Texts: 1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 18:10-16 and Psalm 133 • 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 • Mark 4:35-41
You’ll remember that we’ve been reading through the books of 1 & 2nd Samuel this summer, hearing the stories of the formation of the nation of Israel, and their demand for a king. Last week we read the story of shepherd boy David who was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be king. I preached about the differences between the David, the boy God had chosen, and Saul, the king God had rejected.
If these stories have piqued your interest at all and you’ve been reading First Samuel in between Sundays, then you might have noticed some odd features of chapters 15-18, the chapters we’ve been covering in worship this week and last. First of all, just like the book of Genesis has two different accounts of the creation story, and the New Testament has four different gospels with four different perspectives on the Jesus story, the book of First Samuel has three different stories in these four chapters about how the boy David is introduced to King Saul. In fact, David is “introduced” to Saul on four separate occasions — so, either Saul has a horrible memory for faces and names, or (and this is the prevailing view) First Samuel has preserved and presented a set of oral traditions, legends, about the relationship between the House of Saul and the shepherd king, David.
Saul, you’ll remember, was chosen to be the first king over Israel. He’s described as being tall and handsome, his father was a man of wealth. He was, in short, the kind of person typically chosen to lead. After being anointed by the prophet Samuel, Saul leads Israel’s armies into battle against the Ammonites, the Amalekites and the Philistines. He calms the people’s fears by charging into battle, by going on the offensive. Over time he comes to be ruled by his own fears — his fear that the people will turn against him or abandon him. In his fear he abandons his faith in God, and begins to build monuments to his own strength and success and offers worship and sacrifices on his own timeline and not the LORD’s.
That’s the recap from last week. That’s the first force of nature we’re dealing with today: fear. Fear is a powerful force, and a particularly destructive one precisely because it separates us from our own nature. Even as Saul’s tragic reign comes to an end, even as his authority is crumbling, scripture is clear that he is still loved by God and the prophet Samuel. But fear has kept him from faith, and so he has become a prisoner to his own paranoia.
Have you known people like this — people who were so obviously gifted in remarkable ways, but whose attention was always on what they didn’t have, or what they were afraid they might lose? Or, maybe this has been your story. Maybe you live in a state of fear and anxiety about what the people around you would say or do if they knew the real you. If they knew what you’d done. If they knew what you’d left undone. If they knew the secrets you try to keep hidden inside. It’s tragic, isn’t it, to see someone whose life is governed by fear.
By contrast, David is presented as all that Saul is not. Saul is tall and handsome — perhaps manly and ruggedly good-looking. David is small and youthful, red-faced but eyes sparkling with a heart filled with love. Saul armed himself with a spear and a shield. David carried a harp in his hands and a song on his lips.
When we finally come to the famous battle scene between David and the Philistine giant, Goliath, Saul tries to make David be the kind of man who can win a fight. He loads him down with armor and a heavy sword and sends him forth for battle. David takes a few steps in Saul’s armor and realizes it’s no good. So, he strips the armor off and drops the sword, taking up his shepherd’s staff and slingshot to face the mighty giant.
On any other Sunday I might not say this, but given that it’s Pride Sunday and that some of our friends are not here this morning because they are already lining up for the march that starts at noon, and others of us will be leaving directly after worship to march with them, I can’t help but notice that this is a coming out story of sorts. David is not the kind of man Saul expects can win a fight. He’s not the kind of man his father expected had any shot at being chosen as king. But David knows who he is. He is able to face down a foe much larger than him, much stronger than him, because he is unafraid to be himself. He will wear no armor and carry no weapons other than the ones he’s used to take care of his flock.
David, too, is presented as a force of nature. Against all odds, he defeats his foes. Time after time in the stories that follow, Saul sends David out into battle against impossible odds, but David returns victorious. What distinguishes David from Saul is not his size or his strength, but his faith. His trust in God gives him the strength to remain himself as power and popularity come his way. Soon the entire nation is singing his song, but David remains himself.
In a 2006 article in U.S. News and World Report titled, “Truly Authentic Leadership,” Bill George — the former CEO of Medtronic and professor at Harvard Business School writes,
What, then, is the 21st-century leader all about? Is it being authentic, uniquely yourself, the genuine article. Authentic leaders know who they are. They are “good in their skin,” so good they don’t feel the need to impress or please others. They not only inspire those around them, they bring people together around a shared purpose and a common set of values and motivate them to create value for everyone involved…Authentic leaders know the “true north” of their moral compass and are prepared to stay the course despite challenges and disappointments. They are more concerned about serving others than they are about their own success or recognition.
Have you people like this — people who have every reason to boast, but remain humble in the presence of praise. People who, on the outside, seemed like unlikely leaders, but who gathered people around them by the power of their authenticity? People whose integrity inspired loyalty and who courage inspired action? People like young David, whose power came from his ability to be his own kind of man, to overcome obstacles by being himself — not in spite of himself.
This kind of authenticity is extremely attractive. People flock to it. In the case of David, one man in particular is drawn to him, the king’s own son, Jonathan. Here’s what the bible says,
When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul…Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.
Here is yet another force of nature, the power of love. Lots of ink has been spilled on the question of whether or not the love between Jonathan and David was more than brotherly, or whether it’s symbolic of the shift of power from Saul to David. I tend to think we find what we go looking for (or avoid finding what we don’t want to see). To my eyes and ears, this story seems to go to great lengths to portray the depth of love between David and Jonathan as being incredibly intimate.
Consider the actions Jonathan takes as he makes his covenant with David. He strips himself of all the signs of his father’s house. Jonathan, the crown prince who might be expected to inherit the throne upon his father’s death, hands his birthright over to the one he loves. There’s also a kind of mirroring, or repetition, going on here as well. Just as David rejected Saul’s armor and weapons when he went out to face Goliath, so too Jonathan rejects all the clothing and accoutrements of his father’s house as he joins his soul to David’s.
Again, on any other Sunday I might just let this slip by, but how often does this text present itself on the very Sunday that we celebrate with pride the progress and accomplishments made by the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer communities? And how many of you, or your friends or co-workers, can tell a similar story of having to pick between the love of another and loyalty to your family?
There are people in this congregation, and not just LGBTQ people, who have stories to share about being in the terrible position of having to pick between love and loyalty. These are stories of tremendous pain and horrible heart break precisely because it’s never as simple as love for a partner and loyalty to one’s family. There is also love for our family, and loyalty to those with whom we have fallen in love. Jonathan makes a covenant with David, not the covenant of marriage that was unavailable to him, but a set of promises no less deep and life-changing and true. Then he imitates his beloved, David, and comes out of his father’s armor and armaments.
I know that some of you feel like there’s been a lot of politics in the pulpit as of late. You may wonder what all this has to do with you and the concerns of your own private lives outside the scope of global politics and national elections. What I love about these stories from First and Second Samuel is that they don’t separate the personal from the political. Israel’s demand for a king is a national problem, but the trouble with Saul stem from a personal problem that plagues us all: fear. David’s selection as the new king is a pivotal moment in Israel’s story, but it is his faith in God that gives him the courage to remain himself, to be authentic as a human being in this role to which he has been called.
That’s why these stories are our stories. It is our memory of God’s love, first learned from family and friends, that gives us the courage to face the storms of this world. It is knowing who we truly are, each of us, that allows us to be something truly powerful — a force of nature — acting in the world. It is love that ties us together, calling us beyond our little tribes, our unwieldy weapons of prejudice and our arduous armors of pointless protection. Like David, our strength comes from the Lord, and for that reason we, like the apostle Paul, can proclaim to those who gather on the streets and those who remain trapped in closets built by fear,
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry…we have spoken frankly to you…our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return — I speak to you as children — open your hearts also. (2 Cor. 6:1-13)
Beloved children of God, anointed in baptism and joined to the body of the prince of peace and the lord of lords, on this day and every day, God calls you to leave behind fear and embrace with pride all that you were made to be. No matter who you are, who you love, where you come from, what language you speak; no matter the size of your body or the size of your bank account; you are God’s and God’s love is yours. Claim the power of your precious being, love yourself and one another, and together we will be the force of nature by which God will change the world.