I preached last Sunday on the tendency Jesus had to hang out on the edges of towns and cities where, of course, edgy and marginalised people are to be found.
Here are the words…
Mark 7:24-37 Jesus on the margins Sermon by Mart the Rev
I am interested in the context of the two healing stories from Jesus ministry that we heard this morning. The first, the encounter with the Syro- Phoenician woman who badgered Jesus into offering just some of the crumbs from the table of the ‘Chosen People’ so that he would heal her daughter’s malady, and the second, the healing of the deaf man who could not speak clearly because of his disability. Both stories are from the margins. One, across the border in what we now know as Syria (an interesting place for Jesus to go!) The other, in the region of the ten cities of the Decapolis. The Decapolis was the name given to cities that the Greeks and then the Romans had developed over the centuries. They were cities influenced more by these cultures than by the cultures of the natives of the regions in which they were located. They were cosmopolitan cities and the population of these cities was mainly Gentile. The only one of these cities mentioned in the gospels is Caesarea Philippi – and then only in reference to Jesus and the disciples visiting the villages nearby. A few of the other cities get a mention in passing in the rest of the New Testament – Damascus and Philadelphia (modern day Amman, the capital of Jordan). Gerasa is another of the cities but the only mention of it is the encounter Jesus has with a man from there – a Gerasene who is demonically possessed – do you remember the haunting story of the pigs? But apart from those brief mentions of the cities we really wouldn’t know of their existence if we were looking solely at the story of Jesus to inform us of the geography of the land. Many places are mentioned in the gospels – Bethlehem, Nazareth, Bethany, Bethsaida, Capernaum, Cana, Sychar, Nain, and Jericho, but these are all small villages. The only city that we know Jesus visited was Jerusalem, but that was only as a youngster and at the end of his ministry (if you ignore John’s Gospel which is less concerned with telling the story chronologically).
It is like a potential tourist reading up an account of a much-travelled New Zealander in order to work out her itinerary for a prolonged visit but being surprised to discover, when arriving here that there are cities called Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch in addition to the unmentioned Auckland where the plane landed!
Tiberias – the capital of Galilee is not mentioned at all in the gospels. It is the largest city in Galilee where Jesus spent most of his three year ministry and yet the capital city is not mentioned. The Lake that it is on the edge of, the Sea of Galilee is mentioned in the gospels and is sometimes called Lake Tiberias, but there is no record of Jesus going into the large city on the lakeside. Why was this? Why did Jesus avoid the cities?
Because of how his ministry ends, we might have the idea that Jesus was a well-known identity in his homeland, but this was not the case. For most of his ministry he really was on the edge of things. His ministry was largely conducted on the fringes of the towns and villages of Galilee. It was only as time went on that his reputation gained larger followings and this led him to being even more deliberate about avoiding larger centres.
Who does Jesus find on these fringes? He finds those who society has cast out. Lepers, a Samaritan woman with a bad reputation, the demon-possessed, the deaf, the tax collectors and prostitutes. On the fringes he finds fringe people; people cast aside because of their ailments and lifestyles; people who are cast out because they are different; people who were deemed to be a threat; people who spooked the ‘normal’ majority; people who others deemed to be immoral and unclean.
The whole of Mark 7 is on the theme of clean and unclean – who is in and who is out. The conflict Jesus got into with the Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses was over their exclusion of people different from themselves. Everywhere Jesus went, because of his determination to minister on the margins, he discovered people who were cast out. Jesus’ message of the reign of God’s ‘embrace’ was in conflict with the religious and societal ‘exclusion’ of people. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law people taught exclusion in the name of God. They even attested that everyone should ritually clean their hands before meals – not for hygienic reasons, as we would, but because they believed that simply living with people who were different from themselves had defiled them before God and they needed to act in some religious way to put themselves right with God.
Why does Jesus hang out on the fringes? Because he has a message for them – and for those at the centre. The message is about the present and yet to come ‘Reign of God’. This ‘kingdom’ as it is usually translated, is both seen and hidden. It is seen at least in some form by those who are the least, the little, the lost and the last; it is seen by the little children that Jesus insists be brought to him; it is seen by the blind beggar and short tax collector who the rest of society suffers; it is seen by the widow who gives her last coin as her offering; it is seen by the demon-possessed and even by lepers, most of whom forget to come and say thanks after being healed. They see something that those in the centre somehow miss. It is as if the hearts and minds of those in the centre are closed to the wonder and mystery and bigness of God’s grace. The irony is that those who are rejected by the people at the centre are precisely those who are more likely to see the very thing that we all hunger and thirst for – the presence of God among us.
William Stringfellow was a Harvard educated lawyer who turned down offers to work in top law firms and set up practice in East Harlem, one of the most destitute communities in New York. His ‘business’ was to attempt to try to help the community there to beat the system that one way or another enslaves them to a hopeless cycle of poverty and all its associated disorders.
Stringfellow wrote of the meaning of Jesus Christ as being God’s concern for, and God’s presence in this world. (William Stringfellow: ‘Poverty, Piety, Charity and Mission’, Christian Century (10 May 1961), p585) “The Christian faith,” he wrote, “is not about some god who is an abstract presence somewhere else, but about the living presence of God here and now, in this world, in exactly this world, as [we] know it, and see it, and touch it, and smell it, and live and work in it… That is the theology of the incarnation.” Stringfellow argued that the Word of God is present among the poor as well as everywhere else and among all others, but that in a strange way, the piety of the poor is ‘prophetic’ “in a funny, distorted, ambiguous way [the way of the poor] anticipates the gospel.”
He illustrated how that manifests in the following story: “There is a boy in the neighbourhood who is addicted to narcotics and whom I have defended in some of his troubles with the law. He stops in often on Saturday mornings and shaves and washes up, after having spent most of the week on the streets. He has been addicted for a long time. His father threw him out about three years ago, when he first was arrested. He has contrived so many stories to induce clergy and social workers to give him money to support his habit that he is no longer believed when he asks for help. His addiction is heavy enough and has been prolonged enough so that he begins to show symptoms of other trouble—his health is broken by years of undernourishment and insufficient sleep. He is dirty, ignorant, arrogant, dishonest, unemployable, broken, unreliable, ugly, rejected, alone. And he knows it. He knows at last that he has nothing to commend himself to another human being. He has nothing to offer. There is nothing about him which permits the love of another person for him. He is unlovable.”
“But it is exactly in his own confession that he does not deserve the love of another that he represents all the rest of us,” Stringfellow continued. “For none of us is different from him in this regard. We are all unlovable. But more than that, the action of this boy’s life points beyond itself, it points to the gospel: to God who loves us though we hate him, who loves us though we do not satisfy his love, who loves us though we do not please him, who loves us not for our sake but for his own sake, who loves us freely, who accepts us though we have nothing acceptable to offer him. Hidden in the obnoxious existence of this boy is the scandalous secret of the Word of God.”
Did Jesus deliberately hang out on the fringes because there, playing it out day by day was a group of people who knew that they were up against it? Was it that Jesus met people who knew that they had nothing to commend themselves with and nothing to say that they were deserving of anything that God had to offer? Was it that there, in the fringes, among those cast out, that there were people who could more easily point out to the rest of us what it daily means to die to themselves, to give without counting the cost, to live non-judgementally, and to love their neighbour with no strings attached, and in so doing, taste and see and receive the Good News that Jesus was teaching, offering, and revealing? I wonder.
The worry is that we are a long long way from the region around the Decapolis where the fringe people who are happy to eat the crumbs that fall from our tables are. We are a long way from the edges of the towns and villages, and we are carefully sheltered away from those who might teach us the power of the Gospel. Instead of being on the fringes of towns and villages and cities the church has positioned itself at the centre. From medieval times cathedrals and churches have dominated the human-shaped landscape, and, one way or another dominated the lives of the people around them. In New Zealand, our ancestors imported this model of ‘church at the centre’. It was the only framework they knew and it worked for them. The church they imported fitted their ideals and capacities – it represented the sense they had of their piety. From the centre they could welcome ‘sinners’ who were willing to conform, and from the centre they could reject those who effectively brought judgement upon themselves by the way they lived.
Ironically, while we might have positioned our church buildings at the centre of the towns and villages and cities when we settled here, we are no longer the centre, though we still behave as if we are ‘in’. We still expect that people should roll up to our hour-long slot on Sunday mornings, and many of us still have a remnant judgemental attitude towards people who are different from us, despite the truth being that the gospel is having a far greater impact among those who we are uncomfortable with. We have distanced ourselves from the people at the margins who Jesus immersed his life and ministry among. We have separated ourselves from those who might best guide us as to how to live the way of Jesus and how to be his Spirit-empowered church.
John Dear, a radical Jesuit priest wrote in his book Jesus the Rebel: “Those who think as God thinks know that those who gain the world have forfeited their lives. In contrast, those who appear as utter failures in the eyes of the culture actually save their lives. Those who suffer and die powerless on the margins, in shelters, prisons, hospitals, refugee camps, death rows or other Golgothas, like Jesus on the cross, will live on in God’s anti-imperial reign. If we die as Jesus dies, if we remain faithful to God and God’s way of service and love, we shall rise and gain our lives.”
One of Jesus’ techniques for signalling the reign of God breaking into the world was to eat with people. On many occasions he was accused of breaking food rules and eating with tax collectors and prostitutes; and on other occasions he invited himself to meals. His eating with people was a means of levelling. At the table all were in it together, the divides weren’t as easily managed. There was more room for people to get to know each other and for prejudices to be destabilised. Could it be that we might need to take more risks around food in this next season of the church? More table fellowship; a more open table; more inviting people to meals; and more opportunity to meet with strangers, who are, of course, no longer strangers after we have eaten with them! Maybe the table is the best device God has to help us reconnect with our community. Of course, if we are to offer an open table then all have to be welcomed. There can be no outcasts and marginalised people at the table of our Lord. The invitation to all starts with us today as we gather around the Table where our Lord is the host. Please do understand though, that while it begins here, the radical hospitality of God is meant to go out, and it will require us to be the hosts to the kind of people Jesus went among if there is to be a church in the future.