"Break the Chains." Image by Gigi Ibrahim via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Ed. note: Don’t miss last week's article by the same author entitled, “Read Before Preaching: Forming Communities of Resistance” with suggested reading and interpretive framework to set up this preaching series.
Overview to Preaching Series
In this season, if you are a believer in Jesus and a citizen of the United States, you are called to proclaim truth not as the American Church but as the church in America.
As preachers and leaders in a society that’s divided, it is our prophetic burden to form communities of resistance that challenge the divisive messages and the destructive intent of what Frank A. Thomas has labeled “the diabolical imagination.”1
We are living in a chaotic time, no doubt. But just as, in the beginning, the Spirit of God swept over the face of the deep (Genesis 1:2), the Spirit waits to empower us to proclaim unity, accord, and community through a moral imagination. Your moral imagination is empowered by the Spirit of God. God created out of chaos. Your moral imagination, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can call community out of division, and open eyes to find common ground on which we can all stand.
Be warned, though, that leading your congregation through a preaching series on “Forming Communities of Resistance” may instigate forces of disunity and discord that breed false perceptions, ideas, and narratives that result in the “othering” of individuals. Othering is the practice of using implanted ideas and assumptions that cause one group to see other groups as unequal and less than fellow human beings worthy of God’s love, to be welcomed in community and embraced in fellowship. Othering is one of the biggest barriers to community and a major obstacle to forming communities of resistance.
By forming communities of resistance, we bring together as allies those who were once seen as outsiders. Consider David’s community of resistance formed in the cave of Adullam (1 Samuel 22). David became captain over about 400 in-debt, distressed, and discontented people. Despite their personal, emotional, even spiritual condition, they became a fighting force with David as their leader. Your proclamation can be the inspiration. It can call hearers to repentance, reformation, and transformation, opening the way to a Pentecost moment where the assembled crowd will recognize that we speak the same language and ask the question, “What shall we do?”
There is plenty of scriptural precedence for this work. In John 17, we hear Jesus’ fervent prayer for unity: “The glory that you [Holy Father] have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one … so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23). Jesus’ call for oneness is the foundation of our community, a piece of the rock on which the Church is built. In Ephesians 2, the writer boldly claims that those who make up our common union -- uncircumcised and circumcised, aliens and strangers -- can, through Christ, come together as one new humanity having made peace with God and each other.
If you get stuck along the way, remember the struggles that Jesus and Peter experienced when each of them dealt with the question of who gets the benefits of inclusion, community, and salvation in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ conversation with a Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 shows us a Jesus with a bias. He responds to the Canaanite woman’s call for mercy with silence at first, which emboldens his disciples to shoo her away. He follows up with a curt response, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Why would Jesus react this way? What biases show up here? Why did Jesus choose at first to work from those biases? What is the life situation of this woman, from that region, who has a daughter suffering under oppression? Yet Jesus is changed by his encounter with her and ends up praising her, saying, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matthew 15:28).
Peter, likewise in Acts 10, is confronted with the question of who gets included in community. God shows Peter he should not call any person common or unclean. What issues could this raise in today’s conversation about who is and who isn’t welcomed into community? Forming diverse communities is itself an act of resistance, but it is only the beginning. These texts (Matthew 15 and Acts 10) can demonstrate how hard it can be -- even for Jesus and Peter! -- to envision diverse communities over and against our impulses toward “othering.”
When we preach to form communities of resistance, we must renew our commitment to wrestle with texts, re-engage the familiar and grapple with the unfamiliar. As preachers, we wrestle with texts because we see through a glass dimly. We know in part and, in part, we prophesy. We wrestle with texts throughout the night as Jacob wrestled with the stranger at Peniel (Genesis 32). We do not let go until the blessing is revealed. For us, as preachers, this blessing is revealed as an encounter with the imagination of God, one that allows us to see the world in ways we have not considered before.
This wrestling with texts, along with the suggested readings recommended in this preaching series, may afflict you with moments of cognitive dissonance as you observe passages through a new interpretive lens and new voices. The blessing will come with a change that begins in you, flowing into your heart, then through your voice, to be received into the heart of the hearer.
[Week 1] See “them” as “us”
Preaching texts: Nehemiah 1:1-11; Luke 10:25-37
Communities of resistance turn “them” into “us,” showing mercy and taking action instead of naming scapegoats or stepping back from suffering.
In both Nehemiah 1 and Luke 10, we observe communal and individual distress. We also observe the response to that distress, which for a few is no response at all. It is much easier, and much more comfortable, to proclaim the virtues of those who end up solving the problem when the prophetic word should address not only the diabolical imaginations that created the problem but those who choose to pass the problem along or pass by without so much as a thought or a prayer.
Look to the texts; examine the ethic applied by Nehemiah and Jesus to their context as they not only looked for possible solutions to the immediate concern, but also imagined a new way of acting to alleviate the conditions causing suffering.
Preaching these texts with moral imagination starts with:
- Seeing the path to convict your listeners of the need to act;
- Convincing listeners to be willing to take risks to intervene because of those convictions; and
- Preparing listeners to act in new ways to ameliorate the suffering (i.e., take effective action).
When you, as the preacher, dig into the root causes (i.e., the living conditions for those who are suffering or being victimized), it may disturb your listeners. The first barriers are likely found within. Start by taking a look at Nehemiah’s response as a way to prepare hearts for transformation.
Nehemiah hears the news of the crisis in Jerusalem from a position of comfort and privilege. As cupbearer for the Persian king, Nehemiah has a government job. He lives in the White House (or even the Mar-a-Lago) of the kings of Persia. The palace of Susa, according to archeological reports, had a private residence spanning nine acres, a three-acre audience hall with 72 columns and a raised platform where the king’s throne sat. Nehemiah would have made his request to the king in this audience hall.
Perhaps Nehemiah’s brother Hanani provided more details of the crisis in the Jerusalem community than the narrator shares in the text (this part of the narrative includes only Nehemiah’s perspective). Regardless, Hanani’s response to the crisis can be used to create tension: Hanani shares the news of the survivor’s plight but takes no part in repentance or strategizing solutions to the problem. Hanani and the “certain men” have exercised the option to leave. We could go even so far as to say they exercised their privilege to return to the comforts of Susa. They chose not to bear the burden of fighting for change or to suffer with those who are suffering.
Nehemiah could have chosen to sit down, weep and mourn -- the equivalent of the modern-day “thoughts and prayers” tweet. But no, he comes under conviction, which leads to repentance and transformation. Through fasting and prayer, Nehemiah comes to realize that this is about the people, the survivors -- not just him. He brings his weeping and mourning before the Lord in prayer and fasting. His confessions and repentance begin broadly, and then narrow in scope to him and his family.
One cannot help but wonder why Nehemiah gets so specific, as if his family had some greater role in creating the conditions in Jerusalem. Could it be that Nehemiah was repenting for his brother’s lack of compassion and abandonment of the people? By the time we come to the end of Nehemiah’s prayer and supplication, he believes that he and the servants of God can do something and meet with success. Nehemiah is so moved that he uses his position and access to the Persian government to get resources that serve to provide relief for his community.
Here the preacher can emphasize what it means to be a survivor (the Hebrew word nis’aru can also be translated as “left behind”). Why do struggling communities find themselves left behind? Whether it is because their infrastructure is in life-threatening disrepair as in Flint, Michigan, or the area has been declared a food desert by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, these communities are beset by trouble and shame.
Next, identify struggling communities in your context. The preacher may ask: What is our response to these communities in crisis? Do we exercise our privilege to abandon the field, leaving survivors to their fate? Are we caught in the diabolical imagination of spin doctors? Is our attention so quickly diverted in the wake of the 24-hour news cycle?
Other questions can be raised: Who is in community? Whom do we exclude and why? Do we build walls based on neighborhood, voting district, race, class, pay scale, gender? What will it take to break down explicit or implicit barriers?
Some tough self-examination can happen here for listeners. Consider the lawyer who tests Jesus in Luke 10. He knows the law, but doesn’t know who his neighbor is (or he feigns ignorance). How can believers in Jesus Christ claim to know the Word, yet still be manipulated by partisanship, nationalism, divisive political actors, biased media, propaganda, and stereotyping? How have we come to believe the conditions and suffering of humanity is no more than “fake news”?
Samaritans are good examples of people who have been “othered.”2 Jesus does not limit the definition of neighbor to proximity: loving God and loving one’s neighbor are inseparable. They are intertwined. For the lawyer, and for all of us, the stakes are high. The lawyer does not ask for God’s favor. He does not ask what he can do to please God. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Is the lawyer only attempting to justify himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?”
Then there is the Jerusalem to Jericho road. What can be said about this road? Roads are important parts of communities. They symbolize connection and make way for the exchange of ideas and commerce. How did it become so dangerous? Who is responsible to make it safe? Most roads are maintained by taxpayer dollars and traveled by everyone. Roads represent something shared. A man is attacked, and his need is ignored by the most religious of people. He is cared for by a perceived outcast whom Jesus uses an illustration of the righteousness that pleases God.
Nehemiah heard and the Samaritan saw a need and proceeded to seek out resources or use personal resources to meet a need with mercy. How can we, out of our moral imagination, create communities of resistance that are founded on mercy and call to account those who fail to show such mercy?
[Week 2] Get angry, get active
Preaching texts: Psalm 69; Matthew 21:12-13
Communities of resistance cry out when confronted with injustice (see Psalm 69) and act with righteous indignation like Jesus in Matthew 21.
Psalm 69 is a psalm for the suffering, wherever they may be found. As an imprecatory psalm, it is a window into the sorrow, frustrations, and anger of the psalmist and a witness to the psalmist’s trust in God.
Without a doubt, communities of resistance seek justice, love mercy, and desire to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). They are also angered by the manifestations of evil in our community, state, and nation, and they yearn for righteousness to prevail.
Some of your listeners may be surprised by the strong language found in imprecatory psalms like Psalm 69. They may think these psalms are not in keeping with the grace and mercy of God in Christ. Yet resources such as EntertheBible.org and praypsalms.org give assurance that these psalms are appropriate for expressions of sorrow and righteous anger about injustice. Praypsalms.org notes: “Imprecatory Psalms are the songs of the oppressed, always prayed from a position of vulnerability and weakness, not dominance or triumphalism.”3 Vengeance is the Lord’s, but it is the believer’s right to ask God to act such vengeance out. Bring the particulars of this psalm forward into the plight of the suffering today.
What are today’s examples of unrighteousness toward the poor, the stranger, or creation? In June 2019 pictures of an immigrant father and child face down in the water at the edge of the Rio Bravo went viral. At the boundary between despair and hope for a better life, they drown. The suffering servant of Psalm 69 cries, “I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” Shouldn’t this suffering and death anger the body of Christ?
Communal anger can be channeled into something more productive. A TED talk by Ryan Martin, “Why we get mad -- and why it’s healthy,” offers insights on anger that can be helpful in moving beyond simply blowing off steam to harnessing it for action in morally imaginative ways. The presentation speaks of ways that we make room for the devil in our anger, like failing to recognize the stages of anger and how we move through them.
Understanding these stages can lead to more mature discipleship. Too often, we engage in a thought process called catastrophizing, making something bigger than it is. Then we misattribute causation, putting blame where it doesn’t belong. More specifically, in Christian communities angry individuals are advised to calm down or be more like Jesus. When Christians talk about being more like Jesus, it doesn’t usually include the righteous indignation that moved him to overturn the tables. Jesus witnessed the impact of abuse on the people and it led him to action in Matthew 21.
Unholy acts that anger us should lead us to righteous action. And, the preacher should note, there are ways to be angry and not sin. In the moral imagination of the community of resistance, anger in response to evil -- whether on a personal or communal level – is appropriate, and deserves a response.
As you look for ways to form your congregation into a community of resistance, consider hosting a Bible study on the imprecatory psalms (Psalms 17, 37, 69, 70 are a few). Have congregants follow the pattern of the imprecatory Psalms in writing their own. As your listeners will note, imprecatory psalms contain anger in them -- if you’re angry, say you’re angry and don’t sugar coat it.
Then express your anger more publicly. The powers that be ought to know there is an angry community of resistant believers in their midst that will not only pray about it but also perform acts of protest and service that alleviate those suffering from unfair decisions in areas such as prison sentencing, housing, voting, and wage discrimination. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). As soon as possible, write that letter to Congress. Put yourself on the list of speakers at the next city or town council meeting. Let those affected know that you stand with them. Anger need not lead to sin, but inaction in response to righteous indignation is sin indeed.
[Week 3] Show mercy: Can Cain come home?
Preaching texts: Genesis 4:8-24; Luke 23:33-43
Communities of resistance demand accountability for violent acts, and they also look for ways to incorporate those who have committed violent acts back into community.
This may be a difficult week for some members of your congregation, especially if there are those who are victims of crimes. We are reminded here, however, that the grace of God is neither cheap nor is it shallow. We are by no means advocating a lack of accountability for any crime. Like in Genesis 4, blood that is spilled cries out to God from the ground. But what does the blood say? What are we listening for? Is it only for vengeance or an eye for an eye? Is it for changing the circumstances that resulted in bloodshed?
I find it fascinating that in both NRSV and NIV translations of the Bible, Genesis 4:10 includes the word “listen” as God chastises Cain. Accountability for shed blood is a necessity. When law enforcement sheds blood in acts of excessive force, it affects the entire community and should be discussed in community, in city councils, in human relations commissions, accounted for, and properly mourned. When law enforcement resists accountability to the communities they serve, especially if there is clear bias in the use of deadly force toward one community or class, there should be an outcry.
But what about the perpetrator, Cain? Cain is sentenced. His act violates his relationship with the creation. He is to be a fugitive and a wanderer. Cain’s interpretation of his sentence is critical to our understanding of this text. He is driven from the soil and hidden from God’s face. It is important to exegete the terms “fugitive and wanderer.” How is the writer using these terms? Because it seems that shortly after Cain is sentenced as a fugitive and a wanderer, he settles down, finds a wife and has children, builds a city, and his family leaves a legacy that lasts for generations. This murderer seems not only to move on with life but enjoy some success in life, and God allows it. This is a text to be wrestled with. There may be no concrete or perfect answers. A murderer seems to be able to go on with life. How does God allow this?
Can you in your prophetic and moral imagination envision a community that supports Cain? What if Cain has taken a life? In conversation with a prison chaplain, he revealed to me that most people who commit murder are deeply troubled by their actions. It’s something they never forget. They always hear the voice of the blood they shed. If they are released, having served their time, what kind of support do they and their families require?
Moreover, what if they haven’t committed a crime, were unjustly imprisoned and later found innocent? Or what about the accused who are detained in jails because they cannot afford bail, but have not had fair hearing or trial? These individuals are deprived of liberty without due process of law as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution. Some communities and states are banding together to “ban the box” that ex-offenders must mark on job applications showing that they have been convicted of a crime.
Mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the prison industrial complex have been shown to be manifestations of a diabolical imagination. They have deprived children of futures and families of fathers and mothers. The principalities and powers named in Ephesians 6:12 work through the diabolical imagination to create these diabolical systems.
In Jesus’ crucifixion by a corrupt government and religious system (Luke 23), we find present-day parallels. A thief at Jesus’ side admits what he’s done, but does crucifixion fit the crime? Do our communities continue to crucify those who have done their time and are trying to live differently and righteously in their communities? Upon confession of Jesus as the King, one thief is given paradise. If Jesus can grant a thief paradise, how much grace shall we extend? What might Jesus have given had he and this repentant thief met under different circumstances? What can the Body of Christ do to resist these systems of oppression whose deliberate and focused intent is to withhold the promise of life and life more abundantly from those who are trying to re-enter society?
[Week 4] Facing Babylon with the Good News of resistance
Preaching texts: Exodus 1:1-22; Luke 4:14-30
Communities of resistance keep track of systemic injustice and seek out ways to support those who have suffered at the hands of evil systems -- whether those systems are called Pharaoh, Babylon, Rome, or White supremacy).
Much like the Israelites in Exodus 1:7, African Americans in the early 20th century were establishing themselves and achieving prosperity, believing they had escaped the worst of the racial violence of the Jim Crow South.
As Whites observed that prosperity -- much like the new Pharaoh in Exodus 1 -- those in power responded with oppressive and even murderous actions aimed at taking out successful African Americans. According to Mechelle Brown of the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla., Black success was a source of friction for Whites, some of whom commented: “How dare those negroes have a grand piano in their house, and I don’t have a piano in my house.”4
It was because of that underlying friction -- and sparked by a false accusation that a Black man had assaulted a White woman -- that the Tulsa Race Riot/Massacre of 1921 became one of the most painful moments in the African-American experience.
On June 1, 1921, the entire African-American section of Tulsa was razed to the ground by angry, armed Whites. At least 300 Black people were murdered. More than 300 businesses were destroyed at a cost of $2.7 million; and to compound the tragedy, every insurance claim made by Black business owners was denied.5
“We should be rich,” Ola Mae Nolen told her great-grandson Jermaine Pennington. Mrs. Nolen spoke very graphically of the horrors of that time, lamenting over the loss of lives and of homes and businesses that had been built.6
Pharaoh saw the Israelites’ fruitfulness and feared that the land would be full of them. Pharaoh convinced the Egyptians that the Israelites were a threat to their very existence. The parallels are easy to draw. Power elites create systems to oppress and stifle the progress of people whom they see as a threat, choking the life out of them figuratively and in some cases literally.
In Luke 4, when Jesus reads Isaiah’s prophecy in the synagogue -- “to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of the sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18) -- he is proclaiming good news indeed. It is a living, active declaration of freedom from oppression.
And, as your listeners may remember, when Jesus told the truth to his hometown hearers, they sought to kill him.
That’s because prophetic proclamation threatens systems established by the diabolical imagination. The privileged who have benefited from those systems do not stand idly by. They (and, some prophetic preachers may ask, “we”?) have a track record of silencing, removing, and even killing those who mount any challenge based on an inclusive, moral imagination.
Systems of oppression may seem invisible, but they do exist. In the New Testament they are named Babylon. Oppressive systems and those who uphold and participate in them will be held accountable for their deeds. But until the Lion of the Tribe of Judah returns and God’s judgment prevails, each congregation’s work is to resist and face the challenges (battles?) in its context.
The church’s work of resistance includes fighting systemic evils. The writer of Revelation uses the word nikao (“to overcome, to conquer, to win a verdict”) 15 times. The writer’s instructions to the seven Churches of Asia serve as a reminder, warning believers of the dangers of complacency in the face of -- and compromising with -- systems of oppression.
It’s also worth noting here that in our contexts, we must be careful not to let protest and programs outweigh our proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News of resistance. The work of justice is not an end in itself, but is motivated by our community’s yearning for wholeness.
While for the 1st-century hearer, “Babylon” meant the Roman Empire and its systems of oppression, bringing Babylon into the present is not difficult: the merchants of the earth grow richer, glorifying themselves, and the kings of the earth (i.e., governments and corporations) are complicit in this corruption.7
Legion are the examples of abuses of power by corporations against working people, their influence on policy and government, their impact on the environment. Babylon is a living system today that manipulates our communities and shapes our world. It has invisible, spiritual forces that are active in the world. The writer of Revelation claims that God, through the church, has a mission to oppose and overcome Babylon. Is your community ready for this work?
As you seek to contextualize this message, here are some questions for your listeners:
- What systems operate in your context that oppress, build walls, or limit access and opportunity?
- What systems uphold racial, gender, sexual inequality, or environmental exploitation?
- What systems uphold political and economic disenfranchisement?
- Where did they come from? What principles are they founded upon?
- Does your silence give these systems consent to exist?
When in doubt, here’s a simple test. When traditions and systems compete against agape -- unconditional, all-encompassing love for neighbor -- agape should prevail not only in our thoughts and prayers, but in our speech and actions, fueled by preaching that forms communities of resistance.
- I commend to you two lectures by Dr. Frank A. Thomas, Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary: First, his Lecture on Preaching Celebration (2010) is a seminar on how to design a sermon “where the remembrance of a redemptive and ecstatic reinforcement of a liberated future transforms events immediately.” Second is a lecture from the 2014 Celebration of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, titled provocatively: Keeping it Real: The Validity of the Existentially Authentic Performance.
- See discussion on “othering” in the fourth paragraph of the Overview to Preaching Series above.
- Benjamin Kandt, “22 Reasons to Pray the Cursing (imprecatory) Psalms,” PrayPsalms.org: https://praypsalms.org/22-reasons-to-pray-the-cursing-psalms-b4a85ae40aa9.
- Sarah Sidner, “Tulsa Shooting Stirs Memories of Bloody Race Riot,” cnn.com, https://www.cnn.com/2016/10/04/us/tulsa-race-riot-memories/index.html
- Sidner, https://www.cnn.com/2016/10/04/us/tulsa-race-riot-memories/index.html
- Author interview 7/30/2019 with Jermaine Pennington, great-grandson of Ola Mae Nolen.
- See Adam Winkler’s “‘Corporations Are People’ Is Built on an Incredible 19th-Century Lie,” The Atlantic Monthly, March 8, 2018.