Sermon for the people of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church
Primary Preaching Text: Selections from I Samuel 17
Secondary Text: Mark 4:35-41
It might be pleasant to believe that God orchestrated David’s entire life to prepare for this moment, that God sent the bears and the lions for David to practice on, whispered in Jesse’s ear about the ten cheeses, set those five smooth stones in the brook.
Because if that’s so, then every difficulty we encounter has also been orchestrated by God. God has a plan.
The Philistines had a plan. Goliath had a plan. They had advance preparation. Goliath had been a warrior from his youth. He was prepared to do battle and to do it well. Everything in his life had led up to the moment when he challenged any Israelite who dared to try his strength. For the most part, God doesn't have plans like that.
What God has are fantastic improvisation skills.
We do not have a God who stirs up storms or raises up giants to prove God’s power. We do have a God who confronts storms and giants and deficit budgets and the horrors of institutional racism with power and creativity and whatever tools are at hand.
David has trained his whole life for this – not by preparing for battle with a giant, but by doing the things he’s called to do – shepherding, playing the harp, carrying cheeses.
If we don't have physical strength, God will use our skills with a slingshot.
If we aren't gifted orators, God will give us siblings who will do the talking and use our faithfulness and leadership abilities.
If our faith is weak, God may roll God's eyes, but God will guide us to use our seamanship to weather storms.
If our pockets are not deep, God will use our creativity and our generosity and our friendship networks and our attics overfull of antiques.
Saul offers David armor, and David tries to wear it, but he can barely walk. Logic and tradition say there's a certain thing you wear when you fight giants, that it's foolish to go into battle without a sword, but it's even more foolish to go into battle wearing armor that doesn't fit. A slingshot is the right tool for this job, not because it's the only thing that will fell a giant, but because it's the tool that David is best equipped to use.
When we find ourselves facing giants, or storms, or lions and tigers and bears --
Whether they as devastating and inhuman as an earthquake or as insidiously, terribly human as systemic racism...
Giants taunt and torment us, and if we try to do battle on their terms, they will always win.
That doesn't mean we aren't required to be flexible. We are, exceedingly. But we have to flex the muscles we have, not the ones we wish we had.
We also want to take care with the gifts that we choose to develop. The old truism that if you have a hammer, all the world's a nail is not at all humorous if you consider the NRA board member who claimed earlier this week that murder could have been prevented if members of the Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston had taken guns to midweek worship. I'm pretty sure guns are the wrong tools for dismantling systems of racism and violence. Audre Lorde is right -- the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.
There is another side to this, deeper and more difficult. God uses our giftedness with slingshots or ships. But God also uses our flaws.
If you were here last fall, you might remember that we last encountered David at a moment of disastrous sin, when he abducted Bathsheba and had her husband killed. Not a proud moment in David's life, not how we want to remember him. We much prefer the story in front of us today, for all its gore and violence.
We are going to walk with David for the next four weeks. It is definitely odd, to join up with David at this moment in his life, knowing that he will become a king who sometimes abused his kingship in terrible ways.
But right now David is just a kid. A young man, taught from childhood to despise the Other, that Philistines are less than human, that killing them is doing the world a service. Perhaps hearing his soldier brothers boast of the numbers of Philistines they've killed.
This is the third story in the Bible about David. The first is the story of how David's father, Jesse, paraded all his sons before the prophet Samuel, and it was David, youngest and least, who was off tending the sheep, who was anointed by Samuel.
The second is the story of how David was a talented harpist who entered into Saul's service to soothe him when he was tormented with an evil spirit.
And the third, and best known, is the story of David and Goliath. There are some contradictions in the particulars of the stories about David -- but the themes are consistent. This is what Israel remembered about her beloved king: that he was handsome and charismatic, skilled at music as well as war, that he came from humble origins, a youngest son, a shepherd, an armor bearer in Saul's army. That he was full of courage, and that he was full of God.
This is what we know about Goliath: Goliath is a big man. When you're nine and a half feet tall, that's certainly the first and frequently the only thing people notice about you. If it's how everyone around you defines you, it becomes part of your identity too. Goliath is a big man, and he was trained from youth to be a warrior.
When we tell this story to children, we talk about the boy hero David, who defended Israel from a giant the way he defended lambs from bears and lions, and the giant, like lions and bears, becomes an inhuman, monstrous figure. We tell children about the stone that killed Goliath, but we mention less frequently that he cut off Goliath's head with Goliath's own sword, and less frequently still that he carried Goliath's severed head all the way to Jerusalem, a trophy of war.
Those parts of the story make us a little uneasy.
We should feel uneasy about David. We should be uneasy of the gore and violence in this story.
We should remember that David is not God, and we should remember that Goliath too was God's child, and that God grieved his death.
We need to know that sometimes there are no good solutions, just solutions that are less bad, and that God's creativity and God's redemptive power are endless. God uses sinful broken people because that's the only kind of person there is. But we also need to know that war is not God's will for humankind.
So here we are, a people of peace -- peace in our name and peace in our mission -- people committed to proclaiming peace -- and we have in front of us a story of violence. It's hard to face that violence. We'd rather ignore it, or treat it like video game violence. This is folklore, after all; it did not really happen exactly like that. We treat it as a metaphor, say that we "do battle with" systemic evil, identify our giants with faceless, inhuman systems -- the payday loan industry, white supremacy, terrorism. Perhaps that metaphor is helpful, sometimes. If nothing else it reminds us that the stakes are life or death, that people who would deny others health care, people who would deny others a living wage, would deny people life. But if the stakes are life or death, we must be on the side of life.
I would like to ignore the violence, or make it into a metaphor.
I can't look away from it, not this week. Not when nine people are dead in Charleston because a young man -- a Lutheran, our brother -- so awfully and tragically misunderstood what God wanted. Because he believed about black people the things that David believed about Philistines.
So David slew a giant. A charming young man who was sure he was doing what God wanted kills a man who has been threatening his people. And yes, Goliath was, quite literally, asking for it, and yes, it was war and that's the nature of war, and doubtless more lives would have been taken if they hadn't resolved it with single combat... but it is still death, and God still grieved, and when we think about the tools we have at hand, it's not enough just to say that God will use whatever is available, although, yes, God, being endlessly resourceful and creative, will use whatever is available.
We can acknowledge the painful truth that sometimes there doesn't seem to be a nonviolent solution. There was no peacemaker or negotiator between Socoh and Azekah, where the Israelites pitched their tents, but there was David, David and his slingshot and the five smooth stones from the brook.
And God's redemptive power is greater than the greatest evil we can do.
God does not sanction or condone or encourage warfare. But God does God's redemptive work through the means that we provide.
And to join in God's work in the world means using the tools we have, the gifts and skills we're given and the smooth stones we find, to work God's redemption. It means seeking out brokenness and working to transform it. It means confronting the concrete realities of injustice and racism, deeply unpleasant and difficult as that is.
Violence and sacrifice and death are some of humanity's favorite tools. The perpetual battle between Philistines and Israelites demonstrates that. So does the tragedy in Charleston. And so does the cross. And nothing demonstrates God's ability to take tragedy and transform it into redemption better than the cross.
Sometimes there is no good solution. That's not particularly heartening news, perhaps, but it is true. Sometimes the giants in our lives can only be slain, not redeemed. Sometimes we capsize. Sometimes people are murdered at Bible study. Sometimes God makes God's way to the cross.
This is true.
And in the bleakest of hours, God is present, building hope, proclaiming peace, and using God's people to redeem and transform and resurrect everything that is broken.
This is also most certainly true.