1 Samuel 17:1-11, 19-23, 32-49
Sermon I Got a Name
Good morning! I guess you’re all awake now. I won’t have to use my Goliath voice again. I borrowed the title of my sermon from an old song by Jim Croce, “I Got a Name.” It’s a classic, feel-good song from the early 70s, in which Croce sings about being a songwriter and pursuing his dreams. It’s an easy song to like. It sounds good and it’s not particularly challenging—it doesn’t ask us to think or act. It’s a fun song, but it doesn’t have a lot of depth.
I think there’s a lot of depth in the story of David, but we have this tendency to reduce it to a feel-good story, a simple morality play: David was faithful and because he was faithful, he triumphed in the face of overwhelming opposition.
People who have never opened a Bible in their lives know what a David-vs.-Goliath story is. It’s not easy to say something interesting or original about this story. It doesn’t call on us to have more faith in God. It’s just a story about a young man who responds in faith.
It’s easy to overlook the heart of the story: that God is faithful to God’s promises. The text spends a lot more time talking about Goliath’s armor and weapons than it does about God. The vivid details help to distract us from the deeper theology in the story. Perhaps this is one of those stories where we see what we want to see and stop looking for a deeper meaning.
Let’s be clear: this really isn’t an underdog story. God’s power is greater than anything in creation, including a mighty warrior such as Goliath. In fact, if anything, Goliath is the true underdog, because he is trying to stand against God. Goliath was, perhaps, the ancient world’s version of a weapon of mass destruction; he stands for the forces of death and destruction. This story is an example of God’s “ultimate victory over the powers of sin and death.”
Of course, we see something different; we see a mighty warrior—a giant, really—standing against a boy; a boy who has refused to wear the armor that might protect him. What is it that prevents us from seeing this as a story about God’s victory? What’s getting in our way? Are we so impressed with David that we want to identify with him? Do we hope that God is on our side, too?
My father’s name was David—Dave or Davey to close friends and family. Forgive me for exploring my own daddy issues from the pulpit, but it is Fathers’ Day, so it’s a little hard not to go there. And there’s a connection to the text, I promise!
My dad was an artist and a musician. He was an incredibly talented man and it seemed like everyone in town knew and loved my dad. His reputation was inescapable. Also, his music was inescapable. He was a bagpiper. The sound is inescapable. My dad was a short man, but he cast a really long shadow.
When I was kid, people always asked me: “Do you play the bagpipes like your father?” or “Are you going to learn to play the bagpipes like your father?” Not only that, but lots of people called me Dave or David. Even my teachers in school would call me by my dad’s name. They had my name in front of them!
It was like I didn’t have a name of my own.
When I was a little kid, it wasn’t much of a problem. My dad was the coolest person in the world. He played the bagpipes and he made crazy sculptures. It seemed like everyone else thought he was the coolest person in the world, too! He got lots and lots of attention. People fawned all over him. I mean, it wasn’t until I was in third or fourth grade until I learned that some people actually hate the bagpipes. But in my little world, which was mostly constructed by my parents, everyone loved my dad and his music. Of course, I wanted to be like him.
As I grew older, I learned that I couldn’t draw and paint very well. I wasn’t very good at music. Certainly, I wasn’t the natural musician that my father was. Yet all the while, people kept asking me what I was going to be: Are you going to be an artist like your dad? Do you play the bagpipes, like your dad?
Eventually, that identity didn’t fit. Trying to be like my dad was like David trying to put on the armor of a soldier; the armor was too heavy and restricting for David. To win the battle, David had to throw off the weight of the armor that did not belong to him. The weight of my father’s name was often too great for me to bear. It felt like there wasn’t room in that story for me. It wasn’t me.
This is what Thomas Merton might describe as the conflict between false self and true self. Merton writes: “No two created things are exactly alike. And their individuality is no imperfection.” Trees and animals are individuals whose purpose in life is fulfilled in their creation—they are exactly as they’re created to be and there’s no call for self-discovery, there is no discernment of call. But we are different. According to Merton:
Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own destiny. We are free beings and [children] of God. This means that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in His creative freedom, in our own lives, and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth. To put it better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.
That notion of calling is really important to Merton; he makes an important distinction between the false self and the true self. Merton states that our true identity is in the love and mercy of God and that each one of us is free to work constructively with God to discern that true identity.
The opposite of this is the false self, an illusory person that shadows each and every one of us:
[The false self] is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy.
My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.
Merton points out that we are not good at recognizing illusions. Rather, we focus on the illusions of our false selves, where our sin originates. As we dwell in our false selves, we are unable to love our neighbors because the false self cannot fully participate in God’s creative love for humanity.
We are all created in love, God’s divine and undivided love. We are called to share that love with all of creation. Yet the world divides us; we fight amongst ourselves and we put on masks to hide our true selves from those who might hurt us. Sometimes we grow so accustomed to the masks that we don’t recognize our true selves. And our false selves are not capable of sharing true love with anyone. In our false selves, our affections are divided; we only share our love according to our own selfish desires and shallow goals. In our false selves, we fail to live into the fullness of God’s creation and God’s unbounded, unconditional love.
David triumphs over Goliath—over the forces of sin and death—because David knows that his own, true identity is in God. David rejects the armor that is offered to him. The armor is, I think, a thing of the world, a mask, a false self. If David would have strapped on the armor and carried Saul’s sword, he would have been defeated. When Goliath taunts David, David replies: “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts.” David doesn’t come in the name of his earthly father, Jesse. He doesn’t come in the name of Saul, his king. No, David comes in the name of the Lord. And in his true self, David has all the tools he needs.
The easy version of this story, then, is that David—the biblical David—succeeded because he knew who he was. Then we could just go home and feel happy and not have to do the difficult work of discerning our true identities, or whatever it was that that Merton guy was going on about. But easy lessons and easy understandings don’t get us anywhere. Easy lessons enable us to remain in our false selves. Easy lessons are self-serving. Or perhaps Merton would say that easy lessons serve the false self.
David enters this story in verse 20. We’re told that he left his flock of sheep with a keeper and came to the field of battle as his father Jesse had commanded. This is an important detail and it’s easy to overlook. In the ancient world, the figure of a shepherd was a metaphor for a good king.
If you remember from our reading last Sunday, the prophet Samuel came to Bethlehem to anoint the next king. He told Jesse that one of his sons would be God’s chosen king. So, Samuel asks Jesse to gather his sons so that he can examine them, and then God will tell Samuel which son it is. Remember?
Jesse brings out his first son and Samuel is sure this will be God’s chosen king—the son really looks the part, but God rejects him, saying: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
To put this in Thomas Merton’s terms, God sees through the false self, the outward appearances. God sees the true self, the real king. So, of course God sees that the true king is the one who is out tending the sheep. David is busy living and working as his authentic self; he is doing what a true king does. God sees through the false selves of age, birth order, and good looks.
That’s probably why the author of First Samuel reminds us that David was busy tending his family’s sheep until he came to the battlefield. We are reminded that a true king is busy tending and defending his flock. As opposed to Saul, who sends for one of his servants to do the fighting.
Jesus also uses the image of the shepherd. In the Gospel of John, Jesus declares: “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus teaches the disciples to be good shepherds, to carry on his work of caring for all God’s children. And by extension, we are called to this work of shepherding, of caring for all of God’s children.
To do this, we have to let go of all of the false selves we have constructed. We live in a land that is gripped by the false self of fear. We live in a culture that divides us by race and class. We buy into the voices of the world that tell us to put on Saul’s sword and armor to protect ourselves from the Goliath who doesn’t look like us or who lives in a different neighborhood. These divisions are false selves. They separate us from one another, and in these false selves we fail to love our neighbors. This is our failing. We don’t need to form a committee to study the problem, we just need to own up to it and repent.
We spend too much time listening to the voices of the world; we hear the roaring winds of the storm outside and we are scared. We forget that our true identity is in Christ; we are scared to follow the call to be disciples. This is natural; this is human. It’s impossible not to hear these voices. Yet we must strip away these false selves so that we can become our true selves and live into the fullness of God’s love and creation. Only in our true selves can we be true disciples.
We need disciples now more than ever! We can’t un-make the past. We can’t pick who our parents are, or the color of our skin, or the neighborhoods where we grew up. What we can do is claim our ancestral rights, as children of God, always mindful that we are shaped by our individual experiences and circumstances. Let’s honor and respect those differences, and let’s get to work! Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that your true identity is in God, and not in the things of this world, the false selves of this world. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Roger Nam. “Commentary on 1 Samuel 17: [1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49, retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2474  Nam.  Samuel Giere. “Commentary on 1 Samuel 17: [1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49, retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1320  Giere.  Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation, 29.  Merton, 32.  Merton, 35.  Merton, 34.