Date: July 14, 2019
Scripture Lesson: Daniel chapters 3 and 6
Sermon: Still Under Attack
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
I don’t know about you, but I did not wake up this morning afraid of being thrown into a fiery furnace or scared of being eaten by lions. I don’t think a lion has been seen in these parts recently, unless it was at Busch Gardens. So, it’s easy to see how these two famous Bible stories are dismissed as quaint, simplistic folk tales that witness to a more primitive view of faith in an interventionist God.
Given this background, it’s actually a bit surprising how timely these stories are to our situation today, even though we don’t have any lions, or even Florida Panthers, around.
The root of the conflict in the two stories are problems around ethnocentrism, bigotry, and intolerance. In the stories from Daniel, there is conflict between those who are the dominant group and the captives, the foreigners. The natives have it in for the foreigners. Daniel and his people are Jews, transplants, outsiders. And they are being groomed by the king for positions of authority, prestige, and power. But the hometown people resent this. And so they target these foreigners. They scheme to get the foreigners in trouble. And what are these foreigners doing? They are working hard and doing their jobs. They are not defiantly making trouble. And yet they are targeted by the natives, the citizens, the insiders.
This ethnocentrism specifically takes the form of religious intolerance in the stories from Daniel. Daniel and his people merely want to continue to practice their religion even though they are in this new culture. They want to continue to worship and pray to their God. In a cultural situation where the worship of many gods is accepted, this should not be a problem. What is one more? But the Jews do not want to worship the gods of their captors because that is against their religion which has only one God. They only want to worship and pray to their God.
So, the locals knowingly get the king to carry out laws which conflict with the religious beliefs of the Jews. The Jews are only to pray to their one God so the local leaders get the king to make a law ordering people to pray only to the king for thirty days. This law is specifically designed to entrap the Jews, specifically Daniel who has risen to great power through his hard work and reliability and wisdom. In the furnace story, the young men are targeted for refusing to worship a statue. Ethnocentrism and jealousy take the form of religious intolerance in laws created to target foreigners.
How this resonates with our situation today! We see this kind of religious and ethnic conflict happening all over the world even in our beloved United States which was intended to be a beacon of religious tolerance and freedom. And yet there are issues over turbans and headscarves and prayers and public displays. Where is the spirit of tolerance and acceptance and respect for religious freedom that marked the founding of there United States?
This impulse to target foreigners is what is behind the ICE raids taking place today in 10 cities across the US. We hear this anti foreigner sentiment expressed daily here in our United States – not only by fringe hate groups but by main stream politicians and even by the president. They’re taking our jobs. They don’t belong here. They are undermining our cultural unity with their strange ways. They are causing trouble. So, let’s make laws that they will necessarily break so that we can arrest them and get rid of them. How familiar is that???? That is just what happens in the book of Daniel. But we don’t want to put these foreigners in a lion’s den or a furnace – just cage them up in a detention camp, thank you very much, and deny them the most basic necessities so that they are made to feel subhuman and undeserving. Of course, is it seems lost on many that this strategy makes the perpetrators appear subhuman not the victims.
These stories from Daniel display the spirit of intolerance shown to foreigners and how dangerous it is and we see this same dynamic playing out in our midst today. THAT is scary.
This brings us to another theme in these stories. Power. The dictatorial, absolute power of the king in each story appears clearly foolish and absurd. All peoples, all nations, all languages, bow down. This is ridiculous. Humanity has supposedly progressed to the point of realizing that social groups are most effectively managed by law and representative governmental arrangements not by dictators with authoritarian powers. And yet we have a president who esteems dictators with authoritarian control and seeks such a role for himself. But as these stories show, this kind of concentration of power always leads to a bad end. As Lord Acton said in a letter written in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So these stories bear a warning about absolute power.
While I may not be afraid of lions or a furnace, I am afraid of concentrated power in the hands of the federal government. This week I sent an email to someone about the ICE raids with instructions about how to respond if confronted by ICE agents. I was very careful in the email not to mention any names, not to make any personal references. I just gave the list of instructions and said here is some information that might be helpful. I did not mention anything else because I was afraid that my email might be read by federal authorities and I don’t want to be leading ICE to potential targets. To me, that is more scary than the lions! But that is where we are today.
These stories from Daniel also address civil disobedience. The people are told to kneel down and pray to the golden statue whenever the band plays. Is this law merely based on the egotistical bravado of the king or is is specifically designed to entrap the Jews who are only to pray to their one God? Either way, it is problematic for the Jews. So, Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do not comply when the band plays. This is breaking the law in that context. But they refuse to comply with a law that is in conflict with their religion. This is civil disobedience. It is nonviolent, passive resistance.
In the second story, the king makes a law about only praying to him. When Daniel and other Jews pray to their God, they are defying this law which was intended to snare them. So, their defiance can be seen as civil disobedience.
In a way, this is like taking the knee. The national anthem plays and people are supposed to stand out of respect. It’s not the law, but it is accepted practice. But now many are kneeling during the national anthem in defiance. They are not breaking the law, but they are defying convention to make a public statement. And while it may not lead to death, it can ruin a career. This is nonviolent, passive resistance.
The examples from Daniel have inspired others to take up civil disobedience. It is interesting to note that these stories from the book of Daniel were inspirational to Mahatma Gandhi as he fought for civil rights first in South Africa and then in India. In referring to Daniel, Gandhi commented that he had, “found much consolation in reading the book of the prophet Daniel.” Gandhi saw Daniel as, “one of the greatest passive resisters that ever lived.” In coming up with a strategy to resist the pass laws directed at Indians in South Africa, Gandhi advised people to “sit with their doors flung wide open and tell the gentleman [South African authorities] that whatever laws they passed were not for them unless those laws were from God.” [The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6, p. 771] This was inspired by Daniel praying three times a day to his God with the windows open.
So, when you think about is, it’s surprising how these ancient folk tales from Daniel, entertaining for children in Church School, deal with themes that are current for us today. So what do they say to us? Well, here we turn to Jesus. Jesus knew these stories from Daniel. He knew other stories, like the story of Esther, where the Jews are targeted for death because of their religion and their beliefs. And what do we see in the ministry of Jesus? Jesus specifically reaches out to and interacts with people from groups that have targeted the Jews. He reaches over those divisions of ethnicity and religion that have divided people. He specifically makes references to stories in the Hebrew scriptures that involve Gentiles and foreigners showing that they are to be embraced and welcomed and treated with respect and dignity. Jesus, despite the harm done to his people because they are Jews, does not allow racial, gender, ethnic or religious divisions to get in the way of loving our neighbor. When you think about what other groups have done to the Jews, in Jesus day and before, his welcome and embrace of all people is all the more radical.
So, here we get our inspiration for the ordering of our loyalties. Sure, we are to be dedicated to our families. Yes, we put trust in our governmental system. Or we used to. It is appropriate for us to support our national leaders. We may get behind a particular political party. Our country is important to us. Our culture and language have value. We have respect for the rule of law. But the message of Daniel and the witness of Jesus backs up the sentiments of the Psalms :
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day, their plans perish.
Happy are those. . . whose hope in the Lord their God. . .
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
the Lord upholds the orphan and the widow.
Scripture teaches loyalty in that kind of God. The book of Daniel and the gospel of Jesus remind us that there is something GREATER than human leadership, a governmental system, a political party, nationality, empire, law, religion, and even family. Our tradition compels us to put our ultimate trust in God – however we may understand or define God – in something beyond our individual experience, in something eternal and all-encompassing. In something within us, at our very core, that binds us to the greater whole of reality. So our concept of God needs to be worthy of this kind of ultimate loyalty because God is what is to be given our ultimate devotion, loyalty, and reverence.
We see this orientation in the stories of Daniel and in the life of Jesus. And we notice that it got them into trouble because there will always be human constructs that vie for our ultimate loyalty and devotion. But Daniel and his people and Jesus remain true to God as they understand God despite the pressures of their contexts. Daniel ended up in the lion’s den. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego ended up in the furnace. Jesus was crucified. Maybe if we’re not in some kind of trouble, we don’t have our loyalties properly aligned. Amen.
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