Sermon preached June 21, 2009
Text: I Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
Do you ever find that things you once really liked don’t have the same appeal to you they once did, or that things you once dismissed in some way now are objects of greater appreciation? When I was a kid, I loved watching old movies on television – the early movie after school when I did not have too much homework and the weather outside was not too nice, or, in the summer, the late movie after the 10 o’clock news. This was a time before cable movie channels, a time when network television was all there was. Among the movies I enjoyed as a kid were the Abbot and Costello comedies – among my favorites was Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man – high art, I know! Not long ago I watched an old Abbot and Costello movie and while it was mildly enjoyable, it did not have the same spark I remembered.
Just this week, a new collection of George Harrison music was released – George Harrison of John, Paul, George and Ringo. I read a review of the CD on-line and the particular reviewer, while mildly pleased with the collection, also expressed disappointment that it lacked the song “Crackerbox Palace.” “Crackerbox Palace,” I had not heard that song in years. It came out when I was in high school and I did not remember thinking all that much of it then. Curiosity led me to i tunes, and for a mere $.99 I could download the song. I enjoyed it much more than I remember.
The story of David and Goliath, early rock n roll - - - when David rocked, Goliath rolled - - - is another case of something that has changed for me over time. My early impressions of the story are all very favorable. Who wouldn’t love a story like this? When you are young, to have a hero who shares your name is always kind of cool. The story is told in epic form and plays on classic themes of the triumph of the underdog, the overconfidence of the strong just before they fall, the unlikely hero. You just have to love it!
But at some point, I don’t know when, elements of the story began to disturb me. “This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth.” “David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.” This is all a little gruesome, a little violent, and what’s most disturbing is that it seems God is pleased with the violence. A story like this could be used to justify “sacred violence” and in our world we don’t need any encouragement to be more violent, let alone justify our violence in the name of God.
So what shall we do with the story? Ignore it? We could have done that. The gospel reading for today was a very nice story about Jesus stilling a storm. But I don’t think ignoring stories from the Bible we find disturbing is a good response to them. Sometimes our lives need a little disturbing and to ignore every story that disturbs robs us of the growth opportunity such stories might provide. When Jesus’ mother and brothers come to see him in Mark 3, and he says to the crowd, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and then sweeps his arms around and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” That is disturbing, especially on a day like Father’s Day. But if we simply cast aside such stories, we miss the opportunity to learn and grow.
Sometimes stories with disturbing elements, like the David and Goliath story, need to be read at a different level. The earliest Christian readers of the Scriptures argued that they are multivocal, polysemous, multidimensional. Origen (184-254) wrote about what he called the body, the soul and the spirit of Scripture and argued that Christians often needed to dig deeper than the literal story (the body) of a text, to get at its soul and spirit to enrich their own spiritual lives (First Principles, Book IV, Ch. 2, #4 – p. 276). Augustine in On Christian Doctrine (3.27.38 – p. 102) writes: “For what could God have more generously and abundantly provided in the divine writings than that the same words might be understood in various ways.”
Digging deeper, reading the story of David and Goliath more metaphorically to get at its soul and spirit, leads me to ask about the giants that cause us fear and trouble. Are there such giants? Where do we find them? Do we struggle against difficult odds sometimes? If so, maybe this story speaks more deeply to us than we might first imagine.
I think we struggle with internal giants – parts of our inner life that work against our well-being and can come out of us sideways to hurt others. In the book we are reading in the First and Ten men’s group, Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness, Palmer writes: The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope and love. (82-83) Palmer is right about our needing to hold things like hope and despair in some paradox, but what if the despair becomes a giant threatening to crush hope?
I struggle with that giant sometimes, that inner Goliath that is comprised of knots I am good at tying up inside myself. When I arrived here as your pastor four years ago this month I was leaving a position as a district superintendent, a position in which I worked with churches and pastors trying to help them be their very best. I came here with the same hope, and part of what I envisioned as our very best as First UMC was a church that was attracting new people and growing, especially in our worship attendance. It has not happened that way. New people have come, and I am grateful that we continue to attract new people, but some former members have left. Last year we struggled in a few ways with worship, and we muddled through quite a few awful weather Sundays, and the result was an average worship attendance slightly below 200 – not the direction I hope to see. I put a lot of pressure on myself as a former district superintendent, maybe I don’t have what it takes to lead a congregation well? Maybe I have risen to the level of my incompetence? But helping a congregation grow is not about me – why would I even think in such terms, that doesn’t say much for me does it? Did I miss God’s call somewhere along the way? The knots of despair grow into a 9’9” Goliath, well-armed and well-armored. Maybe some of you are good at tying inner knots, too.
Giants lurk not only inside of us, but in church life itself. How often do we hear about the decline of mainline churches, churches that have been around awhile? We are old hat, taken for granted. Some argue that a church like First UMC declines because it is not socially relevant enough, not out there enough on the pressing social issues of the day. Others tell me that a church like First UMC declines because it is not “biblical” enough, and for them that means a more conservative interpretation of the Bible. Maybe the issue is that we are sometimes not deep enough, that is, we are content to let our faith ride at the surface or sidelines of our lives rather than permeate all our questions about life and the world – how to love, how to be a better partner, how to parent, our vocational life, our inner life, our relationship to the great issues of our world. To go deeper in our faith requires our time and attention, and then we confront the enormous giant of our fragmented, frenzied lives. Who has more time for reading the Bible, for praying, for gathering with other people of faith to ask what it means to live as a Christian today? We confront, as well, the giant of old cultural patterns. In a culture that was once predominantly Christian we assumed that the lessons taught in church would be reinforced in many ways – so faith could be church an hour a week. Our culture has changed, and that is not a bad thing, but it means we need to be more intentional about faith formation in our lives, and that cuts against old patterns that tell us we need not be so intentional, and tell us we can learn everything we need to about our faith by the time confirmation ends. Giants.
Giants also walk the wider world. Global health concerns loom large as AIDS and malaria ravage Africa. Children outside the industrial world die for lack of relatively inexpensive vaccines we take for granted. Yesterdays Duluth newspaper reported a story – world hunger has now reached the one billion person mark. In the United States, millions go without health insurance and lack adequate access to the wonderful quality medical care others enjoy. Recent debates in Congress and the media are reminding us of how big a giant this is. And when we think about global health, what of the health of the planet itself? The human community continues to engage in practices that portend harm to the very environment that sustains our lives, and changing our habits is a gigantic endeavor. Giants roam the earth.
Giants are very real – inside our lives, in our faith communities, in our world – massive giants - - - 9’9” Goliaths, well armed and well-armored. Suddenly this feel-good underdog story with its disturbing elements speaks more powerfully than I imagined. It doesn’t try to convince me that the giants are not real, that would make the story untrue to life. The giants are real – the despair I feel is real, the social forces that create challenges for long-standing churches making it feel like we are finding our way in the dark are real, the challenges of global health and hunger, and the health of the planet are real. The giants are real, yet we are told “let no one’s heart fail” (v. 32) because of them. Doubt, despair, and pain are real, but so, too, are faith, hope and love. Don’t let your heart fail, have courage. It takes courage to confront the giants in our world. It takes courage to listen to the difficult voices within and learn what we need to from them yet not let them overwhelm us.
If courage is required in the face of giants, so is creativity. Some of our old methods for getting rid of giants may not work. David could not walk in Saul’s armor because it did not work for him (v. 39). One can almost picture a young David clanging around in armor too big for him before asking it to be removed. Sometimes we deal with our inner giants by trying to ignore them, but that way doesn’t work very well. The church will have to be its creative best to confront the giants of our contemporary world, be creative and trust the chaos that is a part of creativity. When we are creative, some of our creative endeavors will fail. Some of the problems confronting the human community are not very amenable to technological fixes, our preferred mode of solving problems, but may need a creativity of spirit to be solved – a more generous spirit among the diverse people of the world.
But aren’t courage and creativity simply ways of whistling in the dark against the massive giants we confront in ourselves and in our world. How do courage and creativity make sense when the giants are so big and we are so small? They make sense because of God. To offer another Parker Palmer quote, “above all, God wants us to be alive: life, after all, is God’s original gift to us” (The Promise of Paradox, xxviii). God is with us as we struggle against giants, and God is that in us and among us that which fosters courage and enhances creativity. God is with us, to shrink the doubt, despair and pain we feel from gigantic proportions into their proper role as a part of the paradox of being human. God is with us to help us navigate the historical current we find ourselves in as a mainline church with an important mission, to touch people’s lives with faith, hope and love – to make a difference in people’s lives in the Spirit of Jesus and to make a difference in the world. God is with us as we seek to tackle the challenges of global health and hunger and the health of the planet, for the God of the Bible is most consistently a God of healing and of new creation.
Life’s giants are real, but with God we can confront them with courage and creativity. What a story! Amen.