First Sunday in December

27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counsellors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. 28 Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.’ 30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon. Daniel 3:27-30

John Allen, a U.C.C. Pastor in Residence, writing in Political Theology Today says that it is rare to hear a story of such instantly successful civil disobedience. Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego refuse to participate in religious devotion that they find blasphemous, they are sentenced to death, God intervenes saving their lives, and King Nebuchadnezzar declares that anyone who blasphemes against the God of Israel will be “torn limb from limb and their house laid in ruins.” This is a sweeping and clear victory.The problem is that Nebuchadnezzar’s decree indicates that he has not been changed by God’s miraculous intervention. Instead, the king resets the stage for the same story to play out with another marginalized group. He rearranged which group were the new holders of power but the bigotry remained. Violent death is still the price for blaspheming against the state’s new chosen God. It is chilling just how quickly the previous victims become part of the system that sought to kill them once it orients its violence toward a new group. The outcome indicates that God’s presence hasn’t engendered any profound change in the course of human affairs. Instead, familiar power dynamics are rearranged with a few new participants.

It feels like our own political landscape. Moments and movements that seem to usher a sea change that feels like a victory are simply incorporated into a broken system that remain essentiallyunchanged by the minor disruption. God’s message was lost when Nebuchadnezzar “promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedego.” The king relinquished none of his own power. Nor did he dismantle the political system that nearly led to their deaths.

Advent is supposed to be about God coming to live in and change the world. God’s legacy was to usher in a new way of living with the potential to profoundly disrupt the normal rhythms of business. In reality it shows up in a marginalized and impoverished body in a backwater town and was never integrated into the structures of economic and political structures. Advent is not about elevating different people to power, but learning to seek power at a different elevation. Emmanuel, God with us, comes not as a new leader to be fitted into our normal way of living, but as an interruption to our customs.

Advent is an invitation to seek that newness in unexpected places. Dare I suggest that where we might begin to look for the one who brings new and promising changes to our lives and in our world is within our own tradition where the foundation is personal and corporate obedience to the ever present living Christ.

A recent analysis of the State of the Society by the Earlham School of Religion says that by any measure Quaker contributions to the development of civil society over the past three-and-a-half centuries have been impressive.

In the 17th century, Friends made seminal contributions to the advancement of religious toleration.  In the 18th century, Friends established a lasting social and political order in America based on the fundamental principles of freedom of conscience and equality of individuals. In the 19th century, Friends advanced the cause of equality by decisively contributing to the abolition of slavery. In the 20th century, Friends went on to establish and nurture a wide range of organizations that have successfully advanced Quaker principles of peace and justice in the world at large.

The fruits of the Quaker family tree, both in America and abroad, have been rich and abundant over the past three-and-fifty years. You could argue that if Quakers were to die out tomorrow, our presence would continue to be felt for centuries to come. However the health of the tree that gave forth that fruit now finds itself in serious jeopardy. The numeric loss of almost a quarter of membership over the past thirty years presents a rather gloomy picture for the future for the Religious Society of Friends in North America. Despite this rather pessimistic assessment you can find glimmers of hope and signs of strength. In many cases, the primary weaknesses of Quakers can also be our greatest strengths.

The Quaker emphasis on a personal relationship with God has been a continuing source of division within the Society of Friends. On the other hand this relationship has also given rise to a group of people with an extremely well developed sense of individual responsibility.

The lack of internal unity within the Society of Friends is not only a weakness, but also a potential source of great strength. There is, perhaps, no other single religious denomination in American society today that so completely encompasses the entire spectrum of American religious experience. This diversity of theological perspective, in combination with the Quaker openness to continuing revelation, gives Friends great potential for defining a religion of the future that is capable of appealing to large segments of the population.

At a time when each day brings a fresh scandal to light in the business world, never has the Quaker testimony of honesty and integrity been more relevant or needed.

At a time when human over-consumption is putting increasingly deadly stress on the biosphere, never has the Quaker testimony of simplicity been more relevant or needed.

At a time when over 15% of the total population, has no health insurance, never has the Quaker testimony of equality been more relevant or needed.

At a time when the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with over 2 million of its citizens languishing in jail, never has the Quaker ideal of justice been more relevant or needed.

At a time when the “war on terror” is increasing society’s levels of suspicion toward minority communities, in all their manifestations, never has the Quaker ideal of tolerance been more relevant or needed.

While Quakerism still bears abundant fruit in term of its activities in the world, E.S.R.’s analysis says that Quakers seem to have made little or no progress in terms of “saving themselves” by nurturing the vine that gives forth the fruit.

In an anonymous essay by a British Friend on the future of Quakerism, the author acknowledges that Quakers have had an influence far beyond our small numbers yet believes that Friends are, for all practical matters, invisible to the general population. He also goes on and points to the wonderful gifts Friends have to bring to the world and asks how we can find the energy to expand to meet our own needs and those of more and more seekers in a troubled world? How can we, he asks, affirm, articulate and act upon our faith so that the Quaker way has more meaning for more people?

Spokane Friends Meeting shares both in that great heritage and is experiencing the same retrenchment as the Society of Friends as a whole.

Very recently a person who has been part of this Meeting for quite a few years told me that they were leaving because they came to the realization that they were not a Quaker. The person wanted “to go to church, be fed and then go home and live … life.” I was, of course, disappointed. But, as I began to think seriously about the future of our Meeting it occurred to me what this person actually said. Spokane Friends Meeting is a Quaker Meeting. We are who we say we are – with all the pluses and minuses that goes with that. Such a self selecting process is healthy.

Another individual offered an analysis of why Spokane Friends wasn’t doing so well financially. From their perspective there are three kinds of people in a congregation. There are a few who are productive people who can contribute generously, there are a middle group who meet their own needs but have little left over to contribute and then there are the needy ones. Evidently we’ve given too much attention to the needy and the barely adequate producers and not as much to the producers. In retrospect I found this another testimony to the Quakerliness of our Meeting.

The author of Quakers: A Spiritual Community for our Time? wrote that the Quaker way is not simply an hour of worship once a week; it is about learning, creating, sharing and praying together. It is about faith and practice being interwoven and our whole lives being sacramental. It is about teaching and learning alongside one another, supporting and encouraging one another and loving one another, despite our differences. Then the author asks whether we have the capacity to integrate it more fully into our lives or do we have too many competing interests and demands on us?

In order to ‘grow’, he writes, we need to be clear about our core identity and at the same time be open and flexible. It is his suggestion that renewing our spiritual life together will opoen the gate to new growth and movement. And we shouldn’t approach that in haste but in innovative ways with discernment. Energy for change will come when we start with our center and move out as we are led.

So where do we start? There is a revered piece of Quaker advice that says: take heed…to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Our journey starts there – along the path of love and truth, listening to the Spirit’s promptings in our hearts. George Fox had a message for all times. In two passages from his Epistles he speaks of the power of belief in a loving God who directs and supports us.

‘in the presence of the living God be patterns. that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people… then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.

and:  ‘the Lord showed me … that I should have the sense of all conditions and in this I saw the infinite love of God, I saw also that thee was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And n that I saw the infinite love of God and I had great opening.

When Fox spoke about being patterns it had been his experience that energy flows out from us and creates more of the same. Just as fear and violence breed more fear and violence, so love and truth encourage more love and truth. War does not lead to peace, whereas kindness and respect may well open doors to new understanding. When George Fox spoke about an ocean of light flowing over an ocean of darkness, he knew that the power of love can overcome the power of fear.

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