Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
1 Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 32-49
Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was sixcubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armoured with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, ‘Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.’ And the Philistine said, ‘Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.’ When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid. David said to Saul, ‘Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.’ Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.’ But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.’ David said, ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.’ So Saul said to David, ‘Go, and may the Lord be with you!’
Saul clothed David with his armour; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armour, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.
The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.’ But 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 defied.This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, 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 and he will give you into our hand.’
When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.
Sticks and Stones
There is this thing about an underdog story that people really love to hear. People love to see a bully get his come-uppance especially if it is at the hands of an unexpected, apparently weak, or ineffective foe. I think most sports movies of the last 40 years center around this premise. We like it when it looks like our heroes just might not make it but then they suddenly come through. I think that's why people like the story of David and Goliath. They like the image of a boy, armed only with a staff and a sling-shot, facing down a trash-talking, well-armed, and well-trained giant of a man, and winning. Even people who might otherwise be creeped out by the thought of a teenager going off to do either kill or be killed by a soldier may still come away from this story impressed by the young shepherd who avoids this tools of the professional soldier and wins using the tools he knows best, the tools that allowed him to protect his sheep and his deep faith in God. This is a good story, even if it's there's a little more talk of decapitation that I typically enjoy in my Scripture readings. I, too, have a fondness for underdog stories, and this is one of the most well-known in the Bible. Even as we live in a culture that is increasingly un-familiar with many of the stories in this Book, David and Goliath remains familiar. Everybody loves the underdog.
I've gotta say, though, it has been difficult this week to think about this particular story of unexpected victory with another story about an unexpected attack filling up my newsfeed. It has been difficult for me to do the things I normally do to prepare a sermon. I haven't spent as much time as I usually do looking up the historical context of the scripture or studying different translations of the story. I haven't read a whole lot of commentaries or other sermons where people have worked through this story to shine some light on a new way of encountering the Divine in these words. I haven't done these things because all I've really been able to think about since Thursday morning is Charleston and the terrorist attack that changed the lives of nine families and one church forever.
White terrorists have been attacking black churches for decades, if not centuries. I think many of us recall the stories of bombings of black churches during the Civil Rights movement, particularly the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a bombing that took the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Denise, McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. That bombing was 52 years ago. But, black churches have been attacked far more recently. In the mid-1990's there was a string of arson in black churches in the South, including a church in the city of Knoxville near where I grew up. During that period, eight different churches in South Carolina were burned in what was likely arson attacks. There were so many burned up churches that the Department of Justice got involved and there were hearings before Congress. Since 1996, according to Mother Jones magazine, there have been at least 11 more attacks on black churches that range from cross burnings on the lawn to break-ins and vandalism to yet more arson. And, lest we think that this is a purely Southern phenomenon, one of these attacks was in Massachusetts and one was in St. Louis. Even a daycare in a church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida was vandalized and set ablaze, apparently because black children were cared for there.
The church that was attacked on Wednesday day had actually been attacked before. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, often known as Mother Emanuel, was founded in 1816. It is one of the oldest historically black congregations south of Baltimore. It's denomination was founded when Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and other black members of Philadelphia's St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church grew weary of the racism they encountered while trying to be full worshiping members of that congregation. Members of Emanuel had also withdrawn from a local Methodist church due to that church's biased actions towards them, particularly in regards to a local burial plot. They chose to align their new congregation with the African Methodist Episcopal tradition because they saw it as a way to maintain a dedication to Christ that they loved in the Wesleyan tradition but not be bound to the racist hierarchy of their prior denomination.
Part of the reason black churches have been targeted, especially during periods where black people and their allies are organizing for justice, is that the churches were often places where people met to strategize. In communities where it was often frowned upon, if not outright illegal, for black people to gather in public, the church offered a very literal sanctuary where they could make plans to work for freedom. Mother Emanuel became one such church. Within a few years of it's founding, it was placed under investigation because authorities learned that one of it's founding members, Denmark Vesey, had organized a slave revolt. The Charleston elite lived in fear that the people they enslaved and terrorized on a daily basis would rise up against them. They could not allow the people to organize. They dealt swiftly with Vesey and people who were deemed to be his co-conspirators. They hanged 35 people. The church, Mother Emanuel, the sanctuary from the grinding life in the slave-south, was burned to the ground. Goliath seems to have won that battle.
Here's the thing about David, though. David is not easily destroyed. The church rebuilt, and continued to worship in their building until 1834, when all black churches were outlawed in South Carolina. Even after their church was made illegal, they used the tools they had to continue the fight. While David had a staff and a sling-shot, they deployed the tools of the oppressed: secret meetings... word of mouth... worship in the dark. They continued to meet in secret for the next thirty years, keeping their church and their faith in God's freedom alive, despite the government's best efforts to break them down. They actually adopted the name Emanuel, that is "God with us" when they formally reorganized after the fall of the Confederacy in 1865. I wonder if they chose that name in particular as a celebration that they outlasted the system of slavery that was intended to destroy them. I wonder if they felt like God had to be with them. They knew from Exodus that God stood with oppressed. I wonder if they chose to celebrate coming through by reminding themselves that, yes, indeed, God was with them. They were alive and slavery was over. In a way, you could maybe even read the history of this church as an underdog story. They survived and outlived the bully institution of slavery. This church is David. It is too bad that the racist system that made slavery work has been much more difficult to slay than that giant Goliath. Slavery may have been destroyed. Racism certainly hasn't.
There are some who are saying that they don't know what could have motivated a young man to go into a church and murder most of the people whom he met there. It is very clear to me what motivated him. One of the survivors quoted him saying, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go." With these few sentences, he placed himself in the company of a long line white supremacists who use the specter of supposed black violence to justify terrorizing black people. He told us in a few sentences that he believes racist narratives about minority take-overs to be true, and that he was so compelled by this belief that he felt the need to start a race war in order to rid his precious country of unsavory people of color. As I am writing this, reporters have uncovered his racial manifesto. He planned an act of terrorism in order to strike fear into the hearts of an entire group of people. He picked this church not because he hates Christians (he appears to be a Christian himself) but because he hates black people and he wanted to make them afraid. And, Lord knows he has. Can you imagine what it is like to walk into a predominantly black church this morning? Can you imagine what it is like to walk into Emanuel AME Church this morning knowing that someone took advantage of your Christian hospitality to bring death and destruction to people you love? How long will it take for them to stop worrying whether or not the white stranger who just slipped in the back is coming to join them for worship or coming to kill them as they pray? How long will they continue to look for Goliath?
I read an article this week that argued that it is particularly important to name this act for what it is, an act of terrorism. The reason is that, according to this author, it is all too common for us to label foreigners, especially Muslim ones with dark skin, as terrorists as a way explain that their heinous behavior is a product of their culture or their religion. Some people aren't inclined to label this act as terrorism because he is American, white, and Christian. If we are going to be honest, we have to admit that terrorism is not limited to other nationalities and other religions. It is quite often home-grown. Terrorism is not just in the Other who lives far away. It is right here, right now. Let us not forget that the first anti-terrorism laws in this country, including the original the Ku Klux Klan Act, were intended to stop hateful, white, American, Christians from murdering their black neighbors and burning down their churches.
It could be also be easy to dismiss this as simply a Southern issue, a terrible remnant of Jim Crow. But, racism is in the North, too. My house was built by a slave owner. The foundation stones of my home were laid using money made from coerced labor. And, here, at this church, while we are rightly proud of the abolitionist legacy of our former pastor, Rev. David Thurston, we also know that he once got fired for preaching about freedom too much. Just down the road in Phippsburg, in 1912, the residents of Malaga Island were evicted from their homes because they were poor and because many of them were black or of mixed race. People chose to shame their descendants, insulting them because of their racial heritage. It has only been in the last few years that people could speak of being from Malaga with pride. In Maine, this week, before the shooting in Charleston, the report on Wabanaki children in the state welfare system came out. It is full of stories from people who have suffered racist abuse while in state care. These aren't even stories from 100 years ago. They are stories from the 1960's to as recently as two years ago. You know what else I found out? Right now, at this very moment, there is an active Klan group and an active Neo-Nazi group in Maine. I, myself, have seen a man with Neo-Nazi tattoos walking on the rail trail in Augusta. Goliath is here, in Maine. I've seen him. He wears his SS tattoos with pride. She tells her foster kids that they are lucky because they look white. He laughs when his friends tell a racist joke. She locks the car doors when a person of color walks by.
I have had trouble figuring out some good news to share with you this week. I mean, we could use it. But, I don't know where it is yet. Goliath seems to be winning. I keep waiting for the shoe to drop and for David to pull out that last smooth stone and fling it towards his enemy. But, David hasn't done that yet. Things are still looking bleak. The hard thing is that we are right in the middle of the battle against racism and sometimes people think they are David when they are really Goliath. We have got to make sure that we're actually on David's side in all of this. We've got to make sure that the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Myra Thompson, and the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. are not forgotten. We've got to do some work to make sure what happened to them never happens again. On Monday, people are gathering in Portland to remember the fallen. It will be at 5:30 at the Merrill Auditorium. I'm going. I can fit four more people in the car with me. Maybe we can make a plan to slay this giant together.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Roger Nam's commentary on the David and Goliath story: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2474
The history of Emanuel AME Church: http://www.emanuelamechurch.org/churchhistory.php
The history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: http://www.ame-church.com/our-church/our-history/
Here are two articles that discuss the history of attacks on predominantly black churches:
More information on Denmark Vesey: http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/denmark_vesey.html
Here are two articles about why this is rightly called an act of terrorism:
Two resources for learning more about the history of Malaga Island:
The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps travel of hate groups in the United States. Here is a map that have that shows two active hate groups in Maine: http://www.splcenter.org/hate-map#s=ME
In order to help people understand the wider context of the violence in Charleston and the response to the attack, several folks have worked together to develop the Charleston Syllabus. There are many good resources here: http://aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.