- Parish House
Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
I’d like to begin with a story about legs. There is a problem with legs that all young children run into at some point. Do you remember as a kid when your line of sight was filled with grown up legs? When you’re small, it takes a lot of effort to look up and see the face of adults, so you learn to identify those around you by leg. Out of necessity, you come know which legs belong to your people, and you stick close to those legs. It’s not a foolproof system for adult identification, of course. One time I was in the hardware store with my dad, checking out the interesting items near the bottom of the check out line, as you do. I was next to my dad’s leg, or so I thought. I remember looking up, only to realize I had the wrong leg. A feeling of dread came over me, and I remember running around in what seemed like a sea of legs. In reality, I bet I was never far from my dad. He was probably just distracted for a moment by interesting things at the check out line, too. But I remember feeling small, and rather lost among the giants.
I thought a lot about giants this week, with David and Goliath on the agenda for today. That hardware story memory surfaced, reminding me that giants are familiar to children. Kids know what it’s like to feel surrounded by giants. Unfamiliar adults and monsters under the bed can easily fill that role for a child. But as we become adults, we don’t exactly outgrow a fear of giants. I think giants become more complicated for us, because they become larger than a stranger or a figment of our imagination. Giants grow into all kinds of things, from the fears we carry around in our personal lives to the big picture fears we worry about collectively. There is no doubt in my mind that we are living in an anxious time, and no matter how big we’ve grown, we can still feel small, and rather lost among the giants.
It would be easy to turn to the story of David and Goliath and find a kind of formulaic comfort or moral to the story. It would go something like this: Goliath seemed unstoppable with his heavy armor, his deadly weapons, and his sheer size. And yet, the shepherd boy managed to bring him down with nothing but a slingshot. Therefore, the moral would say, don’t worry too much about giants. God, after all, is on the side of the underdog, on the side of the kingdom of Israel, and by extension, on our side. That interpretation isn’t wrong, per se, but it reduces the complexity of the 3,000 year old story to something like an easy platitude.
And this reading of the story makes two fundamental mistakes, at least in the Bible according to Malcolm Gladwell. He wrote a book on the story of David and Goliath, after he realized that his assumptions about the story, the ones we all make, were inherently flawed. If we correct for those misconceptions, I think the story has the power to offer us tremendous hope in the land of giants today.
The first thing we get wrong, according to Gladwell, is in thinking of David as an underdog with only a slingshot. This assumes a victory of someone weaker over someone stronger, which is true on one hand just given Goliath’s size and brute strength as a warrior. But on the other hand, this was no ordinary slingshot. And David was a different kind of warrior, a slinger, who had taken down lions and bears that
threatened his sheep. He was a sharpshooter with accurate aim, and the force of a rock from his sling would be like a bullet in between the giant’s eyes. David had every intention and the ability to hit the giant there with a deadly blow.
Gladwell also has a theory about Goliath. The Philistine and Israelite armies were deadlocked, staring at each other in a standstill with a valley between them. No one dared make the first move, because the first army to start down the hill into the valley would be the vulnerable one. So in an ancient practice of warfare, Goliath was led out with an offer to fight a single warrior from the Israelite side. David volunteered, but things got a little weird when David headed toward Goliath. There is evidence in the text that Goliath couldn’t see his opponent very well. Goliath said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” David only had one, a shepherd’s staff. Gladwell thinks that Goliath suffered from double vision, and more than than that, a form of giantism that also made him profoundly nearsighted and slow to move. In other words, Goliath was a sitting duck. He was weighed down by all that fancy armor, an easy target to a skilled slinger. The source of his apparent strength was also the source of his weakness (From Gladwell’s Ted Talk, Sep 30, 2013).
If Gladwell is right about this ancient story, then it just got a whole lot more interesting than a simple underdog story. Giants, then, are not as strong as they seem. This is essential wisdom from our sacred story. They can be taken down, not just through miracles, but through skill and faithful obedience to the God who calls us into this sacred story. There is a violence in this story, which I’m not particularly quick to glorify, especially since Jesus used violent images so sparingly. But in our world of metaphorical giants, we can be like David. We can move beyond hand wringing to faithful action.
In our land of giants, we must look carefully. Like children in a sea of legs, we have to do the hard work of taking in the whole view, of looking up to see faces and identities. The examples of giants are many, and we all have our list. If we look closely at a racist slur, for example, we might find an entire system of white supremacy at work, even unconsciously so. Or, take a harsh comment from someone. It’s possible that if you look closely, you’ll see that they’re lashing out because of a fear that’s looming large and weighing heavy on their heart. Or take the recent news, for example, with stories of families separated at the border. That’s just the leg of a giant, the leg of a complex body of violence and crime with roots in far away places. If we just look at legs, we wind up with disagreements over the right political or policy solution. But here, in this place, the religious path asks us to look more deeply, and to discern larger, complex truths about sin in a broken world. And then to consider what God’s will for us is in the land of giants.
So let’s remember that we are in a sacred story. The story of David and Goliath reminds us to look faithfully at entire bodies of giants, everything from our own fears to big picture fears. And to remember that giants are not as strong as they seem. They have weaknesses. And sometimes, through God’s grace, we are David in the story, the ones with the agility, the faith, and the slingshot to make a difference.