With the church around the world, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the racial tension and civil unrest that has gripped the USA this week. As we celebrate the Day of Pentecost, we do so mindful of the fact that we are a church that was born speaking the languages of the marginalized and oppressed and seeking to be faithful to God’s call to demonstrate the fullness of God’s reign on earth. Our scriptures for today included Daniel 6:1-23 and Acts 2:1-13.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player below. To see the complete worship service, please use the YouTube link at the end of this blog.
On March 22, our congregation began to gather for worship digitally. We did the unimaginable: we had Holy Week and Easter without any of you setting foot in the building! We didn’t know how to do that; and some of us thought we couldn’t do that, but we did. And since then, we’ve been spending most of our worship time exploring the stories that are found in the first half of the book of Daniel. We’ve discovered some reminders of the ways that God is present to a people in exile, and we’ve seen vivid examples of courage, fortitude, faith, and love. Today brings us to the end of that series, and we will conclude our exploration with the story that is probably most familiar to us… The lion’s den.
When we first meet Daniel, he’s a young man – maybe 13-15 years old. By the time of today’s reading, though, he’s at least 65, and probably closer to 80 years old. For fifty or sixty years, he’s been continuing to do what he’s always done – he’s being faithful to God, no matter which king reigns in Babylon. As a teenager, he was in trouble because he didn’t want to contaminate his plate with food that didn’t belong there according to God’s rule, and he was threatened. His friends were thrown into a fiery furnace. He faces pressure again and again to worship someone other than the Lord, and he never does so.
I am struck by Daniel’s staying power: to be so faithful in such a difficult place for such a long time. We are frustrated to think that we haven’t been able to eat in our favorite restaurant for three months; when the politician we oppose gets elected we think, “Oh no – four whole years of this!”; we buy a house and think, “30 years of mortgage payments…” and yet Daniel models faith for more than half a century. Daniel is a man with staying power. He stood firm.
What was the key to this? How could he do it? I would suggest that it was because Daniel knew which laws were ones that could be changed, and which were ones that would never change. That’s what this story is about. It’s not a story about Daniel and a bunch of crooked politicians, or Daniel and a gullible king, or even Daniel and the lions. It’s about God’s laws and the Empire’s laws. The other rulers saw this when they were trying to get rid of Daniel: “We’ll never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.”
I don’t know about you, but when my eye falls across verses 8 and 15 of Daniel 6, and I read about the laws of the Medes and the Persians which can never be changed – well, it sounds sort of quaint to me. Sort of old-fashioned. After all, who even knows anything about the Medes and the Persians, whoever they were, let alone their laws? That sounds really old-timey. “The law that cannot be revoked!” – it sounds like a line from a bad movie.
Except it’s not. We’ve grown up and lived under and suffered with all kinds of “laws that can never be changed”; We accept them day in and day out. “A law that cannot be revoked” is a law that is designed to protect privilege and power. I mean, isn’t that what was happening in Daniel? Those who were threatened by Daniel’s faithfulness and ascendancy were saying, “As long as this Jew is hanging around, we’re not ‘safe’; we could wind up losing the King’s affection, our positions of glory, and our privilege.”
The laws that can never be changed are those fictions that a society tells itself so that evil can hide behind a statute and what is immoral can cloak itself in legality.
Another way to put it would be to say that the laws that can never be changed are the things that “everybody knows”. If you think hard enough, you might be able to come up with a few of them:
- You can’t fight city hall
- It’s the ‘golden rule’: whoever has the gold makes the rules
You see what I mean? Some of these are actually codes written in a book somewhere, but others come from our lived experience and we accept them as true and as binding. And these laws that cannot be changed have been around forever.
You remember Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned the amazing phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He also said, “Slavery is a necessary evil”. The chattel slavery of human beings was a law that could not be changed in America from 1619 until 1865. Everybody knew that.
And when the legal cloak of slavery ended, the law came to allow, or even mandate, state-sponsored segregation according to “race”. The Supreme Court of our nation ruled in 1896 that “separate but equal” was not only possible, but was a law by which we should live. And that was the official doctrine of the land until 1954 when the same Supreme Court said, “You know what? That’s a law that CAN be changed.”
All of that happened before I was born. The “law that cannot be changed” under which I’ve lived my entire life is, “If those people would just follow the rules, then none of this would have happened.” A situation gets out of hand, and property is damaged or lives are lost, and we fall back on that truth: that a person who suffers injury or death is usually complicit because, well, they weren’t following the rules. They should have just obeyed, and everything would have been fine.
Am I reaching too far here? Are these are examples of “laws that cannot be changed”? Codes of conduct to which society agrees and then implements for generations?
What has changed in my lifetime? When I was seven years old my mother put me in front of the television and told me to watch the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. This week, at the age of 59, I’m sitting in front of the television watching people prepare for George Floyd’s funeral.
Are we ever going to learn?
Is anything ever going to change?
The witness of Daniel and the story of Pentecost may provide clues for us who seek to live by faith in a world where privilege is protected and power is maintained through the malicious (and fully legal) use of “laws that cannot be changed.”
I’ll start by saying that we’re not entirely sure how the Festival of Pentecost might have been observed on that day in about 30 AD about which we heard in the reading from Acts. There were three great festivals for which faithful Jews were expected to journey to Jerusalem. However, unlike the other two pilgrimage holidays (Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles), Pentecost – the harvest offering – lasted only a single day.
Pentecost, also known as the “Feast of Weeks”, celebrated the beginning of the wheat harvest. As such, it was a busy time for an agricultural people. Folk who were trying to be faithful got into town, dropped off their “wave offerings” at the temple, and headed back to the farm. There were probably no extended welcomes, lavish banquets, or week-long observances. People came in, did their best to do right in the eyes of the Lord, and left town.
The followers of Jesus happened to be in Jerusalem when the feast of Pentecost took place. They were not there to make new friends or to change the world. They were trying to figure out what it meant for them to be a community of faith. They were hiding in a nondescript place, not wanting to attract attention to themselves – until the Holy Spirit barged into their hideout and it looked like God was trying to burn the place down and they found themselves being sent out and talking to the people nobody cared about in languages that they didn’t think that they knew.
Acts chapter two describes the formation of a new community which was birthed in an act of invitation, engagement, welcome, and inclusivity. Historians of the first century tell us on numerous occasions that the followers of Jesus were either reviled or revered for their posture toward outsiders and the marginalized.
The Day of Pentecost is a call for the Church in 21st century – for us – to seek to recover that aspect of our congregational DNA and to remember that the call to faithful living, to invitation, engagement, welcome, and attentiveness to those are the margins is one that must be chosen over and over and over again in the long haul.
The church was born speaking the language of the outsider. Are we still listening for the language of the oppressed? Are we willing to learn that language? And are we committed to living graciously and hospitably?
I would suggest that a central strategy for the church in 2020 is to embrace the work of antiracism in the name of Jesus. Now, church, this is the first time I have used this phrase in my eleven weeks of preaching to an iPhone in an empty sanctuary, but I’m glad you’re not here right now. It’s not that I don’t love you and it’s not that I don’t miss you, but if we had a hundred and fifty people here this morning I guarantee you that I’d have a line of people waiting to talk with me who began the conversation by saying, “Pastor, I’m not a racist, but…” or “You know, I have a friend who is black, and even HE says…” And frankly, I don’t think I could handle too many of those conversations this morning.
It’s not enough to claim a lack of prejudice for myself, or to point to a person of color who can somehow vouch for me. The church is called to the work of anti-racism – of disassembling structures that prop up the laws that cannot be changed and not only opposing those who spew hate, but becoming people who will not be silent in the midst of hate.
This Pentecost Sunday, this day where we remember the life of a man who lived in exile in a foreign land for nearly a century, the truth is this: an astounding 40% of white Americans do not have a single friend who is a person of color. Similarly, 25% of nonwhites live effectively surrounded by their own tradition and culture. Are those numbers indicative of your friend group? I don’t know. But they are antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So what do we DO? How do we engage in the work of antiracism as a means of expressing our faith in Christ during a time of pandemic and isolation and social unrest? There are a lot of ways, and if you are hearing my voice now, you know how to work the Google Machine and you can find a number of articles or exercises that will fit your interest and ability. Let me offer a few ideas, though, that might make sense as you continue to dwell in your own quarantine.
You can expand your reading list. If you have not read anything by someone like James McBride, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Khaled Hosseini, then you should. Most of you have not lived their experiences, but all of us need to know them.
Similarly, you can enlarge your media consumption so as to include stories of people of color. Watch the films “Just Mercy”, or “Selma”, or other such movies or television series that will allow you to listen to and internalize the stories of people of color.
Pay attention to the stories that you read to and tell your children and grandchildren. There are many amazing children’s books that depict the brown child or the outsider as the hero of the story. Help the children that you love to grow up knowing that people who may not look or think like them can be extraordinary, and that exclusion and hate do not belong as a part of our story. Some of you are aware of the fact that I have been reading a children’s book on Facebook most days since the middle of March, and there are a lot of stories there to get you started.
And perhaps most importantly, listen to your own inner narrative. How do you repeat “the laws that cannot be changed” in a way that solidifies your own power or privilege but negates someone else – often in a way that you would not do overtly? How does your social media use align with the values of the Christ of Pentecost? To whom do you give your “likes” or your retweets or your attention? And to whom do you offer a challenge or a correction? Sometimes, your silence is taken as complicity.
Finally, beloved, remember this: at the end of the day, there are only two laws that cannot be changed, and they were given to us by the One we’re called to worship this day. “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39, NRSV)
So that’s it. Today is Pentecost, and more than anything, we’d love to repeat the experience of the first Christians (“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place…”), but we can’t. Instead, we are challenged to echo the next part of their story – their experience of having been driven out of their building and into the world.
We have not been in the exile as long as Daniel – not by a longshot – but we are weary. But beloved, for the love of God, do not waste this moment. In the middle of March, this congregation did what we did not think was possible: we learned how to do church this way.
Today, don’t worry about the fact that you can’t COME to church; instead, think about how you might BE the church in all the ways that matter. Listen. Learn. Love.
Thanks be to God, who invites us to become wider, richer, deeper, wiser, and better than we have ever thought possible. Amen.