Agents of God
Sunday, June 24, 2018
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 7)
Agents of God
Keeper of our lives, you know the hardness and gentleness of human hearts. You call your people to faithful living. Through the storms of life that bring suffering and fear, joy and laughter, teach us to turn to you for all we need, so that we may come to know your presence even in the midst of the trials that surround us. Amen.
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49
Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.
Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. David rose early in the morning, left the sheep with a keeper, took the provisions, and went as Jesse had commanded him. He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage, ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him.
David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “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.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them.
Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”
When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 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.
All readings for this Sunday:
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 Psalm 9:9-20 or
Job 38:1-11 Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
1. In what do you ground your faith?
2. Do you feel small and powerful, or small and weak?
3. When have you experienced the power of God at work in your life?
4. What “five smooth stones” do you hold?
5. In what ways might you feel fear when you hear the call of God?
by Kate Matthews
In last week’s readings, the First Book of Samuel told the story of the youngest, smallest son being lifted up to lead the whole nation, and the Gospel of Mark recounted the parables of Jesus about the tiny mustard seed growing into a mighty tree. This week, the stories continue but seem to take a sudden turn, from quiet and promising to things much more disturbing and dramatic, with a measure of violence as well.
In First Samuel, little David defeats Goliath with an impressive confidence in God’s help that illustrates what faith truly is, that is, trust that God is, at all times, good and, always, near at hand: David believes that he has never faced anything alone. Matthew Skinner suggests that we include verses 24-26 in our reading to remind us that David could see the hand of God and the cluelessness of Goliath much better than his elder and stronger, but cowardly, companions could.
A formidable opponent
True, the enemy before him was formidable: “six cubits” is big, ten feet tall–some texts say four cubits, but even that means almost seven feet tall, and we have to remember that people were shorter in those days. Greaves of bronze are shin guards, and the description of all this armor–126 pounds of it–tells us that there was only one vulnerable place on Goliath’s huge person: his forehead.
In the face of such a huge and well-armed opponent, then, David’s faithful courage seems rooted not in his own physical prowess or skills or cunning but in his experience of God acting in his life, and he counts on God to act again in the same way; that is, not only that God could act for good, but that God would act for good. “Faith,” Skinner writes, “denotes a willingness to let God be God.”
If David is a hero who boasts, it’s God’s power that makes him boast, not his own. Even when he describes for Saul his killing of bears and lions (impressive for a young boy), he gives credit to God; David has confidence that God’s will is for goodness for him personally and for his whole people as well, for this is no ordinary army; this is the army “of the living God”!
A favorite story
This story is so familiar that most people know it even if they’ve never read the Bible. Little David takes out giant bully Goliath with one well-aimed stone to the forehead. Goliath had challenged the Israelite army of warriors to send out one champion to fight him, and then there wouldn’t even have to be a battle, and so many people wouldn’t have to die. It sounds like a good idea, but the Israelites, the armies of the living God, as David calls them, didn’t seem to take to it.
Every day for forty days, when Goliath came out and took his stand, no one accepted the challenge. Instead, everyone, the text says, fled. Until a little boy, the smallest, as usual, the one easy to overlook or dismiss, came to deliver food to his soldier brothers. He heard Goliath’s taunt, and he was dismayed. “What?” David asked; “Who is this guy? How dare he defy the armies of the living God?”
The power of the living God
David was not “trash-talking”; he wasn’t trying to intimidate or play mind games. He was dumbfounded at Goliath’s foolish disregard for the power of Israel’s God, the living God, the God who does not save by sword or spear. Little David’s trust and confidence weren’t in his own skill or power but in the power of the living God who sustained him and his people. His people at that moment just needed to be reminded of who had brought them out of the land of Egypt and slavery and had brought them to the Promised Land: the God full of lovingkindness and faithful compassion.
This is how David saw his whole life. When he was out tending the sheep like a good shepherd, the future great shepherd-king, greatest of all Israel’s kings, had to battle lions and bears, for heaven’s sake, and he rescued lambs from their very mouths, and if a lion turned against him in the rescue, he would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. How curious as we listen to David’s reassuring words to Saul that they don’t sound like trash-talking, “Hey, I’m really strong and fierce. I’ll take him on.”
David had it right
Instead, we hear David say, “God saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, and God will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” David had it right. It wasn’t all about him. It was about God. It was the power of God that made him strong and smart and able, with just one of the five smooth stones–a beautiful detail–to bring down the threat of this giant Philistine bully. Goliath, the text says, “fell face down on the ground.” The people were saved. The Philistines fled.
We recall that Jesus himself spoke of the mustard seed being tiny but growing into the big tree that gives shelter to the birds of the air. Jesus spoke of the widow’s mite being the greatest gift of all, the lost coin being worth turning the house upside down to find. He visited the house of little Zaccheaeus, so short that he couldn’t see Jesus passing by, so he climbed a tree and received a visit from the Teacher himself. Jesus spoke of faith like that of a child, and giving water to the little ones. Those of us who know what it feels like to be small against great challenges and struggles, Jesus understands.
Facing overwhelming challenges
It’s not about being small in stature, like David. All of us know what it feels like to feel small in the face of overwhelming circumstances–illness, divorce, chronic pain, anxiety, the loss of loved ones and the suffering of our children. We know what it feels like to face debt and financial fears and unsolvable problems, worries about our children, our job, our safety. We know what it feels like to be unappreciated, unnoticed, unacknowledged. Maybe we don’t know what we’re supposed to do with our life, or we don’t know how to help our family reconcile or to repair broken friendships.
And then there are the problems we share: the environment and global warming and pollution, war and killing and violence, poverty and racism and sexism and homophobia, whether we “own” or acknowledge them or not. Things that feel big and overpowering, and we feel so small in the face of these Goliaths, coming out of their camp every day and challenging us to do battle with them.
The battle is God’s
Ah, but David says, that battle–it is God’s battle. It is God’s power that will carry the day, and God does not save by sword and spear. God’s power is much greater, and more mysterious, than any sword or spear we may devise. Of course, it’s not that we don’t have to do anything. First, like David, we have to throw off the heavy armor that we put on to protect ourselves, the armor the world around us and its advisors tell us to use–our sense of security and self-sufficiency, our faith in money and possessions to keep us safe, our hoarding and our climbing and our positioning and all the little and big justifications that we use to defend ourselves.
Next, we have to gather our five smooth stones. Not big boulders or sharp swords or spears. Five smooth, beautiful stones. What if we used our religious imagination and pictured those five smooth stones as compassion and justice, as hospitality and generosity, as love and joy? (I think that might be six, not five, but it still works!) As we go forth into the world that God loves, to that “field,” to the places where we encounter the challenges and overwhelming odds and the powers that be, what would happen if we flung well-aimed compassion, justice, hospitality, generosity, love, and joy at all we encountered?
The glory we have seen
And what if we added peace, and mercy, healing, and care, and in and through all these things, the worship of God, the living God: the one who we remember has saved us and brought us this far; we remember that this battle is God’s, and that, in the end, we will be saved.
Haven’t we seen this already? Didn’t we see the Berlin Wall most astoundingly come tumbling down, the end of apartheid if not racism itself in South Africa? Didn’t we watch Civil Rights activists forty years ago bringing down the walls of hatred, staring into the teeth of police dogs and centuries of prejudice built into our very laws, and then Civil Rights protections signed into law, preparing the way for justice to be written upon our hearts and our minds, lived and made real in the experience of all of God’s children here in this land?
A long and difficult struggle
The “battle” for justice and healing and peace is long and day-by-day, and we engage it anew each morning. The large battles and moments of hope fuel our hope in our individual lives, too, for healing and peace in our families and our bodies, for the solving of problems and the sure knowledge that, because we are the church, others are with us no matter what we face.
And then there is the United Church of Christ, so small and beautiful at the table of churches, bringing our hard-learned lessons about freedom with responsibility, our dream of a table with a place for everyone, of evangelical courage, early truth-telling, extravagant hospitalityÖbringing our hope for the future, a hope rooted not in our own power but in the power of the living God, a God who has brought us this far and will not forget about us or leave us to the lions and the bears or even the giants that tower over usÖ.the living God, who looks upon even the smallest ones in creation, upon you and me, each of us, in love and infinite care.
Together, we dream of that day, someday, that great and glorious day, when we shall overcome with love all that threatens and intimidates, because God will see us through to a time when we shall walk hand in hand, and live in peace, some great and glorious day. With that dream before us, and the sure knowledge that God is with us, how can we be afraid?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Dean Smith, 20th century
“If you treat every situation as a life and death matter, you’ll die a lot of times.”
Woody Allen, 20th century
“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, 20th century
“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Louisa May Alcott, 19th century
“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”
Annie Dillard, 21st century
“It could be that our faithlessness is a cowering cowardice born of our very smallness, a massive failure of imagination….If we were to judge nature by common sense or likelihood, we wouldn’t believe the world existed.”
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