God of the margins

HOMILY—PENTECOST 3—The God of the Margins

In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen.

What might it mean to live on the margins?  There are several ways one can approach this question.  The first, and perhaps most obvious for us, is the economic perspective.  Living on the margins means being a poor, homeless, unemployed or displaced person.  It means being away from the centers of wealth and financial influence.  Another meaning might come from one’s gender and sexuality.  Living on the margins could mean not sharing patriarchal entitlement.  Or it could have to do with ethnicity or colour or even perceived ability.  Living on the margins may mean being excluded from white privilege and normative body-imagery.  In all these examples, marginality is something imposed from the outside.  As well, one can find themselves inhabiting several marginalities: and quite often, the greater the marginality, the greater the vulnerability.  Consider the poor single lesbian mother of colour.  This is not a politically incorrect joke; it’s a harsh & sad reality.

Does that mean, however, that those who find themselves on the margins lack power?  No, it does not.  The margins can certainly be very powerful places.  Rebellions and revolutions—social and political change in general—are often the result of acute and intolerable marginality.  Sometimes, marginality can even be a chosen state.  Consider those women and men throughout history who have placed themselves deliberately outside the norm, the better to change it.  Jesus loved the margins.  A marginal person in so many ways himself, he was most at home with those whose lives hung in the balance, those who existence was precarious at best.  Why?  Because that was where God was most intimately encountered.  God loved the margins.  God still does, in fact.  And God loves those on the margins who simply won’t stay put.  That’s where God’s heart is.  We have two powerful examples of this in the Old Testament and gospel readings from today.  Both deal with older women on the verge of complete loss.  Each is a marginal figure.

In the ancient world, a widowed woman was a vulnerable individual, but never more so than when, after losing her husband, she also lost the son who would have taken care of her.  She then became totally dependent on the charitable whims of her extended family and neighbours, and often to her own detriment.  That’s the backdrop to these two texts.  In the reading from Kings, a poor widow complains to the prophet Elijah—someone she has taken care of, despite her limited means—for God’s lack of compassion in taking her son.  Her marginality has suddenly become even more precarious.  She’s right to complain to the prophet.  She’s right to question God.  She’s right to rebel against her marginality.  And God listens.  God gives her back her son.  Something similar happens in the gospel from Luke.  Except that here, the widow does not talk.  Her precarious state, however, touches the heart of Jesus.  He knew instinctively what she was facing.  He was moved.  Jesus heard the widow’s cry of rebellion without her even having to voice it.  And God listens: God also gives her back her son.  In both these cases, the marginalized have staked a claim on God, and God can only respond with compassion.  God restores power to the marginalized.  God hears the cries of the penniless widows.

Some weeks ago, one of the heroes of my youth died at the age of 94.  His name was Daniel Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest, an award-winning poet and theologian, and a man considered a dangerous subversive by the U.S. government.  You may not know who he was, but when I was in seminary in the early-1970s, Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip, also a priest, became famous for burning draft files as a protest against the Vietnam War.  Daniel then went underground as a way of evading capture by the FBI.  Berrigan remained a committed pacifist, and many years later he was one of the first priests to work with AIDS patients when the pandemic broke in the early-1980s in New York City.  A charismatic figure, he combined, for me, the very best qualities of both a priest and a Christian activist.  I was greatly in awe of him—so much so, in fact, that when he spent a week hiding in the seminary in central Massachusetts where I was studying, those in the know did not tell me because they thought my enthusiasm might jeopardize his safety.  They were probably right.  I only found this out a few years ago.

Berrigan lived a marginal life, even within his own Jesuit community, as a way of bearing radical witness to the far-reaching message of Jesus.  But what struck me most of all was the fact that he did so as a way of giving a voice to the voiceless and the marginalized: the poor young black men being drafted as cannon fodder for the killing fields of Vietnam, the suffering, lonely and frightened AIDS patients abandoned by family and friends, and all of us living under the constant threat of nuclear weapons.  For Berrigan, these were all undeniable instances of abusive power, examples of living in a culture of death.  And resistance is what was called for, whether the power being resisted was that of the State or that of the Church.  For Berrigan and others like him, resistance—saying “no”—was very much a Christian duty.  Standing with the marginalized was a Christian duty.  A Christian was called to prophecy, and this required placing one’s life on the line.

We tend to think of our Christian duty not so much in terms of saying “no,” as saying “yes.”  Saying “yes” to life, to others, to God.  That is all very good and very necessary.  But sometimes, we also need to say “no.”  We need to resist, to challenge, to hold accountable.  And that is why I especially like those feisty and noble widows from today’s readings.  Each said “no.”  Each in her own way—forcefully in the case of the first, more quietly but equally persuasively for the second—each reminds us that marginality can be a place of power, and that the mighty, whether it be a prophet or, yes, even the Son of God himself, needs to be asked to respond to human anguish.  All the more reason, therefore, for the rest of us to be held accountable.  All the more reason for us to speak for the voiceless.

So when we speak of our God as a God of the margins, we are decentering our God.  And that is a good and necessary thing.  A decentered God is a God who hears differently, and sees differently, and responds differently than a God who sits squarely and flatly in the centre of everything.  That is a God who controls and directs way too much, without sufficient regard for human contingency and human vulnerability.  Such a God is concerned about one thing only: turning the margins into fixed and rigid boundaries, and as ways of excluding rather than including.  A decentered God, a God of the margins, on the other hand, inhabits and revels in the margins precisely because that is where such a God is most needed and most often valued.  Such a God is a friend of the poor widow.  Such a God says “no” because it is in that brave cry of resistance that human hurt is most genuinely encountered and healed.  We need to learn to feel comfortable with this God of the margins, this God who refuses the status quo: this God whose heart was moved by a frail widow, and who restored her son to her.  Such a God compels us to act in similar ways.

Jesus said “no”—he too resisted—in giving life back to the son of the widow from Nain.  He said “no” to a life of uncertainty and misery for her.  He refused to cooperate with the social norms of his day because he knew that they put people like her at risk.  In fact, in most healing stories in the gospels, some manifestation of faith in Jesus precedes the miracle.  In this case, however, there is no such requirement.  The widow from Nain is a silent witness.  We don’t know if she believed or had even heard of Jesus, but that does not matter.  The restoring is freely given; the return to life, for both her son and she herself, is a gift.  But it is also a statement.  It is a statement about marginality having no fixed address, and faith and human need having no false requirements.  It is a statement about how the God of the margins does not require right belief, or right colour, or right morality, or right class, or right gender, or right sexuality to make whole what has been shattered.

As Christians, we are called to the margins.  That does not mean that we need to abandon our comforts and securities—or, maybe it will—but it does imply a change of vision.  It does necessitate a shift in our outlook.  We cannot let the marginalized—whoever they are, and wherever they may be—cry out alone and desperately to God.  We need to share their anguish and we need to hold power, whether of this world or of some other, accountable.  We too need to restore the widow back to life.

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