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Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

Ephesians 2:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 September 2017



    According to Timothy Wengert, one of the leading Luther scholars of our time whom I had the good fortune to meet a couple of years ago when he was in Omaha, "the heart of [Martin] Luther's concern [in posting the 95 Theses that launched the Reformation was]: bad preaching and theology and what it does to the faithful."

    Luther wanted to "instruct, admonish, and comfort laypeople whom he thought misled by the bad theology of the indulgence preachers."


    So, the Pope wanted to build a new, bigger, and better St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican in Rome. And he did a pretty good job. I think St. Peter's is the most beautiful room I've ever entered. But every time, I am reminded that its construction led to centuries of schism in the Christian church.

For the fundraising campaign the pope decided to offer indulgences. By the early 16th century indulgences had become a way for people to buy themselves or their family members out of some time in purgatory. Now, that's not what they had originally been, and Luther would point that out, but that's what they had become.

    Consequently, special indulgence preachers were appointed, including one who worked in the region near Martin Luther. That preacher was named Johann Tetzel. And according to all the bad press Tetzel's received the last 500 years, he was a piece of work, using all sorts of questionable theology and methods to entice people into buying an indulgence. According to Luther, Tetzel proclaimed that "as soon as a coin thrown into the money chest clinks, a soul flies out of purgatory."

    It was primarily Tetzel's bad preaching that angered Martin Luther. He had already begun to question the theology of indulgences and to research their historical meaning. Luther was among that new generation of scholars who employed new research methods—in his case an historical examination of old documents—to arrive at the truth.

    What he discovered was that the current approach to indulgences violated traditional theology. So, bad, deceptive preaching and bad theology.

    He also didn't care much about fundraising for St. Peter's. He advised giving money to your local poor instead. That was not likely to endear him to Rome.

    Luther was angry. But he was also a good academic. And part of academic practice at that time was to call for a public debate and you did that by posting theses. Which is what Luther did on October 31, 1517. He posted on the church door at Wittenberg his 95 theses, disputing the theology of indulgences and the bad preaching of Tetzel.    


And the rest is history. World altering history, which is why we are commemorating its 500th anniversary this autumn.

But Luther's action was not itself the moment of schism when Protestants broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. The actual Reformation was a many decades process that of course ended in a century of war and violence. Which is why this world-wide event is being called a commemoration and not a celebration.

Nor did the 95 Theses express all the elements we might now consider essential to Protestant or even Lutheran theology. Luther wasn't even questioning papal authority directly at this point. As Timothy Wengert writes, Luther's concern was primarily pastoral. And his concerns in 1517 were very focused on the saving grace of God.


Thesis number 36 says, "Any truly remorseful Christian has a right to full remission of guilt and penalty, even without indulgence letters." People didn't need to spend money to experience the grace of God. The indulgence preachers were promoting a "mutilated grace"—a grace that you needed to earn, purchase even. But that's not grace.

God's grace is freely given to us. That's what makes it grace. That it is the free love of God offered to us for our salvation.

The winter after he launched the controversy, Luther preached a sermon in which he more fully explained his view of God's grace. That sermon was printed and sold and was the primary vehicle for spreading Luther's message to the masses. It also happens to be the very first best seller in the history of the printed word. Oh, the day when a sermon might be a best seller!

Here's what Luther proclaimed:


It is a tremendous error when people imagine that they can make satisfaction for their sins, which God instead always forgives gratis out of immeasurable grace while desiring nothing for this grace except that one live well from then on.


    There is nothing we can do to earn God's grace. We do not need to buy it. It is freely given by a good and loving God. And once it is received, grace should call us to lead good and faithful lives.

    This last point was Luther's other main objection to the selling of indulgences. Luther was worried that people might come to believe that all they had to do was give a little money. Give a little money so that you could avoid the difficult work of developing Christian character. The difficult work of eliminating sin from your life.

    God has forgiven you but if you want to experience the fullness of life, then you must let God's grace work to transform you into a new and better person.

    In thesis 44 he wrote "love grows through works of love and a person is made better; but through indulgences one is not made better." Luther thought indulgences were for lazy people, but that a true believer will show the works of love that result from true contrition for sins.

    So bad theology and deceptive preaching were leading the people astray and away from both God's grace and the true work of Christian discipleship.

    Luther expected the theologians and the magisterium to embrace his arguments, but they did not. And soon the larger debates erupted over scripture and authority and ministry and communion and all the many disagreements that divided European Christendom for the last half-millennium.



    Five hundred years later, when indulgences and the fundraising for St. Peter's basilica are no longer our issues, we remain concerned with how to live a good and abundant life, with how God's grace saves us.

    In our worship series this fall, we are being guided by the idea that the church is always reformed and always reforming. God is still at work in us and through us, speaking and guiding us to a fuller understanding.

    And so this week I didn't only review the old history, I also turned to contemporary theologians, influenced by this tradition, for their thoughts on grace in the 21st century.

    In her book The Grace of Sophia the theologian Grace Ji-Sun Kim develops a theology rooted in the experience of Korean women living as immigrants in North America. She is troubled by systemic evils of sexism and racism and marginalization that have robbed these women of the opportunity to live full and thriving lives. Like Luther she is concerned about bad, harmful theology.

    And so she turns to the grace of God which she says is "an experiential reality" that heals and strengthens our ordinary lives. God's grace is not simply forgiveness of our sins, but it heals us and empowers us. It heals the broken body and soul but also gives strength to confront injustice. She writes that grace is "the unconditional love that is poured into the wounded lives of hurting women" enabling self-worth and transformation.

    In his book From Sin to Amazing Grace theologian Patrick Cheng wants to recover grace for queer people long marginalized and harmed by the Christian church. Grace, he writes, is "a free gift from God that reunites us with God." He adds, "God's superabundant grace can be described as an outpouring of love that is obscenely promiscuous!"

    Cheng agrees with Luther and Bonhoeffer that grace demands something of us—our transformation. "Grace requires us to cooperate with God," Cheng writes. Grace is God's work through Jesus to bring us into the fullness of life. And so grace connects us intimately with other people. It gives us courage to live honestly and with integrity. And the willingness to challenge injustice.

    Grace teaches us to transgress the false boundaries and divisions that society has a tendency to erect. It affirms our intrinsic value and our interdependence on one another. And grace "delights in multiplicities, intersections, and interstitial places."


    And so these contemporary teachers of the Christian faith remind us to be concerned about what is good for people. To avoid what harms and misleads and deceives us. And instead to proclaim what saves us, what makes us better.

God desires us to live abundantly. Therefore God has freely given us the power that can transform our lives by forgiving our sins, growing our love, healing our wounds, and empowering us. We cannot buy it, we cannot earn it, it is simply ours, if we but receive it. This is good news. This is Amazing Grace.


O, how sweet the sound

For it saved a wretch like me,

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

To God Be the Glory

To God Be the Glory

2 Chronicles 5:1-14

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

17 September 2017



    "I play the notes as they are written but it is God who makes the music." That was the belief of Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest composer the world has ever seen.

    I was reading about Bach this week as I prepared for this, my first sermon in our autumn series Reformed, in which we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Guided by the adage "the church is always reformed, always reforming," we will explore how best to interpret key doctrines of the Reformation for our time and place—our global, postmodern, scientific, and pluralistic age.

    An article on described the spirituality of Bach's compositional process:


Whenever he began a new piece, he bowed his head and prayed. "Jesus, help me show your glory through the music I write. May it bring you joy even as it brings joy to your people.". . . When he was finally satisfied, he wrote the letters SDG at the bottom of the page - Soli Deo Gloria - For the Glory of God Alone. He hoped that when the music was played, it would point toward God.


    In the biblical story from 2 Chronicles, as Solomon dedicates the temple, the people's worship, particularly the music, summons the glory of God, which is physically manifest. The connection between music and glory is ancient and powerful.

    As I researched and wrote this week, I listened to a lot of Bach. And indeed, the music is glorious. It does manifest the glory of God.


    One of the core doctrines of the Reformation is expressed by this Latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria - For the Glory of God Alone.

    John Calvin wrote


We cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world, however minute, that does not exhibit at least some sparks of beauty; while it is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric as it extends around, without being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory.


    I thought of Monday, August 21 and that beautiful day in which most of us experienced the eclipse. What joy you shared in your stories and pictures and Facebook posts. Again and again the words appeared—amazing, beautiful, glorious. Katie Miller, who was on vacation and saw the eclipse from a hilltop outside Glendo, Wyoming wrote, "Can totally tell why the ancient folk thought something big was going down when it happened."

    Jennifer Forbes-Baily, with her husband and dogs outside Gandy, Nebraska wrote, "When the moon obliterated the sun and day became night, I wished upon the first star that appeared and tears came unbidden – just so incredibly beautiful."

    And my own two year old son, looked up at the total eclipse and pointed and squealed and exclaimed, "The moon." Even the unschooled mind grasped the sublime.

    "We cannot open our eyes without . . . being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory."


Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan preacher, proclaimed that the things of God possess a beauty that sets them apart from the things of humankind. "There is a glory that is so high and great, that when clearly seen, commands assent to their divine reality," he preached.

We were reminded this week of the courage and sacrifice of those first responders who entered the World Trade Center to save their fellow humans. In recent weeks we've witnessed the bravery of ordinary people with their canoes and motorboats pulling stranded flood victims from the tops of roofs. Every single week it is my honor to watch congregants care for one other.

"There is a glory that is so high and great, that when clearly seen, commands assent to their divine reality."


    A traditional definition of the doctrine explains:


The Reformation reclaimed the Scriptural teaching of the sovereignty of God over every aspect of the believer's life. All of life is to be lived to the glory of God. . . . In contrast to the monastic division of life into sacred versus secular perpetuated by [the] Roman Church, the reformers saw all of life to be lived under the Lordship of Christ. Every activity of the Christian is to be sanctified unto the glory of God.


    This idea was most clearly expressed in the opening of the Westminster Catechism of 1646:


    What is the chief end of man?

Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.


This week we've been caring for Joan Eddy who was in the hospital after a fall. Joan has been a member of this congregation since she was confirmed here in 1943 at the age of twelve. Rarely has she held a major leadership position. A few years ago when she was talked into being president of the Women's Fellowship, she wasn't too keen on the idea of being in charge, but she took the role out of a sense of duty and responsibility.

Other than her decades singing the choir, Joan has generally been a behind-the-scenes person. She came to church during the week to work in the choir room, preventing chaos and disorder by filing sheet music. Every two weeks she and Verda Werner would spend an entire day preparing the newsletter for mailing and deliver it to the Post Office, always keeping abreast of the changes in bulk mailing. And she showed up for most things, always a faithful, quiet presence.

Reformed doctrine teaches us that Joan's life participates fully in the glory of God.


    Of course, as with many Reformation doctrines, this teaching builds upon an ancient teaching of the Christian faith, including the words of St. Irenaeus in the second century, "The glory of God is a humanity fully alive."

    What does it mean in the twenty-first century to give glory to God alone? The theologian Bruce Epperly, quoted in our contemporary lesson today, answers this question:


A God of grace and glory moves through every cell and every soul, enlivening, enlightening, and energizing. God's glory is in our salvation—our wholeness and healing—and in the transformation of this good earth so that it might reflect God's aim at beauty, truth, goodness, and justice. We give God glory by following the counsel of Mother Teresa, "to do something beautiful for God."


    And so my invitation to you today is to do something beautiful. To enjoy this day that God has made. To eat good food and drink good drink. To laugh with kids and hug your family. To sing and dance. To hike in the woods, kayak the lakes, and let the butterflies frolic around you. To rise and shine and give God the glory, glory.

For we give glory to God by living beautifully and fully and enjoying all that God has created.


We Need a Holiday

We Need a Holiday

Esther 9:20-23

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

20 August 2017



    Sidnie White Crawford, a Hebrew Bible scholar who teaches at UNL, gives this introduction to the Book of Esther:


The Hebrew book of Esther is an exciting, fast-paced story that has captured the imagination of Jews over the centuries, although it has been less well-received by the Christian church. It contains all the elements of a popular romance novel: a young and beautiful heroine; a wicked, scheming villain; a wise older father figure; and an inept and laughable ruler. In the story good triumphs, evil is destroyed, and all ends happily. It is no surprise, then, that the book of Esther was so popular that, despite certain objections, including its failure to mention God even once, it made its way into the Jewish canon by popular acclaim. Beneath its lighthearted surface, however, the book of Esther explores darker themes: racial hatred, the threat of genocide, and the evil of overweening pride and vanity. These layers of meaning make this book a worthwhile object of study.


    Hear now this story from the Book of Esther:


Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.


For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.



    Do you remember the film The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, and Diane Wiest? Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are a gay couple who own a drag club in Miami, Florida. Gene Hackman and Diane Wiest are the parents of the young woman their son is going to marry. The film is about the meet the parents dinner and how everything goes horribly, comically wrong.

I went to see The Birdcage with two of my good friends, John Eggleston and Laura Picazo. We went to see the movie in our small town of Shawnee, Oklahoma. The theatre was packed, maybe because of the cast who were at the peaks of their careers. Throughout the movie, John, Laura, and I were often the only people laughing at the jokes and gags. And we laughed loud and heartily. I guess the crowd of mostly small town straight people just didn't get all the campy jokes.

    For us queer people camp is an important part of what we do and who we are. When we get together socially we often get really silly. We play up all sorts of stereotypes. Sometimes we dress in outrageous and stupid clothing. We enjoy drag shows.

    It is easy to see the artistic contributions and importance to gay history and culture of works of art like Homer's Iliad, Plato's Symposium, the poetry of Sappho, Shakespeare, and Whitman, the paintings of Michelangelo, the novels of Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and E. M. Forster, and so many other masterworks of world culture.

But deep significance also exists in our lighter moments, our silliness, our camp. And why? Why do queer people sometimes act silly and enjoy absurd things?

    Largely, because we can.

Because we have been an oppressed people, our lives are filled with absurdity. So, in response, we played up the absurd and enjoyed every minute of it. It's our expression of freedom.

    Our stories, our humour, our movies, our music, our fashion, all of these are expressions of freedom. Together these elements of our culture tell the story of an outcast and oppressed people longing for liberation.


    So, what does any of this have to do with the biblical book of Esther? I hope you are asking that question.

    Mona West, in her intriguing essay on Esther says that this book is a form of camp and the purpose of Esther is to make us laugh. The book is full of hilarious comedy, parody, exaggeration, cross-dressing, queer characters, wild parties, and more. The purpose of all of this is "provide subversive critique" of power and gender and all the ways identity is constructed.


    Here is the story in a nutshell.

The Persian emperor Ahasuerus, known most commonly to history as Xerxes, holds a six month long party. Near the end he wants his queen Vashti to appear so that he can show her off. Vashti doesn't want to be a sexual object ogled by the court, so she refuses. Xerxes divorces her for fear that her disobedience will spread to the other women of the empire. Then he holds a beauty pageant to find a new wife and Esther, a Jew, wins.

    Meanwhile Xerxes' evil court official Haman gets angry when the Jew Mordecai doesn't bow down before him, so he gets the king to sign a law that on a certain day people throughout the empire can kill Jews with impunity.

    Meanwhile Mordecai saves the king from a plot two eunuchs hatched. The king compels Haman to honor Mordecai in an over-the-top public display.

    Mordecai also happens to be Esther's uncle, so he lets her know about the threat to the Jews and calls for her to courageously speak to the king about it.

Esther does that. She leaves the harem and enters the presence of the king. We are told that this is dangerous and yet she succeeds at enticing him. She invites him to two banquets, along with Haman. And at the second one she reveals that she is a Jew and that Haman has been plotting against the Jews.

The king then orders Haman to be killed on the gallows he built for Mordecai and gives Mordecai Haman's old job. He also allows the Jews to defend themselves on the day appointed for genocide, and the Jews do, killing thousands of their enemies.

And so Mordecai instructs the people to have a celebration, that became the feast of Purim.

Now, that's the quickest of surveys of a rich and wonderful story.


One of my friends, Jane Ward, wrote on Facebook this week:

Daily we are robbed of our peace and our ability to function as people who have families to care for and neighbors to care for and communities to care for. Instead we fear for our gay children, our black children, our Jewish children, all of our children who are learning no good lessons from this spectacle.


Many of you and many of my other friends and clergy colleagues have expressed a growing weariness, a compassion fatigue. The events of last weekend and this week—the white supremacist violence and the President's pitiful even racist reaction to it—has finally overwhelmed many of us. Me included.

This week I experienced so many emotions—horror, anger, disgust, outrage, sadness, disappointment, confusion. How not to be overwhelmed?

We must remember that humour, joy, and celebration are necessary. And they are essential tools of resistance and social justice.

When life is absurd our celebration can be an expression of our freedom and our hope and that we have not yet been defeated.

The Esther story of threatened genocide ends with a party. They turned "sorrow into gladness and mourning into a holiday." We need a holiday.


You can turn this world around

And bring back all of those happy days

Put your troubles down

It's time to celebrate

Let love shine

And we will find

A way to come together

And make things better

We need a holiday

Dare to Stand

Dare to Stand

Daniel 6:1-24

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

6 August 2017



    The strange thing about this story is that Daniel isn't really the man character; it's the emperor Darius. The narrator never takes us inside the lion's den; never lets us experience the darkness and the terror from Daniel's perspective. Instead, we are told of the fasting and anguish of the king.

    Who is Daniel then?


    The Book of Daniel is split into two sections. The first half of the book records a series of stories about faithful Jews working the court of foreign, imperial rulers, first the Babylonians and then the Persians. The second half is apocalyptic literature about the rise and fall of great empires and God's role in the processes of history.

    As I said last week, when we discussed the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace, this book was not written when the events it narrates occurred, but centuries later in a different time and context. The author, then, is writing down traditional folk tales as a means of encouraging people in their current crisis.

    The book was written in the second century Before the Common Era around the time when the Jews revolted under the Maccabees. Antiochus IV Epiphanes was the Seleucid emperor who ruled ancient Palestine. Antiochus believed himself to be a physical incarnation of divinity, and he wanted his subject people to worship him.

    For the author of the Book of Daniel, Antiochus is the personification of evil, a demonic power. In the New Testament, Antiochus is the prototype for the prophesied anti-Christ.

    There's good reason for Antiochus to be viewed this way. Bible scholar David M. Carr records the oppressive actions Antiochus took against the Jews:


He . . . issued a decree forbidding observance of Jewish laws in Jerusalem and surrounding towns. Jews were forced to offer sacrifice to foreign gods, Torah scrolls were burned, mothers who had allowed their babies to be circumcised were killed with their children. Anyone with a copy of a Torah scroll was executed, and leading citizens were required, on pain of death, to eat pork in public, thus openly disobeying the Torah's commands.


    This reign of terror led to rebellion and ultimately to the independence of the Jewish state.

    This is the context for the writing of the Book of Daniel, though it is set centuries before during the Jewish exile in Babylon, another time when Jews were living under foreign occupation and had to learn how to live and survive with integrity while enduring oppression. As one commentator wrote, this book exhorts people of faith to "resist and pray and hold fast."


    Daniel, then, is a legendary figure. There's no independent historical record of a Jewish Daniel as a prominent figure in the courts of the Babylonians and Persians. In fact, the only Daniel we find mentioned in the independent historical record appears in Ugaritic literature as a righteous king of the 14th century Before the Common Era.

The Book of Daniel inaccurately narrates the timeline of rulers and suggests that Daniel remained a high official over multiple rulers in different empires stretching so many decades that his lifespan stretches credulity.

We can confidently say we are in the realm of folk tale and legend. Who then is Daniel, within this legend?

    At the beginning of the Book of Daniel, Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego are promising young Jews whom the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar takes into court service. Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Judea and carried away the elite as exiles. The first chapter of Daniel tells us that Nebuchadnezzar ordered his chief eunuch 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" and teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans so that they might serve the king.

    It was common in the ancient world to have eunuchs in the service of the royal court. It was also common to make eunuchs of the conquered people and force them to serve their conqueror.

    There are layers of horror in this story that we don't encounter in the Sunday school version. These four young men were likely emasculated. They, in many ways, were slaves. One wonders if there is sexual violence involved as well, especially the way the story tells us that the king wanted attractive young eunuchs.

    Despite the horror and injustice, these young men thrive in the foreign court. That's especially difficult under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar has become something of an archetype for the mad tyrant. He consistently makes bad and unjust decisions. His anger is always roiling just below the surface and explodes in violence. In one story, he goes mad and lives like a wild animal in the wilderness for a time.

    Nebuchadnezzar is a cautionary tale of his own.

    Daniel survives and thrives in this frightening setting and through the reigns of other emperors of varying degrees of sanity, rationality, and morality.


    The Persian Emperor Darius comes off pretty good, especially in comparison to Nebuchadnezzar. The Hebrew Bible generally has a good view of the Persian kings. We'll encounter another one in a couple of weeks when we look at the story of Esther. The Persians emperors ended the exile and allowed the Jewish leaders to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the Temple. So the Bible often views them as the agents of God. The Persian Emperor Cyrus is even called Messiah at one point.

    The evil people here are the other court leaders, the bureaucrats. This theme will continue in the Book of Esther.

    But as one commentary I read stated, "The court of Darius is a kangaroo court. . . Daniel was innocent; yet Persian law threw him to the lions quite legally and properly." This story reminds us that even an emphasis upon law and order can itself be unjust.

    Daniel, then, has become a symbol of civil disobedience. Even Gandhi studied and wrote about Daniel as he formulated his methods that later influenced the American Civil Rights Movement and most modern efforts to expand human rights.

    Daniel may be a legend, but he has had a lasting impact upon our world.


    A favourite book in my library is entitled Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible. It's a series of literary essays on the Hebrew Scriptures. The essay on Daniel was written by the novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz. It's a rich essay full of insights, and I'll only scratch the surface of it today.

    She writes about how as a child she read the stories of Daniel in a children's book and was fascinated by them. These children's stories, she says, "taught two supreme things." And those lessons were:


That freedom is a quality of the inner spirit and not of the body's circumstances, and that events move purposefully—if mysteriously—toward just and meaningful conclusions.


    These are the simple morals of the stories. But, as I've pointed out the last few weeks, these rich ancient stories never stay put for the simple moral conclusions. Schwartz writes, "Many of us who have grown to maturity amid the brutalities of the twentieth century find these beliefs impossible to sustain."

    We all want to believe that we would be people of integrity in the most dangerous of circumstances. We all want to believe that life works out to just conclusions. But we also know how unlikely both are.

    At General Synod one of the keynote address was by Glennon Doyle, who is a popular author and blogger, particularly among those seeking Christian parenting advice. After the murders at Mother Emmanuel she was reading a book to her children about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. One of her children asked, "Mommy, if we had lived then, would we have marched with them?" Glennon answered, "Of course honey." Then her other child said, "No we wouldn't have. We wouldn't have marched then, because we aren't marching now."


    One problem with reading this story is that we want to cast ourselves as Daniel, right? But maybe we aren't Daniel. Maybe we are one of the other characters in the story. This is often a problem in biblical interpretation. We like to think we would be the Good Samaritan stopping to help the injured person, when Jesus really wants us to consider what it is like to be the person beaten up and lying on the side of the road who receives help from a person who disgusts him.

    Maybe the narrator stays with Darius instead of Daniel in order to make us think of the ways we are Darius. The ways we are the functionaries within an unjust system.

    For example, I'm sure some members of the Omaha tribe think of us as the foreign imperial power.

    And one reason it's often difficult to read the writing of Ta Nehisi Coates is that he reminds us white people of the continuing role we play in the oppression of African Americans.


    There's a 19th century children's hymn called "Dare to Be a Daniel." The chorus goes:


Dare to be a Daniel!

Dare to stand alone!

Dare to have a purpose firm!

Dare to make it known!


    But maybe what we should dare is to imagine what life is like for actual Daniels who must, as Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes, "go into a dark, savage place" and survive.

    Maybe we should dare to imagine how we make that injustice possible.

Never Get Burned

Never Get Burned

Daniel 3:1-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

30 July 2017



    At 6:30 a.m on September 13, 1814 a fleet of the Royal Navy under command of Rear Admiral Cockburn opened fire on Fort McHenry, the primary defense of Baltimore harbor. The bombardment was one part of a well-organized British battle plan that had begun the day before when troops were landed on North Point and had moved toward the city.

    The British land forces had advanced the day before, but not as successfully as they had expected. They took heavy casualties and their commander, Major General Robert Ross, was killed. They had expected the American troops to flee, as they had done the month before when the British attacked and burned Washington.

    But Baltimore had prepared for this attack. They had trained fighters, dug trenches, blockaded their harbor, and built forts. They had their own plan of defense that accurately anticipated the British movements. They expected forces to land at North Point and successfully drew them inland away from their supplies where the British were surprised to encounter thousands of troops in well-built defenses. The British soon realized that they could not win the land battle without a naval bombardment, but the fleet first had to get past Fort McHenry.

    The British assumed that the Fort would surrender under the force of the bombardment. But it did not.

    By afternoon, the fleet stopped its attack and tried moving closer to the fort, but soon came under attack from the cannons of the fort and withdrew to their original position, where they reopened fire.

    In the night some ships attempted to get past the fort, but were discovered and 1,200 British were killed or captured.

    The defenders of Fort McHenry withstood twenty-five hours of rockets, bombs, and cannonballs, all while it rained heavily. Four men were killed and twenty-four were wounded.

    At dawn's early light, Major George Armistead ordered that a huge American flag created for just such a moment by local seamstress Mary Pickersgill be raised as a sign of defiance. The musicians of the fort played "Yankee Doodle" as the flag was raised.

    Not only did the sight inspire Francis Scott Key to compose our national anthem, but the flag signaled to the British navy that their attack had failed.

    And with the successful defense of Baltimore, the tide turned in the War of 1812. It is possible that had the fort surrendered and the British taken Baltimore, that they could have built upon a string of successes to defeat the young American republic, bringing an end to our experiment in democracy.


    On Sunday, July 2 of this year I visited Fort McHenry during a break in activities of the United Church of Christ General Synod. As I explored the fort and learned details of that fateful dawn, my spirit swelled with patriotic respect. These brave people had withstood an overwhelming attack and saved the cause of liberty.

    I needed this dose of patriotism. The week before, I visited Washington, D.C. on my way to Synod. I went to D. C. to see friends, but also took the time to walk among the memorial and monuments and visit the museums. I was hoping for encouragement and inspiration from the ideals of our democracy, but the visit only increased my sadness.

    As I read the great words of Lincoln and Jefferson and King, honored the sacrifices of our veterans, and contemplated the hard work of ordinary people in the growth of our national ideals, the contrast with the news of the day and current political situation of the United States made me very sad.

    It was only at Fort McHenry that my ideals were inspired, as I experienced this story of brave people withstanding an assault upon democracy.


    The stories in the Book of Daniel are about how to live in a compromised even terrorizing political system and to remain a person of integrity. They are stories of resistance. As one commentator said, these stories "call people to active, nonviolent resistance to the symbols of worldly power and its religious expressions."

    Scholars believe that the Book of Daniel was written in the second century Before the Common Era and so tells what would by then have been old legends in order to provide assurance for a new context.    

    The book was likely written during the reign of the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes after the abomination of desolation when he consecrated the Temple in Jerusalem to the worship of Zeus and banned the Jewish faith. This resulted in the Maccabean revolt.

    At a time when people were dying for their faith resisting an evil empire, the author of this book drew upon stories set in the past, during the exile of the Jews in Babylon, another time when faithful resistance was called for. We'll explore another of these stories next week, when we look at Daniel in the lion's den, so I'll have more to say about the historical context and its implications.

    The basic theme of these stories is that God will triumph, no matter how dark and dismal current circumstances are.

    By the second century Before the Common Era, the Jews were already well-acquainted with foreign occupation, resistance of evil, and the difficult work of surviving and maintaining their cultural and religious identity.

    Obviously, that Jewish history did not end with the time of the Bible, as Jews have now spent millennia repeating this story, often drawing parallels to these stories of ancient biblical heroes.


    We Christians have also drawn upon these stories as sources of encouragement in dire circumstances. This week I learned about the Christmas Eve liturgy in the Armenian Church when this story is read by three young boys. A website of the Armenian Church explained:


We read this story as an anticipation of Christ's resurrection from the dead and the presence of the living Son of God in our midst assuring us of God's healing and life-restoring presence for all eternity. Just as the faithful boys are not burned by the heat of the furnace, those who know and trust Christ will be saved from the flames of hell.


    And so we read this story as God's promise of deliverance in the midst of darkness.    

    But of course, we cannot naively read this story. Life isn't quite that simple.

Jews died in the fiery furnaces of the Holocaust. No fourth man appeared to rescue them and bring down the murderous tyrant.

Even the Fort McHenry story is more complicated. Exhibits at the Fort point out that the invading British had declared they would end slave and liberate enslaved persons. So, were the defenders of the fort the defenders of liberty or not? It's so complicated.


    I believe this story in Daniel is aspirational. It makes no guarantees; sometimes we will not survive the fire

Instead its purpose is to encourage us. Sometimes we will survive the fire. Sometimes if we resist as people of integrity and courage, the enemy will be defeated and good with triumph.