Let’s just begin by saying that this is *not* a great way to meet your wife. It certainly isn’t a love story, or at least, it doesn’t appear to be one.
I mean, how many of you, if I asked you the story of how you met your beloved, would start with a story like this? “well, I was shaking this guy down for a few sheep to feed my troops while we were on the run from the king who is trying to kill me, and then this WOMAN emerges from nowhere and gives me a whole bunch of food, calls her husband an idiot, and…well… it was love at first sight.
So what is the point, then, of stories like this? Why are they here?
Well let’s start with what we can see.
First off, we know that David has been on the run. Last week, we heard of how Saul was trying to pin David to the wall with his Javelin. David has wisely left Saul. And now he is wandering about with a pack of warriors, on the run from Saul and his army.
And here, in our reading today, he seems to be running a protection racket. Perhaps he would have preferred that people think of him as a “Great, Good Shepherd,” taking care of the sheep, but the truth is that he is a shepherd nobody asked for here.
And when it comes time to enjoy the harvest, like any good shepherd, or any king, David wants his share of the harvest.
David seems to invite conflict: He greets Nabal with peace, but his words are a threat. His men practically swagger into the shearing grounds as they promise: we haven’t hurt your flock….yet.
Here David reveals himself as a threat to the people who maintain and care for the land, the heritage of God.
Now I am sure that you have heard the phrase before: we don’t negotiate with terrorists.
But David knows the cardinal rule that every parent learns: never make a threat that you can’t back up with action. In our house, if I start counting to five, my kids better believe that there is something on the other end of those numbers. And David is no different. He has an army to feed, after all. A few hundred disillusioned, angry young men, and he is not afraid to use them to get what he needs.
That’s really what this is about, when you get down to it. It is a parable about kings, and power, and corruption, a story about how that power inevitably pushes down on the people of God and takes and takes and takes.
But that is not all that this story is about, thank God.
It is also a story about how the people push back against those who wield the sword.
Because if you read this as a parable about power, and corruption, then who is the hero? Who comes out on top?
Why, Abigail of course.
She is the one who sees David for the danger that he is. If her husband Nabal is foolish (for that is what his name means), if he is foolish in his refusal to give David what he has demanded, then Abigail is wise for seeing the situation for what it is. She is able to understand that just under the surface of this man who is “called by god” is a potential for violence that seethes and threatens everything and everyone around him. Look how quickly he reaches for his weapons. How quickly he resorts to force.
She can see this, and so in her wisdom she uses that to her advantage. She gathers up what is necessary to keep David happy, but she also makes certain to secure a promise for herself. “Remember your Servant,” she says. Remember your servant who sees the king that you may one day be. Remember the woman who talked sense to you when you were breathing violence.
In that way, she is alot like David. Cunning. Creative. Determined. Wise. Willing to put her body in the path of violence and put up her hand to stay it.
Nobody expects Abigail to be the hero. And yet, she manages not just to save her family, but to save David, too.
I think that is part of the point, actually. Nobody expects anything from Abigail. And yet she uses what she has—her brains, her resources, her creativity—to exact peace from a dangerous and uncertain moment.
It reminds me, actually, of a story from a few years back. This woman, Antoinette Tuff, was working as a bookkeeper at her local public school when a young man walked in the door with an ak-47. He was breathing violence, and pain, and hurt. And over an hour, Antoinette talked to the young man about her own life, about her struggles, her pain, her fear. She gave him something valuable—no parched grain, or raisin cakes, but the gift of shared suffering, shared struggle. In her wisdom, she saw what he needed: he needed to be reminded who he was: someone beloved in God’s sight.
Don’t we all need that? To be reminded who and whose we are? To be recalled—out of our separateness, our pain, our struggle, our anger, even our violence—and brought nearer to the wisdom of God? Let us strive to be those who breathe the wisdom of Abigail into the world, and when we are not, let us be like David, who was open to receive it and be changed.
Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. But Jonathan had taken a great liking to David and warned him, “My father Saul is looking for a chance to kill you. Be on your guard tomorrow morning; go into hiding and stay there. I will go out and stand with my father in the field where you are. I’ll speak to him about you and will tell you what I find out.”
Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him, “The king should not do wrong to his servant David; he has not wronged you, and in fact what he has done has helped you greatly. He took his life in his hands when he killed the Philistine. The Lord won a great victory for all Israel, and you saw it and were glad. Why then would you do wrong to an innocent man like David by killing him for no reason?”
Saul listened to Jonathan and took this oath: “As surely as the Lord lives, David will not be put to death.” So Jonathan called David and told him the whole conversation. He brought him to Saul, and David was with Saul as before.
Once more war broke out, and David went out and fought the Philistines. He struck them with such force that they fled before him.
But an evil spirit from the Lord came on Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand. While David was playing the lyre, Saul tried to pin him to the wall with his spear, but David eluded him as Saul drove the spear into the wall. That night David made good his escape.
1 Samuel 19:1-10
Maybe it is just me, but somehow I think I am probably not the only one who has been feeling as though these last few months have been marked by a great deal of loss.
I have watched as so many in my church community have carried their grief—grief over the suffering of loved ones and neighbors and how their losses impact our own lives, despair for a world reeling from conflict and violence with barely a moment to catch our breath, sorrow for the many innocent people who have had their lives devastated by hurricanes and other natural disasters that have been made worse by climate change.
This week, so many friends, neighbors, and church family have carried a tender grief for one of our own as they comprehend a world without their beloved child, who died at the age of 16 in a car accident last week. They have cried their tears. They have offered meals. They have shared their own stories with each other, sorrow over children that they have buried too soon. Their wounds are deep. Their wounds are real.
In a world where we can, and often are, wounded, it can be easy to live out of our fear. To draw into ourselves. To see dangers around every corner. To let fear animate not just our words but our actions. The poet Hafez once wrote that “fear is the cheapest room in the house,” and I think he was on to something there. Because fear is the easiest place to find ourselves. It doesn’t require much imagination at all. And it is an awful emotion to live our lives from.
Now, King Saul knew a thing or two about fear. That should be clear enough from our Scripture lessons today. Right on the heels of David’s victory over Goliath, Saul has taken the young champion into his care, and has watched as his own son has “become one in spirit” with David. He has observed as David has risen in stature despite everything that should work against him as a pretty boy from nowhere and the youngest of seven sons. He has listened as the city has fallen in love with David. David, who has slain tens of thousands. David, whom his own son loves more than himself. David, to whom everything seems to come so easily.
Friends, Saul is afraid.
I think back to the times in my life when I have felt insecure in myself, when I have worried that the person that I am is not enough. It is such an awful, isolating feeling, isn’t it? To doubt your own worth? To worry that the people with whom you share your life are just looking for a reason to walk away? When I remember myself in those moments, I can have compassion for Saul. He truly seems alone here—yes, he is the king, but the story he is telling himself, and the story that scripture seems to be telling us, is that everyone has abandoned him for David. There is nothing more awful than being scared and alone. And there is little that is more dangerous than a powerful person who is scared and alone.
Our own history can be a helpful teacher here. January of 1933 was a similar moment in Germany. This was shortly before Hitler came to power, and in Berlin unease was widespread. Speaking to his own congregation in a moment of great fear, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected
“the overcoming of fear—that is what we are proclaiming here (point at sanctuary). The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith—all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings. Fear is, somehow or other, the archenemy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.”
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “Overcoming Fear,”
Fear tells us that we are alone in our suffering. It tells us that nobody will help us. Nobody will save us. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that, in our fear, we tend to make awful decisions. Like Saul, we resort to violence, we lash out at the people around us. Fear takes away our humanity.
So what is the alternative?
That is the question. And one answer, I think, is sitting in these pews with us every Sunday and is gathered around the table every time we choose fellowship over going it alone. You see, if fear tends to eat away at the ties that bind us to God and to others, then perhaps the antidote to fear is the hope that we encounter when we choose to be in community with others. It is what happens when we struggle against the temptation to turn inward, and instead look for strength in one another. In our Scripture this morning, David could not withstand Saul’s fear on his own—he is able to negotiate this incredibly awful situation with Saul because of his friendship with Jonathan. With a friend at his side, David is literally able to dodge the slings and arrows of death. Friendship is what saves him.
Perhaps this seems too simple, and yet remember: the God who came to us in Christ, who told us to not be afraid, offers us the gift of fellowship and friendship over and over again:
Come to me, all you who are weak and heaven laden, and I will give you rest.
Fear not, for I am with you.
Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
Perhaps you believe that there might be something better than living only for yourself, worried only about your own difficulties and concerns. Perhaps you are tired, so tired of carrying your fears and disappointments, your anxiety and the hurts that can become like a heavy yoke, holding you down. Perhaps you are weary of trying to fight your fears alone.
We seek out one another, I think, because we know that God desires for us something better than a life lived in fear. We come to worship because perhaps we believe the church can help us to live differently. That somehow, when we gather together, when we lift our voices as one to the Creator who made us and called us by name, we will find a strength that we didn’t know was in us to withstand the fears of this time. And that when we cannot find that strength in ourselves, others will be there to hold us and to whisper words of hope on our behalf until we are strong enough. In worship, if we are lucky, we encounter the great affirmation of a God who loves us, and gathers us together and bids us banish fear, not just for ourselves, but for the sake of a world that is crying out for healing.
So let us lean deeply into that hope when we have the strength to do so. And let us trust one another to hold fast to us when we are broken with sorrow. Let us live out a faith that is wide and broad enough to hold the fears of this world, and to answer that fear with the persistent hope found in a God who gathers the brokenhearted together and calls us friend, neighbor, beloved.
Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, just as Jesse had directed him. And he reached the encampment as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines, army against army.Then David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the ranks and greeted his brothers.
As he was talking with them, behold, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and he spoke these same words again, and David heard him.Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear.
Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? Surely he comes out to defy Israel. The king will reward the man who kills him with great riches and will also give him his daughter in marriage and will make his father’s house free from taxes in Israel.”
Then David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he has taunted and defied the armies of the living God?” So they told him, “That is what will be done for the man who kills him.”
When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard what he said to the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “What are you doing here? And who is watching our few sheep in the wilderness back home? I know you—you are overconfident and your heart ain’t right; for you have come down only to see the battle.” David cried, “Now what have I done? Was it not a harmless question?” He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before.
Now, when the words David said were heard, the men reported them to Saul, and Saul sent for him.
David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”
But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. And when a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the lamb from its mouth, and when it rose up against me, I seized it by its whiskers and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has taunted AND defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”
Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”
Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried to walk, but he could not, 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.
Then he took his shepherd’s staff in his hand and chose for himself five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag. And then, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
The Philistine came and approached David with his shield bearer in front of him. And when he looked and saw David, he derided and disparaged him, for he was just a young man, healthy and handsome. He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field!”
David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the corpses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, so that the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel, and that this entire assembly will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will hand you over to us.”
As the Philistine rose and came forward to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone penetrated his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.
So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. David ran and stood over him, grasped his sword and drew it from the sheath and killed him, and cut off his head with it.
When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they fled. Then the men of Israel and Judah stood with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as the entrance to the valley and the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the way to Shaaraim, even as far as Gath and Ekron. When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp.
Then David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent.
As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, Your Majesty, I don’t know.”The king said, “Find out.”
As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand. “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”
1 Samuel 17:20-58
That is quite a story.
A story that, I suspect, you have heard mannnny times. Perhaps the single most recognizable story about David that a person is likely to know.
It feels like something out of a movie, or a novel, or a comic book, this hero story of David, the someday king of Israel, and his magical ability to fell a big bad guy with nothing but a rock and a sling.
Who wouldn’t love a guy like that? As a story, it is utterly seductive.
There are some interesting things, however, going on in this story, right under the surface, that I would like to unpack together on this World Communion Sunday, a day when we mediate on words from scripture like those that David uttered when he said “that it is not by the sword or the spear that the Lord saves.”
Let’s begin by orienting ourselves. Remember that, in this moment, Israel already has a king. King Saul, the first King of the Israelites. And King Saul’s first task has been to take the fight, as it were, to the enemies of Israel.
And it isn’t going so well for Saul. Sure, his army is encamped against the dreaded Philistines. But they are all shaking in fear at this great warrior, Goliath, who scripture tells us is raining down terror with a mix of self-confident taunting and a rather intimidating appearance.
What was that that scripture told us just last Sunday? That God looks not at what is on the outside, but on what is inside the heart? Well, the army didn’t get that memo. Goliath looks terrifying, and they believe him when he says he will utterly destroy them. They are shaking in their armor.
And along comes this–how does the story say it—handsome, un-battle tested youth. The reason they keep calling him handsome, here, by the way, is to emphasize that he doesn’t “look” like a warrior. Not enough battle scars. David, the son that was left behind while the big boys went to war. Someone had to bring supplies to the front, and take care of the sheep. Someone, in other words, had to keep things going while everyone else picked up a sword.
Somehow David, is the only person who *isn’t* incapacitated by Goliath. This young man who doesn’t hide with the baggage but runs to the front, isn’t cowed by words from a giant of Gath. And yet his reaction—we have to *do* something about this—is met with anger from his brother, and dismissal from Saul. They are all convinced that the only way to solve this problem is with more force. But when they look at David, all they see is weakness.
We hear this story on a Sunday in which the church traditionally focuses on our call to peacemaking. Which feels, at first glance, a little incongruous. What could this story possibly have to teach us about peacemaking?
What if stories like this are EXACTLY why we need to talk about peacemaking? Whether we like to admit it or not, the stories of the bible are marked by violence—the violence of war, the violence of conquest. The violence of the cross.
When we talk about peacemaking, it is really important that part of that conversation include a reckoning with our own tendency toward violence. We cannot pretend that we do not stand on the wreckage and ruin of countless bloody wars and conflicts that brought us to where we are. As Christians, as Americans. Chris Hedges once wrote “war is a force that gives us meaning,” and if we are to be peacemakers, we must reckon with that truth.
Because the truth is that we are *not* peacemakers, not most of the time. We are far more like David, gaping at the battlefield, or like the Israelite army, either caught in the midst of it and filled with fear or lust for battle. We must reckon with the fact that we live in a world that glorifies militaristic conquest, and enshrines it in the national story that we tell. That leans less on the wisdom of God, and more on the power of those who wield weapons.
The call to make peace must also reckon with the fact that, even if we are creative and imaginative in avoiding violence, this violent world will still find us. We cannot run from the violence of the world. And if you don’t believe me, believe the witness of the cross.
So what, then, does it mean to transform a violent world with peace? What is all of this reckoning for?
Perhaps for the same purpose that these stories exist in our bible at all. The remind us where we have come from. Of the moments of greatest triumph, but also of our greatest mistakes. To reckon with our history is the gateway to choosing another path. Perhaps, if we are lucky, even a better one.
I first moved to Philadelphia in 2008 for a summer pastoral internship. The other seminary interns and I had been attracted to this worshipping community because its mission was, in part, to work to transform the city through solidarity and hospitality to the marginalized and the oppressed. But before we got there, one of the first things that the pastor who was our mentor asked us to do was to read a book. It was called “A Prayer for the City” by Buzz Bissinger, and it told the story of Philadelphia in the late 90s. As a California Girl with absolutely no context for understanding Philadelphia, that book became a sort of compass—it helped me get to know my adopted city, and to understand some of the things that made it the way it was. It helped me to see the ways in which the problems that city faced were larger than just what was in front of me—violence, homelessness, poverty, racism–all of these problems have roots stretching back into the past, and if we want to be a part of the solution, we have to be willing to do the work to understand where they came from. And so it is with the work of peace as well.
So this World Communion Sunday, let us not speak as though the work of making peace is easy. It is not. It is likely the hardest thing we may ever strive for, and in the broad span of history, we may make but the smallest difference. But let us also commit ourselves to knowing the barriers that stand in our way, so that, like David, we might be creative in slaying the giant that stands before us.