Want to Preach Prophetically but Afraid of the Backlash? Become Imaginative like Jesus

Ask most preachers what their least favorite Sunday for preaching is and they’ll say July 4. Faced with a July 4th sermon some years ago, a colleague simply said to his congregation that the claims of Christ and country competed for their loyalty, urged them to prayerfully consider where their loyalty finally rested and said that his loyalty finally rested with the gospel of Christ.

A parishioner approached him after the sermon and said, “What makes it so hard for you to love your country?”

“I love my country,” said my friend, “I just love the gospel more.”

“Well,” said the parishioner, “sometimes you just have to put the gospel aside to get things done.”

When we talk to clergy living in the midst of our increasingly contentious political climate, we discover that they often feel trapped because they are told, ‘you shouldn’t preach politics from the pulpit.’

These tense moments between pastor and people come about when two things collide; our differing worldviews and the different ways our anxiety manifests itself. Both are understandable and yet they demonstrate not only a lack of patience and humility, but a lack of imagination.

If the essence of imagination is to take bits and pieces of the story of life and combine them in a way that creates something new and life-giving, then Jesus is the real Imagineer. In Matthew 5, we see how he gathered up two familiar parts of the human storyline (“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”/”You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy”) and made something which was bold and life-giving (“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”). In so doing, he separated the imaginary from the imaginative.

The imaginary is the world in which we make things up to bolster our own point of view, where squaring off for battle is the norm, and demonizing and blaming are the strategies. It is false and destructive. It is in the imaginary world that a white leader could be lauded for saying, “We’ve really made racial progress,” as though incremental progress after 400 years of systematic oppression is heroic and praiseworthy. It is only in the imaginary world that progress equals justice.

Jesus is imaginative.
Imagination is about naming what has always been true but which has been hidden or muffled by those who benefit from falsehood. That’s why Jesus told the story he did when an anxious man asked him, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10: 29).

The Samaritan’s care is limitless. He imagined what the injured man would be like when his wounds and his sense of personal wholeness were healed., and in so imagining, he knew what the next steps must be. The priest and the Levite lived in the falsehood that they were too busy and too important to care.

When the world is upside down and disorientation is the norm (as it is now), when treasured customs and our deepest assumptions are being tested (as they are now), the imaginary world is the only place many of us feel safe. For those frightened by the increasing diversity and complexity of the world and of our nation, it may seem justified to ‘put the gospel aside to get things done’.

But we are called to the imaginative world; to find more bits and pieces of the human story that, when combined, speak of a world where ‘getting things done’ benefits everyone.

John Thornberg

Rev. John Thornburg, Leadership Ministry Facilitator

John brings 38 years of ministry experience in the diverse settings of the United States and in West Africa. He calls himself a ‘professional encourager’, and greatly enjoys working with congregations and church leaders.

Before coming to TMF, his work in the nationally renowned East Dallas Cooperative Parish brought growth, vitality, and missional focus to a church that had been in decline for years. He founded a unique extensional ministry to strengthen congregational singing and traveled to hundreds of churches for twelve years before coming to TMF. John became TMF's Senior Area Representative for the North Texas Conference in 2013, then he became Vice President of Area Staff, and now he is thrilled to join the Leadership Ministry team.