“Staffs and Stones Can Break Bones”
Sunday, August 23, 2009
I Samuel 17: 40-49
story of David and Goliath is the day after
story of David and Goliath is the day after you’ve introduced health care
reform and people come to town meetings carrying guns or hysterically saying
that national health care will turn the
story of David and Goliath is about the day after the General Conference of
The story of David and Goliath is the day after we’ve been laid off. It is the day after our partner has decided to end the relationship. It is the day after we are turned down by grad school. It is the day after we realize alcohol is ruining our life. It is the day after the test results make our mortality all too clear.
Inside of us as a people and as individuals there is a Saul and a Goliath.
In the face of Goliath, Saul is immobilized. The situation is too overwhelming. There is no way to win. It is impossible to see how all will not be lost. The enemy is too big. The threat is too onerous. There is no way to win this one.
In the face of Goliath, Saul becomes cynical, unimaginative, and shuts down. He becomes unfeeling, calloused, numb.
In the face of Goliath, David is actually energized. He faces the situation with the three characteristics Ronald Heifitz says leaders need during a time of adaptive change – innocence (as opposed to cynicism), curiosity (as opposed to unimaginativeness) and the ability to stay in touch with our feelings (as opposed to callousness or numbness).[i] Innocence, curiosity and connection to our feelings.
Today we come to the place in the story where we see what David did in his confrontation with Goliath.
Today I’d like us to look rather carefully at what David does do. Three things David concretely does in the face of what Saul and everybody else believe is inevitable defeat.
First, he claims the name of God. David says to Goliath: “I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts.” (I Samuel 17:45) I know this makes us a little nervous in a time when we have witnessed demonstrations of fundamentalist fanaticism that has included violence, but David demonstrates the truth that none of us can lead, or even manage our own lives well, in the face of Goliath, unless we have a conviction that our actions are on the right side of health, wholeness and history.
We’ve got to have a sense that we are doing what is right.
In every crisis of change that leaves us feeling overwhelmed and puny, the first question we need to ask is whether we are doing what is healthy, just and aligned with the direction of history.
We can not fight any battle unless we have wrestled through to some degree of confidence that the way we are going is healthy, whole and on the right side of history
I know this is hard, but when we face a vocational crisis and all our anxieties compel us to go looking for a salary to take the place of the one we have lost, the prior question we need to ask is whether I have been doing the work that is right for me.
I doubt that there is only one job or even one vocation for most of us. Many of us would have the capacity to take several vocational paths and still fulfill our potential and contribute to the larger good. But most of us also have lots of paths that would be wrong for us because they would not challenge us or fulfill our potential or keep us growing or contribute to the welfare of others.
Is the work we are seeking to do healthy for us and does it tap into our whole potential and does it make a contribution to history?
I am not a determinist, but neither do I believe history is impartial. History has a direction it wants to go. It is the direction of inclusion, justice, equality and community. One of my favorite quotes, perhaps my favorite quote, is from Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
has a way it wants to go. We can resist it and we might even be able to thwart
it, but history is not neutral. One place we find the direction history wants
to go in the biblical story which begins with slavery in
There is nothing that worries me more than that I should be on the wrong side of history or even neutral…a non-participant. The first thing David had to do was to examine himself to make sure that he was on the side of health, wholeness and history When the odds seem to be against, you can’t go into battle you unless you are confident that you are on the right side of health, wholeness and history.
That’s the first thing David had to do.
The second thing that David did was to use the best and most effective resources that were available to him. David chose not to use Saul’s armor and sword because they weren’t right for him.
Just because he did not choose to use Saul’s armor and sword does not mean David went into battle empty-handed. Here’s what the story says: “He took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi (the brook) and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand.” (I Samuel 17: 40)
We should not underestimate the sling. The sling was not a toy. It was two cords with a small pouch in the middle. Slingers would put a stone or a clay ball or eventually a metal ball in the pouch, swing the cords, let one of the cords go and shoot the stone toward its target.
Slingers who trained developed their skill could shoot the stone a long way with great accuracy. The stone could travel as far as 600 meters which is farther than 6 football fields…much farther than archers could shoot an arrow. Ancient armies had divisions of slingers. Judges 20:15 says that the Israelite tribe of Benjamin had a contingent of “700 men who were left-handed [and] every one [of them] could sling a stone at a hair, and not miss.”
A sling was no toy but a sophisticated weapon.
David did not go into battle without resources.
He also took with him his shepherd’s staff. What function did the staff play? In the story the staff distracts Goliath so that he does not see the sling and it causes Goliath to underestimate David.
In every situation in which life causes us to feel puny and overwhelmed, we need to ask what resources we have that will work for us. If we remain non-cynical and curious, there will always be resources.
The other resource David found was five smooth stones. Why five stones?
B. Jones at
Because Saul’s armor and sword doesn’t work for us doesn’t mean we don’t have resources that will. Because our resources don’t look like Goliath’s massive spear and impressive armor, doesn’t mean they won’t work for us.
When life leaves us feeling puny and overwhelmed, when the enemy seems huge and we seem small, perhaps the greatest mistake we can make is to forget the resources we have.
The third thing David did was to control the timing of the encounter. He did not play by Goliath’s rules. This is what Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes in his article “How David Beats Goliath” in the May 11, 2009 New Yorker. [iii]
The biblical story says: “When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine.” (I Samuel 17:48)
Gladwell says: “David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. ‘The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,’ the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in The Life of David. Pinsky calls David a ‘point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.’ David pressed. That's what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.”[iv]
There was a ritual soldiers followed in the time in which the story of David and Goliath is set, as there usually has been for warfare. Soldiers would have touched weapons and then circled each other and gone through a ritual to begin battle, like wrestlers meeting in the ring. David ignored all that and “ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine.”
Goliath always has rules about what is and what is not proper and what is dignified and what is beneath our dignity, and what is appropriate what is inappropriate and tacky. Getting David to follow Goliath’s rules is the way goliath wins.
struggle for gay and lesbian inclusion in the
Gladwell says this is the hardest thing to do – to disregard Goliath’s rules – to do what is improper, or undignified, or inappropriate, or tacky. To face the disapproval of those who know the proper way battles ought to be fought. To be uncouth.
says that the American revolutionaries did so well against the British in the
When life confronts us with a Goliath situation and leaves us feeling puny and overwhelmed, it is almost impossible to win without giving up our pride.
We may have to go to friends whom we want to admire us to admit our need and to ask for help…hard to do. We may have to stand up in an AA meeting and confess our addiction…very hard to do. We may have to pray for ha miracle when we think we are too intellectually sophistication to do that. We may have to ask for a loan. We may have to be interviewed for a job by someone 20 years less experienced than us.
There is probably no way to get past a Goliath without learning our need for grace, which always means losing our pride. This is part of what grace is…to let go our pride.
David, in the face of Goliath, does these three things – he makes sure he is on the right side of health, wholeness and history; he draws upon the considerable resources he does have rather than focusing on the resources he doesn’t have; and he humbles himself to do what needs to be done. It is the only way through Goliath.
[i] Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on
the Line (