‘David and Goliath’ is a story often told in Sunday School. It’s a tale of someone very young, and very brave who vanquishes a much bigger foe. We teach it to children to encourage them, literally to ‘in courage’, to give them courage. The story is about standing up to bullies, and about never underestimating your own abilities.
It’s not often that we consider the story as adults, in the full version from the first book of Samuel that was our first reading this morning. When we hear the story recounted as adults, we hear different things, I think.
For one thing, we hear what we remember from World Lit classes is a typical hero story from the classical period -- a very similar story appears in The Iliad. It’s the story of the early promise of one who will go on to be a great hero and leader. It’s also part of the ongoing story in the Bible of the conquest of the Promised Land by the nation of Israel against their many foes, in this case, the Philistines. It’s part of the history of a dynasty, as well, the beginnings of the Davidic dynasty that will rule a united Israel during what are some of that nation’s most glorious days. And it’s a generational story, it’s about the kingship of Israel passing from an old warrior to a younger one, one who fights with more stealth and cunning, and faith.
The people of Israel are at war with the Philistines. Goliath of Gath, an ancient city in lower Canaan, near modern-day Gaza, is the chief warrior of the Philistines, a giant of intimidating proportions. He stands 9 feet, 9 inches tall. His armor weighs 125 pounds, his spearhead alone weighs 15 pounds. He’s huge, he’s frightening, and he makes an offer to the Israelites: send out a man to do battle with him and the fate of the war will rest upon the outcome of this one-man-to-one-man battle.
Young David arrives in the Israelites war camp and decides that he will take on Goliath. His mentor and the King of Israel Saul says that a shepherd boy would be a fool to try to do battle with a seasoned warrior like Goliath. But David convinces Saul that he’s done battle before against the wild beasts that threatened his herds, and that he has the skill and courage to face this foe. Plus, David is incensed that this pagan Goliath would insult and threaten the armies of the Lord God; he has courage, skill, and a righteous zeal as his weapons. Saul reluctantly agrees to allow David to fit and fits David out in his own armor. But it is too big for David, and the young shepherd takes up the tools that he knows best, his staff, his sling, and five smooth stones from the dry riverbed.
David and Goliath meet, they engage in a little trash talk, and when the giant comes for David, the shepherd boy rushes headlong to meet him. He takes his sling and lands a shot in the middle of Goliath’s forehead. The bigger they are, the harder they fall; and Goliath falls face down on the field of battle. David decapitates the giant (they left that part out of the reading for proprieties sake, I guess), and claims the victory for his nation and the Lord, his God.
David shows courage and strength, it’s true. And he remains true to himself and his God. He uses the weapons he knows best, and he trusts that God will deliver the giant into his hands. In this respect, David is a hero for all of us. No matter how menacing or intimidating the challenge before us, if we remain true to who we are, true to our own experience, and have faith in God, we can conquer any foe, meet any challenge.
And David reminds us that there comes a time when the young must take on the stewardship of the nation from those of us of greater age. Saul is waging and not winning a war. His mistakes and sins have been piling up for some years. And while David has none of his experience, nor his skill, he brings his own experience and his own skill set to bear, and in the end, it is these new skills, and a beginner’s blind courage that wins the decisive battle in an extended war. David is a valiant warrior, and his experience, and courage, and his righteousness win him the day.
When I hear those words of Paul on this Sunday, I think of 49 years ago, when those who were then very dishonored, and ill-reputed by most, went out to do battle against no less a Goliath than the New York City Police Department. After years of ill-treatment and legal harassment, the LGBT patrons of the Stonewall Inn took a courageous, foolhardy, altogether Davidic stand against their ill-treatment, with precious little more to fight with than a sense of who they were and a belief that they had a right to be who they were. And they set in motion a movement that would win the civil rights of, if not a nation, then a tribe of people comprised of every nation.
This Sunday, I think of those asylum seekers and refugees on our Southern border who, as the Jesuit priest Jim Martin puts it, have the guts to do what any of us would want to do, what we hope we would find the courage to do; to flee their own homelands, their own countries, in order to find safety for their families, much like Joseph and Mary, who fled to Egypt with a newborn Jesus to escape the murderous rage of their ruler, King Herod. Father Martin, who spent two years working with refugees in East Africa, says the refugees he met are among the hardest working, most inspiring, most faithful people he has ever met.
In my seven years of working with and for refugees, in meeting them in Rwanda, Tanzania, Liberia, and Sierra Leone; and in helping them build new lives in Boise, ID and Baltimore, MD; in Abilene, TX and Elizabeth, NJ, I can tell you, those who have endured flight with nothing but their children, and managed to survive, exemplify the kind of strength of character and courage that Paul describes. They are just the kind of people who make the futures of their adopted countries as great as those countries’ storied pasts.
Paul tells us that his heart is open wide and that we too should open wide our own hearts. For therein, we may find the courage to face what lies before us. With hearts open wide, we can find that who we are is exactly who we need to be to face down our own Goliaths.
With hearts open wide, we can learn to love rather than fear, to welcome rather than to shun, to honor rather than disdain those whose struggles and endurance call us to new understanding, new compassion, a new conception of what is true righteousness. With hearts open wide, we find the faith that can sustain us. With hearts open wide, we can find within us the power to quiet the storm of disquiet and meet the future sure of God’s enduring love and salvation. +Amen.
© The Rev. Mark R. Collins