Flipping the Script

There’s something about us that makes us root for the underdog. It’s the way we tend to view our own origins as a nation, the under-funded and poorly-trained Minutemen up against the massive firepower of the British Empire. It is also how we tend to describe national triumphs over injustice: ending slavery, burying Jim Crow, championing equality for those who were once excluded. The underdog stories, whether in real life or in fiction, are the ones we turn to again and again as evidence of the world we want to believe in, where anything is possible: Jeremy Lin leading the Knicks on a surprise winning streak, Luke Skywalker saving the galaxy from the Empire, William Wallace holding the British at bay, Frodo Baggins destroying the ring and sparing Middle Earth, the US Hockey Team taking the gold from the Soviets.

We may know that such stories are the exception, not the rule, but they seem to serve as a way to give us hope in a world that can often seem so unfair, where injustice seems to have the last word all too often. We want to believe that the worst team can beat the best team on any given Sunday. And while it’s theoretically true, the odds tend to be pretty stacked.

What’s most distressing is that there are losses that are about more than just team rivalries, losses with real life consequences.

On Good Friday, two men drove around northern Tulsa with intent to kill. Details are still emerging as the two suspects have been located and arrested, but this much is true: three people are dead because of their rampage. One of the victims was 49 year-old Donna Fields. Fields had battled some fierce demons in her own lifetime, including addiction to drugs and alcohol. But she had turned her life around, getting involved in her church and reaching out to help those who had fallen prey to the same problems.

What had seemed like a victory for the underdog, a broken life transformed into one of healing, turned quickly back to sadly predictable defeat. And rather than this being a loss in an otherwise winning season, such moments feel much more like part of humanity’s long-standing losing streak.

And yet, here we are, people of faith, walking in the footsteps of those who insist on telling us that hope has the final word, that life beats death, that the tomb is empty and the Lord is not here but risen.

Those messages of victory are the ones that we see again and again in Scripture. In the book of Acts, the plucky little band of Jesus’ followers picks up where the Messiah left off. Defying the odds, not to mention the strong hand of the religious leaders, they go on to spread the gospel and build the church in the most trying of circumstances. In the lesson we just read, we see the bigger drama in miniature. Peter and John are arrested. They have healed a man who lay at the gate of the temple, and have been teaching about Jesus and resurrection. In the midst of their defense, they cite the ultimate underdog text from the Psalms: the stone the builders tossed aside has now been used as the very foundation upon which everything rests. Despite the overwhelming opposition, they are freed with nothing more than a warning. The little guy wins. The favorite sulks away in defeat. And the drama goes on.

It begins to feel like disconnect, doesn’t it, between faithful hope and real life experiences? As Christians, we are asked to believe in the borderline absurd. On our best days, we might actually get close. And yet, much of the time, we tend to live as though such stories are just that: stories, myths, stuff that would be nice to believe if we could just suspend logic and reason and critical thought, not to mention experience. Either that, or we manage to survive with a kind of cognitive dissonance, putting our mental and spiritual trust in Jesus, but living life as though it all depends on us. Our faith tends more towards word and speech, not truth and action. What happens in Tulsa doesn’t just stay in Tulsa; it re-affirms our suspicions that the odds are stacked against us.

But maybe that’s the problem: we are so steeped in our culture of either/or, of win/lose, that we don’t even know that we’ve started out with the wrong question to begin with. If our options are polarized, if we can end up with either victory or defeat, with success or failure, then we will do everything in our power to be sure that we win. Because the alternative, well, it’s for losers, isn’t it?

But how is it that we define winning? What does success look like? Did Jesus succeed? By the standards of our society, absolutely not. He was born poor and remained poor; he was supremely gifted, but used those gifts not to amass wealth or power, but a small, committed band of followers. And when the going got tough, those followers fell away, one by one, until he was all alone. And that’s when he died: broken, humiliated, friendless.

Of course, we know the rest of the story: Jesus rises from the dead, goes on to encourage the disciples, ascends into heaven, et cetera; but that’s not success in the way we view it. It’s too ethereal, other worldly, metaphysical. It’s not nearly material enough. And so we end up crafting our visions of Jesus’ return to make sure that it conforms with how we view success: the master warrior, destroying his enemies, reigning as king forever and ever. Amen.

It feels like a visit to the eye doctor: better or worse? Number one, or number two? Maybe the problem starts because we’ve got on the wrong lenses to begin with.

Back to Tulsa. As Donna Fields’ pastor reflected on her life, one that had been ravaged by addictions but had become marked by hope and joy, he spoke of her this way:

“She stood for justice. She understood the streets...She has been an inspiration to us rather than us to her...to see what God can do with anybody.”

Do you notice the turn? Do you see how the script gets flipped? This isn’t a lesson of how the church saved her, or even of how good Christians ministered to her. As her pastor said, it’s about how she, the ex-junkie, ministered to them. It’s about what God, not the church, did to and through her; and how that stands as proof of what God can do with anybody.

The impact of Donna Fields’ change life becomes clearer the more we hear about the aftermath. Her brother is anxious to see justice for his sister. But when he was asked about the death penalty as a form of justice, his answer is clear:

“I don’t hate them. That’s not what God put us down here for, to hate.”

The principle that ought to underline all that we do is not winning or losing, not betting on the underdog or rooting for the favorite. The point is to recognize how God is at work, and to find out how we can get in on that action!

In our Acts’ lesson, our win-lose lenses show us a temporary victory by Peter and John. But the bigger story is that God used them for healing: the physical healing of the man at the gates of the temple, spiritual healing of the people who hear them speak and see them not backing down. And even though they know they have the true power, the power of God, the power of the risen Christ on their team, they don’t Lord it over their opponents. Instead, they give witness to the one who gave them that power in the first place. And once again, the script is flipped: the stone the builders rejected not only became useful, but became the cornerstone of the whole structure.

And in the lesson from John’s letter, the clearest sign of Christ’s presence within us is not victory or success. It’s love; the love we demonstrate with our words and with our actions, the way we put our money and our time and our talents where our mouths and our hearts and our faith reside. After all, as the lesson of Tulsa reminds us, God didn’t put us here to hate anybody.

Can we re-evaluate the rules of the game? Can we move beyond winning or losing into healing and loving? Is it even possible in an election year where campaigns are just barely getting warmed up?

Friends, God wants to work through us. Christ wants to live within us, and to let the world know who it is that motivates our love, our compassion, or desire to keep on, even when it feels like the odds are stacked against us.

Let the games begin!