Resilience: the sermon

Here is the sermon I preached on Sunday, partially inspired by this article that I referenced in a recent blog post.

Becoming Resilient: Daniel 6:10-23

I can still hear my Nanna’s sharp, full-bodied laugh. There were a lot of things she found funny, which is really kind of amazing since I’m certain her life hadn’t turned out quite like she’d expected. At first it unfolded according to script. In her teens she had married my PaPaw, a trickster and a rule-breaker in the most benevolent sense. They were hard-working folk, with my Nanna punching a clock at a jewelry store and my PaPaw pumping gas and washing windshields until they both signed on to sell school supplies. They had my mother and my aunt, and later on the grandbabies came in fairly quick succession. But then…not long before I was born, my PaPaw had two strokes that paralyzed his right side and frustrated his speech. It took his good side ages to drag his unresponsive side down the short, flat driveway just to get the mail. For twenty years – until he died – my Nanna helped PaPaw get dressed, fixed his breakfast and lunch, put in a full day of sales at work, and came home to help him bathe and get into bed. It was, at best, an exhausting way to live. And yet, their tiny house was full of fun, and usually full of food and family too.

I can still smell the lard that my Nanny used to fix her famous hand-cut fries. She was always happy to make them when my brother, cousin, and I came to spend the night with her, my PawPaw, and their ironically-named poodle Macho. It was a medical marvel that she was even around to play short-order cook. Not long after my PaPaw had his strokes, Nanny, my father’s mother, was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. She had two months, the doctors said. There was no hope, they assured. So she and her husband hit the road, determined to finish that bucket list. They even celebrated their 50th anniversary a few years early. But she didn’t just live to see that golden milestone. In fact, my grandparents nearly got to the 70-year mark before she died nine years ago.

My two grandmothers were friends. They were even co-workers. Each anchored a pew at her respective church. But beyond that, they didn’t have much in common – not build or hair color or personality or approach to parenting or income level. Except…they both exuded a resilience that was hard to match. Theirs was a strength that was not rooted in ego or self-reliance. It came, in fact, from their vulnerability. From the frailty of the mortal body. From not being sure what each new day would bring. From knowing they needed the prayers and assistance of others, and quietly paying those kindnesses forward to others as they were able.

In our scripture for today, we meet Daniel running headlong into vulnerability. He’s an insider/outsider, a Jew brought into the Babylonian king’s court after the fall of Judah. He’s made himself valuable to the regime and to his fellow courtiers through his wisdom, honesty, and level-headedness. He’s risked interpreting royal dreams, intervening to save the lives of Babylonian wise men, and helping his hometown buddies get plumb appointments in the Babylonian government. At the same time, Daniel has kept up with his spiritual disciplines, holding to the Levitical meal plan and maintaining a strong prayer life.

Just before our passage picks up, King Darius – the third ruler since Daniel’s arrival at the court – names Daniel his number two, and this promotion does not sit well with Babylonian middle management. To them Daniel will forever be an exile, despite his long tenure and good work. So they set a trap, playing on the king’s ego to pass a law making it illegal to worship anyone or anything other the king himself. Daniel doesn’t picket this decision, nor does he retreat into his basement prayer closet to worship in secret. He simply carries on, getting down on his knees in front of his second-floor picture window, praying for all the townspeople to see. Now, he’s no flaunter of the faith. He’s up there seeking God’s mercy, knowing it’s only a matter of time before he hears a knock on the door.

The conspirators anticipate Daniel’s devotion, and they take a selfie along with a dated newspaper in front of his window. And then they kick up dust back to the palace, pushing each other out of the way to show the picture and say, “Oh King? Remember that little law you just passed? Your boy Daniel has thumbed his nose at it – and at you.” King Darius is caught. Maybe he really can’t change the law, or maybe he just doesn’t want to look flaky. Regardless, he can’t imagine a way to get Daniel out of this pickle, and down Daniel goes to the den of lions, the most ruthless predators to a society dependent on livestock. If Daniel whines about it, there’s no record of it. But Darius spends a very restless night and races back to the den at first light. “Daniel? You there?” “I’m good! God made sure these lions weren’t very hungry.” And Darius, the Gentile king who had lowered Daniel into the den with these words: “Your God, to whom you are so loyal, is going to get you out of this,” (Daniel 6:16, The Message) is ready to claim the Jewish God as his own, commanding the people in his charge to do the same.

Social researcher and best-selling author Brene Brown has garnered a big audience sharing her findings on the power that comes from vulnerability. She could have used Daniel as a case study. Daniel recognizes that he is defying a royal edict. I doubt he is oblivious to the fact that some of his peers will take the first opportunity to kick him in the back. He may be number two, but he is in real danger. Instead of putting up his defenses, though, he leans on his spiritual habit. Daniel gets that while it may be his devotion to God that gets him in this jam, the God he worships will be the one who gets him through a tense night lying beside some panting, snarling lions.

This vulnerability is the difference between mere toughness and true resilience. Toughness is isolating. It’s the product of a “never let ‘em see you sweat” orientation. But once we’ve maxed out our anti-perspirant’s effectiveness, we’re sunk. Vulnerability, on the other hand, is outward-focused. It is the understanding that we are only as strong as our relationships, despite the fact that these relationships potentially expose us to hurt and disappointment and loss as much as to joy. It is gratitude for the abundance of divine love and eagerness to share out of that overflow. It is the power that comes from hope in the promises of God and the goodness of others. It is the courage to forge ahead in spite of obstacles and setbacks.

And we are no strangers to setbacks. Don’t feel compelled to raise your hands unless I have already convicted you about the power of vulnerability, but who here has gotten bad news this week? Faced a bully? Lost sleep over a child who is struggling socially or academically? Dealt with the dull roar of constant anxiety? Wondered what your purpose is, or if you have one? Lived with chronic pain? Wrestled with coming to church on Mother’s Day? Who here is struggling with the reality that two-thirds of FCC’s pastoral staff is departing shortly? Who here is deeply troubled by the news cycle, which has been even less heartening than usual lately with natural disasters and reminders that there is still much work to be done to end racial oppression?

These are all reasons to cultivate our resilience, and we do that by embracing our vulnerability. By finding humor wherever we can, not by ignoring our troubles. By developing routines that tone our muscle memory, knowing that there will be times we’ll have to rely on auto-pilot. By diversifying our hobbies and our work so that when one part of our life inevitably goes to heck we’ll still have other vocations to bolster us. By working hard on our relationships so that we will always have community to hold and to hold us. By noting the gifts of each day, particularly the small ones. And most of all by giving ourselves over to God’s care, continually reflecting on where God has been and is at work.

When we are resilient, we are able to forge ahead in a world where the lions pant in our ears and drool on our faces, hungry for lunch. Resilience is not a promise of perfection but of divine company and care both in the prayer room overlooking the town square and deep in the den. Divine company and care in the back-straining work of helping your partially-paralyzed husband in and out of bed, in and out of the bathtub, in and out of his clothes. Divine company and care in the doctor’s office when the expert breezes in and confidently hands you a death sentence.

There is a concept in medicine called herd immunity, which is a kind of indirect protection from infection that comes from most of the community becoming immune to that infection, usually by vaccination, giving some level of protection to those who can’t be immunized. There is, I believe, such a thing as herd resilience, in which we are better together. We practice love, making sure no one is cut off from resources or relationship. We live resurrection, teaching hope to and encouraging it in those who cannot see the way forward. We act courageously on behalf of others when they can’t muster it for themselves. We pray for friends and strangers. This is how we vaccinate ourselves against despair. This is how we learn to move through life both mindfully and boldly. This is how we deal with the setbacks we can’t change and deconstruct the obstacles we can overcome. We cultivate resilience, not just for our own sakes, but also for the sake of those who might benefit from herd resilience.

I wonder sometimes how my family dealt with two such devastating blows – paralysis and late-stage cancer diagnosis – so close together. But really, I know the answer. I had two sets of grandparents who had neighbors they checked on and who checked on them. Grandparents who shared rather than stockpiled. Grandparents who were grateful for all they had. Grandparents who were willing to learn and adapt. Grandparents whose faith had deep roots. They were resilient, and they helped their children and grandchildren become so as well. May we work toward that identity for ourselves and on behalf of others, so that when dawn breaks after a long night in the den, we might also say, “Those lions might have spooked me, but they didn’t lay a paw on me.” Thanks be to God for God’s unrelenting presence and constant care. Amen.

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