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An Underdog Story

St. John’s Lutheran Church
17 September 2023 + Holy Cross (observed)
1 Corinthians 1.18-24

Rev. Josh Evans



Everyone loves a good underdog story.

When Rachel Phelps, who by all appearances couldn’t care less about baseball, inherits the team (now) formerly known as the Cleveland Indians from her late husband, she contrives a plan: The Indians are already terrible, and she is determined to make them worse – so bad, in fact, that she can terminate the team’s contract with the city of Cleveland in order to relocate them to Miami.

As the 1989 film Major League unfolds, however, that is not what happens. Phelps does manage to assemble a team of inexperienced rookies and veterans who are either way past their prime or otherwise disinterested in baseball altogether. But when the team of misfits wises up to her plan, they rally around a newfound sense of unity and determination to win the whole thing.

And in the film’s dramatic final moments – spoiler alert – the underdog Indians go on to defeat none other than the formidable New York Yankees to win the American League East division. (It really is a great movie!)

By one definition, an underdog is “a competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest.” And our scriptures are full of their own underdog stories, too.

David and Goliath is probably one of the most prominent examples we learn as early as Sunday School, along with Daniel in the lions’ den or the three men (and an angel?) in the fiery furnace.

There’s also Moses, one of my favorites, who by all accounts shouldn’t even be alive, and despite excuse after excuse, begrudgingly relents to God’s call to confront Pharaoh and the military might of Egypt, defying all odds to bring freedom to his people.

It’s almost like God has a thing for the powerless and oppressed – a “preferential option for the poor,” as liberation theologians call it, or as Mary sings in Luke’s gospel:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … [who] has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; [who] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

It’s almost like God has different standards than we do, perhaps most explicitly revealed in the moments before Samuel anoints David as king:

“The Lord does not see as mortals see,” God tells Samuel as he’s interviewing Jesse’s sons before ultimately anointing his youngest, David – the least obvious option. “[Mortals] look on the outward appearance,” God says, “but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Everyone – including God – loves a good underdog story. An underdog story subverts all expectations of what is logical, practical, or possible.

The cross is like that, too.

Today, our liturgy centers on the cross – and this peculiar, ancient feast day, venerating a gruesome instrument of execution. It all seems a little bizarre, doesn’t it?

Evocative of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that we just heard, Susan Briehl’s hymn text, which we’ll sing in just a few moments, flips traditional attributes of God on their head:

God, who is glorious, enters into our human reality.

God, who is powerful, bends to us in weakness.

God, who is beautiful, is despised and rejected.

God, who is wisdom, chooses the way of folly and crucifixion.

God, who is living, lays down their life for their friends.

Such is the subversiveness of the cross: “We proclaim Christ crucified […] the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

The cross subverts all expectations of what is logical, practical, or possible.

We like logic. We like signs. We like numbers. How many do we have in worship on Sunday? How many kids do we have in Sunday School?

We like practical wisdom and “how to” articles on doing ministry in a post-COVID world (which are rarely, if ever, helpful).

But that’s not what the cross gives us. We proclaim Christ crucified … a stumbling block to those who want to see signs and foolishness to those to want all the easy answers.

And more than that: The cross shows us where God is – in the foolish, despised, rejected things of this world.

***

By another definition, an underdog is “a person who has little status in society.”

By that definition, the cross is its own mighty powerful underdog story because it champions the cause of the oppressed and marginalized, those who have been cast aside, and those who are forgotten.

The cross says to the powers of evil in the world: enough.

The cross subverts our expectations and defiantly bears witness to life in the midst of death and hope in the midst of desperation.

The cross bears witness to God’s solidarity with us and for us.

And to the underdog – from Moses to Mary and everyone in between and since – the cross says to us: you matter, you are beloved, and I am with you.

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