I had a horrible nightmare last night. In it, two giant beasts lumbered ashore, different from one another and visible to the eye, though they appeared at a distance it would take two full days to walk. From the waters to my left arose a fearsome donkey with the head of a hawk, clothed in tailored pantsuits, red as blood, white as bone, and blue as the bruises that covered her body. From the waters to my right lumbered a trumpeting elephant with sharpened tusks and the head of an orangutan “and a mouth speaking arrogantly,” (Dan. 7:8c) its limbs like tree trunks smashing to bits everything and everyone in its path.
“As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took the throne whose clothing was white as snow, and whose hair was like pure wool; whose throne was fiery flames with wheels of burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out of the Ancient One’s presence. A thousand thousands served this One, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending this One. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.” (Dan. 7:9-10)
“I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the [beast] was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the other beast, its dominion was taken away, but its life was preserved for a season and a time.” (Adapted from Dan. 7:11-12)
We don’t need Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, to interpret this dream, do we? Its meaning is plain to those with ears to hear. The same is true for the apocalyptic literature we find in the passage from Daniel this morning, which paints the picture of “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” to whom dominion and glory and kingship are given. Look closely, and you’ll see that ten verses were omitted from our reading. Those verses contain descriptions of the “four great beasts, four kings [that] shall arise out of the earth,” (Dan. 7:17) every bit as weird and shady as the beasts that rose up from the waters of my dream.
In Daniel’s case, the four beasts represented the conquering empires of Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece which had each taken turns conquering and occupying Israel for five hundred years. Daniel’s literature is written in the kind of code speech employed by subversives speaking out against the powers that be. It’s not that he couldn’t simply call the beasts what they were — their descriptions did that as effectively as my own. It’s that in describing them as something other than nations or rulers he pointed out their cosmological, archetypical quality. It’s as if to say, these beasts are always with us. Or, in our own symbolic language, there are always elephants and donkeys charging at one another, trampling the bodies of human beings on the battlefield.
Into this zoological game of thrones another figure arrives, “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” Christian ears are tuned to hear this as the arrival of Jesus into this mad story, though Daniel’s vision predates the birth of Jesus by centuries. It was the gospel of Mark that cribbed from the prophet Daniel in describing Jesus as the “Son of Man coming in clouds,” (Mark 13:26; 14:62) as a way of reading his presence back into history. I’m less concerned with the identity of the human being than its symbolic meaning. Into an arena dominated by beasts displaying the most violent and fearsome qualities comes the human being, and it is this human being who is given dominion by the one seated upon the throne, flanked by ten thousand upon ten thousand souls.
Now this is a dream. Let me ask you, dreamers, what would it look like if the lives of human beings, real human beings, all human beings, were at the center of every contest of power? What would have to change if the needs of human beings took precedence over the needs of corporations, who have been awarded human rights even though they have no bodies, no blood, no tears, no children, no dreams, other than the profit motives that extract wealth from the many and concentrate it into the hands of a few? What would you be willing to give, of your own time, of your own wealth, to make that dream reality? Who would you give it to? How would you want it to be used?
Yesterday morning fourteen of us gathered here for the second installment of the three-part series of workshops hosted by our social justice committee and presented by Center for Changing Lives, whom we are supporting with special offerings taken up each month from July through December. While the first session helped us begin to examine the values and ideals that shape our use of money, this second session introduced biblical values connected to labor, wealth, and justice. By the end of the session, we’d been asked to get together in small groups and begin to dream about what it would look like if the world was organized around the vision of humanity we hear echoed throughout scripture. Together we wrestled with how we would enthrone ideals of mercy, grace, generosity, forgiveness, inclusion, equality, and accountability while also grappling with the question of human nature. Can we be trusted to set aside self-interest to care for our neighbor? Are we willing to work hard if we suspect others are working less hard? Would we share the goods of production on the basis of need rather than desire? Are we willing to decide together how much is too much and how much is enough — or will we always allow the market to make those decisions for us?
What would it look like to put human beings, real human beings, all human beings, at the center of every decision we make about power, about wealth, about industry, about war?
This is what Jesus does when he delivers his great sermon on the plain in Luke’s gospel, in which we hear his vision for humanity at the center, now known as the Beatitudes. In the reign of God, it is the poor who are blessed, the hungry, the mourners, the hated and the reviled. It is those whose lives have not seemed to matter at all that are placed in the center. But the rich and the satiated, the self-satisfied and the self-righteous, they are to be pitied, because their woeful lack of concern for their neighbor has turned them into beasts who have lost their humanity. They cannot be in the center, in the circle of beloved community, because they have excluded themselves, loving privilege more than people. So they trumpet and bray all the more, demanding from us loyalty and allegiance that can only belong to the Ancient One, the divine unity within whom rests the souls of our ancestors, the source and end of all life, the one who took on human flesh so that we might take on divine nature. The One who cannot be named, whom we call God, which is still a name too small for the one who cast the heavens and formed the earth and breathed life into us as the first act of an unending love.
It is because we know this God as love that we “live for the praise of [God’s] glory” as Paul puts it (Eph. 1:12). Because, if it were not for love, we would despair that our lives are too short and too fragile to matter. But, because of love, we know that we will work harder than we thought possible to care for those we love. We will fight for a better future than we have ever seen for those we love. We will make sacrifices we cannot imagine for those we love. We will even gladly die and take our place among the saints of every time and place to make way for the generations we will never see, but nevertheless love, because they are the home where our hope resides, the world we have longed for and still believe in.
Therefore, we do not fear the beasts that haunt our dreams with their ceaseless conflict. Instead, we rejoice in our maker, we are joyful in our ruler, who takes pleasure in us, in our humanity, in our poverty (Ps. 149), in our hunger, in our sorrow, in our despair.
You saints of God, now is the beginning of the end. The long epoch of waiting is over. A new sovereign has arrived who does not need our vote, only our lives, only our love, only our dreams of a world with human beings at the center. Wake up, your God is already here, now — forever and ever.