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World's Greatest Children's Story for Adults
a sermon based on 1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49
by Rev. Thomas Hall

I’ve hobnobbed with three VIPs from Swarthmore College this summer. I’m not one to name-drop, but the VIPs are Rashanna, Laniece, and Michael. These distinguished 9 year olds from Chester were in the reading program that this congregation sponsors. So we’ve read a lot of stories together. Sometimes Rashanna would interrupt Michael’s reading to giggle and snicker at the funny pictures; Laniece would just roll her eyes at the outlandish things these story characters did or said. A few times there was only silence as the three passed secret glances between them-a shared knowing that what they were reading was their own story.

We had favorite stories. One was Martha Blah, Blah. [1] I’m not sure if this is based on a true story or not, but the main character is Martha, a dog, who loved alphabet soup. But everytime Martha would slurp up the soup, the letters of the alphabet made a detour; instead of sliding down to the stomach, these letters would migrate up to Martha’s brain, turning her into a talking and well-read dog. A dog of letters, literally.

Another wacky story that some of you might identify with is, Fox on the Job. [2] The opening eight words foreshadow the entire story: "Fox liked to show off for the girls." Can you imagine the awkward situations that showing off for the girls can get a red fox into?

How about this one? The Cafeteria Lady from the Black Lagoon. It’s a story about the new school cook, of whom it was rumored served up such exotic dishes as "Road Kill Ravioli," "Spaghetti with Bowling Balls," "Soufflé of Science Experiments," and my favorite, "Toxic Waste Tacos." [3]

But here’s the real discovery my VIPs and I made. We discovered that beyond showing off for the girls and talking dogs and strange cafeteria dishes, are real stories that shape our lives. The story, "I Can’t" Said the Ant, is really a story about shedding our negative attitudes, believing that with faith-and some teamwork and a lot of imagination-nothing is impossible. [4]

Remember the cafeteria lady story? Turns out, the story is really about our neighborhood, congregation, and families; it’s about how rumors can spread like malignancy and eat away at the fabric of our relationships. And Martha Blah Blah tells us about the power of language; when kids from the ‘hood get a passion for words and learning, when my Rashanna and Laniece and Michael read deeply and tell out boldly the truth, their worlds and ours can begin to change.

Problem is, some here think they’re too old, too adult for children’s stories. In one study, at age five a group of children measured 90% in "high imagination," but by the time they had become young adults, their high imagination had dropped from 90% to 2%. [5] The study suggests that as we get older, we leave much of our imagination behind along with the children’s stories.

So you may think that this morning’s story-David and Goliath-is just kid’s stuff. But my counsel to you is this: don’t make the mistake of leaving this powerful story in the nursery. This very story can nourish this congregation at such a time as this. Let the faith of a young kid and a giant tease you, confront you, and fan your faith and imagination into flame once more.

The Philistines are at it again. Conducting military exercises near Israel’s border. Trying to bully and intimidate. And to accomplish their scare-Israel-policy, they’ve flaunted their weapon of mass destruction-Goliath of Gath. Just for accuracy, even by NBA standards, the guy was huge, probably a little over seven feet tall. His musculature must have been massive, because the armor he wore weighed in at 175 pounds, complete with a helmet, greaves covering his legs and a coat of mail made from bronze ringlets that went from shoulder to calf. And he’s twirling his twenty-five pound spear with the ease of a cheerleader twirling her baton. And to further protect their warrior-hero, the Philistines have forced a soldier to hoist a human-sized shield in front of Goliath to deflect arrows. This Goliath was a walking exterminator!

King Saul, David’s three brothers, and the rest of the army were so busy Goliath-watching through their binoculars, they were incapable of seeing anything else. So when David comes one day to bring his brothers some bread and cheese and news from home, his brothers brush him aside with withering scorn. His brothers were so enamored with the size and armor and cruel words of Goliath that they barely noticed David’s simple act of friendship. Sad isn’t it, to let Goliath walk in and dictate the way we think, and to blind us to new possibilities, new hope, and vision.

David stands as such a contrast to the Goliath-watchers. He’s been out on the back forty with the sheep. But there, he has been immersed in the closeness and greatness of God. Out there with the sheep he has discovered that the Lord is my shepherd, God is my shield and my salvation. Not only that, but he practices his religion on Monday-even to the point of requiring God’s help to retrieve lambs and to club vicious animals away. He has practiced the presence of God so thoroughly that God’s Word-which he couldn’t literally hear-was more real than the lion’s roar. He worshiped God’s majesty so much that God’s love-which he couldn’t see-was far more real to him the any bear’s rage, which he could see.

So David immediately volunteers to fight Goliath. Why not? Well, Goliath takes that as an insult. "Am I a dog that you send me this little stick-kid?" he belches. Then the giant hurls foul curses across the valley. They hit the Israelite ears like mortar.

Even King Saul is worried over this kid. "Well, if you’re going to fight Goliath, please wear my personal armor." What an honor. What a good idea. What a good luck charm-to wear the king’s personal armor. But when the armor-bearers are done dressing David, he looks like a buffoon! Saul is a very tall man, David is a kid, so when he tries to walk, he falls spread-eagle on the floor.

Now Saul is a good guy here. He just wants to help David out in the only way he knows how: pile on more armor, protect yourself, get yourself a powerful weapon and increase the odds that you’ll survive past the first round. Besides, maybe it’ll inspire the kid (though one wonders why Saul hasn’t put it on his royal body-if it’s so great-and gone to fight Goliath).

It wasn’t an easy thing to do. But David declines the offer. He walks away from Saul’s expertise. To meet Goliath wearing Saul’s armor would have been a disaster. Borrowed armor always is. David chooses to be authentic, rather than to borrow someone else’s greatness.

We now reach the critical moment. Seems impossible no matter which direction you go: to the east, the arrogant Philistine soldiers; to the west, the demoralized Israelites. To the north, one big, but not emotionally intelligent giant; to the south, an anointed, but deeply flawed King Saul.

But for the kid, there was one more direction and that was up. Suddenly David is no longer kneeling but running, but not away from Goliath, mind you, but toward him! I would love to have seen the look on his brother’s faces! This kid-brother is such a nuisance! Running down the ravine toward Goliath. Little kid trying to act like a big soldier. It’s like a kid running on to the ball field in the middle of the fifth inning. How embarrassing David must have been for his brothers! And what do you think the army thinks about this scrawny unarmored kid? I think they’re humiliated. The Philistines are going to think that this is the best of the best that Israel can produce? Why, they’re about to be the laughingstock of the whole Sinai Peninsula. King Saul just knows he’s watching this kid commit suicide, but comforted by the thought that he has at least offered the kid his armor. And can you see the Philistines? They’re not even standing anymore-they’re rolling on the ground, howling and belly laughing. Even big Goliath of Gath is in shock. But there’s a job to do, a head to roll, so the well-armored Goliath slowly lumbers forward like an army tank, in clumsy steps. Then he stops in surprise. For a few seconds, what happens is unclear. Everything happens so fast. Two, maybe three looping swings and swoosh-one of the five smooth stones flies from David’s sling sinks into Goliath’s forehead. Stunned, this Gothic warrior shakes the ground like a sack of rocks.

Let me conclude with a final look at David and Goliath. Both reflect an fundamental way of viewing life. Take Goliath, for instance. He’s big, ugly, and mean. But more than that, Goliath is a paradigm that has kept more churches from flourishing than any other evil to hit the church. Goliath is a predisposition that says "no" and then hunts reasons why. I’ve discovered it’s much easier to say no than yes. Yes means I’ve got to research, explore, pray, risk, and form teams. A no shuts down all discussion, keeps things the way they’ve been. No requires no effort, no risk, no further energy. But no too often keeps us from accomplishing anything of vision. Goliath makes sure that no rules the day.

Now look at David. David is a metaphor for those who are spirit-healthy. While everyone else is sitting around empathizing with the ant who said "I Can’t," David has immersed himself in a holy imagination in which God looms large and wonderful. When a church or person is full of God, they tend to be full of vision.

This morning at 7:30 am I met David. He goes by the name of Skender Elbasani, but I detected a David behind the name. Skender, our custodian, is from Albania and holds a Ph.D. in engineering. Spent seven years as a political prisoner in a dank prison because he owned property. When fighting broke out in Albania, Skender had no choice but to flee for his life. While here, this man has worked three jobs a week in order to scrape enough money together to bring his family here from Albania. There were times when he felt like giving up, the Albanian government would refuse to grant his wife and two children visas out of the country. Disappointments mounted. Complications between two governments could have dashed any sliver of hope left.

But Skender just refused to glorify "I can’t" said the ant. Instead he has worked and nourished hope against all odds that he would be reunited with his family. So when he rushed into my office this morning, I knew what had happened. In his best Albanian-American, Skender told me that Albania has granted his family visas-they’re coming home! Two children and a spouse that he’s not seen in four years. He just never gave up. Others would only have seen Goliath, but this David saw God’s help.

A number of years ago, we hired a children’s pastor in my former church. It was a risk because we didn’t have but a couple of children at the time. But soon the risk paid off and children gathered at church each Sunday. A number of months later, I heard this in a meeting: "Did you know that we’ve got a problem with mice?" That shocked the socks off us. But she had the proof! Little black specks confirmed the problem. "Do know what brought those mice into the church?" my friend demanded. Snacks, cracker crumbs on the carpet in the Refreshment Room, where the little kids eat." Suddenly, I realized that I was facing Goliath right out of the story, not the person, but the attitude. The attitude said that we shouldn’t take a risk, we shouldn’t have a children’s pastor, we shouldn’t open our doors to kids, because they create messes. They bring mice with them. Goliath sternly warned us that it’s better to have a tidy, but empty church than a full church because of the problems that growth brings. That Goliath had stood in the way of growth for years, cowering people into thinking that the building was more important than people. We decided that it was time to kill that attitude and to open the doors of that church for ministry to all of the Rashannas and Lanieces and Michaels.

So this morning, the story asks, who are we going to be filled with? Are we going to be shaped by our fears of Goliath-the future, change, how little money we have, how many empty chairs we have? Or are we going to live in the vision of God?

Go ahead! Nourish your soul on children’s stories. And in the power of the Spirit, live your God-created, Spirit-anointed, Jesus-saved life filled with the immense imagination that God provides. Amen.

[1] Susan Meddaugh, Martha Blah Blah (NY: Scholastic, Inc. 1996).
[2] James Marshall, Fox on the Job (NY: Scholastic, Inc. 1988).
[3] Mike Thaler, The Cafeteria Lady from the Black Lagoon (Scholastic, Inc. 1998).
[4] Polly Cameron, “I Can’t” Said the Ant (Scholastic, Inc. 1961).
[5] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980), p. 72.