Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…

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Seeing our Giants (1 Sam 17:32-49)

(Sermon preached at Memorial United Methodist Church, Fernandina Beach, FL on June 28, 2015)
1 Samuel 17:32-49

There are few stories as ingrained in our culture as that of David and Goliath. Anytime there is a major underdog or a surprising victory, this story’s images get pulled into the conversation. And for good reason. However, as the story gets told so many times that we begin to lose sight of some of the details. Because in this simple story there is far more than meets the eye.

Malcom Gladwell did a TED talk a few years back which brought this story into a whole new light for me. So often we picture Goliath as this huge and mighty warrior. Gladwell, however, says that Goliath may not be as strong as we have thought. He points out that Goliath’s height may have been the result of a disease known as acromegaly. It is a tumor on the pituitary gland that causes someone to be abnormally tall. It has some other side effects as well particularly giving people limited eyesight and double vision. Perhaps, Gladwell argues, this is why Goliath must be led onto the field by a shield bearer, why he sees multiple sticks in David’s hands, and why he never moves in the story. Each time he calls out to the Israelites and to David telling them to come to him.

If this was true, Gladwell’s interpretation is interesting to me because it brings a new dimension to the fear of the Israelites. How often do we too see a problem that is before us, one that seems insurmountable and impossible, and our fear makes it seem larger and more difficult than it is. Because of this, we make assumptions based on what we see before us and we never build up the courage to ask more questions and to delve a little bit deeper, or to even imagine that the problem can be solved.

As I look around our news reports today there seem to be many different Goliath sized issues that we as a church and a society feel are almost too big for us to comprehend. For example, the sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death, the botched executions of the past year, and the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska have brought capital punishment back into the national spotlight.

The deaths of unarmed young black men and women at the hands of police officers and the murder of the nine victims in Charleston have been pushing us into a conversation about race in our society which is at least 150 years late.

There are others as well including Immigration, Same-sex marriage, and the widening gap between the poor and the rich. On their own, each of these issues is complex and complicated. They touch at the core values of our society, and affect the lives of millions of people. They ignite heated conversations and strain relationships between families and communities. Therefore, for so many years we have put them off and ignored these issues, cowering on the sidelines and waiting for someone who is courageous enough to go in our place and take them on.

Which brings us to the hero of our story, David. So often we picture him as a young boy, weak and powerless, but with a strong enough faith that God miraculously killed Goliath despite him. I am not sure that I agree with that interpretation. Yes, David is young. Yes, David lacks the experience of a trained soldier, but that in itself does not make him weak or inexperienced. Youth and experience are not opposites. In fact, it seems to be David’s lack of experience with traditional combat that helps him to see a different way to defeat Goliath. And it is David’s particular experience with a slingshot that gave him the strength and the skill needed to take down Israel’s enemy. If he had gone up against Goliath like a traditional soldier and tried to beat Goliath in a sword fight, things would have not ended well for David. However, by playing to his strengths and trusting his training, David was able to find a better solution.

If we are going to be able to take down the problems in our communities and in our society, we are going to need new ideas and fresh perspectives. Those of us who are used to being heard will need to listen to the voices of those who are marginalized in our communities. Those of us who are accustomed to being in control will need to be willing to follow the lead of those who are younger and those who have different experiences from our own.

In short, we, like Saul, need to come to the realization that our way of bringing about a just resolution may be to step aside and support someone else whom God is calling to lead.

With that being said, we as the people of God cannot just sit on the sidelines and wait for others to do the hard work of reconciliation and justice building in our community. As we follow God’s lead into the broken places of our culture we need to do so by taking David as our example. He was brave enough to engage with something that was big and intimidating. And he was victorious because he chose to be authentic to himself. Instead of being the warrior that Saul and the Israelites expected him to be, he fought against Goliath as the person who God had called and shaped him to be.

Once Saul agrees to let David fight, he offers his own armor to protect him. When David tries it on he can’t move because he is not used to wearing it. This could stand as a metaphor for how we as Christians, often try to engage the Goliaths of our culture. We try to put on the armor of a different group of people such as Republicans or Democrats, environmentalists, humanitarians, volunteers, good citizens, or just about anyone else instead of being Christians.

When we talk about the major issues of our day, do we use secular arguments and political reasoning instead of thinking out of our faith and the imagination that Scripture gives us? When we try to have the tough and complicated conversations, how often do we leave our faith at the door and rely instead on political talking points and economic arguments?

Let’s take the Death Penalty as an example. Time Magazine published a front page article a couple of weeks ago analyzing how the death penalty in the United States is beginning to come to an end. The reasons that Time Magazine gave for this shift in public opinion included the difficulty and expense of getting the necessary drugs and the constitutional problems in that it takes so long for executions to be carried out. As I read these arguments I thought about Jesus’ revisioning of the Old Testament law, “an eye for an eye,” I thought about Jesus’ staying the execution of the woman caught in adultery, and I thought about the major themes or forgiveness and redemption which are so central to who we are as Christians, but yet are often absent not only from secular discussions like the one in Time Magazine, but also from our discussions, as Christians, about criminal justice and capital punishment.

Now I am all about getting rid of the Death Penalty. It is one of the strongest positions in our United Methodist Social Principles. However, the conversations we have as a broader church do not always follow their example. Often they are not scriptural or theological and they focus more on how we do executions and less on the why. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional because African-Americans were disproportionally convicted and sentenced to death. The end of the death penalty came not because our society had decided that it was wrong, but because it was being done wrong. Therefore in order to bring back the death penalty, congress amended the legal system in an attempt to make it more fair. Despite the fact that people who are black or Hispanic are still more likely to be given the death penalty, The Supreme Court deemed their revisions sufficient at the time and brought the practice back four years after it had ruled against them.

Now, what if we as a Church had risen up and said with one voice that it is not our place to kill another human being? What if we had lived out the reality that even in the most dramatic and horrific cases, God’s grace and mercy are still available, and that forgiveness not vengeance should be the preferred outcome? Perhaps things would have turned out differently. Perhaps instead of making 1,411 people wait in legal purgatory for their possible day of execution, we could have given them the rest of their lives to repent and make penance for their actions. Perhaps our legal system would be able to focus less on punishing offenders and more on forming them into people who can break the cycles of violence and crime. All it would have need is a bit less political maneuvering and a lot more calls living out Jesus’ commands in all aspects of our lives. With a bolder theological argument, I believe that we as the people of God we can bring a lasting end to capital punishment in our country not because it is inconvenient, expensive, or unconstitutional, but because it is wrong. Capital punishment can eventually become more convenient, is can become cheaper, and maybe even constitutional, however, it will never stop being wrong.

Over the next year as we enter an election season, discussions on the hot topics in our society will be had around dinner tables, living rooms, and I am sure quite a few pew benches. I want to encourage each one of us as people who have been formed and shaped by the love and the grace of God, to take off the bulky armor of modern politics, to set aside the economic arguments and focus instead on having the theological discussions. As this country continues its collective conversations about guns, violence, gender, sexuality, and race, let us participate explicitly as people of faith. Let us first ask ourselves: What would Jesus say about how we treat guns in this country? What do the Old and New Testaments have to contribute to our views on on violence and our society? How do we as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, view people of different races, cultures, sexualities, and nationalities?

As we ask these questions and talk with one another as a church, we need to remember to listen to the Davids among us. We need to be on the look out for the people God is raising up as overlooked leaders. We need hear their opinions, value their experiences, and be willing to recognize when God is calling us through them to a different way of thinking.

Like the Goliath of Scripture, the giants we are being called to fight against may be big, and they may be powerful, but they are not unbeatable. Like David, we are called to go into the battle confident that God is on our side. Even though we do not have all the answers, and even though we may disagree on how our faith relates with an issue, we are united in the knowledge that it is God who will bring about the final justice, it is God who will bring about true peace, it is God who will create a united community and it is God who will have the victory.

What we need to do as a people of God is take off our armor, pick up our stones and follow where God is leading. Goliath is waiting.