One of my favorite Cartoons growing up in the 1970’s was Underdog which originated in the 1960’s as a cereal promotion for General Mills according to Wikipedia. The premise was that “humble and lovable” Shoeshine Boy was in truth the superhero Underdog. George S. Irving narrated and comedy actor Wally Cox provided the voices of both Underdog and Shoeshine Boy. When villains threatened, Shoeshine Boy ducked into a telephone booth, where he transformed into the caped and costumed hero, destroying the booth in the process when his superpowers were activated. In many cases to save his damsel in distress, reporter canine Sweet Polly Purebred. Underdog almost always spoke in rhyme: “There’s No Need to fear—underdog is here!”
Underdog stories abound in our culture. Who doesn’t like to hear or witness the little guy or gal claiming victory from the hands of the favorite whether in sports or adventure or in the reality of the everyday good and evil in our midst?
We cheer for the teams like the Butler Bulldog Basketball team back in 2010 or the NC State team back in 1983 or the New England Patriots in SuperBowl 36 back in 2001. You remember when a little known back up quarterback with the last name Brady came off the bench in the play-offs to lead them to an unlikely championship. We love watching the underdogs claw their way to victory – unless of course we are fans of the favored champions.
Sports are not the only arena for these favored stories – the courts are as well – while staying in a hotel not too long ago we came across a late night movie about an inventor and professor at Wayne State University who had created the intermittent windshield wiper control – remember when wipers were either on or off with no delay feature? Robert Kearns invented the device and as the 2008 film Flash of Genius depicted was robbed of his technology by Ford and Chrysler among other automobile manufacturers. Kearns spent 20 years trying to get his case to court, losing his marriage and nearly his family. He prevailed winning over $30 million.
And then there was Erin Brockovichs story where contaminated water supplies with a cancer causing poison from a nearby Pacific Gas & Light plant were being covered up until she helped local residents take on the wealthy corporation and win a large settlement for the families affected.
We love to hear stories of unlikely heroes and heroines of the victorious underdogs in our world.
If any story in the whole of scripture fits our affection for underdogs – it’s most likely our story for today from ancient Israel’s myths and legends, retold in the book of Samuel. Probably the most famous story from Hebrew Scripture outside of the tales of Moses perhaps, the tale of David and Goliath is certainly memorable and for the ancient Israelites a legend marking their special identity as God’s – Yahweh’s – chosen covenant people.
First, we must remember that this story was and is special to Jewish people then and now. David’s unlikely victory over the giant Philistine Goliath was a vote of confidence in the power and majesty of their God over the gods and goddesses of the ancient world. There are many details in this story – too many to expand upon today – but a couple I think are worth noting.
Some scholars believe that the Philistines led by Goliath were mercenary army with a lineage that traced back to the time before the Great Flood Epic of Noah to the Nephilim or giants who lived among the sons of God, the descendants of Adam and were the “heroes of old, warriors of renown” according to Genesis 6.
If so, David’s victory again stakes the claim for Israel as God’s people and for God’s majesty and power over all the earth.
Another detail worth noting has to do with David’s stature as the youngest son of Jesse, the anointed successor to the throne of Saul. David was not able to wear Saul’s armor and in fact was not able to move in it. This is most often attributed to David’s overall size and strength in stark contrast to the giant Goliath with his armor and sword. And so, when David sizes up the giant and says, “yeah I can take him,” the audience chuckles with “good luck with that!”
But perhaps David is not as naïve as we make him out to be, of course as a spiritual narrative there is certainly the God is on my side factor (which is the moral of the story of course) but David has had to be nimble, quick, determined and cunning to save his sheep, to stay alive among older brothers who scoff at him when he inquires about the spoils of defeating the Philistine when he arrives at the front lines with fresh supplies.
Sometimes the best player on your team is the shorter, faster, turn so quick you lose track of them player – that’s David.
Perhaps the armor was just a hindrance to his greatest strength, which was also his greatest vulnerability, his size, his speed and his agility.
Imagine the scene for a moment, nine foot tall giant Goliath covered in armor on one side of the creek bed who has employed psychological warfare for 40 days, (you know that number means something) yelling at the Israelites, daring them to fight and every time they run and hide in fear, which is wearing down the entire regimen. Goliath with heavy armor moving slowly mostly bark and only bite if you get in his swing zone a formidable force to behold against David, a shepherd boy with five stones and a slingshot no armor, no heavy sword, agile, fast, stealthy and without fear.
By might, Goliath was the one to place your bets on but was he? Was David really the underdog? He fell the giant nearly immediately in the story before Goliath had a chance to react.
The audience cheers, the little guy won and God was victorious again!
And then the story turns evil by the world’s standards today and perhaps even then The storyteller takes the violence of battle to another level as David beheads Goliath with the Philistine’s own sword. He then parades with it to show everyone the awesome (meaning to be feared) power of the God of Israel and perhaps of the soon to be new king of Israel. With this violent act, little David claims absolute power. If he could do this to Goliath, who will challenge him now?
Absolute Power has the capacity to be corrupted and to corrupt. And whenever absolute power and religious belief combine corruption is just around the corner. We have all witnessed far too many stories of such corruption in our time.
Violence in the name of God is a corruption of the nature of God who demands that we love our neighbor, even our enemies. Perhaps no one made this point better than the German pastor Martin Niemoeller, who protested Hitler’s anti-semite measures in person to the fuehrer, was eventually arrested, and then imprisoned for eight years in German Death Camps.
He once confessed, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of his enemies.” Anne Lamott said,
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Violence is a human attribute – not a divine attribute – if God was by nature violent – then when God walked among us in the person Jesus – would not God have chosen to destroy the Romans who dared to crucify him – to violently take back the temple from the corrupt religious leaders? Perhaps the humanity of Jesus was most present when he turned those tables and drove out the animals – but notice Jesus never took life – only healed, restored, saved life.
Bible stories filled with violence are like all the stories in scripture, tales passed down from generation to generation attempting to share the powerful covenant of love between the creator of the universe and all that God created. And sometimes, we get the nature of God wrong. Sometimes we make God in our image.
David was not alone, the story says. The almighty God was with David and it was God’s power the tale says that was challenged by the Philistine and prevailed. We too walk in the same power of the Almighty God:
Power to conquer our gigantic challenges in life.
Power to love beyond our imagining even those who have wronged us’
Power to endure the often unbearable tragedy of illness and accidents that lead to suffering in this life,
Power to face the challenges of aging and differing abilities,
Power to return no one evil for evil, to be non-violent even in the face of violence,
Power to challenge the big systemic issues of our time like a broken and often inhumane immigration system, a criminal justice system in need of reform, an economy that does not work for everybody, poverty and homelessness that impacts millions of children and families,
Power to work for equal access to education, healthcare and adequate mental healthcare in our communities,
Power to stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized because of their gender or gender identity, their race or religion, their ethnicity or primary language, their body type or social/physical abilities.
Facing Giants With God’s power we are not the underdogs we may think we are – we are the champions…we are the champions of an agile love, a nimble compassion, a determined justice, a real reconciliation, and a true peace.
May we be so. Amen.
Text from my Message for Today, Central Christian Church, Bourbonnais, IL July 24, 2018.