Sticks and Stones (message for June 8th)

I attended Milan Elementary School, so I know the story well.  The year was 1954, this was before Indiana high school sports had divisions based on size.   Milan High School had a total enrollment of 161 and they found themselves playing at Hinkle Fieldhouse against the ten times larger school of Muncie Central in the state championship.  In the final seconds, star player Bobby Plump took a buzzer beating shot which scored and gave the Milan Indians the victory 32-30.  This famous moment in Indiana basketball history was later used as the inspiration for the 80’s movie Hoosiers.   In the movie, it goes down like this:

            We love a good underdog story.   An underdog story is when a person or team overcomes great odds and a seemingly undefeatable foe to either emerge victorious or claim a personal victory.   I may be wrong about this, but I think that every single sports movie ever made, is a movie that is about the underdogs.  This is not a surprise, because it makes for such a compelling story, there is a lot of drama in the little guy overcoming the obstacles do to hard work, team work, and determination.  When an underdog has a chance to win in real life it is always referred to as being a “Cinderella story” or as being a modern “David vs. Goliath.”   Many people consider the original underdog story to be David vs. Goliath, where the scrappy shepherd kid takes on the Philistine giant who bullied an entire nation.    This is one of the quintessential bible stories, and one of the stories we teach to children at a young age.    Chances are for most of us, it is these children’s versions of the stories that stick with us.  For me the version of this story that most sticks out is the animated The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible version that I watched when I was in elementary school.  Despite being familiar with the story form that point forward, I am just about certain that I did not actually read the actual scripture of this story until I was 19 and reading for the Bible for the first time.  I think this is true for most people, because if we were truly familiar with the story then we would never consider the tale of David vs. Goliath an underdog story.  From the very beginning it is clear that David does not once view himself as the underdog.

            The whole story can be found in 1 Samuel chapter 17, but it goes something like this.  God’s chosen people were emerging as a proper nation under their first true king, Saul.   Neighboring the borders of this fledging nation were the Philistines, a federation of city states who shared the same deities and cultural identity.   Because the Israelites had conquered the promise land generations ago, the Philistines were hemmed in with the Egyptians on one side and God’s chosen people on the other.  Being the weaker of the two nation, the Israelites often had to fight off Philistine incursions.   The story beings with one such potential battle.   In between the Philistine cities and Jerusalem the armies of the Philistines met the assembled army of the Israelites.  The opposing forces had both camped out on opposing hills, with a valley between them.    This led to a stalemate.  Neither side wanted to be the aggressor who rushed across the valley and had to fight a literal uphill battle.  To break this stalemate, the Philistines had an ace up their sleeve.  They had a hero, a giant.   How tall Goliath was is up for debate, because translating ancient measuring systems is a bit on inexact science.   His height ranged from six foot six to nine feet, with a decent estimate being somewhere around just over seven feet.   This would mean we can realistically picture Goliath as the same height and build as Shaquille O’neil.   While this is not mythical giant size, keep in mind that the average height for an adult man in this era was five foot, five inches.   This happens to be the height of formal pro basketball player Earl Boykins, and when you put him next to Shaq we get a good idea how David might have measured up.  Goliath would have towered over the forces assembled on the battlefield. 

            Since the two armies were at a stalemate, the Philistines proposed a battle of champions.  In ancient literature this concept shows up multiple times when full on fighting between two opposing forces seems too risky to both involved parties.  The idea is simple, instead of having two armies fight, two champions fight in place of the armies and the winner decides the fate of everyone.   Given the size and apparent strength of Goliath this seemed like a sure win for the Philistines.   Goliath could not lose in single combat and if the Israelites never accepted the challenge then they would have been shamed and appear weak to all of the surrounding nations.  

            It is during the midst of these daily challenges that David comes to the battlefield.  His older brothers were part of the army, and David’s father sends him to deliver food to them.   David sees the giant, hears Goliath’s challenge, and when the combined army of the Israelites backs away in terror he is shocked.   In 1 Samuel 17:26 David challenging asks “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”   David cannot believe that this challenger who mocks both God and the chosen people has not yet been dealt with.   Word of David’s big talk quickly reaches the king, who summons David and in verse 32 “David said to Saul, ‘Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”   This is not the language of an underdog.  David was taking a “if no one else will, I guess I can give it a shot approach.”   David was fully confident that he would prevail.   Saul was not though, David had to convince him and David argued that it would be God who would make him victorious.   The bible does not say what convinced him.  Perhaps Saul truly trusted God to deliver or maybe he was just desperate, but Saul agrees to David’s offer.   To prepare him for battle, Saul offers David his armor.   However, it does not fit right and David even has difficulty in moving in it.  In the end, David goes with what he knows.  He takes his staff, his sling, and grabs five smooth stones to go face the giant. 

            We know what happens next, David faces off against Goliath.   The shepherd boy versus the giant.   Goodness it feels like an underdog story, but David still is not acting like one.  Goliath taunts David with a grisly fate.  David does not let this phase him in the slightest.  In fact he still acts with confidence, he yells back, “You come against me with sword and spear and Javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”   David then goes on to return the taunts of Goliath in a much more dramatic and evocative way than the giant.   David concludes his speech by saying “the whole word will know that there is a God in Israel.  All those gathered here will now that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give all of you into our hands.” 

            What happens next is the most fascinating part of the story.   David is facing the giant and he runs-towards him!   David, the supposed underdog, runs with full confidence runs headlong into the giant.   He faces the opposition without fear, because David has full confidence that God will deliver.    As he is running towards the giant he slings a stone, it strikes true.  Verse 50 records it as such, “So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and stone, without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.”   Goliath is defeated and the Israelites pursued the Philistines all the way back to their cities.  

            When we read the story as recorded in the scripture David vs. Goliath is not an underdog story.  At no point does David ever assume that he is the underdog, throughout the entire story he acts as if his victory is a forgone conclusion.   Showing up with sticks and stones in an ancient duel is kind of like bringing a knife to a gunfight, but that is exactly what David does.  Despite being outgunned, he is still supremely confident he is going to triumph because he fully trusts that God is with him.   David did not write, but he would no doubt agree with the sentiment of the apostle Paul who wrote in Romans 8:31 “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

            This story challenges us all to have confidence that God will be for us in our lives and to act as if that is the case.   When we face giants in our lives, this story challenges us not to consider ourselves the underdog hoping not to get crushed but instead view ourselves as the favorite because we have the God of angel armies on our side.   Specifically though, I want to consider how this story applies to us as a church.   Because as Edinburgh United Methodist Church, we face giants.   All of these giants share a common theme, and that is our mission; specifically that we cannot accomplish it.    Our mission as a church is to “make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our world.”  Our mission is bring hope to the hopeless, salvation to the lost, and love to an unloving world.   There are giants of doubt, fear, and disbelief that stand in our way, which scoff that we cannot do this.   There is a giant of cynicism that tells us that a small church of our size could not hope to make a difference, that we are too insignificant to be significant.   There is a giant of doubt that tells us that we do not have what it takes to reach people.   It tells us that we are irrelevant and have no hope of reaching anyone, especially younger generations, for Christ.   There is a giant of fear that tell us the world has changed, that it is not safe anymore, and that as Christians we are unwanted.  This giant whispers that we should give up on the world, and just stay inside our sanctuary where it is safe.   Just like Goliath taunted the Israelites and mocked God, these metaphorical giants hold us back from fulfilling our God given mission.  

            From the story of David and Goliath, there are two points we need to consider when facing our own giants.   First, we need to be ourselves.   David did not defeat Goliath wearing Saul’s armor.   He relied on what he knew and trusted God to do the rest.   There are churches that do a great job at bringing people in with a professional level band, state of the art lights, and incredible custom made multimedia graphic design.  That might work at reaching people in Edinburgh, but that is not who we are.   In order to face the giants facing us, we need to stay true to who God made us to be as a church.   This does not mean we refuse to change, this does not mean that we do things the same way we have always done them just because that is how we always have done them.   What it means is we use what we are good at, what defines us, to fulfill our mission.   We rely on who we are as a church to share the love of God instead of try to make ourselves something we are not.  There is a philosophy in business, which I believe applies to churches as well called leading with your strengths.  The idea is instead of spending all of our time and energy to fix perceived weaknesses, energy should be poured into doing what we are good at better.   Every church cannot be great at everything, so we lead with our strengths and become the best at what we are already great at.  Back in January, we had a church leadership retreat to determine just this.  Instead of focusing on weaknesses, we focused on identifying who we are, and what we as a church our passionate about.  The top two things that came out of this conversation is that as a church we are connected church.  This is a place where we embrace people, and make them feel like they are not just part of a club but that they are truly members of a loving church family.   It was also identified that we as a church care about our community, especially the young people.   How do we overcome giants that tell us that we are too small too matter and that we are too irrelevant to be relevant in the lives of the lost?   We follow David’s example.   We lead with our strengths.   We do what we are good at in the most excellent way possible, and we trust God to deliver.     

            The second way that we follow the example of David, is that we run towards the giants we are facing.  We tackle them headlong.   If the giants we as a church face tell us that we can not complete our mission, then what we should do is complete the mission!   In 1923 a young baseball player set the record that no pro-baseball player wants.  In the 1923 season he held the record for striking out the most times.  This baseball player went down swinging a lot.  In an earlier season he had earned the nickname the “strikeout king” and he even set a record for the most career strikeouts that stood for 30 years.    Today though, no one remembers George Herman Ruth, better known as Babe Ruth, as the strikeout king.   This is because in 1923 he also set the record for the most homeruns in a single season, the highest batting average in a single season, and he set the record for career homeruns that stood for a generation.   Babe Ruth was once quoted as saying, “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”   We miss 100% of the pitches we do not swing at, and we cannot let fear hold us back.   When we are facing down giants, when we are looking at a tasks that seems like a tall order, and something we can not do then we should follow David’s example.   If we feel led by the Spirit to take it on as a way of completing a mission, then we should run at it, we should swing away, and we trust God to deliver.   

            When we are faced with the giants that stand between us and our mission to make disciples, it can feel like we are the underdog.  It can feel like we only have sticks and stones, and we are hopelessly outmatched.   We have to remember though, we also have God on our side, and because of that we are not the underdogs.    If God is for us who can be against us?   Nothing, absolutely nothing, because with God all things are possible.   May we as a church face our giants, but not just face them.  May we run at them, may we swing away, and may we, by the grace of God, full of the love of Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit BE the disciples who transform the world.