Text: 1 Samuel 17:32-49
I don’t know about you but I am tired of political commercials. It’s only June, so the November election is still five months away. Yet I’m already tired of hearing the television ads and reading the propaganda from both sides. It makes me want to follow Thoreau to a place deep in the woods where no cell phone, television or internet service can reach me and stay there until November 7. All the boasting about the great things “I” did in the past is so frustrating since so little can be done by a single politician, even the president. Someone has said that political T.V. commercials prove just one thing: that some candidates’ good points and qualifications can only fill up 20 seconds. Given the complex challenges we face, sound bites get old really fast.
Perhaps the most unfortunate part of all the claims by politicians about what they have done or about what their opponent has or has not done is that they are a recipe for a cynical electorate. The other day I heard someone advocating that members of Congress only serve two terms: one in office and one in jail. Views like this are a sad commentary on our political process, and yet they are quite common these days. But this is not a new problem. It may be worse now, but it’s not new. Will Rogers, the vaudeville actor, once said, “I don’t make up jokes. I just watch the government operate and report what they do.” What are we to do with all of the distortions and in some cases, outright lies that bombard us in this election season? Perhaps it’s just me, but it sometimes feels like we’re under assault with words. It’s like a slow death by vowels and consonants—and lots of exclamation points! I feel like making my own commercial that says: “Stop spending all this money on getting elected. I’m every American and I approved this message.”
Into this election season come our old friends, David and Goliath. You remember them. They are the key figures in one of the best-known stories in the bible. In fact, David is somewhat of a cultural icon. This story is a metaphor for the hopes and dreams of the underdog, which is why it resonates with so many of us. Whether our powerlessness is real or imagined, almost all of us feel like an underdog in some situations. But as my Hebrew Bible Professor Bruce Birch notes in his commentary on 1 Samuel, “The story is not simply a matter of rooting for the underdog. It embodies the hopes of all persons when they are faced with overwhelming evil power that there is a way to overcome that power and win the future. This story has been told and retold especially by the weak, the oppressed, the marginal and the powerless – those who do not simply hope for a David but see themselves as David, faced with the giants of oppression, and who know that their only hope lies with a living God.”
You know what happened without hearing the tale read this morning. The army of the Israelites is camped on a hillside facing the Philistine army, a relentless enemy of Israel who will not go away. There they are, army facing army. Historians have determined that what is about to unfold was not unusual in the ancient world. Rather than all of the men rushing toward each other with their swords waving Civil War-style, a representative of one side comes forth to challenge a representative from the other camp. The two will fight to the death and the loser’s comrades will become servants of the nation whose warrior is left standing.
So Goliath steps up. He’s a big guy, either 9’9” tall or 6”9” tall. Like many places in scripture, there are multiple reports of his size and they don’t agree. But given how short the Israelites were in those days, even a 6’9” man would have seemed like a giant. In addition, he is wearing state-of-the-art armor and he has an ego to match his immense stature – plus a javelin, a spear and a sword. You can imagine that Goliath was the bully of Philistine playgrounds in earlier years.
David, on the other hand, is a young shepherd. Instead of being in the army with his older brothers, he runs errands for his father in between watching the family’s sheep. He arrives with food for his brothers and a gift for their commander just as Saul is looking around for someone to face the giant Goliath. Cajoling, begging, and even bribes had not produced an Israelite solider willing to accept the task. You know the rest of the story. Saul finally accepts David’s offer to face Goliath and dresses David in the king’s armor for protection. The boy David can’t even walk in the armor, so he gets rid of it and takes with him what he needs: his staff, his slingshot, and 5 stones. Goliath taunts David, but the boy slays the giant with one stone.
Political ads, David and Goliath, and Creation Season. About now you’re wondering: What in the world do they have to do with each other? Well, here are the connections I that I see. You can tell me afterward if it’s too much of a stretch for you.
We have here the original “David and Goliath” story. Power and might against a much smaller, weaker opponent. Isn’t that what it feels like for progressive folks these days? I felt like all of the things I care about were under-funded before the days of the “Citizens United” court decision. And now those who desire a different kind of world than I do really feel like financial giants. Here in Raleigh, they’ve been trying to gut the Racial Justice Act at the same moment they’ve been working to approve and even promote fracking. At the national level, we continue to spend billions of dollars putting our young people at risk in a war while we try to figure out how to cut programs that support the most vulnerable of our citizens. And we’re waiting for the Supreme Court to declare what’s going to happen with The Affordable Care Act just as insurance companies admit they will continue incorporating many of its components regardless of the court’s decision. Go figure.
Even if we work for a big corporation or state government or some other large employer, it can feel that we, the everyday citizens, are David and these large, wealthy, powerful entities are Goliath. Whether it’s actually true or not, it always feels like they have state-of-the-art armor and we have a few stones and a slingshot. And these feelings make this a very depressing time to be an advocate for social justice, for creation care or for anything that approaches a sustainable way of life we can pass on to our children.
Assuming we can’t escape into the woods until mid-November, I think it’s critical that we respond to our situation like David – which is to say, to think theologically and spiritually. David is the first person in our text to describe his confrontation with Goliath in theological terms. He says the contest must happen so that “all the earth may know there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that God does not save by sword and spear…” He refers to the Israelites not as his brothers or countrymen, but as “armies of the living God.” King Saul doesn’t invoke the power of God, but the shepherd boy does. Says Dr. Birch, “(David) sees clearly what Saul and the rest of Israel apparently do not: that to respond only in terms of the Philistine trust of arms leaves them in the clutches of fear and death, but to understand the Philistine attack as being against a living God is to open up powerful and unexpected resources for life.” Young David, of all people, is trying to explain to the king that power and courage can have sources other than military experience and might. David knows in his heart that Yahweh is the true source of any power he may have and the one who goes with him as he faces Goliath.
But poor Saul doesn’t get it. Still trusting in military power, he dresses the youngster with his own armor. You can see this kid trying to take a step with the heavy metal constraining his movement. It was probably falling off of him. In spite of his age, David has enough sense to dump the armor and use his own skill and tools to face what appears to be a hopeless situation. This is because he has confidence in God’s power to deliver. And more importantly, he knows that Yahweh does not save by sword and spear. David has hope because he trusts in the surprising possibilities he knows are available through God.
As I appear to hold up David as a model, I know what you’re thinking: “But David killed Goliath. What about the “love your enemies” commandment of Jesus? What about our commitment to non-violence even in the face of overwhelming power? Are we to throw stones designed to hurt people?” You are right that David’s way isn’t the nonviolent way. He certainly wasn’t a pacifist. But in the context of his time and location, his way was subversive in that he did not try to fight fire with fire or, in his case, spear with spear. David may not have heard the saying, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” but his actions reflected this wisdom. So it’s important that we not do what liberals typically do with the bible, which is take offense at anything that bothers us and put it aside. No. We need to examine this story, as all biblical tales, in its own context. What David did may feel violent to us and it was, but it was incredibly counter-cultural in his world. In fact, he models another way to respond to power and might – with the tools we have, with creativity, with courage, and with the confidence that God is present with us in the struggle.
So I would suggest this for those of us who are fatigued by the political posturing and feel we’re facing Goliath as we try to protect the earth and its inhabitants: step back and think theologically as you try to determine how to respond. Step back from your political response, your anger, and your frustration and ask theological, spiritual questions. The most helpful question for me right now is, “What does God want for creation? Whether we’re talking about fracking, or racial justice, or health care, or support for those who experience mental illness, or educating our children, what does God want? It’s not far from the question posed by some Christians, “What would Jesus do?” Only somehow my answers seem to be different from theirs much of the time. What I believe is that God wants (and Jesus would do) whatever supports the common good, not the good of those with power and resources like Goliath. The theological question, the spiritual question is not what’s good for me and mine or even what I believe is best. And it’s definitely not, “What should I do because they are the enemy and they have ticked me off?” Rather, using the best tools of discernment I have, what would God want for creation here? Another way to put it is: What is the call of love in this situation?
I’ve said before that we have to be careful when we’re trying to come from a theological, spiritual place that our language doesn’t sound arrogant. More than a small number of the voices we are hearing these days are telling us that the Christian way, or the faithful way is to take this or that action which seems to contradict our sense of what is in the best interest of all. We don’t need to respond to “God wants me to do this or have that” with our version of the same thing. And yet, it’s really important that our understanding of what the Holy One wants, dare I say “God’s will,” be clearly voiced in our conversations about public policy. We Baptists believe in separation of church and state but that does not mean that we should not be engaged in work for the common good of all of God’s creation. We not only have the right to speak our truth, we are called to speak our truth. We have to say that ignoring the tremendous potential for contamination of drinking water and environmental harm because of fracking is wrong. We have to label trying to legislate that we can’t consider the rising of the seas as we regulate development on our coastline as not only wrong, but ludicrous. We need to frame our views where and when we can in the context of faith. I can’t say that I might know the Divine will exactly in each situation. But if what is proposed is very likely to harm our community’s most vulnerable citizens or damage the environment, I’m pretty certain it’s not what the Holy One has in mind. David is a model of this “other way” – the way of those without superior resources and armies who nevertheless trust that God can deliver against tough odds, the way that says we should have hope even when it’s hard to find reason for hope.
And it’s active hope that we need. Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone have just published a book entitled: Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.” You may recall that Macy is an American Buddhist and ecophilospher in her 80’s. Chris Johnstone is a forty-something British physician and specialist in the psychology of resilience and positive change. They’re an interesting pair of authors who bring a new perspective to this dilemma. Together they set out to offer tools for facing the mess we’re in.
These authors refer to the way of the Goliaths of this world as “Business As Usual.” It is the story of most mainstream policy makers and corporate leaders. Their view is that economies must continue to grow, which means ultimately that sales must increase, which means ultimately that consumption must increase. We live in the middle of this story, so it’s hard to be aware that there could be anything else. Yet most of us here know that Business As Usual doesn’t work, that increasing consumption isn’t a sustainable way to move into the future, and this failure goes beyond the current economic downturn. Even if we get out of this one, there will be another. Thank God, millions of people around the world are starting to understand that Business As Usual is unraveling. The powerful N.C. Senate can try to legislate that we ignore the rising seas caused by climate change. But that won’t stop the rising seas. It would just mean that some people will be under water at some point in the future…and not with their mortgages.
Macy and Johnstone emphasize that things around us look rather bleak, especially for the environment and all creatures who live in it. Climate change, the peaking of oil production, overpopulation, habitat destruction, loss of topsoil, rising toxin levels in addition to wars, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism (to name a few)…they all scream at us that Business As Usual isn’t working. Consequently, we can’t help but be left feeling uncertain about the future. But, frankly, we already know the future is uncertain. It always has been and always will be. It’s how we respond to the uncertainty that matters – whether we are enlivened by the opportunities or paralyzed by our fears. “Life, in all its richness and mystery,” these authors remind us, “never offers a guarantee of success.”
But when he faced Goliath, David didn’t have a guarantee of success either. Yet he used tools he knew he could rely on and confidence in his understanding of God’s plan for him and his people to face the daunting challenge that was before him. And he didn’t do it out of anger or a sense of wanting to win for winning’s sake. He faced the giant because Goliath stood in the way of what he believed to be God’s plan for his world. He took a spiritual stand, not a political one. The times demand that we do this as well.
So today our circumstances don’t call us to throw rocks at our challengers in order to harm them. Rather our task is to throw life-giving stones into the pond of creation and see what the ripple effect will be. There are no guarantees. Great patience is required. We will face gigantic obstacles along the way. But the God of David will be our companion. And if we’re smart, we’ll keep our friends just a stone’s throw away.