Wake Up

st. susanna [low]

When I was younger I sought to memorize the Bible.  You know, for those moments when you need it the most.  I believe I read it somewhere in a story on Christians in Communist Russia.  The story glorified the martyrs and heroes in the faith that sat in prison and recited the Bible which they had memorized.  In doing this they saved souls.  Saving souls was the most important thing I could think of doing as a Christian.  I thought that was what a “real” Christians did.

Sword drills.  Bible Clubs.  Countless hours spent on writing the Word upon my heart.  Never really getting to the point in which the Word became anything other than words.

Years passed, I fall in and out of faith.  I find myself as a high school youth director at a church.  I am responsible for the faith formation of a bunch of amazing high schoolers.  My ideas around Christianity have changed.  My understanding of faith shifted.  So, I did what I knew how to do and set up a challenge.  Memorize the most Bible verses and win a prize.

We negotiated the prize together.  They wanted the winner to chose a drawing that I would get tattooed on my body.  The buzz was exciting.  The students immediately set out to find the perfect drawing.  There were unicorns, Disney characters, Loony Toons, a few dragons, and Power Puff Girls.

They went strong for the first couple of weeks.  I kept a chart in my office.  Almost everyday after school students would come to my office and hang out.  They would show me the images I would get tattooed on my body when they won.  They were very excited to be able to permanently mark themselves on my body.  I got a bit nervous when I saw what some of them wanted to tattoo on me.

The theme became lets put the silliest tattoo on Ryan.

The semester came and went.  Summer arrived.  Not one student had memorized a single Bible verse.  The power they eagerly dreamed of disappeared in time.  Washed away with the other social responsibilities of teenage life.  Say for one student.  He won the contest with “Jesus Wept.” and John 3:16.  He still insists that I get the Power Puff Girls tattoo that he lovingly decided that I ought to get.

I offered my students a degree of power over me.  I was submitting myself to their authority.  In hindsight the power that I offer them and that I gave up was not the most responsible act I have ever committed.

Imagine a world with out power.  Total anarchy?  The absence of power might be more terrifying that the utter dominance of power.

My quest to memorize the Bible was a quest for power.  It is what I knew so I offered it as normative to my students.  They responded to the need for power.

The Bible is replete with stories of power.  The struggle for power is at the center of the great love story between God and creation.  Power is at the root of the fruits from the garden.  Power is the stage to which the story of Susanna plays out.

Susanna, is a very beautiful and God-fearing woman.  She is married to the wealthy, Joakim.  The couple lives in Babylon in a fine house with an orchard.  Being wealthy and respected, many Jews come to the couple’s house to settle their disagreements in the presence of two elders chosen from among the people for their wisdom.  Bestowing great power upon them.

In the afternoon when the people have departed, Susanna is in the habit of walking in the orchard.  The two elders pass her every day and, without admitting it to one another because they are ashamed, begin to desire her passionately.

One day, having parted for dinner and unable to bear it any longer, they each separately retrace their steps to spy on her.  In doing so they meet up again.  They confess their desire for Susanna to one another and decide to act together.

As they hid in the orchard waiting for the right moment, the two lustful elders overhear a conversation between Susanna and two maids accompanying her.  Susanna asks them to close the doors of the orchard and to fetch oil and perfumes so she can bathe, as it is hot.

When the maids have left, the elders come out of their hiding place and try to blackmail Susanna, saying: “Behold the doors of the orchard are shut, and nobody knows we are here, and we are in love with you.  Because of this you must consent to and lie with us. But if you will not, we will bear witness against you, that a young man was with you, after you had sent away your maidservants.”

Thinking she is lost whatever she decides, Susanna chooses not to give in to them to avoid sinning.  So she cries out, as do the two crafty elders while at the same time opening the doors of the orchard.  People come running and listen to the elders’ lies.

The next day, the people are assembled at Joakim’s house.  The two elders, who have the power that accompanies their role as judges of the people, reiterate their accusation:

“As we walked in the orchard alone, this woman came in with two maids, and shut the doors of the orchard, and sent away the maids from her. Then a young man came to her, and lay with her.  But we that were in a corner of the orchard, seeing this wickedness, ran up to them, and we saw them lie together.  He could not apprehend the young man because he was stronger than us.  We asked who the young man was but she would not tell us.”

Susanna replies:  “O’ eternal God, who knows hidden things, who knows all things before they come to pass, You know that they have borne false witness against me; and behold I must die, whereas I have done none of these things, which these men have maliciously forged against me.”

God hears Susanna and awakens the holy spirit of Daniel, a young boy, as she is being led to her death.  Daniel then asks to question the two elders separately.  He asks the first under what tree Susanna and her lover were conversing.  The man claims that it was a mastic tree.

The second elder, to whom Daniel puts the same question, mentions a holm-oak.  Daniel having proved that the two elders were lying, they are condemned to death and Susanna is cleared of the suspicion of adultery.  “And Daniel became great in the sight of the people from that day, and thence forward.”

Power is intoxicating.  Power can leave us exhausted, depleted, and empty.  As Lord Acton offers us, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  While I believe this to be most certainly true for humanity I worry that if applied to God that we assert a power over God that is not possible.  God is God and we are not.  Power and the quest for it orients the world we live in but power certainly does not fashion nor fuel the existence of God.

Often power and lust are the same.  Power clouds, veils, and perverts the beauty and goodness of God’s fearfully and wonderfully made creation.  We, God’s creatures, suffer from exposure to power.  The cultural stripes to which this community bears in the not so distant memories of “separate, but equal” bears witness of the false testimony of those in power that lie in wait.  Seeking to do harm in secret.  Institutionalizing the suppression of God’s grand goodness for all.

The story of Susanna warns us of the dangers of power.  God teaches us that power is something to be engaged in community and with great awareness.  Power warms over the peace that Christ calls us to.  Power reveals the best and worst of us all.

We can look to Uncle Ben, the uncle of Spiderman who said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Perhaps this is the best statement of power applied to our understanding of God.  God’s whispers bring about creation.  Surely, destruction can also be whispered.  With what delicate balance do we entertain our understanding of God?

Where do you find yourself in the story of Susanna?  Again, Imagine a world with out power and I will show you heaven.

One

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I remember my first Bible.  I was in third grade.  It was a King James Version.  I grew up thinking that Jesus spoke English, in that a form of English that Shakespeare and the tight-wearing people at the Renaissance Fair spoke as well.  In many ways my theological upbringing was largely Medieval.

I went to a Lutheran elementary school.  There we were made to memorize scripture and imprint God’s Word upon our hearts.  We had events like Spelling Bees in which individuals competed to prove who memorized the most Bible verses.  The school used corporal punishment to insight students to complete homework.  So, if you didn’t memorize Bible verses you got licks from a paddle.

Luckily, this action was reserved for the worst offenders.  I got paddled but not as often as some.  I was not the first but I was also not the last.  I kept safely in the middle.  I hid from God on my belly in the swings as I soared to places beyond me.  I flew to many places before I ever traveled to one.

I learned to like the Bible.  I never quite fell in love with the Bible.  I did however love to explore the world the Bible was set in.  I would draw on the maps in my Bible.  I mapped out races that I imagined fuel-sucking trucks would compete in.  Tearing down the desert towards the finish line to win the Ark of the Covenant.

I imagined that the Transformers were waiting to be discovered, along with mummies, in the belly of the Temple in Jerusalem.  I played out how G.I. Joe would save Jesus from the cross, I did not want him to die, and then led the Disciples against the Romans, who were being supported by COBRA.

There was something missing in the Bible I memorized.  Sure, there is action, romance, and plenty of sexcapades.  I wanted more.  So, I filled in the gaps.  I was always bothered by the “silent years” of Jesus.  We get Jesus’ birth.  A story from when he was 12.  Then we pick up when he’s a grown man.  What happened to the bulk of Jesus’ life?

It turns out that I am not the only person to have been troubled by this.  There are countless authors that deliver to us accounts of what Jesus did during his youth.  One of my favorites is Christopher Moore’s “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.”  It reads more like a comic book, with antics galore but is as much irreverent and playful as it is insightful and contemplative.

Then there is The Infancy Gospel of Thomas attributed to Thomas the Israelite.  This is not Didymos, Doubting Thomas, from the Bible.  This is a different fella.  This Thomas offers us a different kind of Jesus.  Here’s a couple stories from The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

“After that Jesus was passing through the village; and a boy was running along and bumped into Jesus’ shoulder.  Jesus got angry, and said to him: You will not go back the way you came.  And immediately the boy fell down dead.  And some who saw what had happened and said, ‘From where did this child come from, that every word of his is assured?’  The parents of the dead boy went to Joseph, and blamed him saying, ‘Since you have such a child, it is impossible for you to live with us in the village; teach him to bless, and not to curse, for he is killing our children [V4].’”

 

“And some days after, Jesus was playing in an upper room of a certain house, and one of the children that was playing with him fell down from the house, and was killed.  And, when the other children saw this, they ran away, and Jesus was left alone on the roof.  The parents of the dead child came and threatened Jesus.  Jesus jumped down from the roof, and stood beside the body of the child, and cried with a loud voice, and said, ‘Zeno, for that was his name, stand up, and tell me; did I throw you down?  Zeno stood up immediately, and said, ‘Certainly not, my lord; you did not throw me down, but have raised me up.’  Those that saw this were struck with astonishment.  The child’s parents glorified God on account of the miracle that had happened, and adored Jesus [V9].”

Imagine a boy, he’s got miraculous powers and a still forming identity.  Jesus is developing a sense of personal control over his physical skills and a sense of independence.  Jesus is seeking autonomy hoping to avoid feelings of shame and doubt.  Jesus has “daddy issues.”

Jesus begins to assert control and power over his environment.  Only he’s got far greater powers and control over his environment that the other kids in his village do.  Jesus is awakening to his purpose.  Jesus, perhaps, is exerting too much power to compensate for the “daddy issues” and experiences disapproval resulting in a sense of guilt.

Jesus copes with the new social and academic demands on his life.  He’s expected to learn the trade of Joseph and contribute to the family’s well being.  Joseph corrects and Jesus yells, “You’re not my real dad!” and runs out of the house.  Jesus wrestles with certainty and uncertainty.  He vacillates between competence and inferiority.  Perhaps, he is awakening to what it is that his “father” wants him to do.

I can’t imagine that would be easy for anyone, let alone a child whose identity is still forming.  I imagine that Jesus had a difficult time exploring who and what he was.  I have a hard enough time dealing with my privilege and I am hardly the Son of God.

The successful development of a child includes imagination, nurturing, firm and clear boundaries (that can be challenged and tested), and reliable care.  Our faith also develops in this fashion.  Remember we are called to have faith like a child.  This is a call to enter in to the faithful confines of imagination to be nurtured by God, via firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence for us, for that we might challenge and test this firm and certain knowledge in order to fully develop in to the fearfully and wonderfully creatures of God that we were fashioned to be.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas reminds us of the complexity to which we all are subject.  We will experience the terrifying reality of a developing world, awkwardness of adolescence, the pains of adulthood, and the liberation of death.  Absent of the witness of boy Jesus the church is void of the full cycle of the human experience.

When you embrace the beauty, diversity, and majesty present in all of God’s creation you awaken to the reality that you are right where God is calling you to be.  Fear, anxiety, and woe may be given to God and the peace of a raging pre-teen Jesus is upon you.

Now, you know.  And knowing is half the battle.

Alone Again Or

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For the next two months we will be exploring the far reaches of our faith.  We will be exploring sacred texts many of us have not heard before.  We will engage sacred texts from other faith traditions in earnest, as we seek to boldly challenge our faith and the institutions that fashioned it.

This is the part where I hand out little bags to y’all just in case you get ill.  These next few weeks might serve to alarm you.  You may be encouraged at how visible God is beyond the confines of the 46 First Testament books and the 27 books of the Second Testament.  I hope that as we depart the safe harbor of orthodox Christian canon, we may explore the waters beyond.  We are in a sense becoming explores searching for a world outside of the one that we have known.  Only, we are not seeking to dominate, control, and exploit.  We depart our harbor in search of knowledge and new understanding that we may bring back to the cities of our lives and share the wisdom we gain.

Exploration is not always easy or comfortable.  My promise to you is that I will not ask of you anything that I am not willing to do first and I will not do anything to harm any of us.

Today we will explore Daniel 14.  I would like you to take out your pew Bibles and turn to the end of Daniel on page (_____).  Is everyone there?  Did anyone find the end of Daniel in their Bible?

It ends at chapter 12, right?  There is no Daniel 14 in the Bible that we use in the Protestant Church.  We cut that part out during the Reformation.  The powers that be removed them in order to distance the reformers from Rome.  So, today some Christians include this book in the Bible and others do not.

There has been controversy about this chapter of Daniel for at least 1,700 years.  Why?

Before we go to the “why”, let’s check out the “what” and “how” real quick.  The Bible is not a static document.  Prior to 367 AD there were many collections of letters, gospels, and other writings that Christian communities (churches) used to teach, preach, and learn of the person of Jesus Christ.  It was sort of a mini arms race to secure the most followers that accepted your Bible.  These power struggles pitted bishop against bishop and church against church.  This war was won when, in 331 AD, Constantine, the Emperor, commissioned 50 copies of the Bible being used by the Bishop of Constantine.  A letter from Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, affirmed this action in 367 AD.

The scholar Felix Just offers us these four “Criteria for Canonicity.”

  1. Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based upon the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
  2. Universal Acceptance — acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the 4th century) as well as accepted canon by Jewish authorities (for the Old Testament).
  3. Liturgical Use — read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord’s Supper (their weekly worship services).
  4. Consistent Message — containing a theological outlook similar to or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.

What about Daniel 14?  Why is it not in the Bible?

Daniel 14 is also known as, “Bel and the Dragon.”  It consists of 2 stories.  The first is a story of Daniel remaining loyal to God and not worshipping the gods of Babylon.  Daniel exposes the priests of Bel, who worship an idol of the dragon, by putting ash all over the floor of the temple and proving that it was them that ate the food set out for Bel.

The second story is a reframing of a previous story of Daniel in the lion’s den.  Daniel is in there because he killed the dragon the Babylonians worshipped with some sort of homemade poison.  There is time travel by the prophet Habakkuk in there, as he brings Daniel a meal from God to Babylon from Judea.

I do not know the exact reasons why this chapter of Daniel was not kept in the Bibles in our pews.  I imagine it has not been able to maintain a fan club because it has not been in there for us to read and engage.  Is it any stranger than much of the other stories that we maintained in our canon?

A human that is born of a virgin.  That same human being God.  That same human God dying and rising from the dead 3 days later and then ascending in to heaven.  A cranky old man calling on she-bears to devour a bunch of teenagers that called him bald.  A time traveling Messiah.  An ark with a pair of every animal on earth in it.  A fiery furnace that cannot consume 3 people.  A shepherd boy that threw a rock that killed a giant grown man.

The Bible is filled with amazing stories that defy the norms we encounter all around us.  Let us look at the first story of Daniel 14.

Daniel was a companion of the king and was held in higher honor than any of the Friends of the King.  The Babylonians had an idol called Bel, and every day they provided for it six bushels of fine flour, forty sheep, and six measures of wine.  The king revered it and went every day to worship it; but Daniel worshiped only his God.  When the king asked him, “Why do you not worship Bel?” Daniel replied, “Because I do not revere idols made with hands, but only the living God who made heaven and earth and has dominion over all flesh.”  Then the king continued, “You do not think Bel is a living god?  Do you not see how much he eats and drinks every day?”  Daniel began to laugh. “Do not be deceived, O king,” he said; “it is only clay inside and bronze outside; it has never eaten or drunk anything.”  Enraged, the king called his priests and said to them, “Unless you tell me who it is that consumes these provisions, you shall die.  But if you can show that Bel consumes them, Daniel shall die for blaspheming Bel.”  Daniel said to the king, “Let it be as you say!”

 

There were seventy priests of Bel, besides their wives and children.  When the king went with Daniel into the temple of Bel, the priests of Bel said, “See, we are going to leave.  You, O king, set out the food and prepare the wine; then shut the door and seal it with your ring.  If you do not find that Bel has eaten it all when you return in the morning, we are to die; otherwise Daniel shall die for his lies against us.”  They were not perturbed, because under the table they had made a secret entrance through which they always came in to consume the food.  After they departed the king set the food before Bel, while Daniel ordered his servants to bring some ashes, which they scattered through the whole temple; the king alone was present.  Then they went outside, sealed the closed door with the king’s ring, and departed.  The priests entered that night as usual, with their wives and children, and they ate and drank everything.

 

Early the next morning, the king came with Daniel.  “Are the seals unbroken, Daniel?” he asked.  And Daniel answered, “They are unbroken, O king.”  As soon as he had opened the door, the king looked at the table and cried aloud, “You are great, O Bel; there is no deceit in you.”  But Daniel laughed and kept the king from entering.  He said, “Look at the floor and consider whose footprints these are.”  “I see the footprints of men, women, and children!” said the king.  In his wrath the king arrested the priests, their wives, and their children. They showed him the secret door by which they used to enter to consume what was on the table.  The king put them to death, and handed Bel over to Daniel, who destroyed it and its temple.

It is sort of a Scooby-Doo mystery.  The priests of Bel would have gotten away with it, if it were not for that meddling Daniel.

Daniel 14 is offering us something profound.  It is calling us to think.  It is calling us to use non-violence as a means of action.  To humiliate the oppressors.  Daniel stands his ground and seizes the moral initiative with creative alternative to violence.  He meets force with ridicule and humor.  He risks his life to expose the unjust power of his oppressors.  In the process he shames the oppressor into repentance.  He forces the powers that be to make decisions that they were not ready for.  This transforms everyone.  The oppressor no longer have the edge.  Their power is questioned and judged.  Nonviolence wins.

A nonviolent call is not a call to passivity or tolerance but a call to creative resistance that destabilizes the violent acts of power of the oppressor.  This is the core of what Daniel 14 shares with us.  Jesus’ Third way of active resistance in nonviolence is modeled for us in Daniels resistance against the Babylonian Bel.  We too are called to withstand the injustice of the oppressor, expose the false gods, and destroy the idols so that all may be liberated.