Working Without a Template

Let’s start things off on the right spiritual foot here with a quick poll:Broncos? Seahawks? Commercials? Have no idea what I’m talking about?

Super Bowl Sunday is just one of those uniquely American days, isn’t it? And even for those of us who may not like all the hype, it certainly has been a relief in the past couple of days to hear about something other than Atlanta’s Tuesday night weather debacle, as politicians and talking heads and uninformed pundits took to the airwaves to point fingers and redirect blame. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take football over that any day.

There’s also something about the Super Bowl that gives us the chance to root for a team, even if we have no emotional investment in the outcome of the game. There’s quite the head of steam building up behind the Peyton Manning bandwagon. And then there’s the backlash, the anti-bandwagon pro-Seahawks bandwagon that has quickly becomes its own bandwagon.

Today, it looks like the odds makers are making Denver the favorite, but not outrageously so. And as the saying goes, on any given Sunday…

There’s always that potential for the upset, where the underdog takes home the prize. And we love our underdogs, don’t we? David and Goliath, Yanks and Redcoats, Ali and Liston, Mets and Orioles, Team USA and the Soviets: those are the stories we remember, the ones that make the best movies. And yet, I think there’s more to it than that: every time the underdog wins, even in the most mundane of circumstances, I think it rekindles our faith in the possibility of hope, that the “little guy” can beat the odds and come out on top.

Is that why we are so drawn to the stories of Scripture? Is it because they are the stuff of underdog legend? Is that what the prophet Micah points us to, caring for those on the margins? Is that the story of the cross that Paul share’s with the Corinthians, of a God who works through weakness and foolishness? Is that the essence of Jesus, the scrappy upstart who beat the mighty Roman Empire, pulling off a dramatic come from behind win, leaving death and the empty tomb in his wake?

Perhaps…and yet, I think there’s something requires a deeper look.

The prophet Micah is a fairly mysterious figure. Little is known about him. Like most prophets, though, he is the voice of conscience, a moral compass for the nation. In our lesson this morning, he draws a mental picture of a court case, where God asks the people why they have abandoned God’s ways. Is it because did God do something to offend? Did God fumble the relationship, or drop the ball somewhere along the way? Or have the people so soon forgotten about their redemption from Egypt, how they were released from captivity and brought into freedom and promise?

From there, Micah goes on to offer a subtle but brutal critique of the nation’s religious underpinnings. These people are meant to be a light to the world, a moral example of what is good and right and just. And yet while they excel at ritualistic practice, they fail to grasp what these habits are supposed to encourage them toward.

What is it that God asks for in return for blessings bestowed? Is it the right kind of sacrificial animal? Is it excessive amounts of burnt offerings or sacred oils? No: none of this is what matters. Instead, what God wants more than anything, is doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. That’s it. Don’t get fancy. Don’t think it’s about praying better or more elegantly. It’s simply about doing what is right, about paying attention to where it is that God wants you to be.

I’m reminded of Knute Rockne, the legendary Notre Dame football coach. Born to Norwegian immigrants, he scrapped most of his life and went on to become one of the most successful coaches in history, with a record of 105 wins, 12 losses, and 5 ties. Notre Dame went undefeated five times under his leadership, and his winning percentage remains the best for both college and professional coaches.

All of that is impressive; but for me, it’s the way that Rockne got his edge I find so compelling. For him, it wasn’t about grandiose strategy; instead, it was simple attention to neglected details that gave him a leg up on the competition. He pioneered Spring practices to get a glimpse at what his Fall team would be like. He would put out his second string team for the first quarter – players that were stronger on defense, but weaker on offense. Their job was not to get the lead, but to hold the opposition to as few points as possible. His first string team would hit the field in the second quarter and overpower a tired out opponent. He even worked with things like uniforms and padding to make them lighter and more aerodynamic. Rockne knew that the goal was not innovation, but to win games. He also seemed to know that playing football the way it had always been played wouldn’t be enough. His genius was in realizing that focusing on the little things would make the difference, that it was time to completely rethink the template.

Is that how we approach our life of faith? Do we keep our eye on the goal of being faithful? Or are we caught up too often in the trappings of faith, the way it’s “supposed” to be, of doing it “right”, whatever “right” means? Do we think of the church as the building, and the ministries of the church as those things that we do together? Or do we see the church as the people and ourselves as ministers of that church wherever we go? There’s a simple song we sing every week with the Preschoolers in chapel that says it best: “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.”

I think some of that happened this past week here in Atlanta. The snow arrived midday Tuesday as people made their way home. Some of you, I know, were caught in the middle of it all. There were the stories and realities of terrible commutes, of abandoned cars, of nights spent on school busses, of emergency vehicles stuck in the gridlock like the rest of us. And yet, there were also the stories of those who made a difference.

There were the young men who stood at intersections to push cars that got stuck. There was the woman who started a Facebook group where people could post requests for help and offers of assistance. There were the teachers and administrators who stayed late and even spent the night with the kids who couldn’t get home. There was the neighbors who walked door to door to see if anyone was in need.

And friends, that’s how hope comes alive! It is so easy to give into the cynicism, of choosing the mayor or the governor, of pointing blame at government or transportation, of pitting meteorologists against decision makers. Don’t get me wrong: there is a place for accountability in the midst of it all. That said, it is also very easy, and far better, to look within ourselves. It’s there that we can find the possibility to rise above all of this and serve God with justice, kindness, and humility.

Speaking of looking within, how is your daily prayer going? Those of you who have been here the past few Sundays will remember that I have invited all of us to give five minutes a day to prayer in the new year. We’re not talking about anything fancy: start with thanks, ask God to stir you later in the day, and spend the rest of that five minutes in silence. After all, prayer does many things, including opening us up to new possibilities.

So, how’s it going? Have you been able to find your five minutes? Have you noticed any patterns emerge in your daily prayer, or the way that the rest of your day comes alive in response to it? Or are you simply learning that you find this harder to do than you would have guessed?

I know I could step up my own game. Last week was another hit and miss week for me. But what I continue to learn (other than God’s patience with me for learning the same lessons over and over again) is that the days where I do pray are the days where I have a clearer sense of what it is that I’m supposed to do and where it is that God wants me to be.

If that’s what we’re doing, if we are really praying to see how it is that we might be God’s agents of mercy, then those are times when we keep our eye on that prize of faithfulness. And we also might just end up tipping the balance in favor of our beloved underdog.

Is that the point, though? Is the life of faith about turning everything upside down, of losers winning and winners losing? We love a good story, but if history is any teacher at all, it doesn’t take long before the underdog becomes the favorite, or for the freedom fighter to become the defender of the status quo. That kind of cycles just leads to new margins and new underdogs. I don’t think that’s what God is all about.

When Paul writes to the church at Corinth, remember, he is writing to a community divided against itself. The congregation is split into camps, choosing sides, drawing battle lines. And Paul names that nonsense for what it is: nonsense. After all, he seems to be saying in our lesson today, that’s what the rest of the world does. The world splits into teams, flips coins, picks sides, and then fights to the death. Is that really what the cross is all about? Are “Christians” just another team in the dog-eat-dog world out there? Or is there something else altogether at stake?

This is one of my favorite texts, because Paul seems intent on confusing us. Wisdom becomes folly, foolishness becomes genius, advantage becomes a liability, weakness becomes strength. Before the cross, everything is turned upside down. No dividing lines remain, because there’s nothing left to fight over! Victory – ultimate victory – is in the hands of Jesus. After all, once you’ve defeated death by rising from the grave, what prize is left to claim?

I know divisions mark our world. They can be as obvious as that between nations or points of view, as frivolous and fun as between teams vying for championships, or as subtle and painful as that between estranged spouses and fractured communities. But the hope lies in the possibility of laying it all down, putting aside the old templates that have failed us, and moving forward with an eye the goal of faithfulness. And today, more than ever, I am certain that it all begins with a simple, daily commitment to prayer.

We will revisit this topic again week after week, because I want us to be accountable to each other. I want us to move beyond the notion that church stays within this hour, within these walls, within this group of people. And I say that because I’m convinced that this is what God desires more than anything: a people who are willing to let go of choosing sides, of picking winners and losers, in order to lay everything at the foot of the cross.

I don’t say this as someone who has figured it all out, not by any means whatsoever. Instead, I share this as a fellow struggler, someone who really wants to get it right and falls flat on my face time and time again. But then I remember that there really isn’t a template to begin with, and that I can always start over, surrounded by the justice and kindness and humility I’m supposed to resonate out to the world.

Today, my mind flashes back to eight and a half years ago. Elizabeth and I were living in Louisville, having gotten the word that I would be pastor here at Oglethorpe. My daily prayer in those months of preparation was about this church, and what it was that God was calling me to do here. I remember very vividly asking the question one day, “What do you want me to do, God?” And I knew the answer in the silence, even before I finished the question, as Micah’s words rang in my ears: “Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with me.”

Friends, that’s the noblest template of all. If that’s the mission we strive for, then victory is already ours!