Sunday, August 16, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Your Kingdom Will Be Divided"

Daniel 5:24-30

“That’s why this hand was sent from God and why this message was written down. 25 This is what was written down: mene, mene, tekel, and parsin. 26 “This is the meaning of the word mene: God has numbered the days of your rule. It’s over! 27 tekel means that you’ve been weighed on the scales, and you don’t measure up. 28 peres means your kingship is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.” 29 Then Belshazzar commanded that Daniel be dressed in a purple robe, have a gold chain around his neck, and be officially appointed as third in command in the kingdom.

30 That very same night, Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. 31 Darius the Mede received the kingdom at the age of 62.  (Common English Bible)

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

The 18-year-old woman’s voice cracked in places, broke in others, but steadily throughout the video, she proclaimed one of the most amazing, profound, and moving testimonies to a parent I have ever seen.  And she was not even allowed to give it where she had first been invited to.

Sydney Seau is the daughter of NFL linebacker legend Junior Seau, whom I spent seemingly almost my entire childhood in the 1990s watching with a mix of fear and awe as he wreaked havoc twice a season, every season, on my beloved Kansas City Chiefs.  He retired from football in January 2010, and less than two-and-a-half years later, in May 2012, he was dead, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.  Like Dave Duerson, another retired NFL player before him who likewise committed suicide, Seau did not take the shot to his head presumably so that his brain could be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the progressive traumatic brain disorder that comes from repeated head injuries.  He was diagnosed with CTE postmortem.

And so when Junior Seau was overwhelmingly admitted to the football Hall of Fame last weekend, Sydney was not allowed to accept on her father’s behalf, despite Junior’s expressed wish that she do so if he were dead, presumably because the NFL and the Hall of Fame were afraid that Sydney would talk about CTE in her acceptance speech, despite explicit assurances that she would not.

Instead, she was left to film, with the help of the New York Times, her acceptance speech from her hotel room in Canton.  The Times posted it, and it spread across the internet like wildfire, far more than the Hall of Fame ceremony did or could have.

In trying to keep the focus on what they wanted, the fa├žade they wanted to show, the NFL and the Hall of Fame found its influence over our attentions divided, and many of us chose not the narrative of the faceless, bodiless league, but the narrative of a young woman who simply loves her father.

And at least for a brief, fleeting moment, their kingdom was divided.  As well it should have been.

This is the final installment 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 two weeks ago 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.  Then 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, which brought us to last week—Daniel’s response to Belshazzar up to the exact translation of the writing on the wall, a response that took us through verses seventeen to twenty-three.

Now, at long last, we get to hear exactly what Daniel’s translation of the writing is, what the words mean, and how this mystery gets resolved: Belshazzar has been weighed, measured, found wanting, and after his murdered later that night, Babylon eventually falls to the Persians, originally under King Cyrus the Great, but eventually, a Mede-Persian named Darius rules Babylon as a part of Persia.

In other words, it was too late for Belshazzar.  He made his bed, and now he has to lie in it, as a dead man.  That isn’t how any of this is supposed to end up for any of us, though.  We haven’t reached that point of no return that Belshazzar found himself in, not by a long shot.  Even Belshazzar’s last ditch effort to be a man of his word and reward Daniel exactly how he promised he would—with rank, gold, and swank new duds—isn’t enough to turn his fortunes around, and that is saying something mighty big: that we cannot rely on too little, too late gestures to get us out of fate.

That fate, of course, isn’t simply coming from on high.  It would be a mistake to interpret this entire story as God sentencing Belshazzar to die.  God weighs and measures Belshazzar by Belshazzar’s own actions, including his action of bringing out the dishes from the Jerusalem temple to drink from and thus proclaim his perceived superiority to God.  God didn't cause that, even if God could see the end result.  A parent can warn a child because a parent knows from experience what will happen, but even the best parent cannot always prevent a child from acting out.  So it was with Belshazzar.

So really, this is fate by our own actions and decisions.  As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote, “Your character is your destiny.”  Belshazzar’s deadened character did indeed become his destiny.  It needn’t become ours.

Yet, we still oftentimes fail to make the right decisions and choices and actions that reflect our living faith.  We know that, the end, we too will be weighed, measured, and found wanting for those failures to make the best choices.  What we do not always take into account is that our own kingdoms, such as they are, end up getting divided as a result of those paths that we each go down.

These paths, our life journeys, they are full of twists and turns, of shadows and murky fog and places where we cannot even see the path ahead, but we are forced to take a step regardless.  Daniel was forced to when he was brought before Belshazzar—he had to decide whether to tell the king what the writing on the wall really meant (and all of the horror the message entails), or make something up to appease his self-absorbed monarch.  What set Daniel apart from the rest of Belshazzar’s court—save the queen, who, if you remember from week two, was the one who recommended Daniel to the king in the first place—is precisely Daniel’s willingness to give Belshazzar the unfiltered truth, the honesty and authenticity that we in fact need in our lives.

And we need that honesty and authenticity because without it, it is easy—way, way too easy—for us to lull ourselves into a false sense of security that there are not people and systems and persons with power who are out to make decisions that will hurt us, and that sometimes, they make decisions precisely because they will hurt us.  We just experienced it here at church when our storage unit was broken into and our relatively new riding lawnmower was stolen from us, but we see it around us locally in other ways as well, decisions and actions that simply aren’t made with our best interests at heart.

It’s a company in charge of one of the biggest, oldest paper mills here in town that posts a record profit in 2014 and then goes into 2015 announcing a new round of layoffs.

It’s a public utilities department looking around at why it isn’t getting more revenue and dropping a hint in its last meeting that it’s time for a third major rate increase for families and households in four years, after rates have gone up by 43% over the past decade, fully double the rate of inflation.

And wider still, it’s a state government that is willing to get fined $100,000 per day in contempt of court for not passing abudget that will fully fund the state public schools, including ours.

It’s so many things, put in motion by so many people, that are trying to divide our kingdom, and God’s kingdom, the kingdom in which food security, financial security, housing security is all the default, not just the norm, and certainly not the exception, but the universal default existence for us.

It’s a world corrupted by an unwillingness to actually see the person behind the food stamps, or the person wearing the baggy sweatpants, or the person who is still trying to kick a horrific addiction, all in the name of making ourselves in our kingdoms feel better, completely uncaring of the reality that in God’s kingdom, it is our kingdoms that must make way, our kingdoms that must fall, our kingdoms that must topple and shatter at the sight of God’s hand writing before our very eyes.

We don’t see the other person within the mourning daughter, we don’t see the person within the football helmet that did not prevent enough head injuries, we don’t see the athlete who took his own life in so precise a manner that his broken and beaten brain could be studied.  The Hall of Fame refused to see that, and its kingdom, the one of our precious attention, was rightly divided.

And if we too refuse to see the soul in other people, our kingdoms too will one day rightly be divided.

Which is why we have to shift from being the equivalent of Belshazzar to being Daniel in this story.  We have to have the strength to be able to speak truth to the kings and men of power who would manipulate our lives for their benefit, and to be able to stand up and say to them, “Enough with the Belshazzars!  Enough with the Nebuchadnezzars!  Enough the people who time after time after time care only for themselves, look after only themselves, and see only themselves!  Enough with with that way of living!  Enough with all of it!  Long live the one true king, and long may He reign!”

An 18-year-old woman said, “Enough!” to a system of organizations that did not want to hear her simply share about her beloved father—so she spoke anyways.

Believe it or not, we can as well.

Daniel did.  Abraham did.  Moses, even though he *begged* God not to send him, for, as he put it, "I am slow of speech and slow of tongue," to which God replied, "I will go with you and teach you what you are to say," well, Moses spoke!  

Elijah spoke, and Elisha spoke.  Isaiah, after seeing God in the year that King Uzziah died, heard God say, "Who will go for us," and Isaiah replied, "Here I am, send me."  Isaiah spoke, and a whole host of prophets and voices for the Lord spoke, including Jesus Christ.  

Let us serve, then, in that tradition of the voices for the Lord who spoke.  Let us stand up and speak.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 16, 2015

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