David, Goliath, and Emanuel Church

Usually I start out my sermon trying to make you laugh. I’m not going to do that today. Usually, I think it’s good to laugh during a sermon. There’s a lot of grace in laughter, and, God knows, we could all use a little more grace these days. But I can’t start with laughter today, not after this week.

We’re lamenting today, the loss of sisters and brothers in Christ. We’re lamenting the state of the soul of a young man who chose to commit such violence. We’re lamenting this morning. Lament is an important and powerful part of our tradition. Lament is at the heart of the majority of the psalms. Lament allows us to express our anguish, before God. We cry out to God the words of the disciples: “we are perishing!” This morning, with the events of this week, with all the history that makes these killings seem commonplace, we cry out “Lord, we are perishing!” And we expect God to answer us. That’s lament: a cry with an expectation of an answer.

We are lamenting this morning, and as we lament I find myself drawn to this story of David and Goliath. If we’re looking for an answer from God as we face great terror, I don’t know of a better scripture to search.

I shortened this reading today. The committee that sets the lectionary wanted us to read an additional 37 verses. I will sum them up for you here, but I also encourage you to take out your Bible when you go home and read the whole David saga. As the chapter opens, the Philistines are gathering for battle against the Israelites and their king, Saul. Young David has come down from the hillside near Bethlehem where he tends sheep. His Father Jesse has sent him to bring food to his brothers on the front lines of the battle. Meanwhile, a champion named Goliath of Gath has been taunting the Israelites for forty days. Goliath stands about nine feet tall according to the text. Every day he steps out in front of the Philistine army and calls for an Israelite champion to come face him. No one has stepped up, until David arrives.

I’m going to pause here, because this is a dangerous moment in the text. In recent years we’ve learned a great deal about the criminals who choose to take lives through gun violence. Often, as was the case this week, a young man imagines himself as a sort of David character. They may not name our story exactly, but the allegorical tale of the little guy standing up against the giant is often a primary driver for violence. The killer imagines they are fighting for the right against overwhelming odds.

You may wonder why I am giving Dylann Storm Roof’s ideology any time in my sermon. As a people shaped by the stories of the Bible, I think we have to engage when hateful violence happens. As people shaped by Scripture, we have to stand up and say: you read this story wrong. As I’ve read and listened to Dylann’s story, I have wondered why his friends didn’t challenge his ideology. When they heard he was planning to use his new gun fight a race war, why didn’t they stop him? If I had been Dylann’s friend, would I have had the courage to call the authorities?

David and Goliath illustration by Matt Murphy for the Guardian
David and Goliath illustration by Matt Murphy for the Guardian
We are facing a Goliath. But our Goliath isn’t a race of people Our Goliath isn’t single giant. It isn’t a murderous monster. Our Goliath isn’t a person, it’s an ideology, it’s a system. Our Goliath was created as women and men from Africa were forced into chattel slavery. My ancestors enhanced the racial biases they inherited. They created and codified a system of race that haunts us today. Especially over the last year of racial tension I have often heard “I can’t believe we’re still here.” It’s been 50 years since the March on Washington, why are murders still happening in black churches?

It feels like we are on the front lines, still, and still our Goliath wakes up in the morning to taunt us. The Bible tells us that Goliath walked back and forth jeering and the Israelites for forty days. Forty days is the Bible’s way of saying “a really long time,” too long. We have been waiting for the end of racism for too long. Why won’t this Goliath leave us alone?

Before I go on I have name another Goliath we have been facing another for too long. This week the twin monsters walked hand in hand. What’s the other Goliath? I was in my tenth grade classroom when a teacher’s aide came rushing around the hallway locking the doors. Our teacher got a call on the classroom phone, and told us all to back away from the windows. A mass shooting was happening at a nearby high school. That was the afternoon of Columbine.

Since that time, I have watched the news of shootings in churches, mosques, synagogues, movie theaters, and schools. We face another Goliath, and like the Israelites, we seem unable to face him. I do not understand why we can’t find a way to address gun violence in our country. Why do we keep passing laws making access to deadly weapons easy? Why can’t we pass sensible gun legislation?

We are taunted by our inability to face our Goliaths. Systemic racism continues to pollute the minds of young women and men. It’s not just about the young white men who turn to violence. Systemic racism makes it quantifiably more difficult for our young sisters and brothers of color to get ahead. At the same time gun violence continues to claim lives. Goliath stalks our nation, heavily armed, taunting us. If anything is going to change, we have to acknowledge the monstrous reality in which we find ourselves. We have to face our Goliaths. We have to call to God and say, “We are perishing!”

As I said, we are in a place of lament. Lament calls to God, and expects an answer. I saw signs this week that God does indeed hear our cries. In some of the stories about the judge setting bail, the reporters paused in their analysis of the killer to talk about the families of the victims. Many of them gathered in the courtroom. The families addressed the young killer on closed circuit television, and family member after family member offered their forgiveness.

How do you do that? How do you even begin to forgive the killer who targeted your grandmother, your sister, your son, your pastor, because of their skin color? Those family members are better Christians than I. Dylann Roof targeted their loved ones, trying to start a racial war, but they refused to see him as a monster. They respected the dignity of their fellow human being. They saw him as capable of being forgiven. He brought hate into their church, and they responded with love.

When David appeared before Saul, the king clothed him in his armor. David had to look ridiculous, trying to walk with all that metal, too big for his young body. How often do we clothe ourselves with old armor? How often do we inherit the armor of hatred, the armor of suspicion, the armor of prejudice? We use armor to protect ourselves, and we use prejudice the same way. We insulate ourselves to protect ourselves. But this week, like David, the women and men of Emanuel took off their armor. They said, “I can’t walk around carrying all that hate.” They chose forgiveness. They chose love. They chose Jesus.

That’s what it is going to take to face our Goliaths. We have to put down the armor. We can’t take up the old stories. We have to let our guard down. We have to face the prejudices in ourselves, and work to set them down. We have to look at all we use to protect ourselves. We’ve got to set it down. If fewer women and men are going to die, we have to be like David and choose not to arm ourselves with heavy weapons. As a nation, we have to make a choice to limit the guns. Christians look to Jesus for protection, not a firearm.

You see, we are a people of Good News. We may live in a world where the news seems grim. We still live in a world where racism and violence seem to hold sway, but being Christians means believing that death never has the last word. Hate never has the last word. God has the last word. God’s last word is forgiveness. God’s last word is life. God’s last word is love.

“We are perishing” say the disciples. Boy does it feel that way sometimes. It felt that way this week. But even in the midst of death, we make our song “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia” because no act of hateful violence can overcome the love of Christ. No act of injustice can overcome the merciful justice of God.

The survivors of Emanuel Church set a high bar. They looked in the face of hate and chose forgiveness. We too can choose that path. We can stop being afraid. We can follow the savior whose way is love and whose justice is mercy. We can stop the taunting and face our Goliaths. We can. We will. And we shall overcome.

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