Our Goliaths

Notes from www.billbrucewords.com
Sunday, June 24, 2018  
Trinity on Church UC

Text:  2 Samuel 17

The ‘Big Idea’ today was about whatever you face that is bigger than you, and smaller than God.  What Goliaths do you face?  In David and Goliath, 2013, Malcolm Gladwell challenged how we think about obstacles and disadvantages, underdogs and long odds.   Some face cancer or terminal disease, others hold jobs in declining companies or sectors – like mine! 

I tried to lighten up for a moment with a chorus from the old ballad of “The Preacher and the Bear”, as the preacher facing the bear by a river side in the woods, is moved to pray:

O Lord, you delivered Daniel from the lion’s den
Delivered Jonah from the belly of the whale and then
The Hebrew children from the fiery furnace, so the Good Book do declare
Now Lord, Lord, if you can’t help me, for goodness sake don’t you help that bear!

This summer the revised common lectionary invites the church to read through the tales about David, from his predecessor Saul to his successor Solomon.  1,000 years before Jesus, David’s century marked a change from anarchy to centralized kingdom, and too soon to division again of Israel from Judah. Reflected upon through fall, exile and restoration, the stories give deep perspective on collective human nature and leadership. 

All the Gospels tell you that ‘if you don’t know David, you don’t really know Jesus, yet’ – born in David’s city, of David’s line, Son of David. I owed you a sermon on David and Goliath, not just Gladwell’s pop philosophy panaceas or ‘how to’ solutions to discover slingshot innovations to beat armour.  George Herbert (1650CE) wrote that:

‘Sermons are dangerous things…
none goes out of Church as he came in,
but either better, or worse’.

David’s contemporaries knew how he had begun, as a guerrilla or terrorist in the hills of Galilee, running protection rackets during Saul’s reign. His actual record of support for Saul was spotty at best, and his succession to the throne instead of one of Saul’s sons was illegitimate and contested.

Those looking back after David’s death knew that later, in power, David’s reign, 
begun in civil war, ends w scandals of sex, abuse of power including the whole Bathsheba affair. The very model of an underdog became, through a lifetime recorded in these stories, a bully Goliath. 

Joseph Heller’s novel “God Knows”, assuming the voice of David in his old age, remembers David’s scandalous life. Perhaps you will rent a movie version, like Richard Gere in 1985, or Gregory Peck in 1951. Maybe you just need to listen to a familiar story today, as if for the first time, at our age in our time and place.

June 3, 1 Samuel 3  told of the call of Samuel the boy, at the shrine in Shiloh, with a context of anarchy, and the failure of Eli’s boys who corrupted the cult.  June 10, our congregational meeting heard 1 Samuel 8, as the mob demanded a king like other nations, in the context of Samuel’s sons’ failure.  Samuel warned folks that a king would just demand taxes, and conscript sons for death.

Sure enough, Saul turns out to be a wimp who haggles and compromises with the Amalekites instead of just beating them, as Samuel said God wanted. You don’t mediate a crime. You don’t plea bargain or settle, in some situations, or you’ll be back, in the Balkans or in the Gulf wars. Saul is still king, but a sitting duck, then lame duck, then dead duck, lacking legitimacy. Defensive, lashing out – there are rumours of madness as troops line up in the valley of Elah.

Last week in lectionary, as Trinity met neighbours from Seven Generations of Healing, the wider church listened as David was anointed by Samuel to succeed Saul someday. Jesse the Bethlehemite paraded his sons or Samuel to anoint one: first Eliab, the big and buff eldest, then Shammah, Abinadab, and 4 more sons, his best and brightest. Samuel asks for the son Jesse didn’t talk about: David, the youngest, the least and last, the youngest and most implausible one. 

David was off at his McJob, doing lamb-care as sheep-nanny, security guard for the family flock, working in the unglamorous back office supply chain of the food industry, not even up front as maître de, just a part time musician with a knack for fending off predators from the flock.

Anyhow, we pick up the story today with the impasse between Philistine and Israelite armies. On one mountain the Philistines camped. On the other were the Israelites. Between them lay the valley of Elah. Daily, the warriors would suit up, line up in the valley, stare each other down, and listen to the trash talk and taunts. Imagine the House of Commons, or the anthems before football or hockey game, as each team or party or army stands up for their people. 

Picture Goliath, 9 or 10 feet tall, draped in hundreds of pounds of brass armour, 
with lots of heavy weapons.   It’s like the heavy equipment carried by Canadian or American soldiers these days in Afghanistan or Iraq: JTF2, snipers, Special Forces, carrying hundreds of pounds of gear in the hot desert. Here is the image of a champion, proxy for a whole army and nation. If Goliath wins, Israelites will serve Philistines. The Israelites listen to the bully for 40 days in a row – but they are scared – God knows none is equal to Goliath of Gath.  

Things don’t change, do they?  Combatants still line up in the Gaza strip, that coastal link between Egypt, Africa to the south, and Europe and Asia to the north.  Young men stand up as warriors and champions, and they are scared, and they stand up for their people and nations, with the complicity of the rest of us. What’s at stake, and what’s at risk?  The 2007 movie ‘Valley of Elah’, redeployed to Texas roles written by Paul Haggis of London Ontario.  The 2014 Phil Klay short stories, ‘Redeployment’, tell of psy-ops warfare in Iraq today – and the disorientation of a young vet back in college in the USA.

Meanwhile, as Eliab, Shammah, and Abinadab are suiting up to line up in the Valley of Elah every day, David’s back home doing his lamb-care, sheep nanny, security guard, food service and transportation McJob. His mother sends him to the front on an errand, to deliver a care package of food treats for his brothers, and for their officers. David leaves the stuff at the Israelite mountain camp, and wanders up to the front, to experience the front line posturing and trash-talking for the first time. His brothers are mad, or embarrassed, but David is a cocky kid, who just gives Goliath as good as he gets. It’s a bit like a Bugs Bunny cartoon: ‘come back and fight like a man!’ says the pipsqueak to the giant.

We know the last scenes best: Saul gives David his own heavy suit of brass armour – but David can’t move, let alone fight in it. It’s a bit like a kid trying a suit and tie for a first job, and feeling like an imposter.  Each generation has to figure out their own uniform, gear, and way of being in charge. David takes his slingshot, picks up 5 smooth stones form the wadi, and walks out to face the giant, the bully, the champion, Goliath. 

They exchange a bit more trash talk about whose body will feed the animals and birds – then David kills Goliath, improbably.  David, the musician, the lamb-care sheep-nanny security guard food service transport worker, gets a new role as hero, improbable and against all odds. Is that a glorification of barbaric violent warfare?  I prefer to read it as a satirical farce making fun of martial male pretensions. How does it help us, to retell these stories, and re-imagine who we are and whose we are, and what we might do about it? 

There is an underlying ethical theory struggle in our reflections here these days. 
I’m suspicious of the utilitarian ethics of computation and recalibration, associated with the market model of rights-bearing individuals competing in a fair and free market at the ‘end of history’.  I’m trying to rediscover the place of character and community, and recognizing the contribution of narrative, to convey those qualitative dimensions of ethics and morality. 

We’re not ‘family values’ reactionaries, but we know we are more than consumers, more than employees, more than atomized isolated agents out to maximize our own goods, or ‘value-add’, as if those goods and values could be disembodied from incarnate creation and humanity.

Heidegger illuminated how ‘techne’ was used by classical Greeks as crafts of practical ethics, equally for skilled trades, politicians and artists. Thinkers like Jacques Ellul, Georg Gadamer, and Canadian George Grant, and more recently Alisdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor pursued the political implications.

What if we reclaimed older language of ethics? Aristotle’s insight that ethics required ‘polis’ or community may be dismissed as petty parochialism compared to the conventional rhetoric of universal human rights, but let’s remember it before we dismember it. 

The grammar of virtue and vice can bring us back to a reminder of goods and values beyond the individual, incarnate in creation and humanity.  It may be deconstructed as guilt supporting privilege, but let’s reassemble it enough to enjoy dismantling it.  

I hate our current tendency to polarize most ethical or political issues into binary choices.  We demonize the other side as stupid or sick.  We beatify our side as absolutely brilliant and superior.  Biblical models, like David tales, are better.

Classic teachers of practical ethics knew a more complex vocabulary.  Short of the polarity of “vicious”, less bad, were the ‘akratic’, who knew the right thing but gave in to impulsivity.  I offered the example of most criminals, who are really just young men making stupid rash mistakes.

Short of the perfectly “virtuous”, less good, were the ‘enkratic’, who knew and did it all right, but without passion.  I noted the challenge of ‘None Is Too Many’, the account of Canada’s refusal of Jewish refugees in the 1930’s, when churches actually said too little, too calmly, to oppose our national bigotry. These days, social media asks ‘where are the white churches’ in opposing growing injustice of economic and gender inequality, and racialized minorities.

We are heirs of hard-won language for issues of pride, on this Pride Sunday. We can claim too much in vanity. We can also ask too little in humiliation.  What is violated in which violence? Can we be militant without being militaristic or martial?  Can we behave adversarially without being antagonistic? Which implied ‘uses’ are affirmed, while ‘abuses’ are damned as aberrations? 

Where can we find people who really differ, but still talk with each other? Ironically, people are finding this discourse within and between religious communities, peremptorily dismissed as fanatic by popular secular culture.

Remember David today, and later in the summer,  ‘when kings go out to war’ as David sends Uriah to die in the front lines, while he stays home to seduce Bathsheba.  We get there in August – join us!  The real trick to hearing these stories from the ‘former prophets’ is a hermeneutic of ‘here and now’!  Hear the stories again this summer, as if for the first time, at this age, in this context.

What word do you have for our hearts… give us ears to hear.  Amen