Sermon, June 21

This sermon is heavily indebted to a baccalaureate sermon preached by the Rev’d Canon Sam Wells, which you may read in full here. If you find inspiration herein for your own preaching or writing, please credit Canon Wells! 

The story of David and Goliath is a Sunday school classic.  And for obvious reasons: it’s a great story! An unarmed shepherd boy takes on a warrior-giant, in the name of God… and wins. If we had to say what the take-away is, we’d probably say something like this: if you trust in God, it doesn’t matter what’s stacked against you. Have faith and do what needs to be done.

But there’s an assumption there – an assumption that we are all Davids. Samuel Wells, an Anglican priest who was Dean of Duke Chapel during my year at Duke, preached an outstanding sermon on this story at a baccalaureate service in May of 2010. I’m going to share the gist of it with you today. I hope it’s something you need to hear. I know that, on the threshold of the emotional, mental, and physical demands of serving as a deputy to our church’s General Convention next week, I very much need to hear it.

Sam Wells starts with that point I just raised: we tend to identify with David.  America is a nation of underdogs.  Our popular culture is full of skinny little guys somehow triumphing over the huge, aggressive quarterback type, literally or metaphorically.  We love it when a small liberal arts college makes it to the Final Four.  We love movies where the small-town lawyer wins out over the huge polluting corporation.

Wells writes,  “In movies, athletics, business and politics,  we all feel the pull of that righteous cultural conviction: Stand up for the little guy.” Then he reminds his audience that, in fact, the school they are graduating from … is Duke. The Yankees of collegiate basketball. Hardly an underdog by any standard.  And he reminds them, too, that those movies where the plucky little guy – or girl  – triumphs over the huge, faceless corporation are made by huge, faceless corporations, who know exactly what we like.

Wells writes,  “We want our movies to be about David, but we spend our lives trying desperately… to be Goliath.”  We admire David’s resourcefulness and faith, but we spend our lives and resources and energies stockpiling what makes us feel strong and safe: SUVs, alarm systems, advanced degrees, 401ks… all the apparatus of a secure middle-class existence. If we were honest with ourselves, are there moments when we feel a little like David in Saul’s armor, so weighted down that we can hardly move?

Those Duke graduates Wells was addressing – they’d just spent four years, lots of time and effort, and a staggering amount of their parents’ money to acquire a degree from Duke.  Why? Because it gives you a chance to become Goliath. It gives you strength. Acclaim. Respect.  All the things Goliath had…  and David didn’t.

But we love David, in this story – cute, plucky, teenage David, whose call to kingship is still a secret between himself and Samuel. It’s hard to say whether he has more faith in God or in himself, but either way, he’s an appealing character here, even in his slightly obnoxious cockiness. But what happens next? Where does the story go from here, as it unspools in the chapters and weeks ahead?

David defeats Goliath. The people swing behind David and support him. Saul, increasingly unhinged, loses the people’s confidence. There’s a bitterly-fought civil war between Saul’s people and David’s – the lectionary skips that! Eventually, sure enough, David becomes king.  And… power does to David what power tends to do to people.

David becomes Goliath. He becomes a bully. He becomes a taker. He becomes a cynical manipulator, a merciless powerbroker.  He becomes a man whose own power is everything to him. David becomes Goliath. 

Wells asks the graduates to reflect, as they stand on the cusp of a new life, on whether that’s the direction they want to go,  or whether they want to chart a different course. Most of us don’t stand at such a turning point, this particular Sunday in June 2015. But it’s never a bad time to ask ourselves what we trust. What we rely on. Where we turn,  when we feel in need of strength, of power.

Wells calls our attention to those five stones, the five smooth stones that David gathered from the riverbed for his sling, his only weapon. He uses those stones to count off the sources of David’s power. Listen.

Here’s the first stone, the first source of David’s power: He trusts the value of ordinary days and ordinary work. He has spent his young life, at this point, keeping the sheep and running errands for his father and brothers. Wells writes,  “Some parts of every life, and every part of some lives, are unrewarding, unregarded and unattractive.” We all spend some hours of our days and some years of our lives doing stuff that doesn’t feel important or meaningful – or maybe it feels important to us, but nobody else seems to think so. Stuff like caring for young children. Being unemployed or working a humble job. Tending to your own health or that of a family member.  Taking care of home, garden, pets, all those tasks that become undone again the moment you wake up in the morning.  David is proud of how those years have shaped him. He knows that mundane and humble work has been training for what’s ahead. It’s grounded and strengthened him, and made him who he is.  That’s the first source of his power: his confidence that his life has prepared him for this moment, that ordinary days and humble work have blessed him.

Do you find power there?

Here’s the second stone – in Sam Wells’ words, David has made friends with the outdoor world. He’s not a technology guy.  Skip the armor and the sword, which where the ICBMs of his era. David knows about sheep, and lions. He knows about riverbeds, smooth stones, the trajectories of projectiles. He’s developed some skills, some competence and confidence that you’ll never get in job training, in a lab or an office. Wells writes,  “If you want to be like David, ask yourself,  ‘When was the last time I felt the joy of nature and sharpened my wily wits by spending some time in the fields, in the streams, in the mountains?’… David learns 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.”

Do you find power there?

Here’s the third stone. David knows himself. Saul tries to make David into a mini-me: here, put on my armor; here, wear my helm; here, strap on my sword. None of it fits, and wearing it makes David unable to use the skills he has. David knows he’s not going to win by being Saul, nor by being Goliath. He tells Saul, You do you, man. But it’s not my thing.  Wells asks,  “If you’re feeling burdened and heavy laden right now, is it because you’re wearing someone else’s armor? Are you trying to be someone you’re not and never will be? … Don’t be a second-rate version of someone else. Strive to be what only you can be.” David knows his strengths, and he knows his weaknesses. He knows the only way he’ll prevail here is by being who he is and doing what he does.

Do you find power there?

Here’s the fourth stone.  David knows God.  Wells writes, “David knows Goliath is not God. Goliath is the reality in front of him right now, and that reality is big, ugly and intimidating. But David knows what’s in front of him isn’t ultimate reality.”

Wells makes a provocative and powerful suggestion here: he says maybe a big reason that Christianity has lost so much cultural favor in this country is that Christians turned Jesus into Goliath. Into a “My way or the highway” bully, forceful and arrogant. But Jesus isn’t Goliath. God isn’t Goliath.  And Goliath isn’t God. David knows that. He knows that divine power, holy power, looks and sounds and acts differently than human power.  He knows that the deep order of the universe, the heart of reality,  the bend of the great arc, is not about history’s Goliaths. It’s about the slow and subtle and mysterious workings of a different kind of power, a paradoxical strength. David finds power in his knowledge that Goliath’s power, as overwhelming as it seems,  is limited.  God’s power is different. God’s power is more.

Do you find power there?

Finally… here’s the fifth stone.  The fifth source of David’s power… is simply that he recognizes that power is the issue here.  He sees Goliath’s power, and he knows the sources of his own power –  the graces of an ordinary life; the gifts of the natural world;

knowledge of self and knowledge of God. He knows he needs to muster those resources to walk safely through this challenge. To prevail, for himself and for his people and for his God.  As David stands over the giant’s corpse,  we see that the power in this story lay, in Wells’ words,  “not in Goliath’s bravado but in David’s skill; not in Goliath’s muscle but in David’s faith; not in Goliath’s plausibility but in David’s truth; not in Goliath’s armor but in David’s wisdom.”

Can you find power in daily living, in ordinary tasks? Can you find power in the generous gifts of the natural world?  Can you find power in knowing yourself deeply and truly? Can you find power in knowing that God’s love and purposes arch boldly over our human moments of struggle or perplexity?  Can you find power in simply taking a step back to name the power dynamics of the situation in which you find yourself – the situation of a moment or a year or a lifetime – facing honestly the powers at work around and sometimes against you, and reminding yourself that you, too, have power? The kind of power that can’t be taken from you – the kind that you can only lose by forgetting you have it.

Looking forward into David’s life and kingship,  Wells writes, “David lost sight of [this kind of] power, later on.  Most of us do, for a season.  And when we lose sight of that power,  that’s precisely the moment when we’re drawn to Goliath. In the end Goliath’s problem is not that he’s too strong but that he’s too weak. The more we try to become Goliath, the weaker we become. It shows we’ve lost sight of where true power lies.”

Here’s what I ask of you, friends, as I prepare to set out for General Convention. Where there will be the joy of gathering as a church from all corners of our nation, and beyond; of spending time with old friends and making new ones; of being part of discerning and shaping our denomination’s future.  Where there will also be the physical struggle of long, long days of meetings and legislative sessions and intense conversations; the mental struggle of organizing time, forming opinions, and keeping up with it all; the emotional struggle of staying grounded in my own convictions, experience, and faith, and staying open to new ideas and learnings, when conversations get heated and visions clash.

I ask that you pray, for me, for our bishop Steven, for the other deputies from this diocese and for all the bishops, deputies, and others attending our Convention, that we may resist the power of Goliath – the power of force, might, and arrogance, the sneering power that belittles the opponent – and put our trust instead in the true sources of holy power, in David’s five smooth stones.

And I pray for you, friends, that in whatever ordeals, strains, struggles or decisions you face, you, too, may trust deeply that the power you need is already at hand; and may find that to be abundantly true.  Amen.