Faith in a world of Grown-up Fear

June 21, 2015

Bible Text: 1 Samuel 17 |

It's a grievous thing today, to stand here and preach the story of David and Goliath - a story that triumphs in the slaughter of one's enemy.

It's a grievous thing today to know that our holy book contains so much bloodshed.

It's a grievous thing today to be human in this world, when humanity has proven itself once again to be a disciple of fear and hatred and violence.

But it is an honor today to stand as a minister in Christ's church, because we stand beside our sister church, Emmanuel AME in Charleston, who has revealed the gospel with such dignity and authority. In innocence they welcomed their murderer to their Bible study. And when he turned their hospitality to evil, they turned to him with Christ: We forgive you. We forgive you. Though every fiber of my being is in pain, we forgive you.

When asked what he would preach this day, Carey Anderson, pastor of First AME, Seattle replied with confidence, "We will keep our foundation of hope and love alive."

And so today in our country, the African Methodist Episcopal Church shines as light in the darkness, because in the interiority of their overwhelming grief they are choosing to live the gospel in a very public way.

So what on earth do David and Goliath have to say to us today in the face of racism and murder? On the surface you might say, "nothing." After all, it's a story that seems to celebrate the violence between two ancient tribes. Are the Philistines and the Israelites really so very different from each other than Europeans and Africans? or Europeans and Native Americans? No, I don't think so. So why look to David and Goliath to teach us about living a Christ-like life?

Well, to begin with, the point of this story is not that faith in your God will allow you successfully to kill your enemy. In fact, the story isn't really about Goliath at all. He's simply a brutish caricature we instinctively despise because he’s like so many caricatures from stories we know. He’s Brutus from Popeye. He’s Moe from Calvin and Hobbes. He’s the big, formidable brute of all childhood fear, without depth or reason.

Yes, Goliath plays a significant role in the story. But the central point of this story is not about the weak taking on the mighty. The real drama – the real, human, complex drama – is the story that unfolds between David and his fellow Israelites. It is the story of an adult fear - that knows the world and has learned to tremble appropriately before it - confronted by a youthful, innocent faith that still believes that God is more real than our fears.

The Israelites, the grown men – King Saul, the soldiers, David’s brothers – all of them are described in terms of their fear and anxiety.

Verse 11:         When Saul and all Israel heard the words of the Philistine,    they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

Verse 24:         All the Israelites, when they saw the man, fled from him and were very much afraid.

Verse 28:         David’s brother Eliab treats him with scorn and derision. But beneath the bluster, what’s obvious is his anxiety and embarrassment – that his little brother found him cowering before the enemy.

Goliath is a towering beast. If we are to read the story literally, he’s nine feet tall and wearing 125 pounds of armor. But the point is, Goliath is all of our adult fears. Goliath is the days of waiting for the test results from your doctor. Goliath is our children or grandchildren at war in the Middle East, or at war with drugs and alcohol. Goliath is our credit card debt. And every morning when we awake, these Goliaths stride onto the battle field of our day, to mock us and taunt us, and to laugh at our inability to take them on.

Yes, we adults are very familiar with Goliath. Like King Saul, we’re afraid that we don’t have what it takes to lead our families or communities during times of crisis. Like the soldiers, we run away from Goliath, pretending the debt's not there. Yet all the while it grows, and our fear along with it. Like Eliab, we treat the people around us badly. We find someone else to mock or to blame to conceal our own self-loathing and shame. Yes, we’ve grown up and developed our grown-up sensibilities about this threatening world we live in. But all we’ve done is learn to be afraid.

Perhaps that is why Jesus says we must become like children if we want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, because children haven't yet bought into our grown-up fears. They still delight in the glory of this world they've entered, embracing the obvious rightness of the Kingdom of God: where love and generosity, trust, justice and mercy reign. And at the center of it all is God.

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).

And so comes David, traipsing onto the battlefield with a "God-dominated imagination.”[1] He can't believe what he encounters in these men. Why on earth should they tremble before this uncircumcised Philistine? Is God “God” or not? David’s acting like a child, who doesn’t know any better.

Or... he’s acting like a child of God, the only one in that valley who sees reality as it is.

You know how the story goes from there: the five smooth stones, the fling of his sling, and down comes the mighty giant.

But what do we do with this information? How do we adults, with our grown-up knowledge of this world, foster a child-like faith? Do we take a class? Read a book? No, that’s nonsense. That’s just more information – which is, of course, a very “adult” solution.

To become childlike in this way requires actually choosing to live in our daily lives as if the Kingdom of God were the true reality and we the participants with God, living out that truth – as if loving the “least of these” is the secret of the Kingdom of God; as if forgiveness is the true path of freedom; as if giving were more blessed than receiving.

In short: love the poor, forgive those who hurt you, give your things and your time away. Loiter within your community with a heart poised to see and to love. Simply do it, and see if the kingdom of heaven doesn’t reveal itself to you. I tell you, I listened this week to the voices of those family members from Emmanuel church, forgiving Dylan Roof for slaughtering their children. And I wept. For beyond their extraordinary pain, they chose a reality more true than evil. They chose the love that wins.

So let's talk about the Goliath of racism in America. I know that this topic has become embroiled in partisan politics. But beyond that, this is a Kingdom of God issue because people are suffering in our country. It is a moral and ethical issue, that I believe God cares about, and calls us to care about as well.

Now to be clear, I am not saying that I have observed racist behavior at St. John's. Because I haven't. Nor am I saying that I have some easy, Christian answer to the problem. Because I don't. And it is hard in matters of race to talk about loving our neighbors when there are hardly any people of color in our neighborhood.

But we are Americans, and America - as a nation - is still languishing in these matters, most notably with the descendants of those who were enslaved and the Native Americans whose culture and people were almost completely decimated. Amazingly though, the national dialogue seems to be getting hung up on whether there is problem that we, as a nation, need to care about. Now, it well may be that many of us can honestly say, I have not experienced a race problem, which is true. But another way of saying that is, I really don't have any idea of what it means to be black in America. But if our black brothers and sisters tell us there is a problem, then we probably ought to listen to them. Because that's been part of the problem all along - one group determining for another what they will experience and then how they should interpret it.

And I do think that listening is essential. Listen with compassionate hearts to what is being said. Listen with ears that seek understanding. Choose to read contemporary black authors who can help us to see and feel what it means to be an African American in this generation. Compassion is the first step. That is what Jesus showed us. What is the incarnation? if not God first seeing his hurting creation with tenderness and understanding, and then saying, I must  join them.

I wonder if racism in America is like water poured into a big bucket of sand. At first the surface is saturated; everyone can see the water. But then it trickles down, bit by bit. After time, the surface becomes dry again. But the water's still there. The stain of slavery and exploitation hasn't just evaporated. To the contrary, it's sunk more deeply into the American psyche, generation after generation.

But because we haven't enslaved anyone, or slaughtered any Indians, and because we're not suffering from racism, we can deny the significance of its presence or pass the blame with simplistic explanations. But isn't it enough simply to recognize that our brothers and sisters are suffering in this country? that Native Americans are barely surviving? Isn't it enough to see our neighbors in distress and to align ourselves with the heart of Christ who says, Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest"?

I suspect it is the Goliath of fear that makes our nation unwilling to admit the complex heritage of slavery and genocide. The problem is too big and the price of reparation too high to fathom. We have an adult fear that has calculated the threat of admitting the problem and in our adult wisdom we have deemed the problem untouchable. So we isolate each incident as the work of a particular lunatic, or a particular community who should behave better than they do, refusing to acknowledge the generational sickness that has infected our country.

But we are called to a childlike faith that is not afraid of Goliath - is not afraid to admit to what is obviously before us - because the kingdom of heaven is larger than racism. And we belong to that kingdom, a kingdom whose power we have already witnessed this week through the forgiving voices of Emanuel Church. Imagine what could happen if the big, broad church in America were able to lead this nation in facing the legacy of our national sin, acknowledging both the disadvantages and privileges that have been handed down the through the generations, repenting where we have been in error, forgiving where we have been sinned against, and breathing the fresh air of the Holy Spirit, blowing amongst us and through us. Imagine how we might see the Kingdom of God on earth as it is heaven.

[1] Eugene Peterson, First and Second Samuel

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