I just returned from a continuing education event, the Festival of Homiletics. It is a blessed gift to have continuing education, (thank you) a time to gather with colleagues in the same field, learn from the best presenters, and remember what in this often-challenging work first beckoned to the heart, so many years before. Homiletics is not a word used often in daily speech. The online dictionary says that in popularity it is in the bottom 30% of words. Bummer. The art of preaching. It’s good times, though, this festival—preaching palooza—all sermons all the time, day and night, and books—large rooms filled with stuff for sale about preaching, exegesis of texts, church paraphernalia of all types. During the breaks, big name theologians and famous liberal-ish preachers mingle with the regular folk who surround them like groupies and whisper to one another, “Wait, isn’t that Rev. Dr. Samuel Doe, Thm, PhD, expert in the cult practices of the Amalekites in the last three chapters of Habbakuk? He’s my fav! Save my seat, I’ll try to grab a selfie with him.” Church nerd heaven.
The theme of the Festival of Homiletics this year was Preaching on the Borders. It is a compelling theme, both personally and globally—for, as you well know, we are in many ways on the edges of civilization as we have known it. Though our spiritual calling to love, peace, justice, mercy, and hope remains, the signs are clear that we are being called to re-incarnate those ways for a time in history when the old ways are dying and what the new life’s birth will look like is as yet unclear. And the questions we examined at the festival had to do with the written and spoken word in faith communities–and the various edges of our lives. How shall we move, faithfully and in hope, from where we have been before to the unknown beyond?
So, with that question as our context, I invite you to listen to the Scripture story now and to consider what it looks like written on a page. So, Jesus has just returned to his hometown, the place of his earliest nurture after having been away for some time, developing a reputation in the neighboring towns. He has done some good stuff—helped some hurting people in need, spoken well in public gatherings, made a name for himself, a good name, at least in the beginning. He goes home to the synagogue of his childhood and stands to read the traditional Scripture: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because I’ve been anointed to preach the good news to the poor. To proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of God’s favor.” And everyone was like, “Isn’t that Joseph’s son–our very own hometown boy, Jesus? Fancy.” They love how respectable is his reputation and how erudite he sounds, but then things go downhill pretty quickly, for after Jesus outlines the usual expected teaching they have always heard and everyone settles in with a yawn to hear the next part, he adds, as it were, some notes in the margins—his interaction with the text he has heard—his response to the call of the Holy One on his life and how that call is being enacted in a world filled with slavery, violence, and fear. The mood of the crowd begins to change as he speaks truth from his experience: “You know all of the favors of God through the years? God could have limited Godself only to the usual suspects, but you know where God goes first, last, and in between? Out there, out to the margins. Out to the pushed aside and pressed down of all the nations, outside the borders. Beyond the ones you believe are worthy. In fact, the ones you reject are the ones in whom God is to be found. This did not sit well with the hometown folks who immediately heard that as a threat to them and a rejection of the old ways from which they have benefited and at the end of the story, they decide to take Jesus out and fling him off the cliff, which either figuratively or literally sometimes happens still in our day and increasingly so, to people who dare to speak their own truth, truth to power, enunciate change, or work for equity and justice. Jesus has grown up and moved out of the house. His understandings about the depth and breadth of his call and of how he is to embody the love of God grow throughout the gospel narratives as he learns who he is as a human being, and he will speak and act from the calling upon his own life. As we grow and change at many junctures, we too are pressed by the life of the world and we are awakened, or reminded—seeing situations and unable to be silent, complicit or compliant, to go back, or to stay with the old truths. Can’t, won’t live a lie any more. Can’t, won’t stay with the old unconsciousness and racism. Can’t, won’t stop insisting, persisting, protesting, praying, the old way is suffocating, got to get beyond it, even when it is comfortable and nurturing. Out to the margins.
How do you name this press for consciousness and the longing to find meaning at the edges in your life? Consider this past week and imagine your life as a printed page. Think of what is written right there in the center, the words that introduce, the ones that are action, that connect or correct. See how you moved through your week, what stopped you, what moments took your breath. See the punctuation written there, the words in all caps—maybe the trip, the news, the work hassle, the graduation, the illness, the death, the birth, the beautiful time outside alone. Think of your life as a printed page, see the text. And look to the left and then to the right. Around the edges are the spaces, the header, the footer, the margins. Once a professor told me he could see right through the crutch of having wider margins used by students in order to make their papers seem longer. Longer does not necessarily mean more content. But what if the margin is part of the content? What if your life and mine is at least in part defined by the margins? What if the text of your life or mine makes no sense without what and who and how and when felt problematic, accidental, incidental, marginalized? What if we are only whole and centered when we move beyond the standard and central self-interest? What if you and I see our lives as a printed page, and what if it is when we look out beyond what is always said by us, to us, about us and others, in the world, the usual assumptions, the expected suspects, the images of what we have come to find comfortable, what if our business as usual is not business or usual? What if the content of your life or mine looks like this: (scribbled notes in the margins) I suspect that this new day in which we live is calling on us to write our sacred story with Spirit, one another, and with the creation in the margins—our life stories like this—with footnotes, endnotes, grace notes, your passionate and wise or silly little comments scrawled into the blank spaces. The throw away, the moment of genuine kindness you showed and do not even remember. Because I believe it is in the marginalia—beyond the usual boxes and borders where we may discover the beauty that is life itself, in the company of the One who is described as the Logos, the Word. What if it is like Maya Angelou said–it is not about the writing or the talking in the middle because “people will forget what you said and what you did, but never forget how you made them feel.” Maybe in the spirit life, meaning is not found mainly in the manuscript but in the margins.
Footnotes in a scholarly paper help to clarify sources. And as we move through this life, writing our messages along the margins of the Great Story, it is important to examine what are our sources of action, speech, hope? How are we documenting the love we have received, the compassion we’ve been shown, the opportunities we have had to pay the blessing forward? If love is the subtext of our life’s story, as individuals and as a faith community, I believe that it remains true– even in this fragmented and brave new world– that the beautiful love letter of God that is Life itself is to be viewed most clearly in the simplest moments, the jotted commentary around the edges of the margins. What is the text of your life, as you figure out gradually and over time who you are becoming and how you are called to offer justice and peace and kindness and compassion, in the margins where real life often happens? It is what you or I might do or say in the smallest instance, in the silence, in the loneliness, when no one sees us, when there is no reward, when we choose mercy when judgement is what is deserved, when we are gentle when we could use force, when we open up and take another chance even when it is going to hurt, when it absolutely may cost us our lives, those moments on the margin may be the measure of our love. Maybe the beautiful love letters of God are to be read most clearly in the simplest moments, the jotted commentary around the edges of the margins.
Prayer: May we be enthusiastic doodlers for determined love and justice on the margins of life. Let it be so. Amen.