Monday, December 16, 2013

David and Goliath: Inspiration for Religious Liberals

Reading 1st Samuel, 17:38-40

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried to walk around because he was not used to them.

“I cannot go in these”, he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached Goliath.



The Story of David and Goliath: I see the story as Inspiration for Religious Liberals

We all know how that story ends with David defeating Goliath in the Valley of Elah where the Israelites faced the Philistines.  A shepherd boy felled a mighty warrior with nothing more than a single stone and a sling. And ever since, the names of David and Goliath have stood for battles between underdogs and giants. David's victory was improbable and miraculous. He shouldn't have won.  

Conventional wisdom led the Philistines to assume that the physical size of Goliath, protected by all of his armaments, would prevail over any adversary, certainly a small shepherd boy. Consider this from Samuel 7:4-7:

“4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. 5 His height was six cubits and a span. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; 6 on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. 7 His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.” 

So the story of David and Goliath has been referenced for centuries as a metaphor for the weak prevailing over the strong in an unequal competition, the agile and quick prevailing over the large and lumbering. In his new book, "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants," Malcolm Gladwell says most people get this famous Biblical yarn all wrong because they misunderstand who really has the upper hand. It is because of, and not despite, David's size and unorthodox choice of weapon that he is able to slay the lumbering giant. In other words, Gladwell says, most people underestimate the importance of agility and speed.

And I would add most people underestimate the power of having confidence in your values.

For an interesting introduction to Gladwell’s book, I suggest you watch the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) Talks video available online by Googling Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.

So why should religious liberals take heart from this story?

David’s confidence in his ability to take the five smooth stones he plucked out of the wadi in the Valley of Elah and use only one to slay the giant, suggests we should be more optimistic about the ability of our liberal faith movement to change the world.

John Luther Adams, tells us as much in his essay on the Guiding Principles for a Free Faith. Adams has been a major force in American social ethics and liberal theology for more than half a century; important not only to Unitarian Universalist theology but other liberal religions as well.  

He was a Unitarian parish minister, social activist, scholar, author, and a divinity school professor for 40 years at Meadville Lombard Theological School, Harvard Divinity School, and Andover Newton Theological School. He wrote his essay entitled “Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism” in response to attacks levied against liberalism at the end of the 2nd World War.  

He had been a student for a time in Germany at the beginning of the Third Reich, and saw the brutality of a government that didn’t have to answer to anyone or any institution. He was appalled at the temerity of most of the established churches in Germany in remaining silent as the Third Reich began its reign of terror. He must have felt like David against Goliath at that time in world history. Thus, the metaphor of the five smooth stones: small, but very powerful weapons of a liberal theology in the face of regressive social policies.  

His writings were in response to the political reality of his day. I submit that his ideas of the power of a liberal faith are relevant today. We live today in a polarized political nation that seems bent on regressive policies and reversing progressive gains.

Let’s first parse the term liberal. In the context of theology or religion, the term “liberal” suggests openness to new truths, tolerance, not bound by tradition, authoritarianism, or orthodoxy.  

When David took off the suit of armor that the king, THE KING, had put on him, he was unbinding himself from the king’s authority. It was an unorthodox, non-traditional thing that he did. David used and relied on the tools and experience he knew best, his slingshot and his stones. He relied on his own truth in which he had great confidence. He had after all, become proficient in the use of the slingshot as a necessary and critical weapon in his role as shepherd…to kill predators of the sheep in his charge. He was a very good shot! He knew it and was confident of his aim.

Adams uses the five smooth stones that David picked up as metaphors for the five essential statements of a genuine and vital religious liberalism. They are:

1. “Revelation is continuous.

2. All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion.

3. We have a moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community.

4. We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation.

5. The resources that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism."

To paraphrase those five essential statements or stones:

1. There is always something new to learn.

2. Treat others as they would have you treat them.

3. We are obligated to make the world better than it is.

4. The work is ours to do; no one else is going to do it for us.

5. No matter how tragic life is, no matter how hopeless you feel, the gifts of grace in this world are abundant and demand that we recognize them and act on them.

Let’s examine the five smooth stones of liberal faith in more detail.

1. Revelation is continuous (or there is always something new to learn.) Truth does not reside in a singular book, no matter the number of people who say so. Revelation does not reside in a single set of beliefs, no matter what our fundamentalist relatives might insist. Revelation comes from and to each individual, and there is always something new to learn: from study, from others, and from meditation/reflection/or prayer.

Revelation is the act of revealing or communicating divine truth. In the orthodox Judeo-Christian traditions, the Ten Commandments were a revelation. They were taken as revealed directly from God to Moses. The Koran was revealed directly from God to Mohammed. The prophet Maroni revealed truths to complete the Book of Mormon. I was always confused as a boy how God revealed different truths to different people and expected me to choose one path over the other. The Orthodox tradition also holds that revelation is sealed; that at some point God stopped revealing God’s self to humankind. All truth is contained in the Bible: God wrote it, it is the revealed truth, and there is nothing more to talk about.  

But Adams begs to differ, saying that nothing is complete…ever. Creation is an ongoing process and within that process, God reveals God’s-self to us …. over and over again.  

This is a good time to point out that Adams was a liberal Christian and used the word God, even though he recognizes that the word is “heavily laden with unacceptable connotations…and may be scarcely usable without confusion.” He used the word God to mean, “that which ultimately concerns humanity”, or “that in which we should place our confidence”, or “that in which we may have faith.”  As a religious humanist, this is how I understand the word God: “that which ultimately concerns humanity.”

Continuous revelation is a concept that honors our individual experiences. Feminist theology begins with women’s experience. Liberation theology begins with the experience of oppressed people. Both of those theologies fly in the face of orthodoxy and are serious threats to it because those theologies give so much power to the individual.

For religious liberals, new revelation is always possible. All of experience adds to interpretation and understanding. We need to be open to the possibility of a deeper understanding of that which ultimately concerns humanity or that in which we may have faith. We need to be open to the possibility of a new revelation of compassion, or justice, or love. We need to be open to the possibility of transformation in our lives. There are bits of ongoing revelation that confront us every day. They are holy. They are ours.  

Ongoing bits of revelation help us in our search for inner wisdom because of their ability to elicit “aha” responses in us. When we hear or read or see something and are moved deeply, it is because the event is expressing a truth that we already knew but hadn’t articulated. Something was revealed; it was a revelation.

This notion that there is always something we can learn leads religious liberals to offer radical hospitality to those “not of our tribe”.  The “others” have something to teach us.

Adams second smooth stone of liberal faith is this:

2. All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion. Or, treat others as they would have you treat them.

Adams here is talking about free consentas a protest against government oppression and ecclesiastical oppression. It is a protest against both state and church when appropriate. It is a protest against having to obey, having to believe, having to be what someone else thinks you ought to do, believe, and be. “If we all are children of one God,” Adams says, “then all persons, by nature, have the potential to share in the deepest meanings of existence. We all have the capacity for discovering or responding to a truth that will save us, and we all are responsible for selecting and putting into action the right means and ends of cooperation for the fulfillment of human destiny.”  

Adams is suggesting that each of us is responsible for fulfilling our own destiny, and each of us is responsible for all of human destiny. There is a bit of Universalism there; the notion that it is not possible for one to be saved.  It is all of us or none of us; we are all in this together. We work both individually and corporately for the improvement of humankind.

Unitarian Universalism is based on the principle of free will. We are a non-creedal, covenantal religion. We do not require adherence to a set of rules or beliefs written by someone else in a time long ago and a country far away. Rather, we join freely in mutual respect and walk together in love to support the individual manifestations of revelation that each of us represents.  William Ellery Channing, the 18th century Unitarian minister said, “This is a universal church, from which no person is excluded except by the death of goodness in that person’s breast.”

Let’s look at the third and fourth smooth stones together.

3. We have a moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. To paraphrase, we are obligated to make the world better than it is.

4. We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation. Again to paraphrase, the work is ours to do; no one else is going to do it for us.

The third and fourth stones of liberal theology drive our obligation to create justice and the necessity of embodying justice in social structures and that, of course, includes our congregations.

Adams wrote, “A faith that is not the sister of justice is bound to bring us to grief” and that “the ‘holy’ thing in life is the participation in those processes that give body and form to universal justice.” He reminds us “freedom, justice, and love require a body as well as a spirit.


We do not live by the spirit alone,” This is our call to action as a free liberal faith.

Quoting the Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, long time pastor at First Unitarian Church in Portland, OR: “I know I am preaching to the choir, but get off your butts and sing!”

This Congregation has a history of individual outreach to the community. You have fed the hungry, clothed the needy, mentored the disadvantaged, read to the young, and improved the housing of people in need. These works restore dignity in people’s lives. You are doing effective work to bend the arc of the universe towards justice.    

But of course there is much, much more that needs to be done to create the Beloved Community that we long for.

So we watch for revelatory events that will deepen our own understanding of our link to, in Adams’ words, “that which ultimately concerns humanity”, or “that in which we should place our confidence”, or “that in which we may have faith”, or God… so that we can find peace in our own hearts.  This is the peace that passes all barriers -- all understanding -- and finds us at peace with all of creation.  

This brings us to Adams fifth smooth stone of religious faith.

5. The resources that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.  Said another way: No matter how tragic life is, no matter how hopeless you feel, the gifts of grace in this world are abundant and demand that we recognize them and act on them.

Here, Adams is suggesting that we are justified in having an attitude of ultimate optimism. He does not say immediate optimism, but ultimate optimism.

Moreover, progress is not inherited.  It has to begin again with every generation -- and with every individual.  That is you and me taking responsibility for progress.  We have divine resources available everywhere we look and most importantly within ourselves.  It doesn’t happen with just one of us doing the work. It takes us all. Adams calls it “dynamic hope.”

So, to summarize these five smooth stones:  The ongoing nature of revelation; the free will and freedom of the individual; an obligation to create justice; the necessity to embody virtue; and an optimistic worldview.

James Luther Adams challenges us to embrace these five smooth stones to create a more virtuous world.  

I close with his words to us:

“We of the Free Church tradition should never forget, or permit our contemporaries to forget, that the decisive resistance to authoritarianism in both church and state, and the beginning of the modern democracy, appeared first in the church and not in the political order.

The churches of the left wing of the Reformation held that the churches of the right wing had effected only half a reformation.  They gave to Pentecost a new and extended meaning. They demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laicism — that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers.”

David, with his five smooth stones felled the Giant.  He wasn’t the underdog!  He was small to be sure, but also swift, agile, and confident of of the advantage he held.

The good news for religious liberals is OUR five smooth stones of our religion:  very powerful resources as we seek to make this world a better place.

May it be so.

May we continue to make it so.

Text of sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by UUA Moderator Jim Key, Dec 15, 2013.

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