Sermon preached at Cleburne First UMC, July 23, 2017
This morning we hear the beginning of the story of the prophet Daniel. Daniel is one of the best known people of the Bible. From the lion’s den to his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego escaping a fire, the stories of Daniel are well known. From Veggie Tales to Vacation Bible School, Daniel is a hero.
While the book of Daniel recounts heroic stories, it begins with an insight in to who Daniel is. More than the other prophets, we get a full understanding of the historical context and insight in to the personality of Daniel. It is roughly 600 BC and the people of Judah have been taken in to exile. The temple has been destroyed, its sacred elements taken from the altar, and the people are living as strangers in a strange land.
King Nebuchadnezzar seeks to bring four of the Israelites in to his court. The best men are selected based on their looks, their intelligence, and their wisdom. Daniel is one of those four and in fact is the leader of the four.
These four are for all purposes in a three year college program. They will learn language and literature and history of the Chaldeans; trained to serve in the king’s court.
As part of this training, they are invited to eat from the king’s table.
This was significant.
It is easy to imagine that the Jewish people living in exile would not have had access to the best food. If you have ever traveled to another country you know that no matter where you go the food is always a little different and you miss some good home cooking. If you are living in exile, you are not only strangers in another land, you are living off the scraps of the empire. The tribes of Judah would not have been given the best, they would have survived on what was left over.
And suddenly, Daniel is in a place where he is offered a feast of meat and wine, every day, for three years of training and years of service beyond. Can you imagine going from being hungry and living in scarcity to eating from the king’s table every day?
Despite the temptation of this offer, Daniel says no. He refuses the gift.
This is significant because a meal is not just a meal, it is a gift of hospitality. When you invite someone to put their knees under your table, you are inviting them to be part of your family and community.
Imagine that you invited someone in to your home, prepared a big meal, and then they walked in the door and said “I am not eating that.” How would you feel? Probably pretty upset, you might wonder, am I not good enough for you?
In this scripture the innkeeper is particularly worried about Daniel’s response. He has been given the charge of taking care of these four men and if they aren’t healthy and strong it is his head.
But Daniel says, give us nothing but vegetables and water for 10 days and see what happens. At the end of the 10 days they look healthier and stronger than anyone else because God has provided for them.
The scripture doesn’t tell us why Daniel says no to the food. Perhaps it was because the food was not prepared according to Jewish dietary rules, perhaps the food had been offered to idols, perhaps Daniel saw it wrong to enjoy a feast while his brothers and sisters in exile struggled.
This is the first of the miraculous stories of Daniel and it is the most accessible to us. None of us will end up in a lion’s den or a fiery furnace, but we all have to make choices like this.
In this scripture we hear that Daniel received favor from God. As Methodists, we would call that grace.
Daniel is surrounded by God’s grace which gives him the strength and wisdom to resist the meat and wine of the king’s table. It is God’s grace that strengthens him as he lives off of vegetables and water. And it is God’s grace that leads Daniel forward in to the stories we know so well.
It is all grace.
I too have experienced this kind of grace.
Just as this scripture recounts the beginning of Daniel’s story, this is the place where my ministry began. I came to Johnson County to attend seminary and serve as a pastor after having served for 20 years in the Air Force. After the military, I physically let myself go. I didn’t eat well and I didn’t exercise. In one way I had good reason, I was going to seminary full time, pastoring two churches, and our two boys were very young.
A year and a half after retiring from the Air Force I was diagnosed with fatty liver disease. The liver specialist gave me the option of making changes to my diet and lifestyle or he could do a biopsy. I choose the first option. Like Daniel, I said no to the foods that tempted me and I began running.
Today I am 50 pounds lighter than I was then. I have gone from being a couch potato to a marathon runner. In a couple of weeks I will be celebrating my 50th birthday and I feel more vibrant and alive and active today than I did when I was 30 or 40. Because of this gift of life I have received, I want other people to experience this gift.
I call this a gift because I believe that being fully active and alive is God’s will. Jesus says in John 10:10, I came that you might have life and have it abundantly. And it is not a gift within itself, but it is a gift that, like Daniel, empowers us to go on and do God’s work in the world.
Unfortunately, in the United States, the opportunity to live an abundant life is largely based on how much money you have in your pocket and where you live.
After graduating from seminary, our family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico where I served as the associate pastor at Central United Methodist Church. There I worked with our homeless community and we created an outdoor worship service and meal called “Community of Hope”. Every Sunday we served people a nutritious lunch. One member of our community taught me that most places like soup kitchens serve simple carbs because it is cheap and easy. But if you are already living under the permanent stress of homelessness, and eat nothing but simple carbs, it is difficult to make good decisions. It is hard to living in to all that God created you to be. We offered people healthy food, treated them with the dignity of children of God, and people’s lives changed.
From this work, I felt a second calling in to ministry. I wanted to dedicate my life to ministry with the poor. And so I became a church and community worker missionary. Church and community workers are missionaries located in the United States. We serve in a wide range of places, from urban to rural, from prisons to churches, but no matter where we are, we seek to bring the transformative power of Christ to our communities.
Today I serve as the director of the Healthy Eating and Living program at the Church for All People in Columbus, Ohio. We are located in an area of Columbus known as the South Side, a low income neighborhood that was once a place that had jobs related to the automotive industry but over the last several decades those jobs went away and the community had been neglected.
Our organization began in 1999 with the Free Store, a free thrift shop that serves more than 20,000 people a year and gives out more than 2 million dollars worth of gently used clothing, household items, school supplies, and Christmas presents. In 2006 we began renovating houses in our neighborhood and in the last decade we have done more than $50 million of work rebuilding abandoned, burned, and blighted homes and making them new. This summer we are opening a complex of 58 apartments and townhouses known as Career Gateway Homes. This complex will include 2,400 square feet of workforce development space. So a family will move in with a section 8 housing voucher and receive training for jobs in our community.
Like many urban areas, our community experiences striking health disparities. If you live in the neighborhood of our church your chances of getting respiratory disease is 73 percent higher than the country surrounding us, the death rate is 50 percent higher, and the infant mortality rate is three times the national average. In the United States six babies per thousand don’t reach their first birthday, in our community, particularly for African American families more than 19 babies per thousand die before they turn one.
We believe this is wrong, not only on a humanitarian level, but as a people of faith we believe it is God’s will that every person should be healthy and thrive so we can live in to all that God has called us to do.
In order to change this community, the program I am in charge of operates a fresh market that distributed more than 640,000 pounds of free fruits and vegetables to over 28,000 people in 2016. We host cooking classes every week to teach people how to make healthy meals for a family of four for under $5. We have six different exercise programs. We help people live in to their own opportunities through health coaching and education. We are transforming the health of people and place so every person can experience the gifts of life and grace.
I am not alone in this work.
My wife, Jennifer, is also a church and community worker missionary. She is a registered nurse who graduated from Tarleton and worked at Walls hospital here in Cleburne and Huguley in Burleson.
Today, Jennifer leads a project called the Faith Community Health Connection. She does health screenings and blood pressure checks for people in our community. She teaches people about preventative health, ensures people have a doctor, and accompanies people after they have been discharged from the hospital.
She too is working to create a healthy community, so that people can live in to all that God has called them to be and do.
From my experience, health ministry is a powerful way to connect with our communities.
Many churches, including churches I have served, often ask how can we connect with our neighbors?
Health programs are an easy way to rediscover the mission of the church and create new relationships.
You are probably familiar with the United Methodist Church’s work in Africa to end malaria, Imagine no Malaria. The new initiative of Global Ministries is called “Abundant Health” and seeks to empower churches to be places that offer health to their neighborhoods through physical activity, diet and nutrition, addiction support, or mental health wellness.
That doesn’t mean a church has to do all of those things, but what is one thing that First UMC could do to help build a healthier community.
When we build a healthy community we create new relationships and we empower them to live in to their own callings, just as Daniel lived in to his.
Daniel was equipped with God’s grace to make the right choice, not only for himself, but so he could live in to all of the amazing things God had in store for him.
What choices might God be calling you to make so you can live in God’s will? How might God be calling you as a church to build a health community so all can touch God’s grace and live in to all that God has in store for them?
Our names may not go down in history as heroic as Daniel, but we are surrounded by God’s same grace that gives us strength and give us life so we too can be about God’s work in the world.
May we live in to the gifts of grace that God has given us, so we can do the work God has given us and accompany others to be all who God has created them to be.