United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

"Battling Giants"
by Rev. Rebecca Migliore
June 13, 2021


        I have always loved the story of David and Goliath.  Maybe it is because I have often felt like an outsider, like one who is overlooked, like one who has gifts that others look down upon.  Maybe it is because, as a small church pastor, for the vast majority of my professional life, I have feel that we, the small church, are Davids, roaming around in a Goliath world.  Or maybe it is just that I root for the underdog, cheer on ingenuity, and hold fast to the idea that faith arms us for battle in ways others cannot imagine.       

        Whether we are looking at this story as a personal image of hope for the small, the laughed at, the believers in the “impossible,” or whether we are looking at this story through the prism of our small church status, there are a few truths.  There are giants in our world.  Someone needs to face them.  And with our God-given gifts, and the armor of faith, the battle can be won.

        Now I’m not sure that I can go along with Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote a book titled, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and Battling Giants, and using medical knowledge about a condition that causes extreme growth in humans and a description about slingshots during battle in medieval times, posits that David was not an unlikely winner, since he relied on his strengths and Goliath’s weakness.  The strength and weakness part seems right on target—explaining away the upset is a little much to me.

        Being a church person (from any size church in this culture) means standing squarely in the shoes of David.  Think of the “big” issues that face us.  Take just the three “big” issues that the PC(USA) has earmarked in its Matthew 25 campaign.  Building congregational vitality—how do you survive in a world where fewer people want to be associated with “church”?  Dismantling structural racism—this year has taught many of us how deep and broad and widespread this problem truly is, and the difficulty in talking about it, much less tackling it!  And eradicating systemic poverty—from our work at the West Orange Food Pantry and soup kitchens in Newark, we know we are only scratching the surface of the underlying nature of need in our country.  What giants we are going out to face.  I’m surprised there hasn’t been more laughter from the peanut gallery—but maybe that just shows how little the culture cares about what church people are doing these days.

        But we cannot be frightened into cowering on our side of the divide—allowing the giants, be they actual people, or entrenched ideas, or institutionalized behaviors, to demean and catcall and stall our march toward a better world.  There are giants.  It is time to step forward and meet them head-on.  Some will say this is a fool’s errand.  Some will say that we are dreaming that we, small as we are, can make any dent in these colossal problems.  Some will say that we are doomed to failure, or have our heads in the clouds, or just need to get on with the tough-enough tasks of daily living. 

        But I call to our inner David.  That child’s ability to see something for what it is, before we have conditioned ourselves to see otherwise.  That simple, trusting faith in God’s protection, God’s importance, and God’s endowing of us to be a champion.  That connection with ourselves to know what is right for us, regardless of what everyone else wears, says, does, or thinks.

        David is the one who calls out the armies of Israel for having waited, in fear, to battle the giant.  David is the one who (I’m sure to their shame) reminds them that they are the army of the living God.  And David is the one who recognizes that Saul’s armor, meant for a bigger, more mature, more experienced fighter, was not right for him—a staff and a sling and five smooth stones was all he needed.

        And David won.  David, the young; David, the small; David, the inexperienced; David, the faithful; David, the outrageously courageous, David, the One going out in God’s name, won.

        I think sometimes we are like those disciples, on that boat in a storm, thinking that we can do nothing, fearing all is lost.  When they wake Jesus, he doesn’t just rebuke the storm “Peace!  Be still!”—he also pokes at the disciples “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  It is as if the disciples are like that army of Israel, looking up at Goliath.  It is as if we are being asked, are you going to let the storm, the upheaval, the threat of being swamped, the enormity of problems, the smallness of your boat, and any other number of questions, get in your way.  As Jesus rightly asks, “Have you STILL no faith?”

        Believe me, I understand that it is much easier to float pious words and make soaring statements than it is to figure out how to make the first step, what to concentrate on, which gifts would be most helpful, and on and on.  That is the hard work of justice ministry.  That is why some of us are continuing to gather to talk and plan and pray about what we are doing, who we are facing, how God is equipping us for the battle, lending encouragement and support to one another, making small steps toward a goal.  (We invite you to join us for this conversation that we call “The Micah Project”—our next meeting is July 14th on zoom.  You can find more info in our weekly news or on our website.)

        I know that the Goliaths of the world have bent not only the tax code, and our supposedly venerable institutions, but our very thought processes—to make sure that they remain in power.  Why else would we always think: “What difference can we really make?”  “Why bother, my contribution would be so small!”  “It’s been like this forever, nothing will ever change.”  That is Goliath whispering in our heads.  That is Goliath laughing at our ideals and our belief and our holding onto hope.  That is Goliath winning, because it keeps us out of the battle.  And Jesus asks, “Have you still no faith?”

        I can’t give you a detailed timeline of what we should do.  I can’t promise that we, UPC, will achieve even a small measure of our dreams for participating in our Matthew 25 pledge.  What I can do is share a story, that brought me to tears this week—and that speaks to redefining our “little grey cells” as Hercule Poiroit would call them.  It is the story of Ashley’s sack.

        Rose was Ashley’s mother.  Rose was enslaved, and at the death of her master in 1852, knew that in all likelihood she and Ashley would be forcibly separated.  And so, she gave Ashley a simple, cloth sack, with a few items, as her legacy.  That sack was passed down from Rose, to Ashley, through the generations, and in 1921 to Ruth, who embroidered the story of it on the sack itself.  The words read:

        My great grandmother Rose

Mother of Ashley gave her this sack when

She was sold at age 9 in South Carolina

It held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair

Told her: It be filled with my Love always

She never saw her again

Ashley is my grandmother

Ruth Middleton           1921


        I imagine that Rose thought the sack was a small gift, but it was all she had.  I can only imagine that each generation understood the power of this small gift, because they kept it in the family.  I wonder if Ruth, who did that now old fashioned thing of embroidering words onto that simple sack ever thought it would mean anything.  But it did.  As the author of “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s sack, a Black Family Keepsake”, Tiya Miles, mused, “Without Ruth, there would be no record.  Without her record, there would be no history…Through her embroidery, Ruth ensured that the valiance of discounted women would be recalled and embraced as a treasured inheritance.”  (p. 6)

        Miles contrasts this sack to the statues of stone that were put up to generals and powerful men, to curate a certain history.  To point to what and who was important.  To make bold statements in lasting ways.  To be bigger than life.  To tower over town squares and parks.  As she writes, “Ashley’s sack makes no such pretense to vainglory.  It does not have to.  A quiet assertion of the right to life, liberty, and beauty even for those at the bottom, the sack stands in eloquent defense of the country’s ideals by indicting its failures.” (p. 7)

        Ashley’s sack is like David’s slingshot, something poo-pooed by society.  Somehow, Ashley’s sack was separated from its family and was purchased for $20 at a flea market in Nashville in the early 2000s.  But the woman who purchased it, was moved by the story embroidered on the sack and gifted it to Middleton Place.  A Scoiocultural anthropologist and museum-studies professor Mark Auslander traced the history of Ashley, Rose, and Ruth.  Now it is displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.  And Dr. Tiya Miles, Professor of History at Harvard University and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, has added her historical touch in interpreting the poignant story.

        The Goliaths of our world want us to think that only certain people make history.  The Goliaths of our world do not pay any attention to women, especially women of color, or to such things as a simple sack, or needle and thread, or the stories that we pass down from one generation to another.  The Goliaths have been in power so long, and think that they have insulated themselves from any change, that they laugh at any small thing that dares to call them out. 

        The story of David and Goliath reminds us that there is power in story.  There is power in faith.  There is power in standing up for what is right, even against mammoth odds.  There is power that we carry around each and every day—it may not look like much, a shepherd’s staff, 5 smooth stones, a simple sack—but with God’s help, it can bring down giants, it can encapsulate a truth that we often want to forget, it can touch hearts and change minds and push Goliath off his pedestal, once and for all.

        One last point.  The battle between David and Goliath is something we can cheer.  But it’s not because we have the strength to defeat Goliath—though we do.  It’s not because there are more Davids than there are Goliaths—if only we could recognize that.  David himself reminds us, “This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand… 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 [God] will give you into our hand.”

        The battle between David and Goliath is really the battle between the messenger of God and Goliath.  God is the one who gives us gifts for the battle.  God is the one who strengthens our resolve and lifts up hope.  God is the one who calls us to a better world and better ways of treating one another.  God is the one who chooses even those that are last, and least to be God’s messengers, God’s voice, God’s hands.  God can be seen in Rose’s message to Ashley, “It be filled with my Love always.”

        So, don’t despair when the way is weary and the road is long, when all you see are Goliaths at every turn.  Don’t let them get into your head, don’t give them permission to tell you what to believe, don’t allow them to win.  Being small, being lowly, bringing a slingshot to a sword fight, isn’t as crazy as it seems.  Find your strengths as use them—be they your feet on the march, your handicrafts making beauty in the world, your voice insisting on justice and mercy and freedom for all, or whatever your God-given power is.   

        Go in Faith.  Go in Hope.  Go in Love.  And may the God of David, the God who blessed us with the story of Rose, and Ashley, and Ruth—be with you, be with us as we do what must be done—battling any giants in our way.

           May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.