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 Standing up to Goliath

Sermon - 6/24/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Samuel 17

The sermon text this morning is really the entire 17th chapter of 1 Samuel, which is the story of David and Goliath, one of the most familiar stories of the Old Testament. I always find it helpful when reading a familiar story such as this to use a more modern translation so that we might hear it anew. So I will share this old story with you from the new DEV, Dan’s Embellished Version. You may wish to follow along in your own Bible or the pew Bible in case you doubt the accuracy of the DEV!

The Philistines and Israelites were at war with each other. Saul was the new king of Israel. His immediate task was to conquer the Philistines. The only problem was they had this giant of a man, Goliath, almost 7 feet according to some ancient texts, others even say nine feet. He was the original Terminator, the combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger, LeBron James, and Roseanne Barr. A big, terrifying, ugly, mean man. He was armed to the teeth, a one-man tank. He would shout out with his deep, deep voice that would cause the mountains to shake, “Send me a real man that I can fight!” All the Israelites trembled with fear, for all the real Hebrew men had immigrated to New York to dance on Broadway and do stand up comedy. No one dared to take him up on his challenge. For forty days Goliath came forward. For forty days the Israelites held back. Why 40?  For 40 days and nights it rained on Noah, for 40 years Moses and company wandered in the wilderness.  Maybe no one could count beyond 40 in those days?  Who knows?

In any event, Saul did his best as the leader of the free world.  He offered money, his oldest daughter, and a deal made for the Tea Party: no taxes for life! Still, no one would fight Goliath.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, David is quietly tending his sheep, just a little shepherd boy. His father called him and said, “David, I want you to go to the battle front and check on your brothers. Take them some food.” (Back in those days if you wanted to go to war you had to take your own lunch. That tended to make the wars a bit shorter than today.) David does as his father commands. At the battle front he of course hears Goliath’s challenge and he sees the soldiers of Israel tremble in fear. He cannot believe his eyes and he blurts out, “What’s the matter with you people? Have you forgotten how Moses defeated the Egyptian army?  How Joshua fought the battle of Jericho?  How Samson killed 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass?  (Evidently they had talk radio back in those days too.)

His brothers see the little pipsqueak and they are angry. They say to him, “What are you doing here? You are always following us, go back home where you belong. This is no place for little shepherd boys.” The king hears of this little troublemaker and sends for him. David says to Saul, “You have nothing to worry, Goliath is nothing more than a big windbag. I will fight the overstuffed baboon.” Saul laughs and says, “You are just a boy!” David responds, “He is no worse than anything I faced defending my sheep. The Lord who protects me from the paw of the lion and bear with protect me from the hand of this uncircumcised animal.” (Which, in ancient Israel, was like accusing an Oregon football player of running like a Beaver or tackling like a Husky.)

Saul shrugs his shoulders and says, “As you wish, it’s your life. But at least dress like a soldier. Take my armor and weapons.” But David can not pretend to be someone or something he is not.  It would be like Sluggo trying to dress like Duckie.  He declines the offer and takes only his shepherd’s staff, his sling, and a few stones from the nearby creek.

So get the picture.  The humble little hobbit goes up against the Dark Lord.  The scrappy cowboy faces off against the fearsome alien.  Young Luke Skywalker cowers in front of Darth Vader.  Its Katniss Everdeen against the older, more powerful career fighters.  We know how this story goes.  Justice and God are on the side of the underdog.  Victory is assured but we sit on the edge of our seats anyway.

Goliath, however, hasn’t seen that movie.  He sees the kid come out to meet him, and scoffs. “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but YOU will never hurt me. I will turn you into dog food.” David confidently replies, “You fight with your big, mighty weapons while I only have rocks, buy by God, I will cut you down to size. When I am through with you, you will be uglier than your mama.”

OK, so I made up that last part. What he did say, however, had to steam big Goliath just as much. David said to him, “The whole world will see today that Israel has a REAL God and that OUR God does not need swords and spears to win his battles, nor do I need anything but MY God to beat you.” So David may have not insulted Goliath’s mother, but he certainly was insulting Goliath’s god.

Giant and shepherd boy charge each other. David unleashes the slingshot that is heard around the Mediterranean world, Goliath falls with a stoned look, gratefully dead, (well, maybe not to Goliath). And the rest, as they say, including the entire Philistine army, is history. Man, I should have used this story last Sunday for Father’s Day! It confirms all of our male, macho images. “Ugh, me mighty David.  I’m going to go out and slay a giant!” Dauntless and brave and courageous we strive into battle against any enemy or foe who dares to threaten our families or homes.

You may have read about our excitement out back this week and the three-alarm fire we had across the alley.  Someone came into our office and reported the fire so I ran out my back door and saw the crowd gathering to watch.  Thick black smoke was billowing out where the staircase to the upstairs apartments used to be.  A man I recognized as one of our friends on the street came running up with a ladder.  I’ve no idea where he got it. 

“Is there someone up there,” I asked?  “Yeah,” he said, “he can’t find his cat and won’t leave without him.”  I see flames now breaking through the roof, heavy smoke coming out every window as he leans the ladder against the building.  Here’s my chance to be the hero of the day.  With great courage I shout, “I’ll watch for the fire truck while you go up and get him!”  Impressive, I know.  Fortunately, all lives were spared, including the cat’s found later wandering down the alley wondering what the fuss was about.

Do you remember the story of Kim Phillips several years ago, the 4th grader who wanted to play baseball? Her father took her to register with the Little League and of course they said, “We’re sorry, we don’t have a team for girls.” The father said, “That’s OK, she can play with the boys.” Sounds innocent enough--in fourth grade. The Little League official coldly replied, “Girls play softball, boys play baseball. Your daughter cannot ‘play with the boys.’ Rules are rules.” David had it easy. He only had to face a giant with a sword. The father of Kim Phillips had to face a bureaucrat with rules. So he did what any modern David would do, he took the Little League to court. And he won.

I have great admiration for Mr. Phillips. He went to bat for his daughter. Would that we all would do the same for our children. The greatest fear of any parent I think is that we might let our children down.  Nothing hurts like failing to live up to the image your children have of you.

In contrast to the father of Kim Phillips, consider our modern day heroes that receive multi-million dollar contracts to fight it out in the sport arenas of our country. A political cartoon summed up the too-common image: two little boys are trading football cards, one says to the other, “This one led the league last year in passing, rushing AND felonies.”

We took our kids to a major league baseball game when they were young, Padres v. Giants, Barry Bonds being the giant of the Giants.  He did not disappoint, hitting a home run in the 5th inning.  It wasn’t too long after that that the speculation about Bonds shifted from how long before he would be inducted into the baseball hall of fame to how long before he’d be indicted for steroid use.  Another sports hero bites the dust.

I received John Grisham’s new book, Calico Joe, for Father’s Day.  Great story of two baseball players, one a great hitter and the other a mediocre pitcher, only the pitcher also liked to hit and I don’t mean baseballs.  It is of course fiction but it rings too true from the stories we hear of athletes who make domestic violence their own private sport.

My son learned at an early age that it was not OK to hit his sister. Being younger and smaller, he found it difficult to win any battles with her and so would usually strike out in plain frustration and anger. Over and over again we emphasized to him to use his words to express his anger, not his fists. Finally one day he got it. Riding in the van, one in the back and the other in the middle seat the two kids got into a familiar argument. Finally, Patrick told Paulina that she made him mad. Judy, my wife, quickly congratulated Patrick for using his words instead of hitting. Patrick responded, “I had to use my words Mom, she is too far away to hit!”

The sad and disturbing fact today is that too many children today never learn not to hit. Too many homes accept violence as the norm for settling disputes. I loved Don Kahle’s column in the Register Guard last week.  His only wish for Father’s Day was that his generation would be the last of Kahle men to spank their children.  Too many children’s shows teach violence as the primary means for achieving your goals. So many children grow up in environments today where they are at risk that our schools have programs to teach them safe touch because they don’t learn it at home.  Almost 20 years ago we began a very intentional program here to “Reduce the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse” in the church because we believe that the safety of our children is among our top priorities.

The Children’s Defense Fund revealed a couple of years ago a very disturbing statistic. The delinquency rate for used car loans nationwide: three percent.  The delinquency rate for child support owed to mothers: 49%! In other words, it appears that fully one-half of all absentee fathers value their cars more than their children.

Just this Friday we saw the conclusion of two major cases of child abuse that made national news.  Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts in the Penn State case and Monsignor Lynn was convicted for protecting predator priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  And those are just the ones we hear about. Lane County authorities receive over 5,000 reports of child abuse and neglect every year.  Over 700 cases were substantiated last year and over 1,700 children were placed in foster care.

So last year I was recruited to join a comprehensive program called 90x30 to reduce child abuse in Lane County 90 percent by the year 2030, led by Jeff Todahl at the University of Oregon. Using a model known as Collective Impact developed by researchers at Stanford for addressing complex social issues, 90x30 seeks to build a comprehensive, community-wide approach to dramatically reduce those numbers and increase the well-being of our children.

Deadbeat dads, battered wives, felonious football players, pedophile coaches and predator priests--the news is full of negative images of men and fatherhood. It is almost as if fathers have ceased to be the giant-killers and have become instead the giants at whom stones are being hurled with increasing frequency and velocity. We treat these stories as a problem of a few bad apples but the numbers suggest the problem is much bigger. 

After several decades of heightened awareness on these issues with no discernible decrease in the statistics of abused and neglected children, it appears that we have a much deeper problem than a few individuals.  While the issues are complex, I would suggest to you that a major contributing factor is the fallacy of the macho, hero image that we men think we have to live up to.  Men want to be the mighty Goliath rather than the meek shepherd boy. The giant image of the father as the superior male needs no defending. It needs to fall from the weight of its own baggage, if not from the stones hurled by the living God.

This is my conviction. God is trying to send us men a message: to give up the macho role model, the right of men to control the lives, the bodies and the welfare of women and children. This image is at the root of injustice that is experience by so many women and children of this society.

Judy and I watched a rather disturbing movie on Friday called the Whistleblower about a Nebraskan police officer who uncovered a ring of sex traffickers while serving as a U.N. peace keeper in Bosnia.  What was most disturbing was the involvement of the peace keepers themselves, using the protection of diplomatic immunity to cover up their own crimes.  It was a classic David v. Goliath story, a heroic woman cop against a host of very bad men and without the happy ending.

Here is the challenge that I believe this ancient story of justice and victory for the little guy presents to us: We men in particular are not called to be giants, we are called to be shepherds, those who tend the sheep, seek out the lost and, if lucky, get to aid in the birthing process of the lambs. And now and then, yes now and then, to fend off a lion or a bear that threatens the little ones and maybe even a giant or two. But in all things to rely on a God who does not save by the sword or the spear, but who uses the implements of a shepherd, not the weapons of war. Who relies on wisdom, not brute strength, to resolve conflict.

Remember: Saul was chosen to be king, because the people wanted a king like other nations. And they got one like other nations, a king who ruled like other kings, who dressed like other kings, who fought like other kings, and when he was out-gunned, who was totally helpless like other kings. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. Whoever has the biggest sword may live the longest, but still dies violently in the end.

David, on the other hand, is the opposite of Saul. David could not even wear the king’s armor, could not carry the king’s sword. Nothing but a shepherd boy, powerless by Saul’s standards, powerless by Goliath’s standards. Note how many times he is dismissed by the story. His father treats him as nothing more than a delivery boy. His brothers treat him as a nuisance. King and giant alike laugh at his small presence. Every kid knows that feeling--not to be taken seriously because you are just a child. Just a child!   Remember the words of Jesus? “Unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Look at our children among us. Look at the innocence, the tenderness, the beauty of each child, made in the image of God. This is the image I believe God wants us to choose, not the warrior, but the shepherd boy, as our role model.

There is a particularly powerful message in this story for men to live by a different standard than the Sauls and Goliaths of this world:  To be a man who does not need to prove his masculinity by displays of power. A man who does not need weapons and armor to be strong. A man who understands Paul’s words: it is in our weakness that God’s power is made known. A man who is not afraid to say “I love you” to his children. A man who values his kids more than his cars. A man who seeks to uplift others before himself. A man who lives by love, not rule by force and domination. If you do that, fathers and mothers, you will never have to worry that you will fail to live up to the image your children have of you.

Lastly, men AND women, remember this: Children do not look up to giants, they look up at giants, in fear. They look up to father and mothers who love them. As parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers and friends, we can be giants, or we can be shepherds.

We are the ones who choose what role to play. Choose wisely.


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