Pastor Adrianne Meier
5 March 2023 — Second Sunday in Lent
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
Live at the Margins
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Now when Jesus heard [about the death of John the Baptist], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled, and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
My worship professor died a few weeks ago. The Rev. Dr. Mark Bangert was an excellent teacher, a Bach scholar, a world music hobbyist (if I remember correctly). He was among the professors compelled to walk out of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis to found the Seminary in Exile, a walkout that also formed the American Evangelical Lutheran Church, a group of congregations protesting the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s crackdown on academic freedom in seminaries, which was one of the three major founding bodies (not size, but in verve) that merged to create the ELCA. This is probably inside baseball to some, so the short version is, the guy was brave and smart and kind, even in the face of adversity. I learned a lot in his classroom. He taught me a kind of gracious hospitality that is expansive and not patronizing. One lecture that stood out, near the end of the class, was about “the mystagogy of the Lord’s Supper.” It was about what is revealed to us in this feast, but which can’t always be fully understood. You see, we don’t rightly know what “happens” in our sacraments–baptism and communion. We don’t know how it is that the Word of God and some water or bread and wine become the means of grace for us. We cannot explain it, it is a mystery. Like subatomic particles, we can determine where they are or where they are headed, but not both; we can see the sacraments as so many things all at once, but never quite grasp the whole thing. Admitting that there is at the heart of this table a mystery allows us to move from “ this is” to “this do”—echoing the words of the rite itself “do this for the remembrance of me.” This do, Dr. Bangert taught us. This do: give thanks. This do: offer ourselves and our worlds. Share what’s common. Proclaim and seize the promise. Expect the meal to come. And the one that echoes deep in my soul: live at the margins.
Before Jesus fed women and children and also some five thousand men, there was a much smaller feast. Before Jesus fed the multitudes on the plain, there was a party at a palace. Before Jesus fed folks, Herod, the ruler, had a party. And at that party, John the Baptizer was brutally killed. John’s death was the kind of murder the powerful can perpetrate without fear of retribution. The story features a girl—history calls her Salome—whose dancing so pleased Herod that he promised her whatever she asked for. And she asked for revenge, for the humiliation of an enemy: the head of John the Baptizer. It would be easy to blame the girl, or her mother, but the blame game will miss an elite society that teaches its children that anyone who doesn’t side with them can be ridiculed, enslaved, even disappeared for the pleasure of the powerful. Before this feast with Jesus, there was a feast about what power can do.
A few days later, Jesus, who had withdrawn to the wilderness after hearing the news, is discovered by crowds of people who had followed him, hoping that he would continue to do for them what he had done in other places. After Jesus heard about what had happened at a table at the center of society, he withdraws to its fringes. In contrast to the Herodian dinner table, Jesus prepares a feast for the people at the margins of society—the hungry, disenfranchised, ridiculed, and despised. Even the disciples would send them away, but Jesus welcomes them and feeds them.
So often, we look to the Last Supper as the inauguration of the feast we celebrate week after week. But we are wise to consider this table (the altar, our communion table) much more like the one on a Galilean plain than an exclusive upper room.
This table is the same. We give thanks, we offer ourselves and our gifts, we share what is common, we feast on grace, we taste—for a moment—heaven. But each week when we gather we are called, too, to this—this do: live at the margins. Live at the margins. It is easy for us to mistake this phrase. I mean, I am tempted to turn this phrase to “look to the margins. Which assumes, still, that I stand in the center. But no, we are called to live at the margins, to challenge ourselves to move away from the way power divides, to make the table wide, to see around us not gaping mouths of need, but guests at the table of God. To hear God call even those we might call enemy, those we might be afraid of, or suspicious of, those we do not know and have not seen. We are called to live among them as Beloved children of God.
The very mystery of the Lord’s supper compels us to ask, “who is not here?” “Who is not here yet?” When we ask this question, when we trust that God has put it in our minds and hearts, we are compelled to be the very answer to that prayer, to be where the ones God loves are, to be the ones who invite all who God calls, and we believe God’s call is for everyone.
Perhaps we would be wise to sit with this for a second. To think to ourselves, “who is not here yet?” We can approach this is two equally correct ways. The first way is to think about individual folks. Someone in your life who is looking to connect. Someone in your life who gave up on church, well, whose church gave up on them, but we won’t. Someone by name.
The second way is to think who is not here because we have allowed them to believe they are not like us. Our congregation is largely white, straight, middle-class, native English speakers, educated, able-bodied. How might we make our congregation more hospitable to folks who don’t look, think, act, speak, hear, walk, or love like us?
Each week, at this table, we are called together from our own wilderness places, from the ends of town, if not the ends of the world, we are called together as the Beloved of God in order to be guests at God’s unending feast.