The Lion’s Den
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.
- 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.