Texts: Daniel 3:1-18; Luke 22:14-30
Speaker: Joel MIller
This is Part 1 of a 7 week series on our Membership Commitment statement.
The August edition of Sojourners magazine features short letters written to the American church – that’s us – from Christian leaders around the world. The feature is called “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.”
These letters come from places like El Progreso, Honduras; Taize, France; New Delhi,, India, Johannesburg, South Africa; The Wakka Wakka nation, located within land now called Australia.
As you might imagine, the letters address us as Christians living within a global superpower.
One letter comes from Ruth Padilla Deborst. She’s the director of a World Vision program in Santa Domingo, Costa Rica.
She begins: “I write to you as a sister from Latin America who yearns to see peace and justice embrace on this suffering planet that is humanity’s home. I write you in hopes that you will ponder these questions in the spirit they are offered, that of a shared prayer that God’s good will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
She then asks three questions.
I’ll read just the first one. Here it is:
“First, might worship of God, the creator and sustainer of all life, to whom the whole earth belongs, not be more faithfully embodied in responsible care of all that God created than in elaborate Sunday services while energy, creativity, and imagination the rest of the week are concentrated on consumption and accumulation without a thought for their ecological impact or the effects of privileged lifestyles on the great majorities both inside and beyond the borders or your nation-state?”
It’s a leading question, and one impressively long sentence.
Otherwise, what caught my attention about this question is how our sister Ruth presents her concern as a matter of worship. Worship of God, she is suggesting, has to do with how we use our energy, creativity, and imagination. And she has a thing or two to say about how she sees the American church as a whole engaging in worship.
We seem to agree with Ruth Padilla Deborst about the centrality of worship. It’s the first of these seven commitments we name. “Gather for worship and around the table where all are welcome.”
One of the great worship stories of the Bible is in Daniel 3. This is a story most commonly known for two features. Those three young men whose fantastic names are yet to make it into the top ten list of baby names in any year, ever: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedneggo. And a fourth name, similarly rare among newborns and old alike: Nebuchadnezzar. And, feature #2, the fiery furnace into which the three are thrown, from which they emerge unscathed, without even a scent of smoke on their clothes or skin.
But the fact that they survive the fiery furnace is explicitly not the point of the story. We ended the reading at this point, verses 16-18:
“16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17 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.18 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.”
Aside from the names and the furnace, looming over this story, quite literally, or at least literarily, is that 60 cubit/ 98 ft tall golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar set up. Meant to inspire awe, devotion, reverence, and allegiance from, as the text says, “all the peoples, nations, and languages.”
Awe, devotion, reverence, allegiance. In other words, worship. Worship as expressed through the posture of bodies bent low. Bodies taking their place within the hierarchy of being. The golden statue, an extension of the king’s and thus the empire’s authority, exalted high above.
This public worship ceremony is complete with a worship band. “The horn, pipe, lyre, trigon (which is apparently a triangular stringed instrument), harp, drum, and an entire musical ensemble.” The repetition in the story feels like a playful poke at the pomp of the ritual. A character known as the herald plays the part of Kerry Strayer, leading the people in the call to worship, with the added touch of a death threat for those who do not bow low in body or in spirit.
The oversized golden statue isn’t so much what people are worshiping, as it is the worship banner, embodying the meaning of the worship theme.
This is a story about worship. About the worship of the great masses of peoples in which everyone’s doing it and the music is beautiful and the god is convincing – tall and powerful.
And as the story suggests, it’s not whether you worship, because we all give our devotion over to something — the shining and impressive statue, the charisma of the king, the promise of safety and prosperity, the invisible hand of the market. It’s not whether you worship, but what you worship that makes all the difference.
To go back to the words of Ruth Padilla Deborst, any time we engage in worship, which is daily, we are channeling our energy, creativity, and imagination, in a particular way.
This scene encompasses all the peoples, nations, and languages. How would daily or weekly acts of worship within the church of Babylon shape a people? Whatever it is, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t having it. They’re opting out.
Maybe they just had a thing against worship bands, and didn’t think they belong in church. Given the way the story goes it’s likely they wouldn’t have bowed down even if Nebuchadnezzer had led the people in four part harmony.
Whatever the accompaniment or lack thereof, they had a different kind of commitment when it came to worship. That metal statue casting a shadow over the people was far too tiny a thing to inspire their praise and submission. Instead, their god was one who freed slaves, who protected widows and orphans, who held rulers to account. Having their energy, creativity, and imaginations fired by the Divine Spirit of love and mercy led them to nonparticipation in the rituals of empire.
This is where the Anabaptist stream of Christianity has some good things going for it. If you’re a new Mennonite, or Menno-curious, or if you’ve been around a while, it’s important to know that we are inheritors of what has been called the Radical Reformation within the broader Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The stream we identity with, those who became known as Mennonites, are those who believed that allegiance to the way of Jesus called them to opt out of religion’s age old partnership with violence. Worship, as they saw it, oriented their lives to the rhythms of the Prince of Peace rather than the drum beat of the king. For this, many of them were thrown into any number of different versions of the fiery furnace, which change in appearance over time but not in their purpose.
The gospels, as we read them, are something of a worship manual for how and where to position our bodies in this world. What and who might shape our energy, creativity, and imagination. Where we direct our reverence and awe. From Mary’s midterm pregnancy Magnificat to the hymn the disciples sing with Jesus before they head out to Mount of Olives the night Jesus will be betrayed, the gospels provide their own soundtrack to what is sacred and worthy of worship. Jesus becomes the model of a life of worship, in the same lineage as Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego.
On that final night of his life when Jesus gathers his friends together, we have another kind of worship scene. In place of that larger than life golden statue backed by the threat of death is a table that holds the life sustaining elements of bread and cup. The many musical instruments and herald issuing the call to worship is replaced with the gentle yet firm voice of Jesus inviting his friends, even his betrayer, to come and eat with him. The command for the people to give their lives for the well being of the gods is replaced with Jesus saying that it is his life that will be poured out for the well being of the people. His body the bread that would feed them. His life blood the wine that would enliven their eyes and bring them joy. In John’s gospel Jesus actually bows down low to wash the disciple’s feet. Jesus is the un-Nebuchadnezzar.
It’s all very confusing for the disciples. Peter can’t accept this inverted hierarchy and refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. They all start arguing about who will be the greatest when Jesus finally pulls off his Clark Kent outfit and turns into Superman and they each get their own superpowers.
Jesus says: “The kings of the nations lord it over them, but not so with you. Rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Jesus lifts and breaks the loaf and gives it to each one of them. The power he claims is the power to hold out a piece of bread to anyone who is hungry.
His parting ritual with his friends is a giving away of his own authority to them. Here, this bread is my body. Take my body. I’m asking you to be me. There is no threat of death or fiery furnace if you can’t accept. The offer will stand no matter how many times you reject it. As often as you gather around the table, you have another chance to remember me.
Let this be your worship. Let this bread and this cup, the basic elements of life, let my life, Jesus says, fuel your energy, your creativity, your imagination. Let it form a family of sisters and brothers, who gather together around the table – a table as large as the planet: Honduras, France, India, South Africa, the Wakka Wakka nation, Costa Rica and America. Let this family give their highest allegiance, not the empires that rise and fall, not to a nation state, but to the reign of God which outlives the other gods. Let this family bow low to one another in humble service as people of peace. Let this be their act of worship.