“Like David in the Valley of Elah”
A sermon preached on PentecostIV 7B
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton
I don’t know about you, but I come to church this morning with a very heavy heart. The events in South Carolina have deeply troubled my spirit. I can only imagine what you all may be feeling – what emotions you carry in your heart.
Some of you may be shifting in your seats and thinking, “Oh, God. I come to church to be uplifted; to spend some time away from all that mess in the world. I come to learn something about my faith. I don’t need politics in the pulpit. I can read the New York Times or the Washington Post when I get home.”
My intention is for this to be a sermon about the promises of the Gospel and the hope we have in Jesus. But, I would not be a faithful priest if I ignore the horrific pain that is just outside our doors which some of you have brought into church with you this morning.
As Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, once wrote about her priestly discernment,
“Being a priest seemed only slightly less dicey to me than being chief engineer at a nuclear plant. In both cases, one needed to know how to approach great power without losing great danger and getting fried in the process. All in all, I was happier in the pew.”Indeed.
In his statement about this national tragedy in South Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Dan Thomas Edwards, Bishop of Nevada wrote, in part:
It is too small a thing to condemn racism once again. It is too small a thing to condemn gun violence once again. It is unacceptable to attribute the violence against a Black congregation to a deranged lone gunman when systemic racism and systemic violence are pervasive and are being overtly acted out with increasing frequency. We must not “heal our people’s wounds too lightly,” as Jeremiah put it. Nothing short of the gospel can speak for us to this tragedy, a gospel not just proclaimed but acted on to usher in the Kingdom. We need a lot more Kingdom right now . . . . . . We need the gospel to infiltrate the real life of the people and make the creation new right now.Not “heal our people’s wounds too lightly” and not just proclaim the gospel but get the gospel to “infiltrate the real life of people”. You understand what Ms. Taylor was talking about in terms of “getting fried in the process.” You’ll forgive my preference for sitting in the pew.
Mark’s Gospel (4:35-41) does offer us a great deal to consider about how we might rely on Him when storms like this terrible national tragedy enter our lives.
Many of us clearly identify with those disciples in the boat in the middle of a storm. Jesus was asleep on some cushions in the stern. They went to him, woke him up and said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And, it was Jesus to the rescue! He rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And lo! There was a dead calm.
If only . . . . If we just had faith. More faith. Enough faith. That’s the answer, right? All of this is happening because we’re afraid and we are afraid because we have no faith. Simple.
I am hearing the words of the Prophet Jeremiah. “Do not dress the people’s wounds too lightly” (6:14) or “ . . . cry ‘Peace! Peace!’ When there is no peace”.
I submit to you that, in order to better understand the Gospel, we need to understand something from the Hebrew Scripture which we heard this morning. It was the first option – the passage from 1 Samuel 17(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49). I think there are some things we can learn about faith and conquering the Giant of Racism and being like David in the Valley of Elah.
It’s the story of David and Goliath which we all think we know but, tell me, when was the last time you heard it as an adult – much less, in church? It’s a classic battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. The nation which emerges as winner of the battle will be lord and master over the other.
You may have missed the connection by the gentile language of “servants” but hear again the words of Goliath:
Just so we’re clear, we’re talking about slavery based on race and religion here.
“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."
Saul and the rest of the men of Israel heard the words of Goliath and saw his great size and strength and they were sore afraid. When young David appeared, fresh from the fields of tending sheep, he also heard the words of the great giant but said he would fight him.
When Saul and the other men protested, David reminded them that, as part of his job as a shepherd, he sometimes had to defend the sheep against lions and bears. Surely, if God was with him in battle against the lion and bear, then, with God’s help, he could take on this giant.
Saul reluctantly agreed and tried to dress David in his armor, but David could hardly walk in it. He took it off and “he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi (or, a dry river bed), and put them in his shepherd's bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.”
Goliath laughed at the sight of this young boy, “ruddy and handsome in appearance” but David laughed right back. Drawing one of the smooth stones from his pouch, slug it and hit Goliath, bringing him to his knees, and he fell dead, face down on the ground.
And thus, David did kill Goliath in the Valley of Elah.
Here’s what I think: I think the church, the Body of Christ, has been asleep in the stern of the boat. The storm of racism has been swirling around us for a long, long time. In many ways, the issues for which we fought and many died in the Civil War are still alive and well and continuing to tear apart the very fabric of this nation.
Here's what I think: I think Jesus has been waiting for US to wake up. I think it’s time for us to take off our protective armor and get back to the basics of our faith. I think we all have experience fighting lions and bears in our own lives.
I think we all have slingshots of power and authority and a pouch where we store at least five smooth stones of faith. We all know how to protect and defend that which is precious and important to us.
Either we believe what we say in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States that “all men – all people – are created equal” or we don’t’. Either that’s worth defending or it isn’t.
Either we believe what we say in our Five Baptismal Promises – that we respect the dignity of every human being” or we don’t. Either that’s worth dying for or it isn’t.
Indeed, I believe the five smooth stones we have to fight off the Giant Evil of Racism can be found in those Five Baptismal Promises:
And, there it is, my friends. Those are the five stones we have at our disposal. They are five stones made smooth by the baptismal waters of our faith. We have our own slings – the authority of our baptism in Christ Jesus – to take those stones into the Valley of Elah and take on the Giant Evil of Racism.
Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
We who call ourselves Christians, we who have built the story of our faith on the stories of Hebrew and Christian Scripture, can change the story of this country by the witness and actions of our own faith. As Brene Brown writes:
When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.I do believe that our Five Baptismal Promises will help us to do this. It won’t be easy. Our leaders will not be allowed to cry “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace. We will not be able to dress our wounds too lightly. We will have to call up prophets and listen to them speak.
Until we find a way to own our collective stories around racism in this country, our history and the stories of pain will own us.
We will not get away from the violence and heartbreak. Fear and scarcity will continue to run roughshod over our country. Yes, the violence in Charleston is also about access to guns and, more than likely, mental illness. But it’s also about race.
Our collective stories of race in the US are not easy to own. They are stories of slavery, violence, and systemic dehumanization. We will have to choose courage over comfort. We will have to feel our way through the shame and sorrow. We will have to listen. We will have to challenge our resistance and our defensiveness.
I do believe, in the words of Bishop Dan Edwards, we will need to do
I do believe we can wake up, drop all of our protective emotional armor of self-deception, resistance and defensiveness and carry our five stones made smooth by the waters of our baptism into the Valley of Elah.
“a lot more justice in the distribution of resources and opportunities, a lot less racist blaming of minorities to distract poor whites from the real forces behind their growing numbers and declining quality of life, a lot more curiosity and imagining our way into each others situations, a lot less grudge clinging, a lot more hope for the common good, and a lot less scrambling to get our piece of the action.”
I believe that together, we can bring this Evil Giant of Racism to its knees – with God’s help. I believe we can “infiltrate the gospel into the real life of the people and make the creation new right now”. I believe Jesus will cry out “Peace, be still” and calm the waters of the storm.
And, I don’t know about you, but that belief, that hope, that vision, that shalom peace, that work of moving us through the storm and closer to the Realm of God is the reason I come to church.
To learn how to be more like David in the Valley of Elah.
Note: In place of the Nicene Creed, the congregation was asked to reaffirm their Baptismal Vows, which they did with great vigor and amidst tears.