Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Saga of David and Our National Story

Sermon notes for Proper 9B (7/5/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

 “David was 30 years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for forty years. … David occupied the stronghold, and named it the City of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord of hosts was with him.” (2 Samuel 5:4, 9-10).

There is something complete about these words from the story of David in Second Samuel – not complete in the sense that everything is over but in the sense that something strong and purposeful and lasing is underway. The reading is in the form of summation: the “long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” is over and the stronghold of Zion is conquered, renamed the city of David. It is a statement of summation and it is also a statement of consummation. “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord of hosts was with him.” These words, clearly written well after David’s death, claim a divine sanction on David’s greatness, a sort of early divine right of kings. But as a summation and as a consummation, these verses leave out, of course, much more than they contain. Indeed, the story of David, stretching as it does through so chapters of First and Second Samuel – playing such a mighty role in the ethos of Israel – is far more human story, far more horrible and far more glorious than this scrap of royal remembrance.


In the 17th century oil painting by Italian master Forabosco that relates the story of David Goliath, the artist depicts David as a boy, a simple shepherd, youngest of Jesse’s sons. In the painting, David has just killed Goliath, the Philistine giant, with his simple slingshot. The giant’s head has been cut off and David is carrying that monstrously huge head on one shoulder, holding it in place with both hands. David embodies a certain grace; perhaps it’s the grace of youth and innocence. On the other hand, that head with its eyes closed embodies death, a great red bruise visible where he was struck by David’s fatal stone.

What is most striking to me about this painting, though, is the expression on young David’s face. Where one might expect a visage of exuberant triumph, instead David appears almost lost in thought. Perhaps it the weight of the head – the weight of death – that bears upon David. But then there appears a complete lack of awareness of what he has just accomplished, the remarkable success by which a simple shepherd defeated the great warrior….the success that will bring an end his simple shepherd’s life.

David did what Saul’s army could not and what his most skilled fighters would not. David killed the enemy, Goliath of Gath. And in doing so, he did not rely on the finest armor and weapons, but killed the giant with a stone from a slingshot. The Philistine giant looked powerful, but proved to be weak. David the shepherd boy looked weak, but proved to be powerful. And scripture all but shouts at us that God is at work in the powerful weakness of young David.

David’s record as king would turn out to be decidedly mixed. Sometimes he discerned and did what is right while at other times he abused his power and committed heinous crimes. And so, set alongside his glorious triumph over Goliath is the scandal of Bathsheba and Uriah. David had become smitten with Bathsheba, a woman whom he saw bathing from his roof. David slept with Bathsheba and she became pregnant. The problem was that Bathsheba was already married to one of David’s loyal lieutenants. So David sent for his general, Joab, and arranged to have Uriah sent to a place of fierce fighting where he would be abandoned, falling to his enemies. Essentially, David murdered Uriah (though not with his own hands) so that he could be with Bathsheba. If God was with David, as today’s reading claims, then at times God must have been present with him in judgment.


The saga of David is one of the great stories in biblical literature. He is an essential character in the biblical narrative, even up to Jesus. He is also a figure who should haunt western culture and western politics. This weekend, as we celebrate our national independence, we would do well to remember that this nation, the United States, has had its share of Goliath moments and its share of Uriah moments.

Sometimes our weakness has been revealed as strength. Sometimes our strength has been revealed as weakness. Now, if we ask God to bless our nation, as we most certainly should, then we must remember that this blessing comes as both glory and judgment. The living God is nobody’s national mascot but has required of us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Yes, our country has had its Uriah moments when, blinded by power or stupefied by arrogance, we have squandered opportunity given and betrayed trust that was earned. We offended God who sent his prophets to speak truth against lies.

Yes, our country has had its Goliath moments when, in weakness that refuses to be afraid or through truth that refuses to be quieted, we have toppled giants. We have followed the commands of love and justice to see God’s reign, tangibly present.

And yes, because we are not monolithic, sometimes the Goliath moment and the Uriah moment have been one. We, the people, have shown simultaneously both the worst that is in us, and the best. We behave as David did. It is, thus, understandable if our national countenance, like Forabosco’s portrait of David, is sometimes perplexed – even in moments of victory for our national life is full of perplexities. We killed one Goliath at the time of the Revolution, thousands of young Davids holding fast on Bunker Hill and encamped at Valley Forge. But it has been, perhaps inevitably, a mottled saga ever since.

But today we won’t focus on the Uriah moments. Today we won’t focus on the Uriah moments, except as background for when one more Goliath or another has been slain. Today we won’t focus on the Uriah moments, except that we remember and pray for our black sisters and brothers whose churches are still burning across this country. Today we won’t focus on the Uriah moments, except as foreground to the prophets calling for the slaying of one more Goliath or another

Instead, today let’s consider some of the Goliath moments out of countless many that have been woven into the fabric of our national story, occasions when we have found strength to slay the giant.


Sojourner Truth
Goliath can be despair and we need a David to hurl a stone of hope. In 1850 at Faniel Hall in Boston, the statesman Frederick Douglass was speaking to an anti-slavery crowd. As his address went on, Douglass became agitated and appeared visibly despairing. Finally, he reached his end, saying that he saw no little hope and barely even the possibility of freedom, justice, and peace for people of African descent.

In the first row of the assembly hall was Isabella, a woman who knew the evils of slavery from personal experience. With a deep, commanding voice she spoke, “Frederick, is God dead?"

But Isabella already knew the answer. God wasn’t dead, for it was God that called Isabella north along the underground railway, fleeing southern slavery. It was God that called her east to Connecticut, where she stopped at a Quaker farm for a drink. The woman at the farm asked, “What is your name?” “I am Sojourner.” The woman continued, “And what is your last name?” Recalling all of her masters, Isabella had a thought, “The only master I have now is God, and His name is Truth.” Sojourner Truth would slay the Goliath of despair in Frederick Douglass that day.

Mother Jones
Goliath can be weariness and we need a David to hurl a stone of solidarity. An unfinished chapter in American history, the labor movement continues its struggles against oppression, abuse, and unfairness. In the 1890s, a most unlikely David arose in the person of a poor Irish widow. Some in positions of power spoke her name with contempt, but she became a mother to a great many who labored in the dark coal mines and the dank mills, often 65 hours every week in very oppressive conditions.

She served as an organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers where her fiery words speaking truth to power would compel workers to action. Her strength of character, conviction, and courage were exemplified once in Colorado, where she approached a machine gun poised to open fire on a line of workers demanding fair pay. She placed her hand on the barrel of the gun, turned it to the ground, and walked on by.

During a congressional hearing, a Senator asked her, for the record, where she lived. Her only and ever response, “My address is wherever there is a fight against oppression.” Mother Jones helped to slay the Goliath of weariness by standing in solidarity wherever oppression might be found.

Emma Lazarus
Goliath can be a fear of strangers and David hurls a stone of acceptance and welcome. It was a great day in 1903 when these words of invitation were affixed to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor for all the world to hear:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Penned in 1883 by Emma Lazarus the words on the statue are meant to be spoken by the Mother of Exiles, the name given by Emma to Lady Liberty. They are words of welcome to the weak and rejected, words of invitation to grow strong in a commonwealth made great by the nobility of our character.

No matter how our families came here, as mine did in various ways: aboard an English frigate in 1620 fleeing the tax man and debtor’s prison; aboard a luxury liner in the 1930s fleeing Nazi Austria; stowed away on a Italian merchant vessel in 1923 just to jump ship in New York harbor for fear of being turned away; or, actually being turned away only to be welcomed in Montreal, eventually finding a way to Cleveland.

No matter: whether it was aboard slave ships or jumbo jets; across oceans or rivers; by invitation, force, or necessity, the invitation is meant for us and our children. And, I dare say, it is a call that we are to offer such an invitation to others as well. Each new arrival is not a threat, but comes bearing gifts meant to build up our common life. Emma Lazarus helped to slay the Goliath of fear with her words of welcome that remain unwavering and must remain unchanged.

Our national life has had its Uriah moments, reasons for honest repentance. But we have had Goliath moments as well, causes for glory and grace, celebration and joy, barbecues and fireworks.
God is with us, as God is with all nations and peoples of the earth. The choice remains ours, however, whether we will offer God Uriah moments to judge, or Goliath moments to bless. As for me, I will choose Goliath moments when strength arises out of weakness, despair gives way to hope, weariness is replaced by solidarity, and fear dissolves in the face of acceptance and welcome

 The Goliath moments are still to come in our future. Amen.

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