Sunday, August 2, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "You Have Been Measured"

Daniel 5:10-16

10 Upon hearing the commotion coming from the king and his princes, the queen entered the banqueting hall and declared, “Long live the king! Don’t be so disturbed. Don’t be so frightened. 11 There is a man in your kingdom who has the breath of holy gods in him! When your father was alive, this man was shown to possess illumination, insight, and wisdom like the very wisdom of the gods. Your father King Nebuchadnezzar appointed this man as chief over the dream interpreters, enchanters, Chaldeans, and diviners. Yes, your father did this 12 because this man—Daniel, the one the king named Belteshazzar—possesses an extraordinary spirit, knowledge, and insight into the meaning of dreams. He can explain ambiguities and resolve mysteries. Now in light of all that, summon Daniel! He will explain the meaning of this thing.” 

13 So Daniel was brought before the king. The king said to him, “So you are Daniel, the Daniel from the exiles that my father the king brought from Judah? 14 I have heard that the breath of the gods is in you and that you possess illumination, insight, and extraordinary wisdom. 15 Now, the sages and the dream interpreters were brought before me to read this writing and interpret it for me, but they couldn’t explain its meaning. 16 But I’ve heard that you can explain meanings and solve mysteries. So if you can read this writing and interpret it for me, you will wear royal robes, have a gold chain around your neck, and will rule the kingdom as third in command.” (Common English Bible)

“The Writing on the Wall: Daniel & King Belshazzar,” Week Two

The Craigslist ad was an extraordinarily uncommon one—and I say that as someone who has seen a for-sale ad on Craigslist advertising a “slightly used Star Destroyer,” with an image from the trailer for the upcoming The Force Awakens installment of the Star Wars franchise.  (And no, George Lucas did not pay me to make that plug.  He wouldn’t have to.  I’m shameless.)

No, this was an ad looking to rent rather than sell.  And in this case, it was to rent a family.

You heard that right.  A family.  18-year-old Natalie Carson wrote in her ad, in part:

I am currently a young female college student looking to rent a family that I can spend time with on my birthday in a few weeks.  I aged out of foster care, and since I was never adopted, I don’t have a family to spend holidays or birthdays with.  I was placed in foster care after being severely abused by my parents, so spending time with my biological parents is not an option…I just want one day that I can feel important and special, and like I matter even if I really don’t.  I have never had a good birthday so I figure why not this birthday.  I am NOT looking for any monetary support as I also work.  I can pay $8 an hour.

That’s not what we usually think of when we’re asked to think of how a family is formed, or of how our family got formed.  I ask you who your family is, and you’re apt to mention a parent or two, a sibling or three, probably some aunts and uncles and cousins as well.  But that is the normal, within-the-lines, inside-the-box version of family.  It’s the version of family that isn’t going to come even close to a standard deviation.

So what about our folks who are at the edges of that bell curve, though?  What about our folks on the outliers and outskirts, who are beyond the standard deviation?  How do we ask them to define their lives and families, and then expect those answers to measure up to ours?

We can’t, and in all honesty, we shouldn’t.  Which is the whole point of this second act of Daniel 5, when someone on the far side of the bell curve gets suggested, after all of the magicians and soothsayers who made up Plan A failed to measure up.

This is a new sermon series based on a need and a desire that I know has been around here for a while now—last autumn, we read verse-by-verse through the first half of the book of Daniel in our Tuesday morning Bible study.  Why the first half?  It’s not because the sequel always sucks, it’s simply that Daniel really is two books masquerading as one—the first half of the book deals with Daniel’s story and biography, while the second half deal with his prophecies.  We had decided on trying to gain an in-depth understanding of Daniel the man’s circumstances and context, so we spent a couple of months on those first six chapters of the book which bears his name.  The study was so enjoyable and enriching that eventually, this sermon series was born out of it.

The fifth of these six chapters conveys a story from which we get one of our most common English idioms: “the writing on the wall.”  We’ve all used that saying at some point, right?  We all know what it means: that we can see the fate of something or someone before it comes about.  Well, this story is the source of that idiom, and we’ll be going through it verse-by-verse over the course of four weeks, beginning last week with verses one through nine, which gave us the exposition of the story and King Belshazzar’s attempts to remedy his fright over the writing on the wall that has just appeared, and now, in verse ten through sixteen, the missus, Belshazzar’s queen, appears and suggests for the king and his entourage of stupefied magicians the proper prescription: call upon Daniel.  Belshazzar promptly does so, calls for Daniel, and then lays out the problem at hand.

It matters a great deal that the queen—who conspicuously is unnamed by Daniel’s biographer—is the one who recommends him to King Belshazzar in the first place.  Being a queen in an ancient Near East empire is not like being the Queen of England today, where you are accorded near-universal respect and deference.  Only a century or so later in Persia (the soon-to-be conquerors of Babylon), King Xerxes will dismiss his queen, Vashti, because of her any-reasonable-person-would-say-no-to-it refusal to parade around naked for him and his drunken partygoers, wearing nothing but her royal crown.

So what Belshazzar’s queen does here in Daniel 5 is not simply a case of helpful spousal input, it is not as though Belshazzar simply can’t get the grill going quite right and his wife is saying, “Here, honey, why don’t you use newspaper to light the charcoal.”  There are very real, very serious implications for the queen.  If Belshazzar—who, like Xerxes in Esther 1, is almost certainly sauced seven ways to Sunday right now—decides that her attempts to help him are unwelcome, he could dismiss her as easily as Xerxes did Vashti.

And she does it all for going to bat for an Israelite—not a Babylonian.  Yes, Daniel has been given a Babylonian name, Belteshazzar, just like the millions of slaves kidnapped from west Africa were given Spanish and English names over the course of the transatlantic slave trade, but he is still Daniel, in every sense of the term, for his name, in Hebrew, in fact means “My judge is God”—“Dan” is a shortening of “dayan,” which means “judge,” and “el” is a shortening of “Elohim,” which is one of the names for God throughout various parts of the Old Testament.  But we’ll get to Daniel himself next week, for even though he has been summoned today, he has yet to speak.

Instead, the rest of this passage represents King Belshazzar’s first and only real attempt forward at trying to see what has just happened in a different light than would first have been his instinct.  He has first called for all of his pagan magicians and sages, the step that fits entirely within the box for him, the step that constitutes no deviation at all, that represents a coloring entirely within the lines.

Also, remember what I said last week—that at least initially in the story, Belshazzar is the closest thing we have to an audience proxy.  He is the person for whom the words of Daniel will be intended, for whom the as-yet uninterpreted words of God are intended.  And this is the closest he gets to any manner of redemption at all in this story; he is a thoroughly despicable ruler and human being, but at least this once, when pushed to measure up his situation and perspective from someone who he otherwise might not take counsel from—his queen—Belshazzar actually does what she says.  For once—one time, the only time in this story—he does the right thing.

But the right thing to do was not the predictable thing to do.  Belshazzar’s initial impulse, to call on the sycophants and yes-men he usually would call on, did him no good, it put him no closer to understanding the truth behind the writing that has suddenly and miraculously appeared on the wall.

How often is that the case for us?  Doing what we have always done, it doesn’t get us any closer to where we need to be, but we still do it because that’s what we know and what we’re used to doing.

We aren’t willing to measure our reality by the extremes of that reality—we’d only rather measure it up by what is comfortable to us, by what is known to us, by what we’ve always done.

Think about what that means for someone like Natalie Carson, in a world full of people with families, what about the person who has none?  She is on the fringes and goes to the fringes to try to find a family, because she doesn’t have the luxury we do of starting from within the mainstream.  She has had to redefine a mainstream institution like the family to fit her differing circumstances.

Except they are not so differing after all.  Natalie has used her fifteen minutes of fame generated by the news stories about her to remind her interviewers that she is by far not the only person to lack a family because they never got adopted and aged out of the foster care system.  There are plenty, too many, other Natalie Carsons out there.

And we, as the church, are in the business of—and I know this will sound scary to you—of redefining something as familiar and foundational and fundamental as the idea of ‘family.’  The yes-men and head-nodders who follow Belshazzar around in his court may fancy themselves part of his inner circle, but it is the willingness to speak truth in love that I think defines family—it is certainly why I think of this church as a family even though I’m not related by blood to any of you.

But we also have to keep re-thinking what our family is and how to keep making it grow.  Part of the church’s problem—a big part of it, in reality—is that we became like Belshazzar, altogether too willing to simply do the same thing each and every time: call upon the same yes-men, offer the same reward, do everything exactly the same, even as a more marginalized voice pushed off to the side is saying, with every justification, “Hey, why haven’t you tried doing this instead?”

And so we began measuring our church families not by the depth of spiritual energy, or the openness of the welcome extended to strangers, or the effectiveness of our missions not by the impact we are having upon others, or the relationships we are helping people form with God, but rather, by whether we’re doing those things the same way everyone before us has been doing them.

We expect people to do religion the way we have always done it, as though that was how the original church in Acts of the Apostles did it, when in reality, it is only how the church of the 20th century has done it.  The magicians and tea leaf-readers Belshazzar originally calls for, that’s how it used to be done.  That’s how Belshazzar measured it up.  But it’s not how the translation will ever get done.

Daniel, then, represents the way it could be done, the way the words’ meaning could be measured, if Belshazzar were to open his eyes to a new possibility, and to begin measuring himself, and his entire notion of truth, by what God reveals to him instead of what he selfishly thinks of himself.

So Belshazzar calls for Daniel.  He calls for a new way of tackling this dilemma that he has gotten himself into, and while it will not, in the end, be enough to save him (I know, I know “spoiler alert” or somesuch), may it be, in fact, just enough to see God’s church through to God’s return to earth.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 2, 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment