and enriches God’s Kingdom, God’s creatures, and God’s creation.