Facing Giants

September 25, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: 1 Samuel 17: 2-50; Matthew 11:28-29


The Story of David and Goliath is likely a historical event. Just as likely, some of the details, such as Goliath being nine feet tall, were increasingly exaggerated through multiple retellings until  the story was put in writing.  Tales about giants are as old as history itself. Jack and the Beanstalk, an English fairy tale, appeared as The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean in 1734 and as Benjamin Tabart’s The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk in 1807.  And according to researchers at the universities in Durham and Lisbon, the story originated more than 5,000 years ago, based on a widespread archaic story form which is now classified by folkorists as ATU 328  – The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure.

You remember the story: Jack is a young, poor boy living with his widowed mother and a cow as their only source of income. When the cow stops giving milk, Jack’s mother tells him to take it to the market to be sold. On the way, Jack meets an old man who offers magic beans in exchange for the cow, and Jack makes the trade. When he arrives home without any money, his mother becomes angry, throws the beans on the ground, and sends Jack to bed without dinner.

During the night, the magic beans cause a gigantic beanstalk to grow. The next morning, Jack climbs the beanstalk to a land high in the sky. He finds an enormous castle inhabited by a giant. On three consecutive nights, Jack sneaks in, first stealing a bag of gold coins, then goose that laid the golden eggs, and, the third night a harp that plays by itself.  The story ends with Jack and his mother living happily ever after with the riches that Jack acquired. Even though this is a story written for children, nothing is ever made of the fact that Jack is breaking and entering and taking things that belong to someone else.  Jack is stealing from a giant. And since giants are almost always portrayed as bad, and dangerous, whatever evil befalls them seems to be okay.

There is an Italian version of this story entitled Thirteenth. Interestingly, this tale has elements in it that are very similar to both the sibling interactions between David and his brothers that are found in I Samuel, Chapter seventeen but weren’t read this morning, and the relationship between Joseph with the coat of many colors and his brothers.  In this Italian telling there is a father who has thirteen sons, the youngest of whom was named Thirteenth. The father works hard to support his children, and in addition makes what he can by gathering herbs. The mother, to make the children quick, tells them: “The one who comes home first shall have herb soup.” Thirteenth always returns the first, and gets the soup. His jealous and resentful brothers come to hate him and seek to get rid of him.

Sure enough there is a giant ogre in the kingdom and the king issues a proclamation in the city that he who was bold enough to get the giant will be rewarded in gold.  The brothers decide that this is a good way to get rid of Thirteenth, and if he does not get killed by the giant ogre, their consolation prize would be that the family would get the reward of gold. So they go to the king and tell him how fast Thirteenth is and he gets recruited for the job.

In the Greek version of this story, the giant is a giant dragon. Its title is How the Dragon was Tricked. And not be be outdone, the German account is entitled The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs.

Regardless of the variations, the stories are the same in that a small, poor, insignificant person comes face to face with a giant who is seen as evil and dangerous.  I believe that this legend is so pervasive because we can so easily identify with the hero of the story. In life we also are forced to face giants. And whether it is the bad news of a medical diagnosis, loss of a loved one, or serious problems in our family, when those giants enter our lives, we feel small and powerless. The giant seems overwhelming.

The September 5th issue of Time magazine has as its cover article, Ordinary Families; Extraordinary Kids. It’s a story about nine families whose children all became amazingly successful, and what they have in common.

Here’s a segment of the story:

Every night for twenty years, Gino Rodriquez knelt beside his three daughters’ beds and whispered an incantation. As rats the size of footballs skittered along the floor of the basement apartment on the South Side of Chicago, he repeated the same five words into each girl’s ear as she slept: “I can and I will.” The message was always the same, and the audience was always asleep.

“You talk to the subconscious. You don’t talk to the conscious,” Rodriguez says.  “That’s the one that really listens.”

The girls slept “hot-dog style,” cocooned in tightly wrapped sheets to keep out the vermin.  They occasionally woke up during their father’s nightly pep talks, rolled their eyes and then went back to sleep.  But each morning, they did a series of jumping jacks, looked in the mirror and said, “Today is going to be a great day.  I can and I will.”

Not all days were great – the family moved from the rat-infested apartment only after a woman was murdered in front of their home. But the three daughters of Puerto Rican parents were kept safe, spending most of their time in school or at the boxing gym where their father refereed. They learned how to block a punch and throw a right hook.  They bickered over clothes and went to dance class and dressed up for quinceaneras.

And one by one, they proved their father right; they could and they did.  Ivelisse Rodriquez Simon graduated from Harvard Business School and is now a partner at a private-equity firm. Rebecca Rodriguez is the medical director of one of the best family-health clinics in the country. And Gina Rodriquez won a Best Actress Golden Globe for her starring role on Jane the Virgin.

The other families in the article include: “The Emanuel brothers who, conquered medicine, politics, and Hollywood and the Wojcicki sisters who became scientists, CEOs and tech entrepreneurs. The Simmons brothers are a painter, a rapper and a media mogul; the Antonoffs are now a rock star and a fashion designer. The Srinivasans include a judge, a public-health official and an entrepreneur, and the Gay siblings write books and run companies and design bridges.  The Dungey sisters grew into an actor and a television executive. One Lin sibling designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; the other has written twelve books.”

Each of these families is different in many ways but they also share commonalities that are worth considering. Not all of the families were poor, but they all overcame obstacles.  They all had giants in their lives. Besides the well-written human interest aspect of this story, what caught my attention and why I found it important, is that I read it through the eyes of your interim pastor. I asked myself, “How can Union Church be an environment that helps its members who are presently fighting giants and best prepare all of us who will surely encounter giants in our future?”

There are two elements that all of the families had in common that I think are very applicable to us. First, all of the children had involved parents. Though they almost all described competitiveness and bickering among each other as siblings, few recalled any major conflicts between their parents.  They all grew up in supportive environments. We heard the same in this morning’s first reading.

Jesse had eight sons. And being a loyal supporter of King Saul he had sent his three oldest sons to support him in battle. David, Jesse’s youngest son remained home to shepherd their flock, but Jesse’s had David go back and forth from Saul’s camp to the sheep. He sent David with food for his brothers, and interestingly with ten wedges of cheese to their unit commander. Perhaps this was meant as an incentive for this unit commander to watch out for Jesse’s sons. And Jesse tells David before he leaves, “Find out how your brothers are doing and bring back some sign that they are okay.” A supportive family environment.

How are we, as a church family doing as on-going support for each other? As we look around I think that we would agree that we are a caring, compassionate and generous community. And yet, we are all busy and preoccupied, and some among us have fallen through the cracks when they needed us.  Recently some have felt hurt because you and I have not reached out to them when they were hurting. Though we’ve established a care team to help those who are sick, injured or in some way need our presence it isn’t enough. We need to do a better job at letting each other know when and how we can be of help to each other.

In addition, I’ve been told that some newer attendees at our church find it difficult to stay for the social time after our services, particularly so for those who come alone.  Our bulletin each week states that all our welcome.  Let’s all be on the lookout for new faces and more attentive to newer worshipers so that everyone experiences that they are truly welcome. There’s always room for improvement.

A second commonality that the highly successful siblings described in the Time article had is that all were encouraged to do their personal best. What may have contributed to this is that of the nine families, eight had a parent who was an immigrant or an educator. Five of the families had a parent who was both. The philosophical bent of the educators, and the mind set of parents who had left their homes to give their children opportunities for better lives instilled in them the drive and discipline to do well.

When David is trying to convince King Saul that he is up to the task of defeating Goliath, he talks about the giants that he has come in contact with and how he has done his best to protect his flock against them.  Luke 16: 10 tells us, “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.” There are many quotes out there that are a version of ,” If we do our best taking care of the small things, the big things will take care of themselves.”

 As a church community we can imitate this practice. Each week we gather to experience God’s presence through the beauty of this space, through music, scripture, ritual, and in our interactions with each other. We are urged to reflect on what we are called to do and how we are called to grow.  We are encouraged to be our best selves. At the same time we come to experience peace and comfort. Today’s second reading invites us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” In our time together we are refreshed, nourished, strengthened and stretched.

We have all faced giants and we all have giants in our future.  But as we come together each week we can continue to grow as individuals and develop as an increasingly supportive community that will respond compassionately and be helpful to each of us. In this way we will be as prepared as we can when facing giants.