“Facing Giants”

June 21, 2015


I Samuel 17


I confess to having a weary spirit this morning and I apologize if that has led to a more somber tone for worship than usual. I apologize if you came here with a genuine need for something else this morning. I apologize for thoughts that are incompletely formed.

These have been difficult days.

From the shooting at Coral Ridge Mall a week ago on Friday to the shootings at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last Wednesday night, once again we have been confronted with violence—in particular, gun violence—that breaks our hearts and exposes the hatred that lurks underneath the troubled surface of our nation.

A woman was targeted. African-Americans were targeted. But we know: the targets could have been gay, or lesbian, or Muslim, or Sikh, or any number of “others” who are despised because of their race or sex or sexual orientation or religion.

In one sense, we should not be surprised. It is a tenet of our Christian faith that something is wrong with this world that God created and called good, that we fail to see the image of God in one another, and that we struggle, as the letter to the Ephesians tells us, not just against flesh and blood, but against what can only be called malevolent spiritual forces, the principalities and powers of this present darkness.

The armor for such a struggle is different than we might expect.  But then, if we seek not to return evil for evil, if in all things we choose to seek the good, our methods and our materials will not be what are expected.

On these summer Sundays, we’re working through First and Second Samuel, two books that tell of the rise and fall of the monarchy in ancient Israel, two books that speak about faith and the life of a nation.

This morning we heard the story of David and Goliath, a story that has long been part of popular imagination, a story known to many since childhood—although on hearing it once more we might wonder: what kind of story is this for children? In all of its familiarity—and in spite of its many textual problems—we keep coming back to this story because of the light it sheds on our own lives. Weeks ago I decided to use this text for my sermon this morning and it is a strange and sad coincidence that this story speaks so strongly to our current situation. Yes, it is a violent story—not for children, really—but this day it calls us to a new way of life.

David, with his shepherd’s staff in hand kneels down beside the dry stream-bed.

            He chooses five smooth stones.

He puts the stones in his shepherd’s bag and heads out to meet the champion of the Philistines.

Five smooth stones will be enough.

Five stones will be enough to face an enemy of gigantic proportions.

The weapons of war, the tools of violence have a long and increasingly lethal history. Meeting force with greater force will not provide the peace we desire. Meeting hatred with greater hatred will not lead to the solutions that we seek.

Five smooth stones—and the living God—will be enough.

David, with his five smooth stones stands in striking contrast to everyone else. All of Israel is afraid.

Goliath’s height, we are told, was six cubits and a span—somewhere around nine or ten feet tall, although some scholars suggest he was only, say, six and a half feet tall. But then, they never saw him with that helmet and armor and spear and dagger, with his shield bearer marching ahead of him.

King Saul, who himself was a head taller than any other Israelite, did see Goliath. So, too, did the rest of Israel. They saw him every morning and evening for forty days. Remember, the Bible often uses that phrase to mean for “a long time.” For a long time, Goliath tormented the Israelites by how he spoke and terrified them by how he looked.

In our nation there are those for whom fear is an everyday reality. In our nation there are those who would increase the fear in which others live.

And this has been going on for a long time—for centuries.

The Charleston shootings have been called an act of domestic terrorism and that is what they were. The shootings emerge out of a long history of racial hatred and attacks. They were designed to create fear. They were intended to send a message to other communities to be afraid, to be on alert, to change how they act.

This weekend Iowa City had its annual Pride Fest. We’ve been a part of it for years and it is a wonderful witness to the faith of this congregation. And every year, of course, some people—not in this congregation, I don’t think—but some people question “Why gay and lesbian pride, why not straight pride?” They are forgetting the history of shame and hatred and fear inflicted on people because of their sexual orientation.

Hatred of the other grows large in some hearts. Listen to what people say—on the radio, online, on the streets—the overblown rhetoric eventually finds disturbed individuals ready to give life to words of hate. Combine this with the ready availability of guns and you have the all the ingredients for the violence that is a particular plague upon our nation—a plague of our own choosing.

Martin Luther King, Jr. knew enough danger and enough fear to have been somewhat of an expert. He said that we can't and shouldn't try to eliminate fear. It is the elemental alarm system of the human organism. Fear warns of approaching dangers and without it we would not have survived in either the primitive or contemporary worlds. “The fear of darkness,” King reminds us, “led to the discovery of the secret of electricity. The fear of pain led to the marvelous advances of medical science. The fear of ignorance was one reason that we built great institutions of learning.”[i]

Fear is normal, necessary, and it can be creative. We can accept the fact that we are going to be afraid many times in life. Out of that fear can come new solutions, creative responses, and personal growth.

The response of Saul and all of Israel to Goliath was fear: fear of what they saw; or fear of what they imagined.

It was not, however, creative fear. It was a fear that paralyzed. It was a fear that made the giant seem invincible. No one was up to the challenge; no one was able to act, because they were all so scared.

David faces the fear head on.

He tries to get more information. “What is to be done for the man who kills this Philistine and wipes out his disgrace?” he asks. “And who is this Philistine to defy the armies of the living God?”
It is said that what is known is not feared and what is feared is not known. The first step in overcoming fear is to learn more about that which frightens.

I think of the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, known for tracking and exposing the activities of various hate groups across the country. They learn about those who hate. They learn about groups that would terrorize. Bringing such organizations into the light—and into the courts—they have toppled centers of racism in the South, bankrupted some of the nation’s most violent white supremacist groups and won justice for exploited workers, abused prison inmates, disabled children and other victims of discrimination.

Of course, there is a theological as well as a psychological point being made in the scriptures. By his bold questioning, David introduces a new character into the action—the “living God.”  David, knowing the answer, asks of others, “Is there a living God in Israel? Is there a God who can ‘give life and give death?’” Is there a power that relativizes the fear and the danger noticed at first glance?

David answers “yes” to his questions and is prepared to act “as if” it were so.

If God is irrelevant in the face of the Philistines, then all is lost for the Israelites. For David, however, it is unthinkable to assess a battle or anything else apart from the rule of the living God.

The question for us today is similar. The question for us is not simply “Is there a God?” But more to the point—“Does it matter?”

According to witnesses, when twenty-six-year-old Tywanza Sanders saw the man draw his gun during the Bible study on Wednesday and point it as his elderly aunt, he shielded her and tried to talk the gunman into laying down his weapon. Instead, both Sanders and his aunt were killed.

They came to the church that night for one reason: to discuss Scripture, and how to make Jesus’ actions come alive in their own lives and communities.

Having courage doesn’t mean we won't experience fear—or that we will always be safe. But that fear won’t control us. Courage enables us to encounter threats, hatred, disapproval, and contempt without abandoning what is right.

Faith invites us to look closely at our fears—to look at those that are imaginary as we as those that are well founded. In faith, we take our fear into ourselves and find that both we and our fear are transformed. The outward result we call “courage”—and it springs from an inward struggle.

David faces fear by asking questions. He looks for the information that disarms fear.

When David finally appears before Saul, he faces what might be his greatest challenge in this situation—the help of another person.

Saul is ready to have David go up against Goliath. Nobody else has shown this kind of courage, this kind of resolve.

But Saul wants to help. He wants to make it a little easier.

Saul puts his own armor on David. He places a bronze helmet on David’s head. Saul gives David a coat of mail to wear and fastens his sword over David.

Loaded down with all this unfamiliar equipment, David can hardly walk!

The armor of Saul might work for Saul, but it will not work for David. David needs something different, something that fits him.

David is modest enough and bold enough to reject the suggestion that he do his work in a way that isn’t his own.

David is modest enough and bold enough to use only that which he had been trained to use as a shepherd.

He rejects the armor of Saul and takes what he knows instead.

David sheds the armor of Saul and kneels down to pick up five smooth stones.

The most important choice has already been made. David has decided to be himself, with all his own flaws and abilities instead of the person others want him to be. He will use the resources at hand, the resources at his command to face what is fearful, even life threatening.

We as a nation have not yet made the important choices. Our President was painfully and pointedly honest when he said on Thursday: “It is in our power to do something about [this kind of mass violence]. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of the avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it.”

We did not say “Enough” when Sikhs were killed at their temple in Milwaukee. We did not say “Enough” when children were murdered in their classrooms in Connecticut. We have not yet said “Enough” after this past week.

And as a nation we probably won’t.

We need new weapons—the armor of God: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, wholeness. We saw them wielded on Friday when one after another, family members of the shooting victims spoke not of vengeance but of forgiveness. The shooter wanted to start a race war. He was met instead with nothing less than the overwhelming mercy and grace of followers of Jesus Christ.

Five smooth stones will be enough.

Actually, for David, five smooth stones will be more than needed. Most often, the resources we need are abundantly present when first we decide to be ourselves.

Five smooth stones—and the living God—will be enough.

[i][i] MLKing, “The Strength to Love,” in A Testament of Hope, pg. 510-511.