Five smooth stones
Consider the source of David’s power against Goliath, says Samuel Wells, and ask yourself: As you go forward in life, how are you going to avoid losing your soul?
June 8, 2010 | 1 Samuel 17
Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached May 14, 2010, at Duke University Chapel at Duke’s baccalaureate. To hear a recording or watch a video of this sermon, go to the Chapel website.
America is a nation of 300 million people. We all have one thing in common. We all think we’re the little guy.
Almost all of us know this story of David and Goliath, because it’s in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures, all three. And it’s made its way to the heart of our contemporary cultural imagination. Goliath the Philistine is big, beefy and belligerent. David the shepherd boy from Bethlehem steps out of obscurity, waves aside the clumsy armor offered him by Saul, the king of Israel, and, taking five smooth stones and a slingshot, leaves Goliath biting the dust. You can bet that 99 percent of people who read this story identify with David. We all think we’re the little guy. And in movies, athletics, business and politics, we all feel the pull of that righteous cultural conviction: Stand up for the little guy.
Everyone loves the movie where the small-town attorney takes on the sprawling multinational conglomerate that’s poisoning the water in the local streams. Everyone cries in the final frame of the film when she clenches her fist in victory. We all love to see the small liberal arts college fight through to the Final Four to take on the big state school powerhouse. It makes everyone feel great.
But hold on. Let’s take a reality check. This is Duke. We did get to the final game of the NCAA. But we weren’t the little guy. And we’ve been to those cultural criticism classes. We know the inspiring movie about the resilience of the little guy has been made by exactly the kind of giant, faceless corporation the attorney in the movie is standing up against.
So why do we still say we like the little guy? We want our movies to be about David, but we spend our lives trying desperately hard to be Goliath. We think it’s quaint and clever that David got by with five smooth stones and a sling, but we spend our own energies stockpiling swords and spears and javelins. We admire the fact that David forswore Saul’s armor and gadgetry, but just look at our car, just look at our house, just look at our country: we’ve beefed them up to look like Goliath, with so many safety and security features we can hardly move around in them.
You’ve just spent four years of your time and energy, the academic world’s best facilities, books and teachers, and a large swath of someone else’s money acquiring the prestigious social and economic entry ticket known as a Duke degree.
But think for a moment. Why is a Duke degree so coveted? Because it gives you a chance to be Goliath. It gives you the armor. It gives you the weaponry. It gives you the respect. It gives you the acclaim. All the things Goliath had. All the things David didn’t have.
Here’s David, full of confidence, full of faith, full of hope, telling Saul he doesn’t need the heavy armor and telling Goliath he doesn’t need the mighty power. David defeated Goliath. And what happened next? The people swung behind David. David became king. But it didn’t stop there. Gradually a terrible irony began to take shape. David became Goliath. David became a bully. David became a merciless military powerbroker. David became a ruthless acquisitor of pleasure and advantage. David became the overblown beached whale he’d begun his career by destroying.
Just like Elvis Presley, for whom fame and fortune turned gyrating hips into bloated cheeks, David became Goliath. What a tragedy that was.
Is that going to happen to you? Are you going to leave this chapel today as David, and spend the next 10 or 20 years slowly turning into Goliath? Are you going to make this Duke degree the first of many items of armor, so that you look back in a bunch of years’ time and wonder whatever happened to the David you are today? Or is there another way?
How are you going to avoid losing your soul? That’s what we’re talking about. When everyone in the world seems to admire and fear Goliath, with all that muscle and armor and big talk, and all your advisers are like Saul, saying, “Here’s all this armor; you’d better put it on; you’re going to need this round here,” how are you going to remain true to yourself and what you believe in?
Maybe this is the best moment of your life to think about where power really comes from. David’s power lies in his five smooth stones. And this story shows us five sources of power. David’s power. God’s power. And your power. Let’s turn these five stones over in our hands together for a moment. Those stones hold the secret of where true power is to be found.
Stone No. 1 for David is, he has made his peace with ordinary time. He knows how to put his own needs and desires to one side for an extended period to do hard, unglamorous work. That’s what David does in the first part of this story. He looks after his father’s sheep, and takes provisions to various commanders of the army. Some parts of every life, and every part of some lives, are unrewarding, unregarded and unattractive.