“Oi, mate; is this you?” U.S. football coach Ted Lasso is sitting on a plane winging its way towards Britain from the United States when a young, smug, English hipster approaches and shows him a paused video of Ted dancing ridiculously with a huge smile on his face, surrounded by the ecstatic players of his U.S. football team as they celebrate their recent national championship. Ted looks down at the screen and smiles. “I believe it is,” he replies amiably.
“Oh, man; legend!” the hipster exclaims, and asks for a photo of the two of them. Ted obliges, and then the hipster smiles at him. “You coaching football? Mate, you are a legend for doing something so stupid. I mean, they’re going to murder you!” Ted keeps smiling. “Well, I’ve heard that tune before, but here I am, still dancin’!” he says, as the hipster walks away shaking his head. Ted turns around in his seat and peers back at his American coaching colleague who is reading a book about soccer strategy.
“Coach?” he asks, as his smile melts into a look of genuine sincerity: “Are we nuts for doing this?” The other coach looks back at him for a brief moment. “Yeah; this is nuts,” he agrees, with the same kind of calm clarity that someone might use when confirming that yes, it is raining outside. Lasso’s smile returns. “But hey, taking on a challenge is a lot like ridin’ a horse: if you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.” The other coach nods, then quickly looks confused as he actually thinks about that analogy, and then the two of them settle down to try and sleep.
That opening scene of Ted Lasso doesn’t have everything you need to know about the characters and the plot of the show, but it seems to, and it does actually have a lot. Lasso seems like a walking stereotype of a U.S. Midwestern football coach: the sunny, almost blinding geniality; the unshakeable optimism; the folksy inspirational sayings; the spectacular mustache; the last name of Lasso, for goodness’ sake. Only he’s on his way to Britain to be the next head coach of AFC Richmond, a perennially mediocre English football club, which of course means what we call soccer, not U.S. football.
The hipster is foreshadowing the reception that Lasso will receive after he lands and is unveiled to the press: an American, who has not only never coached soccer but literally knows basically nothing about the sport at all; and whose coaching career even in U.S. football consists of only one season at the college level for a Division II program, by definition a league that is far from the most competitive or prominent. And yet here he is, on the plane to the U.K., ready to take the reins of a soccer football club in the English Premier League, the most popular and prominent league in all of global soccer/football.
And perhaps most important of all, Ted Lasso’s first words of the entire series are in that scene, and they are: “I believe.” I think that, in combination with all of the discombobulated dynamics of a classic fish out of water storyline, is why the show was such a breakout hit when it premiered in August of 2020. I mean, think about where we were as a society in August 2020.
It was clear at that point that the pandemic was going to be much longer and much worse than any of us originally hoped, and we were still very much in the doldrums of quarantine life. The honeymoon period of baking sourdough bread and trading inspiring videos of people clapping for frontline workers every evening at 7 pm was long gone. Nationally, we had not only abandoned the early “we’re all in this together” spirit but had begun splintering over whether wearing masks were essential to protecting our neighbors or a violation of our personal rights and then, more profoundly, over the murder of George Floyd by police officers and whether that represented a few bad apples or an example of an endemic problem of systemic racism in law enforcement.
And so, a show with a radically counter-cultural message of the power of kindness, community, and above all the ability to change our lives and world through the power of believing we can, had enormous resonance for people. And yet if that was all the show was about, then I don’t think it would have had either the staying power or the ongoing resonance that it has had in popular culture. Where Ted Lasso really gets interesting rather than merely entertaining is when he starts coming up against the limits of the power of believing, which we first get at the end of the very first episode.
Ted comes home after a very challenging first day on the job: despite one of his first acts being to tape the iconic “BELIEVE” sign up in the locker room, none of his players believe in either him or each other; the press clearly doesn’t believe in him as they shred him in his first press conference; and so on. With all that on his shoulders, he calls home to the U.S. for the first time and has a short but chipper conversation with his young son, whom he obviously loves and misses.
And then his wife gets on the phone. We don’t hear her, but we see him start with his usual bubbly banter, and then in response to what seems to be a question from her about his apartment, he says enthusiastically, “it’s actually pretty nice…you and the little guy got to come on over here and check it out!” And then his face falls as he listens to her response. “No, but that’s what I’m doing, I’m giving you that space,” he says, backpedaling. “Yeah, yeah, and myself; right, uh-huh,” he says, clearly repeating what she just told him without actually meaning it. As she begins to end the conversation, he interrupts to say, “hey, Michelle: I love you.”
He listens to her response, which takes a lot longer than it should, and then he reassures her with notes of both desperation and despair in his voice: “no, no, that’s okay; you don’t have to,” clearly in response to her not wanting to say. “I love you, too.” His wife, too, does not believe in him, does not believe in them. And after he tells her goodnight, he gets into bed and stares at the ceiling, alone and adrift in an unfamiliar place and an even more unfamiliar situation, where believing is simply not enough. And as time goes on, we see Ted’s confidence in the power of believing being shaken by the troubles in his marriage, by the grief he secretly carries from childhood, by the stress of the job he has taken, to the point that he begins to have panic attacks from the cumulative weight of all of that. There are limits to the power of believing, he finds.
There are limits to human wisdom, the Apostle Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth in his second letter to them, which we heard read this morning. Like Ted Lasso, Paul comes to them from across the sea and a very different culture, one that is seen as far less sophisticated by those in Corinth, one of Greece’s major cities. And like Ted Lasso, Paul is the object of both division and derision by both the members of the church and by others who are saying not only is Paul not good at what he does, but he doesn’t even know the basics of Christianity. We don’t know a lot about them, but from the letter we can put together that they, unlike Paul, are sophisticated, well-spoken, and impressive in both manner and authority.
They have been attacking Paul as weak, foolish, and unreliable, and this has caused great division in Corinth. His second letter to the Corinthians, then, is both a defense of his ministry and message, and a call to unity and reconciliation in the midst of deep division. As he opens chapter two in the passage we heard today, Paul argues that he came to them without the sophistication of the super-apostles intentionally. Listen to the reading again:
…I did not come proclaiming the testimony of God to you with superior speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were made not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
One of the most common theological errors not just in U.S. society, but in U.S. Christianity, is believing we are saved by…well, believing. But that isn’t true—biblically or practically. We are saved by God’s grace, and specifically embodied in God’s gracious, abundant, and irresistible love for us. We recognize and respond to this through our faith, but that faith is a response to God’s grace, not a tool we use to apprehend it for ourselves. That would be salvation by human power, not the power of God. “I believe in believe,” Ted Lasso says at one point, and many, many people would agree with him, but that is not enough; that is human wisdom, and there are limits to human wisdom: it can help us, but it cannot save us.
And yet there is a place beyond mere “believe” that, ironically, helps us believe with real authenticity. In the fifth episode of the third season, the superstar player that the team picked up earlier in the season abruptly retires and leaves, and the team believes it cannot win without him. As Ted tries to reassure them in the locker room that they just need to believe in themselves, half of the “Believe” sign behind him falls to the ground. “It’s a sign!” the players exclaim, meaning a sign that they should not believe they can succeed.
Ted agrees it is a sign, and then to their horror begins to tear it into smaller pieces. “It’s just a sign,” he says. “Belief doesn’t just happen ‘cause you hang something up on a wall. It comes from in here” (pointing to his chest), “and up here” (pointing to his head), “and down here” (pointing to his gut). “The only problem is that we all got so much junk floating through us that a lot of times we end up getting in our own way…things like envy, fear, or shame. I don’t want to mess around with any of that anymore. You know what I want to mess around with? The belief that I matter, you know?
Regardless of what I do or don’t achieve. Or the belief that we all deserve to be loved, whether we’ve been hurt or maybe we’ve hurt somebody else. Or what about the belief of hope? Yeah, that’s what I want to mess with. Believing that things can get better, that I can get better, that we will get better.” He looks around the locker room, where every player is locked into every word he’s saying. “Look, if you can do that, if each of you can truly do that? Can’t nobody rip that apart.” And he places the torn pieces of the sign in the middle of the locker room and walks out.
It’s a great locker room speech, but it’s honestly one of the better sermons I’ve heard, because what he is talking about now is not the power of believing in our own success or victory against the odds, but in the power of a grace that is beyond our ability to achieve or claim but which we are able to receive through faith, a grace that claims us and never lets go, even when our ability to believe in it may falter. That is the power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead after his ignominious crucifixion. That is the power that Paul is talking about, that he wants to make sure he points to rather than obscures by his own wisdom or skill, because the truth is our own wisdom or skill is so limited because God’s values and purposes are so different from ours. As the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:
It is entirely possible that some of our proudest achievements are embarrassing to God, and some of our most dismal failures please God very much. There is simply no way of telling, since our wisdom is so different from God’s wisdom. The only thing we can be sure of is that everything we offer up—ailing churches and prosperous ones, tongue-twirling preachers and those who struggle with every word—is they are all eligible for the transforming power of God, who loves nothing better than bringing the dead back to life.
So as we move forward as individuals, and even more so as a church, the focus should not be on whether we believe in where we’re going, or how smart or talented or wise we are. Our focus should on the God who loves us beyond all measuring or imagining, who calls us as God’s people and sends us out as Christ’s followers, who believes in us without having a shred of delusion about our limitations or faults or frailties, and yet chooses to work through us simply because that’s how God chooses to do it, and therefore we don’t have to worry about the limits of our own wisdom or power or belief, because as Paul says, our faith does not “rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.” And that, my friends, is something we can truly believe in.