It might not be the most reverent place to start a sermon. Yet, there is perhaps considerable religious devotion involved, so I’d like to begin this morning by talking about college football. Now, the loss by the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Rose Bowl did take a little steam out of what I had planned for my opening vignette. But the Hawkeyes didn’t quit, so neither will I. Let’s give this a try. At the point in the college football season when Iowa started to look seriously poised to go undefeated, there came to be a lot of angst in the college football world. “What if Iowa were to make the playoff?” people wondered, as if that would somehow spoil the whole thing. One Twitter comment put the overwrought conundrum well. It went something like this: if this were the NCAA basketball tournament, people would be loving Iowa as underdogs, but for some reason with football people are only hating. The comparison is a striking one. I think the difference is that in the men’s basketball tournament, 68 teams have a shot to win the title. For the most part, there’s a basic understanding that the teams who deserve to be in the tournament make it, and then it’s just fun to see how things shake out. But in this new era of the College Football Playoff, only four teams ultimately play for a chance to win a national championship. With so few teams selected, the assumption is that these spots will go to traditional powers, teams we might already think of as potential champions. Generally speaking, when opportunities are perceived to be scarce, we tend to be quick and decisive in our judgments of who “deserves” them, and—no surprise!—the supposed “deserving” are those we already think of as “good.”
We like an underdog. Except when we don’t. It is always a matter of perspective according to what already are our preferences and what we perceive we have to lose or gain. There’s a fine, fine line between whether we will cheer or disparage and undermine an underdog.
The Bible is filled with stories of God’s preference for the underdog, from the exodus from Egypt, to deliverance from the Babylonian captivity, to the Resurrection. There’s a special challenge, then, of reading these stories as white Christians in the most dominant nation on Earth. We risk becoming like those football fans, explaining God and the world in terms that perpetuate the status quo, benefitting the team—or people and nation-states—at the top.
So what do we do? How do we read the Bible to inform our faith and the ways we live in the world, messy and complicated as it is? While I don’t think the Bible can or should function as an oversimplified blueprint for saying, “When X happens, do Y,” taking the Bible seriously attunes our hearts and minds to the good news of God’s love, mercy, and justice and the commission that we be bearers of that love, mercy, and justice in the world. (more…)