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February 6, 2020

Holy Defiance

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:


Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
February 8, 2020
Text: Daniel 6

Sometimes the right answer is, “No. I won’t do it.”

When I first started out as a minister, the Adventist Church conducted an annual fund-raising drive called Ingathering. This was not an internal program. Rather, church members solicited money from the public to support the denomination’s humanitarian efforts in disaster relief and development. As a kid, I went door-to-door with other church members. My speech was, “Hi. I’m John McLarty and we are collecting money for the poor, sick, and needy.”

But then when I was in grad school, it was found out that the denomination was not, in fact, spending the money for the poor, sick, and needy. It was blending these monies with general church funds. We were not being honest with our members or with the public.

My congregation lost its taste for participating in the program.

So, the man at the conference who was in charge of the program called me into his office. “John, you and I are friends. So I don’t want to be harsh, but I see you are quite a bit behind on raising your Ingathering goal this year. I know you can do better.”

“Glen,” I said, “I understand your position. You have someone above you asking about how you are doing reaching your goal. And that person has someone above him urging him to reach his goal. We’re all in this together as a church system, right?”

Glen nodded and smiled. Then I said, “So the guy up at the top puts pressure on the guy beneath him and he puts pressure on the guy under him and he puts pressure on you and you put pressure on me and I’m supposed to pass that pressure on to my church to be diligent and raise their Ingathering goal, right?”

Glen nodded again. “That’s right.”
“Well, Glen,” I said. “I won’t. My congregation will not know that we have talked. I refuse to pass along the pressure. The church is using dishonest advertising for this program. I cannot in good conscience participate.”

Sometimes, the right answer is, “No. I won’t.”

Christians often celebrate the virtue of obedience. A popular devotional book is titled, “My Utmost for His Highest.” The author writes with great eloquence and fire about the importance of absolute, unquestioning obedience. But sometimes, disobedience is the righteous path. Sometimes you have to say, “No.”

Through the book of Daniel, one feature stands out: the path of the righteous is marked by adamant defiance. In Chapter One Daniel and his friends refuse to eat the food provided for them by their royal overseers. In Chapter Three, Daniel’s friends reject the king’s loyalty test. They will not bow. In Chapter Six, Daniel refuses to cooperate with the royal decree about prayer. In the Book of Daniel, the fools swagger and boast of their greatness and the greatness of their kingdom. The righteous refuse to play along. They do not believe the protestations of greatness and demonstrate their disbelief by their actions.

Here’s Daniel’s story:

Darius the Mede decided to divide the kingdom into 120 provinces, and he appointed a high officer to rule over each province. The king also chose Daniel and two others as administrators to supervise the high officers and protect the king’s interests. Daniel soon proved himself more capable than all the other administrators and high officers. Because of Daniel’s great ability, the king made plans to place him over the entire empire.

Then the other administrators and high officers began searching for some fault in the way Daniel was handling government affairs, but they couldn’t find anything to criticize or condemn. He was faithful, always responsible, and completely trustworthy.

So they concluded, “Our only chance of finding grounds for accusing Daniel will be in connection with the rules of his religion.” So the administrators and high officers went to the king and said, “Long live King Darius! We are all in agreement–we administrators, officials, high officers, advisers, and governors–that the king should make a law that will be strictly enforced. Give orders that for the next thirty days any person who prays to anyone, divine or human–except to you, Your Majesty–will be thrown into the den of lions. And now, Your Majesty, issue and sign this law so it cannot be changed, an official law of the Medes and Persians that cannot be revoked.”

King Darius signed the law.

When Daniel learned that the law had been signed, he went home and knelt down as usual in his upstairs room, with its windows open toward Jerusalem. He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God.

The officials went together to Daniel’s house and found him praying and asking for God’s help. So they went straight to the king and reminded him about his law. “Did you not sign a law that for the next thirty days any person who prays to anyone, divine or human–except to you, Your Majesty–will be thrown into the den of lions?” “Yes,” the king replied, “that decision stands; it is an official law of the Medes and Persians that cannot be revoked.” Then they told the king, “That man Daniel, one of the captives from Judah, is ignoring you and your law. He still prays to his God three times a day.” Hearing this, the king was deeply troubled, and he tried to think of a way to save Daniel. He spent the rest of the day looking for a way to get Daniel out of this predicament. In the evening the men went together to the king and said, “Your Majesty, you know that according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, no law that the king signs can be changed.”

So at last the king gave orders for Daniel to be arrested and thrown into the den of lions.

The king said to him, “May your God, whom you serve so faithfully, rescue you.”

A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den. The king sealed the stone with his own royal seal and the seals of his nobles, so that no one could rescue Daniel. Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night fasting. He refused his usual entertainment and couldn’t sleep at all that night. Very early the next morning, the king got up and hurried out to the lions’ den. When he got there, he called out in anguish, “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God, whom you serve so faithfully, able to rescue you from the lions?”

Daniel answered, “Long live the king! My God sent his angel to shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, for I have been found innocent in his sight. And I have not wronged you, Your Majesty.” The king was overjoyed and ordered that Daniel be lifted from the den. Not a scratch was found on him, for he had trusted in his God.

Then the king gave orders to arrest the men who had maliciously accused Daniel. He had them thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children. The lions leaped on them and tore them apart before they even hit the floor of the den.

Sometimes, the right answer is No.

In 1892 Homer Plessy bought a first class train ticket for travel from New Orleans to Covington, LA. He boarded the train and settled into a seat in the first class car. It was a “whites-only” car, but since Mr. Plessy looked white (he was seven eighths white according to law), no one thought anything of it. But then the conductor came in and challenged him: “Are you colored?”

“Yes sir.” Plessy answered.

“Then you’ll have to leave this car and go where you belong.”

“I will not, sir.” Plessy replied.

“Then I’ll have to call someone and have you arrested.”

“Yes, you will, sir.”

The conductor called a private detective who was on the train. The detective arrested Plessy and turned him over to local police who took him to jail.

It was a crucial day for America. It could have been the day we turned back toward greater equality or plunged deeper into oppression and injustice.

You see, this whole episode was a deliberate set up to challenge the new Louisiana law that mandated segregated train cars.

In the 1870’s in New Orleans, when Plessy was growing up, New Orleans had enjoyed a significant measure of racial integration and equality. The city had a large population of both former slaves and people who before the Civil War had been called “free people of color.” Blacks could attend the same schools as whites, marry anybody they chose, and sit in any streetcar. There was a large population of French-speaking, mixed-race Creoles, many of them originally from Haiti. They were educated and wealthy and enjoyed a measure of freedom even before the Civil War. But as the 1880’s white supremacy movements began gaining strength across the South and in 1890 the state legislature passed the Separate Car Act, requiring separate train cars for blacks and whites.

Plessy was a member of a local civil rights group, Comite’ des Citoyens (Citizens Committee) that worked to protect the rights of people of color. They decided to challenge the law in court. Plessy volunteered to be the provocateur.

He appeared to be white. So when he went to the train station to buy a ticket in the first class whites-only car, the ticket agent willingly sold him a ticket. But by the definitions written in Louisiana law, he was black.

The conductor who challenged him was actually part of the plot as was the detective who arrested him. The civil rights group arranged for the detective to make the arrest to make sure that Plessy was charged with violating the state law and not some other misdemeanor.

The local court upheld the law. And the Louisiana State Supreme Court upheld the law. Then it went to the United States Supreme Court. The fate of the nation hung in the balance. Just five men needed to stand up and say no. No, that is not right. Just five.

When the Comite’ des Citoyens started on this legal challenge in 1892, they had real hope that the Supreme Court would overturn the Louisiana law. But over the four years between Mr. Plessy’s arrest and his day in the Supreme Court, the makeup of the court had changed and become more conservative. Plessy’s attorneys were not sure they could win, but as a matter of principle they pressed on with their appeal.

In one of the most lamented decisions ever by the Supreme Court, the Louisiana segregation law was upheld. It became the basis for legal segregation across the country for the next 58 years. Only one judge stood up and said no. And one wasn’t enough. The nation entered the dark ages of Jim Crow laws that systematically and legally oppressed Black people across the country.

It was a legal precedent that stood until Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954 when school segregation was declared unconstitutional. It was so unnecessary. If just four more judges had had the courage to stand up against injustice the course of our nation would have been different.

Another story.

On December 1, 1956, Rosa Park was on the bus headed home after a long day at work. She was sitting in the “Blacks Only” section of the bus. The white section of the bus filled up with several people standing in the aisle.

The bus driver noticed this. He stopped the bus and went back to where a sign marked the separation between the black and white sections. He moved the sign back one row and ordered the blacks sitting in that row to give up their seats.

The way city code was written, the bus driver had full authority on his bus, like a captain on a ship at sea. Passengers had to obey. But Mrs. Parks refused.

“No, I won’t.”

The bus driver called the police and had Ms. Parks arrested.

The day of her trial, December 5, 1956, the Black community of Montgomery boycotted the buses. And again on December 6. And again on December 7. The boycott lasted 381 days. The leaders of the boycott were threatened with death. Black churches and the homes of Black leaders were bombed. But the Montgomery Improvement Association did not break. Instead they broke the bus company.

And when Ms. Parks attorneys argued her in the Supreme Court, the Court ordered the City of Montgomery to end segregation on its public transportation.

It is right that we celebrate the Black heroes who stood up against injustice, who said, “No, I won’t.” It is right that we admire their courage, venerate their clear moral vision. But most of us here this morning are not black.

And it is time we stood up. Our black and brown brothers and sisters should not be standing alone. We are called to stand with them.

In the words of the old children’s song,

Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone.

Dare to be defiant. Guided by wisdom and righteousness. And tempered with humility. (After all, maybe it is we who are wrong.)

Let us practice holy defiance. Let us be righteous rebels.

Let’s say, “No!”

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