Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for March, 2018

Strategies of Resistance: A Lesson From Daniel


 

Teach us to use the power of our words to tell the story that liberates us all. Amen.

There is more than one way to tell a story, especially a story as important as the Christian story; this also applies to the stories that make up our sacred stories. Today we explore that plurality in a lectionary of my devising, rather revising–because I think there is danger in only re-telling the same stories, no matter how beloved. (The lessons follow the sermon text.)

Among our sacred trove of stories are two versions of the Daniel story–there are even more outside of the Christian canons. One of those canonical stories was preserved in Hebrew and Aramaic by the descendants of the Judeans who survived the Babylonian exile and created the mother text for the Hebrew Bible and the Protestant version of the story. That is the source of our Second Lesson and Canticle. The other canonical story was preserved in Greek by the descendants of the Judeans who fled to Egypt instead. That is the source of our First Lesson. Together those lessons and canticle are in narrative order telling a more complete story.

The book of Daniel is a text of resistance. It is a cagey strategic piece of resistance. It is an anti-imperial text disguised as an anti-imperial text. Empires don’t mind their subjects mocking failed and fallen empires. In their egocentrism they read that calumny as their own praise because they are top dog now. So the cagey authors of Daniel disguised a critique of the lingering and declining Greek Empire in a retroactive critique of the centuries past Babylonian Empire. And they put that critique on the lips and at the pen of Daniel, a beloved figure whose origins were even older than the Babylonian Empire or its predecessor Assyrian Empire or the great dynasties of Egypt, or even the founding of the people of Israel. Daniel was a figure of legend whose stories were told in each generation with new stories added to his canon from time to time. I use the perpetually open canons of the DC and Marvel Comics Universes to explain this phenomenon in my infamous “Santa, Daniel, and the Zombie Apocalypse” lecture.

Today, I invite you to hear the story as as subversive as it really is. In the First Lesson three young people have been taken captive by the empire and forced to assimilate to its culture, made to wear its clothing, eat its food, speak its language, and answer to the names they give them–names which stuck to them even in the stories of their own people. The tentacles of empire reach deep, even into the hearts of people who are working faithfully to decolonialize themselves. It matters that these are young people. In the larger story of Daniel they are taken as children to be assimilated so that they will love the empire that colonized their people more than they love their own selves. Empires have always underestimated young people, whether it was civil rights protestors, dreamers, or high school gun reform activists.

When our lesson begins these young people are being enculturated in the worship of the empire and required to pray to the gods of the empire at the cost of their subjugated, colonized lives. One of the lessons of this text is that empire is rapacious and insatiable. They were already speaking the language of empire. They had already had their names changed from Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But it wasn’t enough. The empire wanted more, more of them, more of their souls.

As long as there is a corner of your soul that is free, uncolonized, unconquered, unbought, and unbossed, empire will by any means necessary seek to uproot that liberty and colonize the last vestige of your right mind, heart, and soul. African and Native Americans know this story all too well as do the indigenous peoples of every nation conquered by an empire. In the face of the empire’s ravenous desire for their abject and total submission, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah clung fast to God of their foremothers and fathers and rejected the empire’s religion.

I’m calling this sermon “Strategies of Resistance,” ours, not theirs, because they didn’t really strategize. They just said no. No to the god of empire. No to its worship and veneration. They didn’t negotiate; they didn’t equivocate. Sometimes we just need to say no to the manifestations of empire in our world. No to the slaughter of school children. No to military grade weaponry in the streets. No to families ripped apart by militarized immigration assault troops. No to bad preaching. No to death-dealing theology. No to violence against women. No to bullying gay and trans teens to death. No to incompetent and corrupt government. No to everything that stands against the life-giving love of God and the liberty it grants. No and hell no.

The empire responded to their rejection of its attempt to colonize their minds, their spirits, their souls, and their ancestral religion with lethal rage. The empire covets good religion. It knows if it gets a toehold in pulpits and pews, seminaries and sanctuaries, books and blogs, texts and tweets, it can sanctify its hierarchies and disparities as the word and will of God. The empire prepared to kill Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. It was to be a spectacle lynching. A spectacle lynching was when good white folk would make an event out of a lynching, bring their sweetheats, wives, children and a basket of goodies to nibble while they watched the show. They’d often set their victims on fire–as Nebuchadnezzar planned to do in the text, pose with their burning corpses, and later cut off pieces of them to take home as souvenirs. Activist-archivist James Allen collected one hundred and forty-five photos of spectacle lynchings in the US, including here in Texas. They are featured in the volume Without Sanctuary which I commend to you. The strategies of resistance required to outlaw lynching lasted well into the twentieth century. Sometimes resistance is an intergenerational struggle.

The most significant strategy of resistance employed by the three young people was to be willing to let the empire spill their blood. Sometimes resistance means being willing to die. Sometimes it means preparing to die. Sometimes it means dying. Sometimes it means rising from the dead–but I’m getting ahead of next week’s story. We are not far from the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination and martyrdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He and many others in the Civil Rights Movement resisted not just segregation but white supremacy with their very lives. White supremacy is a colonizing force that transcends national borders and is every bit as much a manifestation of empire as any nation with imperial imagination and aspirations. The three young people prepared to die in resistance to the empire.

The Hebrew text moves quickly to a story of miraculous deliverance–but not so fast–there is more to the story. The Greek story picks up where the Hebrew one leaves off and fills in the gap. The young people responded to their impending extra-judicial killing with the songs of their ancestors. They sang to the God no empire could strip from them. They told the story of God’s faithfulness to their people. As the empire’s rage burned against them in literal fire they used the breaths they thought would be their last to deny the empire power over them, over their story, and over their song, because our stories and our songs are tools of resistance. The empire set out to destroy this last act of resistance. But something happened when they refused to surrender their heart and minds, songs and prayers, poetry and theology, even if they had to lay their bodies down. God appeared in the midst of the resistance.

The resistance writers used the book of Daniel to tell their people that the empire would not be defeated with the master’s tools. They couldn’t defeat it with military might. They couldn’t defeat it with economic might. But if they kept their minds right and stayed on the God who delivered their ancestors, no empire would ever be able to destroy them, no matter what their political reality. In the words of the gospel, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Our words have power. That is why fascists burn books, ban films, silence scholars, censure artists, and assassinate prophets. They bully and sue, intimidate and obfuscate, and they use their words to rewrite our stories, revise our histories and stamp their image on our art and culture. And they lie. They lie about us. They lie about our culture. They lie about our history. They lie about God. With their lies they construct a god who is not God and expect us to bow down and worship it.

But these young activists on the page and the older activists behind the pen have shown us how to resist: Don’t let the empire tell you who you are. Don’t let the empire assimilate you into its culture. Don’t let the empire tell you your cultural and culinary practices are inferior. Don’t let the empire clothe you–body or mind. Don’t let the empire tell you who God is. Don’t let the empire use your life to advertise its glory. Resistance is not futile. But resistance is costly. We follow one who resisted empire to the cost of his life and we are called to do the same. How much more ought we be willing to put our lives on the line knowing the promise of resurrection than those young people, literal or literary, who were willing to go to a death from which they had no sure promise of escape? Amen.

Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Collect: Almighty God, Mother and Father to us all, renew in us the gifts of your tender love; increase our faith, strengthen our hope, enlighten our understanding, widen our imaginations, grant us grace in giving, and make us ready to serve you; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and everAmen.

First Lesson Daniel 3:14-20, 24-29 (New English Translation of the Septuagint, adapted)*

Daniel 3:14 So when King Nebuchadnezzar saw them, he said to them, “O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, for what reason do you not serve my gods and do not do obeisance to the gold image, which I have set up? 15 And now, if you are now prepared, as soon as you hear the horn and all the sounds of musical instruments to fall down and do obeisance to the gold image that I set up… But if not—know that if you do not do obeisance, you will be thrown immediately into the furnace blazing with fire, and what god will deliver you out of my hands?”

16 But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, we have no need to answer you about this command, 17 for there is God who is in heaven, our one Sovereign, whom we fear, who is able to deliver us from the furnace of fire, and out of your hands, O king, he will deliver us. 18 And then it will be clear to you, that we will neither serve your idol nor will we do obeisance to your gold image, which you have set up.”

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with anger, and the form of his face was distorted against them. And he ordered that the furnace be heated sevenfold more than it was necessary for it to be heated 20 and ordered very strong men, who were in his command, after they had tied those with Azariah, to throw them into the furnace blazing with fire…

24 So, therefore, Hananiah and Azariah and Mishael prayed and sang hymns to the Sovereign God, when the king ordered them to be thrown into the furnace. 25 Then Azariah stood and prayed in this way. And he opened his mouth, and he acknowledged the Sovereign God together with his companions in the middle of the fire, while the furnace was being heated exceedingly by the Chaldeans, and he said:

26 Blessed are you, Holy One, God of our ancestors,
and praiseworthy and glorified is your name forever!
27 For you are just in all you have done for us,
and all your works are genuine and your ways right,
and all your judgments are genuine.
28 And you have executed true judgments in all you have brought upon us
and upon Jerusalem, your holy city of our ancestors,
because in truth and judgment you have done all these things because of our sins.

Canticle 13 A Song of Praise Benedictus es, Domine:

Song of the Three Young Men, (Daniel 3:29–34, Septuagint, Book of Common Prayer adapted) *

Glory to you, Holy God of our mother and fathers;
you are worthy of praise; glory to you.
Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name;
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple;
on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim;
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you, beholding the depths;
in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.
Glory to you, Creator God, Crucified God, and Comforting God;
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Second Lesson: Daniel 3:24-29 (New Revised Standard Version)*

Daniel 3:24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25 He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. 28 Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent God’s own angel and delivered the servants of God servants who trusted in God. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.

Gospel: John 8:31-42 (New Revised Standard Version)*

John 8:31 Then Jesus said to the Judeans who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. 38 I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”

39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, 40 but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but God sent me.

*Person and place name spellings from the NRSV are used throughout along with inclusive language and redress for other linguistic issues. The Canticle includes the addition of a Christian doxology for its use in liturgies. Inclusive language is used there as well.


A New Covenant, Enduring Faithfulness

In the name of the faithful God who has redeemed us, Amen.

The days are surely coming, says the Holy One, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Jeremiah 31:31

It is almost impossible for Christians to not read the new covenant in Jeremiah 31 as the new relationship between God and humanity inaugurated by Jesus or as the New Testament. We just can’t help ourselves. The disciples and early church read the Hebrew Bible in light of and looking for Jesus. Jesus himself is recorded as speaking tantalizingly about the ancient scriptures referring to him but he didn’t say how. Did he mean as himself, Jesus ben Mary; did he mean as the God who is ever present in the text?

There is a real temptation to read prophetic texts as predictive and only predictive. But that misses the contemporary ministry prophets offered in their own time: speaking to the current circumstances in which folk found themselves. When we start by reading ourselves into the text we miss or even erase the faithfulness of God to her people across time. We need the witness and promise of that faithfulness. We need to know that God will be faithful because God has been faithful.

God makes this promise of a new covenant to Israel and Judah at a specific moment in history. The period in which Jeremiah 31:31-34 is set might well be called a post-apocalyptic horror-scape. I’m not certain hearers of this text always understand what all is implied by the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, deportations, and exile of Israel Judah because we in the US do not have the experience of sustained warfare on our shores. To understand this text, envision the news accounts of the war in Syria: rubble and destruction everywhere, smoking ruins everywhere else except those things that are already on fire, brutal executions, bodies in the streets, even the targeting of children to terrorize the population, starving, desperate people.

Jeremiah is addressing the decimation of Israel by the Assyrians a century earlier followed by the Babylonian invasion and its aftermath in his own time. His message is that Israel will be made whole. God had not forgotten, even though their near annihilation by the Assyrians was unresolved, even though the Babylonians had now savaged the remnant that was left.

The nation was broken. Jeremiah, like many in his time, blamed all of Israel’s misfortunes on them; it was all their fault because they were sinners. Unfortunately that theology didn’t die with him. Yet, Jeremiah did get something right. He knew that God was faithful. He knew that God’s desire for her people was wholeness. He also came to know that nothing Israel did justified the brutality they experienced. That theology inevitably fails, usually when the person blaming others suffers some misfortune they know they did not bring upon themselves.

And Jeremiah knew the brokenness of the world wouldn’t be made whole overnight. In the verses before the ones we read, Jeremiah describes how it will be: The land that was ravaged will be replanted, human and non-human life will thrive. Seasons of planting and harvesting, and of construction and reconstruction will replace the seasons of terror and devastation Israel had experienced.

It is in this context that God says: I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God’s covenant with Israel is torah, which means teaching more than it does law. This constitution, if you will, was not a document signed by founding fathers or first mothers; it was a covenant with God. Now God says: I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. (Jer 31:31)

Some may hear “another” covenant in the “new” covenant but God isn’t throwing out the Torah, the teaching, the laws that distinguished Israel to some degree from other nations. Rather God is doubling down on it: I will put my torah, my teaching, my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:33) The tablets on which God had written the prologue to the first covenant were gone. Their shattered pieces were kept in the Ark of the Covenant and no one had seen that since the Babylonians assaulted the temple with axes and with fire.

To these broken and devastated people who had lost all of their institutions of statehood and peoplehood–monarchy and worship, liturgy, and sanctuary–Jeremiah offers a word of hope. The nation, which is also the religious community of the faithful, will be reconstituted. They will be rebuilt, reborn. They are getting a second chance. Jeremiah’s prophecy was good news to his people living in the last tribal enclave of Israel after the Assyrians demolished every tribe outside of Judah, good news to those deported by them, and good news to those who survived the Babylonian onslaught. And it is good news to us, even though we are not in the same circumstances.

Because scripture is living, it is pluripotent and can do more than one thing. It testifies to God’s faithfulness in the past, and promises the surety of that continued faithfulness in our time and beyond. Jeremiah describes a world in which people who saw their nation ripped apart, their fellow citizens deported, their families torn asunder, their economy ruined, and another nation ruling them through a puppet they installed. I know Jeremiah has something to say to us in our time: God will be faithful because God has been faithful.

It is these values, the trustworthiness and power of God to redeem and restore that the evangelists saw as contiguous with the life and teaching of Jesus. In short, Jeremiah does not so much predict Jesus, (though he and his writings may); rather the text renders a portrait of the God whom Jesus incarnates. This God embodied in Jesus stands against empires and their domination. The Assyrian Empire fell. The Babylonian Empire that replaced it fell. The Persian Empire that replaced it fell. The empire of Alexander the Great that replaced it fell. The Roman Empire that succeeded it fell. The Holy Roman Empire fell. The Byzantine Empire fell. The Ottoman Empire fell. The sun set on the British Empire. Imperial power is based on subjugation, the antithesis of the liberty God offers through Jesus. Empires fall and we as Americans need to take heed.

The backs of tyrants and their empires will be broken. But the people ground into the dirt by them, and even those who have served them are the people whom Jesus draws to himself, even as the empire of his age put him to death: Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:31-32)

The ancient Israelites and Judeans partnered with God in their restoration. They lived into the covenant that was the teaching of God, passing it down to every generation that followed. We are watching things change around us, with the echoes of their testimony in scripture in our ears. And we can see the workings of empires no longer limited to nations states in the way in which peoples are treated, subjugated, used for cheap labor, and discarded. Now as then, God calls us back to the commandments, the teachings, the torah, the law of God, not just in our ears or before our eyes, but engraved upon the tablets of our hearts.

While God rights the world, restoring all that is broken and Jesus draws all–no exceptions, all–to him, we are called to live that covenant, its commandments, teachings, and laws. For God will not right the world by a sweep of a divine hand; we will feed the poor, house and clothe the homeless, work for peace between people and nations, leaving only the impossible up to God. The possible, the difficult, the undesirable; that is all our work.

In this season of Lent we start our services with that covenant to remind ourselves and recommit ourselves to this covenant: We will have no other gods but God. We will not make anything an idol. We will not dishonor the Name of God. We will honor the sanctity of the Sabbath. We will honor our parents. We will not break faith with our beloveds and we will honor the sacrament of marriage. We will not steal. We will not lie. We will not covet our neighbor’s possessions or position. We will love our neighbors as ourselves. (Ex 20:3-17; Lev 19:18) We affirmed this covenant when we said, “Amen, God have mercy.” We were saying, “God have mercy on us if we fail to uphold this covenant.” We say that, because we know that we will fail and we trust in God to have mercy.

We trust in God’s love, faithfulness, and mercy, and in her promise. I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Amen.