Underdog

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA

June 13, 2021

1st Samuel 15:34 to 16:13

Who do you cheer for in sports? Other than one’s hometown teams, obviously. When you fill out your bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament, are you more likely to pick number one seeds, or the 16 seeds who barely qualified for the tournament? I might pick the higher seed when I’m filling out my bracket, but when I start watching the games, I find myself cheering for the teams that shouldn’t be there, from the schools without huge sports budgets.

I love a good underdog story.

Neeru Paharia of Harvard Business School and colleagues noticed “the underdog effect” in business too.  They found that companies gain goodwill from consumers when companies present themselves as a group that has overcame disadvantages through sheer determination.

This effect is even stronger in cultures like ours, where the underdog narrative is more prevalent.

This underdog narrative dominates American culture not only in sports but in all other popular media. From Moneyball to Cinderella, from the Mighty Ducks to Rocky, Americans crave stories about underdogs.

What does this story about Samuel and David say about our preference for the underdog?

Samuel was a prophet. He was offered to God before he was even born, by his mother Hannah. And as a child, he heard God calling his name and responded with “speak, for your servant is listening”. We’re told in 1 Sam 3:19, “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground”.

Isn’t that something?

Samuel became a judge over the people of Israel, traveling in a circuit from Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, and Ramah to administer justice to the people and help them to follow God, to serve the Lord, to set aside foreign gods.

He appointed his sons to serve in his cabinet and act as judges as well, but “his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice”. (1 Sam 8:3)

So the people clamored for a king, like the other nations had. Samuel saw it as a rejection of him, which is a fair point, for his sons were pretty bad at judging. God said, the people “have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them”.

And so Samuel warns the people kings aren’t all that great. And a king will conscript their sons to run his chariots, and take their daughters to be cooks and bakers. A king will take the best of their grain and vineyards and livestock.  “And you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day”. (1 Sam 8:18)

In response to that dire prediction, the people said, “Sounds great! Sign us up!”

This is an ancient story. It is also a modern story, lived out around the world today every time people put their faith in strongmen to save them. When individual boasts seem stronger than institutional structures, people turn to kings, dictators, bullies.

In the story of Israel, they seek a human king in their midst they can adulate and worship, instead of trust in the God who had already saved them. In this sense, the pursuit of a king is another verse in the story of idolatry—directing our worship in the wrong direction.

If you don’t know the story of the first king, Saul, it’s worth a read this week. Dynasty, Dallas, Empire, and every other evening soap opera rolled into one. Intrigue! Scandal!

Makes for great ratings. Doesn’t make for an easy path for God’s people.  God decides impeachment is an appropriate ending for Saul’s kingship and so he tells Samuel to go pick the next king.

I can’t decide if this story reminds me more of some weird reverse beauty pageant, where the sons are paraded across the stage in a swimsuit competition.  I’d give this son a 9.5 for his stature, but looking at his heart, he only gets a 3. Next!

Which one will God pick?!

Or, is it a reverse of that horrible moment on the playground where people are choosing their football teams? Except all of the star quarterbacks and strong safeties are still waiting to be picked when Samuel says, “isn’t there anyone else? Don’t you have some other sons I can pick?

Because, inexplicably, Samuel doesn’t seem to want the team that we would pick.

I don’t know why I am surprised by God’s preference for the underdog, when it is the consistent story of scripture.

God chooses the people of Israel instead of a mightier nation like Assyria or Egypt.

God chooses the younger sons, from Abel to Jacob to Joseph—on down the line.

God chooses to be born in a barn instead of a palace.

And the son, Jesus, consistently invites people to dinner who would not make our lists.

Samuel was surprised by this too, which makes me feel a little better about my consistent surprise.

And it makes me want to be the underdog. I want to be David, the unlikely yet plucky hero of one of God’s narratives.

The last time I preached this text, I thought my sermon was pretty good. Decent, at least.

Until.

At lunch after worship, my 13 year old son Alden said, “mom, your sermon missed the point.”

“Ok. Tell me more”, I said, with some trepidation, wondering whose idea it had been to have children.

In America, we aren’t like David. We’re more like Jesse’s other sons—the ones who were rejected when God was looking for someone to anoint. We’re the ones with the power and privilege that first born sons have, using all the planet’s resources. We should be looking for the anointed ones in the people who are out tending the proverbial sheep.”

I went to my bible and wrote his observation down in the margin of 1 Sam 16 so I’d be sure to remember it the next time I preached this story.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation from that day, but I suspect it also involved Elliott pointing out that youngest sons are clearly the best and most deserving of anointing.

And then there likely was brotherly violence.

On reflection, “brotherly violence” may be a fair subtitle for many of the stories in scripture.

Humans are a complicated lot. We claim the status of underdog while we benefit from being the top dog. Nobody wants to be Eliab the eldest brother. We want to be David, the sheep herder. We see ourselves as underdogs even as we’re dominating other people. 

We complain about the demands of climate accords, upset about the emissions of other countries, even as we create far more emissions per capita than other countries.

Or think of all the people demanding their “freedoms” these days—freedoms from whatever the political issue they don’t agree with.

Religious freedom has a long and important place in our country’s history,  protecting the voice of the minority, protecting religious expression from governmental religion. But the term is most likely to be used today by people who are wanting the government to force their views on other people. People decrying marriage equality, to use one example, see themselves as underdogs, as persecuted minorities, even as they are the ones dominating the political, cultural, and religious landscape.

I confess, as I was working on underdog illustrations, I could come up with a million illustrations of other people not getting it. I had a really hard time coming up with an illustration of me not getting it.  I’m sure there are plenty of them out there, and my kids likely know them all, but my brain doesn’t keep a file of the times I’m the top dog.

Maybe we feel like underdogs because we can always find someone out there who is richer than we are, or more successful, or whose “height and stature” makes us feel more like a shepherd boy and less like the successful CEO older brother type.

Do we, as a congregation, see ourselves as underdogs? With our resources, from our beautiful sanctuary in Pacific Heights, I suspect that as a congregation, we’re rarely the underdogs. Are we aware of our privilege? Are we using it for the benefit of the underdogs?

The Lord looks on David’s heart, and sees a faithful one, a heart that recognizes the values humans admire are not the ones needed when facing impossible tasks. A heart that will rely on God is, I think, what God wanted to lift up in the new king.

When we look at people’s hearts, and not their bank accounts, the car they drive, or the clothes they wear, it messes up our ability to compare our lives to theirs. It blurs the image we hold of what makes someone successful.

But to look at people’s hearts, we have to get past the outer surface of people’s lives. We have to put ourselves in places where we have the opportunity to share stories with people who have led different lives, with people who have voted differently than we do, with people who have not had the privileges and opportunities we have had.

How often do we pass by people on the street with only the time to see as mortals see, without taking the time to see how our hearts might be similar?

The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

David’s heart is, as we’ll discover, a complicated thing. At the beginning of his story, he’s the underdog, the youngest son out tending sheep.

For much of the rest of David’s story, he’s large and in charge—not the boy anointed by Samuel. He’s the king of Israel. The one we look at to remember the “glory days” of Israel. It’s from his family tree that Jesus claims kingship.

David loves God. He writes beautiful psalms. Those are the good parts of David’s heart.

In the darker moments of his heart, David “takes” other men’s wives, adding more women’s voices to the refrain of “me too”  that echo through history, reminding us that harassment and assault did not begin with Harvey Weinstein. When David’s children join the narrative, we discover he is not father of the year, which is the nicest thing I can say about his parenting.

I wonder if that later David ever really acknowledged his privilege and his power? Or if he always saw himself as the young shepherd, anointed by Samuel, the plucky underdog?

David is a complicated man, showing us the best and worst of humanity. One of his many psalms is the one we used earlier in worship.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. And renew a right spirit within me.

Friends, we live in a world where we’ve mastered the art of seeing each other only as mortals see, leading to much discord and animus. We categorize people by their behavior. In other words, instead of saying “a man who is unhoused”, we say “did you see the homeless on the corner?”

People lose their humanity and are reduced to labels of “an illegal”, or “a loser”, or “a liberal”. Even if the labels are good ones, they don’t capture all of our complexity.

When we see people as mortals see them, instead of looking at their hearts as God does, we lose our ability to see nuance and complication and connection.

Those of you who were able to take the pack a sack meals to our unhoused neighbors last week after Charles Davis’ memorial service embody this call we have—to see past the complicating details of a person’s present reality to see them as fellow humans in need of care, with hearts beating like ours, with hopes and dreams and challenges and struggles.

God saw David by looking at David’s heart, a heart that was good and bad in equal measure, a heart that returned to God for a clean up and renewal. The mysterious decisions of God challenge us to believe that we, too, are called and anointed to particular service because God can see our heart. And to also believe that God can call and anoint people we don’t even notice, or people we noticed just long enough to reduce to a label.

The moral of this story is not to have the most perfectest heart anyone has ever had. God doesn’t call us to perfection—that would just be another way of seeing as mortals see. God also doesn’t turn away from our failings, pretending they aren’t there.

God calls us for our hearts. Hearts that beat with life and joy. Hearts that work for justice. Hearts that are broken open for love and loss. Hearts that get dirty and then washed in God’s mercy to be clean, so we can try again, greet another day, and go honestly into our complicated world, forgiving of ourselves and of each other.

Let us bring our hearts to this work of faith and community, seeing each other as God sees us. Caring for each other as God cares for us. Whether you see yourself as top dog or underdog, if you look for the hearts of others, and tend to your heart, you will have a heart that relies on God.

Amen.

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