Forrest Church Sermon: Beating the Odds

Introduction to the Beating the Odds Sermon

To conclude this article about the figure of Reverend Forrest Church I would like to share two Sermons published on his website in 2007. The first is titled “Beating the Odds” and the second “Unifinished Business”. 

In “Beating the Odds” from February 2007 originally published in his website in February 2007 Rev. Church explores the themes of life’s unpredictability, the extraordinary nature of existence, and the spiritual response to the challenges we face. 

Church begins by recounting his personal aversion to gambling, illustrating it with a childhood story from the Kentucky Derby. He bet on Silky Sullivan, a horse known for making dramatic comebacks, symbolizing the unlikely and miraculous. This story sets the stage for his reflections on life’s odds. 

He then shifts to a more personal narrative, revealing his diagnosis of aggressive esophageal cancer and the grim survival odds he faced. Initially given a 20-1 chance of survival, these odds improved following successful surgery. This personal journey serves as a metaphor for life’s unpredictability and the slim chances we overcome at various stages of our existence. 

Church expands his reflection to a broader philosophical and theological perspective, marveling at the astronomical odds against any individual’s existence. He highlights the unlikelihood of one’s ancestors surviving through history and the precise biological conditions necessary for one’s conception and birth. This realization evokes a sense of awe and humility, key elements in Church’s religious understanding.

He emphasizes that our mere existence is a miracle, more profound than any traditional religious miracle. This perspective leads to a deeper appreciation of life and a humble acknowledgment of our place in the universe.

The sermon concludes with an inspirational message: despite the overwhelming odds, each person has already won the most significant race by simply existing. He encourages embracing life fully, living with love and compassion, and recognizing our connectedness to each other and the divine. This, according to Church, is the true essence and opportunity of life.

The sermon ends with a blessing and expression of love, encapsulating Church’s message of gratitude and reverence for the miracle of life.

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Sermon: Beating the Odds

February 18, 2007 

I am not, nor have I ever been, a betting man. Gambling claims no purchase on my soul. I say this not to boast. There is no virtue in abstaining from something that holds no fascination for you. Teetotalers who hate the taste of alcohol, non-smokers who are allergic to smoke, and non-bettors who get no rush from games of chance do nothing to establish their virtue by not drinking, smoking, or gambling. 

I demonstrated my lack of appetite for high-stakes gambling early. I was nine years old when I went with my parents to my one and only horse race—the Kentucky Derby. My father gave me ten dollars—a goodly sum back then—to bet until I lost it. At two dollars a race, I would be in the game for at least five of the nine races. He carefully pointed out to me that, unless I made some of it back—if I squandered, say, my stake on long shots that performed as expected—I would have nothing left in my pocket with which to place a bet on the Kentucky Derby itself, slated to take place near the end of the day’s card. 

I learned the lesson my father taught me a little too well perhaps. To limit my exposure, I would place a show bet on the horse that was favored to win. This far from daring strategy taught me one lesson that I have never forgotten. Even the most cautious gambler can lose. Some of the favorites staggered in out of the money, and even when they did perform as advertised each show bet on a low odds winner earned me a slim dime or two on my two-dollar investment. No matter. By the time the Kentucky Derby rolled around, I still had five dollars in my pocket. Ready to do something daring, I put it all on Silky Sullivan. 

Silky Sullivan was a Western phenom. He stopped hearts in every race he entered by spotting his opponents a thirty-length lead. Half way round the track, with the bunched contenders throwing up a great cloud of dust two city blocks ahead of him, Silky Sullivan loped along in solitary splendor, Quixotic, romantic, and by every dint of racing logic, doomed. Then, to the amazement of all and delight of anyone who dared to dream the impossible dream, with a burst of awe-inspiring speed he would close on the pack, catch it at the final turn, blow past one flagging pretender after another, pull up beside the leader and win by a nose. 

This was on Western tracks, of course, not in the East. Silky would now be running against the best thoroughbreds in the land, not a bunch of pretty Californians. Even so, my young heart told me, win or lose, this was a horse worth every cent of my precious grubstake. So I placed five dollars on the long shot Silky Sullivan, not to win, of course—I wasn’t that daring—but to show. 

True to form, Silky ambled out of the gate and spotted a quarter furlong to the competition, prancing along in solitary splendor until, like magic and flying like the wind, he closed the gap, dancing through the pack toward the flag. He’s going to win, I screamed. This prophecy proved premature. Three horses crossed the finish line together. Valiant Silky, as I recall, closed on the leaders, but just enough to eat their dust. 

Silky Sullivan didn’t break my heart that day. He made it beat faster. I’ll never forget that cocky little horse. I can’t tell you who won the 1958 Kentucky Derby. (I looked it up. It was Tim Tam.) But Silky Sullivan won a home in my personal Hall of Fame. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about life’s odds. Four months ago, I was diagnosed with what turned out to be a particularly fierce form of esophageal cancer. Odds were, my doctor told me, that I had about six months to live. Going onto the internet—this does nothing, I might caution you, to boost the spirits of positive thinkers—confirmed this diagnosis in mind-numbing detail. Entering all my variables, as we knew them then, into the relevant actuarial tables, the odds were 20-1 against me. 

My father died of cancer at 59. His father died at 59 as well, of a heart attack. I’m 58. The chapter I found myself opening offered compelling reason to believe it would likely be the last one in my book. And then I started beating the odds. Against all expectation, the cancer—though the tumor was large—had not metastasized. Over night, my odds leapt from 20-1 to 50-50. A talented surgeon removed my esophagus, replacing it, conveniently, with my stomach. I now have an estomagus. The post-op pathology brought us more good news. The margins were clear, the lymph nodes negative, and the tumor—right on the cusp between Stage One and Stage Two—had barely penetrated the esophagus wall. New odds now: 4-1 that I am cured. 

If there’s a moral to this story—beyond the obvious one that I might usefully have quit drinking and smoking decades before I did some seven years ago—it doesn’t lie on the surface of these shifting odds. They are mere accidents, happy ones it seems in my case, but accidents nonetheless. If my cancer returns to kill me, it won’t be unfair, only unlucky, in the same sense that I was lucky to beat the odds that seemed at first to make survival a chancy bet. Beating the odds, I slowly began to realize, had nothing to do with the stakes of the mortality table. The truth of the matter struck me with tremendous force. I’d beaten the odds already, won the house on a zillions to one wager fifty-eight years before the moment I was born. Think about it, and then translate this unaccountable triumph to your own precious life. Whether the odds that I will die at 59 stand at 20-1, 1-1, or 1-4 is incidental, given how astronomically long the odds were against my being alive in the first place to reckon them. 

There’s a theological point here, one that gets lost in the haze of most salvation history. At its root, religion stems from two fundamental responses to life: awe and humility. Because we take our lives for granted, neither awe nor humility comes naturally to us. ÒWhat did I do to deserve this?Ó we ask when things turn against us, forgetting that we did nothing to deserve being placed in the way of trouble and joy in the first place. The odds against each one of us being here this morning are so mind-staggering that they cannot be computed. Had I been paying more reverent attention, even a 5% chance that I might live, not to mention outlive my father and grandfather, should have found me dancing on the ceiling. 

We’re talking miracles here. Not an imagined miracle, like God parting the Red Sea for Moses to escape the Egyptians or stopping the sun for Joshua to win a battle, but the miracle of water itself, in which living organisms can incubate, and just enough warmth and light from the sun to establish ideal conditions for life to be nurtured and develop here on earth. 

Consider the odds more intimately. Your parents had to couple at precisely the right moment for the one possible sperm to fertilize the one possible egg that would result in your conception. Right then, the odds were still 3 million to one against your being the answer to the question your biological parents were consciously or unconsciously posing. And that’s just the beginning of the miracle. The same unlikely happenstance must repeat itself throughout the generations. Going back ten generations, this miracle must repeat itself one thousand times, one million three hundred thousand times going back only twenty generations. That’s right. From the turn of the 13th century until today, we each have, mathematically speaking, approximately two and a half million direct ancestors. This remarkable pyramid turns in upon itself, of course, with individual ancestors participating in multiple lines of generation, until we trace ourselves back to when the ur-ancestors, the founding couple, whom each one of us carries in our bones, began the inexorable process that finally gave birth to us all, kith and kin, blood brothers and sisters of the same mighty mystery. 

And that’s only the egg and sperm part of the miracle. Remember, each of these ancestors had to live to puberty. For those whose bloodline twines through Europe—and there were like tragedies around the globe—njot one of your millions of direct forbears died as children during the great plague, for instance, which mowed down half of Europe with its mighty scythe. 

There’s a new book out on the Mayflower. It’s quite a good book, telling a lively, unlikely tale. Five of my direct ancestors happened to be on that tiny boat, which brought the first band of doughty Pilgrims to our shores in 1620. Early in the book, I was brought up short when one of the five—remember I wouldn’t be here this morning without the unwitting assistance of all of them—24 year old John Howland, an unmarried servant, fell off the Mayflower into the ocean half way across the Atlantic. Miraculously he caught the rope his fellow Pilgrims threw overboard in their desperate attempt to save him, and he lived. Had John Howland drowned, you might be hearing a better sermon this morning, but I, assuredly, would not be preaching it. 

During their first winter in America, some fifty of the one hundred and two original Pilgrims died. Among those who succumbed were my ancestors John and Elizabeth Tilley, but not their 13-year-old daughter, also named Elizabeth, or her ten-year-old friend Elizabeth Warren. Elizabeth Tilley went on to marry John Howland, establishing my mother’s American line; Elizabeth Warren married Richard Church, establishing my father’s. These accidents of survival, if nothing compared to the almost infinite odds against our winning billions of crap shoots in the sperm and egg stakes, are at least somewhat easier to grasp and existentially more meaningful to ponder. 

By the way—and this is truly awesome, so awesome that it makes every salvation story in the world’s great scriptures seem trivial in comparison—not only did all our human ancestors survive puberty to mate at the one and only instant that the requisite egg and sperm might connect to keep our tiny odds for arrival alive, but their pre-human ancestors did the same. Then we have to go back further to our pre-mammalian ancestors; and back from there all the way to the ur-paramecium; and then, beyond that, to the pinball of planets and stars, playing out their agon into diurnal courses, spinning back through time to the Big Bang itself. Mathematically, our death is a simple inevitablitiy, whereas our life hinges on an almost infinite sequence of perfect accidents. First a visible and then an invisible thread connects every one of us in unbroken line to the instant of creation. Think about it. The universe was pregnant with us when it was born. 

So what did we do to deserve this, whatever this might happen to be at any given moment in our life’s unfolding saga? Please! The odds against our being here to ask that impertinent question beggar reckoning. Which is where the second element in the fundamental religious equation kicks into play: Humility. You likely know my favorite etymology: human, humane, humanitarian, humility, humble, humus. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes. And in between, erupting into consciousness—into pain and hope and trust and fear and grief and love—the miracle of life. 

If you find yourself this morning out of the race, so far behind the pack that you can hardly see its dust—if the odds against you, the odds against happiness returning to fill your days with joy, the seemingly overwhelming odds that you will never recover from whatever is bearing or beating you down—take a moment to ponder life’s cosmic odds and how you’ve already beaten them. You, I, each one of us here this morning (or here anywhere this morning) have miraculously run our courses from the instant of creation to the advent of life on earth and on through billions of generations to reckon the privilege of looking out upon this magnificent morn. 

And then, while you’re blinking in the sun, pause one moment further and remember Silky Sullivan. A valiant stretch run may not make you a winner, but I can promise you this. It will make your heart and the hearts of those who love you beat faster. Believe me, there’s nothing like a kick toward the flag to get the old blood pumping and the crowd off their duffs cheering. Besides, without even trying, you’ve already won the only race that really matters. Unconsciously, yet omnipresent, you ran the gauntlet of stars and genomes to assume your full, nothing less than miraculous, place in the creation. Being alive to love and hurt, to fail and recover, to prove your grit and show compassion, that is life’s true secret. Life’s abiding opportunity, bequeathed against all odds to each and every one of us, is much the same: to live in such a way—with works of love and deeds of praise—that our lives will prove worth dying for; it is to live, and also to die, for the multitude of brothers and sisters who beat the odds with us, who labored with our ancestors hands and wept tears (of grief and joy) from our ancestors’ eyes, connecting us as kin to God and each other, blessed together, always together, with the privilege of running from gate to flag in life’s glorious race. 

Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all. 

Forrest Church

I would like to invite you to read the interesting second sermon titled “Unfinished Business” originally posted on the Forrest Church website in March 2007.

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