[This sermon was proclaimed on June, 24, 2018, at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY.] The texts are 1 Samuel 17:32-49 and Mark 4:35-41.
I don’t like the sport of boxing. It is often so brutal and barbaric. I like baseball. It is played on a grassy field, with a diamond in the center. No one is trying to hurt anyone else. The goal is to get home safely. If there is a fight, fifty players go the center of the diamond and act like they’re fighting, while doing no harm. It is a slow and measured game. You can read a good portion of “War and Peace” between the moments of action.
I don’t like boxing. But I will grant it this: it pits two opponents in a roped square; just the two of them, trying to knock the brains of each other out. There is one boxing match that I vividly remember, though it wasn’t on TV (pay TV hadn’t been invented). It was February of 1964. I was a high school senior. In one corner was Sonny Liston, in the other a young blade named Cassius Clay. He had won the gold medal in the previous Olympics, but as a light heavyweight. He would later change his name to Muhammed Ali. That night he was fighting as a heavyweight. Liston was a true heavyweight: thick body like an oak tree with brutal Goliath-like strength. Liston was beaten repeatedly in childhood by his father. He was illiterate and turned to crime, spending five years in prison, where he became a fearsome fighter. He was the heavyweight champion of the world and virtually no one gave young Clay a chance, except young Clay.
Clay approached the fight in an unexpected way. Instead of facing Liston toe to toe and seeing which could punch harder, he danced around the ring. Liston was befuddled. Clay’s hands were as fast as Steph Curry’s with a basketball and his feet a good match for Derek Haugh’s, or a Rockette’s, or Fred Astaire’s. He danced around Liston and about the sixth round began landing quick punches. By the seventh round it was over. Liston couldn’t find Clay enough to hit him and didn’t know what hit him.
That may sound a lot like the match between David and Goliath. Indeed, David was the underdog in this match. Goliath was a giant. Listen to how “The Message” sets up this match:
“The Philistines were on one hill, the Israelites on the opposing hill, with the valley between them. A giant nearly ten feet tall stepped out from the Philistine line into the open, Goliath….. He had a bronze helmet on his head and was dressed in armor—126 pounds of it! He wore bronze shin guards and carried a bronze sword. His spear was like a fence rail—the spear tip alone weighed over fifteen pounds. His shield bearer walked ahead of him. Goliath stood there and called out to the Israelite troops, ‘Why bother using your whole army? Am I not Philistine enough for you? And you’re all committed to Saul, aren’t you? So pick your best fighter and pit him against me. If he gets the upper hand and kills me, the Philistines will all become your slaves. But if I get the upper hand and kill him, you’ll all become our slaves and serve us. I challenge the troops of Israel this day. Give me a man. Let us fight it out together!’ When Saul and his troops heard the Philistine’s challenge, they were terrified and lost all hope. Enter David.”
Enter David. Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “David and Goliath,” does some of the best interpreting of this story that I have ever encountered. Gladwell argues that David was not so much of an underdog once he acted out of who he was and his strength. When David made his courageous offer, Saul resorted to standard thinking. He put his own armor on David, which was too large for David. Saul was assuming that David was stand toe to toe against Goliath. David knew better; he knew his own strength was not in a brawny muscle match with the giant. Being a shepherd, David developed other skills. He had a sling and could use it with precision. Being a shepherd meant being on duty all the time, but with long times of inaction as the sheep grazed and rested. Kind of like watching a baseball game, with generous pauses between flash points of movement. He used those times to hone his skill. Did you ever skim smooth stones over the smooth surface of a pond? With some practice, one can get a smooth stone to skip 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 times. It takes practice. David practiced. A smooth stone in his sling was a powerful weapon. Sharp slingers could take a bird in flight. Or a mountain lion. Or a bear. Yes, archeologists tell us that there were bears and lions in that region in that time. “Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my!”
In a face to face matchup with Goliath, David stood no chance. He would have been a serious underdog. Think the Orioles winning this fall’s world series. But standing at a distance from Goliath, armed with only a sling and some smooth stones, the odds just shifted. Goliath couldn’t match David’s quickness and mobility. He couldn’t run. He had trouble turning his head. His sword and spear and javelin were useless. All it took was David acting out his skill set. All it took was one smooth stone rightly slung.
But there was something more going on in this. “But David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied… for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.’” David never saw this as his personal battle. He understood himself to be the Lord’s agent. David was utterly dependent on God, while Goliath was dependent on his size, his armor, and his weapons.
We have this marvelous intersection of David’s well-honed skill and complete dependence upon God. Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I paraphrase Buechner’s insight: The place God calls us to serve is where our God-giftedness meets a challenge beyond ourselves.
The disciples are in a boat. A storm suddenly arises, as is common on Galilee. And Jesus is sound asleep. I am often hard on the disciples: they were slow to learn and quick to complain. The disciples do the right thing this time—they wake Jesus up. “…and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” Good for them. They go to the right one. Their dependence is rightly placed. Jesus doesn’t disappoint them. “He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’” Literally, he said something like this to the storm: “Muzzle yourself. Stifle yourself. Shut up.” The storm had no choice but to obey the Lord heaven and earth, the Lord of nature. There are times, I admit, when it seems as if Jesus is sleeping. I can’t explain that. But ultimately, I know that he is awake and working.
Make no mistake, Jesus comes to us in meekness and often weakness, as he did to them. Yet out of his meekness and human weakness, his voice stills storms, then and now. He comes not as a mighty Roman centurion or a regal Roman emperor. He comes as servant. And he reveals almighty God to us. Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Roman Catholic theologian, said, “… under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, the Christ upon the cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is.” Brute strength is overrated, in every realm of life. God works in our weakness. God worked most crucially in Jesus’ weakness.
We serve the crucified one. That is right where we should be. Jesus shows us the way of meekness and even weakness, that God’s strength may be evident. The Church must beware of grabbing for temporal or political power, no matter how enticing.
- If any political power offers us privilege, let the Church say No.
- If any government tempts us with proximity to political power, let the Church says No.
- If any Goliath calls us to battle on his terms, let the Church say No; The Battle is the Lord’s.
- If any storm threatens to sink our boat, let the Church wake up Jesus and listen for his voice. It is for him to still the storm.
With David facing a formidable foe, with the disciples facing a bracing storm, our help is in the Lord. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” That is who we are called to be.