Agents of God

Dear Members and Friends,

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”                      

– Eleanor Roosevelt, 20th century

In last week’s readings, the First Book of Samuel told the story of the youngest, smallest son being lifted up to lead the whole nation, and the Gospel of Mark recounted the parables of Jesus about the tiny mustard seed growing into a mighty tree. This week, the stories continue but seem to take a sudden turn, from quiet and promising to things much more disturbing and dramatic, with a measure of violence as well.

In First Samuel, little David defeats Goliath with an impressive confidence in God’s help that illustrates what faith truly is, that is, trust that God is, at all times, good and, always, near at hand: David believes that he has never faced anything alone. Matthew Skinner suggests that we include verses 24-26 in our reading to remind us that David could see the hand of God and the cluelessness of Goliath much better than his elder and stronger, but cowardly, companions could.

A formidable opponent

True, the enemy before him was formidable: “six cubits” is big, ten feet tall–some texts say four cubits, but even that means almost seven feet tall, and we have to remember that people were shorter in those days. Greaves of bronze are shin guards, and the description of all this armor–126 pounds of it–tells us that there was only one vulnerable place on Goliath’s huge person: his forehead.

In the face of such a huge and well-armed opponent, then, David’s faithful courage seems rooted not in his own physical prowess or skills or cunning but in his experience of God acting in his life, and he counts on God to act again in the same way; that is, not only that God could act for good, but that God would act for good. “Faith,” Skinner writes, “denotes a willingness to let God be God.”

If David is a hero who boasts, it’s God’s power that makes him boast, not his own. Even when he describes for Saul his killing of bears and lions (impressive for a young boy), he gives credit to God; David has confidence that God’s will is for goodness for him personally and for his whole people as well, for this is no ordinary army; this is the army “of the living God”!

A favorite story

This story is so familiar that most people know it even if they’ve never read the Bible. Little David takes out giant bully Goliath with one well-aimed stone to the forehead. Goliath had challenged the Israelite army of warriors to send out one champion to fight him, and then there wouldn’t even have to be a battle, and so many people wouldn’t have to die. It sounds like a good idea, but the Israelites, the armies of the living God, as David calls them, didn’t seem to take to it.

Every day for forty days, when Goliath came out and took his stand, no one accepted the challenge. Instead, everyone, the text says, fled. Until a little boy, the smallest, as usual, the one easy to overlook or dismiss, came to deliver food to his soldier brothers. He heard Goliath’s taunt, and he was dismayed. “What?” David asked; “Who is this guy? How dare he defy the armies of the living God?”

The power of the living God

David was not “trash-talking”; he wasn’t trying to intimidate or play mind games. He was dumbfounded at Goliath’s foolish disregard for the power of Israel’s God, the living God, the God who does not save by sword or spear. Little David’s trust and confidence weren’t in his own skill or power but in the power of the living God who sustained him and his people. His people at that moment just needed to be reminded of who had brought them out of the land of Egypt and slavery and had brought them to the Promised Land: the God full of lovingkindness and faithful compassion.

This is how David saw his whole life. When he was out tending the sheep like a good shepherd, the future great shepherd-king, greatest of all Israel’s kings, had to battle lions and bears, for heaven’s sake, and he rescued lambs from their very mouths, and if a lion turned against him in the rescue, he would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. How curious as we listen to David’s reassuring words to Saul that they don’t sound like trash-talking, “Hey, I’m really strong and fierce. I’ll take him on.”

David had it right

Instead, we hear David say, “God saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, and God will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” David had it right. It wasn’t all about him. It was about God. It was the power of God that made him strong and smart and able, with just one of the five smooth stones–a beautiful detail–to bring down the threat of this giant Philistine bully. Goliath, the text says, “fell face down on the ground.” The people were saved. The Philistines fled.

We recall that Jesus himself spoke of the mustard seed being tiny but growing into the big tree that gives shelter to the birds of the air. Jesus spoke of the widow’s mite being the greatest gift of all, the lost coin being worth turning the house upside down to find. He visited the house of little Zaccheaeus, so short that he couldn’t see Jesus passing by, so he climbed a tree and received a visit from the Teacher himself. Jesus spoke of faith like that of a child, and giving water to the little ones. Those of us who know what it feels like to be small against great challenges and struggles, Jesus understands.

Facing overwhelming challenges

It’s not about being small in stature, like David. All of us know what it feels like to feel small in the face of overwhelming circumstances–illness, divorce, chronic pain, anxiety, the loss of loved ones and the suffering of our children. We know what it feels like to face debt and financial fears and unsolvable problems, worries about our children, our job, our safety. We know what it feels like to be unappreciated, unnoticed, unacknowledged. Maybe we don’t know what we’re supposed to do with our life, or we don’t know how to help our family reconcile or to repair broken friendships.

And then there are the problems we share: the environment and global warming and pollution, war and killing and violence, poverty and racism and sexism and homophobia, whether we “own” or acknowledge them or not. Things that feel big and overpowering, and we feel so small in the face of these Goliaths, coming out of their camp every day and challenging us to do battle with them.

The battle is God’s

Ah, but David says, that battle–it is God’s battle. It is God’s power that will carry the day, and God does not save by sword and spear. God’s power is much greater, and more mysterious, than any sword or spear we may devise. Of course, it’s not that we don’t have to do anything. First, like David, we have to throw off the heavy armor that we put on to protect ourselves, the armor the world around us and its advisors tell us to use–our sense of security and self-sufficiency, our faith in money and possessions to keep us safe, our hoarding and our climbing and our positioning and all the little and big justifications that we use to defend ourselves.

Next, we have to gather our five smooth stones. Not big boulders or sharp swords or spears. Five smooth, beautiful stones. What if we used our religious imagination and pictured those five smooth stones as compassion and justice, as hospitality and generosity, as love and joy? (I think that might be six, not five, but it still works!) As we go forth into the world that God loves, to that “field,” to the places where we encounter the challenges and overwhelming odds and the powers that be, what would happen if we flung well-aimed compassion, justice, hospitality, generosity, love, and joy at all we encountered?

The glory we have seen

And what if we added peace, and mercy, healing, and care, and in and through all these things, the worship of God, the living God: the one who we remember has saved us and brought us this far; we remember that this battle is God’s, and that, in the end, we will be saved.

Haven’t we seen this already? Didn’t we see the Berlin Wall most astoundingly come tumbling down, the end of apartheid if not racism itself in South Africa? Didn’t we watch Civil Rights activists forty years ago bringing down the walls of hatred, staring into the teeth of police dogs and centuries of prejudice built into our very laws, and then Civil Rights protections signed into law, preparing the way for justice to be written upon our hearts and our minds, lived and made real in the experience of all of God’s children here in this land?

A long and difficult struggle

The “battle” for justice and healing and peace is long and day-by-day, and we engage it anew each morning. The large battles and moments of hope fuel our hope in our individual lives, too, for healing and peace in our families and our bodies, for the solving of problems and the sure knowledge that, because we are the church, others are with us no matter what we face.

And then there is the United Church of Christ, so small and beautiful at the table of churches, bringing our hard-learned lessons about freedom with responsibility, our dream of a table with a place for everyone, of evangelical courage, early truth-telling, extravagant hospitalityÖbringing our hope for the future, a hope rooted not in our own power but in the power of the living God, a God who has brought us this far and will not forget about us or leave us to the lions and the bears or even the giants that tower over usÖ.the living God, who looks upon even the smallest ones in creation, upon you and me, each of us, in love and infinite care.

Together, we dream of that day, someday, that great and glorious day, when we shall overcome with love all that threatens and intimidates, because God will see us through to a time when we shall walk hand in hand, and live in peace, some great and glorious day. With that dream before us, and the sure knowledge that God is with us, how can we be afraid?

Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews
National offices of the United Church of Christ
Cleveland, Ohio