Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B. June 20, 2021
“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.”
Everyone loves a Cinderella story.
Each year at the end of the NCAA basketball season,
there seems to emerge a team, who against all odds,
makes it further in the March Madness tournament
than anyone would have dreamed.
We eagerly watch and cheer for them
as if they were our own home team,
even if we didn’t have them in our brackets.
We just love stories where the underdog wins—
Erin Brockovich, Rocky, Norma Rae, Slumdog Millionaire,
and how can we leave out the Bad News Bears.
I remember a cartoon that I loved as a kid
actually named Underdog: “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!”
We could go back in time each century
and find popular stories where the little guy surprises everyone,
overcoming huge hurdles to triumph.
It is no surprise then, that the story of David and Goliath
has captured the hearts of people for thousands of years.
You can find this same story in Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim scripture.
David and Goliath is a classic underdog story:
The boy David uses his bravery and skill
to win against a man whose height was 6 cubits and a span—
that’s 9 ½ feet tall. (Now he could’ve played some basketball.)
Young David, wearing no protective armor,
faces off against a grown man who is wearing
a helmet of bronze & coat of mail some calculate to have weighed 125 lbs.
David makes quick work with his slingshot to bring down the Goliath.
We love this story because we like to identify with the little guy.
We dream of standing up to the big bullies
and know that when we do, everyone will be cheering.
The world seems righted or more hopeful for a bit,
when the little guy prevails over the bully.
We tell our children this story, of David as hero, slayer of giants,
and unlike other bible stories (Noah’s Ark, Adam and Eve)
there are no awkward questions that begin, but why would God….
Unless of course, a child asks, ‘What happened after David won?’
Well, sweetie, he became king.
Then what? Well, David acquires fame, collets bronze armor,
he builds armies and wealth.
David becomes so powerful, he is the one people fear.
He becomes the Goliath.
….Let’s read Daniel in the lion’s den.
Yes, we love the longshot stories,
the middle school kid who stands up to the bullies,
but we don’t want the hero to grow up to be the bully…
we pray to God that when they grow up,
gain some pride, get the honor, and power of Goliath,
they’ll remember the person who they once were.
They will not be blinded by power; they will still have their soul.
I heard a wonderful baccalaureate speech a few years ago
given by The Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells, then Duke’s university chaplain,
now vicar of a large church in London called St. Martin’s in the Fields.
Wells entitled his talk, “Five Smooth Stones”
as he centered his b. sermon around the story of David and Goliath.
He asked the students to consider what happened to David.
The students knew David became King, we know this too,
but along the way to achieving greatness,
David lost his way; he forgot God’s laws.
Perhaps his worst was stealing another man’s wife
and then having her husband murdered as part of the coverup;
David’s mercilessness was so famous
that in one description of him in the Bible, he is referred to as Satan.
In all the power and glory, David lost who he was.
In his speech Dr. Wells asks the graduates,
“How are you, as you go into the world,
how are you going to avoid losing your soul?
That’s what we’re talking about. When everyone in the world
seems to admire the power of Goliath and fear Goliath,
with all that muscle and armor and big talk,
and all your advisers are like Saul, saying,
‘Here’s all this armor; you’d better put it on;
you’re going to need this round here,’
how are you going to remain true to yourself and what you believe in?”
It is a great question for Duke grads,
leaving a prestigious university to go out into the world.
It’s a great question for us to consider as well,
with all our comfortableness, all our education and wealth,
how do we remain true to ourselves and what we believe in?
As a young shepherd boy, David was confident and self-assured
—we hear it in the way he declares to Saul and the men at the front,
“let no one’s heart fail,” David says.
“The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion
and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”
David has some kind of courage!
He goes out to meet Goliath, this great giant foe, ill-equipped it seems.
But young David had power—just a different kind of power.
David held the power of knowing his limits, of knowing himself;
he took with him his shepherd’s staff instead of a spear,
his bravery instead of armor,
his faith stood in place of a helmet,
and as he approached Goliath, he picked up five smooth stones.
Dr. Wells goes on to outline the meaning of these five stones
and while it doesn’t make sense to repeat his speech in this sermon,
(you can read it online),
I do want to call attention to a few things Wells gets so clearly right.
David knows who he is; he knows his own ordinariness.
David is a shepherd, doing the day to day work his father gave him.
“David has made his peace with ordinary time,” Wells says so beautifully.
“He knows how to put his own needs and desires to one side
for an extended period to do hard, unglamorous work.
That’s what David does in the first part of this story.
He looks after his father’s sheep
and takes provisions to various commanders of the army.
Some parts of every life, and every part of some lives,
are unrewarding, unregarded, and unattractive.”
All of us here have spent as least some part our lives ordinarily.
Going to school, raising children, doing jobs that carry no fame,
sometimes being unemployed or recovering from being sick.
Even if we’ve had times in life where we are recognized and acclaimed,
most of our days are routine.
As Head of the Middle School at Randolph,
I might have been the top administrator, but really,
most my work was regular work, scheduling, planning, teaching.
When I first got the job, I thought….
Then I had an epiphany. My Defining moment was this—that was the job!
Again the wisdom of Wells,
“Either you learn the rhythm of the everyday,
or you lapse into a sequence of escapist thrills
punctuated by hours and days of resentment.
David finds a way to make the ordinary into a source of pride…
that’s where he gets his power.”
David’s bravery is also centered in who he is.
David eschews Saul’s heavy sword.
He takes with him to this fight his own shepherd’s staff
because that is what he is comfortable with.
Saul thinks David needs armor to fight like Goliath,
so he puts his own bronze helmet and coat of mail on David
and hands him the heavy sword.
But David knows –he’s not Goliath–he’s not Saul. He is a shepherd.
How often, from even before our middle school days,
do we try to be someone else?
Or try to please someone else and do dumb things we are not proud of?
God makes us each our own person,
and loves us as we are—imperfections and all.
David knows he can only bring himself to the fight;
himself and the knowledge
that God has been with him all those nights in the fields.
When he’s had to go find the little sheep that strayed
and to fight off the predators—he was brave knowing God is there with him no matter what
and that is where he gets his power.
David looks down and finds five smooth stones—
this is all the weaponry he needs.
He knows how to fight a bear with his slingshot
because David has spent lots of time outside, in nature.
Wells says, “David has made friends with the outdoor world.
Yesterday about 20 of us took a day trip to Sewanee.
We walked the labyrinth at St. Mary’s,
took in the gorgeous view of the valley below us at the overlook there, some even took the holy hike afterwards.
We soaked in the joy of nature, listening to the wind in the trees, watching them bend in the breeze, we heard the water flowing at times and dripping at other places, shaping the stones and giving life. We saw a hundred baby toads, no bigger than our thumbnails, hopping across the path.”
There are some things in life you cannot experience unless you go outside.
Hiking along “Shakerag Hollow” – a bit longer and rockier and steeper than I remembered when I was explaining what the hike might be like, found little more strength than knew they had.
Wells invites his students to be people of the earth,
reminding them that David had learned,
“from his outdoor life the wisdom of the owl,
the cunning of the fox, the agility of the wildcat, the sharp eye of the eagle. That’s where he gets his power.”
Finally, David, the young shepherd, knows God.
He knows there is no other power that matters but God.
David has lain in the field and composed songs under the stars, all about his relationship with God. My favorite is psalm 27: The LORD is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life– of whom shall I be afraid? When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident. The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?”
The world David lived in, the world we live in values the power of Goliath and tries to get us to do the same. The underdog stories –the story of David and Goliath, teach us something else.
We don’t need to become Goliath.
We have God given powers, very different from a heavy sword; we have powers that no one can take from us,
To be present in each of life’s moments, even in all its ordinariness—this is power God gives us.
To be the person God made, not the one you thought you’d like to be, always trying to be like someone else. To be the best version of ourselves—this is power God gives us.
To see the smooth stones around us,
the little frogs making their way along the path,
the way the trees bend in the wind,
to see the joy and agility of life on this earth—that is the power God gives us.
And one final power – the gift of faith.
To know that God is with us now and to the end of time –
this is the power God gives us, to live freely without fear.
The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?