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  • Writer's pictureNorthminster Church

"The Two Shepherds of Israel"

In the center of camp, in a tent protected by ranks of the nation’s bravest, I tried, in vain, to dawn my battle armor. The problem, of course, was that it wasn’t really mine. I didn’t exactly fit the regal mold of its owner. Outside, they wore armor and carried swords. I wore tunics and carried a staff.

Any sermon you’ve heard about my story probably starts there. They’re probably about how When things seem tough, you can trust God to overcome the Goliaths in your life, right? Yeah, whatever that means. It’s not like I wasn’t well-equipped, like a sling and a stone couldn’t bring down a bear or a lion or a full-grown Philistine. A miracle isn’t really required. I’d seen it done dozens of times, had done it myself to protect sheep. I don’t know why people insist God had something to do with it. In fact, the older I get, the less I think God had anything to do with it. The older I get, the more I wonder how we tell this story and pretend that somehow God was on board with the murder, somehow sanctioning it. Oh, my favorite is when I see it in children’s books in Sunday School classes. Gather ‘round kids, hear the story about when God helped the me murder a man with a slingshot!

Anyway, you all know the story – there I was, looking stupid, chain mail hanging down past my knees and a bronze helmet so heavy I couldn’t keep my head straight, getting ready for the battle that would forge my legacy. But you don’t know the whole story. Your scriptures tell you about the armor, about the fight… they don’t tell you about the stranger. They don’t tell you about how he just… appeared there on the couch in that tent, totally unnoticed by the guards outside, and how he scared the bejeezus out of me. They don’t tell you because nobody knows that story but me. Never told a soul. To tell the truth, I’ve been too ashamed of how foolish I was, at how right the stranger was about… everything, so I’ve kept it to myself… until now.

Now, I wonder if… maybe if you knew, then you’d tell the story differently. Maybe if you knew what he said to me, then you could succeed where I failed.

So, there I was, fooling around with that armor, and after a while, I just gave up. I muttered to myself that I didn’t think it was going to work.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a voice from nowhere agreed with me. “Of course it’s not going to work,” it said. “This whole thing, to tell you the truth, is a very stupid idea.”

Well, I spun around to find a man about my age, about my height, sitting on the couch in the middle of the tent. He was just… sitting there, watching, his elbows on his knees… and it occurred to me that this could well be Philistine spy sent to pick me off before the fight. So, I reached for my sword, but only really succeeded in tripping over my own damned armor and collapsing.”

“Careful with that thing,” the stranger said. “It’s sharp.”

I slunk out of the armor and stood up, looking at this guy. I demanded to know who he was and what he was doing there. There on the couch next to him was my sling, and I looked at it helplessly, but he followed my gaze. I thought he was going to pick it up, to hold it hostage… but instead, he tossed it to me.

“Here,” he said. “I’m not here to fight, David. Just to talk.” He held up his hands to show me he was unarmed. I didn’t like that he knew my name, but I did like having my sling back.

“How did you get in here?” I asked again. “How’d you know my name?”

And this man, he just… waves me off. Tells me not to worry about it. He stands up and tells me he’s come with a message. He looked at me for a minute, and then said it – he said those words I’ve thought of a thousand times since that day. Those words that, had a I listened, would’ve changed everything.

“Don’t do it,” he tells me. “Don’t fight the Philistine.”

Well, of course I told him he was crazy, but he insisted. “Don’t kill that man,” he repeated. “I know they’re all out there singing about your courage, but I need you to be better right now.”

I couldn’t believe it. What could be braver than what I’d volunteered to do? He was a fool, and I told him so. Told him I’d sooner die in combat than have a Philistine walk all over me.

He didn’t budge.

“You think those are the only two options,” he said. “That’s a problem. You’ve got guts, David, but no imagination,” he said. He asked me if I could imagine a third way, something that didn’t leave his fields soaked through with blood.

His fields – that’s how he said it. That threw me.

He asked me what the Philistines wanted, what had driven them to our borders in the first place. I told him to open his eyes. They wanted to make us their slaves, to steal our land and our families, and again, he just… waved me off.

“You don’t know what they need,” he said. “You’ve all been so caught up in your patriotic vanity, no one’s even thought to wonder.”

“Why should we stop to wonder?” I asked him. I was getting irritated. I reminded him that God gave this land to our ancestors, that it was our right to defend it. On my honor, I told him, I would rise and fight for this land which was our birthright, and by the might of God’s right hand, I would claim the victory of the faithful of Israel! “The Philistines will know,” I said, “that the God of Israel is mightier than their lifeless idols.”

This was the only time he seemed to get mad. He stepped forward, like… like I’d blasphemed. “No,” he said. “They won’t. All they’ll know is that your God is just as much a bloodthirsty idol as theirs, and that your faith is nothing but blind fidelity to a destructive masculine bravado.”

Masculine bravado… who talks like that? He told me off for talking about honor. “Don’t pretend you’re not an ambitious young man with a Joseph complex,” he scolded me. “Don’t pretend you’re not looking for a path to power, to stand taller than your brothers for once.”

I’ll admit that one got me. He saw right through me, and I didn’t like that. The daughter of the King… riches beyond imagination… the hearts of the people… he saw my ambition, saw it all the way up to the throne room of Israel. Of course, I lied. I told him my intentions were pure.

He just shrugged.

“Maybe they are now,” he told me, “but they won’t be for long.” He said violence and power would not leave my intentions untouched, and I was a fool if I thought they would.

I told him he sounded like my brother.

He asked me if my brother was often wrong about such things.

He had me there, too. I didn’t know what to say.

Then, he started in again. “Don’t fight him!” “Go drop your weapons.” “Ask what he wants.” “Negotiate.” “Don’t give up your dignity,” he said, “but don’t violate his.” He told me if I lived by violence, I would die by violence, and I’d take all of Israel with me.

Die by violence. It may seem stupid now, but I took that as an insult to my ability – like I needed to negotiate because I couldn’t win on my own. “Rubbish,” I told him. “I can handle myself.” I told him how I’d struck down scores of bears and lions, predators that threatened my flock, and that this Philistine was no different – a predator threatening the children of God.”

To his credit, he listened to me. He didn’t say anything. He let me finish, and then, with all the calmness in the world, he asked, “Is that what this man is to you? A lion or a bear? Is he, too, not a child of the God you claim to serve, fearfully and wonderfully made? Is he, too, not a child nourished at the breast of a mother who loved him? Is he a dog to you, that you would come at him with a stick, a sling and a stone? He’s a human being, David,” he told me, “just like you.”

“He’s nothing like me!” I insisted. “He’s a Philistine!”

Then he said, “Philistine is just a word you came up with to make yourselves feel superior – something to ease your conscience as you strike them down.” He told me to put myself in their shoes – to imagine what they needed. Land to live on? Food to nourish their children? Families to care for them? “How can you judge them for seeking these things the only way they knew how,” he asked, “just like we did.”

I told him again that Goliath was nothing like me, and without hesitating, he said, “David, but for a game of cosmic chance, it would be you out there on the other side of that valley. The only difference between you and him is that you were born on this side, and he on that one. That’s an accomplishment,” he told me, “for which you can claim nothing.”

He was right.

Hell, I knew he was right… but I couldn’t let him be right, you know? It just couldn’t be like that! So, I started in about the prophets, about what Samuel had said, and for the third time, he waved my words away like they were smoke in his face, and sat back on the couch.

“I know what the prophets say,” he told me, “with their nationalistic theocratic nonsense. ‘God’s on our side,’ ‘we’re favored by God…’” He rolled his eyes. “David,” he said, “as far as I can tell, God sends rain on us and them alike. If he has truly chosen sides, he’s got a funny way of showing it.”

“And who do you think you are?” I said. “You can’t be a prophet yourself, not in those rags.” I told him he was dressed more like a shepherd, like me. He thought that was funny.

“I am the shepherd,” he told me. “But my sheep have strayed so far from my voice, they wouldn’t recognize me if I stood right in front of them.”

We were both quiet for a minute.

After a moment, I guess he decided to try one more time.

“You have a chance, David,” he said. “You have a chance to set this Kingdom right. You have a chance to toss out the empty fears and inflated pride of Israel and be a man after God’s own heart. Come on. What do you say?”

I thought about it. I did. This man wasn’t a fool, I could see that. The things he said made sense, and I might’ve listened… but then I thought of my father. I thought of my brothers, and what they would say if I walked onto that field with nothing, what they’d think watching me struck down, defenseless, by a Philistine.

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’ve got to do this.”

I turned to leave, but he called after me.

“It won’t end today, David,” he called. “Don’t for a moment think this is a matter of one act of violence for the sake of peace. It’s not. I swear to you, this violence will beget more violence, and that violence yet even more. You’ll solidify an enemy, David, and your people will die for it for generations.”

I turned to face him, and he looked me in the eye.

“Whatever your hopes for a legacy, David,” he said, “if you start down this path today, the songs they sing of you will tell only of your unbridled lust and the bodies you left in your wake. Whatever progeny you hope to leave will be stained by bloodshed, killing one another in a never-ending quest for power. The Kingdom will be torn asunder, and the wheel of violence will spin on until someone has the common sense to stop it. That could be you, David,” he said. “That could be today.”

I think of that all the time. He knew. He knew exactly what would happen, his every word came to fruition. Not as a curse, not a punishment just… a fact.

Anyway, I blinked, and just like that, he was gone. None of the attendants had seen a man enter, and none had seen him leave. Never saw him again, except, I think, a few times out of the corner of my eye.

Your scriptures aren’t going to tell you this, but I was scared. I wasn’t scared of Goliath, not of the Philistines… but this had put a lot on me. He’d given me a choice - a vision. And what if it was wrong? The future of Israel handed to me in a moment… and look what I did with it.

In the end, what he wanted took an imagination, a courage that I did not have. But you… you still have time.

So, stop, I beg you, with the stories of my bravery, of a God that delights in the blood of men. Stop with the stories in your children’s Sunday School and your illustrated Bibles. When I slayed that giant, God wept.

Find God, my siblings. Find God in the peace and justice where God is to be found.

May you heed the voice of the stranger in a way I couldn’t.

May you, people of God, become a people truly after God’s own heart. Amen.

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