7-16-17 Sermon “God’s Heroes Have Courage” - “Hero Central” Series
Last week we learned in the story of God’s selection of David as the next king of Israel that God’s heroes have heart. And of course when we say this we’re not talking about his having an organ in his body that pumps blood - that can be assumed. You’ll remember we also said when talking about heart it means more than just emotion. We defined heart as including emotion but going deeper to include who we are, how we are, to really mean what we think of as soul.
This week our theme is that God’s heroes have courage. But just what is courage? Well, the Webster online dictionary defines it is, “the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous; the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” And one of the roots or the word courage is from the Latin, “cor,” which means, interestingly enough, “heart.”
Here’s one way to think about courage…
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In last week’s episode of “Hero Central,” we heard the story of the anointing of David, the youngest son of Jesse, to be the next king of Israel, following the reign of the once-anointed-now-annoying King Saul. A mere boy when we met him, we know of some of David’s heroic exploits over the years, as told in the books 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as 1 and 2 Chronicles, where we are told David is a “man after God’s own heart.” Shortly after he is anointed, while still a young boy, David defeats Goliath on the battlefield and becomes an instant celebrity. King Saul sees that David has great potential as a military leader, even as a boy, and makes him a general in the royal army. And David was a very successful military strategist and leader - in fact he was completely successful in every one of his missions. And as David’s fame rose among the people, Saul’s paranoia rose with it.
Eventually Saul demotes David out of fear and jealousy, and having David marry one of his daughters in a “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” kind of approach, Saul decides that in order to remain in power, David must die. David learns of Saul’s plans and escapes with the help of Saul’s son, Jonathan, who recognizes his father’s unbounded paranoia. David continued to lead his band of Israelite soldiers in victory, even has he ran for his life from Saul, and he gained even more support from the people of the nation.
So in our passage today, David and his men end up in the hill country south of Jerusalem in a place called Maon. While there, he sought the assistance of a man named Nabal, a wealthy and important man in the area who was also known for doing “evil things,” the passage says, and whose name means, appropriately we will learn, “fool.” David sends ten of his servants to Nabal to ask for food and assistance for his men, reminding Nabal of the time that David and his army had provided protection for Nabal’s men and his livestock.
Nabal, “the fool,” refuses to help David and sends away his messengers. When he learned of Nabal’s ungratefulness, we can imagine David’s complexion going from ruddy to red as he plans an immediate and vengeful reply to this slight. David intends to not only kill Nabal for this insult, but also to destroy his entire household. Which might make one wonder, is this what it looks like to be a man after “God’s own heart?”
Now, recognizing the dishonor that has been done to David, and the potential for disaster this could unleash on Nabal’s entire community, one of Nabal’s servants goes to Nabal’s wife Abigail, to tell her what had happened, hoping that a cooler head might prevail. The servant tells Abigail about how David and his men had actually helped protect Nabal’s servants and livestock, and how Nabal “the fool” had thumbed his nose at this generous act and refused to respond in kind to a reasonable request from David for some food for his men. And so this is the sticky situation in which we find ourselves in 1 Samuel 25.
Methodist pastor Anne Grant shared in a sermon once a story about a married couple, a man and woman, who were arguing about something as they traveled. Whatever the original focus of their argument had been, it had spiraled down to a place where one would say something biting and the other would just fire a snarky comment right back. This went on for hours as they drove along the highway and through cities and towns, each one trying to get in the last word, the last zinger, to win some kind of victory. Finally, while driving down a country road amidst some farm land, the husband spies what he thinks will win this battle of wits for him. Seeing a donkey in a field nearby, he says to his wife, “Is that a relative of yours?” to which she quickly responds,
“Yes, by marriage.”
It’s amazing how one slight, one misspoken word,
one mistaken or misunderstood interpretation of a word, a look, an act, can lead to conflict that then can escalate into all out war, literally or practically.
As we watch what’s going on in the world today with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, with North Korea in Asia, or Iran in the Middle East, it’s easy to grow fearful of what word spoken or act taken or mistaken in a torrent of testosterone, might lead to the next major war of our times, and how many innocent lives might hang in the balance.
It’s also interesting to consider how popular culture reflects and responds to the stresses and tensions of the times. We saw that in our message last week about God’s heroes having heart when we considered the story of Captain America. The Captain America comic was created early in World War II and proposes an American superhero who seeks to vanquish that which is evil in the world. It’s an age old, even archetypal story, placed in the context of the conflict of its time. At the same time, the other message that this comic book presents in its not so subtle way, is that anyone, even someone as unlikely as the sickly, 98 pound weakling, Steve Rogers, has something to offer for the greater good if they, too, have heart. It was a unifying and rallying message that resonated across socio-economic and cultural distinctions that was not limited to the Captain America storyline.
About that same time, 1941, another comic book superhero was created that was geared toward a part of society previously thought unable to bring value or contribute in the same way as others.
The heroine, in this case, was Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman has had more backstories written for
her over the years than probably any of the more popular super heroes out there. Two of these backstories, while conflicting with one another, are interesting in what they say about the society in which they were created.
In one version, Wonder Woman is actually Princess Diane of the Amazon tribe of women. She is raised by her mother the Queen to be a warrior but leaves the tribe and goes to America to battle the Nazis as Diane Prince. In another popular version, Wonder Woman is a Greek goddess, a daughter of Zeus, who comes to earth on the side of America and the Allies in the Second World War. In both stories, Wonder Woman is somewhat of a pacifist and uses her strengths, abilities, and depending on which storyline you follow, her various gadgets only in a defensive fashion. At the same time, she is also seen as a voice of reason and stability in the midst of the conflict that surrounds her and that envelops the world. And introduced before “Rosie the Riveter” became a symbol of female American unity and value, she provided a powerfully positive role model in her time.
The characterization we see in Wonder Woman is not unlike our character Abigail in the scripture lesson today. Everything we know of Abigail is what we read in 1 Samuel 25. There are no conflicting backstories with her, she enters the scene when this servant of Nabal recognizes that if something doesn’t happen to calm the situation between Nabal and David then the war to end all wars will be fought in Maon. Upon hearing the servant’s report, and knowing that her husband is as his name implies, a fool, she leaps into action.
Without hesitation, Abigail gets the household staff together and gives them their marching orders. They’re to gather together various food stuff, breads and meats, grain, wine, and various cakes, load them onto a caravan of donkeys, and they’re going to take them to David’s camp. Notice, she doesn’t send the servants off to do this alone, she leads them on this peacemaking mission.
And if this were a major motion picture epic we might imagine how this scene unfolds. In widescreen shot reminiscent of “Lawrence of Arabia,” we see an expanse of sandy desert, and as the camera zooms in from afar it focuses in on what appears to be a cloud of dust stretched across the horizon. As the camera draws closer we see that the dust is coming off the feet of a line of hundreds of men and horses that stretch across the horizon, seemingly with no end. The horses and men are all armed, swords, bows, and spears at the ready. The man who clearly is the leader of this army leads from the from, his face ruddy, his eyes focused, brow furrowed and his look determined. There will be war.
The camera pans across this mass of warriors to the landscape before them, and we see another group of people - this band much smaller and heading towards the approaching army, not on horseback, but on donkeys. And on the lead donkey, urging it go faster and faster,
we see a woman. Abigail.
Now, in order to understand just how courageous this action on Abigail’s part is, we must remember the context in which it occurs. First of all, as we have shared many times, as a woman Abigail has little power or authority over anything, including herself. She is Nabal’s wife, probably not his only one, which in effect means she is his property. And while the story tells us that she is both beautiful and intelligent, she is still a woman living in a patriarchal society in which she owns nothing, controls nothing more than perhaps the household staff, and has little or no rights of her own. And if that is not enough, we’re told that Nabal is a hard man who does evil things. The food she takes, the donkeys she takes it on, and the servants she drafts to help in this mission, are not hers to take or to commandeer - they are his. But she is wise enough, and shrewd enough, to recognize that if she does not take these actions, then neither she, the servants, nor even the fool Nabal will live long enough to eat these rations that she is prepared to offer to keep the peace.
Abigail’s band, bearing the fruits of peace, intercepts this determined army and as she approaches David, she climbs down from the donkey, throws herself to the ground and bows deeply before this warrior king. Apologizing for her boldness, as well as her husband’s foolishness (like the woman in the story earlier, suggesting that Nabal is a blood relative of the donkey she just rode in on) she implores David not to go on with his plans to destroy Nabal and his household, to not act sinfully out of a sense of vengeance that is not needed and not proper for the anointed next king of Israel. Appealing to his power, his ego, his sense of decency, and perhaps unknowingly to the heart that God looked upon, Abigail deflects the anger and the violent intent spewed by both of these men, like Wonder Woman deflecting bullets with her bracelets, and brings both peace and reason into a situation that otherwise might have led to disaster.
And then, in what has one of the most colorful descriptions in all of scripture, David said to Abigail, “Bless the Lord God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! And bless you and your good judgment for preventing me from shedding blood and taking vengeance into my own hands today! Otherwise, as surely as the Lord God of Israel lives—the one who kept me from hurting you—if you hadn’t come quickly and met up with me, there wouldn’t be one single one who urinates on a wall left come morning.”
Yes, you heard that correctly. The words in Hebrew
that the author used to describe Nabal and his men,
in English translates to “one who urinates on a wall.”
The King James version says, “pisseth.” Whether the intent of that choice of words is to describe the physiological differences between how men and women urinate and to say that he would only have killed the men, or whether it is intended as a slight against the men, that they are the type who would urinate publicly on a wall rather than in a chamber pot or some other container, or at least in the woods, we don’t know - the passage doesn’t tell us. What we do know, is that regardless of the intended meaning here, if it hadn’t been for Abigail’s intervention. Nabal wouldn’t have pot to…well, you know.
So then, the passage tells us , David accepted everything she had brought for him. “Return home in peace,” he told her. “Be assured that I’ve heard your request and have agreed to it.”
So Abigail returns home, and finding Nabal in the midst of a party and totally intoxicated, she wisely chooses to wait until the next morning to tell him what she’s done. The next day, Abigail tells Nabal about how she, in effect, saved the lives of Nabal and the entire household by providing the food that David had asked for. Hearing this news, Nabal has a heart attack, lingers for 10 days, and then dies.
David was grateful to Abigail, not only because she brought the much needed food they had requested, but also because she kept him from “shedding blood.”
He realized that because of Abigail’s courage in intervening in this conflict, she persuaded him - even saved him - from killing Nabal’s entire household, including Abigail herself. Her courage showed David that he had almost given in to his own sinful anger rather than trusting in God and God’s justice in this situation. And the story ends with David taking Abigail as his wife.
Now this story of Abigail is a little known story in the Bible, in part because 1 Samuel 25 is nowhere to be found in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle of readings. This story of courage and heroism never comes up in the regular readings of the liturgical calendar, so if one doesn’t seek it out on their own the story of this wonder woman might never be well know. I believe it’s also little known because when it is used or preached in more conservative or evangelical churches, it’s often raised as a story about how women are to be submissive to men, and that the only redeeming characteristic of Abigail’s actions are that they were done in service to David, the man of God, who takes precedent over even her husband. The tentacles of patriarchy stretch far and wide, and know no boundaries of time, reaching as far back as the garden and into the church today.
As we consider the theme of our message, “God’s heroes have courage,” in the context of Abigail’s story, we must also consider other wonder women, from the famous, to the lesser known, to the unknown, who exhibit courage every day. From the Harriet Tubmans or Sojourner Truths of the world to the female police officer killed in New York last week. From adventurers like Amelia Earhart, to activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to ordained clergy women like our own April Casperson or Karen Cook who boldly step into planes, pubs, pulpits, or positions of power that society and culture have told them for years, and continue to tell them today, are reserved or at least intended for “those who can urinate on walls,” these are heroes of great courage.
But like the message about heroes having heart last week, courage is not a characteristic given only to some and not to others. All of us have the potential to exhibit courage in the face of danger, courage in the face of injustice, if we have the heart to do so. Courage is born, in part, from having a heart for God, for God’s kin-dom, and for God’s people. Courage is birthed when, despite our discomfort, we step up and step out to do what we know needs to be done but would prefer someone else do for us.
Courage is displayed when, in the face of mounting evidence that we’ve made the wrong choice, we’ve done or said the wrong thing, we step up, own our mistake and attempt to right the wrong rather than casting blame on someone or something else.
Courage, as we see in our story today, is evidenced when we’re willing to trust in God and who God is, when we’re willing to accept the challenge God places before us as disciples to both love God and love our neighbor, rather than to place our trust in our own selfish desires. When we muster this kind of courage, we too are one of God’s heroes. Amen.