THE OVERCOMERS
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
June 21, 2015; 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
1 Samuel 17:4-9, 32-49; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

“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.’”
2 Samuel 17:37

There’s an old story about an archaeologist who was digging in the desert in Israel. He came upon an ancient mummy. After looking it over, he immediately called the curator of a famous natural-history museum.

“I’ve just discovered a 3,000 year-old mummy of a man who died of heart failure!” said the archaeologist, with great excitement.

“Well, I guess you’d better bring him in, said the curator. “We’ll check out your findings.”

A week or so later, the curator called the archaeologist back. “We’ve carbon-dated the remains you brought in, and I can tell you you’re absolutely right. The mummy is 3,000 years old. We also did a medical autopsy and have confirmed that the man did die of heart failure. What I’d like to know is: how in the world did you know all this, from a quick examination out in the field?”

“That was easy,” said the archaeologist. “I found a piece of papyrus in his hand that said, ‘10,000 shekels on Goliath.’”

*****

If you’d been there that day David faced off against Goliath, and if you’d been a betting man (or woman), you’d probably have wagered on Goliath too.

His victory seems a sure thing. The Bible tells us his height is “six cubits and a span.” Some experts calculate Goliath’s height at nine feet, but it seems more likely he’s around six-foot-nine — mighty big for that day and age. He’s clad from head to toe in armor of various kinds: bronze helmet on the head, a coat of mail on his chest, bronze greaves (or ankle protectors). He has a javelin, or small spear, in his hand.

His opponent? The boy David. A very young man, just down from the hills (where he’s been working as a shepherd). David wears no armor. He carries neither sword nor javelin. All he’s got is his shepherd’s sling — a leather thong with a pouch in the middle — and five smooth stones he’s just picked up from the riverbank.

Talk about a lopsided contest! The oddsmakers would have given it 100 to 1 at least.

Goliath had been marching up and down between the two battle-lines, calling for the Israelites to send out a champion to battle him. Think of a professional wrestling match, how the two contenders trash-talk each other, when the sportscaster’s standing there between them with a microphone. In pro wrestling, of course, it’s all for show. But it can sound pretty fearsome, all the same — when those huge guys start pounding on the podium and pointing fingers in each other’s faces.

They say in the Army, you should never volunteer — and that was doubly true on this occasion. Who would be crazy enough to go up against Goliath? Not even King Saul, it seems — and it was his job to lead the Israelite army into battle.

This contest of champions, by the way, is a feature of many ancient societies whenever there’s a blood-feud. We don’t know why, exactly, the Israelites and the Philistines are at war on this occasion, but it could have been set off by a series of murders: an Israelite dies at the hands of a Philistine, then a Philistine takes revenge, then an Israelite takes revenge for that killing — and by the way, it may not have been a Philistine who set off the chain of murders in the first place. It could just as well have been an Israelite. But what does that matter, because nobody remembers?

By the time it gets around to armies squaring off on the battlefield, things are getting pretty serious. It’s at this stage that the code of honor kicks in. Rather than engaging in a bloody battle, by which both sides could be decimated — and not enough men are left to bring in the harvest, so everybody ends up starving — there’s general agreement that the armies will stand by while two champions duke it out. Whichever side comes out on top, the other side loses face and has to pay heavily. But the feud will finally be over at last.

As I’ve said, the natural champion for the Israelites is their King. But Saul stays in his tent. He’s lost his nerve. He’s sure Goliath will stick that bronze javelin of his right through his chest, pinning him to the ground like some butterfly caught in the collector’s net. But no one else has answered the King’s call for a warrior to stand in for him.

No one, that is, until David shows up. This kid’s a real fire-eater, Saul realizes, as soon as he sees him. “He doesn’t have a chance against Goliath — but hey, if he gets me off the hook, I’m OK with it.” Saul offers David his own armor, and David tries it on for size. But he quickly takes it off again. The armor’s so big on him, he can hardly walk without tripping over his own feet. David lets the King’s armor slide to the ground, and goes out to face the giant with nothing but his sling and those five smooth stones.

Now, the conventional interpretation of this story is that David’s weapon is no weapon at all, and that it’s only by the miraculous intervention of God that he survives and triumphs. But that’s not giving David enough credit. Malcolm Gladwell — author of many bestselling business and leadership books — has done a study of the David-and-Goliath encounter. He maintains that a sling — in the hands of a person who knows how to use it — is a pretty fearsome weapon. He says the stopping-power of a small stone, thrown from a sling at maximum velocity — is the equivalent of a 45-caliber bullet.

Now, that may be a bit overblown, but Gladwell’s not that far off the mark. David’s a shepherd, who’s learned how to use his sling to take out lions and bears that were threatening his sheep. This has made him into an expert marksman.

He’s also not wearing any armor, which means he can move around quickly — unlike Goliath, whose movement is slow and cumbersome. As Goliath slowly advances, David can easily outrun him, staying just outside javelin range, until the angle and distance are just right and he can let that stone fly. Bang! Stone in the middle of the forehead, and Goliath is knocked out cold. With the fearsome adversary lying flat on his back, David makes short work of killing the Philistine with his own sword.

*****

Reading the biblical account, David comes across as brash, confident and utterly certain God is on his side. “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,” he tells King Saul. That, indeed, seems to be the secret of David’s success, as a soldier and later as a military commander.  The Lord is on his side, so his victory is assured.

But that’s hindsight, and you know what they say about that: It’s always 20-20. Lots of times you or I may declare the Lord had to be on our side through some struggle or difficulty, but you know, it’s nearly always after the fact that we say it. Right in the thick of things, when everything’s so topsy-turvy we don’t know which end is up, we’re just trying to survive. And we’re not nearly so fearless as David appears to be in this story.

Truth be told, I doubt if he was fearless, either. The people who have the greatest success facing situations of great risk, in life, are often terrified as they’re going through it. It’s not that they are without fear, but rather that they’ve gone ahead and risked it all anyway. There’s an old saying: “courage is fear that has said its prayers.” And that’s the long and the short of it.

David is not a mighty warrior, in the tradition of killers like Goliath. He’s just a shepherd who’s good with a sling. But he overcomes his fear. He overcomes his difficulties. That’s the way we ought to look at him, I think. David is an overcomer.

*****

Wouldn’t you like to be an overcomer, too?

Think of the hardest problem you’re facing in your life right now: the thing that makes you break out in a cold sweat when you even think of it, the thing that keeps you up at night. What’s to be done about it, you ask yourself? How am I to get beyond this pain of grief, this crisis of confidence, this seemingly unbreakable habit? How am I ever going to triumph over this adversary, this enemy who seems so mighty — and so near?

The reason the enemy is so near is because, well…. it is. The most troublesome enemy of all is not the giant out there, but the worries and doubts in here — deep within ourselves. It sounds like a massive cliche to even say it — but, my friends, it’s absolutely true. You and I are our own worst enemies. As the philosopher Bishop Berkeley once remarked, “we first raise a dust and then complain we cannot see.”

Jewish midrash offers a fable that has something to say to us, in this condition. The rabbis of old used to say that, when iron was created, the trees began to tremble. A fearsome foe had emerged from the blacksmith’s forge: the axe.

But then, God took mercy on them and said to the trees: “Why are you trembling? If wood is not joined to the iron head of the axe, not one of you will suffer.”

It’s absolutely true. Can you imagine trying to cut down a tree using an axe-head, with no handle? But where does the wooden handle come from? From a tree.  The lesson of the rabbis is clear: the thing we fear most is amplified many times over by the worry we ourselves contribute to it. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “As long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way.”

*****

There is something that has stood in our way as a nation for a very long time. This past week, it reared its ugly head in the city of Charleston, in the historic black church they call Mother Emanuel. When the 21-year-old racist, Dylann Roof, stood up in the middle of the Bible-study and started shooting, 9 people soon lay dead or dying. One them was the pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina State Senator. That makes young Dylann’s action — as horrific as it is — even more terrible yet. It makes it a political assassination.

I don’t need to rehearse the details for you. If you’ve paid attention to the news for even a few scant moments in recent days, you know what carnage happened in that church. You know the horrible, hate-filled words the shooter spewed out, as he was spraying bullets. It’s hard to conceive how such a baby-faced, ordinary-looking young man could become such a racist monster — reminding us yet again, that the problem of racism is not over in this country we love. The Civil War ended a hundred and fifty years ago, this year. But it seems in some respects we’re still fighting it.

The racism is by no means limited to the Old South, either. Here’s a little historical vignette about this very community you may not have known about:

On June 2, 1923, the Klan… appeared… on the Point Pleasant beach where several days earlier in the Asbury Park Evening Press, the Klan declared, “Give Heed to this Fiery Summons – A Special Konklave Will Be Held….” 5,000 showed up to witness a speech by Grand Dragon [Arthur] Bell and the burning of a forty foot cross. On August 19, 1923, the Women of the Klan made their first appearance holding a rally in Allenwood with 1,600 in attendance.[1]

I found this next item on a historical timeline on the web page of the Point Pleasant Historical Society:

1924: A major Ku Klux Klan rally in Point Pleasant Borough ends with “several score” injuries. The floor of the over-crowded First Methodist Church Community House collapses. The rally attracts 600 persons, 400 in full regalia. The accident draws attention to widespread local Klan activity.[2]

Of course, these things happened almost a century ago. But if you think about it, you’ll realize racism is still right here among us. Here in New Jersey, we have a school funding system, based on property taxes collected by very small municipalities, that virtually guarantees that most white children will not grow up going to school with children of a different race — at least, not very many of them.

Now, maybe that’s a historical artifact, too. But I don’t see very many people doing a whole lot to try to change it.

All this is to say that, as we condemn the bloodletting in Charleston this past week, we here in New Jersey ought to be under no illusions. Racism continues to be a problem here, as well. It’s the Goliath we face. And none of us yet have trusted God enough to load that stone in our sling and bring it crashing down.

*****

We’re making a substitution in the next hymn we’re going to sing. I’d like to ask you to turn to Hymn number 379, “We Shall Overcome.” You all know, I’m sure, that it’s the anthem of the Civil Rights movement, the song so many African-Americans in the South sang, to gather strength for the difficult, long-term struggle for all-American ideals of freedom and justice. As we sing this hymn, let us remember not only the struggles Christians in Charleston are facing — but all the challenges that are before us, as well.

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.

[1]http://www.examiner.com/article/new-jersey-and-the-ku-klux-klan-the-klan-arrives

[2]http://www.pointpleasanthistory.com/timelines.htm