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Steel, a Diamond, And To Know One’s Self
The Reverend Krystal Leedy
August 5, 2018
A reading from Daniel:
King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, the herald proclaimed aloud, ‘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.’ Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshipped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘O king, live forever! You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue, and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’
Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‘Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?’
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘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 him 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.’
Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace to be heated up seven times more than was customary, and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counsellors, ‘Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?’ They answered the king, ‘True, O king.’ He replied, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.’ Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!’ So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counsellors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make 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; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.’
I love this chapter in Daniel, mostly because of my love for lists. Those little dots on the paper, the satisfaction of writing the list, the thought that goes into placing things into categories, it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. If I were to write poetry instead of merely appreciate it, I have no doubt that it would just be lists of things. Things that drive me crazy. Things that I find beautiful. Things about God. After all, commas may be one of the best punctuation marks in the English language. The mark that makes us all take breath. The small pause before an aside. The Oxford comma that reminds us that the last thing goes with the first. A punctuation mark that encompasses pausing, breathing, and belonging. I can’t be for sure, but that little stroke of the pen may actually be the Holy Spirit. News stories seem to despise this little spirited curl, which causes us to breathe. My roommate in college, who was a journalism major, would sometimes proofread my papers and take her red pen to attack all of my commas, cutting them down, forcing the breath out of my exegesis, my reflections, my sermons, but I secretly kept them in. In fact, if you read this sermon online, be prepared. This sermon is full of commas, and they are not always used correctly. Commas give a reader the chance to recall what was said before that momentary pause. To reflect. To not yet conclude. To just sit there in the already, but not yet. Because despite the fact that journalism does not lend itself to commas, the arts are all over it. They are signals to readers of poetry. And helpful for actors who must decide how to embody them. These little signals are gifts to musicians. And, our story today is dependent upon the comma. Many lists are repeated in this text. And these commas give us pause.
At times giggles can be heard at Easter Vigils during the reading of such a text. These lists are almost singing. The horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble. These commas call these things together. The satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces. And in this case, these commas are calling together groups of people not in random order but in the order of their rank. The order is important. Or is it? The poetic move here is brilliant, to list all of these folks over and over again to the point of redundancy—to perhaps say something more about the nature of One rather than the upward mobility within the political world of Babylon. Because of these commas, because of this repetition, we have now set the Babylonian empire up as a joke: a man who wants a huge statue built in his image, the minions that surround him that seem redundant “yes men” who will take a bow toward an inanimate object when called upon to, and a massive band that commands all to take the exact same stance toward the authoritarian regime of the leader. The pomp and arrogance displayed here is amazing.
And can’t you just see it? The band, the crowd, the statue. The command, the song, the bow. And as the sea of faces fall to the ground, there remain three people standing without speaking a word. Three people not taking the stance that was expected of them. Three people not showing respect of what they were being asked to do because they didn’t buy into the empire.
I believe that most empires attempt to start off with high ideals. They’re made up of people who believe that they have figured out the best way to live and to share that with the world. It’s lofty. It’s probably prideful to begin with, so the cancer of sin creeps in slowly, and pretty soon you’ve got people willing to sell themselves out for what the Empire is offering: with I imagine is mostly security for the people that the empire deems worthy. If you buy into this, you’ll be safe. It’s no accident that the times in history where the church and whatever empire it was were in cahoots with one another, that the people (Not the satraps, the prefects, and the governors…) but the people, the ordinary people, suffer. If you can hear the voices of the poor crying out at the hands of an empire, then you may not want to yell at the poor. It may be time to take a stand against the empire.
One of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, wrote a book of lists in the 18th century. The nom-de-plume of Poor Richard would eventually be shaken in favor of his love of science, but in his twenties, he was a proverbial list maker. His pithy sayings were recorded in Poor Richard’s Almanack: Gem like: “Fish and visitors stink in three days.” And, “A quarrelsome man has no good neighbors.” Ring with truth, as does, “A mob’s a monster; heads enough, but no brains.” And “Vain-glory flowereth but beareth no fruit.” Also “Humility makes great men twice honourable.” And of course, the list that became intriguing to me as I looked at this almanac: “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know oneself.” And these are nice ideas, and truly, I think Ben Franklin had lofty goals and dreams when penning his words. And we use the lofty goals of the American documents as barbs when trying to make an argument, and we try to claim our identity from the empire. But Ben Franklin didn’t say that you should look to the United States to tell you who you are. He said it was hard to know yourself, as hard as steel. As hard as diamonds.
You cannot rely on the empire to tell you how to live. It’s going to try, but you can’t rest on that. You have to decide on your own values. When put to the fire, the steel is forged. When put under pressure, the diamond emerges. And when surrounded by your closest friends and in the presence of God, under pressure and in the fire, your identity is solidified.
You don’t have to hate or love current institutions to be a Christian. In fact, I think most black and white thinking is unwise, especially because we see good people get caught up in the powers that be all the time, and we see how people can corrupt beautiful ideals all the time. When you just claim to blanketly hate or love any institution or group of people, you pull so many things into that generalization. It is wise to critique power, especially since we formed a government that begins with “we comma, the people.” But you must critique a system that you are in, not just standing outside of and pointing at, and you have to be able to say, we might be wrong. Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego were all government officials, who claimed that if their God did not deliver them, then they would still not worship the golden statue. These Babylonian government officials claimed humility even in the stance they took. If you claim to hate politics and try to stand outside of it, good luck. We, the people. And if you want to critique the institution of religion from the outside, good luck. We, the people of God. We stick by each other, even when it’s time to stand when everyone else has their face low.
And certainly, if you are happy with the way things are, then by all means, live into that contentment. But if you are not, then you need to fight back. And we believe in a God of community and we believe in a God who fights back not with swords but plowshares, not with guns but silent resistance, not with fire but with God’s very presence with us. We see a God fight back against powers gone wrong with creativity. We see a God who fights back with beauty.
The songs we sing. The poetry we claim. The humor we rattle. The silence we embody. These are all acts of resistance. And they are non-violent, communal, and thoroughly biblical. This whole story today was an act of resistance, not just because those three men stood up when they were “not supposed to,” but down to every last comma: the humor, the poetry, it was all an act of creative resistance. And these stories and this God inspire us to more acts of creative resistance against that powers that continually crush people.
It’s not an accident that our salvation history begins with a creative act against the void and the chaos. It was an act of resistance. A firm stand in the face of chaos with humorous creations like the platypus, the chameleon, and the kangaroo, which are thoroughly adorable but utterly ridiculous animals. It is also not an accident that that same creative God pushed back the Red Sea when God could have just struck down the empire. It is also not an accident that God spoke to God’s people in poetic metaphor like a wisdom calling to us at an entrance and us as bones coming back to life. We believe in a creative God who will stand with us through fire, through the times in our lives when we find out who we really are, not because it’s going to give us a better seat in the next leader’s empire. We, the people of God, believe in a creative God because we see a better way of life for ourselves—a more creative and beautiful life full of courageous people who are willing to take a stand, just like us.
May the Kingdom of God never be corrupted. May this creative God rule over us in wisdom. And may God continue to fuel a creative resistance against the empire. May it be so.