Jesus in the Margins: Finding God in the Places We Ignore

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In Matthew 25, Jesus says when we feed the hungry, it is as if we are feeding Jesus himself, the incarnation of God.


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God is present in the margins. Holding baby Russell is a taste of the Christian hope. I think we are often drawn to the innocence of babies precisely because of their helplessness. They require tender care for their every need, and we are most deeply satisfied when we give of ourselves. The circle of life is one of receiving and giving of love; back and forth, to and from. A baby coo or a lopsided sleepy grin is capable of melting the hardest of hearts.

It is the essence of the gospel. Who is invited, and who is left out? Our meals become kingdom meals especially when people who are usually overlooked find a place -- a place of welcome and value. In Luke 19, Jesus invites himself to dinner. How strange then that Jesus decides it is with Zacchaeus that he should have a meal.

Out of the whole town of perfectly good people, Jesus -- in their minds -- clearly picked the wrong person with whom to eat. They knew it was an honor, and they were annoyed. But Zacchaeus, in his joy, offers to give away half his money and to give back four times as much as anything he has stolen. The meal gives us a picture of the kingdom being laid open by love.

The kingdom of God is big enough and gracious enough to have room for the most unlikely folks and to give them places of honor. In our shared meals, God is especially present. There is often abundance and an element of mystery.

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Meals are important times of healing and restoration and are central to most efforts at reconciliation. In the New Testament church, the early Christians struggled with eating together because of their ethnic and social differences. But they ate together regularly as an expression of the oneness they had found in Christ.

Their behavior was so countercultural that the outside world noticed. Jesus could have had us remember him and celebrate his love and sacrifice in any number of ways, but he chose a meal. His body, our bread; his blood, our drink. When our practices of communion or Eucharist are closely connected to our common meals, we catch glimpses of the kingdom.

Years ago, I People from many nations worshiped together, but one of my favorite memories is of the meals we shared. Most of the people in the church were refugees or involved in refugee resettlement, so it was a congregation that knew about tragedy, loss and displacement. Heuertz and Christine D. Copyright c by Christopher L. Sister Margaret, who is a mentor of mine, says the inner city is our contemporary desert.

Finding the Face of God | Cindy Brandt

This is where we go to find God on the margins of the empire. This is where we go to build a new society in the shell of the old one. So we have been mentored from the very beginning by Catholic folks who are invigorating the best of the monastic spirit. A few years ago we put together the twelve marks, twelve distinctive characteristics of the new monastic movement.

These are things like: racial justice, environmental care, nonviolence. I hear them saying that they live in the wilderness because they knew that if they lived in the city they would probably not be living the kind of life God intended for them to live.

What is it for you that draws you into urban life instead of away from it? Shane: First, in response to your thoughts on leaving society. There is one big misunderstanding of the monastics leaving society. I think they were going to the desert to build a new society and in a sense to build a new world, a new culture together where it was easier to be good and holy. Sister Margaret and others said the desert was filled with the most beautiful saints and the worst of sinners. So there were a lot of people there who were outlaws and outcasts. It was a hard place but it was also where they found God.

In some of the places our communities are like in Canton, New Jersey or in Kensington North Philadelphia where we have abandoned houses there is this struggle in a very real way of the light and darkness or the good and bad. The principalities and powers are here. You read the monastics and they talk about wrestling with demons. We see God all the time here. People only hear bad things about our neighborhood. Kensington is known as the badlands.

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I always say you have to be careful when you call a place the badlands because that is exactly what they said about Nazareth. Nothing good can come from there. I think we see God in the margins. Jesus was born as a refuge in a manger and spent much of his life on the margins. He was crucified in the center of Jerusalem. We see that in Jesus and the early Christian movement. The city chose me.

I moved to Philadelphia to go to school at Eastern partly because I wanted to study the Bible and I also went to study sociology. Philadelphia caught my attention in when a group of homeless families were living in an abandoned cathedral. Even from the beginning they connected theology with what they were doing. No one claimed their positions as their own.

What is it that makes it so hard for us to see those things in the context of affluence? Shane: We can ignore suffering no matter where we live. There are people who live a few miles from here who never see much poverty or the injustices that live on our doorstep. There is extreme poverty in Appalachia, where I was, and increasingly poverty is not just an urban thing.

There are a lot of suburbs where there is great poverty. When you look at Matthew 25 where Jesus is talking about the least of these, people asked when did we see you hungry or in prison. What I take away from that is that we can live and die and not choose to see people who are in prison or a stranger in need of a house or refugees…the choice to see is a choice.

There are scriptures that point to that like in 1 John when he says how can I pass by my neighbor who is in need and not have compassion and say the love of God is in me.

Living In The Margins

I like how someone once said being a Christian is not about having new ideas but having new eyes. This is the ability to have our hearts broken with the things that break the heart of God. That is part of what it means to be a Christian. It was all very personal. Now people take them to hospitals away from where you can see the hurt and pain. We insulate ourselves from suffering. What advice would you give to churches that are in places where the suffering is present but maybe not something we see or choose to see?

How can Christians and churches engage more in those areas? Shane: We have a relational problem with those who are suffering or who are different from us. All of us are most comfortable around people who are like us culturally and economically. That is what the early church said. If you have two coats you have stolen one.