Preaching Jubilee to the Captives: Week 2

Preaching Jubilee to CaptivesResource Materials for Preachers on Topics Related to Mass Incarceration

Foreword

The title we have given to these materials is meant to trip readers up ever so slightly. The premise most preachers take for granted is that they will preach about the evil of mass incarceration to their congregation, and it goes without saying that in most cases the congregants won’t be physically restricted. Most preachers do not preach to “captives” in that sense. Yet the assumption made here is that many of the sincere believers who come to church regularly are nevertheless held captive to some degree to ideas about crime and “criminals” that are part of this culture’s dominant narrative. That narrative insists that we lock a lot of people up in the United States because we have a lot of bad people here. And further, that locking them up has made us significantly safer over the past 40 years.

To use a word that our 16th president used most appropriately in 1862, we must “disenthrall” ourselves in relation to this narrative. White people in particular must look squarely at the hard-to-miss racial dimension within the narrative. And all of us must seriously interrogate the part of us that is content with a system in which we respond to violence and threat with yet more violence and threat: a way of engaging others that is about as far removed from the Jesus way as can be imagined. We must, in theologian Walter Brueggemann’s words, “emancipate our imaginations” in order to participate in the larger emancipatory project.

For each of the 10 preaching texts given here — one a week for 10 weeks in all — we provide some of the biblical context first. Then we invite the preacher to ponder a set of questions. And finally we suggest some possible homiletic directions.

There is no doubt that some of the messages proposed here will be hard for congregants to hear and thus hard as well for preachers to preach. We urge our colleagues in pulpit ministry to pray earnestly for their personal strength and courage, even as we pray earnestly for God to bless and sustain the prophets whom these difficult times require.

Past texts in this series:

Upcoming texts:

  • Luke 15:11-32 – Welcoming the Prodigal’s Return
  • John 8:1-11 – Neither Do I Condemn You
  • Mt. 7:1-5 – The Measure You Give Is the Measure You Get
  • Mt. 12:1-14 – Higher Laws
  • Mt. 18:21-35 – Forgiveness Without Limit
  • Mt. 26:59-60 – The Trial of Jesus
  • Jeremiah 31:29/Ezekiel 18:2 – No Multi-Generational Curse
  • Hosea 6:6/Isaiah 58:6-9 – The “Worship” That Pleases God

Please note that the 10 preaching texts have been developed for use in Christian pulpits. Materials relevant to other faith traditions will be forthcoming.

II. Luke 14:24 – Unexpected Guests at God’s Abundant Table

For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.

For Jesus and his society, who you dined with, and whose invitations you would accept, said everything about you. This was what is called an “honor” society in which it was customary to invite only those of your own class or your own set to dine with you.

Luke 14 forms part of large block of material in the middle of this gospel in which Jesus is engaging in dialogue with the Pharisees—the established religious leaders who are “watching him closely” for signs of blasphemy. The chapter opens with Jesus making his way to what we would call a “Sunday dinner” invitation from one of these leaders. Along the way he sees and heals a sick person, and he uses the occasion to challenge the authorities about whether it is legal to do works of mercy on the Sabbath.

Arriving at his host’s home, Jesus immediately starts critiquing the self-important and obnoxious practice of trying to get one of the good seats at the banquet table. At first it seems that he is simply giving a lesson in good manners: you should take a “bad” seat so that your host can notice and honor you by calling you forward. It soon becomes about more than manners, however, when Jesus turns to his host and bluntly tells him that it’s immoral and unacceptable to invite only those of your own class and social circle: that the right thing to do is to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Oh my!

Jesus then intensifies the teaching yet again by using a parable about someone who prepares to give a “great dinner” and sends his servant out to remind the guests that it’s time to show up. But one after another, the invited guests give lame excuses for not coming. When the servant reports this, the provoked dinner host sends the servant out to round up “social rejects”—again, the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. When it turns out that, after bringing all the “rejects” inside, there is still room left over at the table, the summons to dine becomes totally random: the servant now forces total strangers who are out and about on the streets to come and partake. The host is determined to see his house filled with just about anyone except the original invitees.

These teachings about who is welcome at God’s table serve to set up the rest of chapter 14 (vv. 15-35), which focuses on the cost of discipleship and includes the famous line, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (v. 34) It seems clear from this juxtaposition that radical discipleship necessarily entails a radical hospitality—the kind of hospitality that mirrors God’s own welcome to the strangers and outcasts.

Questions for the Preacher’s Meditation and Preparation

  • To what extent am I more comfortable enjoying fellowship with people I know and people I know respect me than I am hanging out with strangers (let alone with the “walking wounded”)?
  • To what extent is my congregation a “closed circle” of respectability—a closed circle to which those who are significantly different are definitely not invited?
  • What kind of damage does it do to those who are already stigmatized when they are repeatedly not invited to share the good things of life on an equal footing? Can I imagine that these social outcasts might feel uncomfortable and self-conscious at a table where they have never before felt welcome?
  • Do I feel there is any special virtue in being poor or marginalized—or in being someone who was once incarcerated? If such people had power and equal status, would they not be just as judgmental and mean-spirited as the people who currently enjoy social power?

Possible Homiletic Directions

  • Work your way back from the radical discipleship part of the chapter (vv. 25-35) to the teachings about radical hospitality (vv. 1-24) and tease out the connections.
  • Challenge the congregation about its own tendency to be insular and self-congratulatory.
  • Invite your hearers to reflect seriously on the idea that we will meet God when we move outside of our comfort soon—that we will meet God in the faces of the poor and brokenhearted.
  • Base the entire sermon on the importance of breaking bread with those who are unlike us. This is obviously a good text for use on a communion Sunday, especially if yours is a congregation that sets aside certain Sundays for the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper.
About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.

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