Sunday Sermon – June 21, 2015

Daniel P. Strandlund

St. John’s Episcopal Church

June 21, 2015

Proper 7B, 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49


This Violent Manhood

            David and Goliath is one of those bible stories that we’ve heard so many times that our imaginations have rubbed this story every bit as smooth as that stone David picked up out of the creek bed.  Today I want to do two things: first, I want to make the story of David and Goliath hard to handle again by highlighting some earlier parts of the 1 Samuel narrative and some possibilities they raise; and second, because it is Father’s Day, I want to hurl this little story at the towering but rickety suit of armor that is our culture’s understanding of manhood.  In short, I think that we as Americans pay a lot of lip service to valuing men, fathers in particular, but in reality I don’t think we value them much at all.  In our culture we have a tacit belief that violence and invulnerability are good and necessary parts of manhood.  Think about superheroes: Iron-Man is only impressive if he has somebody to fight.  The Hulk is awesome because he’s basically indestructible.  But if this is what makes a man valuable, then it follows that a man can have no inherent worth in himself, but only if he is successfully competing against or resisting another.  And if this is true, then it follows further that a man can only have long-term value in a situation of entrenched conflict.  The Iron-Man movie ends when there are no more bad guys to fight. Now entrenched conflict leads to a warped sense of identity: I can only be me, when I am against you. Thus, our culture does not value men, but only conflict between men.  I’m going to spin this progression out in 1 Samuel.

1 Samuel 4-7à David is an Israelite, and Goliath is a Philistine.  The Israelites and the Philistines emerge into this geographic area at around the same time, and they immediately begin fighting.  In 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites are losing to the Philistines, so they bring the Ark of the Covenant into battle with them.

But the Ark of the Covenant is captured by the Philistines and kept in their cities for 7 months, including Gath, where Goliath is from.  Plagues rain down on the Philistines, so they eventually give the Ark back.  When then fighting breaks out again, this time the Israelites are victorious and they capture some Philistine cities, including Goliath’s home town of Gath.  Now we know that Goliath has been a warrior since his youth (17:33).  One wonders if that is because the Israelites invaded his town when he was only a boy, and he was forced to fight young.  Or maybe Goliath was born afterward and grows up hearing the story from his father and uncles as they begin bequeathing their fear and anger onto Goliath’s generation.  Either way, we can see already that one of the reasons David must one day square off with Goliath, the Warrior of Gath, is because Israel is one side of an entrenched conflict.

1 Samuel 8à At this time Israel is under the leadership of Samuel, a prophet and judge and man of God who converses with the Lord and gives Israel his instructions.  Samuel is an old man.  The Israelites, who are constantly fighting the Philistines, are concerned that there will be chaos and corruption after Samuel’s leadership has ended, so they demand a king to govern us and go out before us and fight our battles (8:20).

1 Samuel 9à Samuel eventually agrees to anoint for them a king.  He anoints Saul, the son of a wealthy man, and just like Goliath, Saul would’ve grown up hearing stories about how Israel’s ancient feud (9:1).  Because Saul is handsome, tall and strong, standing head and shoulders above everyone else (9:2), Samuel knows that Saul is the perfect candidate, exactly what the Israelites have hoped for.  Indeed, the name Saul means, what was asked for.

1 Samuel11à Saul delivers on everyone’s expectations.  A group of Ammonites have been attacking and mutilating a village of Israelites, and when Saul hears about it he is so angry that he goes into a frenzy and slaughters an ox, cuts it into pieces and sends the pieces out to everyone in Israel saying, if you do not go to war with me against the Ammonites, this is what will happen to your oxen.  Thus, Saul unites the tribes of Israel by dominating them with his violent charisma.  He goes to war with the Ammonites, and crushes them.  We can already see the pattern here: the Israelites demand a king because they are afraid, and Saul is the one they raise up because he is strong and able to defeat other people.  He’s their Iron-Man.

1 Samuel 13à Saul reigns securely as the King of Israel for a while.  He has a son named Jonathan, and Jonathan grows up hearing the stories of Israel’s ancient feud with the Philistines.  And the pattern continues.  One day Jonathan goes out of his way to attack a garrison of Philistines at a place called Geba.  He is unprovoked.  Let me say that again: when Jonathan, son of Saul, is a young man, he goes to a Philistine building in a Philistine neighborhood and kills them.  This was not in the heat of battle, so we do not know why he does this.  Perhaps he wanted to be like his father, or to gain his father’s approval.  Maybe he thought he had to kill them before they got to him.  Maybe some Philistines jumped him and beat him up when he was little.  We do not know.  What we do know is that Saul is so proud of Jonathan for attacking the Philistines that he parades around the countryside blowing a trumpet to let everyone know.  Saul, whom Israel values for his strength and ability to win fights, values his son for the same reason.

In response to Jonathan’s attack, the Philistines muster for a fight.  There are so many Philistine soldiers that the Israelites scatter in terror, hiding in caves and holes and cisterns and even in tombs.  Saul gets nervous.  His hard earned security and reputation as Israel’s favored king is in jeopardy, so he sends out for Samuel, the man of God, to speak to God on Israel’s behalf.  But Samuel is too long in coming, and people are starting to abandon Saul and his cause”so Saul does not wait for Samuel to arrive, but makes sacrifices to the Lord himself.

Notice what this means: at this point in Israel’s history the king’s job is to govern and to fight; it is not to make sacrifices to the Lord.  That’s Samuel’s job.  So out of his fear for his security and his reputation, Saul oversteps his bounds as king.  When he sacrifices to the Lord himself rather than waiting for Samuel, Saul is not expressing his faith in God but is trying to manipulate God’s power to serve his own ends on his own terms.  He is seduced by fear and by the fawning voices around him, and so begins to believe that his religion and his God are beasts of war which he can unleash against his ancient foe.  We can see how Saul’s perspective is continuing to warp.  Because Israel values him for his strength and ability to fight, Saul begins to see everything as either a weapon to be exploited, or a potential enemy.

Thus, Saul, who stands head and shoulders above everyone else, loses God’s favor as king over Israel.

1 Samuel 14à There was hard fighting against the Philistines all the days of Saul; and when Saul saw any strong or valiant warrior [among the Israelites], he took him into his service (14:52).  Saul’s fear and paranoia grow.  He recruits more and more fighters and seeks out more and more fights.  I imagine that Saul’s reputation spreads, and that maybe amongst the Moabites and Ammonites people whisper Saul’s name with a kind of terrified respect.  And I imagine that Saul himself has begun to hear whispers of a Philistine of incredible size and strength, a giant his own people call the Warrior of Gath.

1 Samuel 16à Saul can no longer sleep, but each night tosses and turns through the same nightmare.  A battle in the dead of night, and through the sea of combatants a hulking shadow stands head and shoulders above the rest, a giant who reaches into the sky and unsheathes the curved blade of the moon and cuts through Saul’s armies”and always those voices whispering, the Warrior of Gath.  Truly, Saul has fallen out of the Lord’s favor.

So Samuel searches for a new king to anoint.  He meets a man named Jesse, who has seven sons.  The oldest son is handsome, tall and strong, standing head and shoulders above the rest, just like Saul, and even Samuel, that man of God, thinks, Surely this is the Lord’s anointed (16:6-7).  But God says no, for God does not see as mortals see; mortals look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart (16:7), and the six older, stronger sons of Jesse are passed over.  Instead the Lord chooses David, who, though he is handsome like Saul and Eliab, he’s just a little guy, busy watching over the sheep.  David likes to play music and sing.  He doesn’t evoke the terror and intimidation that haunt a man’s dreams.  This sets him up to be the perfect, surprising hero of the story we hear today: David and Goliath.

1 Samuel 17à The Philistines and Israelites line up for a fight, and Goliath steps forward taunting and challenging them to single combat.  Goliath has dreamed about this day, the day when he would finally get to try his strength against Saul, the Warrior of Israel.  I imagine that the other Philistines have dreamt of it too: their golden hero is a grown man, their Philistine Iron-Man, experienced in battle, and at somewhere between 6.5 and 9.5 feet tall, Goliath is head and shoulders even above Saul.

I imagine that Saul has been dreading this fight, when the hulking terror of his dreams becomes a reality and stands across from him on the field of battle.  This Goliath, this Warrior of Gath is here, he is bigger, he is stronger, and he is a more violent man, even than Saul.  Saul’s value in his own eyes and in the eyes of his people comes from his ability to be better and stronger than everyone else around him, and that kind of self-worth is always tenuous at best because all it takes is for someone a little taller than you to come along”or a little more wealthy, a little more charismatic, a little more well-connected”and then it all comes tumbling down and each night becomes a nightmare haunted by insufficiency.

Saul and Goliath have each inherited this violent manhood from the generation before them, just as Jonathan has inherited it from Saul, and their whole lives everyone around them has told them, yes, power and invulnerability are the standards of manhood to which we hold you.  Now at this point it would be easy to say that David is somehow different, that he is immune to those seductions, and that because he’s young and small he did not grow up feeling the burden of the same expectations that Saul and Goliath did, and that it was only the hand of God that saved him.  But look at the facts: David is anything but weak.  He’s killed lions and bears, apparently with his bare hands, and he’s good with a sling to boot.  I don’t think he’s nearly the underdog we make him out to be; his fights just haven’t been in the spotlight, so unlike Saul, he has no reputation to lose.

My point is that David might refuse to wear Saul’s armor, but he picks up the same mantle that Goliath wears for the Philistines and that Saul has worn for the Israelites.  David is the new Iron-Man, and he’s used his wits to steal that shiney masculinity away from Goliath and Saul.  He is not bigger or stronger, but he is tougher, smarter and more popular.  Goliath’s moment of glory is eclipsed by a stone; Saul’s lifetime of achievement is eclipsed by this scrappy shepherd.  Both Goliath and Saul fall from the narrative because the kind of manhood they are trying to wear for everybody around them is just not sustainable. It is an illusion, one that will bring even David a wealth of tragedy.

Too many men grow up like Saul and Goliath did, being told that their only value in this life is in being able to resist and overcome every type of adversity, whether it be emotional or physical or financial.  Too many men are told that failure and weakness are the only deadly sins of manhood, that greed or gluttony or wrath are all ultimately forgivable so long as they remain successful and strong.  Too many men grow up learning anger and violence towards Philistines or Israelites or people of different colors simply because men are taught that in order to have worth, they must have some kind of enemy to fight.

I want all of us to be aware of how we as a culture too often value conflict between men more than we value men themselves”We help make Sauls and Goliaths by valuing our male friends and relatives only in moments of success and strength, particularly our fathers.  We are like Saul’s retainers whispering to him, The Warrior of Gath, The Warrior of Gath, we will only love you if you can defeat him.  Or maybe we’re more like Jesus’ friends abandoning him on the cross.  We can’t bear for him to be weak, so we flee.

Finally, to all the dads in the room, and really anyone who feels the pressures of having always to succeed, to provide, to endure financial or vocational or emotional turmoil”know that the Lord your God does not see as mortals see, but looks on the heart.  He knows the pressures with which you live, and the weight of the armor you wear.  He knows that no matter how strong you are at some point a gargantuan Philistine or some shrimpy little kid with a bag of rocks is going to come along and knock you off your feet”and he wants you to know that even when that happens, you are his beloved child and that nothing in heaven or on earth or at home or at work can ever, ever make God love you any more, or any less, because you are made in God’s image, the love of Christ crucified is at work in you, and God is so, so proud of that, that all of your successes and all of your failures are framed and sitting on God’s desk in that great big office in the sky”Happy Father’s Day, Amen.