Called to the Margins

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                                   July 8, 2018

Mark 6:1-13; II Corinthians 12:7b-9


Today’s gospel lesson describes Jesus commissioning and sending forth his disciples. He asked them to take only the bare essentials so that they would be dependent upon the generosity of those who received their ministry. This commissioning reminds me of the begging bowl that some Buddhist monks carry. Instead of working for money, they depend on the generosity of those who receive their teachings. They do this for three reasons:

  • to allow laity to gain merit by giving,
  • to necessitate interaction with community and
  • to cultivate non-attachment to material things, including food.

Lesley Fox won’t be travelling with a begging bowl, but her ministry will be enhanced if we can give her our prayerful support. It will also be enhanced by her interaction with both the Armed Forces community and with the civilian communities in which she serves. And, as a member of the Armed Forces, she is having to cultivate a practice of non-attachment with home and friends as she is posted to a new home and community.

The purpose of Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples was two-fold. They were to proclaim repentance for all people and they were to have healing powers so that they could set people free of mental and physical ailments.  What does it mean to proclaim repentance? A few chapters earlier, Jesus talks about how to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Within this context, repentance would mean for all people to divest themselves of anything that would oppose God’s peaceable kin-dom of love and justice. When people are set free from hate, violence, greed, and self-righteousness, space is made for the Spirit to work, and where the Spirit moves, healing lies in her path.

This would include both our personal lives and society. From its very inception, the United Church has held personal and social redemption together. Social justice is at the very heart of our identity. There are a few proposals going to the meeting of General Council in a couple of weeks, which will help us better honour our commitment to social justice. In former days, our church held sway with provincial and federal governments. We were included in briefing sessions and invited to speak to government officials. They listened to, and sometimes acted on, our concerns about the marginalized. But those days are over. Now we are marginalized in society’s structures of power.

How can we, as a church with diminishing resources, power and credibility, call society to repent from social injustice? One commentator on this passage suggests that we could either lament our weakening influence on society or recognize “that being pushed to the margins is a form of empowerment.” How could this be? The commentator explained that “that is where Jesus was, and is, and that is where the early Church was: on the margins.”[1]

When the United Church played a dominant role in the governance of Canada, it was able to help bring in social reform, including unemployment insurance, universal health care, labour standards, and gender equality. It successfully used its power and influence over others. Now that we’re on the margins, we don’t have much power over anyone. Our only option these days is to use the little power we have to work in partnerships with others on the margins. It’s more of a “power with” than a “power over,” and in many respects, it is more similar to the type of power that Jesus, his disciples and the early Church had.

Just before Jesus commissioned his disciples, he himself had been smarting from his own village rejecting him. Because of this rejection, his own powers of healing had been greatly reduced. In light of this setback, however, Jesus didn’t retreat. He did the opposite—he commissioned his followers, who had just seen his failure, to the very same task of healing. Perhaps he was teaching them that, in spite of failures they were bound to encounter, God would still work through them.

In our passage from I Corinthians, Paul explains how he found power not in his credentials and experience, but in his weakness. The power he discovered was God’s grace, perfected not in his abilities and knowledge, but in his inabilitites. God has a habit of choosing to work through the side-liners.

There are many advantages to being on the margins. One of them is a much better understanding of the complexity of issues and of the need to work with others. People living in poverty or recipients of racism are forced to be bi-cultural—they understand the culture of poverty or racism and they have learned how to negotiate the culture of privilege in order to survive. Those of us who are privileged by the colour of our skin or our economic status don’t have listen to others and therefore only know our own experience.

But when even those of us with personal privilege are part of a church that does not have much power or influence, we quickly learn that we need to work in partnerships with others in order to have any effect. We become much better at listening and we learn about the multiple sides of issues. We are not as quick to jump to judgement. Safe injection sites? I might not like it, but I do need to listen to why they might save lives and health costs. Legalized marijuana? I’m not interested, but perhaps I need to listen to how it might keep the streets safer. The right for public servants to burkas? They may make me very uncomfortable, but our interfaith partnerships are teaching me how to be an ally. They are teaching me about the need to listen carefully to all sides; to trust the Spirit’s nigglings of discomfort when I see something that seems to violate not my comfort level but God’s kin-dom of love and justice. They are teaching me to have the courage to speak out against injustice even when society supports it.

Hugh Thompson flew a U. S. helicopter in the Vietnam War. On March 16, 1968, he happened to be flying over Mai Lai on routine patrol, when he saw something that brought all of his senses into high alert. U. S. troops were killing and mutilating hundreds of unarmed women, men and children. He landed his helicopter between the troops and the remaining civilians, training its guns on the U.S. troops while he ordered them to stop killing the villagers. He saved the lives of dozens of people that day, even though he risked being court martialed for this action. It took 30 years before the Army awarded him the Soldier’s Medal, finally admitting that official orders were wrong and what he did was right.

When he was asked why he risked so much that day, he said that he had been taught as a little boy in Sunday School to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

As we become accustomed to our place on society’s margins, may it help us listen more closely to others who are marginalized simply because of who they are. We may see and hear things that we could not when we had power as a church. May God give us the courage to be faithful to the peaceable kin-dom of God.


[1] gathering: Resources for Worship Planners, Pentecost 1, 2018, Year B (Toronto: The United Church of Canada), p. 15.