Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sermon - Standing Up to Goliaths

1 Samuel 17:32-49
Standing Up to Goliaths
James Sledge                                                                                       June 24, 2012

Some years ago a church member came to me with a problem. Her child was planning to do something she thought foolish, and she was looking for some help from me.  This woman was very involved in the congregation.  She was an elder, a tireless volunteer at that church, and I always got the sense that she was serious about her faith.
Her son was also a person of significant faith, having been very involved in the youth group at church before attending college. And he was quite involved in campus ministry there. In fact, the foolish thing he was planning to do involved a campus ministry mission trip.  The trip was to Haiti, and it was one of those times when Haiti had descended into political chaos.  The campus ministry organization had discussed cancelling the trip, but in the end, the decision had been made to go ahead with it.
Needless to say this mother was not happy.  Along with typical concerns for such mission trips – unsanitary conditions, tropical diseases, and so on – there was now the added the risk of political instability accompanied by violence. It was not too difficult for Mom to imagine some group thinking that kidnapping an American college student would be a great tactic.
However, this woman’s son truly felt called to take part in this mission trip. He was motivated by a deep faith commitment to help the poor, to take God’s love to people who lived in terrible circumstances.  And ultimately he did go, although his mother did succeed in getting the campus ministry group to take some additional safety and security precautions.
This story is far from unique.  I know of many cases where parents raised their children in the church and worried about them wandering from the faith.  But they were mortified when that faith led children to do something dangerous, called them into a low paying career, or caused them to adopt a lifestyle that didn’t fit well with the parents’ suburban, upper middle-class values.  These parents wanted their children to have faith, just not too much of it.
And that makes me wonder what David’s Mom thought about the whole Goliath episode.
  I realize that the David and Goliath story has taken on the sense of a fairy tale, something like Jack and the Beanstalk.  The opening of this morning’s reading –which we didn’t hear – seems to encourage that, saying that Goliath stood “six cubits and a span” or just under 10 feet tall.  But other ancient texts including one Dead Sea Scroll says he was “four cubits and a span,” closer to seven feet tall, a true giant in a day when someone six feet tall towered over most folks, but no fairy tale monster.
So let’s assume that this story has a basis in fact. The Philistines themselves certainly existed, and they struck terror into the hearts of many of their neighbors. They had mastered the art of making iron, meaning that they had a huge technological advantage over Israel. They had iron weapons and chariots while Israel could only use bronze. Israel was terribly outgunned, and it is not at all difficult to picture one of the biggest and baddest of these Philistines coming out in his superior armor with his superior weapons and laughing at the Israelites, daring one of them to take him on.
No one was that stupid. The best the Israelites could hope for was to utilize some creative military tactics that might minimize their huge disadvantages.  Perhaps they could make the battle difficult enough that the Philistines would enter into some sort of treaty or arrangement that wouldn’t be too onerous.  That was common practice.  Small kingdoms like Israel were often in some sort of “alliance” with a more powerful kingdom where they had to pay tribute and provide soldiers to the more powerful kingdom. 
But when David inadvertently arrives on the scene, sent by Dad to take supplies to David’s brothers, he seems not to realize how these things work. David, like other Israelite children, has been taught the stories of how God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, how God fought for them against the powerful Egyptians, and how God had struck terror in the hearts of the Canaanites so that Israel had acquired a good homeland and lived in safety and security.  But unlike most people, David actually seems to believe these stories.
Now I presume that the whole Goliath encounter was over before Dave’s mom found out about it, but if David’s brothers had had cell phones and had texted Mom what was going on, I wonder how she would have reacted.  Would she have screamed, “What is he doing!? They’re just religious stories for goodness sake. You’re not supposed to risk your life because of them!”
Of course David is not alone in this sort of foolish behavior.  Abraham and Sarah leave their home and family and head out for parts unknown because God says, “Go.”  God has to do a lot of persuading, but Moses, who is wanted for murder in Egypt, marches down to Pharaoh’s palace with nothing more than a staff and a word from Yahweh: “Let my people go.” Jesus heads to Jerusalem knowing full well that a cross awaits him, and the Apostle Paul and others like him share the message of Jesus even though it gets them arrested, beaten, and, sometimes, executed. 
Dietrich Bonheoffer, who himself was executed by the Nazis in World War II, wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” echoing what Jesus himself said. "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
The biblical story is filled with episodes of great risk taken in faith, and also with commands that we be willing to take great risks ourselves.  Plenty of faithful people today embody this.  Yet the institutional Church often struggles with it. Very often, the Church is one of the most risk averse organizations you can find.  Doing something risky in a church often requires running a gauntlet of committees and meetings and policies and structures, all demanding hard evidence that nothing could go wrong and the activity in question does not pose any real risk or undue burden on the church.
But the Church lives in a world full of Goliaths who fight against the hope of God’s new day.  There are personal Goliaths, things that frighten us and keep us from living the lives God hopes for us. And there are community Goliaths that frighten the Church. We regularly come face to face with opportunities to minister to those in need and to share God’s love, but we fear that it will be too difficult; that our finances or facilities or volunteers or other resources will not be adequate to the task.  And so we keep our heads down and hide from Goliath.
And of course there are even larger Goliaths.  The world and our society are filled with things that make the good and abundant life God desires for all seem an impossible dream. Some of these Goliaths are so huge, so powerful, so entrenched and systemic that there is no way we stand a chance against them.  And so we keep our heads down and hide from Goliath.
When the risen Jesus commissions the disciples and the Church he says, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Jesus also promises that the disciples, and the Church, will be “clothed with power from on high,” a promise fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The Church, the body of Christ, is much more than the collected resources and abilities of those of us gathered in it. By the power of the Spirit, it is the Living Body of Christ, equipped and empowered to continue his ministry on earth.
Knowing this surely helped give Martin Luther King, Jr. courage to face down the Goliath of racism and segregation, saying, just like David, “You have all the power and might, but I come to you in the name of Yahweh of hosts.”
Where are the Goliaths in your life, in the life of our community, in the world?  What are those things that we fear that stand in the way of a life of faithful discipleship, of a blessed community that overflows with God’s love, of a world shaped more and more like the reign of God, a new day where God’s will is enacted on earth?
We need to name them so that we can face them, ourselves echoing the words of David. “You come to (us) with sword and spear and javelin (with frightening power or crushing inertia), but (we) come to you in the name of Yahweh of hosts,” in the name of Jesus the Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and we will strike you down!
Thanks be to God!

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