Letty Russell’s book Church in the Round is one of the most valuable sources for thinking about what it means to be church today.
Her basic image is that of a round table—a table where there is no priority, no place which is called ‘the head of the table’.
The thesis of the book is that God calls people of faith it go to the margins, to those who have been marginalised by social processes, power structures and religious traditions. This act of going to the margins is, paradoxically, to re-define what and who is marginal.
By this prophetic stance, we broaden the circle, or open the way for those who are ‘at the margins’ no longer to be so.
My reflections about the church with fuzzy edges have led me to think more about what we consider to be ‘the edges’ and why we need these edges. At important points in history there has been a need to define the edges, perhaps for the preservation of the very life of the people. But at other significant times, the thrust of the gospel is precisely to de-construct these edges.
In what follows, I offer some reflections on two biblical texts, which speak of a God who is found at the margins.
If that is where God is known, that is where we need to be.
Biblical texts: Isaiah 40. 1 – 5 (Mark 1. 1 – 3, 14 & 15)
This text has a long history, in Israel’s story, and in the Christian story. It is a text with a past, but also is one which opens out before us an inviting future.
This has been the experience of Christians, who have come to this text again and again in times of pain and have found here a new direction, a new horizon of hope.
The text has a long history of preparing the way of the Lord. Today also it invites us to consider the surprising presence of God at the margins of our lives.
In its historical setting, the text reflects the anguish of the people taken into exile in Babylon. We are talking about people forced from their country because of the kind of war and strife that is happening in the West Bank or in Afghanistan today.
Some of the exiles were community leaders, priests and scholars and rulers and officials. But many were the trades people and the farmers, whose places were simply overrun and destroyed. For a moment think what has happened to them. Not only are they in a foreign place, but every thing that they have valued in life has been turned on its head. What do they have now? Well, some have daughters who are valued as potential prostitutes. Some have sons who are valued as slave workers, or cannon fodder. Those who are scholars, their achievements and wisdom is now to be ridiculed, if recognized at all. Those who are old and revered are less than useless, they are a burden to be put down as soon as possible. And all that they have valued about their nation, their city set upon a hill, eternal stronghold of the Lord, and especially their temple, the House of the Lord, a light for the nations, this beautiful Zion, had been dismantled, block by block, and desecrated: even as their King was taken away in chains.
What have they lost: they have lost their very identity as God’s people, their tradition and their temple and their theology: indeed they have lost their God.
And to such people, in such a situation, comes this word: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. My people, your God.
The sheer fact of this word from God is itself good news.
This is not where you would expect God to be. The word of God comes to us from the Torah, or in the teachings at the temple.
God lives in Zion: we have said it over and over, sung in it in those hymns and poems of David and Aseph and all that lot.
We know where God is, and that’s not here.
But here is God, speaking through an unknown, un-named prophet: comfort my people, and tell them their time is served, penalty is paid – here we are into the court-room imagery that is to be the context for so much more in the prophecy. Here the word of the Lord is comfort, grace, tenderness.
And that is the basis for this invitation to prepare: prepare in the wilderness a highway, a pathway for the Lord: for now God’s name is to be known not just in one place, not just in the holy huddle, nor the majestic mountain, but in every place, with every nation, at every humble hearth and down every desert drain, grace finds its home, the way of the Lord will come, with its comfort and forgiveness and hope.
This word, in an astonishing move, gives rise to another expectation, centuries later. Another desert prophet begins his ministry in the far reaches of the country, baptizing and inviting people to see again, to sense again the way of the Lord, in surprising ways, in desert places. The people flocked to hear him, to receive his message and to be immersed in this oasis of grace.
Here again the people sensed the presence of God at the margins.
Very quickly this voice is silenced. But then, just then, Mark tells us, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. This astonishing act of prophetic defiance positions Jesus with John and with the presence of God at the margins. It offers immediate pastoral presence to those who have lost their prophet. It invites the people to hold the line, not give up, for the reign of God is at hand.
Once again, this wilderness text has called forth its response to the surprising presence of God at the margins. And so Mark invites his readers to follow this Jesus, all the way to the rubbish heap where he is crucified, and then back to Galilee, where again they will know the presence of the son of God, God at the margins.
Here is the challenge I find in this image of ‘the margins’. It is about the margins of our expectation and the margins of our experience. It is way beyond our comfort zone. It is outside our ideas of ‘church’, or ‘faith’. This is about God appearing when we have lost God, as Paul Tillich once put it. He called this, ‘the God above (or beyond) the God of theism’. For many people, that God of theism is lost, in the experiences of meaninglessness, despair, anxiety and grief. Yet, beyond that ‘God’, for individuals and for communities, these texts speak of a God who is known at the margins, or even beyond.