(This reflection references 1 Samuel 17:32-49 and Matthew 5:1-11, reprinted below)
Rarely have I ever felt more inadequate to a task, to a time, or to an event than I do right now. The chaplains at my school had asked for volunteers to offer reflections, so that we could have a morning prayer service every day. I saw others responding to this call, others who have more authority to speak, but who also carry more of a burden at this time. Their courage inspired me, and since there were still several open slots, I took one of them.
Then I thought, “What in God’s name (literally) can I, a white person, say at a moment like this?” My cousin told me a story recently, of when we were about 12 years old and questioning whether Malcolm X was as worthy a leader as MLK, because his message wasn’t always a peaceful one. My uncle simply responded, “Malcolm X didn’t exist for you to like him or dislike him.” My uncle was woke before there was a word for that. Malcolm didn’t exist for white people to like him or dislike him. This has come to summarize my feelings about all the white people on social media who are debating the merits and demerits of the uprisings going on our country right now. The thing is, these uprisings don’t exist for white people to like them or dislike them.
Similarly, over the past few days, I have heard some wise voices speaking to white folks like me, saying “This moment is not about you. This moment is about centering the voices of those who have not been heard.” So I thought to myself, “Whose voice has not been adequately heard?” Names of heroes to quote raced through my mind: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. Dr. Angela Y. Davis, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi. I couldn’t settle on any of them, and that’s when I realized the voice I could center was God’s. The God of the poor. The God of the poor-in-spirit. The God of the mournful, the meek. The God of those hungry and thirsty for righteousness. The God of the persecuted.
Isn’t that what Jesus was doing with his all-powerful voice that day on the mountain? He used it to echo the voices of the Jewish prophets, who were in turn echoing God’s voice, which is the voice of the underprivileged and the disenfranchised.
But again, short of picking out these readings and giving them voice, what else should I do? I asked myself, “Which message, of all God’s wondrous messages, will I voice this day?” The answer came to me in the form of story after story of God’s miracles. The one that first came to me was David and Goliath. That one was easy. How can anyone not see David and Goliath being played out before us on the very streets of Washington DC, or any of our cities? The second story that came to me was when Jesus fed the multitudes with only a few fish and some bread. The third was not from the Christian or Jewish traditions. It is the Indian story called the Tale of Two pebbles. It goes something like this:
A long time ago, there was a farmer who owed a large sum of money to the richest man in the village. The ugly, wretched rich man came to the farmer’s home to collect what was his. The farmer came out with his twenty-year old daughter by his side. There the three stood outside the door to the house, on a walkway covered with white and black stones. The farmer asked for more time to pay. The rich man refused, but, seeing the farmer’s beautiful daughter, he proposed an alternative. “Let me marry your daughter, and I will forgive your debt.” Both the farmer and daughter were appalled at this perverse proposal. So, the rich man made a second deal. He picked up two pebbles from the walkway and put them in a leather pouch. Then he said, “let us let fate decide. I have two pebbles here – a black one and a white one. Your daughter will reach in and pick out one of the two pebbles. If she picks the white pebble, your debts will be forgiven and I get to marry your daughter. But if she picks the black pebble, she won’t have to marry me and your debts will still be forgiven.”
“And if she refuses to pick?” asked the farmer?
“If she refuses to pick, then you will go to jail.”
The rich man had made a terrible, yet tantalizing offer. What the farmer didn’t know was that the rich man had actually picked up two white stones and put them in the bag. The farmer, of course, would never have agreed to any scenario that would have jeopardized his daughter’s happiness. But the daughter? Well, she agreed to the deal without a moment’s hesitation. The farmer immediately protested, while the rich man grinned eagerly. What neither the farmer nor the rich man knew was that the young woman had seen the rich man take the two white stones. She knew the game was rigged, but she played anyway. So what happened next?
The young woman reached into the leather bag and swiftly pulled out a stone, the rock flying out of her hand as it emerged from the bag. The small stone landed amongst all of the other white and black stones of the walkway, making it impossible to distinguish which color stone she had picked. The rich man became angry at her, “You stupid girl!”
Realizing what had happened, the woman calmly responded, “But sir, there is nothing to be angry about. You can determine which color stone I picked by looking at the stone that remains in your bag.” And with that she grabbed the bag, reached her hand in, and produced from it the second white stone. “See? I must have originally picked the black stone, and my father’s debts are now forgiven by your generosity.”
Why were these three stories pinging around in my head this week? Because they all bear witness to God’s wondrous ways. God always has a way to prevail, to transcend every obstacle, even the most impassable ones. Especially the most impassable ones. At first glance, there is no way the small boy David could defeat the professional warrior Goliath. But God does not see a small boy. God the Wonder-Maker sees a shepherd who has fought off lions and tigers and bears. And David shares God’s vision. David doesn’t cry “Goliath is so huge, how could I ever hit him!” Rather, he says, “Goliath is so big, how can I possibly miss?”
The same goes for the farmer’s daughter, for whom we don’t even have a name. It is a powerful story because she is an even more underprivileged person than David was. She faces an insurmountable situation, like David, with nothing but a bag of stones. Yet she doesn’t give up, and her faith, yoked to her awareness and intelligence and courage, produces not only a solution, but an outcome beyond anyone else’s wildest dreams. This is why my favorite name for God is Wonder-Maker. If we just make room for God, if we refuse to give up, if we stalwartly, even stubbornly, uphold the belief that “all things are possible with God,” we will prevail.
My dream these past several days has been for everyone to be able to live a life as joyful, happy, and free of fear as my own. I don’t know how that is possible in the larger world, but I know it should be possible here, in the richest and most resource-ful country in the world. There is no excuse, and yet there seem to be insurmountable obstacles in the way of that dream. The Good News is that “insurmountable obstacles” should only signal to us that this is the precise time to keep our dreams alive. For it is only in the midst of insurmountable obstacles that wonders can be done. Amen.
First Reading: 1 Samuel 17:32-49 – David and Goliath
David said to Saul, ‘Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.’ Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.’ But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.’ David said, ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.’ So Saul said to David, ‘Go, and may the Lord be with you!’
Saul clothed David with his armour; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armour, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.
The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.’ But David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.’
When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.
Matthew 5:1-11 – The Beatitudes
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.