How is God faithful? – In the Margins

An elderly woman lived on a small farm in Manitoba, Canada – just yards away from the North Dakota border. Their land had been the subject of a minor dispute between the United States and Canada for years. The widowed woman lived on the farm with her son and three grandchildren.

One day, her son came into her room holding a letter. “I just got some news, Mom,” he said. “The government has come to an agreement with the people in North Dakota. They’ve decided that our land is really part of the United States. We have the right to approve or disapprove of the agreement. What do you think?”

“What do I think?” his mother said. “Sign it! Call them right now and tell them we accept! I don’t think I can stand another Canadian winter!”

Celebrating Canada Day is about celebrating who we are. And who we are is to a large extent defined by our borders. Indeed, boundaries are important. We need to be clear about the margins, the borders, of our country to understand the shape, size and very nature of our identity.

The margins are both bad and good places for us.

Often we think of the margins as places we don’t want to go to. Those are unknown, scary places full of tension. Margins are not desirable locales. They are places where danger lurks.

I visited this past week the Carlington neighborhood whose chaplaincy we support by our donations and, more significantly, our volunteer leaders. Here, in Ottawa, this area was established for “low income housing” where poor people live. People who call that neighborhood “home” live on the margins of society, so we say.

Jesus, of course, goes to those scary places – our Gospel text today (Mark 5:21-43) opens with a statement recognizing borders: “Jesus crossed in a boat to the other side.” For a rabbi to go to the margins, this is something extraordinary. Jesus is not afraid to go to those from whom we normally want to keep distant.

Jesus goes directly into the home of those whom he heals – Jairus’ daughter in this case. Jesus doesn’t heal from a distance; he goes right into the room and even touches the sick, the outcast and the marginalized. The Gospels are full of such examples. This is his practice – going to the margins. This defines his identity.

Jesus would make a good Canadian. It’s interesting we are living in a time of our history when Canadians are just starting to explore and establish our national presence in a largely unknown “margin” of our country – the Arctic in the Far North. We might find Jesus there. Or would we?

Because Christianity is not just about going to and debating geographic boundaries. Christianity is more than that. It is essentially about going to the social margins.

Notice the literary structure of the Gospel story. Interesting that scribes, translators and early redactors of the text maintained the “interrupted” nature of this text from scripture. They didn’t separate the two distinct healing stories into neat, successive stories. The healing of the woman with hemorrhaging interrupts the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter. There is something important about preserving this interrupted structure of scripture.

Can going to the margins be good for us? Because, in truth, it describes our reality. Immigrants especially should understand this. Canada is full of immigrants. The nation state of Canada as we know it developed out of our immigrant identity. How can we describe our immigrant experience?

For one thing, immigrants are people betwixt and between two places; it is an interrupted reality, so to speak. As a first generation Canadian I have felt the residual effects of this reality, experienced more directly of course by my parents.

New immigrants often feel ‘marginalized’ in the dominant culture. They neither feel they belong fully to where they’ve come from; nor do they feel they belong fully to where they’ve landed. These are the margins as well; it is who we are, crossing both boundaries of national identities, and creating something new and unique.

Listen to the words of Mary Joy Philip who was one of the keynote speakers at the Luther Hostel last month inWaterloo. She said,

“What is home now? India? The United States? Most of my life has been spent in India; I was educated, married, had children, a career there. And now I have been in the U.S. for fifteen years. So, where is home now? Where do I belong? Having been away from India this long, do I belong there? And even though I have been in the U.S.for fifteen years, I definitely don’t have that feeling of belonging. I am an outsider and always will be. So, I don’t feel that I belong in India or in the U.S.; and yet, I belong in both … I belong in that in-between space, betwixt and between … you are neither there nor here but in both … [which] puts me in a unique position of being in beyond both, of being what you might call a hybrid.”

I would add that Canada is full of ‘hybrids’.

Yet what is truly remarkable about Jesus is that he doesn’t just go to the margins; he crosses the borders of social acceptability. He crosses the borders that we might deem fearful. He crosses the borders of any kind of stigma that separates people. He crosses the borders of theological correctness, doctrinal purity. He crosses the borders of ethnic segregation.

To be sure, the margins are places of tension, a tension between endings and beginnings. But it is precisely this tension that sustains life. Those margins, the borders, prove so necessary to our common life and growth together as a nation and people of God’s reign.

Let’s remember that, in a sense, Jesus was a hybrid: Fully human and fully divine. Both/And. Jesus, the God-man, lived at the margins, in theGalilee, where from, in the eyes of the others no good could come, but from whither and from whom the “good news” came. How can the margins NOT be the threshold to something new, something transformed, something good, in Christ Jesus.

Mary Joy Philip went on to assert that as an immigrant, she could draw out the uniqueness of both places she was and is now, and create a new space to be … which allowed her to have a distinct identity.”

Crossing over may not always be ideal nor perfect. But it is important to do, and good, too. As we venture into this new space we need only to hear Jesus’ words over and over again: “Do not fear, only believe.”

A small yet significant example from our Canadian history illustrates well this dynamic: Chiefswood is the name of the house of Canadian literary giant, Pauline Johnson. This stately house is situated on the Six Nations Reserve nearBrantford,Ontario. The house, literally, was built as a ‘cross-over’ for two distinct peoples sharing the land.

The house has identical entrances on opposite sides of the main floor, joined by a common foyer hall and staircase going up, in between. One entrance was designated for the Six Nations community to enter, and the other for the British side. The home served as the in-between space for both sides to co-exist. Their home provided a space where on equal footing – literally – interaction and dialogue could happen; and perhaps even transformation of BOTH sides in deep, meaningful ways. What a great image and model for Canada, moving forward!

I think we Canadians are well conditioned and poised by our history and our faith to be thankful and assert our unique identity in the world as a people whose social borders are crossed and mutually transformed into something more beautiful. That is to say: the ‘whole’ of what it means to be Canadian is larger than the sum of our individual parts.

Thank God for going to the margins of our lives!

Amen.