The Thing That Saves Us

Scripture: Romans 5:1-5

Several months ago, Pastor Robin and I discovered that we’re both huge fans of the television show Ted Lasso. During our conversations, the notion somehow emerged that we should offer an Advent sermon series that draws lessons appropriate to the season from the show’s characters and plotlines. I don’t recall who came up with this plan, so I’ll just leave things here: if you like the idea, then it was mine; if you don’t, then it was all Robin.

You shouldn’t be concerned if haven’t seen even a single episode of the show. You’ll be fine. In each sermon, we’ll provide enough background that the uninitiated can easily follow along.

You also shouldn’t be concerned if you haveseen an episode or two but it wasn’t your “cup of tea”—an apt metaphor, because no onehates tea more than coach Lasso. Again, you’ll be fine. After all, these sermons aren’t really about the television show, anyway—they’re about the familiar Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. Ted Lasso just helps us explore those old and revered messages in new and perhaps unexpected ways.

With all that said, here’s a bit of background.

Ted Lasso is a show streamed on Apple Plus TV that has won lots of awards and critical acclaim. The main character in the show, for whom it’s named, is an American college football coach who leads the imaginary Wichita State Shockers to a Division II championship. This accomplishment makes him a minor internet celebrity—in part because of video footage that shows him doing a victory dance in the locker room as his team cheers him on.

Ted comes to the attention of the immensely wealthy Rebecca Melton, who has recently become the new owner of an English soccer team called AFC Richmond. Rebecca acquired the team as the result of her divorce settlement and it was her ex-husband’s prized possession. In a deliberate and secret effort to destroy the team to get back at her former spouse, Rebecca hires Ted to serve as its head coach—even though he knows absolutely nothingabout soccer. We first meet Ted on his flight to England, laboring to learn the basic rules, strategies, and vocabulary of the game.

During the misadventures that follow, we come to know lots of other characters: the players, fans, assistant coaches, team administrators, members of the media, various hangers-on, and so forth. We’ll tell you more about them as they come up in the sermons. There’s no need to learn about all of them now and to try to keep them straight in your head over four weeks. As Ted, who has a fondness for baking sweets, might say: We’ll eat this biscuit one bite at a time.

Because this is the first Sunday of Advent, our worship theme this morning is “hope,” which also happens to be one of the major threads in Ted Lasso. But, before we get to the show, let me say a few things about the ways in which we use the word “hope” and the language of hope that appears in the Bible. This seemingly simple idea, reflected in a terse monosyllabic word, turns out to have a lot of complexity to it.

Dictionaries define the English word “hope” in various ways, but many of them suggest that it simply means (a) wanting something to happen and (b) thinking that the something we want to happen is possible. In our usage, however, “hope” has two very different connotations.

One is what I’ll call “little h” hope. This means “hope” in the ordinary, everyday, pedestrian sense. For example, we say things like: “I hope my cheeseburger comes with French fries,” or “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,” or “I hope my fortune cookie says something interesting,” or “I hope I’m not already boring you with this sermon.”

The other, very different, meaning is what I’ll call “big H” Hope. This means “Hope” in the grand, transcendent, arc-of-the-universe sense. This is the Hope that Emily Dickinson refers to in her famous poem when she says: “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops at all.”

When the Bible talks about Hope, it means Hope with a “big H.” We can tell from the words it uses.

One of those words, which appears repeatedly in the Old Testament, is the Hebrew yachal. Translators often render that word as “hope,” for example in Psalm 71 where it says: “O God, do not be far from me … I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more.”

But translators even more commonly render the word to mean an eager and expectant “waiting.” For instance, it’s the word used in Genesis to describe Noah’s state of mind when he releases the dove for the last time. Yachalthus connects the idea of hope with the idea of waiting for something very important to happen, which theologian Lew Smedes once described as “hope’s hardest work.”

The other Hebrew word translators often render as “hope” is tiqvah. An example comes in a famous phrase in Jeremiah 29:11, which the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates this way: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” But tiqvah has another meaning as well—to tie or bind something together, as with a cord. In tiqvah, “hope” can therefore take on an additional sense of a shared and bonded activity.

In the New Testament, the Greek word often translated as “hope” is elpis. Elpis has a fascinating history: in Greek mythology, it referred to a goddess-like personified spirit of hope. Statues of the goddess of hope often depict her with her arm raised toward the sky—a gesture we see replicated in our own Statue of Liberty. Scholars of the Greek language tell us that elpis suggests a strong and wonderfully pleasant sense of anticipation and expectation; the word signals not just a looking forward, but a confident and joyful one.

In short, when we look at the language that the Bible uses to convey the idea of hope, we find woven into its texture a rich collection of ideas: assurance, confidence, excited anticipation, patient (and perhaps sometimes impatient) waiting, wild delight, and shared community. That’s “big H” Hope. It has nothing to do with whether the cheeseburger comes with fries. It’s about much larger things. That’s how the Bible wants us to understand the word. And that’s how coach Ted Lasso wants us to understand it as well.

Ted has a great personal fondness for bright hand-written yellow signs that include just one word on them: “Believe.” On his first day on the job, he tapes such a sign over his office door so it’s constantly in view of every player in the locker room. We later find out that he puts these signs all over the place, including on his bathroom mirror so it’s the first message he sees in the morning.

Posting “Believe” signs might strike you as a bit corny and, indeed, everyone around him sees it that way at the beginning. But then things begin to change. In time, the word becomes much more than just a hackneyed inspirational slogan. It becomes the defining quality of the environment that Ted Lasso constructs and fosters around him.

Given the athletic context, you might think that Ted’s “Believe” signs relate to his hope that the team will win its matches. But that would be “little h” hope. In fact, as coaches go, Ted doesn’t care very much about final scores or his team’s win / loss record. With respect to winning, as with most things, Ted takes the broad and long view.

Let me give you a few examples. One of the characters in the show is a veteran player named Roy Kent, a fading legend whose age has made him less effective on the field (or “the pitch,” as they call it). Roy is hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, and utterly irascible. One of the other characters in the show says that, at the peak of his powers, Roy played as if “he was angry at the grass.”

After Roy suffers a career-ending injury during a game, he retires and wants nothing to do with his old team. But Ted doesn’t give up on him. He believes Roy still has a leadership role to play. And Ted’s right.

Then there’s Jamie Tartt, the team’s young ace who offends and alienates all the other players with his arrogance, selfishness, and bullying. He wears a hat that says “ICON” on it. He likes to dance to his own name sung to the tune of “Baby Shark.”

Just as Ted is starting to make progress with Jamie’s attitude, Rebecca (the owner of AFC Richmond) arranges to have him transferred to another team. When that doesn’t work out, and when he tanks as a contestant on a television dating show, Jamie wants to come back to the team. If you see a bit of the Prodigal Son in Jamie Tartt, well, I won’t disagree with you.

At first Ted resists—and the other players make clear they want nothing to do with their former teammate. But then Ted reminds himself, and everyone else, that his playbook does not include giving up on people. He believes Jamie can redeem himself. And Ted’s right.

Then there’s Rebecca, the team owner who sets Ted up for failure and who continuously betrays him and torpedoes his efforts. Ted worms his way into her heart by bringing her homemade biscuits every morning. And Rebecca begins to regret her scheme when she sees Ted’s kindness and goodness in action.

Finally, Rebecca confesses to Ted. He sits for a moment, stunned, but then stands up and extends his hand. “I forgive you,” he says. He adds: “Divorce can make us do crazy things”—something he knows from his own experience. He believes that Rebecca deserves another chance. And Ted’s right.

In other words, Ted doesn’t just hang signs all over the place saying “Believe.” Ted lives a life in which he constantly models belief. And he invites others to join him—to believe in each other, to believe in themselves, to believe in miracles. Before one of the big games, he asks his team: “Do you believe in miracles?” And his every action testifies to his own answer to that question.

The novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote: “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof.” That’s precisely what Ted Lasso does. He lives right under the roof of Hope with a big H. And he invites everyone he encounters to join him there.

I’m sure that our scripture for today is known to and beloved by many of you. But it includes a phrase that might give us pause. “And hope does not disappoint us.” Let’s think about that for a moment: “And hope does not disappoint us.”

If we’re paying attention, and not just letting the words wash over us, we might say: “Hold on. Wait a minute. Sure, hope disappoints us. Sometimes the cheeseburger doesn’t come with French fries, and it does rain tomorrow, and the fortune cookie has no message in it at all, and the sermon is boring”—not in this church, of course, although I’m told it happens elsewhere.

But that objection uses “hope” in the “little h” sense of the word. The “big H” Hope that the Bible talks about, and that Paul means in his letter to the Romans, is the Hope of yachal, and tiqvah, and elpis. It is the Hope that points toward the heavens. It is the Hope of eager waiting, and expectation, and confidence, and community. It is the Hope that comes from our faith that God is present and at work in the world and always has more up His sleeve than we could possibly imagine.

Big H Hope is the Hope of God. It is the Hope of Grace. It is the Hope of Advent.

Ted Lasso is a “big H” Hope kind of guy. And he knows the difference between that Hope and the kind with the “little h.” In one episode, Mae—the sharp and saucy owner of the local tavern where Ted and his assistant coach hang out—responds skeptically when the team starts doing better. She shares an old English saying with him: “It’s the hope that kills you.”

Mae’s not wrong in the “little h” sense of the word. Disappointing things happen all the time. We know that: we live in Michigan, where it can snow on Memorial Day. Indeed, at the end of that episode the team loses a big game that it looked like they were going to win and is relegated to an inferior league as a result. The scene kills you—if you’re engaged in “little h” thinking.

But Ted will have none of it, because “little h” hope isn’t the Hope that he cares about. He pushes back and tells his team that he disagrees with Mae’s adage. No, he tells them, no “it’s the lack of Hope that comes and gets you.”

And, after the team has lost the big game and has gathered in the locker room with their heads hanging, Ted brings them back to what “big H” Hope is all about. “Look around you,” he says. Go ahead and be sad today. But don’t miss the most important fact: You’re being sad with people you care about. And you’re not alone in your grief.

Martin Luther King, Jr., declared that “We must accept final disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” And that’s where we leave the team: Disappointed. But expecting to do better. Waiting for the chance. Believing in each other. Gathered in community. Living under the roof of Hope with a “big H.” 

Vaclav Havel said that “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

That’s what Ted understands. He understands that what’s happening in the locker room makes sense, even if the team lost the game. He understands that Hope isn’t the thing that kills you. Hope is the thing that saves you.

Alexandre Dumas observed that “all human wisdom is summed up in two words: wait and hope.” Welcome, my brothers and sisters in Christ, to the Holy Season of Advent. When we wait.

And we watch.

And we Hope.

With a big H.

For the day that is coming.

For the birth of a savior.

For the thing that will save us.

And the people said: Hallelujah.

And the people said: Amen.

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