I Like An Underdog – But I’m Not One

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/12/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  Psalm 15 & 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I like an underdog. I like to root for the team that is behind, because it’s so much more exciting when they come back to win. I like stories of men and women who come from humble origins and do great things. I like to see losers become winners.

And because I like the underdog, I also like to imagine that I myself am the underdog. I tell myself that I’ve overcome a lot of adversity to get where I am today, and that somehow that makes me the hero of the story. It helps me root for myself, and imagine that others might take joy in seeing me succeed.

And in some ways, that’s right. There are times in my life when I’ve come from behind to do things that I never thought possible. But in other ways, in ways that are really important, I’ve never been the underdog. I’ve been the privileged one, the wealthy one, the wise one. I’ve been the one with unearned advantages. Worst of all, I’ve been the arrogant one, imagining that I deserved everything I had, and that I was born to lead.

I’ve hidden from my own arrogance, my self-servingness, my will to power, by basking in an imaginary underdog status. As the saying goes, we are all heroes of our own story, and the story I tell myself is often about making me the hero.

When we read Paul’s words to the Corinthians this morning, it can be tempting to read them as words to us. Words telling us about how unlikely it was that God chose us and called us. It’s easy to imagine that our adoption as sons and daughters of God was a case of us coming from behind at the last moment: We were the underdogs, but God saw our worth and lifted us up.

But that would be a misreading of the text. When Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, he was writing to a group of people who were, for the most part, truly socially marginal. Many were poor, or slaves. They were uneducated. They were weak. Paul was not being metaphorical when he wrote to them, “…Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” Paul was not exaggerating or insulting the Corinthians when he said that they were “fools” – he was just stating a fact, one which the original hearers of this letter could see for themselves.

The early church was not drawn from the best and the brightest. The first Christians were not the pick of the litter. The Twelve Apostles themselves were demonstrably fools! Yet Jesus chose them: 

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

This is a hard message for many of us to hear correctly today. Because many of us in the church are the wise of this world. Many of us are the strong of this world. Many of us have wealth and education and status. For many of us, Christianity is not a faith that has picked us up out of the dust and lifted us to a higher place. Quite the opposite: Christianity humbles us. Sometimes it even humiliates us. Our faith is an experience and a way of life that often clashes with our status as “good, reasonable people” in 21st century urban America. The word of the cross is the foolishness of God which is stronger than human wisdom.

As a wealthy church, a cultured church, a respectable church, a church that is in many ways integrated and comfortable with the society around us, how do we make sense of Paul’s words to the Church at Corinth? How do we engage with a God who raises up the lowly to shame the strong, who embraces the foolish to challenge the wise? Are we too educated, too wealthy, too wise for our own good? Have we gotten too comfortable with the wisdom of this world to endure the foolishness of the cross?

For me, engaging with this tension requires that I acknowledge that I am not the underdog. I am not the hero of the story. I am, in the words of the risen Jesus to the Church at Laodicea, “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” I am weak in the kingdom of God precisely insofar as I am strong in the eyes of this world. I am poor insofar as I hold onto security while my brother or sister goes hungry. I am foolish insofar as I imagine myself to be beyond the need of God’s intervention.

Life is complex. There are no easy answers. (Go back and read Ecclesiastes if you have any doubt about this!) Yet, despite the complexity of the world we live in, God is straightforward in what he asks of us. God’s commandments are challenging but they are not confusing. As people who are wise in the ways of this world, sometimes we make the gospel more complicated as a way of avoiding responsibility.

Psalm 15 is a good antidote to our tendency towards substituting human wisdom for the foolishness of God. In this psalm, David explains who is fit to live in the kingdom of God, and it’s not a complicated formula. What must we do?

  • Walk blamelessly.
  • Do what is right and speak the truth from the heart.
  • Do not slander.
  • Do no evil to friends and neighbors. 
  • Shun the wicked, but honor those who fear God. 
  • Stand by your word, even if it costs you dearly. 
  • Do not lend money at interest. 
  • Don’t accept bribes. 

This isn’t complicated. It’s challenging, but it’s not confusing. It doesn’t take a master’s degree to understand, but it takes a lifetime to master. 

God does not demand wit or wealth or power from us. God can supply all that and more. What he promises us is that if we walk in the paths he sets for us, if we obey his commandments, we will be firmly established. As the Psalmist writes, “Those who do these things shall never be moved.”