By Craig A. Stewart – 20 June 2021
Released under a cc by 4.0 License – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/. You are free to: Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format; Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material; for any purpose, even commercially.
This is the final version of the text from which I delivered a sermon at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Bloomington IN on 20 June 2021. This is not a transcription of what I actually said, but what is written here and what I said were reasonably close to each other. A video of the entire service is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPmiCnQopew.
This sermon is based on a portion of the scripture specified in the Lectionary of the United Methodist Church for 20 Jun 2021, specifically: 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-45
Text of message:
Good morning. It is so nice to be here in person. Really wonderful. This is in fact my first church service here in person since the pandemic began. Before I get going let me begin with a prayer: Dear God, please let the words I have prepared and will speak this morning properly reflect your will. Amen.
Many of you know me. For those who don’t, I’m Craig Stewart. I’ve been a Methodist all my life and have been a member of this church for several years now. My sweetie Marion and I joined here after we moved into Bloomington proper, a bit over a decade ago. Before that our family lived in Ellettsville and we were members of the Ellettsville First United Methodist Church.
Those who are here often know that Mary Beth and Jimmy [Pastors of this Church] are both baseball fans. I am as well. The first house that Marion and I owned together was within earshot of the Ellettsville Little League fields, and our kids practically grew up on those fields. Eventually Marion and I got sucked into coaching. We were always committed to having fun and teaching kids good values, but we also liked to win. One year we had a team that was a lot of fun, but had what I would politely call a mix of athletic abilities. But we played well together and did o.k. during the regular season. After the end of the regular season we got through the first round of playoffs just fine. The team we faced in the second round of the playoffs was really tough, and everyone on the team knew it. One of their players was unquestionably the best pitcher in the league. At that time the Ellettsville Little League had what was called a ten-run rule. If a team was behind by 10 runs or more after the end of the 3rdinning, the game was called out of a mix of practicality and mercy. That our playoff run might end in such an inglorious way seemed like a real possibility. Well, in this second playoff game we were the home team and were down 10-4 at the end of the 3rd inning. The entire team looked dejected. From their standpoint the situation seemed hopeless. I looked at my team in the dugout and said “We’ve got them right where we want them.” And I meant it. We went on to win 11 to 10. The situation did indeed look hopeless to the kids on the team – but not to me. I knew something they did not know. There was a health safety rule in place at that time – a limit on the number of innings any kid could pitch in a given week. Ten. I had watched our opponent’s first game that week, and their best pitcher had already pitched a full game of seven innings. As of the start of our game, the opposing team could put the best pitcher in the league on the mound for a maximum of three innings. And that team didn’t have another player who could throw more strikes than balls. I knew that if we could make out of the 3rd inning without being 10 runs behind, we’d be fine. And we were.
The scripture selection today is from the lectionary, and it tells a story of a situation that seems hopeless in a way far more serious than a baseball game. Saul is king of Israel. The Philistine army is poised to wipe out the army of Israel. A champion of the Philistines offers to settle the issue in combat between one champion from each side. Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, was huge. According to the Bible he was 9 feet tall. That’s almost certainly an exaggeration, but let’s assume that Goliath was indeed really, really big. No one among the army of Israel, King Saul included, was willing to go out and fight Goliath.
The boy David volunteers. We know how the story ends; David slays Goliath with a stone thrown from his sling. Israel is saved.
David as a person of faith is I think a central part of this story. After David volunteers to fight Goliath, Saul’s response is to take a traditional military approach and dress David up in Saul’s armor. Just imagine if you will a boy of 12 or so clomping around behind the lines of the army of Israel wearing the armor of a grown man. It had to be something between humorous and horrifying to watch. Humorous in that the armor could not possibly have fit properly. Horrifying to think of a boy in armor he is too small to wear facing a warrior 9 feet tall. David takes the armor off.
David goes out to face Goliath with the tools that are familiar to him from his youth: a sling and five small stones. And faith. Just one of those stones is all it took.
David never doubted. One of the things I think we need to be aware of is that when we confront a situation that seems hopeless, it may be that it only seems hopeless. God knew David’s situation wasn’t hopeless. David had faith, and God had a plan, even though God wasn’t letting David in on the details. God wanted David to do his best using the skills he had honed for years minding livestock out in the wild. In my baseball example I had a plan, but I didn’t want to let the players in on the details because I wanted them to do their best and not count on the weaknesses of the other team. We face a lot of problems in life that seem hopeless but are not. And God doesn’t necessarily let us in on the details, maybe because God wants us to do our best in our faith in trying to deal with these situations.
The plight of Black people in the United States once seemed truly and deeply hopeless. Juneteenth, which we celebrated yesterday – and for the first time celebrated as a federal holiday – was a turning point for Black people in the US. A white man sitting in the White House at a brown desk signing a beige piece of paper made not one bit of immediate practical difference to the Black man and Black women in the United States. The impact of the emancipation Proclamation was felt as the Union Army moved into what were once States of the Confederacy, ending in the reading of an executive order on 19 June 1865 in Galveston, Texas, enacting freedom for the slaves within the State of Texas – the State of the former confederacy farthest from Washington, DC. On Juneteenth what was once a seemingly hopeless situation became hopeful. And I note that we are still in the “hopeful” stage of working for full human rights in the US and in the world for people of color. Juneteenth marked the formal end of slavery in the confederacy. It did not end oppression of people based on their color. I’ve lived long enough to see MLK Day and Juneteenth become federal holidays. I’d like to live long enough to see us have real, full, equal human rights for all humans and see the goals that underly these holidays fully realized.
The situation of LGBTQ+ individuals once seemed hopeless within the US. During my lifespan being anything other than straight was classified as a psychological disorder. We’re now in the middle of Pride Month, which celebrates the LGBTQ+ community in general and the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York City on June 28, 1969 in particular. Stonewall was different than Juneteenth, but like Juneteenth it marked a turning point. It was the day that the LGBTQ+ community in New York openly fought back against harassment and oppression by government authorities. My extended family tree includes LGBTQ+ individuals. I presume that this is true of all families. But as a young person, I could not imagine worshipping in the wonderful diversity we enjoy and celebrate in our congregation today. If the plight of LGBTQ+ people in the US seemed hopeless on the day the Stonewall uprising started, it certainly does not seem hopeless today – in this reconciling church especially – even though we still struggle with the issue of gender and sexuality within the church and our society.
When things look hopeless to us, sometimes it’s because we are hoping for the wrong things – or at least things that are not part of God’s plan. Many of you know I was diagnosed with cancer in 2017. I once hoped to be cured. That’s simply not going to happen. If I were to cling to a hope of being cured, well that would be hopeless. What I hope for now is to live a life that is as long and as functionally healthy as possible, and spend as much time with my wife, our family, and our community as possible. Right now chemotherapy is keeping my cancer well under control. By changing what I hope for, my situation has gone from hopeless to hopeful and I am able to do what I now hope for. In fact I am a far better person now than I was prior to my diagnosis. To quote the title of my favorite among the several books that Rev. John McFarland has written, “Now that I have cancer, I am whole.” I have in a very odd way been made more whole through my experience with cancer and my faith.
When things look hopeless to us, sometimes it is because the situation really is hopeless in earthly terms. Today is Father’s Day, and I wish every father among us a happy Father’s Day. But Father’s Day is for many of us complicated. I grew up worshipping my father, but later in life our relationship became very complicated. At age 72 my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He passed away recently, in body, but the real person inside was gone long ago. When I first heard my father’s diagnosis, I knew there were conversations that I wanted to have with him that were just never going to happen. That situation was hopeless… at least in terms of our mortal lives. I am sure that all of us – at least the older of us – have faced situations that in earthly terms were indeed hopeless if we look at them in terms of our mortal lives.
But we have something that the tribes of Israel did not have at the time of the battle between David and Goliath – the knowledge of our salvation through Jesus Christ and the promise of a life after. I understand that there are things in this life that I will simply never understand while I am living on this earth, and my faith has grown to a point that I can accept that.
As I stand up here and talk about faith, I should acknowledge that I do so from a position of tremendous privilege. I was born just before the dawn of the 1960s, white, straight, upper middle class, to parents with good college degrees and respected roles in society. I did very well in the birth lottery in terms of how society viewed and treated me. I really have no idea what it’s like to get up the morning and realize that all day long one will be judged and slighted for one’s skin color or sexual orientation or other condition into which people may be born. For many people waking up in our society must feel something like waking up in David’s shoes, having to go out and fight Goliath every day. One of our goals should be to live in a society that embodies the Golden rule – which would mean that I have less privilege in the future order that others may have a fair shake. I’m o.k. with that.
A key point in the story of David and Goliath is that the tools David needed were the tools that were familiar to him – five smooth stones, a sling, and faith. Let me close by suggesting that we all try to follow David’s example and use the tools familiar to us – loving kindness and faith – and face every day knowing that no matter how it looks right now, no day in our mortal lives is really hopeless in the truly long run. And let’s try to fully realize the golden rule in our society and to help all those around us wake up to a situation that seems full of hope.
The 13th century Persian mystic known as Rumi wrote that “We can’t know what the divine intelligence has in mind.” I think that’s right. But God has a plan. God knows things we do not know and sometimes isn’t letting us in on the details. Let’s proceed knowing that while we cannot now know what God has in mind, God wants us to do our best, we can have faith in God and God’s good intentions for us. Thank you for your kind attention, and Amen.