This sermon was preached at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC on Sunday, June 21, 2015. The text was 1 Samuel 17:32-49.
Today, myself and countless other pastors are climbing into their pulpits wondering what in the world we can possibly say in the wake of the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina. On Wednesday evening, a group gathered for Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street in Charleston. They welcomed a stranger into their midst. After an hour, that man opened fire.
Before I say anything else about the shooting or about David and Goliath, I want to read aloud the names of the 9 who were killed and tell you just a little bit about each of them:
- Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, age 45. Sharonda was a mother of 3, a reverend, a speech therapist, and a high school track coach.
- Cynthia Hurd, age 54. Cynthia was a public librarian; her brother fondly described her as a “nerd” and a faithfully attending church member. She would have turned 55 today.
- Susie Jackson, age 87. Susie was an usher and a choir member at the church. When her son moved away from their home in the East Side projects, she opened his room to those in need of shelter.
- Ethel Lee Lance, age 70. Ethel had been a sexton at the church for over 30 years. Her grandson told reporters that she was the heart of their family.
- Depayne Middleton-Doctor, age 49. Depayne was a minister, a choir member, a university admissions office employee, and the mother of 4 girls.
- Clementa Pinckney, age 41. Clementa was a South Carolina state senator, described as the senate’s moral conscience. He was a 4th-generation AME pastor and the father of 2 girls.
- Tywanza Sanders, age 26. Tywanza was a recent graduate of Allen University and worked in a local barbershop. He died trying to save his 87-yar-old aunt. He was the youngest victim; she was the oldest.
- Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., age 74. Daniel was a former AME pastor, a veteran, and a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.
- Myra Thompson, age 59. Myra was a Bible study teacher and the wife of Rev. Anthony Thompson, a vicar at Holy Trinity Church.
Sharonda, Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, Depayne, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, and Myra were all our brothers and sisters in Christ. More than that, they were our brothers and sisters in Methodism.
And here we have the story of David and Goliath, a story of good triumphing over evil. The story of David and Goliath is unusually long and detailed. We didn’t even read the whole story here today, and yet I had an email exchange with our communications director about whether even this section would fit in the bulletin. The level of detail and imagery suggests that although the story may refer to a historical event, it probably didn’t happen exactly as it is written here, but instead is intended to be allegorical.
And so, it is not a stretch to say that Goliath here represents evil. We won’t find Goliath today by pulling out a yardstick and looking for the tallest man in an enemy army. We will find Goliath wherever evil rears its ugly head. We will find Goliath wherever there is fear or violence or suffering that needs to be faced.
From earlier in 1 Samuel 17: “And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. [We think that’s about 9 feet tall.] He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armored 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.”
Evil is big and imposing. It overshadows us in our best defenses and comes breathing down our necks, armed to the teeth with weaponry so heavy and terrifying that we are justified in having the same reaction that Saul and all Israel had—“they were dismayed and greatly afraid.”
It is in this atmosphere of terror and fear that David, a shepherd boy, a musician, a nobody, steps in and says to the king, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him.” However terrifying it may be, evil can and must be faced. The question, of course, is how?
Some quickly suggested that what could have helped in the Charleston shooting was if someone at that prayer meeting had a gun. Maybe if one of the church members had a concealed carry, or if a policeman had been present to protect them, those 9 people might not have died.
At face value, this solution is logical. But I couldn’t help but notice that the story of David and Goliath suggests the total opposite response. The Philistines didn’t just have one really tall guy on their side. As a society, they were far more technologically advanced than the Israelites. The Philistines were the first to start using iron in the shift from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Even before David shed his armor and took up his slingshot, it was as if the Israelites were toting muzzle loaders to go up against the Philistines with their AK-47s.
If David had followed the equivalent of the advice to have more guns in church, he might have sent spies to steal Philistine technology so that they could upgrade Israelite weaponry to be evenly matched. Instead, he rejects not only the weapons of the Philistines but also the weapons and even the armor of the Israelites. He goes out with sticks and stones in a move that by any standard is reckless, foolish, and irresponsible. And yet he is saved, not by his own hand, but by God. As he goes out to meet Goliath, David says, “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.”
To say that we must have more guns in churches is to say that we must use the technology of the Philistines to save ourselves. It is to say that we and our weapons are the only help there is, that if we don’t protect ourselves then all is lost. But Scripture tells us, “the Lord does not save by sword and spear.” “It is God who saves, not Goliath” (The New Interpreter’s Bible). Let us not fool ourselves into believing that we can rely solely on the tools and methods of the Philistines for salvation without becoming Philistines ourselves.
Besides, it has become undeniably clear that this attack was not religiously but racially motivated. Dylann Roof wasn’t out to kill Christians; he was out to kill black people. He went to a church because that has been the center of the black community for generations. The church is where African-Americans have not only worshipped and prayed but also organized and mobilized for change in society. Some commentators have been trying not to make this about race, but that is impossible. And black clergy across the country have asked white clergy to talk about this in their pulpits this Sunday, not to sidestep it or downplay it. I believe I would not be proclaiming the Gospel if I did otherwise.
So I ask you to bear with me this morning, because it is hard to talk about racism in white churches. We get defensive. We want to cry out, We are not racist! Stop blaming us for things that happened decades or centuries ago!
But this is not about blame. This is about acknowledging a common wound. Racism isn’t about how you personally think about people of a different race. It is an inherited wound that affects our whole society.
Let us Methodists remember that the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the denomination to which Emanuel AME Church in Charleston belongs, exists because of racism. In 1787, Richard Allen and some followers left St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia because they were not allowed to pray at the altar because of the color of their skin. Their movement led to the founding of the AME Church, whose continued existence is both a testament to the strength and resilience of black Christians and a reminder of our painful past.
Author Wendell Berry writes, “If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself.” When we harm others, we also harm ourselves. It reminds me a little of a principle in the Harry Potter series—in these novels’ world of witches and wizards, when you kill another person, your soul is literally ripped in two.
When we wound others, we wound ourselves. This particular kind of wound affects not just individuals but whole communities, whole generations, and our whole society. And time alone cannot heal it. Old wounds not properly treated tend to fester. Perhaps part of the reason we white folk get defensive when people talk about racism is that it pushes on a tender bruise whose presence we find both confusing and painful. This bruise—we don’t quite understand where it came from or why it’s there or how it could possibly hurt so much in the year 2015. So we pull on armor that is far too big and too clumsy for us, and we never make it out the door to face Goliath.
Dylann Roof is not Goliath. Let us not reduce this to one person or look for explanations by way of mental illness or insanity. These are simply excuses not to face the ways in which we ourselves inflict and suffer from the wounds of racism. Dylann Roof is not Goliath; his despicable actions are just one particularly ugly manifestation of the much bigger and older giant that is racism.
I want to have compassion for Dylann. My heart breaks with anger and pity—he is only 21 years old. That’s how old my little brother is. Dylann was born in April of 1994, just like my brother Noah. He has dirty blonde hair like Noah. I was with my brother just yesterday as I thought about this, and I looked at him, stunned by how different and yet how similar he and Dylann might be.
I remember the day Noah was born; I remember his infanthood, his childhood, his teen years. I can imagine Dylann’s, too, and I wonder what went wrong. I wonder what kind of a household he must have grown up in, what kinds of hatred he must have been taught. I wonder what happened so that at only 21 years of age, he was proudly speaking out in white supremacist groups and telling friends he was planning to kill black people. I wonder what fear and anger must have been ingrained in him so that he decided to take the gun his father gave him as a birthday present and end the lives of 9 of his fellow human beings.
1 Samuel 17 tells us that Goliath “has been a warrior from his youth.” How old was Goliath when someone first told him he should hate the Israelites? How old was he when his father pressed an iron spear into his hand for the first time? In how many ways was his natural tendency to love twisted and bent and broken until he became himself the embodiment of evil and hatred?
Nelson Mandela says, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate…” I wonder who taught Dylann Roof to hate, and who taught that person to hate before that, and so on, and so on. I wonder who taught you or I to judge someone based on their skin color or their sexual orientation or their socioeconomic class or their nationality or their faith. I wonder how, in small ways, we teach our own children to hate, or at least fail to teach them how to really love.
At Dylann Roof’s bond hearing, the family members of some of his victims had the opportunity to speak to him. They spoke tearfully of the pain and hurt he had caused, of the mothers and aunts and sons they had lost; but they spoke, too, of mercy and forgiveness. By some miracle, these people, who have every right to be angry and vengeful, chose love over hate. They chose to look in the face of the young man that killed their loved ones and say, “I forgive you.”
And Dylann’s response was a blank stare.
We can’t possibly know what was going through his mind at that moment. But I cannot help but speculate that a young man so inculcated in the doctrines of racism and hatred might have no capacity for understanding forgiveness. He may have never heard or said those words in his life.
Whatever his fate may be, I pray that he might find forgiveness for himself and for whatever it was that made him do what he did, whatever it was that took his identity as a child of God and perverted it so that he could not recognize that same image in his black brothers and sisters. And I give thanks for those families who, despite having good reason to close their eyes to the image of God in Dylann, have chosen to look for it, even when it is buried too deep even for him to find it. They bear witness to love and faith and strength that I am not sure I would have in that circumstance.
Pastor and author Frederick Buechner wrote a re-imagining of the David and Goliath story that ends in an unexpected way. Here is how he concludes: “As [David] straddled Goliath with Goliath’s sword in his hand, the giant believed that what he was seeing was his own soul stripped of the unwieldy flesh at last for its journey to paradise, and when David presented the severed head to Saul later, there was an unmistakable smile on its great lips.”
My prayer is that we might name the hidden and explicit face of racism so that all our souls and the soul of this nation might be stripped of the unwieldy flesh of prejudice, violence, and hatred. My prayer is that we would cast off the armor of defensiveness and denial and walk out onto the battlefield together, not with sword and spear and javelin, but in the name of the Lord of hosts. My prayer it that the burden of our division and strife would be lifted, that the wounds of racism might somehow be healed.
My prayer is that where once there was the scowl of a hardened soldier or the blank stare of a young man who cannot comprehend forgiveness, where once there was the anguished sob of a bereaved mother or sister or husband or child or the flicker of fear in the eyes of we who are afraid to face the giants in our hearts and in our world, there might instead appear the faint smile of release, of reconciliation, of healing, and of love.