June 20, 2021
The story we heard from the first reading this morning is one that might be the best-known Biblical story in the whole Old Testament. We all know the story of the hulking, massive Goliath with his heavy armor, his huge weapons, and his even bigger boasts, facing off against the Israelites. And we know how he laughed in the face of this scrawny kid with a sling, all the odds stacked against him. Even the phrase “David and Goliath” has become a byword to describe the unlikely odds of the underdog coming out on top.
But I learned something interesting about this apparent mismatch of warriors recently. In just about every children’s book that includes the story of David and Goliath, David is shown holding a slingshot—I remember having a slingshot of my own growing up, and while I was always sternly warned not to shoot anyone with it, the worst that could happen was someone might get a pretty bad welt. However, what David had wasn’t a slingshot. It was a sling, a very specific and apparently very deadly weapon of the ancient world.
See, a sling would be a long strip of leather, about three or four feet long, with a wide spot in the middle of its length to hold a stone. Shepherds like David would put a stone, smooth and aerodynamic, into that wide spot, and then whirl the sling blindingly fast before letting go of one end of the strip of leather, propelling the stone at nearly 80 mph. There are records that talk about how slingers could shoot birds right out of the air. It had the stopping power of a .45 mm bullet, so David’s boast about killing lions and bears probably wasn’t just words. So the image of the impossible odds little David faced against the hulking Goliath, it turns out, aren’t quite accurate.
But that doesn’t mean his victory was inevitable. See, Goliath had been boasting and shouting down the Israelite army, calling for a champion to come out and fight him man to man. No one was willing to do it, because if you’re an average 5’ 5” Israelite, you don’t want to face down a 6’ 9” giant clad head to toe in bronze armor. When David volunteered to fight, Saul even gave him armor, thinking that’s exactly what David planned to do—go hand-to-hand with the giant. But David wasn’t going to go along with that. Old solutions to the problem of “the biggest guy wins” weren’t going to work. So David came at it with a different angle.
Instead of tackling the problem of the hulking Goliath on the giant’s terms, David switched the game. He knew it wasn’t going to work for him to pick up a sword and fight, so he used his own God-given skills instead. He used his experience of shepherding his father’s sheep, fighting off lions and bears with his deadly sling, and even used Goliath’s pride against him. When we face what look like insurmountable challenges, sometimes the solution isn’t to just do what we’ve always done, but better—it might instead be to take a totally new approach, ask a different question, solve the problem with a different set of tools.
We have gone through fifteen months of the biggest challenge the Church has faced in more than a generation. The pandemic first pushed us out of our church building, so we had to adapt our worship, fellowship, and faith lives to a world where we couldn’t really gather together. Everything had to change in an instant! Sunday School changed. Confirmation changed. Even coffee hour changed. We were facing Goliath, and we knew that picking up a sword and shield like we had always done would not work this time. We needed to do things differently. And we did.
We went online, worshipping in our pajamas on couches and on back decks. We sent Sunday School packages home with families to keep learning about their faith. We made phone calls and wrote letters and posted on Facebook to keep in touch. We sold pies at the Farmer’s Market when the fair was cancelled, and we opened up to online orders for the Lutefisk Supper when it still wasn’t safe to gather. We kept our masks on longer than a lot of people wanted to, keeping each other safe even as we slowly started worshipping in the building again. We picked up a sling instead of a sword, because we had to do what worked.
And now, as things look brighter and more hopeful each day, as it looks like we’ve taken down Goliath, we may imagine we can put down the slings and pick up our more familiar sword and shield. We may be tempted to get back to what was comfortable, and leave behind all that changed over the last fifteen months. We did the hard thing, we adapted where it was necessary, and now that it looks like it’s not necessary anymore, we are going to want to put it behind us like a bad dream. But the thing is, eventually there will be more Goliaths. The Church will continue to face changes like nothing we’ve seen in a long time. But the good news is, God has been with us before when this has happened, and God will be with us this time too.
God guided the Church through the fall of the Roman Empire, when the whole social order collapsed and the Church had to figure out how to operate in a post-Roman world. God guided the Church through the upheaval of the Reformation, when theology was brought to ordinary people and not just the ivory tower theologians, when questions were asked that had never been allowed to be asked before. God guided the Church through the religious backlash of the postwar Eastern Bloc, keeping the fire of faith alive. And God guided the Church through the tumult of the twentieth century, guiding us by the Spirit to witness to God’s never-changing grace every time the world changed so immensely.
So the challenge we face is to use what we have, where we are, against the Goliaths of a changing world, rather than wishing for bygone days and things we don’t have anymore. We’re challenged to take the gospel to people with shifting, busy schedules, who can’t make it to church every Sunday morning. We’re challenged to share the hope of salvation with people who want to know what God is doing now too, and not just at the end of time. We’re challenged to share the fullness of God’s peace and call to community in a world full of dividing lines and Shibboleths and litmus tests of who’s “good” and who’s “bad.” We’ve got our work cut out for us, but lucky for us, the Living God is with us.
Today, let’s be like David. Let’s set aside the heavy armor and shield and sword that used to work, but are getting less effective by the day. Let’s pick up new ways of being the Church together, sharing the gospel with our community and the wider world, demonstrating how this kingdom of God is worth getting into for everyone. Let’s adapt to the profoundly changed world we’ve inherited in the wake of the pandemic, trusting that the Living God is with us, leading us by the hand to take down the Goliaths that threaten to undo the work of the Gospel.
Today, let’s pick up our slings and trust in God, because they are far more effective against the giants we face today than our old swords could ever be.
Thanks be to God. Amen.