Biblical Texts: Daniel and the Lions, Jesus Heals the Ten Lepers, Ephesians 3:17-20
“Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we ask or imagine by God’s power at work in us.” Ephesians 3:20
The Fourth of July is on the horizon, which means there will be some fireworks to enjoy. When my sister and I attended a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra up in Saratoga Springs last summer, it ended with a dramatic fireworks display. I overheard a little girl, about 4 years old, say: “They’re called fireworks because they’re made of fire, and they work.” Her dad said, “That’s some good logic.” And she replied: “I’m really smart.”
I was impressed by her confidence. And the fact that she was genuinely enjoying the fireworks without being the least bit scared. I’m told that my first encounter with fireworks as a child was traumatic. I had a full-on meltdown. Complete terror. I had to be hauled off to the car, where I took shelter, sobbing and covering my ears until it was all over.
Fortunately I’ve outgrown that fear over the years, and now and then I enjoy a good fireworks show. As I’ve grown up, I’ve exchanged older fears for new ones. But some have remained the same – like the fear that something might happen to the people I love.
This week in Vacation Bible School we talked about some of the things that make us feel scared or worried. A few of those fears and worries sounded more like the product of childhood imagination – a fear of dinosaurs, for example, or monsters. But I was struck by how many of them sounded awfully like grown-up concerns.
There was, for example, the fear of diving off the diving board for the first time or the worry about the first day of school. How many of us have had to face a new challenge, one that we’re not entirely sure we can handle? There’s a feeling we get in the pit of our stomach as we prepare for that first day of a new job, the birth of a baby, the beginning of a relationship. Beginnings can be exciting, but they are not without fear.
One kid mentioned the fear of “embarrassing myself in a sport.” Even if we’ve left our sports days behind us, we all know the feeling of performance anxiety. The fear that we won’t meet someone else’s expectations of us. The fear that we will let other people down in a way that will feel humiliating. I suspect this fear keeps us from taking some risks that could prove rewarding.
There’s the worry that comes, in one kid’s words, “when people stress me out.” That one doesn’t even need an explanation. You’re probably picturing a person right now who stresses you out on a regular basis.
And of course no list of fears and worries would be complete without naming friend problems and family problems. Those came up too. We could probably fill hundreds of pages this morning with specific examples of friend problems and family problems. We all have them. We know the frustration of trying to put relationships back together when people are not being the best versions of themselves. Drama abounds – and with it the fear that things will never feel right again.
We looked this week to stories in which people had plenty to fear – and, as a result, had to trust in God for the courage that only God can give. In the story that Peyton read earlier, we hear about how Daniel ends up in what is truly a terrifying scenario – a night spent with a bunch of lions. What’s particularly interesting about this story is that there was a way he could have avoided the scary situation. Daniel probably couldn’t have done much about his jealous colleagues, who cook up this scheme to get rid of him. Nor could he have done much about the fact that the king, who, however much he likes Daniel, doesn’t seem all that bright and is easily manipulated by the people around him.
But, facing the threat of almost certain death, Daniel could have made some other choices. We talked about some of those options this week. He could have run away to a place that would let him pray as often as he wanted. He could have prayed quietly and secretly so no one would have been the wiser. He could have stopped praying altogether – at least for a while, until things settled down. But he doesn’t choose any of those potentially easier paths. He chooses instead to keep praying as he always has – in public, several times a day, regardless of the consequences.
In that den of lions, Daniel does what he’s always done. He prays. He trusts that God is with him in the face of what seems like certain death. And his faith is well-founded. God keeps him safe throughout what must have been the longest night of Daniel’s life. His safe passage through the lions’ den bears witness to the God of the Israelites, who does not abandon people in times of fear.
I’m hoping that none of us have to fear getting tossed into a pit of lions, but we certainly face all kinds of challenges when it comes to living our faith publicly. We worry that people will make assumptions about us – or accuse us of being hypocritical when we are imperfect. We fear embarrassing ourselves by not knowing the answers to all the questions that people might have about Jesus or about the Bible or about almost anything related to faith. We worry that people will dismiss us as crazy.
Those fears are real, but they don’t have to stop us from living in the way that Jesus has called us to live. Jesus both teaches us and shows us how to live with both compassion for those in need and with a commitment to changing what has created that need in the first place. He directs our attention to the people whom everyone else would rather ignore – the abused, the scorned, the neglected, the modern-day versions of those lepers who have been cut off from friends and family because something terrible has happened to them. We are called to care for those people and speak up for those people and walk alongside those people, no matter what the cost. Jesus certainly understands that there are consequences to living this way. No one understands those consequences more than the guy who ended up on a cross.
After what we’ve learned this week, I can’t help but say that those for whom we are called to care include the children at our southern border. We can and must have a longer conversation about immigration reform, and we’ll have lots of different ideas about the path that we should take. But I hope we can all agree that children deserve to have a safe and clean place to sleep, to have food and water, to have diapers and toothbrushes. And, most of all, to be with their families while everything else gets sorted out.
We follow Jesus, who said, “Let the children come to me” and addressed those words to the adults who wanted to dismiss children. Surely we must say the same as we care for and speak up for these children in our own time.
Sometimes it’s easy to use biblical characters like Daniel as role models, examples of the courage to which we aspire in our life of faith. But we have remembered this week that faith is not about having a superhuman amount of courage. It’s about relying on God. That’s been clear in our theme verse from Ephesians: “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we ask or imagine by God’s power at work in us.” God’s power at work in us. We do not do it ourselves. We do it by trusting in the one source of power and love that will never let us down.
So stare your fears in the face – the new beginnings, the potential humiliations, the people stressing you out, the family problems – and tell them that you have a God who is able to do far beyond all that you can ask or imagine.
Then take a breath and dive right in. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ