- First Reading 1 Samuel 17:32-49
- Psalm 9:9-20
- Second Reading 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
- Gospel Mark 4:35-41
Last week, we talked about the connection between the story of Cinderella and David’s anointing. Both Cinderella and David are under-appreciated siblings, sent to do the unappealing work while their siblings, or stepsiblings, participate in the social, civic, and religious life of their society. Cinderella requires magical assistance to get to the ball her stepmother and stepsisters just walk right into. David is only invited to the sacrifice Samuel is performing after Samuel has considered, and rejected, all of David’s brothers.
This week, I have spent some time watching and reading about the US Olympic trials, another area where we often talk about “Cinderella stories.” In sports, commentators will use the cliché “Cinderella story” to talk about underdogs, competitors who have, for whatever reason, been overlooked or counted out but who end up outperforming everyone’s expectations. Sometimes a great athlete has an injury that everyone suspects will end their career, only for them to come back a season or two later, or a team loses a key player, but shocks everyone by finding a new chemistry and building success around a different lineup.
I have read about two this week, one in swimming, one in track. In 2016, Annie Lazor retired from swimming after placing seventh at the US Olympic Trials. Two years later, she reached out, through a coach, to Lily King, who won two gold medals in Rio, asking if she could join Lily’s training group. Lily said yes. They started training together, and Annie was doing better than ever, until this past April, when her father died. Annie described the past two months as “trying to do the greatest thing of my life while dealing with the worst thing of my life.” Annie finished first on Friday night, just beating her training partner, Lily, who finished second and so also earned a spot in Tokyo next month.
And, of course, we read the story of David and Goliath a few minutes ago, and much as we might talk about underdogs as Cinderella’s, we also call the dominant players and teams in sports Goliaths.
We heard part of the story of David and Goliath a few minutes ago, and I am sure we all remember the basic outline. Goliath is a Philistine soldier, from, this will come up again later, a town called Gath. He is huge. Converting between ancient and modern units is an imprecise science, we are given his height in cubits, which is a measure derived from a person’s forearm, elbow to finger, and so the length of cubit depends on the person measuring, but Goliath easily clears six feet, might be pushing seven. Even today, he would be huge, but the disparity is even greater if you consider that the average human height has increased as our nutrition has improved.
The two armies are camped opposite each other, and Goliath comes out each day to challenge Saul and the Israelites to single combat. The Israelites are afraid, they are demoralized. They have no one who can stand against Goliath, and if Goliath is a representative of the Philistines, they do not think they could win a direct battle.
David, the shepherd boy, and occasional musician hears Goliath’s challenge while visiting his brothers, and volunteers. He assures Saul that he can handle himself, that God will protect and deliver him. Saul offers his armor to David, armor that must have been comically too large for him, and David rejects it. David trusts in God, and so, with one stone from his sling, David kills Goliath, this Philistine from Gath.
Another Cinderella story, another underdog victory. Another story we love to tell, and just as last week, another story in which we like to center ourselves. We desperately want to think of ourselves as the underdogs overcoming adversity, defying long odds, winning against all expectations. We love to tell these stories about ourselves because we love to imagine that we are always the hero.
And again, I want to warn us against that. We like these Cinderella stories, these David and Goliath stories, because they let us imagine a world where everything we have, everything we achieve, everything we possess was earned by us despite all the forces against us. Further, when we center ourselves in one of these stories, when we put ourselves in the place of Cinderella or David, we can imagine that anything we failed to achieve, anything we have failed to do, we have only failed because of the wicked people who act against us. We love this. We love to imagine that our successes are entirely our own, but our failures are someone else’s fault.
Or, worse, we imagine that all our success, all our wealth, all our achievements were given to us by God and that when we fail at something, it is because demons are against us.
Yes, I said that was worse.
There are plenty of churches out there that will tell you that, if you are wealthy, it is because God has rewarded you, and if you are not wealthy, you can become so by putting your trust in God, often through making a generous donation directly into the pocket of the preacher. This is not the message of the Gospel; this is not the message of the scripture. We only think this when we choose to always center ourselves in the wrong stories. We like to imagine that we are Davids, when he slays Goliath, but we push aside the ways that we become Goliath.
The Philistines were a persistent threat to Israel because of their military technology and prowess. They were the military power, and the stories of Israel’s victories over the Philistines are stories of divine intervention, much like we have in the story of David and Goliath.
There are other stories about David we do not like to tell, stories where we do not want to center ourselves. Some of them will come up in the lectionary over the next few weeks, but my thoughts this week have turned to one the lectionary skips over. In 1 Samuel 27, ten chapters after today’s passage, David has changed. David is no longer the boy trusting in God to help him defeat Goliath, the Philistine from Gath. David is on the run, pursued by Saul. Where does David go? In Chapter 27, David goes to Gath. David does not ask for God’s help, does not ask for divine deliverance from Saul. No. David goes to the Philistines, goes to Gath, goes to Goliath’s hometown to seek an alliance, to seek military might, to see if he can get a Goliath on his side.
We all like to imagine that we are the Cinderella, that we are David, but if we keep ourselves in the center of that story, if we keep telling ourselves that we are David, we ignore all the ways we are Goliath. We forget the ways David himself turned to and into Goliath.
We do not often tell that story, the story of David forgetting the lesson of his victory over Goliath, of David rejecting divine aid in favor of human help because we want to keep our stories simple, our heroes pure. We want to think of ourselves as always the underdog, even as we amass more and more power, more and more wealth because that lets us ignore the ways we become obstacles to those around us. It lets us ignore the ways we act as Goliath toward others. Friends, do not seek always to center yourself. Everyone is the hero of their own story, but we are all villains in someone else’s. If we can remember that, then we can work to be better, we can stay open to God’s help pushing us all to be better.
A few minutes ago, I said that I wanted to tell you two stories from the Olympic trials, one swimming, one track, but only told one of them.
The other story belongs to Abbey Cooper, a distance runner. She competed in the 2016 games in Rio, when her name was Abbey D’Agostino, but during the qualifying round of the 5k race, she got tangled up with a New Zealand runner named Nikki Hamblin. Both fell, and Abbey twisted her knee. She got back up and pulled Nikki up so they could get back in the race together. They did not make it far before Abbey’s knee injury caused her to fall again, and this time Nikki got her up. Both sacrificed their chance at winning to help the other finish, and while the IOC decided to allow them to move on to the final because of the crash, Abbey’s knee injury kept her out of the race. Abbey still has one more step to qualify for Tokyo, the final round of the women’s 5k is tomorrow, but she has already posted a personal best time in the qualifying round.
Abbey and Nikki had a choice on that track in Rio five years ago. They could have kept themselves at the center of the story, could have imagined they were the Cinderella, pushing through all odds, David triumphing over Goliath. They could have tried to push past each other, could have tried to finish the race on their own. Instead, they stopped and helped each other up. They stopped, because they decided that they did not to win the race, did not want to even finish it if doing so meant leaving the other someone behind. It is so easy, when we see ourselves as Cinderella to mindlessly push past whoever is in our way, to ally with whoever is convenient, to focus on our advancement, on our victories, on our success, and on our comfort, to justify anything that will lead to our success Thankfully, we also have Abbey Coopers and Nikki Hamblins among us to remind us that we are all in this world together, that we can choose to redefine success as making sure everyone crosses the finish line.