Facing Our Giants

Note: this was today's sermon from Lectio worship.

When I was a kid I was a huge "professional" wrestling fan. The story of David and Goliath sort of reads like one of those matches:
In this corner the giant Goliath-- nine feet tall, dressed in elaborate armor. And of course he talks smack to his opponents non-stop. In this corner... wait? A kid? David? He weighs less than Goliath's armor! What kind of joke is this?

I mean, this story has everything: adventure, impossible odds, an unlikely hero, the underdog winning, the little beating the strong. And what I love most about it is David’s unshakeable, child-like faith in God. He has no doubt whatsoever that God will deliver the giant for him. In fact, David may be the only person on earth who believes he has a chance against Goliath. Saul, the King of Israel, doesn’t believe it’s possible. Goliath, the mighty opponent in the battle, is insulted that little David is the best champion Israel can produce. Maybe it’s the story’s mythic impossibility, a tale so inconceivable that one’s disbelief in its plausibility makes it that much more entertaining—so we just check out and love it. It’s the Bible’s ultimate popcorn summer blockbuster movie.

The story of David and Goliath goes way back further than a field in Judah. During the Exodus, the Israelites took the long way, through the desert, rather than the short route along the coastline of Egypt. Why did they do this? To avoid the Philistine army. When Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River forty years later, they took possession of the promised land of Canaan—a promise God made to their ancestor Abraham. The loose confederation of twelve tribes struggled in their new homeland from the very beginning. Israel was sandwiched between mighty empires on all sides, not to mention bitter native folk who were displaced during the Conquest. But it was the Philistines that were the biggest threat (literally, in Goliath’s case). They were more powerful, more numerous, and were equipped with the latest, deadliest weapons. Many years later the Philistines would steal the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in Jerusalem. Feeling insecure, the Israelites appealed to Samuel, their leader, to give them a king, so that they could be like the other countries (meaning, if we don’t start looking and acting like the Philistines we’re doomed).

Eventually God anointed Saul as the first king of Israel and things started out well. Saul was tall and handsome, inspiring to see in his glorious battle armor. But he was young, impetuous, and lacking in faith. God tired of Saul’s incompetence and sent Samuel to anoint a new, future king of Israel—the shepherd kid David, which we mentioned last week. Continuing the young David’s story, we learn that he is a skilled player at the harp—and whenever Saul was having a tough day he would send for David to play some soothing music. Well, as the war with the Philistines raged on, a new complication emerged from the Philistine side: Goliath, a champion of considerable size, girth, and mouth. Listen to the narrator’s words about this guy:

He was more than nine feet tall. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore bronze scale armor weighing one hundred twenty-five pounds. 125 pounds in armor alone—probably more than David himself weighed! He had bronze plates on his shins, and a bronze scimitar hung on his back. A scimitar is one of those long, curved swords you see in Middle Eastern battle movies and books. Very frightening. His spear shaft was as strong as the bar of a weaver’s loom, and its iron head weighed fifteen pounds.

Goliath made a proposition: whoever beats me wins the war; if I win the fight we win the war. And on the Israelite side? Crickets. The narrator says, “When Saul and all Israel heard what the Philistine said, they were distressed and terrified.” The scene shifts to the countryside, where David is still tending his father’s sheep. Jesse asks his son to bring his other sons, serving in the King’s army, a care package. When David arrives at camp he hears Goliath’s taunting. This has now gone on for forty days. Every day, the same thing.

And David can’t believe it. Remember, David was from Bethlehem, and this scene is in Judah, so it’s like someone showing up to your homecoming football game, taunting your team and hometown, and you’re holed up in the locker room. “What’s going on?” David asks his brothers. “What do you care?” they say. “Who’s watching your precious sheep in the safe countryside?” “No really,” David says, ignoring their insults. Are you going to let him talk about us like that?” They investigate their shoes. “I’ll fight him!” David says. Saul overhears this from the royal tent and calls for David. After debating with David about his size and youth, Saul sees the kid’s zeal and determination—David says, “Hey, God has brought me victory over bears and lions while I was tending sheep, and God will do it again: “This uncircumcised Philistine…” (note the contempt in his voice) “…will be just like one of them, because he insulted the army of the living God.” Saul has David put on the adult sized royal armor. Why does he do this? Does he know that David has been anointed future king? Is he trying to point out how unfit David is for leadership? The text is unclear. David knows the armor is useless to him; he throws it off, grabs his slingshot and a couple of rocks, and walks out to Goliath. Goliath is insulted: “Am I am a dog that you come at me with sticks?” David isn’t afraid: “You are coming at me with sword, shield, and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel’s army, the one you’ve insulted.” And you know the rest of the story.

Goliath, massive body, giant scimitar, power armor, over confident mouth, crashes to the ground. He is defeated, not by David’s rocks and sling, but by his faith.

Faith is a gift from God—and it is a response to what God has done for us. The thing that is amazing about David’s faith is that we do not know where it comes from. Moses learned faith through the wonders of God in the wilderness and Egypt and during the Exodus. Joshua learned faith through incredible victories despite incredible odds. But we have no origin story for David’s faith. We just know that it is there, and that it is powerful.

In contrast to the kid David’s unshakable faith is the sort of comical lack of faith of Jesus’ disciples. They are on the boat on the Sea of Galilee, and a familiar storm engulfs them. I say familiar because these storms are fairly common, and several of these students of Jesus grew up near, and fished on, this body of water. But the waves are high and the thunder is loud and the lightning is flashing extra bright and they are terrified because they are going to die any second and Jesus… is… sleeping??? They cry out: “Dude! Don’t you care that we’re dying here??” And a groggy Jesus wipes the sleep from his eyes, calms the atmospheric conditions, and suddenly things are going to be ok after all. Jesus exhibits great faith, and the disciples… well, at least it’s only Chapter 4 of Mark. Only a quarter of the way through. One commentator compared this scene to a, exorcism Jesus performed in Chapter one of the gospel; instead of rebuking a demon Jesus rebukes wind and waves, which have been considered places of evil throughout the Bible (Psalms 74:13-14, 89:9-13, 104:5-9, Job 38:8-11 are good examples). The evil is defeated for another day, but the disciples close out the scene with a question: “Who is this then—that the wind and waves obey him?”

And that is the question. Somehow David knew the answer. He didn’t need the approval of his brothers or Saul’s too heavy and awkward armor or the latest technological weaponry or whatever unknown needs the other soldiers were certain would bring them victory as they played cards in the tent waiting for an anonymous hero to show up and win the day. Paul was once Saul, an openly hostile Pharisee hunting down Christians for sport; now his is an apostle, appealing to his fledgling congregation to have faith strong enough to overcome any Goliath-sized obstacle that comes their way. He’s been through it all. 

But as I read the epistle for today I couldn't help but think of the shootings at Emaunel AME church in Charleston, SC this week. The shooter did not target a random church, but an African American church. And not just any African American church, but this one. For 200 years Emanuel has been repeatedly targeted and has withstood every challenge. The institution of the Black Church in America is a symbol for overcoming adversity. I know many still say that "11:00 is the most segregated hour in America," and I too want all Christians to be united. But the Black Church is a symbol of unity, resistance, promise, and victory. Paul's words speak not only for the victims of this shooting, but for the whole congregation, its denomination, and African American worshipers everywhere:

“We went through problems, disasters, stressful situations, beatings, imprisonments, and riots. We experienced hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger. We displayed purity, knowledge, patience, and generosity. We served with the Holy Spirit, genuine love, telling the truth, and God’s power. We carried the weapons of righteousness in our right hand and our left hand. We were treated with honor and dishonor and with verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as both fake and real, as unknown and well known, as dying—and look, we are alive! We were seen as punished but not killed, as going  through pain but always happy, as poor but making many rich, and having nothing but owning everything.”

Then he calls the Corinthians to open their hearts too—so that they can know and receive the same incredible gift of faith.

These are good words of challenge and promise for us today. If we open our hearts to God—as David, Paul, and Jesus did—amazing, unexpected, life changing things can happen. We will escape certain death and destruction and hopelessness and every other evil that crosses our paths. And yes, I say this a few days after a 21 year old man shot up a church in Charleston, SC, killing nine people, including the church’s pastor. Those Christians exhibited the kind of faith that stares down giants and relentless waves and protects us, even at the cost of our earthly lives. They displayed the kind of faith that is mostly illustrative for us in the 21st century, but was on display regularly in the 1st century, when the gospels and the epistles were written. Christians have endured open violence and hostility since the beginning of the faith, even to the point of seeing our leader crucified on a Roman cross.

This week marked John Wesley’s birth. He was born in 1703, raised in a Christian home, ordained in the Church of England. Yet on a missionary trip to Georgia his ship was caught in a violent storm—so much that the mast was torn down. Like most of us, he was in total flip out mode. But he was moved by a group of Moravians, who prayed and sang hymns quietly and calmly throughout the storm. Reflecting on the experience, he said he lacked “the one thing necessary”: faith. You and I find ourselves on a ship like that every now and then: sometimes it’s a doctor’s office, or a funeral home, or the unemployment office. It’s a place of loneliness, shame, worry, even death. And like the disciples, we might cry out to the Lord: “Don’t you care that we are dying?”

At some point through the work of the Holy Spirit we find the strength we need to endure—and that faith is revealed in words.

“Do not let anyone lose courage because of this Philistine!”
“Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”
“Look, now is the right time! Look, now is the day of salvation!”
“The Lord is a safe place for the oppressed-- a safe place in difficult times.”

Those words are just as true for you and me as they were for those congregants in Charleston, the gunman who ended their earthly lives, and David, Jesus, Paul, and the psalmist.

“Have mercy on me, Lord! Just look at how I suffer because of those who hate me. But you are the one who brings me back from the very gates of death so I can declare all your praises, so I can rejoice in your salvation!”