The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
At the margins
The story we’ve just heard is one of the most stunning in the gospels. Many preachers try to soften it, to justify Jesus’ initial rebuff of the Gentile woman. They say that he would never refuse healing to anyone who asked for it. He didn’t really mean it when he said that he was only sent to minister to wayward Jews. He certainly didn’t have the capacity to be mean. He was just testing her persistence.
But look at the text. The woman begged him to heal her daughter of demon possession. First thing, Jesus ignored her. His disciples told him to send her away, which he then tried to do – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Go away. She pleaded. Here’ the shocker - Jesus then called her a dog, an insult for the “other” that is common even today in the Middle East.
Finally, she backs him into the corner of compassion, a place that Jesus himself claims to live. She says “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Busted. In effect, she was saying “How serious are you about this love-of-God business?” His blinders fell off, and his vision expanded.
This story shows us that Jesus was, as we always say we believe, fully human. And how can you be fully human if you don’t have any need for growth? Jesus grew that day, as a result of being confronted with his own values by a woman who dwelt at the margins of his world.
Jesus had become accustomed to hanging around the margins. He was close to those who were considered unclean: lepers, Gentiles, notorious sinners. According to his faith tradition, Jesus was in grave danger of catching their cooties.
He walked the margins a little too much even for his own followers. I suspect that most of them, being peasants, were pretty shocked when he cozied up to the “oppressors,” who were certainly on the margins of their world. Jesus invited a corrupt tax-collector to be one of his closest disciples. He made friends with Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. He had compassion on a Roman soldier, healing his servant who was sick.
This is the story of Jesus’ life. He chose to walk the margins, and through his relationship with people there, he was changed. They broke open for him the neat little container many people prefer to stay in. As time went on, he lived more on the margins than in the container. That’s why the temple priests crucified him. He had gone too far, and become a blasphemer.
Followers of Jesus have always walked the margins of society and have been changed by what they experienced there. As we came to know the “other” – whether that has been Gentiles in the early church, or African-Americans in the Civil Rights era - we were able to see them no longer in the abstract, but as flesh and blood human beings, like us. We became family to one another. So how could we turn our back on them, or refuse them the things of God?
This is not always easy. For marginalized people can sometimes demand more of us than we’re ready to give, as the Gentile woman did of Jesus.
I wonder what will happen when the Rev. Susan Allison Hatch really gets the St. Martin’s church community going with the homeless. Will they begin to see themselves not just as grateful recipients of our largesse, but as full and equal members of the Diocese of the Rio Grande? Will their wardens and delegates sit at diocesan convention luncheons and debate how our budget should be spent so that it really reflects the priorities of the gospel? Will this change us?
I wonder what will happen when we finally approve rites for blessing of same-gender couples, and they say “Well, thank you for the scraps that have fallen from the table, but how about marriage?” Will we be changed by our relationships with couples who have been together for 30 years, raising children and in every way manifesting faithful Christian lives?
And I wonder how we will respond to those on the margins of religion in our increasingly secular society, if we listen to them carefully.
While on sabbatical, even before it started, I wandered around the margins of religion. I went to Burning Man, with all the artists and counter-cultural seekers who gather there. I went to so-called “emerging church” congregations. I visited groups that are creating interfaith communities. I listened to secular friends who have no use for church, about their experience of the sacred.
In relationship with them, I’m changing. I’ve come to wonder whether there isn’t a way to break open the Christian container so that the riches of our tradition and the person of Jesus are available to millions who are rapidly drifting away from us, perhaps forever, and for good reason. If we don’t, we run the very real risk of becoming a museum.
This isn’t about trying to be trendy so we will be more attractive, but listening to the truth of what people are experiencing in the modern world, and allowing ourselves to be changed by that.
For instance - most of us understand that our imperfection, our unkindness and unhealthy behaviors have psychological roots and solutions. So is the use of the word “sin” useful, other than when we do something really wrong?
Many don’t experience God as an Almighty Father or a judge, and they see spiritual truth through figures other than Jesus. So I wonder whether we couldn’t get past our requirement to use the Nicene Creed in worship every week.
What about Jesus’s bloody death on the cross that pays the debt of human sin? This is an ancient metaphor that came from a culture that had animal sacrifice, but is still repeated throughout our liturgy even today. How about replacing it with martyrdom, which still happens in our world?
Is it really helpful to read so much of scripture in worship, or could we move the really nasty or arcane parts into the classroom, where their historical contexts can be considered?
These are some of my questions that come from my friends on the margins of religion.
But what about you? Where is the margin for you? If it isn’t around religious tradition like it is for me, is it among neighbors or workmates that are “other?” If you’re liberal, maybe they’re the conservatives you know. Perhaps they’re from a different ethnic or religious or socio-economic group. Maybe they’re hostile to religion. Can you get to know them, and find out what drives them?
If you do, be warned - they might change you. That’s why we’re sometimes reluctant to engage with them. But that’s what we’re called to do, to wander around the margins of God’s marvelous world, and find out who’s really there, and what they’re about.
What we discover is that the “other” may indeed be very different from us. But because we’re in relationship, we also discover a shared humanity. And this may allow the little containers we both live in to be broken open.
This is the foundation of all reconciliation, all harmony, all justice. It should be the foundation of all religion. And it is what Jesus discovered that day, thanks to that brave woman from the margins of his world.