The World Where Underdogs Win
Sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette (Wilmette, IL)
Sunday following the Shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO
August 17, 2014
Texts: Genesis 45:1–15; Matthew 15:21–28
Our country has a history of valuing the underdog, of pulling for the one against whom all of the odds of the world are stacked.
Take, for example, Sam Gordon, a 9-year old from Salt Lake City. She was then a 60 lb. girl going up against guys almost three times her size, playing tackle football. It brings me absolute joy to watch this really fast, small girl run circles around these much bigger guys. In her first year, her rookie season, she had 232 carries, 1,911 yards, and 35 TDs. She also recorded 65 tackles on defense. To put these statistics into perspective, Eric Dickerson holds the NFL record for most rushing yards in a season at 2,105 yds. LaDanian Tomlinson holds the record for most rushing TDs in one season with 28. Both Dickerson and Tomlinson played in 16 games, Sam Gordon accomplished this in 10. Her video has become a YouTube sensation with over 5 million hits. She also became the first female football player ever to be put on a Wheaties box cover. You can see Sam Gordon’s video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdIOOY43HWs.
More recently, Mo’ne Davis, a 13-year old girl from Philly, became the first female pitcher in Little League World Series history to earn a win. She pitched a complete game shutout, allowing only two weak hits, and striking out eight. It was a dominating performance with her pitches topping out over 70 mph (equivalent to about 90-92 mph from a major-league distance).
We pull for underdogs, don’t we? Not just in sports but in life. There is something inspiring about someone who beats the odds that life has stacked against her:
- The inner-city child who goes on to become a Rhodes scholar
- The scientist who started life as an orphan in China
- The survivor who beats cancer at its advanced stage
- The immigrant’s story (and we are a nation of immigrants), where an ancestor comes with nothing but the shirt on his back before making a better way for his family in the new world.
- The person who goes from homeless to Harvard
For good reason we pull for the underdog. Their stories inspire us, give us a narrative to face into life’s difficulties, and, in short, give us hope when at times life seems to be filled with formidable giants and insurmountable difficulties.
Malcom Gladwell, in his recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, asks us to re-evaluate the mythical battle between underdogs and giants. He has two major points:
“The first is that much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable. We need a better guide to facing giants…”
What Gladwell uses as the thesis of his book should be nothing new to those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ. In fact, seeing the world in this way gives us the viewpoint of heaven—seeing life differently, seeing the world through the lens of God’s eyes:
- where a small nomadic group of tribes becomes Israel
- where a small, dysfunctional band of fishermen, lawyers, and misfits become the church
- where life comes through a humiliating death on a cross
- where the first become the last and the last become the first
- where life can be turned upside down by a small group of followers praying in a room, empowered by the descending of the Holy Spirit
As the prophet, Zechariah, declares, “It is not by might, not by power, but by my spirit,’ says the Lord” (4:6).
Reading the world this way helps us to make sense of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman (whom Mark calls a Syro-Phoenician), because in this text, the world gets turned upside down even for Jesus. Matthew’s designation of this woman as a Canaanite is significant, since, of course, the Canaanites were the historical enemies of Israel.
If we pause on v. 26, Jesus behaves in a way that we are not used to. He actually uses an ethnic slur to describe this woman in need by calling her a “dog.” It is obvious that the underdog in this text is the Canaanite woman. Jesus, the good, well-studied Jew, the rabbi, stands over this kneeling woman, a Canaanite and says, “I haven’t come for you, woman. I have come for the sheep of Israel. I can’t give food meant for the children to (you) dogs.” But like all good underdogs, the Canaanite woman refuses “no” for an answer. In the tradition of the great pray-ers in Israel, she laments. She pounds on heavens door, “How long O Lord,” until heaven hears, until God answers her on behalf of her suffering child.
Do you see what she does? She takes Jesus’ shortsighted, ethnocentric, and demeaning metaphor and turns it on its head. She says: “Even in a world where you don’t give the children’s bread to the dogs, even there, at least the dogs get some crumbs that fall under the table.”
Note as well how Jesus responds. His response is an example of how power works in God’s economy, not might for right, where the game is about winning. Jesus doesn’t win, he learns. He humbles himself to be a servant; and this one whom he called “dog,” he now recognizes as a child of God, who has beaten the odds, a holy under-dog. The Rabbi has become the student, and the student the mentor. He is genuinely surprised and shocked out of his Jewish-centric world into a world of possibility where even the Gentiles, here a Canaanite, the historical enemy of Israel, is not just eligible for inclusion in the covenant but has supreme worth in God’s eyes, and therefore is a recipient of God’s grace.
Jesus doesn’t just reward her, indeed, he acknowledges the grace that is already present in her life: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. One can’t help but imagine that this type of understanding bears similarity to Paul’s proclamation of the mission of Christianity to the Gentiles. The historic enemy of Israel is not just eligible for inclusion in the covenant but has supreme worth in God’s eyes, and therefore is a recipient of God’s grace.
This has been a hard week in the news cycle. Through it all, I am reminded that all God’s children have supreme worth in God’s eyes and are recipients of God’s grace.
Those who suffer from depression like Robin Williams, and those who like Williams end up taking their own lives, are not villains, inflicting a cruel choice on their loved ones. Conditions like depression often rob us of the choices that we ordinarily make on a day-to-day basis, including the decision to live. Robin Williams has supreme worth in God’s eyes, and therefore is a recipient of God’s grace. Robin Williams’ life mattered.
Michael Brown, was an 18-year old, African American male…
- who was unarmed.
- who was a young man not very different than 1/3 of the kids that my two sons, Adam and Stephen, went to high school with at Evanston Township High School.
- who came from a family not very different than over a 1/3 of the indviduals’ families that attend McCormick Seminary
- who came from a community that is torn apart by racism, communities in which black men are disproportionately put in prison when they should be placed in college or getting jobs, where there is a decades long legacy of mistrust between police and black neighborhoods, and where the use of force is disproportionately carried out by law enforcement in these communities.
Michael Brown was a young man, who no matter what he did before, was unarmed. This young man, whom the long arm of racial history in this country has made a social underdog, with incredible odds stacked against him, was killed.
Michael Brown has supreme worth in God’s eyes, and therefore is a recipient of God’s grace. Michael Brown’s life mattered. The lives of black people matter. And it is because of this that a community grieves and has arisen in protest in Ferguson.
Our world wants to suggest that might is right, the strong prevail, the powerful win, the wealthy, popular, famous people are where IT IS AT. We do not escape this cultural bias in the church, where bigger is better, where the more well-known and the more influential carry the day, where many hold up the Rick Warrens and the Joel Osteens of the world simply because they have the biggest stage.
These values that seem so embedded in our culture, in our ways of thinking, are wrong-headed. God sees things differently. From the eyes of faith, the world looks backward, upside down to our society; and thank God that it does. God’s kingdom is a world where underdogs can thrive:
- where the kingdom of God belongs to the poor
- where the hungry will be filled
- where those who weep will laugh
- where those who are hated, reviled, scorned for the sake of the LORD are blessed
As Jesus says, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets” (Matt 5:12)
This is a world where Davids defeat Goliaths. Where justice is given to the poor, where the prisoners are set free. This is how God sees the world. This is how God sees the church, how God sees this church. This is how God sees all God’s underdogs, Michael Brown and the citizens of Ferguson, all of whom have supreme worth in God’s eyes. These lives matter. Our lives matter. And for that we give God great thanks. Amen.