Pastor Adrianne Meier
13 August 2023
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
Pastor Adrianne Meier
13 August 2023
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
On Second Thoughts
Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle.
And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was four cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron, and his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants, but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.
Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel were in the valley of Elah fighting with the Philistines. David rose early in the morning, left the sheep with a keeper, took the provisions, and went as [his father] Jesse, had commanded him. He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage, ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him.
David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father, and whenever a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth, and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the LORD be with you!”
Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these, for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the wadi and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.
The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” 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. This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head, and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear, for the battle is the LORD’s, and the Lord will give you into our hand.”
When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.
Scripture loves the story of the child brave enough to do the things the adults won’t. David fells Goliath. Miriam and the daughter of the Pharaoh fish an infant from the Nile, refusing to let this tiny life be crushed under weight of Empire. The tiny boy Samuel was called in the night not by his mentor, but by God to speak a word of truth. The young Daniel prayed to God even when it was forbidden. The boy who did not see five loaves and two fish as too little for the multitudes. The teenage Mary who opened herself to the will of God. And the child prophets continue to this day: the Little Rock Nine and Malala Yousafzai who defended their right to an education. The now-graduated students of Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School demanding safety in schools and an end to gun violence. Greta Thunberg demanding action on the human causes of climate change. We celebrate these stories as those of the little guy verses the giant, but, really, they are the stories of people who refused to accept the script the world was handing them. There is another way, they say, and, then, they dare to live into that future in the present. This is the gift given us in baptism: the promise of a different story and a now perfectly primed for the action of the Spirit.
Last week, we heard about God rejecting Saul as king because Saul did not fully obey God’s command to put the Amalakites “under the ban”— a curse wrecked by utterly destroying the people, livestock, crops, and land.After Saul’s rejection, God calls Samuel to anoint a new king, from among the sons of Jesse of Bethlehem. And this new king, it turns out, is only a boy. A shepherd boy, a harpist and lyricist. A sometimes musical therapist to King Saul. And, today, supplemental quartermaster to the Israelite troops.
Saul has assembled his troops in response to a gathering of Israel’s perennial enemy, the Philistines. This is the first battle since the victory-that-wasn’t over the Amalakites. And Jesse sends food and provisions for his older sons and for their commanders—signals of a strained, overburdened military management. Unsurprising, as Saul’s kingship has been marked by war—border skirmishes and missions to revenge generations-old grudges. It has been marked by false promises to ease the growing pains of the adolescent nation, to distract from the inconveniences of every-day life, and to give meaning to the people by avenging centuries-old grudges and creating enemies from neighboring nations. Walter Brueggemann calls this “the script.” [see note] The idea that war gives meaning and creates safety is the script. The idea that there is a novel solution to our problems of security and unhappiness if we just apply ourselves enough is the script. The idea that we can have the land we want, the stuff we want, the freedom we want without regard to our neighbor or its impact on creation is the script.Brueggemann calls it “the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.” Now, this isn’t an attack on the vocation of soldier, nor is it meant to over-simplify the complex task of community and national safety. It is about the task of making known to ourselves the well-worn paths, the habits of society and culture, that keep us from seeing our neighbor and their needs,that keep us from seeing our own needs as they truly are. The script includes the way power—power in government, power in culture, power in the church…the way power exists not to protect us or provide meaning for our day but to maintain itself—and the script includes that.
The problem is, the script doesn’t work. Abusing and destabilizing our neighbors—excuse me, our enemies—fails to keep us safe or provide the happiness promised. Brueggemann says, “The charade of a national security state [leaves] us completely vulnerable to the whim of the very enemies that our security posture has itself evoked.” For example, standing before Israel is Goliath: the Philistines came up with this novel solution, but the script is the same. They, too, want safety and security. They too, want happiness. They, too want more stuff and more land and more freedom. They, too, see violence as the only way to guarantee it. So they, too, are willing to fight to the death for it. Well, they’re willing to have their champion fight to the death, maybe their foot soldiers. Interestingly, the leadership of the Philistines is no where to be seen. And—funny—it is the same scenario on Israel’s side. King Saul is cowering far behind the lines, almost far enough away to dull the sounds of Goliath’s daily taunts. Saul—the one the people called to kingship with a mandate for war: to “govern [them] and go out before [them] and fight [their] battles.” (1 Samuel 8:20) Saul—the one anointed because he stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of Israel, a giant himself—Saul is far behind the lines, alone and paralyzed in his shimmering armor. We’re told this is a story about slaying giants, about cheering for the underdog. But, when I picture Saul in his tent, afraid of this monster that he has had a hand in creating, I think this story is really about how the script fails. It is a story about the promises power makes but can never fulfill. No amount of land, no amount of stuff, no victory in battle will make up for the harm done to our neighbor. And because power is particularly good at using the script to make enemies, creating cycles of increasing violence, it will not provide the safety, meaning, and happiness we desire.
David is a child. We know he will not be a perfect king. The first words out of his mouth after his anointing are, basically, what’s in it for me? He is as liable to the script as the rest of us. And yet, he course-corrects pretty quickly, reminding himself that his anointing, the battles he fights, the policy he enacts—they aren’t about him,they are about the people and their relationship with God. They are about being the kind of king—and leading the kind of kingdom—God can work through. They are about being a blessing—and not a curse—to one’s neighbors. They are about the conditions by which God frees us from the script, from the violence of our days,from unredeemable situations. This is the counterscript. The script cannot save us or set us free, especially not as long as our neighbor is bound by the script. But this place that we find ourselves, between script and counterscript, is exactly where God works. And that is what happens in this story.
In the end, the giant is still felled by novel means. Five smooth stones, deadly aim. There is still war and violence and bloodshed. Too many Philistines lay on the battleground. The script is still being acted out. And yet, the death of Goliath opens to Israel a new kind of kingship. Not one like the other nations, but one headed by a rot-gut, self-absorbed sinner who somehow still pines for the heart of God. Not a kingship where the king leads the people in battle, that the nation will derive its meaning from war. Not a kingship where the people can have more and more and more—a tumor to creation, unending cost, at the expense of their neighbors. Not a kingship where novelty and technology create an idol of human ingenuity, which demands more of us, and not less, until we have given our lives and selves in service of no one. Not a kingship like that. A kingship that exists to promote human flourishing in relationship with God. A kingship that exists that the people will have life, and life in abundance. That the people will have joy, and not fear. That the people will see the abundance of their lands and communities and not covet what is their neighbors. That the people will find meaning not in hoarding but in generosity, not in snatching up, but in giving away. A kin-dom where God is active in redeeming and renewing, creating and sustaining, loving and making holy.
A few years ago, as part of some anti-racism training I was participating in, someone confessed that, sometimes, their first thought was something inexpressible. Sometimes they thought things that were really racist and problematic. Really on-the-script. And this was the consolation: our first thoughts reflect the script, the narratives by which we are raised, our cultural and societal norms which exist to maintain the status quo. It is our second thought that matters, because this is what will define our action. It is the thought that propels us toward the counterscript; the thought that creates the space where God may act, and act through us in order to bless our neighbor and our planet.
Beloved, when we are faithful, and by virtue of our baptisms, we will find ourselves in between what has always been and what may yet be. It is no small thing to overturn the stories and narratives that keep us apart, that are fed by advertisement and propaganda and those who cling to power with their teeth. Embracing the story of God’s relationship with humanity is to embrace a story with fits and starts, a story filled with hypocrites and contradictions, a story that asks deeply imperfect people to be perfect, as our Father is perfect. When we are faithful, and when we embrace that counterscript, the present where we will find ourselves is in between.But the promise that is ours though baptism, in contrast to the promises of the script, is that the present in which we find ourselves is filled with the presence of God.
Note: Brueggemann’s argument appears in the November 29, 2005 issue of the Christian Century; you can read it here: https://www.religion-online.org/article/counterscript/?fbclid=IwAR3nI6ae5TU-wQEfek-dhdReTFt96wMTrPYzWWEa1DyK1tSIVf-dfYLd_ls