1 Samuel 17:1-7,12-16,24-27+Psalm 10:1-14+(Romans 8:31-39)+John 10:11-16
It’s one of the oldest stories in the book: the underdog takes on the heavy favorite and triumphs. Maybe it started with David and Goliath, but everyone from Shakespeare and Henry V defeating the French at Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day to the Hickory High School Huskers winning an improbable state basketball championship in Hoosiers to Rocky Balboa taking Apollo Creed to 15 rounds to someone like Rosa Parks sparking a movement – we love our underdogs.
The shepherd boy David shedding the armor he was provided and confronting the “uncircumcised Philistine” Goliath with only a few smooth stones is not just about his courage. It’s about the power of God triumphing over our enemies.
And while we love this story, we get it a little mixed up in our imagination, I think. Do you know that the Goliath story actually appears three times in this narrative of the early kings, and David is only the hero once (the others are 2 Samuel 21 & 1 Chronicles 20)? Continuing a little bit on the theme I spoke of last week, we point to what scripture says as being written in stone at our peril. Two creation stories, two flood stories, three Goliath stories – which one is the real one?
Clearly the one that has survived as significant is the story of David, the first great king of Israel. Later we learn how deeply flawed he was, yet God still loved him, and it was through his line that Jesus was born. We Christians have deep connections with this king.
But all of that comes later.
Right now, David is a nobody in the story. He’s the kid brother of the sons of Jesse who are off fighting the Philistines in King Saul’s army. He’s supposed to be looking after the flocks, but you can imagine that he’s excited about the fighting as is only possible when it hasn’t touched home too closely, and he wants to be close to the action. He scoffs at the fear of those who will not confront the giant and utters the best insult in all of scripture, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the ranks of the living God?” (1 Samuel 17:26)
It is the classic beginning of a hero’s journey, but with a twist. David knows that it is the power of God that sustains him. All through his life when he did those things he ought not to have done and did not do those things he ought to have done (as our old confession says), he returned, he repented, he acknowledged that all that he had and all that he had done was because of God.
This is true for David as the underdog as well as for the people of Israel, a small band of people who pitched their tents along the crossroads of empire. That Israel would raise up the story of David going up against Goliath is not surprising.
But David is not the only shepherd we encounter today. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, shows up in John’s gospel as the one to whom we belong. He isn’t just getting paid to do the job of watching over us, he isn’t running off to the battlefield to see what’s happening. No, he is with us – loving, guiding, protecting.
In our context when so few of us have had much experience around farms or livestock, some of Jesus’s parables and stories might be hard to fully grasp. What do we know about net fishing all night or scattering seeds in a field or taking care of sheep? I think the closest we might get to understanding what a Good Shepherd is in the context of parenting, of family, in which we fiercely watch over those whom we love, even if it puts our own lives at risk.
In portraying himself this way, Jesus knew that the power of God was with him against the powers arrayed against him. Unlike David, his victory was not one measured in human terms, because crucifixion looks an awful lot like failure. But that’s what is it to be swept up in the reign of God: the first are last, the last first, those accounted for nothing are given the seat of honor at the banquet, what looks like death is actually life beyond our wildest imaginings.
We need to be mindful, though, not to cast ourselves into the role of the underdog, of the last becoming first or the one who is at risk. There is a great tension these days between those who believe that Christianity is under attack and those who recognize what a privileged position Christians occupy, in this country in particular. We may recognize this brand of Christian Nationalism or even Christo-fascism as the heresy that it is, but this does not mean that Christianity is safe. The stories being told by bishops from the Global South at the Lambeth Conference, particularly from Africa, of persecutions and deaths of followers of Jesus are heartbreaking and terrifying. They are the underdogs standing up and asking who dares to defy the ranks of the living God? And they are paying with their lives.
So, what are we afraid of? Why are we so hesitant to claim the calling that is ours and to share Good News with our neighbors? There are surely those doing it in the name of a Jesus that I don’t recognize, one that looks and acts more like John Wayne than like a Good Shepherd who laid down his life. The story we have to tell – our story – is Good News to a world in desperate need of Good News.
We did not read the portion of the epistle to the Romans appointed for today, but whenever we are feeling unsure, worried, hesitant, or afraid, Paul’s soaring words remind us that the living God, the Good Shepherd, is with us:
No, in all these things we are more than victorious through God who loves us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other thing in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Savior. (Romans 8:37-39)
Thanks be to God.