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Matthew trumpets at the beginning of his gospel that this story is about the margins of society.  (This is a kind of overture for his whole gospel, which we will be looking at for the next year.)  Pope Francis used that word on the feast of St. Francis this year urging the people of Assisi, Francis’ home town, to “proclaim the Gospel to the margins of society.”  What are Mathew and Francis both talking about when they use that word margins

The Margins and the Center

Sociologists speak of the center of a culture; that’s where the people who are “in” reside and function.  The social structures are basically working for those at the center.  Then sociologists speak about the margins of society, where the people “on the outs” hang out and try to survive against the grain.  The social structures are basically not working for those on the margins.  It is often a suffocating, oppressive existence.

The women on the TV series Mad Men, who escape with each other to the bathroom during a business dinner with their power-brokering husbands, are living (suffocating) on the margins of a patriarchal society.  In the bathroom they can breathe a little easier and have a different kind of conversation; but they have to do it in the bathroom.  So, note, the real “living room” for them is the bathroom.  That’s a good description of “the margins,” when your living room is a bathroom.  What this tells us is that suffocating people on the margins sometimes find a way to breathe, but it is often the least desirable place.

That reminds me of a shocking experience I had of the geography of racism in St. Louis in my naiveté a number of years ago.  I had to make arrangements to pick up a portable toilette for a church picnic.  I drove to the place in St. Louis County where a company had all their portable toilettes drained and stored.  I guess I expected it to be in a heavy industrial neighborhood.  It was right next door to a poor, black neighborhood.  I assumed the houses were older than this company.  At what point, I wondered, did it become acceptable to put that field of hundreds of empty toilets adjacent to a neighborhood where people were living and raising their families?  What kind of powerlessness would lead people to assume they could not resist this juxtaposition?  Or did they resist to no avail against the powerful Center.  Or did white families flee when the portable potties arrived, leaving perhaps the only available housing for poor blacks families?  It was clear that I grew up in the center; what I was looking at was the margins. 

There are socio-economic margins and there are religious margins.  John the Baptist was a prophet who was suffocating in the religious atmosphere of his day.  At the center where all the power and privilege was, John didn’t fit.  He set up shop “down by the riverside,” far away from the temple, where repentance was supposed to be happening; but John didn’t see much evidence of it.  John wanted to keep it real; he didn’t see people turning toward God in the temple; he simply saw a religious system.  So he went to the a place where he could catch his breath.  And he invited others to do the same. 

Some Are Stuck on the Margins/Some Have a Choice

So notice that some people are so disempowered by a society that they cannot leave the margins, namely the ones who are considered “trash” by society.  Others are able to go freely back and forth between the margins and the center.  Why would people who could thrive in the center, want to go to the margins?  One reason would be that like John, they realize that in the center one could thrive materially and in many ways enjoy a feeling of being better than others; but they would not necessarily be thriving in the deepest sense.  Matthew sees this clearly and invites disciples of his day and ours to step back from the center and ask if there is a better way to construct a society.  These disciples in Matthew’s day set up—very intentionally—life on the margins.  They set up a church, where life is imagined and lived differently.  It is away from the crushing oppression of life in the center.  Yet these disciples may mingle in the center for the sake of making a living and for the sake of making a difference.  These disciples also very intentionally reach out to those who cannot leave their marginality.  The Church, like the Master before them, goes out to the margins.  In fact it is in connecting with those whom the center believes are “trash” that life begins to happen. 

We could just live easily in a cushy “center-existence,” getting fat off of profits from our stock in, for instance, fast-food companies that increase their profits by paying low wages and/or no benefits to their workers.  And why would we expect those companies to do any different.  Making money is the ultimate goal for any public corporation.  They are generally not penalized for trashing people in the process.  Making money is not our ultimate goal.  The goal of the children of God is that every human person thrives.

This is how our faith, our oneness with God, is lived in such a way that love of God becomes love of neighbor.  Who am I trashing?  And why am I not connecting?

Second Sunday of Advent
Sts. Clare & Francis Community
December 8, 2013
Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-9
Matthew 3:1-12
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by cuppyyuppycake on flickr.com

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