If God Is For Us…
By Charles Rush
June 22, 2003
I Samuel 17:32-49
32 David said to Saul, "Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him."
33 Saul replied, "You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth."
34 But David said to Saul, "Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine."
Saul said to David, "Go, and the LORD be with you."
38 Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. 39 David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.
"I cannot go in these," he said to Saul, "because I am not used to them." So he took them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd's bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
41 Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. 42 He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him. 43 He said to David, "Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?" And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 "Come here," he said, "and I'll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!"
45 David said to the Philistine, "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. 46 This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know 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."
ve heard this story since I was a small child and I’ve heard it differently in every different era of my life. What strikes me is that it is a story told by men about a boy who became a man. Nowadays, I have a certain empathy for the vulnerability of young men with their identity as they assume the expectations of what it means to be a man in our world.
heard a story, I don’t even know if it is true or not, that on the day the Twin
Towers were hit by the planes, one Dad on the upper floors of the building
realized that he was trapped and called home on his cell phone, left a message
on his tape machine that said in closing to his son, “You’re the man of the
house now.” Those kind of messages are deeply interiorized in adolescent boys,
despite the fact that they are not entirely ready to be the man of the house.
I was thirteen, David’s age, I had
three friends that I hung around with all of the time. One day, the three of
them were walking to school as we always did. I happened not to catch up with
them that day. They were walking down a busy access lane during rush hour
traffic and one of them stepped out of line, was hit by an oncoming car, and
killed instantly. My other two friends ran to a nearby house, secured blankets,
wrapped him up til the ambulance got there. They walk on to the school where
the principal meets them and hurries them into his office. Their parents are
called and fresh clothes are dropped off. The principal, and this is from a
different era, makes the decision that the death should not be announced until
the end of the school day. He looks at the boys and tells them that he needs to
be men and to not say anything about the accident to any other student for the
entire day while they go to class. I’ll spare the gruesome details, but they
have just been through a fairly intense trauma and what they get is ‘go to
class, say nothing’. This is what we did for countless generations before us
and it is all underscored with, ‘Be a man’.
did exactly as they were told. Of course, the middle school could talk about
nothing else during the day, everyone speculating on the extent of the injury,
literally hundreds of people cornering them for information, including people
like myself who were saying, ‘you can tell me… come on… this is me asking…”
They never cracked.
remember hearing the announcement during our last class for the day and that my
best friend was dead. I quietly got up, right during the middle of class,
walked to the door, out in the hall, out the side door and I ran all the way
home. And I got under the covers in my bed and pulled them all the way over me.
I was just a child. I didn’t want to be a man right then.
later, I would love to call those guys up and reflect on that day. Young men
are vulnerable in adolescence to everything that it is meant by being a man.
And in our story today, you have the whole professionally trained army from the
Philistines, replete with their hand carved armor. The little nation of Israel
is threatening to be overrun and they turn to this young kid. For a moment, I
have to put myself in that kids shoes and wonder how it is that it came to
this, our story this morning lifts up the virtue of standing in the face of
overwhelming odds. Because it is a story is about men and told by men, there is
a rather uncritical endorsement of military valor. Ever since the Iliad, men
have told stories to other men about what Homer called ‘The great deeds of
valor’, deeds that outlive mere mortality and keep one alive forever in the
shrine of respectful memory of the rising generations. Our story functioned
like that, a reminder of what God can do with even puny little Israel, hapless
and surrounded by kingdoms of Giants, well organized and equipped with the
of our social role for tens of thousands of generations as defenders against
aggression, men tend to value courage in subterranean ways that they can’t even
fully articulate. I was talking with a friend of mine about the movie Saving Private Ryan, particularly the
gripping opening scene that graphically takes the audience inside the invasion
of Normandy on D-Day. After discussing the guts that it took for the American
soldiers to just get out of the LST’s that day, he said to me, ‘What do you
think it must have been like for those German officers in the pill boxes that
morning. You wake up, expecting nothing to happen again today. You are having
your morning coffee when you look out and see this swarm of enemy soldiers
coming right at you. You are on the phone to Berlin and they are telling you to
hold the beach no matter what?” Wave after wave coming at you, your guns are
getting too hot, you are running low on ammo. What makes people stand in the breach,
willing to make such a sacrifice, knowing what is coming? Several things…
helps that they are young and naďve. It is no accident that we recruit 17 and
18 year olds fight our wars. I have a friend who is fond of remembering his
youth by saying, ‘back when I was immortal’ as he relays some hairbrained
scheme that he was caught up in. I was talking to a retired serviceman, about
my age, on why he left the Navy Seals. Physically he was still able to do it.
Mentally he still loved the challenge of special operations. But among the list
of reasons to leave, he said he noticed that spiritually he had an internal
reluctance to engage in certain dangerous situations that the 20 year olds
would run right into. He had lived through it to know what was at stake. Robert
Kaplan wrote a book about traveling across Africa and he reported that there is
nothing as dangerous as a group of 15 year old boys with Ouzi’s that have
formed their own little militia. What makes them so scary is that they can do
anything and they will do anything. The situation is wildly unpredictable. That
exuberance of youth combined with naivete has to be carefully controlled. It is
capable of great daring.
it helps to be desperate, to either have no other option or feel that you have
no other option. From my generation, one of the best movie scenes was Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being tracked by a relentless possee over several
days prompting each of them to keep asking the other one, ‘who are those guys?’
They are finally cornered on a cliff with no way out except to jump 70 feet
into a rushing river over rapids. Butch says ‘we’ll jump.’ Sundance
says, “No, I can’t swim.” Butch
laughs, ‘hell the fall will probably kill ya.’ And with that they both
grab their holsters and jump. Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh. Desperation helps a great deal.
we were to move up the spiritual chain a notch( naďve, desperate), it helps,
spiritually speaking, to have deep seated conviction. This week on ’60 Minutes’ there was a feature on an
Iranian exile who produces a television show in Los Angeles that he smuggles to
a region that borders Iran and has it beamed into his country. The show
features satire, the surest way to make a moral point to overly serious, overly
zealous religious political leaders. Part of the show features people calling
in asking questions to Iranian clergy and political leaders, with them
dispensing their whacky interpretations of Islam, drawing upon social customs
from 1000 years ago and making them laughingly irrelevant to modern situations.
The show is a huge hit in Iran and enormously effective.
has single handedly solidified a huge social reform movement with weighty
clout. On September 12th, 2001, the program concluded with a plea to
the people of Iran to show their solidarity with New Yorkers and Americans by
lighting a candle and walking through the streets of Tehran. That night, with
only that solitary plea on television, tens of thousands of people marched
together. That is soul force that no tyranny can control. And it is too
bad that we Americans are not supportive of creative ways to shape peoples soul
around democratic values of tolerance as we are of imposing military security
constraints. It is going to take both to effect constructive change.
Rose interviewed the man responsible for the show. He asked him about threats
on his life. There are many. He has had fatwah’s issued against him, other
threats. He is about in the same category as Salman Rushdie for satirizing the
clergy. Charlie Rose asked if that deterred him. He responded that he had fear
like anyone but that fear was overridden by his concern for his country and his
conviction that this was the right thing to do, that he couldn’t stand doing
nothing as his countrymen were forced to live in oppression, and that he wanted
to be remembered for being part of their liberation. He has moral courage, the
courage of his conviction. And when you have that, you can endure a great deal
of attack, people can slander you, you can live through deprivation and torture
for years on end, like the great humanitarian in Burma Sun Ye Key, who won
election before the military coup and who refuses to acknowledge the authority
of the military rule. One woman, but with great soul force, she cannot be
stopped. Kill her and she will come back like Hydra with 7 heads because she
has moral integrity and others see that and even the military dictators know
it. Moral authority vests people with
superhuman spiritual courage.
finally, and our text this morning lifts this up, the assurance of God. We can
be filled with a quiet, humane courage when we know that God is with us. Psalm
23 says, ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art
with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’ God’s assurance is really
important because much of our life is not so morally clear and we cannot have
that surety of convictions. And some of our threats are not exactly moral
either, they are just there.
In our story this morning,
David goes out to fight the giant, the Lord is with him, the Lord blesses him.
He picks up the smooth stones and lands the one in a hundred shot, a
combination of youthful skill, Divine Providence, courageous daring, and good
old luck. Courage is like that. It changes the field and opens up possibilities.
Once in a while, you will hit the long shot, the outside horse will not only show
or place but win, the big over-engineered enemy will falter under the grotesque
sophistication of his own design like those Black Hawk helicopters that could
be taken down with a simple bazooka shot underneath the rear tail. Once in a
while, the hail Mary pass to the end zone will save the day, and the fans in
the stands will go berserk and even your Father will cheer you as gilded with
gold by the gods. True grit, real daring has a way of altering the odds
dramatically and even the disciples of planning tip their hat in deference to
it’s occasional stunning success.
But real courage is not
actually dependent on outcomes. And just as often, indeed, more often, courage
makes a great try, a noble try and is smashed by forces too great for us to
overcome and we just have to deal with that.
was reminded of that this week by my neighbors, the McGeough’s who buried their
15 year old son Ryan, after a two and a half year battle with cancer that the
physicians could not cure. He was a strong athlete in the prime of life and he
put up a valiant effort. His parents spent whatever it took, researched
everything they could, contacted the best experts in the field, but it was not enough.
they had to live probably every parents worst nightmare and sit vigil with him
as he died over the course of a few short weeks. And I have wondered about the
courage to actually do that. We don’t beat the giant that day. And we all, each
in our own way, will have to face that trial at some point, sitting vigil with
others or for ourselves.
can’t do it for other people; we can only support them in our prayers, in the
tangible soul force that comes from being surrounded by a community of care.
What does it mean to be a community of care in a situation like that? And how
can you share support for someone that you don’t know all that well? Over the
years, what strikes me is the value of a thousand small acts of thoughtfulness.
There is a great value to thinking about the small things at times like this.
couple years ago, one of our Church members stopped me in the grocery store. Like
so many people that heard about the McGeough’s, she wanted to do something, in
addition to praying for their family, their son. I said to her, ‘it
doesn’t have to be very dramatic, which is really overwhelming anyway. Why
don’t you just do what our grandmothers have done before us because you do it
so well.’ ‘What?’ she said. “Make them a pie.” She didn’t say
anything. She was considering in her heart what she should do.
the next morning, if you had been in her kitchen you would have heard the rolling pin pushing dough between
sheets of waxed paper and by the time I was up for coffee I could smell karo
syrup baking with eggs, supporting a sea of pecans. It is the way that in the
South we were taught to say so many things that really cannot be spoken because
they are too intimate or just too much. And there began the first of many pies
that she baked over the next couple of years for the McGeough’s, delivered when
she pronounced that they were needed.
I don’t know what they thought or how they received them. At a minimum, they
are damn fine to eat and I say that without prejudice. But in the small
exchanges that we shared with them over the months, I know that they
communicated more fully and more reservedly than our words alone could have. I
only share that with you because, over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate
the value of both in these situations- fullness and reserve. It is a
thousand small acts of thoughtfulness.
wonder about what to do in the Church, especially for people that we don’t know
that well. A lot of little things work well. A short note. Lifting others up in
prayer. A little gift. Inviting kids over. Just showing up with food. You don’t
have to be witty or wise to touch others. You just have to reach out. And
somehow, someway all of those small graces around us are just enough to keep us
human, to remind us of what is valuable. It is just enough to give us the
courage to bear the losses that we cannot control and to move through the
wounds that really won’t ever quite heal. The situation may not change, but we
will. Prayer and love have that power and they give people great courage, maternal
courage, courage we all will have to have. I share with you a short reflection
on the simple virtue of pie, thinking back over the past couple of years.
saw you today
I wanted to tell you how sorry I was
you have to carry this heavy burden.
looked tired and I wished for a moment
I could magically lift your worry and your doubt
wanted to give you a talisman that would ward off all potential evil
at least carry some of that burden for you for a while
awful baggage of anxiety that parent has for child.
I can’t and I couldn’t. So I just touched you instead.
here have a pie and may it nourish you for the great unknown ahead.
heard that the cancer came back
I wanted to call you and ask you about fear.
wish I could pray you to safety in the midst of the threat,
you, bathe you in peace even as the storm rages round.
you need to muster your strength,
up against what mayhem might bring you,
on what needs to be done today
plot the daily tasks that head toward recovery.
is not the season to contemplate fear,
the fact that it palpably surrounds us all.
prayed for you instead.
here, have a pie, may it bring you comfort and strength.
saw you in the middle of the day,
were walking alone
wanted you to know that you are not isolated
there are dozens of people praying this day for you
they have sent e-mail to hundreds others
great cloud of witnesses surround your family,
collectively they are washing you in blessing and grace,
hope you can feel them holding you up.
I know you don’t need the drama
the tangible network of active support around you
I just said, ‘you are not alone’
here, have a pie from all of us, the great horde of the unseen that hold you
son is dying
can stop that now
afraid to visit you because there is nothing I can do.
token gestures seem so feeble, gelid, flaccid
the cold steel of tragedy and death.
I know that if you live that big drama it is only through the simple rhythm of
feeding, medicating, checking for pain, cleaning, changing sheets and watching
as the life force drains away one drop at a time.
outside your door, I worry that my gift is banal, superfluous
somehow I’ve completely missed the point.
seeing your face, worried but warm, grimaced but graced
just know that I don’t need words tonight
we don’t have to exchange verbally at all
order for us to have shared
I know that my puny little offering is just enough
please take my pie, and share a piece of sweet love with your family.
is a thousand small thoughtful gestures that get us through, keep us humane.
And usually what you need to do is one thing immediately at hand. May the Spiritual
force flow through you and may you be privileged to be the assurance of God for
those around you.
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