Sermon at evensong on Sunday 18 June 2023 by Canon Peter Mullins (Canon Emeritus)
1 Samuel 21.1-15 [and Luke 11.14-28]
May our thinking, our speaking, our doing,
always be within the circle of your mercy,
ever creative God.
I once stood by the brook from which David is said to have taken the stone which slew Goliath. As the tour guide talked, one of people in our group squatted down and took a small rounded pebble out of the brook. He was clearly a little conflicted. It felt like the best souvenir he could possibly take, but he wasn’t sure he was allowed to. The tour guide noticed, and said he was welcome.
‘But’, he added, ‘you need to know that every summer thousands of people come here, hundreds of them fish out and secrete a pebble of exactly the right size and shape of their imagination, and every winter the Israel Tourist Board sends down several trucks and fills the brook up again’.
When David was literally laughed at for thinking he could take on Goliath, he didn’t mention his sling. He said whenever a lion or bear comes and carries off a sheep, I rescue the victim from its jaws; if it turns on me, I seize its beard and batter it to death. Many suspect if that aspect of the life of a shepherd-boy was more widely celebrated, stained glass window images of Christ the Good Shepherd would a great deal more robust than they often are, and a lot less saccharine .
There is gentle stuff in the Psalm beginning ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’. But the real meat of it is although I walk in a valley made dark by the shadow of death, I will still fear no evil and you spread a table before me even in the face of my enemies. In part, images of our personal need of spiritual salvation. But, as much, about our fear of death and the forces of destruction, about our bereavements and our battlefields.
Having felled Goliath, David takes the giant’s own sword and cuts off his head. In the bottom of a stained glass window in the nave, you can see David carrying the head in a triumphal procession; the window is the one closest to the pulpit there. Though there is no sight of the sword in it.
I don’t think I’d ever wondered what happened to the sword, but, four chapters on from the Goliath story, the passage read at this service tells us. It was in the Temple at Nob, which must have been somewhere near Jerusalem. It was wrapped in a cloak behind the ephod. I guess that means it was hidden at the back of a cupboard in the vestry. But just perhaps the famous weapon and the best embroidered vestments were among treasures our on display.
Those least surprised by this are probably the clergy, the vergers, the cleaners of an English Cathedral: that is what we would do with it – on one hand worried about the health and safety implications, on the other wondering whether we might get a grant to create a 3D video game of the battle for the education centre.
David was not there as a tourist. He was fleeing for his life. The premier soldier, the national military hero, the best friend of the king’s son, married into the royal family himself. But the king, Saul, an unstable tyrant, insanely jealous, had already tried twice to pin him to a wall with his lance. David’s classic ‘great escape’ had included leaving a dummy in his bed to make sure his absence wasn’t discovered too quickly.
He lies to the priests at Nob. He says he is operating as the King’s secret agent rather than he is fleeing the King. They are worried, but they give him the only food and only weapon in the place – yesterday’s ceremonial loaves of bread, and Goliath’s sword.
But, fatally for them, this is all observed by Doeg, a royal official who just happens to be there. And Doeg tips off the King.
At Evensong next week (I hope this is a trailer rather than a spoiler) you will leap forward another three chapters and find David hiding at the back of a cave when Saul, who is now pursuing him, goes in to relieve himself.
While Saul is squatting, David creeps up – and does not assassinate him. Instead, he cuts off a piece of the King’s cloak. When Saul wipes his bottom, adjusts his clothes, puts his cloak back on, goes out, David comes to the entrance and holds up the fragment of cloak and calls out ‘I have not rebelled against you, I mean you no harm’.
I am reminded of a well known Palestinian farm in the West Bank, subject to regular incursions, which has a stone at its gate on which is painted We refuse to be enemies.
I am reminded of last year’s story of the young Russian conscript whose tank had been blown up, fearful of the Ukrainian women pressing him for his family’s phone number, until he realised they wanted to ring his mother and tell her that he was alright.
But skipping forward to that story involves skipping over the horrid denouement for the temple and village of Nob, for the priests, their families, even their livestock. In saving himself, David had fatally endangered them.
Saul has them all slaughtered – as effectively as if in a single drone strike. The king’s servants realise it would be a war crime and refuse to take part, but Doeg does not hold back from exacting the king’s irrational vengeance.
So what are we doing with this Bronze Age story at the centre of our perfect summer afternoon act of worship? It feels to me that it is not a remote myth. It feels like a contemporary story. It feels like a very local story.
In the middle of the last nine months in which I’ve begun to live in Lincoln after retiring, I had a conversation with one of the city’s Syrian residents. When she realised that I knew the basic geography of her homeland (so the bar wasn’t set very high), she paused, looked at me and said:
Do you know, after the recent earthquakes, Assad [her murderous dictator] came to Aleppo [her now ruined ancient city] and said he’d provide as much help as needed – as if he was not worse than any earthquake, as if had not taken more lives than any earthquake ever will.
That is a local story because I think her husband works in our hospital. In a congregation of this size there must be a statistical possibility that in the next year or so at least one of us will be treated by a Syrian working in our health service who has fled Assad.
And we all know the war in Ukraine is also a very local story – Europe’s security, England’s hospitality, the price of our food, all affected by it.
And I remember, when I last lived in Lincoln, at the end of the last century, a Chaplain in the Royal Air Force telling me about his spiritual care of those we entrust in this county with our defence from murderous regimes. It was difficult, he said, because he didn’t even have the level of security clearance needed to know what some of them did in their sealed bunkers – although he knew they’d moved beyond slingshots and 3D video games.
And not only does David’s flight feel like a contemporary local story, it also feels like one which Evensong has always have been intended to address.
There is a thread running through Evensong (not the only thread, but a persistent one) which a story like this encourages me to follow.
There is real urgency (not just for our souls but also for our lives) in: O God make speed to save us; O Lord make haste to help us.
There is huge vulnerability underlying: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.
There is front-line heroism in: Thou shalt prepare a table before me against them that trouble me.
There is resistance hope in: He hath put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek.
We cannot cease to repeat: Deliver us from evil.
We cannot cease to hope: Give peace in our time, O Lord.
We cannot cease to long: That by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness.
Following the thread takes me all the way to: Defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.
Woven together, such thread is load bearing. If we bring the threats and anxieties which weigh us down, which weigh our neighbours down, the fabric of this service it is designed to hold that weight.
The way our Sunday cycle of readings works is that at this service we are going to jump forward week by week through chosen highlights of the first and second books of Samuel and then the first and second books of Kings.
We are going on doing so until the first Sunday of September, when the story will be of an invasion and a siege which has led to food shortage and rampant inflation – the sequence of Bronze Age stories which Jewish and Christian people have been telling ourselves for millennia interacting with our own stories, our own refocused awareness of our human nature.
We will continue to pray:
Wrestle us from the consuming jaws of evil, from the disturbed and the tyrannical, from the distortions and compromises of our own human behaviour, Good Shepherd of your flock.