Exiles and Citizens, (July 4th) – 7/4/10 – Jeremiah 29:4-7, Daniel 3

Earlier this year Goshen College in Indiana made the controversial decision of choosing to play the national anthem before sporting events on campus.  The specific decision was to play an instrumental version of the anthem, followed by a prayer.  The controversy for many, before this, was that Goshen wasn’t playing the national anthem at any sporting events.  In 2008 a local man attended a basketball game on campus and later asked the college athletic director why the national anthem wasn’t played.  The athletic director told him about Goshen’s policy, that it was committed to being a good citizen but that it felt the national anthem celebrated a violent aspect of the nation that the college did not wish to support.  This man then contacted various talk show hosts and the issue was picked up by the New York based Mike Gallagher show, eighth in the nation in audience size, who challenged the college and encouraged listeners to call on the school to have the policy changed.

The college had already been discerning the policy and, after continued meetings and conversation arrived early this year at its current policy – an instrumental national anthem followed by prayer.  Which has led to continued controversy, only now mostly from Mennonite/Anabaptist minded circles.  Here are a couple statements offering opposing views:

Goshen College President Jim Brenneman said this:  “We are a college owned by Mennonite Church USA, and we have a diverse student body that comes from 40 different Christian denominations, several world religions, 35 states and 25 countries and all races and ethnicities. We believe being faithful followers of Jesus calls us to regularly consider how to be a hospitable and diverse community…. Playing the anthem offers a welcoming gesture to many visiting our athletic events, rather than an immediate barrier to further opportunities for getting to know one another….We believe playing the anthem in no way displaces any higher allegiances, including to the expansive understanding of Jesus — the ultimate peacemaker — loving all people of the world.”

An online petition, titled “Resistance to the national anthem at Goshen College,” initiated by the Anabaptist group Jesus Radicals says this: “At the heart of the national anthem is a message that glorifies war and violence for one nation’s benefit. These themes are inherent in the words themselves—”the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”— and they are inherent to the ways in which the anthem is used to inspire patriotic fervor. The very habit of playing the song before sporting events arises out of the World War II era, when baseball became a stage for nationalistic displays. The fact that the anthem has since become a pre-game ritual for most sports should not distract Christians—especially those who are committed to Christ’s way of peace—from the anthem’s meaning or its history.  In an attempt to be “hospitable” to American patriots, we believe Goshen College’s decision rejects a higher call to be a transnational body that resists the boundaries set by nations.”

This year the fourth of July, the day that we honor and celebrate the creation of our nation, falls on the day of the week that we honor and celebrate our Creator.  Whether than wishing you simply a Happy Fourth of July, I would like to wish all of us a Conflicted Fourth of July!  Because, as we take our faith to heart, our allegiance to the way of Jesus, our citizenship in the kingdom of God, we recognize that this raises difficult questions that put us in a conflicted position regarding our citizenship in a nation state.  And this is something that would be acknowledged by both sides of the above debate.  Each one recognizes this inherent conflict, or tension, between faithfulness to the way of Jesus and the worldwide fellowship that he called into being, and our status as members of this country with the rights and responsibilities that this involves. 

The college plans to review the policy in June 2011, so if you have strong feelings or a constructive suggestion send them a letter.

The conflicted nature of citizenship is one that is borne out throughout Scripture.  This comes to the fore especially during the time exile – after the children of Israel had come up out of Egypt, had had their own nation and king for several centuries, and then are carried away into exile, living under the control of another nation – first the empire of Babylon, then Persia, then the Greeks and Romans who were running the show during and beyond Jesus’ time.  During this extended period all of these questions about what it means to be faithful to God within the state become front and center, and it becomes a significant theme that gets visited repeatedly in the biblical record, with multiple perspectives given.

What I’d like to do is look at two passages that highlight the pull going on here.  Both of them come out of the experience of exile, but offer different kinds of counsel. 

The first is from the third chapter of the book of Daniel, the story we call Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the Fiery Furnace, but is just as much about King Nebuchadnezzar and the Golden Statue.  

The first half of Daniel chapter three revolves around the presence of this massive statue that Nebuchadnezzar has erected.  (V.1) “King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits (about 90 feet) and whose width was six cubit (about 9 feet); he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.”  The king sent for all his officials and governors across the empire to be present at the dedication of this statue.  And when they gather, the herald proclaims, (V.4) “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.  Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.”  We’re not told exactly what or who this was a statue of.  From ancient historians and modern archeologists we know that the ancient world had various giant colossi that were both forms of art and symbols of imperial authority.  The text isn’t concerned about that part of the detail – whether it was a statue of the king, a god, or something else.  What we know is that this statue is huge, it is beautiful, shiny, it is to be worshipped.  For all the far flung peoples of the vast empire it is meant to inspire the kind of awe the leads to allegiance.  Which is what worship is.  Awe that leads to allegiance.  This is the same thing we do in church when we read Psalms that speak of being in awe of the wonders of God.  It’s not a matter of if we worship, but what we worship.  The king demands worship of the statue, and unanimity is required.  Dissent will not be tolerated.  Should anyone choose to not worship in this way, they will be killed in order to make it a unanimous crowd.

Because this statue does not have a specific face, of Zeus, or Bel, or Jupiter, it enables it to be this broad symbol for what the Bible refers to simply as idolatry.  And this story presents the empire, the state, as an object of idolatry.  It’s never just about the golden statue.  It’s never just about the flag or the anthem or any other object or sign.  It’s about allegiance and awe and worship and what we gather around that unites us.  King Nebuchadnezzar says, “If you’re not with me, you’re against me.”  So in this kind of setting, dissent is perceived as a great threat, because it cracks the façade of the absolute righteousness of the cause of the empire.  

Well, as every Sunday school graduate knows, Shadrach, Meshac, and Abegnego refuse to bow down.  In their own words, when they are facing the flames of the furnace, they say, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter.  If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let God deliver us.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

As it turns out, God does deliver them, and the king undergoes a conversion – sort of.  The king sees that they have miraculously lived through the flames, is in awe of this, and makes a decree: “Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins.”  So, he’s convinced that there may be a power greater than his own kingdom, but he’s got a ways to go on the whole nonviolent love thing.

The nation-state holds tremendous potential to be an object of idolatry.  Where we put our trust.  Our worship.  Something for which we’re not only willing to give our own life, but take the life of others in order to uphold.  Take great caution, this story seems to be saying, but also have hope.  Even torturous flames cannot kill the witness of those who choose to serve a higher power.

Another perspective comes from the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah had his career during the time when the Babylonian exile was happening, so he is prophesying and writing right in the midst of all this turmoil.  He’s still in Jerusalem himself, but he knows that his people are being carried away and that their world has been shattered through this experience.  And so he writes them a letter – from Jerusalem to Babylon, addressed to the elders, the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar has carried off into exile.  And his words, his counsel, has a decidedly different tone than that of Daniel.  To those longing for their homeland, to those wondering what to make of this life they have now been forced to live, Jeremiah writes: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  The word translated here as welfare is the Hebrew “Shalom,” that beautiful word that can mean peace, salvation, health.  Shalom is holistic well-being, personal and communal.  Seek the shalom of the place where you are, for in its shalom, you will find your shalom. 

The stark contrast of separation between the empire and God’s faithful in the Daniel story here becomes a picture of integration.  You cannot separate your own well-being from the well-being of the place of which you are now a citizen. 

The exiles are to invest in the health of their new city, and to do this for generations to come.  Build houses.  Develop real estate.  Make an investment in the neighborhood.  Plant gardens.  Improve the soil of your backyard.  Invest time and energy into the earth.  Have children.  Raise them up.  Give them education and meaningful work as adults and then give them in marriage and they will also have children, and raise them up.  If there’s one thing that makes you want to invest in the shalom of the neighborhood it’s having relationship with children who will inherit this world that we give them.

Jeremiah says, make a home in the heart of the empire.  Live such that the shalom of your family is inseparable from the shalom of the city.  We might call this being a good citizen.  Patriotism at its best.  Loving our neighborhood and doing what we can to make it a better place.           

And so we have these two pieces of counsel from scripture.  The caution of idolatry from Daniel and the encouragement for shalom-seeking from Jeremiah.  We are given this dual identity being both exiles and citizens.  Not at home, yet at home. 

We started by talking about the national anthem, so I’ll move toward a close by mentioning the pledge of allegiance, on which Anabaptist minded Christians also have various practices.

By way of offering an example, in trying to navigate this dual identity, the practice that I’ve come to adopt goes something like this:  When the pledge is being recited I stand respectfully with others, look at the flag, but do not put my hand over my heart.  As others are saying the pledge I remain silent but do pray for our country and for the world.  And then I do say the last part of the pledge along with everyone else “with liberty and justice for all,” which feels like a kingdom of God kind of principle with which I can fully agree. 

You may have another practice, or you may not have thought about it much.  I encourage you and your household, your friends, to talk about this and how it relates to your faith in God and this tension between being a citizen and being an exile.  

I leave you with the work of reconciling these two pieces of counsel; Daniel and Jeremiah.  Not just regarding the national anthem or pledge, but in all related matters.   Being in a conflicted position, always needing to check in with scripture and one another and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as to how to be both a Christian and a citizen of a superpower nation.       

Happy Conflicted Fourth of July.


Life in the Apocalypse – 11/15/09 – Daniel 7, Mark 13

Tuesday’s Enquirer carried a number of letters to the editor regarding people’s responses to the health care bill passed just a few days before by the House of Representatives.  Here are some voices of those who spoke out against bill:    

“If the government takes over health care with everything else it now controls, the free market will not be able to compete (and) the government (will make) us taxpayers pay for its follies and mistakes.  Our Constitution is stealthily being eroded.”

“So the House has passed legislation called health care reform.  This is a 2000 page misnomer.  The real name should be health care control.  Wake up America!  Your freedoms are being stolen right under your noses.” 

“This is just the sort of big government our Founding Fathers sought to avoid.  Today they would, like I, fear for our rights and our Republic.”

Several weeks from now, on December 6th, world leaders will gather for the United Nations Climate Summit, in Copenhagen, to discuss how nations can better address issues of climate change.    

Here is a quote from a person speaking on behalf of the Global Climate Campaign which is organizing to urge world leaders to act quickly on this matter:  “The current financial crisis does not absolve world leaders from their responsibility towards the literally billions of people, mainly from the world’s poorest communities, who are likely to perish if climate change remains unchecked. Frustration is boiling over at the years of failure to achieve meaningful international action on climate even as the evidence that we are on the brink of an unprecedented and irreversible catastrophe mounts.  On Saturday December 5th, people from all around the world will be saying that the time is now for world leaders to take decisive action to avert a global calamity” Link HERE

I’m going on a hunch here, but my guess is that if these global warming activists and the health care protesters were to get in the same room that they wouldn’t agree on a whole lot.  In fact, it could get ugly, fast.  But from their comments on these two separate important issues, there is a common thread that at least brings them together on a most basic agreement.  Did you hear it?  Our Constitution is being eroded, I fear for our Republic, must take action to avert a global calamity.  There is a shared sense that the world as they know it and love it, is in grave danger.  A sense that the fabric of society, or even creation, is stretched to the point of almost tearing, perhaps holding on by just a thread which could break any minute.  If we listen to both deeply enough, we’ll find a common conviction that we are on the brink of disaster and that there must be an intervention to stop the whole thing from falling apart.        

Lots of people can agree that we’re living in apocalyptic times, we just have different thoughts about what are the signs of the apocalypse.

What I’d like to do is to start from the assumption that this intuition is a correct one and that we are indeed living in apocalyptic times.  What if these times, our generation, this point in history, is an apocalyptic moment and we find ourselves right in the middle of it all?  I want to try it out and see what things look like if we 1) accept that we are living in apocalyptic times, and 2) let go of what we think that may mean and open ourselves to rereading scripture to listen for what in the world it may say about such a time and such a life.  This will be a theme that keeps coming up as we move into Advent and the texts that prepare us for the coming of Christ into the world and the apocalyptic preaching of John the Baptist, so today can be an introduction into life in the apocalypse! 

Apocalypse has come to be another way of saying the end of the world, the end of life as we know it, by some cataclysmic event of nature or human initiated war and destruction.  I looked up some recent movies that have apocalyptic themes like The Matrix, Deep Impact, and Armageddon and realized that they were all released in the late 90’s, so maybe the apocalypse already happened ten years ago on a Hollywood stage set and we somehow missed it.  Although it looks like this new movie 2012 is reviving the theme, so maybe we’re just a little over two years away from apocalypse.

The shaking of the heavens and earth is a part of where apocalyptic thinking has come from, but involves quite a bit more than that.

Between the years 200 BCE and 300 CE, approximately, the Jewish world produced various documents that we now call apocalyptic literature.  What this literature holds in common is that it is being written by a minority group experiencing persecution, to the point of being overwhelmed by the forces arrayed against them.  The experience of oppression and was so strong that the only hope for salvation was a divine intervention that would overturn the order of the present world and set things in order as they should be.  General historical progress toward a better world was no longer an imaginable possibility.  Evil would be defeated, unjust kings would be destroyed, and the righteous would be justified in their faithfulness to the ways of justice and the right path.  The mind of the ancient imagination connected the great power of kingdoms and tyrants with the power of the stars and the sun, the social order mirrored in the cosmic order, so the shaking of the thrones of the powerful also meant the shaking of the heavenly bodies.  Isaiah 24 has apocalyptic words, “On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth…Then the moon will be abashed, and the sun ashamed; for the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem.”

One of the early apocalyptic writings, the book of Daniel, rose out of Jewish persecution under the 2nd century BCE Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes who desecrated the temple.  By this time the Jews had lived under the reign of the Babylonians, who exiled them, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks.  It was not a short, temporary loss of national sovereignty as had been hoped for.  It was centuries.  Generation after generation.  In a dream, in chapter 7 of Daniel, Daniel sees four beasts, each corresponding to one of these empires.  Each beast is stronger than the one before it and each more destructive.  After seeing the beasts, the text says this: “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being (a son of man) coming with the clouds of heaven, and he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  To this one was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”  So right in the midst of his apocalyptic times, which had been ruled by beasts, Daniel envisions one like a human being who is given the thrown – coming with the clouds of heaven.  Sounds sort of like thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  The beasts are defeated, God intervenes by raising up one with a human heart, who humanizes the systems that had been oppressing people, and this is the one who reigns for ever and ever.  And soon after, in the same chapter, Daniel identifies this Human One as the righteous of Israel, the holy ones.  In the midst of empire ruled by beasts, Daniel assures the people that the Human One, the son of man, is coming.    

Writings like this continued on up to and beyond the life of Jesus.  If you want to know more about apocalyptic literature you should take John Kampen out for breakfast sometime and ask him what all he has learned in his studies of this!  Jesus was living in apocalyptic times, only this time the hope of Daniel had been delayed and yet another empire, another beast, had risen up, this time the Roman Empire.  And again Jews found themselves as a persecuted minority.  The book of Revelation is part of this apocalyptic literature and kind of picks up where Daniel left off in some ways and talks about this new beast of Rome that is now the source of so much hardship for the people of God. 

Mark 13 is an apocalyptic chapter and is one of the key places where we can take our cues for how Jesus interprets apocalypse not only with his words, but also with his life.  Because apocalyptic consciousness was there in Jesus time, he’s not inventing this language, it’s already part of the day’s lingo.  So he uses the language of the day to tweek and alter and shape perception of life in the apocalypse, taking it as a given that that generation was living in apocalyptic times – that there were powerful forces working to the harm of the people – forces that needed to be overthrown, or stopped, or defeated in some way.  And like anyone trying to wade through the troubled waters of apocalypse, Jesus enters into this conversation carefully but also purposefully and with direction.

He approaches apocalypse in a way that lines up with the root meaning of the world.  Apocalypse, apocalypsis in Greek, means to unveil, to reveal.  To peak behind the curtain, in a sense, and see things as they really are.  Who’s really running the show.  So Dorothy and the scarecrow and the tin man and the lion are on an apocalyptic journey in their encounter with the Wizard of Oz.  And it’s not as they or anyone supposed.

Mark 13 begins this way: “As he (Jesus) came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’  Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

Ever since entering Jerusalem on the back of a colt, back in chapter 11, Jesus had been teaching in the temple.  His interaction with the scribe about the greatest commandment, and his words about the scribes and the widow that Dustin spoke to last week all happened in the temple.  The temple and the area around it had undergone a massive construction project, sort of the economic stimulus of the day, by Herod the Great.  It was built to impress and produce awe.  Some of those stones from the retaining wall of the temple are still there in Jerusalem at the Western wall, the wailing wall, and they are indeed massive and impressive.  We might think of walking through Times Square in Manhattan and being in awe of the lights and towering buildings rising all around us.  So when the disciples walk out with Jesus, they comment on the massive stones and buildings all around them.

Jesus then speaks with apocalyptic language.  Do you see all this?  All this which looks so powerful and dominating and secure?  Don’t be so mesmerized.  All of these buildings will be thrown down.  One gift of apocalyptic knowledge is that we are given the gift of disillusionment.  Herod’s temple, Herod’s city, the rule of Rome, the iron fist of the emperor, carried with it an air of immortality and invincibility.  This is the potential illusion for anyone living in apocalyptic times.  That the system will hold us fast forever, that the structure is too big to fail, that these stones which we carried and formed and set in place with our own hands and our own technology can never be moved or shaken.  Worship and faith are energies that we can often direct at things which are not God, and Jesus seems to be saying ‘don’t do it.’   The order of the world is much more fragile than you think.  Don’t live under the illusion and the hypnotic trance of such things.  I have a better place for you to focus your energy.

Well, since Jesus brings up an apocalyptic kind of conversation the disciples seem all of a sudden eager to go in this direction.  OK, Jesus, since you brought it up, when is it all going to go down?  When is the fire going to burn it all up, the colliding comet going to blow it all to smithereens, the revolution going to topple the king?

Here’s how this is put in the rest of the Mark 13 passage that was read: “When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’  Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”      

It’s more than a little unfortunate that these words have been taken to mean pretty much the opposite of what Jesus is trying to communicate here.  The disciples asked “when” and “what are the signs.”  Jesus lists typical apocalyptic imagery and expectations – the wars, the famines, the earthquakes – and basically says “these aren’t the signs.”  Do not be alarmed.  These things aren’t the end of the world, this is more like the beginning of birth pains than the actual birth of anything.  Beware.  Don’t be led astray.  This isn’t what you’re to be watching for.  Stop being mesmerized by the massive buildings, because they’re not invincible.  And stop thinking that wars and earthquakes mean it’s the end of the world – that they have some kind of sacred meaning.  Let me teach you where to look, Jesus seems to be saying.

This is actually the last Sunday that I’ll be preaching on the Year B lectionary cycle, the Year of the Gospel of Mark.  Next Sunday will be Thanksgiving Sunday and people will be sharing their gratitude and the Sunday after that begins Advent, the beginning of a new church year, Year C and Luke’s gospel.

So since we’re finishing up with Mark, I feel compelled to go out with a bang and mention that according to Mark, the world has already come to an end.  Mark narrates the apocalypse and its not to be missed.  Later in chapter 13 Jesus echoes the words of Daniel – that the sun will be darkened and the stars will be falling from the heavens, and then you will see ‘the Son of Man, the Human One, coming in the clouds with great power and glory.’  And Jesus says to his generation “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” and he ends the apocalyptic discourse by saying “Therefore keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn…Keep awake.”  And Mark goes on to narrate the end of the world, the coming of the Human One, the master of the house, “in the evening” when Jesus eats with his disciples and gives them the new covenant of bread and cup, and the disciples fails to keep awake in Gethsemane, “at midnight,” when he is betrayed by Judas, “at cockcrow,” when he is denied by Peter, and “at dawn” when he is tried and crucified, and when the sun is darkened over the whole land, and Jesus dies on the cross.

It’s the end of the world, the apocalyptic moment unveils, reveals everything, and the curtain (of the temple) is torn down the middle and we get to glimpse behind.

So if the world has ended, what exactly is it we’re doing now?  If the apocalypse has been fulfilled and the veil has been removed, what is it we’re supposed to see?  The nonviolent defeat of evil?  The coming of the Human One?  Where is it?  Do you see it?  Are we keeping awake?

In these apocalyptic times, when the structures are teetering, when creation is groaning, we can fix our eyes not just on what appears to be fragile and threatening to collapse, but also on the Coming of the Human One.  On the new world that is already coming into being.  On resurrection.  On ways that the Human One is already coming to life around us, already reigning from the throne.  In this generation in these apocalyptic times, already seeing signs of the kingdom of God coming on earth as in heaven.     

Thanks be to God.


Following Jesus In A World That Is Not, Pt. 2 – 2/15/09 – Daniel 2

On the day of President Obama’s inauguration, I came home for an early lunch and started flipping through the channels to see what all was being talked about leading up to the event.  I stopped on NBC that had Brian Williams speaking with an African American scholar about what the day meant for the black community in America.  He was going over some of the history of the black experience in the US, speaking about how blacks have become accustomed to being on the outside of the power structures, and how this has played a significant role in African American culture and black churches, many of which have taken on a prophetic role in calling the nation to act more justly.  He then said something that I thought was a perfect summary of what so many must have been feeling and continue to feel about Obama’s presidency.  He said, “Black people aint used to being ‘the man.’”  “The man” is the bad guy, the one holding you down, the one who carries the weight of responsibility for the messed up system that keeps harming people.  The powerful against the powerless.  So what do you do when one who identifies so closely with your own tradition is now “the man”?  What happens when the prophet becomes the king?  This scholar was celebrating Obama’s inauguration, and also adding a note of humility in saying that he really didn’t know what this meant.         

Consider: power.  Power over.  The power to control outcomes.  Decision making power.  Power to change laws, to guide institutions, to shape media.  Power to influence people of influence.  Power to purchase, to consume or not to consume.  Power to give and to take, to bind and to release.  The power of having options.

Christianity, as Anabaptists have understood it, carries with it a dynamic, paradoxical notion of power.  We take note that at the time when expectations were the absolute highest for the dominating kind of power people expected Jesus to display, he taught his inner circle of followers: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them; and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves.  Is it not the one at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.”  (from Mark 10 and Luke 22)

The way that we understand church history says that the early church, for the most part, got it.  They weren’t perfect.  It wasn’t some glorified golden age when everything was as it should be, but, for the most part, as an overall principle, the church got this teaching.  The absolutely revolutionary idea that a crucified man could be an expression of ultimate power, the triumph of God over the powers of evil, rippled out from Jerusalem into the far reaches of the Roman Empire, with these rapidly growing number Christians making the outlandish claims the Jesus, rather than Caesar, was Lord – that this Christ had overcome the principalities and powers, not by violent force of arms, but by nonviolent force of truth and love.  That the lamb was worthy of honor and worship and that the beast of empire had been defeated.  The entire New Testament — Paul’s writings, John’s Revelation and his letters, Peter, and other writers — is, in very large part, the beginnings of trying to work out just what in the world all this could mean.  Trying to put words, language, metaphors to this reality that was only beginning to take hold in the human imagination.  Paul refers to it at one point as “the foolishness of the cross.”  The weakness of the cross becomes the symbol of power, rather than the supposed strength of the sword.  Power is turned upside down, or, better yet, that which had been turned upside down, distorted and disformed, has been turned back onto its feet. 

The point at which much of this changed for the church was in the fourth century when the Roman emperor Constantine, the one who held the reigns of the beast itself, was converted to Christianity and began a pattern of emperors claiming the Christian religion.  Over the next century the church made the dramatic shift from being a persecuted minority, to a tolerated minority, to a persecuting majority.  At low points in this history the cross became synonymous with the sword, carrying banners with crosses on them into war to conquer the unbelieving heathens.  The church did not do well with its first taste of ruling power.  Forced baptism at the point of a sword is not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said to go and make disciples of all nations.

As I understand it, the reason our denomination is working through this National Identity Resolution is that we find ourselves living in a precarious situation.  We find ourselves occupying two worlds at the same time.  On the one hand, we are followers of Jesus, the one who taught us to carry our cross, figuratively, and sometimes rather literally, in that we recognize the difficulty of this life that we are called to.  That all this so often goes against the flow.  That we believe that love and truth does carry power, and we submit ourselves to that power.  On the other hand, we are citizens of a super power nation.  Whether we like it or not, ask for it or not, we occupy a privileged place on the global scene.  Our actions are felt, directly and indirectly by other people, other nations, the planet itself.   In other words, we’re trying to navigate our way through a dual identity.  We are the servant, and the one who sits at the table.  We are the prophet and the king.    

The Anabaptist Mennonite tradition has done fairly well in the first area.  We have a developed theology of the cross.  We emphasize service, loving our neighbor, doing good even if it is costly.  We are a martyr tradition, from the underside of the power structure.  We don’t have such a strong theology of power.  How to live with power.  How to use power.  How to accept the opportunities of power, with the responsibilities that that brings.  We could do better in developing our understanding of how our power is an extension of God’s power in the world and how that shapes how we use power.  Power is not inherently evil, otherwise that puts God in a pretty rough place.  Power is inherently… powerful, and humanity often exercises the twisted upside down power rather than the power that Christ displayed.

This summer the Mennonite World Conference, which happens every six years and is a gathering of Anabaptist related groups from around the world, is being held in Paraguay.  So the Mennonite Church in Paraguay has been a topic of various articles and essays recently.  One of the things being talked about is how the wife of the recent President of Paraguay was a member of a Mennonite Church.  The President asked a number of Mennonites to serve in his cabinet, and, when they showed reluctance, he told them that they were good at criticizing the government, but now he was giving them a chance to help make the government better.  A number of Mennonites ended up serving at cabinet level positions under this President Nicanor Duarte Frutos between 2003 and 2008, and helped stabilize that nation’s economy.  This conference is something I’ll be attending and I’m looking forward to learning more about these experiences of the Paraguayan Mennonite community and how this experience of political power has influenced them. 

Even though we tend to emphasize the theology of the cross, New Testament, part of the Bible, Scripture contains both a theology of the cross and a theology of power.  At it’s core, the Bible is very much a story told from the perspective of those on the underside of power, and a recognition that waxes and wanes throughout the story that the God of the Universe, the Creative Breath of Life, is working on the underside.  If the formative event that brings the Hebrew nation together, and sets in motion the story of Israel, the Exodus were to be told from the standard perspective, from those in power, we would hear Egypt reporting about the slave rebellion, the curses they brought on the land, and how the economy of the empire took a temporary nosedive when a mass of slaves escaped in the night.  But what we get in scripture is the story from the perspective of the slaves – that they have been liberated, that God had delivered them, and that they are given their own laws which are intended to teach them and future generations how to live in a way other than the ways of the empire.  And the rest of the story is one of that struggle, whether it be a struggle of peasants, prophets, priests, or kings or queens.   

This is part II of last week’s worship theme and sermon and the reading from this week is a continuation of the Daniel story.  Daniel is one of those characters in scripture where these two identities are held together into one, and Daniel does this quite well.  He is an exile, a victim of forced migration due to military conquest, a member of a people with little political power.  And he is an educated, well-trained, skilled person who finds himself in the inner circle  of the most powerful government in the world at that time.  He is negotiating his way through this reality of both/and.

In today’s reading Daniel the student, principled vegetarian, wise-man in training, takes on the roll of Daniel, the top advisor to the king and interpreter of the king’s innermost thoughts and dreams.  And these innermost thoughts and dreams have everything to do with the nature of power.

After the high drama of King Nebuchadnezzar making the ridiculously unreasonable demand that his advisors not only tell him what his dream means, but what his dream was in the first place; and after the advisors’ protest that this is out of his mind for asking this of them; and after the king decides, on a whim, to completely wipe out all the magician class in the empire by having them executed for not being able to fulfill his command, Daniel comes into the picture to provide some sanity.  Unlike the magicians, Daniel is one who understands the inner workings or kingship, the thoughts and musings and fears and dreams of the king.  The nature of what a kingdom is.  And, after giving the preamble that the words he is about to say are more from God than from him, Daniel proceeds to tell the king his dream, and the meaning of his dream. 

The image Daniel paints of the dream is rich in metaphor and symbolism.  This king, this kingdom of Babylon, is like the head of a great statue made up of other parts that ultimately has feet of clay.  After Babylon, the head in this image, will come another empire (the chest and arms), followed by another empire (the thighs), and finally another empire (the legs), which is the Greek empire that would have been contemporary to the first readers of the book of Daniel.  All of these great empires, Daniel says, will rise and fall, and ultimately will be struck and shattered by a stone not made by human hands that will become a great mountain and fill the whole earth, the kingdom of God that is the only kingdom that will stand forever. 

We recognize this language about a different type of kingdom that has greater power than other kingdoms because it is a theme directly picked up by Jesus.  In his teaching Jesus adopted the language of empire, framing his teachings around the nature of the kingdom of God, in order to illustrate the ways that God’s power differs from that of monarchs.   

Daniel’s lesson that he teaches the king on power dynamics and the temporary nature of our kingdoms, ironically gets him a promotion to an even greater position of power.  He will continue to try and make his way as someone carrying the dual identity of being aware of the frailty of power, all the while holding a position of power.

This is part two of two, but it really has an opening ending.  The place that we end with here is the place where we are at.  Our National Identity Resolution calls it a position of both promise and peril to be a follower of Jesus in our nation.  We are being called to become deeper and deeper rooted in the way of God’s kingdom, even as we live such that God’s kingdom come on earth, in the midst of our kingdoms.  The choir sang a song honoring Nelson Mandela, someone who has been working at this for a long time, a Daniel type figure.  He is one of many in our lifetime who are also operating in this vein. 

One of the most important things we can do in all this is to recognize our identity for what it is.  We hold two worlds inside our experience – the call of the cross, and the position of power.  May we grow in wisdom, in humility, and in love as we make our way through the promise and the peril of our place in God’s story.     

Following Jesus In A World That Is Not, Pt. 1 – 2/08/09 – Daniel 1

For the first couple days, everything was going fairly smoothly at the Mennonite Church USA national convention in San Jose.  Delegates were beginning to discuss the health care issues that the church has been working through for the last number of years.  Worship sessions had been filled with good music and inspirational speaking.  People were starting to settle into the pattern of the week with all the different events blocked out each day.  And then, part way into the week, something happened that shifted the tone.  We were visited with a message that has continued to shape the way the church goes about its work.  The message came through Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensinig, the speaker for a morning worship.  Her message was focused on what it means to be both a follower of Jesus, and a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth.  She gave a strong challenge for the church to recognize that our allegiance to the way of Jesus calls us to live out a radical witness to the God of justice, peacemaking, and compassion, and that the world needs us.  It was the right message at the right time and it stuck.  In the days that followed a new resolution was created and passed by a large majority of the delegate body – The National Identity Resolution that Matt read and that is printed on the back of the bulletin.  Since that time we have all been encouraged to explore more deeply what is being asked of us at this time in history — as the resolution puts it, “the promise and the peril of living faithfully as Christians in the USA.”        

 In good 21st century fashion, one of the ways the church has responded has been by creating a presence on the web.  At the Mennonite Church USA website one can now go to the National Identity page and find a number of resources around this subject.  A video of Jennifer’s sermon appears on that page.  There are essays and articles by scholars about allegiance, identity, and living in empire.  There are stories from congregations about the ways they are responding.  I encourage you to look through any of these when you have time.  There are also a number of worship resources for congregations to have available to use for a Sunday gathering.    

We have used some of those resources today in the liturgy and the bulletin and will also have this as a focus next week in our worship.

We do this at a time when we, the citizens of this superpower nation, may not be feeling so super or so powerful, given the economic realities we are facing.  There is a lot of rethinking going on about how we go about our business as a nation.  How to use power constructively.  How to invest in future generations.  But the underlying situation for us is much the same.  We remain both citizens of a superpower nation, and servants of God’s kingdom, followers of the wandering preacher from Galilee who taught that allegiance must be given to God above Caesar.  There are times when our commitment to God’s just reign enables us to celebrate and be glad in the good things of our culture, the many gifts that we have and the good that is happening around us.  There are other times when we must resist the mentality of the culture and take our cues from a higher source. 

One of the places in scripture where these kinds of questions are being worked out is in the book of Daniel.  The story of Daniel is set at the beginning of the Jewish exile in Babylon.  Jerusalem had been conquered by Nebuchadnezzer, and most of the Jews living in the land had been taken off to Babylon.  The general summary of these events is in 2 Kings 24, describing the siege on Jerusalem, the looting of the temple, the carrying off of captives, and the new king of Judah that is set up to rule over the region and the poor who had been left behind to work the land.  Daniel tells the story of one of these captives, and his companions, in how they deal with living under the rule of Babylon.  The book itself is actually a product of a much later time, when the Jews were confronted with a set of challenges living under Greek rule in the 2nd century BCE.  Through Daniel the Jews were exploring ways that a story about a faithful Jew in Babylon could inform their current struggle against the Greek empire, using a previous set of circumstances to better understand how to live in the present.   

Daniel is written as resistance literature.  Resistance to assimilating into the dominant culture and losing one’s identity.    Resistance to having one’s soul colonized by the value system of the empire.  And, in some parts of Daniel, non-violent resistance to the structures seeking to exert their power over the community.

The book of Daniel begins by describing how Nebuchadnezzar brought some of the vessels of the temple of God from Jerusalem and placed in them in the treasury of his gods in Babylon.  But the story quickly becomes about the people of God from Jerusalem who are displaced into this foreign land.  How will Daniel and his companions face the challenge of living in a superpower nation, while remaining true to the ways of God?   

Right away we learn that out of all of the exiles, the king is looking to sort out those who may be of the most service to him.  Verse 3 says, “Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace.”  These youth are those who would have been at the top of their class back in Judah, the cream of the crop.  Smart and goodlooking.  They were, so to speak, the best of the treasures from the plunders of war. 

All who met these criteria were enrolled and given a full ride scholarship to Babylonian University – room and board included.  Here, as it says, “they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans (the Babylonian wise men).  The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine.  They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court.”  (vv. 4-5).  From the next verse we learn that four of these youth are named Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all from the tribe of Judah.  We recognize the name Daniel, but probably not those other three names, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.  So the purpose of this education track that they are entering, is to prepare them to be competent and skilled ministers of the king – a king whose empire has just conquered their homeland. 

It’s hard for me to see this note about three years of education without thinking about my time in seminary.  The Master of Divinity program that I participated in at seminary was also a three year program.  And this is actually a standard length for all Master of Divinity programs in any denomination.  For three years we are trained in theology, biblical studies, ethics, and ministry, so that we can be competent and skilled ministers in whatever congregation we would find ourselves in. 

Interestingly, three years was also the maximum length of the early church catechism process for new converts into the faith.  Catechesis didn’t always last this long, but for those Greeks who had little familiarity with the Jewish tradition and the emerging Christian teachings, the process could take up to three years.  Here’s how Nelson Kraybill summarizes catechism in the first several centuries of the church: “The candidate, accompanied by a sponsor, meets with teachers of the church.  They ask questions about lifestyle to determine whether (relationships), occupation, and values are consistent with the gospel.  Unacceptable professions include gladiator, astrologer, and many others.  Those who enlist in the military are rejected, and soldiers already enlisted may not kill.  New believers ‘hear the word’ for up to three years, with attention to lifestyle.  Teachers ask whether candidates have honored widows, visited the sick, and ‘fulfilled all good works.’”  (Vision Journal, Fall 2003, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 8-90).  After this training candidates were ready to receive baptism and be welcomed into the church.       

At some point along the way, humans must have made a collective discovery that the time it takes for us to be formed into a tradition, a culture, a worldview, is about three years.  If that time is one of immersion, of intensive study, it has good potential to result in the transformation of the person – an education and also a re-education, even a conversion.  A time to learn and also un-learn previous habits and perspectives.  During such a process we can become, for better or for worse, re-socialized into a certain way of being and seeing.

The length of time isn’t as important as to recognize that what we’re up against here is the formation of the human self and identity.  I think it’s fair to say that we are constantly being educated by our environment.  Culture has a way of putting us through a subtle catechesis, telling us what’s important, who’s important, where we should focus our energy, what we should ignore. We may not always be taking notes, we may not have homework, but we are being shaped by what we experience, by what comes in front of our eyes.   

There’s nothing in the text to indicate anything sinister about these three years of education of these Hebrew youth.  There’s no sign of brainwashing going on that we are told about.  They are being immersed in a tradition, the tradition of the Babylonian sages and the political and cultural and religious philosophies of this culture.  It’s a position of privilege in many ways.  They are being schooled by the leading scholars of the most powerful empire on earth.  But it is also a position of danger.  What exactly from their previous formation in the Jewish community will they be asked to unlearn in order to be fit to serve in the court of this king?  What all will this resocialization involve?  There is the opportunity for gain, but also for loss.    

The experience of loss and resocialization gets carried one step further.  After we learn of their schooling, and are told the Hebrew names of four of these youth, verse seven says: “The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.  Now we recognize those other three boys.  We know them by their Babylonian names and they will later serve as an example of resisting the empire by refusing to give allegiance to the king, getting thrown in the famous fiery furnace that is unable to harm them.

We don’t have to think too long about the history of our own country to recognize that the re-naming of captives can have devastating results on a people.  For the African slaves to the Americas it meant the loss of an entire heritage, being cut off from the identity of their ancestors and being given a new identity – slaves, possessions of other people, often being assigned the family name of their owner.  The new names of these Hebrew youth also indicate that they have been brought under a different power and different identity, with each name containing variants of different Babylonian gods – Bel, Marduk, and Nabu.      

Up until this point there have been massive shifts going on for the exiles.  Relocation, re-education, and renaming.  But then beginning with verse eight Daniel makes an important decision.  Daniel resolves not to partake of the royal rations of food that are offered to him.  This is more than just choosing not to eat certain foods, following certain dietary laws.  This is an example of the ways that Daniel refuses to fully give himself over to the expectations of this setting.  This is where the resistance starts to show up, acts of conscientious objection.  It’s possible that some of the dietary laws of the Jews originally arose as acts of resistance, differentiating themselves from the masses.  Helping them keep a sense of sacred identity.  That everything they did they did for God.     This is Daniel negotiating his way through this new setting.  Accepting some of what is offered, refusing other things.

The result of their veggie and water diet is that Daniel and the other three become healthier than all of the other trainees and eventually are singled out for their great wisdom and insight.      

As I once heard a preacher say after speaking for a while: I have some bad new and some good news.  The bad news is that this sermon is only half way over.  The good news is that the second half is next week.

But here are some the questions that we’re left with.  How are we being formed and educated?  Where do we take our cues from regarding our core identity?  Who names us?  Who tells us who we are?  When are those times when we must resist the commonly accepted path and take a different path?