Saturday, January 17, 2015

Bringing Down Goliath

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 29, 2006

It is said that a mannamed Abraham Freedman worked in the Garment District of New York most of his life. At the age of 60, he had had enough, and had saved enough to accomplish his lifelong dream of moving to Israel. He settled in the Valley of Elah, not far from the place where the great battle between David and Goliath is said to have taken place.
Freedman, it seems, was also an amateur archeologist, and one day while out digging in his garden, he unearthed a mummified body. Immediately, he contacted the Department of Archeology in Tel Aviv. He told them that, not only had he found a mummy, but that the man in question had died around 1000 BCE, of a heart attack.
The archeologists in Tel Aviv were thrilled by Freedman’s discovery, of course. But how, they asked, could he be so sure of the mummy’s age—and even more, of how the man had died? “Because,” Abe replied, “the mummy had a slip of paper in his hand that said, ‘Thirty gold shekels on Goliath’.”
If there were bets being collected on that day in ancient Palestine, I’m sure that more than a few lost their shirts! The pundits sure got it wrong that time.
The story of David and Goliath is the ultimate story of the underdog confounding the odds and pulling out a victory. Not even Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader compares. Not even the 2004 Red Sox beating the Yankees, and making it to the World Series. Not even the Patriots winning two Super Bowls in a row (if they had made it this year—that might have been close—but it wasn’t meant to be).
No, we love the story of David and Goliath because of its simplicity and its clarity. There are no doubts about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad one. There are no doubts about what a mismatch this is: Goliath is almost ten feet tall, we are told. He’s armed to the teeth—the head of his spear alone weighed 20 pounds. His undergarment was laced with rings of bronze, and weighed 175 pounds. He had a separate servant who went out before him, just to carry his shield.
Against this Goliath of a man—we have David. A good looking young man, we are told: “swarthy and handsome”. But not especially physically prepossessing; not a large or a tall man, certainly. He’s significantly shorter in stature than his king, Saul. He’s the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons—and youngest children are always the runts of the litter, right? He’s a sensitive child, too—a musician, a poet, not a soldier; he’s home watching over the flocks, while the other brothers are away at war. He only happens to be at the battlefield that day because his father has sent him to bring some refreshments to his brothers, some food from home.
But David shows up at the field that day, and when no one else in the Iaraelite army will face Goliath—Goliath who has been taunting them for 40 days—“Come on, send your best guy against me, one on one, man to man. Bring ‘em on!”—David steps forward and volunteers. He goes before Saul, and begs him, “Come on, King, let me fight the giant. Give me a chance.” He tells him how brave he is—about how he would rescue his lambs right out of the mouths of marauding lions. “I would catch it by the jaw,” he saws of the lion, “strike it down, and kill it.”
Saul sees that this David is brave, certainly; maybe he’s a little foolhardy, too. But, what the heck, Saul thinks; so he decides to give David a chance. “Go,” he says to him, “and may the Lord go with you!”
So David, the runt of the litter, is going to face the giant Goliath, the giant who has been taunting the Israelites for forty days, and upon the outcome of their battle rests the future of these two armies and these two peoples.
Saul offers David his own coat of armor (gee thanks, Saul!), and the result is almost slapstick: “Saul clothed David with his armor,” we are told, “He put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail.” David then straps Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tries to walk. But he can’t. The armor’s too big; it doesn’t fit. The helmet keeps slipping over his head. This isn’t going to work, David decides. So he removes Saul’s armor, and takes up only his own staff, and then chooses five smooth stones from the stream (five stones in case Goliath’s four brothers come after him too). He puts them in his pouch; picks up his slingshot; and goes forward to meet the Philistine.
When Goliath sees David before him, he’s not exactly quaking in his size 24 extra-wide Reeboks. He’s even kind of insulted that they’ve sent this ruddy young guy out to face him: “When the Philistine looked and saw David he disdained him,” the biblical account says, Then, when Goliath sees the staff David is carrying, he asks, “Hey, what’s with the stick? Do you think I’m a dog or something?” Then, after the combatants trade a few insults with each other (all in the names of their own gods, of course), the battle is engaged: “Then the Philistine drew nearer to meet David”…
So David runs—toward Goliath. He puts his hand in the bag, takes out a stone, slings it, and the rest is history. Boink. He hits Goliath with the rock right between the eyes. And Goliath proves the saying—maybe even coins it—“The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
It’s a great story. And we love it because of its clarity and straightforwardness. We cheer all the louder because often, we know, this isn’t the way things in life go. Usually, perhaps, there’s a different outcome. What if David had lost? The story would have become the biggest balloon-popper of all time. If one of our kids seemed a little too confident about something—or if someone at work had some hair-brained scheme for taking on the powers that be, we’d probably say, “Who do you think you are—David? Look at what happened to him. Squoosh! No more uppity shepherd boy. You better mind your p’s and q’s.”
If life, as it really is, the Davids often do get squooshed. As another preacher has put it: “Life can be rich and meaningful and joyful. It can be glorious. However, life can also be vicious and meaningless and painful. It can be very ugly.”
We are called out to fight giants all the time. And there is no guarantee that we’re going to succeed.
But because of this story—and all of the countless underdog versus giant stories that have come in its wake—we know, whatever the odds against us, that we might succeed. Whatever our station in life, we identify with David. We cheer when he brings down Goliath. This epic might even inspire us to go on hoping; to persevere at something we’re doing; to keep on working for a better world; and face those giants we’re called upon to face.
What kinds of giants?
Giants of grief.
Giants of illness.
Giants of anger.
Giants of hopes deferred or dreams shattered or relationships that have come crashing down.
Giants of naysayers who tell you, “Who are you to think you can do this? That won’t work. You ought to do this. You should be doing that. You can’t succeed.”
Giants of self doubt.
Giants of loneliness. Giants of depression. Giants of despair. Giants of fear.
There are lots of giants out there. Plenty for all of us to face, and we all face our share. How do we, like David, find what it takes to face them?
First of all, he calls out the giant’s name. He calls Goliath by name. He names his tormentor, his fear. Psychologists tell us that until we name a problem, we’ll never be able to deal with it. That’s what David does. Like Harry Potter after him. Nobody will speak Voldemort’s name. Only Harry will. Only Harry will have what it takes to engage the evil one in battle.
David names his enemy, and that shrinks him down to size. “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine who defies the armies of Israel, the living God?” he asks. That puts all of Goliath’s might and breadth and girth and over-blown weaponry in perspective. What is a giant, after all, but a puny runt who is four feet sixty-six inches tall?
When David sees his enemy clearly—through the eyes of history; through the eyes of justice; from the perspective of the Big Picture—he’s able to face him directly. He’s able then to run toward him, and engage him in battle, with just himself, and his slingshot, and those five smooth stones:
His first stone is commitment. David meets his responsibilities. He carefully and caringly cares for his sheep. When his father asks him to take the provisions to his brothers, he does so—but first, he “leaves his sheep with a keeper,” we are told. He doesn’t just leave them and run off to join the battle, and find glory for himself. He meets his first responsibility before going on to his second. He doesn’t shirk from the widening circle of responsibility, but he knows that the higher calling can only grow out of the lower, and can only be answered if the lower is cared for.
Like Lao Tzu, 400 years later and half a world away, he knows that, if there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations, and if there is to be peace in the nation, there must be peace in the home and in the heart.
David’s second stone is courage. Not foolhardy bravado (though we might take it for that at first glance). But remember: David has risked his life before, rescuing his sheep from the very jaws of the lions. He knows what is within him, and he knows he is up to the challenge. If sufficient inner fortitude was there to save a single lamb, he thinks, I know I have it within me now if the future of my people is at stake.
David is fearless; not because he thinks he is indestructible, or beyond suffering, but because he knows there is something indestructible imbedded in the depths of his soul, and in the heart of creation. This is the same David who will years later, we are told, write the immortal words: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
David’s third stone is his power of discernment and wisdom. He sizes up the situation, and knows what he needs to do to bring Goliath down. He sees where Goliath’s Achilles’ forehead is (to mangle a couple of ancient allusions). He doesn’t say, “I need a spear bigger than Goliath’s. I need a helmet larger than his. I need to develop a more deadly weapon of giant destruction than already exists.”
No, David takes a moment to discern where his enemy’s weaknesses lie, and how to exploit them, and what he needs to do. Then, his pathway becomes as clear as day to him, and he can’t wait for the fight. But he doesn’t take action until he has thought things through first. Then he sees the possibilities of the largest forehead in the world looming before him. As one commentator has put it, “Everybody else thought Goliath was too big to fight. David thought he was too big to miss.”
David’s fourth stone was his integrity. He knew who he was; he was comfortable in his own skin; for that reason, he knew he could never be comfortable in someone else’s armor—even a king’s. He knew he couldn’t face the giant as a sort of “Saul lite”. It would have been absurd even for him to try. He looked ridiculous in the king’s armor. He could barely life the sword. He kept tripping when he tried to walk.
So David says, “Enough! I’ll do it my way.” He knew that his sling shot—and those five stones—along with the courage and commitment and wisdom they represented would be enough. Gandhi didn’t say, “We will build a fleet larger than England’s and defeat the British that way.” It would have been absurd. Walesa and Havel didn’t say, “We’ll raise an army and topple Soviet Communism by force of arms.” No; they knew they’d be squooshed immediately. They relied on the force of morality and the power of their own integrity. Sometimes, it’s a funny thing how history works, and in matters of power, less can become more, seemingly overnight.
Finally, David’s fifth stone was his faith. He knew that his God was on his side, and armed with that, no power in the world could defeat him. “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion, and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of the Philistine.” He knew his faith would save him.
Now, it is certainly a very dangerous thing to believe that God is on our side. Whatever our leaders tell us, usually in history, the situation is not nearly as clear cut as it was with David and Goliath, and it’s not always that easy to tell good guys (or girls) from bad. History (like life) is messy sometimes.
So a sixth stone we might want to have before we throw around our power (though I’m not sure David had it) is humility. As Lincoln said, more important than believing God is on our side, is trying to be on the side of God.
And that side bends slowly but surely toward justice. That side holds a preferential option toward the poor and the oppressed and the powerless. That side does not ask “How much money do you have?”, but “How have you helped those who do not have?”
It is this spirit which “gave Jesus the courage to ride into Jerusalem knowing that the authorities would come after him. It was the same thing that gave Dietrich Bonhoeffer the will to stand up against Hitler and the Nazis. It was the same thing that gave Mother Theresa the determination to keep ministering to the dying of Calcutta despite there being an endless stream of them. It was the same thing that gave Martin Luther King, Jr. the courage to continue leading the Civil Rights Movement despite the mounting death threats. Each of these people was able to act boldly because of their faith in God. They did not simply rely on their own resources. They turned to a power beyond themselves to infuse them with the courage they needed to face their giants.” [Greg Jones]
St. Augustine once said, “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”
Wonders still this old world of ours shall witness. But it will witness only those wonders we are bold and daring enough to bring about with our hands and hearts and imagination and wisdom engaged.
We all have our own giants to face. With the help and grace of God, may we find within ourselves the commitment, and courage, and discernment, and faith, and hope we will need to face them.
There are still a lot of Goliaths that need bringing down in this world of ours. May we join with men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit the world over to bring them down, one by one.

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