(Theme from Underdog)
Another classic am I right?
Who doesn’t love a show written
almost entirely in rhyming couplets?
Shoeshine boy and Polly Purebred
and all those dastardly villains.
In this show it is the very humble and self-deprecating nature
of the main character that makes it an underdog story.
Sure, as Underdog,
Shoeshine Boy has massive powers,
but those powers often caused lots of collateral damage
if only that every episode ended with
Underdog not paying attention
and flying into a brick wall.
Underdog could defeat the villains,
but in the process,
often he would cause more damage than the villain had.
It’s a cute cartoon and something to have a laugh about,
but there are real underdogs in life, aren’t there?,
with real underdog stories.
I am sure you all could think of a time
when you were the underdog.
When life had landed you right behind the eight ball
or stuck you with a 7-10 split.
The odds impossibly stacked against you.
One of my most memorable underdog moments
was in my freshman year of high school.
For me, the only sport I cared about in the slightest, was football.
But I was flattered
when the captain of the varsity wrestling team asked me to join. Before that point,
all I knew about wrestling was what I saw on TV.
Guys like Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper,
and the Undertaker doing a barely passable job
of fake street brawling inside a boxing ring.
But, like I said, I was flattered…
And because I needed something to keep me in shape
during football’s off season, I joined the wrestling team.
I grew to love the sport very quickly.
The workouts were intense and the camaraderie was amazing.
I learned a lot very quickly,
but I still knew less then almost anybody on the team,
most of whom had been wrestling since grade school.
Because I wasn’t the only wrestler in my weight class on the team,
we had to wrestle each other at practice
to see who got to wrestle in the one varsity slot for each meet.
I was a quick study and a strong kid,
so even though my technique wasn’t perfect,
I beat the other two heavyweights for our first meet of the year
and my first meet ever.
So my first time on the mat against someone not on my team
was our first meet of the season.
I was psyched. I had earned the spot.
I thought I was top dog.
And then we got to Kingsford,
and as it came my turn to wrestle
and I stepped out onto the mat,
I realized I had made a terrible mistake.
The mountain that stood across the mat from me
was at least a foot taller than I was.
He packed more muscle on his bones
than I thought possible for a human being.
Had we been outdoors, he would have blocked out the sun.
This guy was Goliath to my David.
I walked into that gymnasium
thinking that I was the king of the hill,
but when I finally stood across from my opponent
I realized I was the underdog in this story.
And I was about to get squashed.
We took our starting positions,
we shook hands, the referee blew the whistle,
and 35 seconds later I heard the referee shout “pin”
and blow the whistle again to end the match.
For a split second
I thought I had somehow defeated Goliath,
that perhaps I was just that good.
But as soon as that thought entered my mind, it left,
because it became apparent
that I had been wrapped up into such a pretzel of a position
that it only felt like I was the one doing the pinning.
I felt horrible. I let my team down.
I let myself down. And I was the only one to blame.
I figured the coach was going to have some choice words for me.
Instead the coach looked at me, laughed, and said,
“You did real good Mike.
Lasting 35 seconds against that monster is impressive.”
He then went on to explain
how the guy that had just wiped the mat with me
had already won a state championship the year before.
The beauty of the underdog story though,
is that even if it ends in defeat, the underdog still learns a lesson. That is the nature of the underdog,
to accept victory and defeat as the same,
an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to be thankful for.
In Luke’s gospel this morning,
we hear one of the most famous underdog stories in the bible.
Jesus is asked by a teacher of the law
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus answers with a question
“What does the law say?”
And this teacher answers with great wisdom,
he says “to love God with all you have
and to love your neighbor as yourself”
Now I can only imagine
a bit of a smile creeping onto Jesus face at that moment.
“Finally” Jesus thinks to himself “you are finally getting it”
but then the teacher of the law goes on to ask
probably the most boneheaded question
in the New Testament: “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answers with an underdog story.
A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan walk into a bar…. ok,
so that’s not how it starts but it might as well start that way.
Jesus introduces us to three characters.
We don’t know their names
but we know a lot about them simply by the titles they are given.
In this case, the injured man on the road
and the bandits who robbed him are merely tangential to the story.
As Jesus is trying to explain
to this meathead of a teacher of the law who his neighbor is,
he trots out three very distinct people groups.
The priests, the Levites, and the Samaritans.
The priests and the Levites
were in a class all by themselves in all of Israel.
When Israel entered the promised land
and it was divided amongst the tribes,
neither the priests nor the Levites were given any land.
The work of the priests and the Levites
centered around the tabernacle
and so they had to live primarily where ever it was.
Neither group farmed or worked in any other capacity.
They survived on the offerings
that came into the tabernacle from the people.
They were highly respected and revered as leaders,
as those closest to God.
The Samaritans, on the other hand,
were children of Israel who had intermarried
with the Assyrians during captivity.
They had their own version of the Law of Moses
and believed that God’s holy mountain was in Samaria,
The Jews and Samaritans did not deal with each other very much. Jews would walk around Samaria
instead of walking through it
even though it added time to their journey.
The Jews, especially the priests and Levites,
despised the Samaritans and considered them heretics.
So in the underdog story,
it is the Samaritan who is cast as the underdog.
So these three people are walking down the road
and they come across a man who has been beaten and robbed. The priest and the Levite see the man beaten half to death
and pass by on the other side of the road.
Now as coldhearted as it sounds,
there is a reason for this;
the Law of Moses has very strict rules
when it comes to encountering dead bodies or blood.
For any Jew to come into contact with such things
would render them ritually unclean,
and they would have to go through a purification process.
If they stopped to help,
they wouldn’t be able to go back to their own work.
When God handed the law down to Moses,
part of the reason for focusing so much on purity
was to protect everyone from disease.
To make sure that they properly disinfected
after coming into contact with hazardous fluids.
The law was given to protect vulnerable people
and the good of the community.
It was never intended to be a law
that would make them ignore someone in need,
but by the time of Jesus, that is largely what it had become.
The Samaritan, who followed the same laws,
except for worshiping at a different temple
on a different mountain,
is the only one who remembered
not just the letter but the deeper spirit of God’s laws.
He tended the man’s wounds,
gave him water to drink,
brought him to someone who could better care for him
and paid for the treatment the stranger needed.
In this case, the neighbor,
the one who knew how to inherit eternal life,
was the underdog, the one despised by all the Jews,
God loves and blesses the underdog.
We saw that in our reading
from Matthew’s gospel a little earlier.
The poor, the meek, the hungry and thirsty,
the pure of heart, the peacemakers,
these are the ones God is seeking to bless.
Those that this world looks at as weak,
and ineffectual, as losers who don’t have what it takes to win.
those whom the odds are stacked against,
those who don’t have a prayer of experiencing victory.
The stories of our world today are filled with underdogs.
People trying to rise up against
corruption in organizations and governments
to find ways to make and live in peace
as the world seems to be ever and continually
spinning out of control.
The Church is rushing to figure out
what is happening as more and more people
leave its doors never to return.
Every day we see articles written about
why this is and how horrible it is for the Church.
Authors and preachers lament the loss of the “good old days,”
when church attendance was assumed
and Christians made all the rules.
They worry about how the world has changed,
worry that we’ve lost our way. But I don’t see it that way.
Instead, I see an opportunity for the Church to return to our roots:
to remember that, in the world, we are the underdogs.
For a long time the Church was the top of the food chain.
We opened the doors and people came in. That’s not how it was in the beginning.
In the beginning,
the Church struggled against a world
that did not entirely believe their story.
A world that tried to say their story was a lie.
To say there was no resurrection.
The Church struggled as the underdog against Rome
and against Judaism and against hatred of the way
they chose to live their lives.
But it was in that state, that state of underdog-etude,
that the Church flourished.
I think the Church today is worried
because it became to reliant on being the only game in town,
so much so that it didn’t have to change
or to truly seek people and work for the betterment of humanity.
We built it and people came. No longer.
Now, now we have to work if we want to grow.
We have to plant the seed and water the fields.
(another parable for another day perhaps).
We have to live the life of the underdog.
Knowing that the odds
look like they are incredibly stacked against us,
and they probably are,
But God loves the underdog, and God is faithful
but the underdog has to try,
the underdog has to work hard,
the underdog has to believe, that God still loves us,
God is still for us, and if God is for us,
there is no power in the universe that can stand against us.
With God underdogs prevail.
Maybe not always on the first shot.
Maybe there are some lessons
we have to learn in the battles we fight
that can only be won through understanding loss.
But in the end, the underdog always wins.
The bible is rife with examples.
Noah and his family labored to build a boat
no one believed he would ever need.
Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers
and rose to be second only to Pharaoh in Egypt.
Moses believed a bush
when it told him he could deliver Israel from the hand of Egypt.
The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt
but walked out with their freedom
and a great mass of wealth plundered from the Egyptians.
Gideon intentionally became an underdog
and whittled down his forces from from 30,0000 to 300
for one battle – and they won.
Elijah, defeated the 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel
mocking them the whole time.
Israel was an underdog in their battle against the Philistines,
yet a young boy with a slingshot feld their greatest warrior.
When you are the underdog,
when the odds are stacked against you,
when you know that your own strength will not win the day,
you are much more likely to rely on God.
God, whose strength will never fail.
God, whose mercies are new every morning.
God, whose love never has, and never will fail you.
The underdog always wins, when the underdog relies on God.
So remember when the odds are stacked against you,
when life is looking low,
that we are not bird, nor plane, nor even frog,
we’re the church, but the world can call us underdog.