First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Called Beyond Ourselves" Sermon by Tom Schade

Called Beyond Ourselves
Sermon Tom Schade
February 4, 2007

For forty days and forty nights, the Israelites and the Philistines had squared off in the hills overlooking that valley. Everyday, Goliath had come down from the Philistine side and stood in the valley and shouted his challenge to the army that Saul had gathered. “Choose one fighter to come down and fight me, for the whole thing.” And everyday, Saul’s army quaked in fear, and no one went forward to fight Goliath.

This standoff had become a way of life. The fear that they felt had become a habit. I am sure that by the 10th day, no one thought about it anymore. “Oh, there is Goliath shouting again. No one would be so foolish as to go out there and fight this guy nine feet tall, covered with armor. You would have to be crazy to do that, because Goliath would kill you.” And given those odds, and those stakes – if we send someone out there and he loses, then we all become slaves to the Philistines, wouldn’t it make more sense to not risk the battle.”

Goliath was not going to be going away anytime soon.

Time slowed down and eventually stopped, and Saul’s armies had been stuck like a fly in amber. Fear and paralysis had become a way of life.

Goliath was a powerful man. He was nine feet tall, the story tells us, and covered in bronze armor and carried a huge and heavy spear and sword. He had also made the Israelites play his game. Instead of army against army, he wanted it to be one on one, where he had all the advantages.

And in so doing, Goliath had already won. He brought Saul’s army to a standstill. The Philistines must have been laughing up in those hills, saying to themselves. “Look, we have their whole army pinned down, and we have to do is send the big guy out every morning to yell at them.”

We all know this story of David and Goliath. It is one of the first stories that we learn from the Bible. It is an exciting story, and it is a story that appeals to young people, especially, I think, to young boys, who face Goliaths every day. It is interesting that it is not a particularly religious story. God does not smite Goliath with a lightening bolt – there are no miracles or supernatural interventions in the story. Goliath is beaten by a shepherd boy with a sling and a smooth stone. Yes, David gives all the credit to God, much as a grammy winning singer thanks God before getting around to thanking her musicians, producers, agents, lawyers and her parents.

But the story is not about the actions of God, anymore than it is a story about the advantages of slingshots over spears in combat.

It is a story about bravery.

David is a shepherd boy sent by his father to bring some bread and some cream cheeses to his brothers in the army. You might say he was the kid who delivers the bagels.

And he comes into this army that is frozen in fear, that for forty days and nights has been taunted by this nine foot freak, an army that has been slinking around talking about how good it would be for somebody, somewhere, somehow to take on Goliath. For forty days and forty nights, which is Bible talk, for a long long time.

So David says he will do it; even though it seems crazy.

Yes, he was skilled with the slingshot, and yes, he had some experience with lions and bears in his shepherding work, but mostly, he was not afraid. He was an outsider, he brought fresh eyes into the situation, and he was not trapped in the collective fear and community paralysis that had made Goliath so overwhelmingly powerful in the eyes of the Israelites.
You can see the power of the group-think that had gripped the Israelites when Saul tries to put armor on David and give him a sword. They only could think of one way to fight Goliath, and that way was guaranteed to result in defeat, which is where the paralysis came in.

Anyway, you know the rest of the story.

It would be great if all we ever faced now were nine-foot guys with big spears. Such a man might have a great career playing basketball, but he would not bring us all to paralyzed fear.

But Goliath is still out there for us.

I see Goliath out there right now in every social problem that seems too complex, with too many interconnections to ever be solved. Issues like homelessness. It’s a housing question, and a jobs problem, and a health issue, complicated by the syndromes of drug and alcohol abuse, which are frequently attempts to self-medicate the pain caused by mental and emotional disorders. And even if you were to be able to figure out the best way to attack all these inter-related problems, who has the money to do that, except the government, and how are going to raise the taxes to get the money when everybody is suspicious of homeless people, and angry at them, and afraid of that a run of bad luck could put them in the same place.

It’s Goliath, and it is fearsome, and it is becoming a way of life for us to live with persistent chronic homelessness.

It is becoming a way of life for us to live with widespread homelessness, just like it is a way of life for us to live with a health care system that costs too much and covers too few. But it is so complicated to fix a little bit at a time, but if you try to fix it as a whole system, everybody will think about the Clintons in 1993, and look what happened there. So let Goliath shout everyday.

The President comes out every couple of days and says to the Congress, “the only way you can stop my plans for Iraq is to cut off the money, and you don’t have the nerve to do it. So get used to it. You are too afraid to stop me.”

There are Goliaths in your own home and family – issues and estrangements that are so old and so complicated that they have become a way of life. There are Goliaths in your own mind: thoughts and memories where you don’t go, things that you know about yourself that you will avoid, just like you drive around certain “bad” neighborhoods, without even thinking about it.

We like to think that we are stuck where we are, in our lives, in our careers, in our personal lives, in our civic lives, because we are lazy, or self-centered, or self-satisfied. And surely do we love our comforts. We like to beat ourselves up. We would rather think that we are lazy and morally deficient than to admit that we are afraid. On the other side of our comfort zones, we know that there is a Goliath standing there, and we are afraid.

I am convinced that the reason why most white people prefer the company of other white people, and are uncomfortable in the presence of larger numbers of people of color is not that we/they don’t like people who are different. They are afraid, afraid of saying the wrong thing, even when they are trying to be nice, and looking as foolish as Joe Biden. We/They are afraid of being criticized. We/They are afraid of being a witness to someone’s anger.

There are transgender people in the world; this is just a fact. There are men who feel that they are really women and women who want to be men, and people who fall into neither gender category and wish to be accepted for who they are right as they are. For most of us, our gender is the most solid thing of our identity; we cannot imagine ourselves as anything other than what we are. For some people, this is not true. So, the world is more complicated than we thought it was.

But the presence of transgender people makes a lot of people nervous. And why? What I have found is this. When you get right down to it, it is because folks are afraid that they might say the wrong thing. Should I say “she” or “he” when I am talking about that person? That’s the Goliath who is out there, and you know it’s better to stay up in the hills and keep a low profile.

We have Goliaths right here in our church life, places and situations where we are paralyzed by our fears. We can’t do that, we won’t have the money. We can’t do that, nobody will accept that kind of change. I have had people tell me that they don’t like to approach strangers at coffee hour and greet them as newcomers. Once they did that, and the person had been a member here for 20 years. Ooops. It was embarrassing.

If you ever find yourself in that situation, I recommend saying, “well, I am so pleased to meet you then, I’m a much newer member.”

And if you are not sure whether to call a person who looks like a man wearing a dress “she” or “he”, it’s ok to ask. Everybody is kind of new at this.

We are being called beyond ourselves. David saw beyond himself, saw himself as more than he was thought of. Everyone else saw a shepherd, and maybe David in himself a future King, but mostly David saw a big guy who was defying the army of the Lord, and he saw himself as dealing with the situation.

Goliath is standing down in the valley and challenging us. We wouldn’t have wanted that situation, but there he is, and a result we have only two choices. We can deal with Goliath in some ways, or we can stay up in the hills, frozen by our fear, and waiting for somebody else to show up.

Goliath is calling us into a new moment in history. The situation in the world is very grave – we are in the midst of what will be clearly seen as a constitutional crisis someday – The President and the Congress and the Public are on very different pages regarding the War in Iraq, and there are many American and Iraqi lives all ready lost and still at stake. Some see clear and unmistakable evidence that our government is moving toward a military engagement with Iran, and that indeed, such a decision may not even be under our control.

Crucial decisions are being made, and yet, the spectacle of everyday life continues unabated, the Superbowl, American Idol, You’re the One that I Want, the adventures of Brangelina and Tomkat, terrorist threats morphing into advertising for late night cartoons. George Orwell’s comment that “to see what is in front of your nose is a constant struggle” never seemed more true.

The youth of this church are calling us beyond ourselves, setting as a goal going to New Orleans to help that stricken city rebuild. I do not think that this church has ever undertaken such a large scale act of service before. Goliath freezes us by taunting us by saying we do not have the money to do this. If this congregation doesn’t, then who on God’s green earth does?

We are called to move beyond our fears, beyond the despair into which we have turned our fears, and into the hope that we harbor. We are called to be David.

Adrienne Rich:

What would it mean to life in a city whose people were changing each other’s despair into hope?

What would it mean to belong to a church to which people brought their fears and despair, and laid them on the altar, and left carrying their hopes and commitments like flags waving?

Adrienne’s next line: You, yourself must change it.

What would it feel like to know your country was changing?

You, yourself must change it.

Though your life felt arduous, new and unmapped, and strange, what would it mean to stand on the first page of the end of despair?

A smooth stone from the bed of the stream, a sling, a shepherd, a giant falls face first into the dust. You yourself must change it. What would it mean to answer the call to be more than you have ever been, to be braver than you have ever been, to turn your despair into hope.


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