This summer, our Faith and Film series is all about superheroes. I was never a huge fan of superheroes growing up. I liked Superman and Batman nominally, sported a pair of Wonder Woman Underoos as a kid, but in general wasn’t really into superheroes and certainly not into comic books. But a few years ago, I stumbled into the film, The Avengers, and found myself curious about the back stories of all these superheroes. That began a deep dive into multiple films, many of which you can see this summer. The first one, Captain America, is a classic story of the little guy overcoming. Steve Rogers, a literal little guy with a bad case of asthma, wants to enlist in the US Army during World War II so badly, but his health and height disqualify him. Impressed by his tenacity, Steve gets recruited into an experimental program to be medically turned into a Super Soldier. There begins his journey of the little man taking on the big man of Nazi Germany.
Most of us enjoy a good story of the little man overcoming. That’s why the story of David and Goliath is so epic in our memory. This little kid, totally untrained, completely unarmed (with the exception of some rocks and a sling), and certainly the underdog to the 9 feet 6 inches[i] of Goliath, David is the prototypical little man. And yet, with the entire Philistine army staring them down, with a giant taunting them for forty days, and with the ominous threat of defeat, no one else is willing to step forward. The giant, covered in over 126 pounds of armor, and holding huge weapons like the spear whose iron head weighs fifteen pounds[ii], utilizes his own brand of psychological warfare.[iii] In the end, that dry river bed between the two armies is not just a valley of separation, but a “chasm of fear.”[iv] And yet, somehow, the teenage shepherd boy steps forward to fight – the little man, the underdog, makes his move.
But unlike a typical underdog, David does not need science, or a lucky break, or some trick. What David needs has nothing to do with him. Instead, what he needs is God. No one in the Israeli camp has mentioned God at this point in the story. Saul has tried to overcome the chasm of fear with the promise of riches and even his own daughter’s hand in marriage. And yet, the entire army of Israel can only see how mismatched they would be against the ultimate warrior. But David sees things differently. Having fought lions and bears to save his sheep, David knows he can fight Goliath too. But not because he is a mighty warrior – but because Yahweh delivered David then too. Even Saul, God’s formerly appointed king, has forgotten God. But not David. David is first to speak Yahweh’s name in almost forty verses of text.[v] When David faces Goliath, he invokes God’s name, recalling with the name the entire memory of Yahweh’s deliverances of Israel in the past. David knows that he does not need the conventions of human warfare, but only the God of Israel.[vi]
This week, I have been thinking what a ridiculous sermon that is: all we need is God. If all we needed was God, we wouldn’t be in such a political mess, totally unable to compromise, hear each other, and work for the common good. If all we needed was God, that cancer diagnosis, that lost job, that lost pregnancy, or that lost relationship would not have felt so devastating. If all we needed was God, we would have figured out a way to both secure our borders and humanely treat those fleeing injustice and seeking asylum. In saying all we need is God, we sound like a bunch of hippies singing the great Beatles song, “All You Need is Love.” As modern pragmatists, we know better – we know letting go and letting God is what you say – but not what you do.
So how do we turn ourselves from being skeptics, cynics, and dispassionates to seeing all we need is God? Well, first we have to define a few things. What is happening in David’s story should not be a surprise. If you remember a few weeks ago, when the people broke their longstanding covenant with God, asking for a king like the other nations, God gave them Saul. And Saul was just that – like the other nations, fighting battles with weapons of other nations. So when David offers to fight, Saul does what a conventional leader would do – arm David with the conventions of war. He tries to weigh down David with his armor, hoping against hope that there might be a modicum of protection against the Philistine. Saul is a ruler like the other nations have. The contrast between Saul and David then becomes a contrast between trusting conventional means and the means of God.[vii] Saul has become ruled by fear instead of faith.
The way we pull ourselves out of being skeptical, cynical, or dispassionate is not by rallying behind the idea that we are the little man – the underdog David or Captain America, just waiting to be empowered by God. The way we put to bed our skepticism, cynical thoughts, or dispassionate feelings about all the things in life overwhelming us is to recall the faithfulness of God. When David says, “All you need is love,” he does not mean all you need is people giving hugs to one another. What he means is, all you need is to remember the faithfulness of God – especially when we are not faithful at all! In his speeches to Saul and Goliath, David is recalling the salvation narrative – the stories of God’s faithfulness for generations. His trust is actually pretty bold too, considering the current king Saul’s appointment represents the breaking of covenant between God and the people. But David trusts even a broken covenant can be overcome. David claims his identity as a child of God and knows his identity is all he needs to fight the worst this world has to offer.
This past week, as politics and religion got dragged together in front of camera crews, I slowly began to realize that we are in a David moment. We can keep doing what we have been doing – keeping our faith out of politics, putting politics in a box that we especially do not open on Sundays, or we can start realizing that we can never put our faith in a box. The bond that we have as Episcopalians and especially within the hugely politically diverse community that is Hickory Neck is extremely fragile. Our fragility is why I rarely talk about politics among the community. I value our ability to come to the Eucharistic Table in spite of our difference over just about anything else. But that high value on the common table can come at a cost – the cost is never talking about what being a people of God means – what being a disciple of Christ and being an American means. In order to protect that common table, I have put on 126 pounds of brass armor, and taken up a spear whose head weighs fifteen pounds. Instead, today David invites us to shed the ill-fitting armor, and just walk in the clothes God gave us (and maybe a few stones).
I am not saying once we shed man-made armor we will suddenly know what immigration policies are the best. But what I am saying is until we take on God’s armor, until we recall all those times when God has delivered us, when God has turned chasms of fear into paths of faithfulness, until we remember that we have a distinct identity as children of God and disciples of Christ, we will not be able to take on the Goliath issues of our day. Stripping down to David-like clothing, we are able sit down comfortably, to see each other more honestly, to be in relationship more authentically, to gather at this table – not just trying to avoid banging our heavy armor into each other, barely able to make eye contact because of our heavy helmets, but actually brushing the skin of elbows with one another, looking deeply into the eyes of the chalice bearer serving you Christ’s blood, and offering the hand of Christian friendship as we rise from the altar rail together. We can do all those things because God is faithful. We can do all those things because God has delivered us before. We can do all those things because we are Christ’s disciples – and that is what we do through God. We may be underdogs, and we may be vulnerable in a world that is happy to deploy psychological warfare, but we are united and empowered by the love of God. Our invitation is to step trustingly, boldly, confidently into that love. Amen.
[i] William P. Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays for Year B, Batch 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 4.
[ii] Richard F. Ward, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays for Year B, Batch 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 4.
[iii] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preach, First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 131.
[iv] Ward, 2.
[v] Brueggemann, 130.
[vi] Brueggemann, 132.
[vii] Brueggemann, 131.