“Comfortable in One’s Own Skin”
A Sermon on 1st Samuel 17:1a, 3-27, 32-51 for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; preached June 21, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
This is not the sermon I was planning to offer today. Quite frankly, I feel a bit like Jon Stewart. If you’ve spent much time on the internet these past couple of days, perhaps you’ve seen the opening monologue Stewart delivered on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. “You know, I have… I have… I have one job, and it’s a pretty simple job,” he said. “I come in, in the morning, and we look at the news, and I write jokes about it. And then I make a couple of faces <face> and <face> like a, like a noise like a “rer.” And then it’s just cha-ching and I’m out the door. But I didn’t do my job today. So I apologize.”
There’s a degree to which being a preacher in an establishment class church can be like that. Come in each Sunday, take a reading from scripture, try to help you make a little sense of it, connect it to something in the world, try help you make a little sense of that too, top it all off with a historical anecdote about JFK or a heartwarming story about a high school football team or a reflective image from my Midwestern childhood, and call it a day.
But I have none of that for you today. No anecdotes from the annals of history, no funny stories about the household pets. I am not even going to try to make sense of anything today. A friend and Episcopal colleague has put it well: “There is no making sense of this. There is no sense of God to be found in racism. There is no sense to be found in violence. None of this was a part of God’s plan, and this did not happen for reason. Evil is evil and there is no making sense of it.”
So, yeah, I have no cute stories for you today. Like Jon Stewart said on his show Thursday night, “I got nothing for you in terms of, like, jokes and sounds because of what happened in South Carolina.”
Quite frankly, I can hardly put all this better than Stewart did himself, and so if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I ask you to hear today in his words a Word from me, a Word of truth:
I honestly have nothing. Other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other, and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal… yet we pretend doesn’t exist.
And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that, and seeing it for what it is… we still won’t do jack shit.
And that’s the part that blows my mind. I don’t want to get into the political argument of the guns and things. What blows my mind is the disparity of response between when we think people-that-are-foreign are going to kill us and us killing ourselves.
If this had been what we thought was Islamic terrorism, it would fit into our— We invaded two countries and spent trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives and fly unmanned death machines over five or six different countries, all to keep Americans safe. “We got to do whatever we can— We’ll torture people. We gotta do whatever we can to keep Americans safe.”
Nine people shot in the church.
What about that?!
Hey, what are you gonna do? Crazy is as crazy does, right?
That’s the part that I cannot, for the life of me, wrap my head around.
You know it— you know that it’s going to go down the same path— This is a terrible “tragedy”— they’re already using the nuanced language of lack of effort for this.
This is a terrorist attack. This is a violent attack on the Emmanuel church in South Carolina, which is a symbol for the black community it has stood in that part of Charleston for 100 and some years and has been attacked viciously many times, as many black churches have.
[…] I heard someone on the news say “tragedy has visited this church.” This wasn’t a tornado. This was a racist. This was a guy with a Rhodesia badge on his sweater. You know, so the idea that— You know, I hate to even use this pun, but… this one is black and white. There’s no nuance here.
[…] And we’re going to keep pretending like, “I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.”
But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it.
In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road.
That’s, that’s insanity.
That’s racial wallpaper.
That’s, you can’t allow that, you know.
Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals… and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him.[!]
We’re bringing it on ourselves.
And that’s the thing. Al Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS, they’re [nothing] compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.
Jon Stewart, he said he had nothing for us, his viewers, this past Thursday night. Perhaps it is high-time for more of us to have nothing. To lay aside the pretense that we can somehow come up with explanations besides the blatantly obvious… you know, all the grasping at straws that certain segments of our society have done, like that this was somehow an attack about religion rather than race.
Perhaps it is time for more of us to have nothing, to stop with the attempts to turn the attention and cast the blame somewhere else, even onto the victims themselves. The gall with which certain people have claimed that somehow it’d all be better if the faithful at Emmanuel Church had been carrying guns is simply unbelievable. If an eye for an eye simply leaves everybody blind, I hesitate to even think where a gun for a gun leaves us.
Perhaps it is time for more of us to have nothing, to stop trying to come up with rationalizations to somehow make sense of the senseless—the most prevalent one, of course being that the killer was crazy, mentally ill. My friend and colleague John Gage—formerly senior minister at one of the UCC churches ‘on the green’ down in New Haven and now at a congregation in Austin, Texas—my friend John Gage puts it well: “Our culture doesn’t consider it crazy to kill another person because of your or their beliefs. Our soldiers do that, and we call them heroes. To call this man crazy is to label him an outlier, an isolated incident, one bad apple. No. This man was a soldier for white supremacy, guarding a pattern of white privilege that still suffuses our national life. He is wrong, and what he did is sinful, but he isn’t crazy. And he isn’t alone. He is part of a pattern. He is our American problem.”
Perhaps it is time for more of us, for all of us, to have nothing. To stop with the rationalizations, the turning of the focus, the grasping at straws. Perhaps it is time for us to have nothing, no explanations, no protection against the shock and grief, no soothing our fragile anxieties as the ongoing spiritual dissonances and hypocrisies of our national narrative are laid bare for all to see.
Perhaps it is time for us to have nothing, like David.
We have heard this morning the well-worn story of David and Goliath, the young shepherd boy and the warrior giant. It’s a favorite of Veggie Tales videos and children’s moments, although most of the time it tends to get simplified and summarized in such tellings. I imagine it’s been a while since most of us have heard the fuller version of the story, the story in the words of the scripture itself. I know it had been for me. But somewhat coincidentally, this section of 1st Samuel happened to come up in some of reading I did while I was on silent retreat up in Cambridge about a month ago.
As I was saying, though, just like most any of us, I had some basic knowledge of the David and Goliath story, but it had been quite a while since I’d actually read it for real, right from the pages of the Bible. The Bible I’ve been using lately includes a variety of spiritual formation oriented reflections interspersed around the scripture text, and there near the David and Goliath story was a reflection from Eugene Peterson, a contemporary pastor and writer. About David’s approach to the work of defeating Goliath, Peterson makes a keen observation,
[It] is a common experience in the Valley of Elah when an amateur ventures into a field dominated by professionals. All around us people who care about us are suddenly there helping—piling armor on us, dressing us up in equipment that is going to qualify us for the task (even though it didn’t seem to be doing them much good.) We get advice. We get instruction. We are sent off to a training workshop. We find ourselves with an armload of books. … We listen to them and do what they tell us. And then we find that we can hardly move.
It wasn’t easy to do what David Did that day. … David removed the helmet, unbelted the sword and took off the army. It couldn’t have been easy to do that, walking away from all that proffered expertise. But to have gone to meet Goliath wearing Saul’s armor would have been a disaster. It always is. David needs what was authentic to him.
That aspect of the story was one I’d forgotten about. It’s almost humorous when you think about it. Saul loads David up with Saul’s own armor and weapons—his helmet, his body armor, his sword—and it is so much that little David can’t even walk in them. And so David takes it all off, and goes to meet Goliath with nothing, nothing other than his own humble self, nothing but his own modest toolset.
And God, of course.
We tend to like to lift up the David and Goliath story as an illustration of how the little guy can triumph. But that’s not actually so much the point of the story. In fact, that’s the whole point of David’s little speech right as we reach the climax: “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts … This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand … so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s.”
In this country, we have lots of “swords and spears” we like to brandish about, thinking they will solve our problems. Some of them are literal swords and spears—or guns and grenades. Some of them are the swords and spears of our rationalizations and explanations that let us ourselves off the hook, that let us keep on keepin’ on with the same old systems, that let us, as John Stewart said, stare into the abyss, see it for what it is, and then not do jack. And some of the swords and spears are as innocent looking as the defense mechanisms we put up around ourselves so that we ourselves don’t have to feel guilty or complicit or implicated in the systems of inequality, racism, violence, white privilege, and white supremacy that course through the veins of this country’s founding narrative and still make for plenty of wallpaper for our society still.
My friends, it is time for us to take it all off. It is time for us to be like David, and shed this paralyzing armor that pretends to keep us safe and comfortable, but really just makes us stationary and complicit. It is time for us to go into the battle with Goliath—with the Goliath of racism, with the Goliath of gun violence—and do so trusting that the battle is God’s not ours. We don’t need the shields of comfortable discourse and safe space. We don’t need the swords of reasonability and respectability and prudent-looking courses of action. We don’t need the illusion that we can step out and defeat Goliath without being at risk ourselves. That’s not what David did. That’s not what Jesus did when he came to defeat the powers of evil and death.
We could hide behind the self-protection and safety, and end up just like the Israelites, at stalemate in the valley with the Philistines for days and weeks on end—Goliath taunting away at them and their impotence to do anything.
Or we can hear the call of the Lord God to cast it all off, to enter swiftly into the battle with nothing but God and God’s justice and the dream of God’s true and righteous reign on our side.
My friends, I’m tired of standing in the pulpit after weeks like this one. I’m tired of trying to put together an eloquent and beautiful discourse to echo inside these walls time and time again. After an incident of police brutality. After another bias-related vandalism happens here on this campus. After another memorial service for someone killed in the crucible of the American crisis. I’m tired of presuming that doing the same old thing will somehow give us different results.
When shall the world know that there is in fact a God among us—a God of righteousness and justice, a God of love and passion, the God who walked with David and who walked among us in Jesus? And when shall we lay aside the armor, and be comfortable enough in our own skin to finally find out?
 Jon Stewart, monologue delivered on The Daily Show with John Stewart, 18 June 2015; http://thedailyshow.cc.com/full?episodes/rilcea/june-18–2015—malala-yousafzai
 Rev. Keith Voets (associate rector of The Church of St. Barnabas, Irvington, NY), excerpt of sermon for 21 June 2015, posted 20 June 2015 to his personal Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/kvoets).
 Stewart, ibid.
 Rev. John Gage (senior minister of United Christian Church of Austin, Texas), comment posted to personal Facebook page on 18 June 2015 (http://www.facebook.com/johnmacivergage).
 Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians; quoted in The NRSV Daily Bible: Read, Meditate, and Pray Through the Entire Bible in 365 Days (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), 333.
 1st Samuel 17:45-47, NRSV; emphasis added.