The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: June 24, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Ok, so the first reading didn’t have to be as long as we read it today. About half of it was in brackets in the lectionary, meaning it was suggested but not required as the Old Testament scripture for the day. But it’s such a great story that we thought it deserved the whole thing, long as it may have been. I’ll try to preach fast to make up for it.
David & Goliath is one of the heroic stories in the king cycle, one that pops up in every Bible for children. How can kids resist it? How can any of us resist it, for that matter? A boy defeats a giant, with only a slingshot and some rocks against the giant’s powerful armor. It’s the ideal mismatch, the storyline of nearly every Disney film. It’s the American underdog who comes from behind and wins. It’s power to the little guy, sticking it to the man. It’s a metaphor that gets trotted out over and over again, every time someone small goes up against someone big.
And Goliath is really, really big. The sources differ a little on just how big – some say four cubits, which would be 6’6”; our text today says six cubits, which is 9’6”. 6’6” would be impressive; 9’6” is superhuman. With all that amazing armor described in such perfect detail, Goliath is superhuman, what one writer calls the WMD of the Philistines. And that is part of the point of the story: he’s more than an ordinary foe.
He is a symbol, a personification of the forces of chaos and violence in the world. Fighting him is fighting against evil itself.
And David, the young shepherd boy, the insignificant one anointed in secret by Samuel to be the next king – David kills him with one shot, neatly whacking him on the forehead. Not because he’s a good shot, but because he acts in the name of the Lord. God is with him and with the Israelites. David says at length that the whole purpose of his victory will be to show that God can do anything. As David tells it, this story is all about God, not David. David’s defeat of the giant is God’s defeat of all the forces of death and violence in the world.
David has faith that God will help him conquer Goliath, and so he is able to stand up to the giant without fear. None of those around him believe that – Saul tries to insist on David wearing all his armor, even though it doesn’t fit, and Goliath snorts with derision when David steps before him. We can only imagine what David’s brothers think as they watch the baby of the family march boldly out with his slingshot. But regardless of their doubts, David prevails. All of them are saved from the powerful Philistines because of David’s faith, and because of God’s actions. Their lack of faith doesn’t matter. It turns out that no one had to be afraid – God is able to prevail through this small, unlikely boy, even against a terrifying, enormous foe. No wonder this story holds such power.
Now hold that story, because there’s another great story in the gospel to add to it. Jesus calms the storm on the sea, a huge storm, life-threatening to a small boat. And again, it’s more than just the waves that Jesus is up against. The sea is the embodiment of chaos and death, the symbol of what can’t be controlled. Total annihilation.
So of course, in the boat with Jesus asleep and the winds howling around them, the disciples completely panic. They shake Jesus awake, crying, ‘Don’t you care that we’re perishing?’ Don’t you care about us? You must not, or you would be doing something now! But Jesus calmly rises and rebukes the wind, and the storm ceases. He stills the waves with only his word – no dramatic calling down of the hosts of heaven, no stirring soundtrack. And then, Don’t you have any faith? he asks the disciples. He knows they couldn’t believe in the midst of that storm. But he doesn’t make it a condition of saving them. He just does it, whether they believe he will or not. Having Jesus, this sleepy itinerant preacher, in their boat is more than enough to save them from the forces of chaos and evil. They didn’t have to be afraid.
Both of these are stories of God’s power against evil, God fighting against the forces of chaos and death. But they are also stories about how hard it is for us to believe in that power when we’re facing something terrifying – when we feel up against forces that are beyond our control, when we are frightened and losing hope. They’re stories about our doubts, and how God prevails despite it all. They’re just the stories we need.
I confess that I’ve given way to a stretch of real despair over our country, as news item after news item reports some new attack on decency and compassion in our society. The horrifying reality of immigrant families torn apart, families fleeing danger and coming to a land that always used to promise new hope and possibility. The deeply personal attacks on social media on people of all kinds, a viciousness that now has our own president in the lead. The laws and regulations made and remade to favor the already rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and struggling. The inertia on gun control as shooting after shooting takes innocent lives. The ugliest fringes of racism made mainstream, acceptable as just another opinion. And on and on and on. It’s not a country I feel proud to raise my children in right now. It’s all an unleashing of forces beyond my control, it seems, forces of chaos and destruction.
And I also confess to fear about my own family, as I watch our aging parents grow older with us too far away to be of much help. I struggle with overextending myself with work and other responsibilities and not being able to follow through on what I promise. I falter under the unrelenting attack of my anxiety over things large and small. And I know many of you who are also afraid, facing into illness, your own or a loved one’s; or facing into addiction, your own or a loved one’s; or just overwhelmed by the course of things in this world. There are so many forces beyond our control, and so many of them seem to be forces of evil and death. They’re like the giant we can’t face, the storm that overwhelms us.
We want to do the equivalent of layering a warrior’s heavy armor onto the young David, lining out for God in our prayers just what God should do to make things better. We can come up with all the right solutions to these ills. Destroy those evildoers, God; give them their comeuppance. Take away the suffering and make everything better. Fix this. Those of you reading the psalms this summer know what this looks like – the psalmist doesn’t hold anything back, asking God to thwart the wicked in detailed and bloody ways. And yet God chooses to act through what is weak and insignificant, not always what is mighty and powerful. God is incarnate in a vulnerable baby, who grows up to be crucified. God is the power of good who is stronger than evil; God fights against the forces of chaos and death. Not always in the ways we would devise. Not always in the ways we can readily see. And yet the peace that passes all understanding that comes upon us sometimes is a sign of it. The unexpected change in a situation that seemed intractable tells of it. The flashes of goodness in times of darkness bear witness to it: God is at work.
Whatever we might fear, God can be trusted to save us from it – even when we don’t feel very trusting of God. God’s strength is stronger than our weakness – God’s weakness is even stronger than our strength. Whether we’re able to believe in God’s loving power to save or not, God can do more than we can ask or imagine. God is stronger than our fears, more powerful than the worst we can imagine. When we can’t get past what we’re afraid of – whether death itself, or change, or the loss of something or someone we love, whatever it is – we pray to God that simple prayer: help. Free me from these fears, God – help me through this. And God does answer, with might and with a still small voice and with the love of other people around us. Goodness is real; the light shines. Peace, says Jesus. Be still.