“Purple is Beautiful”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 8, 2015
University Baptist Church
Today we celebrate that Purple is beautiful. Each week, people at UBC have been sporting the colors of the week. We have learned a lot about each other’s wardrobes. This Sunday, I notice that in deference to the color of the week, people across Dinkytown are sporting the color. Some even put numbers on their jerseys to tell each other apart.
As we just sang, purple is the color of mountains majesty across the fruited plain. It’s the color of veins and plums and grapes and wine and ink. It’s the color of Barney and Grover and Tinky Winky.
It’s the color of wise old women who say that when they get old, they’re gonna wear purple, with a red hat that doesn’t suit them. They’ve lived long enough to do whatever they please.
In Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple, Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
My daughter reminded me that purple is the color of domestic violence awareness and solidarity.
Today’s scripture is an odd story about graffiti. It’s similar to other stories in the book of Daniel. Something bad happens, the King asks his diviners and seers to say what it means. They can’t but Daniel can. Daniel gets out of a lion’s den, he escapes from a fiery furnace, and even king Nebuchadnezzar rises and falls all because those who believe in the true God have cast their loyalties in the right place. But as we get to the fifth chapter, King Belshazzar ignores all of this. He can’t even read the writing on the wall, but the rest of us can.
While Daniel was written probably around the second century BCE, it tells the stories of what happened in the sixth century. In particular, it refers to the period when the Hebrew people are in exile and Babylon, also called the land of the Chaldeans. King Nebuchadnezzar has died by the time the fifth chapter rolls around and his grandson King Belshazzar is on the throne. Belshazzar is having his own little wine-soaked orgy. He has invited a thousand lords and ladies to join him in the celebration. But it’s not just any celebration. For Belshazzar is praising the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone. This is short-sighted, for sure, and we might ignore it. Except for the fact that he takes the booty that his ancestors stole from the burned down temple of YHWH in Jerusalem. And he takes the golden and stone goblets and pours cheap wine into them for his guests. These vessels that have seen centuries of devout sacrifices and religious function are turned into cheap party cups.
He’s saying, “My god is better than your god. You’ve got one god, well I’ve got six. I’m going to praise the gods of gold, silver, bronze, wood, iron and stone.” Six is a number that comes up a lot in Daniel. It never quite measures up to the perfect and holy lucky number seven.
I remember during the Iraq war, when conquering U.S. soldiers sat on ancient couches in Saddam’s palaces. The Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddha statues. It’s an old story. And it’s decidedly religious. It’s not about cups and plates, it’s about what is Holy.
After lots of wine-soaked revelry, the king notices a disembodied hand writing something on the wall of the royal palace. Worse, the writing is still there when they sober up, but no one can interpret it.
Belshazzar called in diviners and magicians to interpret the writing. He even offered a reward. Purple clothing. Beautiful purple clothing. They could be clothed like kings. But not only that, they would get a gold chain—we’re talking some serious bling. And finally the interpreter would be rank third in the kingdom, kinda like the speaker of the House. None could do it. Belshazzar could have written it off, but he was a bit paranoid. Too much power coupled with too much arrogance and too much wine can do that to you. The Queen Mother tells him of Daniel, one of the foreign refugees brought to the area by his granddaddy King Nebuchadnezzar.
So in comes 80-year-old Daniel, the foreigner from a vanquished land. “Can you read the writing on the wall?” Daniel might have asked Belshazzar the same question. He explained the fate of Nebuchadnezzar. He told how God had raised him up as a king. He did well in war and peace. But when his pride got the most of him, he got mean. The scripture says, “his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened, so that he acted proudly.”(v.20) As a result, he lost his crown, and was a bit mad—like a wild animal. It can happen when your life topples, it can be more than a fragile psyche can handle. But when he humbled himself before God, he was healed.
And then Daniel makes it plain. “You Belshazzar have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all of this. Even though the writing was on the wall. You exalted yourself against God. You drank out of the temple goblets. You praised the gods of silver, gold, bronze, wood, iron and stone. As if they were the living God.”
What gods of paper or gold do we worship? What iron weapons do we think will save us? What trinkets demand our attention and devotion?
There are four words on the wall, O king. MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PHARSIN. Here’s what they mean: MENE (numbered) “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought them to an end.” Jeremiah said that the exile would last 70 years.
It was coming to an end. TEKEL (weighed), “You have been weighed on scales and have been found wanting.” The scales represent justice. If you have been out of balance—meaning favoring the rich over the poor, or one race over the other, then you will be judged. Bill Murray said, “When we lie to the government it’s a felony. When the government lies to us its politics.”
Finally PERES (divided) means “Your kingdom will be divided and given to the Medes and the Persians. Even the greatest nation that seems impenetrable is vulnerable. It turns out that while Belshazzar was making merry, the armies of Persia were encamped around the gates, unnoticed or seen as trivial by the armies of Babylon. Some say the Persians actually built a tunnel under the wall and diverted the river away from Babylon. They marched in under the wall on dry land—kinda like the Hebrew people crossed the red sea. Babylon was a seemingly impenetrable city, but the Persians and the Medes sing “Babylon is Fallen to rise no more.”
Oddly, the king kept his promises. Daniel got the purple clothes, the bling and the rank. I would think the king would throw Daniel into prison, maybe a lion’s den. Instead he is clothed in purple. Belshazzar never repents and dies the next day.
What does this odd story have to do with us? Well, few of us would get the keys to a kingdom, or even receive gold for our fortune telling. But every one of us can put on purple and see the writing on the wall.
Climate change is one of the things that are written on the wall. If we don’t change course, then we will not have a beautiful earth left. All those purple mountains tainted by tar sands.
We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. We need to reduce, reuse, recycle. We need to find ways to live with each other instead of against each other.
Then there is our dependence on the military industrial complex. Talk about gods of iron. As presidential candidates try to make political points by pointing to the poor or the outsider as responsible for the world’s problems, we spend almost half of our budget on the military. We spend more than the next 26 countries combined. And we still fight wars. It doesn’t seem to have made us safer. The budget is unsustainable.
The big compromise that was made by the house and senate left in place the huge bloated military budget. Can we see the writing on the wall?
Women make less than men. This is not even disputable. Are we content to keep that stratification? Why don’t we make it affordable to have good childcare and preschool?
Racism is alive and well in our country. We can look at the evidence in the performance of our racially segregated schools. Minority performance is way down from white performance. Is it any wonder we need to say that black lives matter?
Imagine if we could wear purple like Daniel and tell the truth.
My friend and colleague Ashlee Wiest-Laird had a black lives matter sign torn off of the wall of her church in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts. Sometimes the writing on the wall is too provocative. Ashlee and her husband Lance are white and their two adopted teenage sons are black. They have already told them about how they need to pay extra special attention to their behavior in public. Not because they are PK’s and it will reflect bad on mom. But because the color of their skin makes them suspect in other people’s minds. They won’t get the benefit of the doubt that white kids will get.
Last week, there was a ceremony where the sign was reinstalled. This time they put it way above the front door where no one could reach it. It said that in this church, black lives matter, even in a church pastored by a white person. That’s a provocative statement. And we wouldn’t have to say it if there was not so much evidence that certain people don’t think that black lives matter as much as white lives.
Three years ago, we put a sign on our railing outside that said, “People of Faith vote No” on the marriage amendment. Respect the freedom to marry. It was torn off the railing within a week. So we bought another sign and hung it over our front door.
Wedgewood Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC recently had its walls graffitied with anti-gay slurs. They creatively had a painting party the next weekend. They painted their church doors in rainbow colors. Just making sure no one missed the subtlety.
How do we respond to the writing on the wall?
Daniel, the heroic foreign seer translates the words and their meaning. As a reward, he is clothed in a purple cloak—a color usually reserved for royalty. How do we interpret the writing we see on the wall? What is so obvious, that we yet choose to ignore?
Purple is not just the color of a football team. It’s the beautiful color of a truth teller: a seer who can interpret the writing on the wall. It’s the color of virtue and blessed assurance. It’s the color of the people who know the truth and are not afraid to tell it. It’s the color of what will save us. In Daniel, the same story is told so many times so we can see its truth. As long as we place our allegiance in something other than God, then we are barking up the wrong tree. We have all been guilty at one time or another of putting our faith in the gods of gold, silver, bronze, wood, iron, stone, and even paper.
But God is not impressed. God wants us to see the writing on the wall. Imagine if all of that purple power down the street was unleashed on the idolatries that abound. Commit yourselves to lives of compassion, mercy and justice. Embrace peacemaking. Protect the environment. Advocate for people less fortunate than yourself. May the last be first and may the first be last. Clothe yourself in purple and tell the truth. That’s what the world needs. That kind of purple is beautiful.