This is not the sermon I wrote for this Sunday. As the folks from Tuesday morning Bible study know, I was heading in a different direction, and while neither the text nor the title has changed, when I awoke on Thursday morning, I realized it was time to start over.
Fifty years after the founding of First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE, about 20 miles up the road, another church was just getting started, a church that could not have been more different from the venerable Presbyterians to the south.
For starters, the new church was Methodist and followed the doctrine of Charles Wesley as opposed to the divinely inspired and infallible teachings of John Calvin. A second, and more significant difference was that while the Delawarean Calvinists were primarily Socts-Irish, the members of the First African Society were all free blacks living in the north.
Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, free blacks themselves, are the ones credited with founding the Society whose goal in 1787 was to create a non-denominational religious organization to serve the spiritual, economic and social needs of Philadelphia's African-American community. Clearly an enterprise of youthful nerve and passionate faith.
In 1794, Jones would found an Episcopal church, and Allen a Methodist church, the beginning of the African Methodist Episcopal or AME denomination, today with 12,000 congregations and 7.5M members. For comparison, the PCUSA is currently at 10,000 congregations with 2M members.
One only needs to have a cursory understanding of the history of this country to realize the plethora of struggles and setbacks these congregations have withstood throughout their tenure. I don’t doubt that every one of those 12,000 churches can tell a story after story of torment, oppression, hatred, and violence all steeped in America’s Original Sin of racism.
The Emanual AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in headlines this week, has been the fodder of newspaper ink before: (from the church’s website)
It was founded in 1816 by a black pastor named Morris Brown, and it's the oldest black church still standing south of Baltimore. Booker T. Washington spoke there in 1909, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech of his own in 1962. In 1969, Coretta Scott King led a march from the church's front steps, advocating for higher pay for hospital workers.
But decades before Washington and King graced its halls, Mother Emanuel was also the spiritual refuge of Denmark Vesey, a former slave turned carpenter who bought his own freedom in 1799, after he won $1,500 from the Charleston lottery. He was described by many as a martyr, and became symbolic of the abolitionist movement.
In 1822 the church was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt. Denmark Vesey, also one of the church's founders, organized a major slave uprising in Charleston. Vesey was raised in slavery in the Virgin Islands among newly imported Africans. He was the personal servant of slavetrader Captain Joseph Vesey, who settled in Charleston in 1783. Beginning in December 1821, Vesey began to organize a slave rebellion, but authorities were informed of the plot before it could take place. The plot created mass hysteria throughout the Carolinas and the South.
During the Vesey controversy, the AME church was burned. Worship services continued after the church was rebuilt until 1834 when all black churches were outlawed.
And then last Wednesday night during a weekly Bible study, a 21-year-old white kid with a “Dutch boy” haircut, who had been welcomed by eight members and their pastor, opened fire with a handgun, slowly and deliberately killing them with bullets from his pistol interspersed with racial slurs from his mouth.
I suppose he too could be subtitled, “youthful nerve and passionate faith.”
Only it isn’t. And it isn’t a call to open the conversation about mental illness. Why is it that when white kids kill it’s about mental illness and when black kids kill it’s about the moral decay in the African-American family and culture?
This is about deep, systemic, and proliferated racism that is imbedded in the DNA of our country from the Constitution to today that will never be addressed because white people like it too much.
This is about the grip of the NRA and the gun lobby on our politicians genitalia that render them impotent and mute when their re-election is threatened. If being a politician is the only job you know, it’s time to do something meaningful with your life because we don’t have enough days on this planet to pander.
This is about a deeply engrained culture of weapons-based security and a system of racial supremacy.
So now it’s time to turn to the Bible.
Let’s read together verses 4 – 7:
And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed 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.
So…this story is right smack dab in the middle of the Iron Age, and the Phillistines, being coastal people, think modern day Gaza, had it first and they were good at it.
Goliath, loaded down with all of that iron, all of those weapons of mass destruction, represented the best in national defense, so good, he was invincible to say nothing of cocky and bombastic. And, none of that was lost on the Hebrews. They, and their king, were shaking in their boots.
Now move down to verse 19.
This is how we’re introduced to David – and hear this in comparison to the description of Goliath:
Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. David rose early in the morning, left the sheep with a keeper, took the provisions, and went as Jesse had commanded him
Did you catch that little nuance? Saul and all the MEN of Israel were away at war, but David was not, hence, he was not considered a man, he was just a boy.
In verse 32, Saul restates the obvious:
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
Yet, David convinces Saul that he’s brave, courageous, and confident in God’s protection and deliverance. He asserts his skill as a shepherd and exudes youthful nerve and passionate faith. If he can slay the predators of his flock, with God, he can save his people from their overgrown iron-clad menace.
The next scene, starting in verse 38 is a bit of comic relief as the tension grows with the conflict on the horizon:
Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, 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.
You can just picture this slight young man burdened with the weight of Saul’s armor. It’s a pathetic attempt on Saul’s part of accommodate, to hijack David’s faith and overlay the conventions of war.
So David takes all of that off and instead takes a simple leather slingshot and picks five round river stones and heads off to greet impossible odds!
Goliath is either amused or insulted or both.
When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance.
You know, I don’t know what the deal is, but David had to be one good-looking dude. No one else in the Bible garners such gushing about physical looks. The point is, he’s too young and too pretty to fight.
In response, David speaks one of the most theologically disciplined speeches in the entire Bible:
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.
The speech is bracketed key phrases:
Opens with: You come to me with weapons, but I come to you in the name of God.
Closes with: So that all the earth may know that there is a God who does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord ’s and God will give you into our hand.
And then, after waiting 47 verses, the action is quick, decisive, and effective. David didn’t even need all 5 stones; one was enough.
This story of David and Goliath is easily among the best known in the entire book and has infiltrated the vernacular with its vivid depiction of embodied hope for all who face overwhelming odds and evil. It’s not just about rooting for the underdog; that cheapens and misleads. This is about the subversive power of truth, of God’s ultimate opposition to arrogant and self-serving power and its violence.
Arrogant and self-serving power and its violence: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.
A 21-year-old given a gun for his birthday by his father that he uses to kill 9 African-Americans while they are doing what we just did. They welcomed the stranger and he opened fire on them and the country is aghast.
No…not the entire country. Not people of color who have faced oppression for their entire American experience. Not the parents of children massacred in Sandy Hook. Not Gabby Gifford. Not moviegoers in Aurora, CO. Not the families of 13 people killed in Chicago last week; or the 23 shot and killed in Wilmington in 2014; or the 100 gun deaths in Delaware in 2013.
In those pews of Emanuel AME rose up the hellacious vortex of the feverous infection of racism and the mindless proliferation of guns; and we do nothing. Our church prints anemic, safely worded prayers on its website (“racial unrest”) and is the proprietor of “disaster of the day” jingles so congregations can lament and sing and go home and never give it another thought.
That’s not good enough.
No guns. Period. No guns. No one in this country, other than law enforcement and the military, needs a gun. If you want to go hunting, rent a rifle. No handguns. No automatic weapons. No guns. The 2nd Amendment has been hijacked in ways the framers of those words would never have envisioned. No guns.
As for racism? When white people are willing to acknowledge their unearned and unquestioned privilege in this country, racism might begin to erode. Just look at the way the shooter in SC was treated vs. a young black man committing the same crime. They put a bullet-proof vest on him. Immediately the cry for mental health treatment goes up. He must be ill; no white person would do such a thing!
This is not something “the church needs to do”: this is personal and it’s up to each of you and to me. Nothing changes until one person who possesses a shred of faith and confidence in God, steps forward, and holds a stone that says, “this stops here and now. In my hearing. In my view. In my day. This stops here and now.”
David only needed the one stone to confront overwhelming odds. He confronted the threat of one people dominating and oppressing another. Racism in our day. He confronted the massive strength, influence, and power of weapons. Gun lobby and the NRA in our day.
With youthful nerve and passionate faith. With one stone. He prevailed.
No, I take that back.
With one of God’s well-place stones, David prevailed.
So can we.