Nichole R. Phillips
December 18, 2020
I want to preach to you from the subject good trouble. I had been pondering what I would preach on this occasion for weeks. And the sermon crystallized for me a couple of weeks ago, even without knowing the outcome of this week’s election. The truth is that the substance of the sermon would remain the same, no matter who was elected to the highest offices of our land. This is not to say that there is no difference between the parties, no difference between the choices that we had to make earlier this week. Indeed, it matters who sits in the seats of power. It matters who makes the laws. It matters what vision they cast and follow. It matters.
But I understand that what we are actually doing when we elect presidents, when we elect governors, when we elect senators, when we elect congresspeople, what we are actually doing is making a determination about who it is we’re going to push, who it is we’re going to organize with, and who it is we’re going to organize against. We are called always to remember that whoever sits in the seat of power in this nation is a representative of empire—and hostile empire at that.
We are called always to remember that whoever sits in the seat of power in this nation is a representative of empire—and hostile empire at that.
We’ve been living with more than 400 years of hostility. And over the last four-and-a-half years, the hostility is even more vociferous. And just four or five days ago, more than 70 million people said, “We’ll take more of that hostile regime. We’ll take more of that bigoted regime. Give us more, another helping, another four years of that white supremacist, fascistic, bigoted, indecent, and, frankly, incompetent regime.”
This is always a hostile regime that we are living with. It’s always a hostile empire that we’re living with, but yes, it does matter who the president is. And God knows, this time it matters who the vice president is. I’ve been pondering the exilic text of the Hebrew scriptures and have even been drawn to discussions of exile and our scattered condition in the New Testament, especially as we have been at home quarantining during this pandemic. These texts are beloved in the tradition of the Black Church. Indeed, this passage of scripture and the Book of Daniel are highly regarded and are often preached from in our tradition. Do you hear our ancestors singing, “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel? Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel?”
Our tradition has asked that question, “If God delivers, then why not every man? Why not every woman? Why not every non-binary person?” That tradition is inherently against the hostile imperial pursuits of the nation in which we live. Why not everybody? Why not every man? Why not every woman? Why not every non-binary person? This tradition of choosing and using these texts from the exile includes the story from Daniel 3: the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, the friends of Daniel that we know as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
We come to them in the midst of Babylonian exile. The Babylonians had a sophisticated conquest strategy. As an empire, Babylon could do the usual shock and awe, the usual siege and devastation. But their strategy also included coaptation and assimilation. They pillaged the temple, yes. They destroyed the walls of the city, yes. They also deported the best and the brightest and brought them to Babylon, giving them positions of honor in an attempt to make them forget that they had another home.
The idea of the conquest strategy was to make the people forget their very names. “Let’s rename you Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Make you forget your heritage, make you forget your identity, make you forget that you have another home where you can be authentically yourself, and make you forget your God. What we can do is use your skills and co-opt your gifts.”
Daniel and his three friends passed that test in chapter one. They declared, “We are here, but we won’t forget. We are working here, but we’re not sitting at the king’s table. We won’t eat and drink what you have to offer.”
On this Sunday, the second Sunday in November 2020, I came to declare to you that we are also strangers and exiles—this is not all that there is. There is something greater and better. No matter how comfortable we start to feel in the space where we are, we must not forget that there is something more and something better. We must never forget.
We have visions that go beyond what we can see, even with this election. We have visions that go beyond just having representation in the halls of power. Our visions include the health and well-being of all of our siblings. We have visions where there’s plenty good room at the table, plenty good food, plenty good health care, where the water is actually clean and the air is safe to breathe. We have visions that go beyond the plans and platforms of any political party. We must not forget.
We have visions that go beyond the plans and platforms of any political party. We must not forget.
Now Nebuchadnezzar is their friend because Daniel has divined the king’s dreams. He recognizes in Daniel that the word of God and a true prophecy can be discerned. These three friends of Daniel have been exalted to positions of high power in the provinces. They are officials in the empire. They have position. They have title. Now the newest test is coming.
Their friend Nebuchadnezzar builds an altar. Their purported ally builds an idol and flexes his muscle, shows his strength and his wealth, and makes a declaration that throughout all of the world—no matter who you are, no matter what your tradition, no matter what your belief—you have to bow. When the song is played, everybody bows.
Hear me, beloved, it is easy to remember who you are and who your friends are when the powerful ones act in obnoxious and mean-spirited ways towards you. It is easy to remember that your enemy is your enemy when your enemy is acting like an enemy. But we sometimes get confused. We sometimes get seduced by the sophisticated strategy, such that we think folks are allies just because they said they were allies, even without considering what they are doing for us and what they are asking us to do for and with them.
The trumpet blew, but they did not bow—a good thing that they had a sense of their own identity and integrity. The horns played, but they did not bow. The drums drummed, but they did not bow.
Because Nebuchadnezzar considered himself friendly, he decided to give them another chance. “There must be some mistake,” he said. “You must have forgotten where you belong in the system. You must have forgotten that you’re supposed to be grateful for the opportunities that I have given you.” The horn blew again. The drums sounded again. The flute played again. And they did not bow.
I stopped by Howard University on this glorious Sunday morning, as we celebrate a victory, to say in the spirit of our ancestors and in the name of Jesus Christ that no matter what happens, do not bow.
Sometimes they get mad at you for being on your knees, as Daniel will find out just a few chapters. But whatever it is you feel called to be and do as a part of your identity, as a part of your own heritage, do not bow. Whatever happens, beloved, do not bow. You get in trouble sometimes if you do not bow. But in the words of our venerable ancestor, Representative John Lewis, that is good trouble. That is necessary. Necessary trouble.
But whatever it is you feel called to be and do as a part of your identity, as a part of your own heritage, do not bow. Whatever happens, beloved, do not bow.
As the story continues, they are thrown in the fire and it burns up those who threw them in. God delivered those three from the fire. The story reminds us that the God who sustained us up until now—the God of our weary years, the God of our silent tears, the God of our ancestors—has promised and will be with us in the trouble. And God can deliver us from or through trouble. But no matter what, we will not bow.
Surely, we are called to both pray and work for peace and the well-being of the places where we live. We ought to invest ourselves in the well-being of the communities where we live and, yes, in this nation where we live. But our investment has to have in mind and in view a greater goal than just power in this system. We always hold in our memories the reality that the true home, the true place we want to live, is beloved community. It goes beyond the borders of a nation, and it is empowered by something beyond the power of the state.
We work, and we organize. God bless you, Stacey Abrams and all the other Black women all over the nation. We work, and we strategize. We participate to bring this nation closer to the ideals, to bring our people closer to real well-being and beloved community. But while we are working and as we are investing, we never forget that this is a hostile empire. We say that we will never bow down. We celebrate our sister Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her ascension to this place of power. And as we celebrate, we also fortify ourselves and pray her strength that none of us ever bow down.
Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from a sermon delivered at Howard University on Sunday November 8, 2020. A lightly edited excerpt of the sermon is published here with permission.
Other Editorial Responses
Nichole R. Phillips
November 23, 2020
Larry S. Perry
November 23, 2020
Rosetta E. Ross
November 20, 2020