Becoming Goliath

The following was originally preached as a sermon on September 20, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter.

I’ve talked before about being a football fan. Not just football; I also follow the Red Sox and in terms of that other kind of football, I’m a Liverpool fan, but football is the one sport that I’ll watch even if I have no stake in either of the teams that are playing.

And I have a process for determining who I’ll cheer for. I’m a lifelong Washington fan. My mom is from up here so I’ve also always followed the Pats. And I married a Buffalo Bills fan. But if they aren’t playing, then I pick the team I’ll cheer for with one question: who’s the underdog.

I love rooting for the underdog. I love the come-from-behind, against all expectations wins. But even if they lose, I love teams that play with heart, even when they are desperately overmatched.

I don’t think I’m alone in that. I hardly ever hear people say “I really want to root for the team that crushes everyone”. It’s like rooting for Darth Vader or Voldemort. The ones who have everything just do not inspire us. We love the little guy, against all odds, winning.

And that’s why we love the story of David and Goliath. Because it is the ultimate story of the triumph of the underdog.

Goliath, we’re told, was a giant. Maybe not a literal giant, but a huge warrior. He was a Philistine and the Philistines hated the Israelites and wanted to destroy them. And the two armies met and were at a sort of stand off with a no-man’s land in between.

And for forty days, every day twice a day, Goliath came out into the no-man’s land and challenged the Israelites to a fight. Send me one Israelite, he said, just one and I’ll fight him, winner takes all, to determine who wins this battle.

Well, no one is crazy enough to fight Goliath. No Israelite steps forward. So finally Saul, the king, who doesn’t know what to do, offers a reward to anyone willing to fight Goliath. But it’s a fool’s errand, and everyone knows it, so no one does it.

King David Playing the Harp by Gerard Van Honthorst

King David Playing the Harp by Gerard Van Honthorst

No one until David. And even Saul thinks he has lost his mind. He offers him his own armor, and David won’t even take it. Instead, David takes a sling shot, and five stones, and he walks off to face Goliath.

So, that’s remarkable enough. David is taking his very life into his hands, and the odds do not look good. And it’s important to note here that David wasn’t even a warrior. It’s not like the Israelites found their best guy and sent him up front.

Instead, he was the youngest kid in his family. An eighth son in a culture where seven sons were valued. He was like the kid who is always picked last in gym class. In fact, when God had sent Samuel to his house as a boy to find the one God had chosen to make king, David’s father hadn’t even bothered to bring him into the house. He just naturally figured it would be one of the seven older boys and he left David out tending the sheep instead because he was the ultimate underdog. And no one expected anything amazing to come out of him.

Have you ever been the underdog? Have you ever had people think or say that you weren’t up to something? Have you ever had your abilities doubted? I sure have. I think that we all have.

So when David was walking across the battle lines that day, into that no man’s zone, can you imagine what his friends and family and even the strangers who were watching him were thinking?

“He’s crazy.”

“He’s going to get himself killed.”

“He’s not even wearing armor?”

“I can’t bear to watch this.”

“He can’t be our best hope.”

It must have felt like watching a man walk to his own execution. And yet, he walked anyway, of his own will. And when he got to the place, when the fight was about to start, even Goliath was in disbelief. He was offended that the Israelites would send someone so small and helpless and young.

But David said this, “you come to me with weapons, but I come to you in God’s name. And God does not save by the sword or spear.”

This enraged Goliath and he rushed toward David, but before he could do anything, David pulled out a slingshot, and one of those five stones, and he slung it at Goliath. And the giant fell.

The giant fell.

Unbelievable. And this is how we remember David, as the man who made the giant fall. As the underdog who stood up for his people. As the little guy who overcame impossible odds with God.

It’s a great story. It’s like every come-from-behind football game, every Harry Potter book, and every Star Wars movie rolled into one. The good guy wins. The bad guy loses. And no one doubts the underdog again.

It would be great if that were how the story of David ended. A happy ending, for everyone except for Goliath. But that’s not the end of David’s story.

Have you ever wondered about what happens to the underdogs who stop giants?

In David’s case, life got pretty good. Saul, the king, made David a commander of his armies and David even married his daughter. And then, after the fall of Saul, David became the king himself. And he was such a mighty king that in the Gospels the writers make sure to tell us that Jesus himself was a descendant of David.

But that doesn’t mean he was perfect. And that doesn’t mean he always did the right thing. In fact, it wasn’t long after Goliath’s fall that David forgot what it was to be an underdog.
One day David saw a beautiful woman named Bathsheba on a rooftop. And he decided he wanted her to be his. The woman’s husband was a soldier, and so David used his power to get the man sent to the front of a battle line where he knew he would be killed. And he was, and David then married his wife.

It turns out the good guy wasn’t always a good guy after all.

And that’s important to remember, because most of us probably think of ourselves as the underdog. Most of us probably think of ourselves as the “good guy” fighting against the odds. And, chances are at times in our lives we have been. But David’s story reminds us that we aren’t always. And it reminds us that we have to ask ourselves from time to time, “Have I, in some ways, become the giant?”

That’s what David was to that man he sent to the front of battle. A giant, with the power to destroy him. And he did. And it wasn’t until his friend Nathan told him the brutal and honest truth about himself that he realized it, and regretted it. Because he realized he had become the same kind of Goliath that he had sought to destroy.

The reality is that we are all Davids. And we are all Goliaths. We are all, in at least some parts of our lives, underdogs. But we are all also people of great privilege and power.

I remember the first time that really struck me. I was 17, and I had just graduated from high school, and I went to Washington, DC for the summer to do an internship in the House of Representatives. And CSPAN was playing in the office where I worked, like it always was, and a member of Congress was speaking on the floor.

I can’t remember who it was, or what the issue was, or even what party they were, but all of that doesn’t matter. Because as I was half-listening, I heard something that would stick with me. The speaker quoted their favorite verse from Scripture, “to whom much is given, much is to be expected”.

Jesus said that. I had never heard it before, but I heard it then. And at that moment I knew that I had more privilege than I had ever realized before.

Here I was, getting ready to head off to a great college in the fall. And I was standing in a building literally down the street from where my father had grown up the son of a machinist. His family hadn’t been able to afford college, so he was at boot camp that summer after high school. But I was standing in an air conditioned office in Congress, not worried at all about how I would eat, or pay the rent, or take classes in the fall. And I heard those lines, and I realized in a deeper way than ever before how privileged I truly was.

Now, I think I’ve worked hard in my life. And I know what it is to be an underdog. But that realization I had that day has never left me.

I think most of us have more privilege than we realize. We have our Goliath moments when we think we are really David. But I think that when we see clearly how much we are given, and how much God has lifted us up, we can’t help but realize what we have. And if we are being faithful, we can’t help but ask, how can I use what I’ve been given?

I truly believe that character is revealed in what we choose to do with our power. Character is revealed in us becoming like David in a Goliath world, and stripping off our armor and standing in faith. And character is revealed in using our privilege and strength for the good of others.

I’ll close with a story about that. Today we are dedicating our new pulpit Bible. It’s been coming to us for a while now, and the Deacons received it a few months ago. And today, we are dedicating it to the memory of the man whose memorial funds allowed us to bring it here today: Donald Cole.

Don left this world in 2013, shortly before I joined you. But I’ve heard a lot of stories about him as a scholar and gentleman, and about the way he mentored his students at Phillips Exeter Academy. But this is my favorite.

Fifty years ago, when Don was a deacon here, he noticed something strange: all the deacons were men. And that didn’t sit right with him. And so this man asked an obvious question, “Why aren’t women deacons?” And he didn’t stop there. He used his influence in order to advocate for women to become deacons, and he ushered this church into a new error of inclusivity.

Fifty years later, it is not lost on me that I’m able to stand in this pulpit. And I give Donald Cole some of the credit for that. He was a giant, in the best sense of that word. And when you become a giant, you have two choices. You can use all the strength you have to strike others down. Or you can use it to lift them up. It’s clear which he chose.

We are all constantly choosing which David we are going to be. The one who fights giants. Or the one who becomes one without even realizing it. On those days when we are towering over the earth, may we remember what it is to stand alone on the front lines, willing to give of ourselves for a better future for others. And in that moment of remembering, may we look around, remember all that we have, and choose with our next move to lift up the world. Amen?

What God Sees, and What We Miss: Sermon for March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13

16:1 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”

16:2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’

16:3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.”

16:4 Samuel did what the LORD commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?”

16:5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

16:6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the LORD.”

16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

16:8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen any of these.”

16:11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

16:12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

When I was growing up, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest of all my siblings, by far. The youngest of all my cousins. Most of tine time I was even the youngest in my class. I’ve joked that growing up I had a permanent reservation at the children’s table.

I think that’s why I like this story so much. It is a quintessential youngest kid story. Samuel has been appointed by God to go and anoint the new king. And God tells Samuel that the king will come from among Jesse’s sons.

So Samuel goes to Jesse’s house and says, “I need to meet your sons”. And Jesse’s seven oldest sons are brought in. Now, it’s important to note that in these days seven was a very highlly valued number. Seven was the ideal number, the one that signified perfection. So when Jesse had seven sons, that was something to be especially proud of in his society.

But the thing is, Jesse also had an eighth son. David. David was the youngest, and the smallest, the unexpected one, and no one really expected much out of him. So when Samuel came to anoint the new king, they didn’t even bother bringing him into the house. They just left him out in the field to watch the sheep.

But when Samuel starts to look at Jesse’s sons, God makes it clear that none of them is the king. The first one comes, and Samuel thinks, this has to be the king. But it’s not. And then the second. And then the third. Again and again until none of David’s brothers has been chosen. And that’s when Samuel asks, “Are these all your sons?”

And Jesse tells him about David. And someone went out to the fields to get him, and as soon as Samuel sees David, he knows. This is the king.

I’ve always liked underdogs. When I watch football games I almost always root for the underdog. And this story is about an underdog. In fact, David wasn’t even really an underdog because he wasn’t even considered as a possibility. And yet, he was the only one for the job.

This story reminds me that sometimes we have preconceptions about how God works. We expect that God is going to choose someone who looks a certain way or acts a certain way to do God’s will. And when you think about it, why wouldn’t it be David’s brothers? Older, bigger, stronger…it just makes sense.

But God tells Samuel, “don’t look at their outward appearance…look at the heart.”

And David’s heart was strong. This is the one who would defeat Goliath with just a slingshot. The one who would reign as king. The one who is even an ancestor of Jesus.

What if Samuel had never asked Jesse, “are you sure you don’t have another son”? What if they had left David out in the field tending the sheep? What if Samuel had tried to settle for anything less than what God wanted? My guess is that the entire Biblical story would be very different.

It makes me ask, who are we leaving out in the fields today? Some of you read the story of the eight year old girl in Virginia who was pressured out of her Christian school because she was too much of a tomboy. The school told her grandparents that she couldn’t keep cutting her hair short, or wearing the clothes she wanted to wear. They told them that she had to learn to accept her place as a girl and to be more feminine. Thankfully, her grandparents decided that they weren’t going to subject her to that anymore, but they shouldn’t have ever been forced to make that choice.

This was a Christian school. This is a school that says they want to teach children what the Bible teaches. And that’s what this child of God has learned about Jesus…that he doesn’t like the way she dresses. And when you think about it, that is so different than what God tells Samuel in today’s Scripture: don’t look at the outward appearance…look at the heart.

But the thing is, things like this happen all of the time. Sometimes in ways as blatant as the child in Virginia, but other times in more subtle ways. We stop listening to someone’s voice. We dismiss it because they are too young or too new or too old or too…whatever it is that we can’t wrap our heads around. And slowly, we push them out into the fields.

Have you ever wondered who’s out there? And have you ever wondered what they can offer?

What are we missing out on? Whose voices are not being heard? Who is not sitting at our table? It’s a question we as the church have to ask ourselves every time we make a decision. Not just “what do we want or what do we need” but “what do the people who are outside the wall of this church need”?

Last year a family came to the church for help making ends meet. And we have a pastor’s discretionary fund which lets me help our neighbors who are having a hard time, on behalf of our whole church.

The family sent me a thank you email, and I wrote them back and said we were glad to do it. And I also said, “you know…you would always be welcome at our church if you ever want to attend. No pressure, but the invitation is there.”

The email back said, “Thank you…not every church lets just anyone come.”

It was heartbreaking. Because that’s what some people think that church is; a club that one has to be deserving enough to join. And even though you and I know that we welcome anyone who comes through that doors, the reality is some people truly do believe that that’s what church is about. They believe that the church puts people out in the fields, the same way David was left out in the fields.

You really can’t blame folks for believing that though. Because sometimes Christians are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting our message out there.

This is part of why we voted to become an Open and Affirming church. It’s part of why we decided to go on record as being the sort of place where we can honestly say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”. And, no, that won’t make the front page of the papers, or the news rotation on CNN, but it’s every bit as important a piece of news.

People need to hear that church is where you are not judged on worldly things, but you are welcomed because of your heart.

We all need to hear that. Because there’s another piece to this too. And that is, have you ever left yourselves out in the fields? Have you ever thought maybe there’s nothing about you that God can use? Maybe at some level you don’t feel like you really belong. Maybe you think your voice is not important.

But it is.

That’s especially true in church. Because church is not somewhere you go…it’s who you are. You are the church. And church is not a spectator sport. It requires more than one hour on Sunday morning. It requires your heart.

And so the questions for this church, the questions for every church, are this: Whose voices are we missing? And is one of them yours?

When they finally called for David, what do you think he was thinking? Do you think he was thinking “finally! They finally know what I am!”? Or maybe was he thinking, “there’s some mistake? It’s got to be one of my brothers”?

But it wasn’t a mistake. And in time, David came to know that.

God can do amazing things through you too. And God can do amazing things through the people we haven’t met yet. So, are you out in the fields? Do you know someone who is? It’s time to call them back. It’s time to come home.

And, by the way, there’s no children’s table back at home…the one God invited us to sit at has enough room for everyone. Even you. Amen.


God Will Pay for the Broken Windows: Mustard Seeds, David, and Dads – A sermon for June 17, 2012

I’ve never given a lot of thought, one way or another, to mustard. I can sort of take it or leave it. Usually I pass by it at picnics. And I’ve never thought much about where it comes from, or how it’s made. So when Jesus uses the example of a mustard seed in today’s passage, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.

Jesus is teaching the disciples and he talking about creating the kingdom of God. And he compares it to a mustard seed. Now, I didn’t know much about mustard seeds, but it turns out that when you plant them they are only about 1-2mm big. That’s tiny. But the seeds, when they take hold in good ground, grow into these huge bushes that are almost more like tress. They can be 20 feet tall.
Jesus use the example of that mustard seed to talk about growing the kingdom of God. Even the smallest things become great over time.
That’s reassuring to me. Have you ever heard the phrase “faith as big as a mustard seed?” It’s sometimes taken to mean that even the tiniest bit of faith can yield great things. I think that’s true. We sometimes believe that the only way to be a good Christian, and to live a great spiritual  life, is to have this solid,unshakeable, grand faith that never doubts.
But for most people, everyday is not like that. I’ve talked a lot about faith and doubt and how they’re not necessarily opposed before. I think that has something to do with this mustard seed. It is tiny, the way our faith feels sometimes, and yet it has all of the potential in it to grow into something great. Sometimes our faith feels tiny, and yet it too can grow, and yield great things. All it takes for that mustard seed to grow is little light, a little soil, a little rain. All it takes for us is the light of God, the soil of good community, and the waters of baptism.
I wish we in the church talked about the mustard seed a little more. It makes a for good story. It’s tenacious, it grabs hold and grows where it’s planted. It creates abundance where there was none. And what is most incredible is how unexpected it look at that tiny seed and you think, “How can anything great come from this?”
It’s a lot like that first story that Kenny read today. Now, I don’t usually preach on mor that one text. It was drilled into our heads in seminary not to do that. But you can’t read these two texts that the lectionary gives us today without seeing some resemblance. The tiniest seed. And the smallest son.
Samuel is called by God to find a new king of Israel. And God tells Samuel that king will be one of the sons of Jesse. So Samuel goes to Jesse’s town and asks Jesse to bring his sons. And the first one comes. And he’s the oldest and probably this big, strapping guy. He probably looks like a young king. And Samuel says to himself, “Ah, this must be him.”
But God says, “no…that’s not him.”
So Jesse gets his other sons. Samuel sees the second and third and fourth born sons and each time he thinks he must have found the guy. But God says no. Finally he gets through all seven sons and realizes the king isn’t there. And he asks Jesse, “Are all or your sons here?”
And Jesse says no. There’s another. The youngest. But he’s out in the fields tending the sheep.
That youngest was smaller than his brothers. The runt of the litter. He probably had held down the bunch all his life while he watched his brothers play in every game. They got to do everything. So much so that when the prophet came to town looking for a new king, they didn’t even bother bringing him in from the fields. It was just David, very one thought. Why would the important visitor want to see him?
But David was the chosen son. He was the mustard seed that unexpectedly grew into something great. The runt of the litter, the mustard seed, becomes a tree of life that extend generations down the line to Jesus himself. And he becomes king.
I’ll bet everyone was astonished that day. The father. The brothers. The folks in town. But I’ll bet no one was near as shocked as David. I’ll bet that after a life of being told his place was out in the fields he couldn’t believe that now he belonged on a throne.
But that’s okay. Because God did believe it. And God use that youngest son, that mustard seed, in the most unexpected way.
That’s worth remembering in our own lives. How many times have we felt about as small and insignificant as a mustard seed? How many times have we felt powerless in the face of a big, overwhelming world? How many times have we found ourselves on again sending out in the fields, counted out and feeling like the last in line?
For most of us, when it comes to the spiritual life, our greatest problem is not that we are not enough. For most of us it’s that we do not see the potential that God has already placed inside of us. Like the tiny mustard seed. Like the youngest son. We may not look like much. But God thinks otherwise.
But that doesn’t mean it always happens. Because sometimes we become so tied up in the thoughts of what we cannot do, that we fail to ever do the things we can. We are so caught up in how small and insignificant we feel, that we don’t plant ourselves in the sun and grow towards the light. We don’t take in the things that nourish us. And we don’t put down roots. We get lost in how unlikely it is that a little seed like us might turn out to be something great.
Likewise, when a new opportunity comes to town we might stay out there in the fields with the sheep while everyone else we think is more qualified or more prepared goes running. We might be so caught up in our identity as the last in line that we may never even know what God has prepared for us.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been so caught up in what you think you can’t do that you haven’t let God do the things that God can? Have you felt a tugging in your soul that only comes from God, and yet you’ve turned away for fear of failing?
We all have at some time. In our own lives, and even in our lives together. But how do we get beyond our fears and move forward?
The other day in deacons we were talking about a new idea for this church. We’ve kicked it around before but this time we were really trying to make it happen. We want to offer, once a month, a free meal for the community here at the church. Nothing major. Soup or chili with sandwiches and cookies, maybe.
There are a lot of reasons why. We want to introduce people to our church community. We want to provide a service for our neighbors who might be having trouble making ends meet right now. And, we want to provide fellowship for all of our community, no matter their economic situation. There are many reasons to do this, none of them bad.
But, be honest, how many of you are thinking that it sounds like a lot of work? How many are thinking already of the logistics. The cost of food. The coordination of volunteers. The right recipe for the chili. And where are we going to find enough tablecloths?
I get it. But I also know this. God blesses the mustard seed, and makes it grow. We’ve already seen that in our lives together. In the past two years, this church has grown by fifty percent. While other churches in communities like ours are shrinking and struggling to keep the doors open, we are going the other way. We have undertaken new programs and missions. We have gone through a flood and a merger and we have come out stronger. If we need any reassurance that God chooses the unexpected and makes it grow, look no further,
But that doesn’t mean we can rest. God is not growing us so that we can pay our bills and take care of ourselves. God is growing us for something. God is growing us for service. And we can do this. Whether it’s this new mission or something else entirely, we can do this.
And whether it’s something here in our life together, or something that only you are facing, you can do this too. The only trick is to not be so afraid, so overwhelmed, that you never claim God’s promise.
I’ll close with this. Today is, of course, Father’s Day. I was thinking of a story about my own dad. When I was about nine we were golfing. And we came to a hole that faced a group of houses. And as you teed off you hit right towards the houses. I became convinced that I was going to hit those houses with my first shot and break all the windows.
Now, they were 400 yards away. There was no way in the world I was going to hit those houses, but my dad couldn’t convince me of that. I said, “Dad im going to hit the house.”
He said, “no you’re not.”
I said, “It’s too close.”
He said, “Emily, hit the ball.”
I still didn’t want to, so finally he said this. “Swing away. Hit that ball as hard and as far as you can. And if you break the windows, I’ll pay for them.”
Scripture calls God our parent and at times calls God both a father and a mother. And there are times when I think of God like that. Because sometimes we are so afraid of whats never going to happen that we don’t even want to tee up. And I think of God as the father who just wants us to draw back, put our fears aside, and just give it our best shot. All of us David’s. All of us mustard seeds. God is calling us to the tee. It’s our shot. And we don’t have to be afraid. Because I’m pretty sure that so long as we take that shot, God will always pay for the broken windows. Amen.