Memorial Service for the Golden Eagles Reunion Class of 1954

September 25, 2004, 9:30 A.M.

Auburn University Chapel

Memorial Message

Walter M. Albritton, Jr., ‘54

“Balcony People Cheer Us On”

Scripture: Hebrews 12:1-3


          I am honored to have the privilege of sharing the faith with you this morning, as we remember our friends who gone on ahead of us to the Father’s House.

          I promise not to keep you there very long, but go back with me now and stand amid the ruins of the ancient Olympic Stadium in Olympia, Greece. Nearby we can still see the hill covered with pine trees where legend has it that Zeus wrestled his father, the Titan Kronos, for control of the world. In the center of the Stadium we look down at the famous clay running track, amazingly well preserved to this day. Ancient Greeks believed the track’s 210-yard length had been marked out by Hercules himself.  For more than a thousand years, this stadium was the focus of the greatest recurring festival in Western history.

          Historians tell us that about 150 years before Christ, some 40,000 spectators crowded onto the same green embankments that are there today. The games were sensationally popular, held every four years from 776 B.C. until Christian emperors banned pagan festivals in A.D. 394. These sports fans were mostly male; married women were forbidden to attend. Unmarried women and girls were permitted to attend. Ten bearded judges in colorful robes, wearing garlands of flowers, sat in a booth halfway down the track. Before them were the first Olympic prizes – olive-wreath crowns cut from Olympia’s sacred tree.

          At the blast of a trumpet, the athletes emerged from a tunnel built into the western hillside. They appeared one by one, entirely unclothed, dripping from head to toe in perfumed oils that flowed down from their long black hair. Competing nude was a tradition as important as drinking wine, discussing Homer or worshiping Apollo; only barbarians were ashamed to display their bodies. A sacred herald declared the name of each athlete, his father’s name, and his home town before asking if anyone in the audience had any charge to lay against him.

          The roar of the spectators could be heard for miles as the races began. Surviving the heat in the stadium was quite a challenge. Admission was free, though the crowd paid for the privilege with sweat. The games lasted as long as 16 hours, with spectators on their feet. There were no bleachers. The root meaning of the ancient Greek word stadion is actually “a place to stand.”

          They had their vendors as we do today, pleading with the spectators to buy sausages, bread, cheese, and cheap wine. Dry riverbeds nearby served as latrines. Flies were a constant plague. The smoke from thousands of cooking fires filled the air. There were no hotels or conference centers. People threw bedding wherever they could find space. Plato himself once slept in a makeshift barracks, head to toe with snoring, drunken strangers. Olympia was a holy city to the Greeks, as sacred as Mecca is for Muslims.           The Greek people felt it a great misfortune to die without having been to the games there. One baker in Athens boasted on his gravestone that he had attended the games 12 times. During the five days that the games lasted, the town was like a County Fair with all kind of exhibits. Prostitutes sometimes made a year’s wages in five days.

          Why were the games so important? One historian concludes that the Olympics “were a metaphor for human existence.”  That makes sense. Every day of our lives is filled with trials and difficulties; our lives too are filled with endless petty annoyances like pushy crowds, noise, heat, and at our age the sometimes desperate search for a latrine. The games were the ultimate pagan entertainment package, an event to be endured but not to be missed.  [I am indebted to the book, THE NAKED OLYMPICS, @2004, by Tony Perrottet for the above material about the ancient Olympics.]

          What I want you to visualize is how important it was to the Greeks to be a part of that great stadium multitude, that great crowd of witnesses at the games. It meant everything to them just to be there.

       Fast forward now to the first Century, and to the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. The writer describes another great crowd in 12:1-2. Because this crowd is unseen, the writer calls it a “great cloud of witnesses,”  heroes of the faith like Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Isaac, Joseph, David, Samson and others. Though unseen, faith makes them real for the Christian.

          The important lesson for us is that LIFE IS MEANT TO BE SHARED!  When we came to Auburn 54 years ago, back when it was still Alabama Polytechnic Institute, we shared life together. We had our fraternities, our sororities, our drinking parties, our games, and yes, we gathered in the stadium to cheer for our Tigers in games that were very important to us. We can remember the thrill of roaring together in the stadium as our team won. That of course, was after 1950, when our team lost all ten football games, and the coach was fired, and replaced by the man we came to love and admire, Coach Shug Jordan.

          Think about your life now. Is there anything more disheartening than a lonely struggle? Life is almost unbearable when no one else sees or cares, or when no human friend shares our burden. If we are to win in the contests of life, we must learn to share life, to find the strength that comes from sharing with our Christian friends the heartaches of our lives.

          However, what the writer of Hebrews shows us is that we can rely not only on the help of our comrades, we can draw strength and encouragement from the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us in this present hour.

          Psychologists tell us that in every person’s life there are two kinds of people. There are the people who evaluate us, and the people who encourage us. The evaluators constantly nitpick, looking for flaws they can point out to us. The encouragers are those who come alongside us and help us believe in ourselves. The evaluators live in our basement, the encouragers in our balcony. These persons may be dead as well as living. It helps to think of them as basement people and balcony people.

          If we are to win the race of life, we must learn to stop listening to our basement people, and to pay attention to our balcony people. To live well, we must be willing to speak to our basement people. What we need to say firmly to them is this: SHUT UP! I AM NOT GOING TO LISTEN TO YOU AGAIN!       Every day I try to look up and around me, and listen to my cheer leaders, men and women who have mentored me, and coached me, and helped me to do my best. Some are dead now, but they are alive in my balcony. They cheer me on when I am down. They inspire me to get up, pick up the pieces, and try again when I have failed. I could not live well without the encouragement I receive daily from the great cloud of witnesses in my balcony.

          Some of those whose lives we celebrate and remember today, will be in your balcony. Their memory is dear to you. You remember sharing life with them, and now they continue to bless you by cheering for you from your balcony.  Our balcony people cheer us on to victory!

          The great good news is that they are not simply watching our race to see its outcome. They are participating in our journey with us. They are for us, and with us, and in a quiet moment we can hear their cheers and feel the strength they offer to us by their encouragement. They keep reminding us that though life is hard, we can overcome hardship and conquer our enemies by the grace of God.

          They remind us that the grace of God, his mercies, are fresh every morning, and by faith we can endure to the end, and claim finally a crown that is far more valuable than the ancient olive-wreath crown. A gold medal will pale in significance one day to the sound of the Father’s words as he says, “Welcome home my child; you have won the race, and now you can rest in my arms as I share with you the eternal reward of my love to enjoy forever.”

          My friends, we are not far from the finish line. Finish the race by sharing life both with your friends and the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. And never allow a single day to pass that you do become quiet for a moment and listen so that your balcony friends can offer you the encouraging help that they alone can give. And never forget that the Head Cheer Leader in your balcony is none other than Jesus Christ.  Hear his voice in the midst of the noises of this world and with his mentoring, you can cross the finish line a winner. Glory Hallelujah, Amen, and War Eagle!