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July 2023

The Lion's Den

The Lion’s Den

Daniel 6

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 July 2023

               The Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk is one of the mothers of the United Church of Christ.  She has spent many decades in leadership in our denomination.  In the opening of her most recent book, of which I’ll have more to say in a moment, she writes,

To “remember” is to define who we are in ways that we are not free to walk away from.  Remembering is a sacred liturgy that grounds and equips us with an identity, meaning, and purpose.  It is the connection to all life—the living and the dead and the yet to be born.

            This summer we are remembering ancient stories of prophets, rulers, and God’s compassion and justice under the rubric “Good Trouble.”  Today brings us one of the great stories, Daniel in the Lion’s Den.  As you listen, consider what Dr. Delk has said about remembering, how it defines us, how it grounds us, and equips us with identity.  How it is our connection with others.

            Hear now this ancient story:

            Coming at the end of the legends told here in the first half of the Book of Daniel, this story doesn’t break much new ground.  We’ve already dealt with rulers claiming power that is not theirs by right, presuming to override the sovereignty of God.  We’ve had numerous stories about faithful Jews trying their best to live in difficult political circumstances.  We’ve already seen God teaching a lesson to those who overstep their authority.  We’ve even had God present in a moment of dangerous punishment already, in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

            So, this story doesn’t break much new ground.  We have a story about a faithful Jew, a stupid king, jealous and cruel courtiers, and God present in the moment of death and danger.

  1. L. Seow, whose commentary I have relied on throughout this Daniel series, declares one of the themes of this story is that people of faith can live risky lives. Faith does not always bring us comfort and tranquility, sometimes it calls for courage in dangerous times.  He points out that Daniel doesn’t seem to do anything to purposely resist the king’s stupid new law.  Rather, it seems that Daniel just keeps on doing what Daniel has always done, praying before his open window.  This is what we call integrity.  Daniel knows full well the risk to his life and well-being, and yet he keeps living his faith, despite the circumstances.

            And it is Seow who points out here, as he did in the story of the fiery furnace, that God does not deliver Daniel from the lions, in the same way that God did not deliver Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fire.  Instead, in both stories, we are told that God was with them in the moment of danger.  God is “in the pit.”

            The Jewish novelist Lynne Schwartz admires the Daniel in this story as someone who goes into a “dark, savage place.”  She wishes we knew what Daniel thought and felt and learned in the pit, but we don’t, as the story only tells us about the king’s sleep-deprived night.

            But one lesson we do learn from this story, and which we can apply to periods of “real abominations and reprisals” is about the nature of freedom as an inner quality.  Lynne Schwartz writes, “Freedom is a quality of the inner spirit and not of the body’s circumstances.”

            While the story suggests that such moments will turn out all right in the end, with good and justice triumphant, Schwartz admits that maturity teaches us otherwise.  We cannot always count on things to turn out this way when we live with integrity and freedom.  But we need that idea, nonetheless, to keep us persisting and resisting in the life of faith.

            Mona West, who used to be the pastor at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas (where I also worked at a different time) focuses her commentary on the person on Daniel and, especially that he is described earlier in the book as being a eunuch.  We know that many ancient courts were served by eunuchs, and that captured young men, like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were often turned into eunuchs.

            She ponders whether Daniel, then, is one of the queer heroes of scripture?  He clearly lived in the tension between resistance and accommodation.  He obviously succeeded at the latter, given his meteoric rise within these foreign kingdoms and serving, as the legends go, so many different monarchs. 

            Drawing on the work of the late queer activist Urvashi Vaid, Mona West declares “There is a difference between gaining access and wielding power, and queer political resistance must ‘strive beyond personal gain to an institutional transformation, beyond mainstreaming ourselves into the center to transforming the mainstream.’”

            Does Daniel’s faithfulness, integrity, persistence, and inner freedom provide us a model of transformation?

            These ideas of freedom and integrity drew me back to my favorite book on UCC history, The Evolution of a UCC Style by Randi Walker, and an excerpt she includes in the book.  It is part of an essay entitled “Creeds Rejected” published in the March 15, 1838 edition of the Christian Palladium, which was one of the news outlets of the Christian Church, one of our predecessor denominations.  The Christians were a unique American movement, arising on the frontier as part of the Great Awakening revivals.  This 1838 essay, by Elder Simon Clough enumerates a number of reasons the Christians opposed creeds.  Here are some of the reasons he states:

We object, then, to creeds and confessions of faith, as bonds of Christian union, as conditions of Christian fellowship, as means of fastening chains on men’s [and women’s] minds, because they are unauthorized by Scriptures—because they infringe the right of private judgement . . . because they lead to oppression and hold out temptations and allurements to practice hypocrisy and deception . . . because they shut the door against free inquiry . . .

            This idea of freedom and integrity has deeply influenced us in the United Church of Christ, and, I believe, resonates with this story of Daniel and the king trying to impose faith, overriding individual consciences.

            Now, let me return to the Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk’s latest book, that I referenced before I read today’s scripture.  That book is entitled Afro-Christian Convention: The Fifth Stream of the United Church of Christ. 

            Well, if you know UCC history 101, then you know that we have traditionally acknowledged four streams—movements and denominations that have shaped this denomination, often through formal mergers.  One stream was the Christian movement I’ve mentioned already.  Another was the Congregationalists, that we reference all the time.  The other two were the Evangelical and Reformed, denominations of German immigrants centered in Pennsylvania and the Midwest.  Our predecessor congregation—First United Church of Christ, which used to be on Deer Park in South O was an E&R congregation and current members such as Pauline Bahnke, Bud Cassiday, and Janet Bonet come from that church.

            But this year at General Synod the United Church of Christ officially acknowledged a fifth stream that has been relegated to the margins all these decades, and that stream is the Afro-Christian Convention.  Delk’s new book is part of the effort to rectify this whitewashing of our history.

            The Afro-Christian Convention arose from the worship of enslaved persons in the hush harbors where they hid from their masters so that they might worship in freedom.  A group of independent black congregations created their own denomination, the Afro-Christian Convention, after the Civil War.  They set up a seminary and other training, ordained clergy, sponsored missions, and published materials.  Eventually this group connected with the wider Christian movement and formally merged with the Congregationalists in 1913, though the Afro-Christian Convention remained an autonomous group within the wider denomination. 

            The UCC has now acknowledged this independent group as our fifth stream, informing our religious heritage.  It is incumbent upon us to better understand our history and the role of this stream of thought and practice in shaping our 21st century identity.

            As Dr. Delk said about remembering, “Remembering is a sacred liturgy that grounds and equips us with an identity, meaning, and purpose.”

            This story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den is a fitting place for us to make a connection to this fifth stream.  For the story of Daniel is one of freedom and integrity in the midst of power that tries to compel conformity, at threat of one’s very life.  It is about people of faith resisting and persisting in their faith.  And surely these themes resonate with the history of the Afro-Christian movement, arising from the slave plantations of the South.

            In his essay in the new book, K. Ray Hill, pastor of Maple Temple UCC in Raleigh, North Carolina, describes the theology of the Afro-Christian movement—“a commitment to foundational Christ-centered principle linked to a wholistic African perspective that nurtured dignity, self-determination, and a fierce independence in response to the challenges of racism and oppression in the church and in the world.”

            Pastor Hill states quite emphatically, “Our theology was not born in slavery.  It was tested in slavery.” 

            We have much to learn from this tradition about standing for freedom with integrity and persisting in faith.

            Pastor Hill asks the question, “How do you develop a resistance to oppression and cruelty?”  That could have been Daniel’s question too, faced with the stupid, petty, and cruel law of King Darius.  Here’s how Pastor Hill answers, “By trusting a God that is bigger than your circumstance.  This is not done through intellect alone but through faith.”

            Remembering, then, can provide us resources to live with courage and integrity.

            Let us remember this Afro-Christian history, as well as this ancient story of Daniel, so that we might better understand ourselves and who God is calling us to be.  So that we might learn how to trust in God when we are in dangerous times and places.  To remember that God is present with us, even then and there.  And let us claim our legacy of freedom, so that we might live with courage and integrity.

A Mad King

A Mad King

Daniel 4:28-37

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

9 July 2023

            Before Joffrey Baratheon and Aerys Targaryen.  Before MacBeth and King Lear.  Even before Caligula and Nero.  There was King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Mad King.

            According to the History Channel’s website, of the ten most famous Mad Kings and Queens in actual history, Nebuchadnezzar ranks number one.  Of him they write, “The granddaddy of all mad kings is King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian ruler whose first-person account of a seven-year descent into animal-like insanity is one of the most fascinating sections of the Old Testament book of Daniel.”

            On Medium this week I found a post discussing “how consistent a tradition there is of mad and petty kings in both literature and history.”  That post focused on The Game of Thrones pointing out how the mad king was a “particularly consistent theme.”  The author stated:

All the various plots and sub-plots trace back to the actions of a literal Mad King. And, throughout the storyline, we are constantly bombarded with the actions and excesses of varying levels of madness and pettiness from those who hold seats of power. 

            Yes, this is one of the enduring tropes of our literature and history and maybe even current geo-politics. 

            I’ve never preached on this passage before, but it has long fascinated me.  Chapter four of the Book of Daniel opens as a letter Nebuchadnezzar is writing “to all peoples, nations, and languages that live through the earth,” informing them of his madness.  The king tells us about a vision he had that terrified him, so he sent for sages and magicians to decipher it for him.  In the dream a watcher had proclaimed “Let his mind be changed from that of a human, and let the mind of an animal be given to him.”  Eventually, Daniel is able to interpret the dream, and he warns the king, that when he is at the height of his power and his glory, he will be cast down, humiliated by insanity, living like a wild animal, because he has not recognized that true sovereignty belongs to God.

            And the story I just read tells us how that happened.  It seems that for seven years Nebuchadnezzar endured this wild, feral state before returning to the throne and authoring the letter printed here in the book of the Hebrew prophet.

            Now, first a historical note.  No independent, non-Biblical record exists of such a period of madness in the life of the actual King Nebuchadnezzar.  We do know that another Babylonian king, Nabonidus, lived in the desert for many years while his son served as regent in his stead. 

            The story also seems to draw upon the Epic of Gilgamesh and the character of Enkidu who lived like a wild animal before he was civilized.  So there are elements of connection between this Biblical story and Babylonian culture.

            Of course whether or not this episode actually happened is not hugely relevant to its role in the Biblical story.

            On the one hand, it would be easy to make fun of this image of the mad king.  The arrogant, cruel king gets his due.  Seems like a version of karma.

            But I also find something poignant in Nebuchadnezzar’s personal account of his own madness, that he is openly sharing with the people of the world.  His description resonates with other first-hand accounts of extreme mental illness—the sense of loss, of despair and hopelessness, of lack of control, of wildness and darkness. 

            And, so, I don’t want to make fun of Nebuchadnezzar and his account of madness. 

            Nebuchadnezzar offers his own interpretation of the episode—that he failed to recognize that God was sovereign and not him.  So the straightforward meaning of this story is clear—that absolute power can corrupt absolutely.  Nebuchadnezzar’s own arrogance and cruelty led to his suffering.

            The overall context of the Book of Daniel seems relevant to this story.

            The book is pretty much divided in half.  The first half is full of strange, wonderful, often funny stories, many of which, like the fiery furnace and the lion’s den, we learned in Sunday school as kids.  In these stories faithful Jews live in exile in Babylon and Persia and deal with persecution at the hands of various rulers. 

            Now, these stories are pretty clearly legends.  In the Hebrew Bible this book is not included either with the historical books or the prophetic books, but rather with the Writings.  If the character of Daniel lived through all the various reigns of all the monarchs mentioned in the stories, he would have been centuries old.  He seems to be a stock figure drawn from ancient folklore.  Other mentions of a legendary Daniel exist.  In the Book of Jubilees we are told he lived in the time before Noah’s flood.  Daniel is mentioned in the literature of the ancient Ugaritic people as “a man from long ago who trusted his gods and was . . . known for his righteousness and wisdom.”  There’s also a Daniel in Canaanite legend.

            So, it seems that the author of the Book of Daniel was crafting stories about a legendary figure to convey some moral truths.  In the same way that stories are told of King Arthur, Paul Bunyan, and many more.

            In fact, every indication is that the Book of Daniel was written centuries after it was set.  And that is made clear in the second half of the book, which contains, not stories, but a series of strange visions, with spectacular monsters.  The second half uses vivid, apocalyptic imagery to convey the imperial history of the ancient Near East, where one empire succeeded another in wars that brought destruction to the people, particularly the Jews.

            The Book of Daniel is most concerned with one evil ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, ruler of the Seleucid empire in the second century before the common era (which is about 400 years after the time of Nebuchadnezzar). 

            Antiochus Epiphanes IV is THE great villain of the Old Testament.  It was he who carried about “the abomination of desolation”—when a pig was sacrificed to Zeus on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Even his name suggests his arrogance—he chose to be styled “Epiphanes,” which means “God Manifest,” as if he were himself the incarnation of God on Earth.  So Antiochus is the actual, historical “mad king” who rejects the sovereignty of God.  Maybe the story of Nebuchadnezzar was written as a warning to him?

            A little history.  The Seleucid Empire was one of the handful of empires that arose from the death of Alexander the Great after his conquest of so much of that part of the world.  You’ll remember that his generals divvied up the various conquered lands and then established their own dynasties.  Antiochus comes late in that history, when these Greek empires are now being challenged by the rising power of Rome. 

            Antiochus becomes embroiled in local Hebrew politics as various figures contend for power in Jerusalem.  And it all gets complicated as to who is bribing whom to gain what office.  All of it eventually leads to the Maccabean Revolt, when the Jews rise up in arms to overthrow their imperial oppressors. 

            But before all of that, Antiochus finally gets so fed up with the Jews that he invades Jerusalem and robs the Temple in order to help pay off his debts to Rome.  And then the next year he invades again, massacring the inhabitants of the city and desecrating the Temple with the offering to Zeus.  He then made it criminal for the people to engage in the worship of God—their Torahs were destroyed, and they could not keep the Sabbath or any of their religious festivals.

            So, it was during this crisis in the life of Judaism that someone put together the book we have in our Bibles with the title of Daniel.  The author wrote the series of visions that is the second half and combined them with an anthology of legends about Jews living faithfully in a much older imperial situation.  These are legends, told to assure Jews living under foreign domination, to encourage them with examples of courage and fidelity.

            What becomes clear, then, is that this entire Book of Daniel is written in the midst of crisis.  And according to scholar C. L. Seow, “In the face of such a crisis of theological confidence, the author of Daniel reconsiders history.”  Both the legendary stories and the apocalyptic visions are reflections on the meaning of history and God’s role in it.  Throughout this book, what we encounter is the age-old battle between good and evil, played out in the courtrooms of various kings and the consciences of people of faith.

            And for someone writing after the massacres and desecrations of Antiochus Epiphanes, wouldn’t it be difficult to remain hopeful or optimistic?  If your religion and culture were banned, wouldn’t it seem that evil had won, and that the future was hopeless?  Why not simply just go mad then, like Nebuchadnezzar? 

            I think the madness of the king is one way the author of this book is reflecting on the crisis in which he lived. 

            What gave me that insight was something C. L. Seow writes in his commentary:

To the author, evil, which seems to dominate this world, has taken on cosmic proportions.  Indeed, creation seems to have been undone, the chaotic monsters of the world seem to have been unleashed once again, and God seems to have lost all dominion.

            If that truly is the state of the world, then wouldn’t we go mad?  Insanity would seem a viable option.

            I read this quote to Stephen Bouma this week as we were working on worship, and he said something to effect of, “Wow!  It’s amazing how much that resonates with now.”  And isn’t that the genius of these ancient stories, and why we continue to read them?  Because they don’t just speak to human experience in the far past, they give us insight into how to live the human condition in our time and our place. 

            Sometimes these days it does seem as if the chaos monsters have been unleashed, that creation is coming undone, that maybe society is going mad.

            Is that what’s really happening?  Is that how we make sense of the times in which we live?  Is that how faithful people should respond to all the news?

            But, that’s not the conclusion this story in the Book of Daniel comes to.  Evil may seem triumphant, but that is only temporary.  God may seem absent, but is working, behind-the-scenes, in history to achieve God’s goals.  We might be insane, but it doesn’t last.  This is only a season.  Truth, justice, and reason will be re-established.

            For the core truth of this story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness, the core theme of the Book of Daniel, and, really, one of the core themes of the entire Bible is that no matter what happens in the ups and downs of human history, God is sovereign, God is with us, and God will see us through.  Things are not always what they seem, and the dark times will not last. 

            Though I’ll have more to say on these themes as we continue in the Book of Daniel the next few weeks, I’ll close today with another quote from scholar C. L. Seow,

People of faith can be assured that the reign of God, even if it is not fully realized in one’s own time and place . . . will never pass away and will never be destroyed.

Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty

Daniel 3:1-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

2 July 2023

            Let’s note a few things about this story.

            For one, it’s a little over-the-top, isn’t it?  Especially how often the author repeats those long lists of the officials present and the musical instruments played.  We get the sense of heightened spectacle.

            Another is how over-the-top the king is.  Leaders often get an inflated sense of self, but King Nebuchadnezzar takes the cake.  In his commentary on the Book of Daniel, Princeton professor C. L. Seow points out that the problem here isn’t really the statue, but Nebuchadnezzar’s demand for submission to his authority.  Seow writes, “Idolatry here is associated with political power.”  The issue isn’t bowing down to the statue as much as it is submitting to the king.  Nebuchadnezzar wants to claim sovereignty that is not his, but, in fact, belongs to God.

            The Book of Daniel is written, again according to Seow, to describe “the experience of faithful Jews under difficult circumstances.”  How do we live as faithful followers of God under a political system that wants us to submit to authority that violates our faith?

            Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego won’t submit.  They refuse to grant to Nebuchadnezzar power over their own consciences that he does not legitimately possess.  They will not accept that he has this authority over them.  And they are willing to go to their own deaths in order to refuse.

            You’ll notice in the story that while they hope to be rescued by God, they are quite clear in saying that even if they burn to death in the fiery furnace, they would rather do that than submit to the will of the king.  What integrity and courage!  And for that, they have served as moral examplars for centuries to folks in similar circumstances—defending freedom of conscience against political powers that try to assume authority that is not theirs.

            Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego make no deal with God ahead of time.  Their faith is not transactional, dependent on God doing something for them.  They are committed to their principles, whatever comes.

            And Seow reveals something interesting about the story—God does not quench the fire, nor does the story even say that God delivers them from the fire.  Rather, the story pictures God present with them in the fire.  That the fire had “no power over” them.  God remains with them, a reliable help and support in the midst of their danger. 

            So, I picked this story especially for today.  As part of our “Good Trouble” series this summer about prophets, rulers, and God’s compassion and justice, I wanted to explore the Book of Daniel, which we’ll be doing for the month of July.  And this story was just right for today, ahead of our Independence Day celebrations, because it affords me an opportunity to talk about religious liberty and the freedom of conscience.

            Back in 1948, my predecessor in this pulpit, the Rev. Dr. Harold Janes, described religious liberty this way:

[The Protestant] is certain that no one religious group or order has a complete insight into all of God’s truth. Each group sees a part of the truth. “We know in part,” as Paul said.  Only as we share our truth with each other is it possible for us to have a growing knowledge of God’s purpose for our lives.  Only as we have freedom to search for that truth, without ecclesiastical or political restrictions, will the Lord be able to reveal that truth unto us, and so the true Protestant declares himself in favor of complete religious liberty and echoes the words of Paul, “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

            Rev. Janes also warned, “We [should not] be deceived by those who claim they are interested in religious liberty when they are only interested in liberty to impose their interpretations of religion upon others.”

            I have returned to these words often, and even quoted them during my advocacy work and in testimony before the state legislature.  They express important truths about our tradition.

            When our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors came to this continent, it was to freely practice their faith. However, once they arrived, they weren’t so good about passing along the same freedom to others. They went to war with the Natives. Burned some they thought were witches.  Tried to force Anne Hutchison to conform to the doctrines of the majority. And ran off Roger Williams, who then established Rhode Island, the first colony devoted to complete religious liberty.

It took a while before our tradition fully embraced religious freedom and its attendant doctrines—disestablishment, separation, governmental neutrality.  But once we did embrace these ideals, they became central to who we are as a people.  Our commitment to religious liberty undergirds our commitment to human rights.  Because we value the rights of conscience—even of those who are different from ourselves—we fought for abolition, Native American rights, the equality of women, reproductive justice, the full inclusion of persons with disabilities, and the equality of the LGBTQ community.

So Roger Williams is the key early American thinker who promoted religious liberty.  For Williams the core problem was how we are to live together in love.  He was troubled by the settlers’ treatment of the Native Americans and by the human tendency to impose the ideas of a majority upon a minority.  Williams was troubled by these things because they violated individual consciences, and he held individual consciences to be “infinitely precious” demanding respect from everyone.  In the strongest language possible Williams declared, “Forcing of conscience is a soul-rape.”  Isn’t that exactly what King Nebuchadnezzar was trying to do to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?

Writing about Roger Williams, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, “Williams thinks of consciences as delicate, vulnerable, living things, things that need to breathe and not to be imprisoned.”  Therefore, it is essential for consciences to have breathing space.  In a just society, everyone will respect each other’s conscience, and give each other space.

Essential to the American tradition is the idea of a public space in which everyone's views are allowed to interact.  For this public space to exist, everyone must be granted equality and mutual respect.  In the public sphere you cannot try to impose your views on someone else.  Instead, you must grant them the respect and the equality that is their fundamental human right.  You must acknowledge their dignity, their conscience.  Religious liberty rests on the ancient principle: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

In the last decade we’ve become familiar with the ways some groups use religious liberty as a fig leaf to cover their attempts to discriminate against other people.  But discrimination, not treating another person with the respect that they are entitled to, refusing equal treatment—these things are direct contradictions of religious liberty.  They are hostile to it.  In the public sphere no one ever has a religious right to discriminate against another human being.  And if you think your religion tells you to discriminate against another human being, then you’ve got this religion thing all wrong.

This year I also noticed another misunderstanding around religious liberty.  As our legislature, and others, legislated the religious views of some groups in our society, they ignored that their actions were often in direct conflict with the teachings of other faith groups.  They were preferring one set of religious doctrines over another, discriminating against people of faith, making it illegal for them to engage in actions that their faith permits, supports, or even requires, and, thereby, violating their consciences, just like King Nebuchadnezzar tried to do. 

Again, as the Rev. Harold Janes warned us in 1948, “We [should not] be deceived by those who claim they are interested in religious liberty when they are only interested in liberty to impose their interpretations of religion upon others.”  On this Independence Day we must denounce these actions for the cruelties and the evils that they perpetuate in direct contradiction to the highest ideals of our nation and our religious heritage. 

Consciences are infinitely precious, delicate, vulnerable, living things, that should not be forced.  To violate the dignity and consciences of our fellow human beings is, as Roger Williams called it, “soul-rape.”  In the current climate, we people of faith must be true to our consciences and true to our God, even when it defies unjust laws, just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

But we cannot wait on politicians to do the right thing.  The task of ensuring the equal liberty of conscience for all falls not to our public officials, but to us.  It is a social practice.  It begins with overcoming selfishness and our human tendency to exclude those who are different from ourselves.  It manifests in kindness and hospitality.  It is guided by humility and generosity.  For it is rooted in the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

You were called to freedom. Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self- indulgence.  Love one another.

For religious liberty, as historically understood, as rooted in the biblical tradition, as enshrined in our Constitution, demands equality of all persons, demands mutual respect of all persons, demands that in the public sphere everyone be treated the same, and demands that our consciences not be violated with presumptuous actions that defy the sovereignty of God.