Riviera Presbyterian Church continues to be a strong supporter of and advocate of good and equal public education for all of God’s children.

Yesterday,  August 23, 2015  the Congregation of Riviera Presbyterian Church blessed 60 backpacks filled with school supplies that will be given to the 3 kindergarten classes at Frances Tucker Elementary School on Wednesday  August 26th at 9:30 during their morning assembly.  Riviera Presbyterian Church continues to be a strong supporter of and advocate of good and equal public education for all of God’s children.

RPC AUG 2015

 

Sermon – August 15, 2015 Ruth – Chapters 1 and 2 ‘Ruth: Part 1’ Martha M. Shiverick

 

For the next two Sundays we will be talking about the Book of Ruth as a part of our summer sermon series on the great stories of the Old Testament. It is a lovely little four chapter book, a short story in the Old Testament, that is about good faithful people making wise decisions, and caring for each other in difficult situations. Each chapter covers a complete episode so it is an easy book to break into chapters for discussion purposes, or in this case for a two week sermon series. Stories are not foreign to the Bible; many Biblical writers used them as they saw the usefulness of them as a teaching tool. They are vehicles for truth and great meaning.

 

It is a book in which two women are the prominent characters and their friendship and love for each other is deep. It is a book which has a very special place in my heart. First because it is about ordinary good people, who out of their faith and goodness do extraordinary things. We can relate to the characters as none are kings, queens, great warriors, or super-heroes. They are people made of the right stuff, so they do the right things. Often Bible stories pint to character flaws, immoral actions, or a lack of faith or following the laws of God. Not so in this Book. Here everyone is good. No one is evil in Ruth; no one is a villain. Everyone acts with good moral character and sense of duty. We only claim Ruth and Boaz to be the heroine and hero because their characters were exceptional. They know no limits in their goodness.   Their faith defines their good actions, and the story itself gives us a peak into the life of ancient Hebrews living in Judah.

 

Also, I first confess there is a selfish reason this book is very important to me. Many, many years ago, after I finished my studies at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and went to New York to study at Columbia, I still needed to finish my language requirements for ordination. Although I had studied Greek I needed to take Hebrew to be ordained in our Presbyterian denomination.

 

A Hebrew class was offered at General Episcopal Seminary in New York that would fulfill that trial of ordination. I took the class during what was a turbulent time in the Episcopal denomination as they lived into the new laws which allowed for the ordination of women. Some seminarians felt put upon and possibly a bit intimidated by the women now in their classes. And, it was into that not too friendly environment that I entered General Seminary to study Hebrew.

The men in the class soon learned that they had nothing to fear by my presence among them. My mastery of the Hebrew language was not going to intimidate anyone…. I was definitely not at the top of the class. In my defense, I was stretched a bit thin. I was enrolled in Columbia University in a Master of Science program and was interning in a mental health clinic on Long Island’s north shore. The Hebrew was an additional burden to a busy schedule!

 

But, the fact was… I was not the Hebrew scholar of the class.

 

The weekend before the final, I went to visit a friend in Washington DC. I had every intention of cramming all weekend for the exam but alas, did not. As I return to NYC by Train the following Monday to immediately go to the seminary and take my exam, I prayed to God. I joined the chorus of students throughout history that needed divine intervention if we were to pass a class. My prayer went something like…’God, I have several hours here to prepare for this final and I just don’t want to flunk the class, not be able to be ordained and prove to the seminary students in my class that women are not meant for ordination.’ Not receiving divine knowledge of knowing all Hebrew, I decided that I would spend the time translating the Book of Ruth from Hebrew into English. At least, It would give me practice on female verb tenses. So I did… And when I went into the exam later that morning, the professor told us that our final was … you guessed it…. to translate the Book of Ruth from Hebrew into English. YES!!!!! Thank you God!

 

So, here is the beautiful story of Ruth ..

Once upon a time, (actually it was in the time of the Judges) there was a Hebrew family consisting of the mother Naomi, the father Elimelech, and two sons Mahlon and Chilion. They lived in Bethlehem. One year their crops failed and they had to move to Moab to make a living. While living there, the two sons married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth.

Naomi loved her two daughters in law and all was well until the unthinkable happened! She was widowed and then so were her two daughters-in-law and they were widowed before they were able to have male heirs. In other words… in a male dominated society, all the males died in their family! This was, without a doubt, a terrible situation to be in. Women, in these ancient days, were nothing without a family and by family I mean male family. They could not own property, they had no rights, they had no money. This is not just pre-women’s lib, but prehistoric pre-women’s lib! Naomi had no way of supporting her two daughters-in-law in this foreign land and had to go back to Judah and live off of the generosity of her extended relatives. She told her two daughter-in-law that there best bet and chance at a future was to go back to their families, to remarry Moabite men, and start again. Naomi explained that she could not help them. Even if she were to remarry and have other sons, would the young women really want to wait for those babies to grow up to be married to them? Of course not. They should go back to their families where they had a chance for happiness. And the young women protested saying they wanted to stay. They loved Naomi. Eventually Orpah, under protest, does go back to her family. I need to make sure none of you think poorly of Orpah for doing this. She did what was right and at the request of her mother-in-law Naomi. However, Ruth would not leave, she just flatly refused; and she said an oath to Naomi…….

 

Doesn’t that sound awfully familiar? Those vows said between these two women sound amazingly like the wedding vows said in our services. They are vows of love and vows of making a lifetime commitment to another person. Ruth so loves and is so faithful to Naomi that she joins her family, Naomi’s people will be her people. Ruth will follow her where ever she goes. Ruth says she wants to be committed to Naomi for her whole life, and even death will not take away the love she has for her. It is beautiful statement of commitment and the faithfulness of true love.

 

So, the two women return to Judah to try and eke out an existence in It is told that the whole town stirred because of them. Their ears must have burned as the news and gossip spread of the two women’s unfortunate situation and Ruth’s loyalty and love to her mother-in-law.

Naomi is welcomed by her old friends and distant relatives and says her name should be mara and life has dealt her a bitter hand.   However, don’t be fooled into believing that Naomi is one of those complaining whining women that waits for others to solve her problems. Not only are Jewish laws charitable for widows and strangers, but Naomi still has her faith and the love and faithfulness of Ruth.

As it turns out that it is harvest time in Judah and the crops were plentiful that year. Naomi comes up with a plan as she decides that she and Ruth can live off of what Ruth gleans in the fields. This was a common practice in ancient Israel. After the field workers harvested the crops, widows, orphans , and other unfortunates could go into the fields and take whatever remaining produce had been left. They were then allowed to use what they had picked for their own or sell it for profit.

Ruth gleans in the fields of a rich man named Boaz who turns out to actually be a distant relative of Naomi’s and Ruth’s husbands. Although the narrator does not really come out and say it, we can assume that Ruth must have been a very attractive woman as her presence in the fields was noticed by Boaz who asks his field workers who she is. They tell him about Ruth and he recognizes that the woman is the widow of his distant deceased relative.   Boaz introduces himself to Ruth and invited her to continue to glean in his fields. He says she will not be harassed by the workers of his field as she might in others and he will see that she gets water when thirsty.

 

Ruth was overcome by his generosity and asks why he would offer her, a foreigner, safety and water? Boaz said he knows of the sacrifice she has made out of love for her mother-in-law and asks the Lord to reward her. Boaz then tells his staff to help her out. Not only are they to make sure she is safe but they are to leave an abundance of grain for her to glean.

 

Ruth comes home to Naomi with an abundance of grain. Naomi is overwhelmed by what she was able to take home. Ruth explains to her that she was aided by Boaz and both women are overjoyed by their good fortune and Boaz’s kindness to them.

 

This is where we will stop today. Things are looking up for our two heroines. What started as a tragedy, has become a story of love and good fortune as the two women enjoy the bond of love and are finding a way to live in a dire situation. Things are looking up!

 

So what has happened here? Has anything of significance happened to get this story placed in the Bible? At first glance we might say no. It’s just a nice little story but it does not have that much depth for us today. But this is where we would be wrong. And this morning I want to bring out one; that being the importance of God within our relationships.

 

So far the main relationship in the book is between Naomi and Ruth, It is so strong that the vows that Ruth makes to Naomi sound much like marriage. I have used Ruth’s vow in marriage counseling. it is a complete vow of a healthy commitment one person makes to another. Ruth first says, “Where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge.” In this statement, she is saying something very important at the root of true friendships. Within friendship comes a joyful acknowledgement that the responsibility of personal companionship. We like to be with people for whom we care. Ruth is saying that she wants to be with Naomi whenever, where ever, through the good times and bad. Being a friend through the good times is easy; being a good friend through the bad times takes commitment. Ruth here expresses that commitment and love.

 

Ruth then continues saying that ‘Your people shall be my people.” This statement shows great maturity and strength of character on the part of Ruth. It is easy to say I will go with you or live with you, but that I will be a part of you is quite another. Often problems arise in a relationship when one person sees him or herself as being better that the other. They might have married each other or fallen in love with each other, but one person feels superior because of better background, better education, higher wage, better looks … whatever…. When Ruth says that Naomi’s people will be her people, she is stating their equality. She enters her relationship with Naomi on equal footing. She is willing to subordinate her tribal clam to the citizenship that will include them both. She gives up her individualism to be equal to her mother-in-law.

 

Ruth then vows that her God shall be the same God as Naomi’s. This is a very powerful statement and must be at the root of every successful relationship between couples, whether religious or not, if they are to make it together throughout life. God is to people what they hold as being of the utmost importance. For dome people, God is a Divine Reality, a creative and loving force; while for others it might be money, status, power, or themselves. What is important is that couples share the same values, hold as important the same things, worship the same gods. Ruth says she will hold the God of Israel, Naomi’s God as hers. They will share the same highest value and worship the same reality. What stable footing for any couple whether friends, lovers, or family members.

 

Ruth ends her vow stating that this relationship is until death and even in death they will not be parted. The totality of Ruth’s commitment to Naomi is awesome but the maturity and depth of it should be studied and emulated. I believe relationships like this one between Ruth and Naomi are models that God has given us. We are to try to achieve friendship and love like this in our own lives. And when we do, we receive a true gift from God!

 

But that’s not the whole or final story. We are only half way done with the book! And, of course, a new friendship is forming in our book… That between Ruth and Boaz. The next chapters of the book will tell us what happens between them.

 

 

So….. stay tuned for next week when we will conclude the story of the Book of Ruth.

Will our heroines make it? Will Ruth and Naomi become financially solvent?

What will become of the kindness of their new friend Boaz?

What will be the ‘ever after ‘ for these three people?

So, return next week, same time, same place and find out!!!!

 

Amen!

Sermon August 9, 2015 1 Kings 5, 6, and 8:1-13 Holy Moly: Building God’s Home Martha M. Shiverick

What do you know about King Solomon? Well, if you are like me the first thing that comes to mind is that he was wise. When he was made king he asked God for the wisdom to govern God’s people and the ability to discern between good and evil. As children many of us learned about his wise judgment. The story I remember is the one about how he handles the dispute between the two women who had recently given birth. One baby survived while the other died. They came to King Solomon both claiming that the living child was theirs. The king says to cut the baby in half giving each woman half of the baby. One woman cries out in protest and says to give the baby to the other woman and not kill it. The king says that she was indeed the real mother, who would not allow the child’s life to be endangered and she is given the baby.
Scripture tells us that he was wise, that he had good judgment, and that his understanding of concepts was not to be compared. It was written that he was the wisest person of his day. He was the author of 3,000 Proverbs and 1005 songs. People came from all over the earth, or as it was written in the Bible from all the kings on the earth, to hear his wise words. His knowledge base was not just that he was a wise ruler but that he knew the natural sciences and could help people with his knowledge of trees, plants and animals.
In chapters 5 and 6 of 1Kings we also learn that it was Solomon that was chosen to build the temple for the Lord. This was a huge ambition to take on and was a task that Solomon’s father, King David, had wanted to accomplish but was unable to fulfill the job. Now there was a time of peace and prosperity, a time when Solomon could build the temple as a symbol of God’s abiding presence.
Let’s pick up the scripture lessons for today and read together the 5th and 6th chapters as a litany………
The descriptions in these fifth and sixth chapters of the materials and sizes of the temple are pretty intense. Although, as you know, the temple no longer exists, these chapters read like an architectural brochure for the visitor to the temple. So exacting are the descriptions that renderings of the temple are drawn in exegesis books on 1Kings and we can really imagine what it must have looked like. The dimensions that are given for it would have made it the largest temple known in Palestine at that time.
The temple project is dated the 480th year of the exodus. That would mean that about 12 generations have come and gone since the time of Moses delivering his people from slavery in Egypt. It took 11 years to build and hundreds of thousands of workers. Solomon started by placing 30,000 men into forced labor who knew how to cut timber from the cedars in Lebanon. He would send these men to Lebanon in groups of 10,000 for a month and then they would return for two months at home.
Besides the lumber jacks, Solomon had 70,000 laborers and 80,000 stone cutters and 3,300 supervisors besides himself to oversee this huge project. This project must have run like a well-oiled machine!
And the workmanship was beautiful! Everything was overlaid with cedar and was decorated with carvings of gourds and flowers. The most interior of the sanctuary was overlaid with gold. The furnishings were spectacular as well. The flooring was gold and the furniture was carved from olive wood with cherubs. It really must have been spectacular!
In the midst of these very detailed descriptions of the temple is a story of a dream Solomon had while the building was in progress. In Chapter 6 it is written in verses 11-13, “Now the word of the Lord came to Solomon, “concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all my commandments by walking in them, then I will establish my promise with you, which I made to your father David. I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.”” Richard Nelson, professor of Old Testament at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg PA, writes in his exegesis of this passage that the dream is about the obedience to God and the freedom of God’s presence. If, and only if, God’s commandments are obeyed, the promise to David will be made good and God will dwell in the midst of the people and will not abandon them.
One gets the feeling that in the excitement of Solomon’s big project, God does not want the people of Israel to forget that it is to God that this temple is being built. God sends a message to Solomon to refocus on the big picture. It is really not about the temple, but about being a follower of God. Perhaps building the temple had become such an ordeal that God needed to remind Solomon exactly for what purpose what the temple was being built. I smile when I think about this as it reminds me of some of the pre-marital counseling I have done with couples before they are married. There is a reason for that counseling. It is because often the couple gets so caught up in the wedding and honeymoon plans that they forget the reason for the huge wedding. When I meet with them they only talk about the wedding and unless prompted they never discuss the marriage. They can tell me all about the caterer, their colors and clothing, but need to be reminded that after their wedding and honeymoon, they will be a married couple for hopefully many, many years. That is what they are there for…. There is a bigger picture besides the wedding event! In the same way, God wants to call Solomon back to the reality that once the temple is built, the relationship that the Israelites have with God is what is important; the temple is not to be worshipped, it is where one goes to worship!
Another meaning to Solomon’s dream was to counter the prevailing cultural experience of why a person would build a temple. Whereas other religions build a temple to their gods to somehow contain them and they bring offerings to their gods to manipulate their gods into giving them what they want, our God here makes it perfectly clear that a temple will not control of house our Lord. The God of the Israelites is in control and will not be manipulated by a temple or a king.
God’s message here is that God is not automatically as Israel’s beck and call. The whole universe cannot contain God. And God is only symbolically present in the temple. The temple is a concrete representation of the reality of the sovereignty of God. It is not and never will be a building to contain God.
This has theological implications for us. It is one of the uncertainties that we must allow our faith to take hold and believe is that our God is both immanent and transcendent. Just like Solomon, we all want to control God. We want a nice relationship where if we build a nice house for God, God will do God’s part for us. How can we trust that God is reliably present for us (whether God is immanent) without forgetting that God cannot be controlled and taken for granted (that God is transcendent). Our experience is that God is at one time both.
Let us continue in reading this morning’s scripture in Chapter 8 verses 1-13. Listen again for God’s word as we read of the dedication of the temple……..
This showy procession and impressive religious actions resemble many dedications I have been to before. Although the showy religious action here is “the slaughtering of so many sheep that you could not count how many there were.” The Ark of the Lord that had been carried by the Hebrew people throughout their 40 years in the dessert and kept without a home during these centuries since, was carried in with much pageantry. Solomon says in verse 12 and 13 of chapter 8 that “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell forever.” Clearly Solomon, for all his wisdom, still has not captured the message that God will not be contained within a building; that we God’s people cannot control God.
We, the Riviera family, have built an impressive temple to God as well. We love the beauty of this sanctuary, the stained glass windows, our beautiful cross and baptismal font, and compared to most churches, we have really comfortable seats!. We all drive by the building with pride and say to our friends, there is my church. This is where we come to be nurtured in Christian love; this is where we come to celebrate what God has done for us Sunday after Sunday. This is where we come to be with brothers and sisters in Christ in fellowship. This is where we come to be educated in our faith and to be fed with God’s sacramental food. This is where we come to celebrate life’s transitions from birth to death. BUT we know that this is not the only place where we find God AND we know most definitely that this is not the only place where God wants us to be. We come to our temple to nurture and fortify ourselves in order to go out. We come here so that we can live as Christians outside of these walls. This sanctuary is where we learn that our God is a loving and just God and as we reflect the path of Christ we must act loving and just as well. We come here to be nurtured so that we can work for a just society with our ministries like Gate. We collect backpacks to give to children who do not have the economic advantage we do. We learn about what being a steward of God’s creation means in southern Florida where enviromental concerns meet with our faith. We come here to be sent out to do God’s work.
God is not contained within the walls of the temple and it is our place as disciples of God to go out and do ministry to and for God’s world outside this sanctuary. Our work and ministry is to a world which desperately needs to hear and to be shown God’s love and Christ’s mercy. Amen!

Miami Herald August 3rd, 2015 BY BEA HINES

Gearing up for season

During the lazy summer months, many activities almost come to a standstill, as choirs cease to have rehearsals and take vacations, and other ministries shut down until after Labor Day.

At Riviera Presbyterian Church, 5275 Sunset Dr., a summer slowdown also happened. But like at many other churches, Pastor Martha Shiverick said “excitement and energy are in the air as choir return to their weekly practices and Sunday schools gear up.” She said plans are being made for all the new programs that will be put in place this fall to build fellowship within Riviera Church.

Building on the success of Riviera’s monthly Friday evening socials this summer, the church will continue in October with its “Third Friday” evening events which include movies and art classes, she said.

“God calls us to be stewards of what we have been given and that includes the health of our bodies,” Shiverick said. “So, a ‘Running/Walking Club will start in September to gear up for the Miami ZooRun 5K on Nov. 14. To kick off the running club, we are now collecting used running shoes to be donated to people who have none.”

Shiverick also said the church was the recipient of a grant that allowed them to hire Daniel Morales as a post graduate intern. He graduated last spring with a master’s of divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and is a ministry candidate at the Presbyterian church. He will be commissioned during the 11 a.m. worship service on Aug. 23. The service will be followed by a luncheon in Morales’ honor.

The Aug. 23 worship service will also include the blessing of backpacks and briefcases. “We will also be blessing 60 backpacks to be given to the three kindergarten classes at Frances Tucker Elementary School. Each backpack has been filled with the necessary school supplies for the students,” Shiverick said.

Blessing of the backpacks!

Sermon: August 2, 2015 Genesis 25: 19-34, 27:1-40 ‘Holy Moly: Family Dynamics are Sometimes Messy’ Martha M. Shiverick

OH MY GOSH!! What a terrible story! Are you not horrified by this? There is no way that we can justify Jacob’s and Rebekah’s actions. It is just reprehensible to think that a mother and a brother would cheat on their son and brother out of his birthright and make such a boldfaced misrepresentation to a dying man. It appears tat the story is about a cheat and a rascal that nonetheless remains chosen by God. Don’t you feel for poor Isaac and Esau in the story? Their pain is so raw. They were cheated by someone that God has also chosen and willed to lead God’s people. It doesn’t make sense. Why would God choose such a character? The story just is not fair!!!

This story would normally not be the scripture lesson for a sermon as it is not in the lectionary three year cycle. A lot of the stories like this one and the one where Elijah calls to God to punish the little children for calling him bald and God sends she-bears to kill them all are not stories from which we like to preach. However, it is a great story that is filled with passion, action, and with emotion to which we can relate so I thought it would be interesting to include it in the sermon series this summer on the great stories of the Old Testament. I am sure the children are having a wonderful time in Sunday School if they get to act out this story. It is a terrific story in that sense. It is just that it seems to lack the moral fiber ministers look for in scripture from which to base a sermon.

The narrative that we just all read portrays Israel at its earthiest and most scandalous appearance in Genesis. Walter Bruggeman, in his commentary on the passage, describes that at first glance the story is not edifying in a conventional religious or moral sense and that this story could even be offensive. BUT…. However offensive it might be, we must admit to ourselves that it is certainly VERY lifelike!

So, Jacob is a rascal compared to his faithful grandfather Abraham and his successful father Isaac. AND, for some reason that is not told to us, Jacob is the one willed and chosen by God to be the leader of his family. Even in birth, he tries to pull his twin brother back so he might be the first born. The passage says that he and his brother battled in the womb and that he tried to hold on to his brother’s ankle to be born first. Commentators write that Jacob’s whole life was lived this way. His election is both a blessing and a curse. He lives knowing that he is special, but that his specialness bring’s him conflict.

And we know that part of the conflict of not being the first born is that you do not have the privilege and status that your older sibling has. Up until very recently and still in many cultures, the first born child inherits the wealth, the career, and the responsibility to care for the family, while the second child does not. And those few minutes between the twin brother’s birth defined what the future was to be for each of them.

And this must have just eaten away at Jacob. His brother would get it all and he would only live to serve him. In fact it ate at him so much that he looked at any opportunity to change his position and status. In the end, he even took advantage of his brother’s hunger to bargain away the birthright even though it was not Esau’s place to give it away as it was not yet his. The picture presented here is so real. Can’t you just imagine a teenage boy coming home after being outside all day and saying that he is so hungry he could die?! I mean are not all teenage boys like that? And his brother just so happened to have something yummy smelly stew on the stove as he walked in…. Continue reading Sermon: August 2, 2015 Genesis 25: 19-34, 27:1-40 ‘Holy Moly: Family Dynamics are Sometimes Messy’ Martha M. Shiverick

Sermon July 26, 2015 Holy Moly: Daniel in the Lion’s Den Daniel Chapters 1-6 Martha M. Shiverick

I hope that you are enjoying these sermons this summer on the great stories of the Old Testament or Common Scriptures. I have certainly enjoyed working with them and the children are studying the same scripture passages in their Sunday School. This morning we are delving into the book of Daniel, which is a later book in the Old Testament set in a period of harshness for the Jews. They were no longer in their promised land but were foreigners in Babylonia. This was not an easy time for the followers of out god and they suffered persecution and hardship.   The book reflects this in its themes and the promises it teaches.

 

The book of Daniel can be divided into two distinct sections. The first half of the book is made up of little stories that are familiar to some of you and are almost like the stories of the Arabian Nights, set is a world of kings, harems, bawdy pagan rituals, and bizarre methods of capital punishment. The second half of the Book of Daniel is a scary story about the end of time. This eschatological vision tells of three distinct apocalypses with symbolic beasts and monsters. It sounds a lot like the New Testament Book of Revelation; but whereas Revelation is poetic, these stories in Daniel are scary stuff… The stuff out of which nightmares are made!

 

So for this morning, I am going to focus on the first six chapters, which are a kind of Paul Bunyan stories of a smart young Jewish man named Daniel and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. There are six short vignettes in these first six chapters which all have a common theme. The stories are about these young men living in a country where they are outsiders, where they need to match wits with the best of the non-Jews, and where they come up on top.

 

The settings for the stories are important as they provide tension in the tales. The young men are in exile… And King Nebuchadnezzar and his descendants were kings. If you are a Biblical historian, you will know that the writer’s forte was not historical accuracy but that the writer was a great story teller. So, I will briefly tell you the stories of these young Hebrew men.

 

The first little story tells of their faith and faithfulness to their heritage. The young men were brought to the court of King Nebuchadnezzar to become wise men or magicians. This king was not prejudice of outsiders and gave Daniel and his friends equal education and room and board even though they were Jews. Now we don’t know what an observant Jew would eat in the third or second century BC as the Jewish dietary laws we know had not et been established. But, we do know that pork was not allowed to be consumed and can also assume that meat that was too bloody would also be considered defiled. What we do know from the story is that Daniel and his friends refused to eat the rich and wonderful food that was offered to the wise-men and that the young Jewish men remained healthy in spite of living off what the king and his steward considered a starvation diet. The young men realized that a Jew who is true to his heritage can make it in Babylon, this foreign land whose inhabitants worshipped other gods. The young men did not have to compromise their faith and heritage and give up their identity while living in the King Nebuchadnezzar’s court.   A good lesson for all of us who live in a world whose values differ from the ones we follow as Christians… We don’t have to compromise our values to thrive in a secular world.

 

In the second vignette, we see Daniel at work as a wise man.   The king is having these terrible reoccurring nightmares. They haunt him. He knows it must be a message, but doesn’t know the meaning. So, he asks the wise men in his court to help; but he does not want to follow a false interpretation and wants to know if the person he listens to is indeed a wise man, so he does not ask them to just interpret the dream, but to tell him what is in the dream as well…. None of the wise men can do it and the king is angered…. That is… None of the wise men but Daniel. Daniel prays to God to give him insight and God gives him the power to perform the miracle of dream recall and interpretation. The dream is bizarre! A huge metal statue is cut down and it then becomes a mountain. As Daniel interprets it, it is pro-Babylonian and pro-King Nebuchadnezzar. The king is ecstatic and wants to reward Daniel, but he attributes his success to God. Daniel knows the power is God’s. None-the-less, he and his three friends are rewarded and the king praises God saying, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries as you have been able to reveal this mystery to me.”

 

The vignette in the third chapter might be called, ‘Its cool in the furnace , Lord!’.   This chapter in the book of Daniel is different than the other six chapters we are looking at this morning in that Daniel is missing and the king is not benevolent but tyrannical! After Daniel’s success of interpreting dreams, his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were also put in higher positions on the king’s court. During this time, a law was established that all of the King Nebuchadnezzar’s subjects must worship a golden image. The three young Jewish men would not obey the law even after being threatened. When they were eventually brought to the king’s court, they did not even try and defend themselves. They said that if God could deliver them from the situation they were in, God would…. But, even more importantly, even if God could not save them, they were not going to worship a Babylonian false god’s gold image. They were firm in their faith. To quote St. Augustine, “A martyr is made by his or her cause, not by their punishment.”

 

So the three young men are sentenced to death and were to be thrown into a fiery furnace. Somehow, in the process of being thrown into it, the executioners trip and fall into the furnace too. The executioners die, but somehow the Jewish young men survive. While they are in the furnace a forth voice is heard, the voice of God’s angel there with them. When the furnace door is opened, the three men come out… they are not hurt, they are not even singed in any way. The king professes that the God of the Jews is powerful and that this God delivers!

 

The next vignette is similar to the second one in that it is anther story of Daniel being called to interpret the king’s dreams. In the forth chapter of the Book of Daniel, the king is once again having nightmares and asks Daniel to again not only interpret the dream but to tell him the dream as well. This time, it took a little more skill on Daniel’s part, not that he had trouble telling the dream or interpreting it but because the message was not positive. Daniel skillfully has to say to the king that he must break from his sinful ways and practice righteous leadership to the oppressed. Daniel explains that God is overlord of all the kings and that he only allows power and might to the righteous. To Daniel’s credit, the king amends his ways.

 

In the fifth chapter, a new king has taken rule after the old one has died. This one is named Belshazzar. This king needs a wise man that can interpret strange writing that has appeared on a wall. He calls on Daniel and all the other wise men to tell him what this graffiti from God can mean. Daniel is brought in to sole the mystery of this disembodied writing and what it can mean after others had tried. AND, Daniel again had to tell a king that God was displeased with the way he was ruling Babylonia. The king respected Daniel’s counsel and made him #3 in his line of command.

 

Which leads us to the sixth little story of how Daniel ends up getting trapped by his fellow court rulers and thrown into a lion’s pit by a king who loved and respected him. This is the story we all know so well. It is this story that is depicted in the pictures in children’s Bibles with which we all grew up.

 

We know the king really respects Daniel. He has been made one of three presidents in the land and this king and several before him have come to appreciate Daniel’s counsel and advice. And, you know as Daniel grew in favor with those in power, he also made enemies with those who did not and wanted him knocked down a peg or two. So, the other rulers conspired to get rid of him. They made a rule that for thirty days any man who worships or petitions in prayer to anyone besides the king would be thrown into a den of lions. Daniel, as a practicing Jew, prayed three times a day facing Jerusalem was caught in the act of civil disobedience. Caught in the trap, he is brought before the king for sentencing who says, ‘May your God whom you serve continually deliver you.” It is the king’s benedicton to his friend and it is uttered as a challenge to God.

 

And, as we know, an angel was with Daniel in the lion’s pit. The angel shut the lion’s mouths. It was said that no kind of harm came upon him because he had trusted in his God. This chapter and the first half of the Book of Daniel ends with a king from another faith singing a hymn of thanksgiving to our God who saved Daniel from the jaws of the powerful lions.

 

Wild, right? Some theologians wonder why even study the Book of Daniel at all. Is there a message for us today in these six little vignettes that make up the first 6 chapters of the book? Are they really stories about men of faith that are a tad naive and simplistic and set too long ago and too far away to give meaning to our world today? It seems that the theme of all the stories is that those who trust in God will be vindicated. And that is a great feel good theme and one which would be great if it were true. But, we all know that statements such as ‘be good and all will be well’ do not play out all the time in real life. When we look honestly at our world, we know that some very good people are having or have had some really miserable things happen to them. People die of terrible cancer, children die of starvation or violence, domestic violence is on the rise, and personally each of us can name something that has happened to ourselves or someone we love that is just not fair! No, terrible things do happen to good faithful people. I remember feeling incredulous when Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize community in France was stabbed to death by a mentally ill woman while leading an evening prayer service…. How could someone so faithful be murdered while in prayer?

 

And, I can’t be the only one who has raised and shook my fist at God in anger when people I love are put in painful situations. Why did my sister and her children suffer so much because of her ex husband? Why does my nephew suffer from addictions?   Why am I slowly losing my mother to the terrible decease of Alzheimer’s? We all can scream out our litanies of unfair pains we feel and we are all faithful good people!

 

And then the tragedy in Charleston….. It makes no sense. That man snuffed out the lives of good, good faithful people. We experience life’s cruel pains and then laugh at that simplistic message in Daniel.

 

But perhaps that was not the message. Perhaps the message is deeper and more important one. What if the message that comes across clearly in each story is not that God saves us from our trials, but that God is there with us. That angel was in the fiery furnace… That angel was in the den of lions. Daniel and his friends were never without God’s loving presence in all of their ordeals. God cradled them. God gave them courage to face their ordeals, and God felt their pain and knew their fear. In the blackest moments of our lives, we are not abandoned but are surrounded by God’s love and embrace.

 

I have noticed a new bumper sticker or perhaps a new meaning to an old bumper sticker which I have been seeing with increasingly frequency since the tragedy in Charleston on cars. It says the ‘The Blood of Christ’. ‘The Blood of Christ…..’ This statement is something we say in our communion liturgy and it points us to Christ’s suffering for us on the cross until death. ‘The Blood of Christ’… I have thought about the importance of that expression to us as we deal with life’s tragedies and pains. Christ suffered. Christ bled. We are a people who know that God suffered. We are a people that also know that God is not indifferent from our pain but feels it deeply. AND, we are a people who know that God is with us always. God is both crying with us and holding us in all our struggles.

 

It is written that the Book of Daniel gives hope and encouragement to those who are crushed by an oppressor. What we find is that this comes not from sugary promises that the faithful will be saved, but because in the face of extreme hardship, the relationship we have with our God will be our comfort.   And, for that we can be so truly thankful! Amen!

Reflecting the Path of Christ – since 1945