Lent from the Margins
By Marty Troyer
That the saints of history said “Yes” to God is not a story. Esther, Mary, Jesus, Michael Sattler, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer are not unique because they answered the call. They are household names because of the context within which they said “Where do I sign?” Their yes was spoken into the darkness of opposition, oppression and hatred. They are a voice crying out from the wilderness, the margins, outside dominant culture and accepted norms.
This is no easily whispered “yes.” For saying yes from the minority fringe is very different than saying yes from the safe confines of dominant culture.
But our story begins on the margins, with Jesus, who himself was “an outsider” who “sympathized with the disadvantaged and estranged (John Driver, Radical Faith, pg 24).” Howard Thurman, speaking within the black church context, says in Jesus and the Disinherited, “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.” This view is echoed everywhere Christians find themselves oppressed (such as Latino/a, Black, Feminist theology), impoverished, or on the margins. And it was equally true of the Anabaptists, forced to the margins by the violence of the state churches.
Our Lenten lectionary texts were clearly not written to, by, or within dominant culture. The Gospels, the Psalms, and the Epistles especially reveal a marginalized community of origin set apart by persecution. And yet over and again they shouted, Where do I sign? What was it about their faith that empowered them to say “yes” to God in a world that could not? What would the man Jesus have had to believe in order to endure the journey to the cross? Our Lenten journey probes these questions and invites us to embody the Jesus narrative to such a degree we too can say “yes” to God, regardless the consequences.
Here are three essential beliefs Jesus and the communities behind our Lenten texts embraced to sustain their life of faithfulness.
#1. Something has gone terribly wrong.
Clearly something is wrong when God’s people (“the good guys”) are demonized, pursued, persecuted, called “foolish” and forced to pray “Do not let my enemies exult over me (Lent 1: Psalm 25)!” The Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles unmask a world who has “rejected the chief cornerstone (Lent 6: Psalm 118).” But ultimately, nothing unmasks the terribleness of our world like Jesus ruthless execution before the watching world. Paul calls this terribleness “the ruler of the power of air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient (Lent 4: Ephesians 2:2).” As Holy Week unfolds, Jesus’ friends betray him, his friends try to protect him with violence, his friends utterly abandon him. Something has gone terribly wrong indeed!
However, Jesus didn’t just experience this as reality, he also confronted it for what it was and showed the world to itself as it really is. His opening sermon (Lent 1: Mark 1:15) is remarkable in its succinctness and use of symbolically precise social critique. Baptism, apocalyptic time references, and the call to repentance all suggest the need for drastic change. As does Jesus’ rebuke of Peter whom he calls “Satan” (Lent 2: Mark 8:31-38), his symbolic cleansing of the temple (Lent 3: John 2:13-22), and his mass demonstration against the competing imperial gospel, worthy of civil rights March fame (Lent 6: Mark 11:1-11). Over and again Jesus’ confronts the latent darkness in his followers by calling them to live lives of service, suffering, and conflict.
The breadth of our texts for Lent reveals more than the marginality of God’s community on the fringe. It also reveals these communities deep sadness over a world gone wrong.
But had Jesus only believed this, he would have been jaded, bitter, and angry. He wasn’t. He also believed…
#2. The Kingdom of God is the real solution to the world’s greatest needs.
No one believed for a second that evil would prevail, instead “dominion belongs to the Lord (Lent 2: Psalm 22:28). The King and the Kingdom bookend our Lenten Gospels as “good news” we are called to “believe in.” “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near (Lent 1: Mark 1:15)” is followed by Jesus-the-coming-King who rides on the back of a colt (Lent 6: Mark 11:1-11). Clearly for Mark, God is “powerfully breaking into the present earthly order to establish God’s reign (Timothy Geddert, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Mark, pg 42).” Clearly Jesus is not content to allow the world to force him quietly into the margins. Nor is his goal to make the gospel accessible and accepted to those in power. No! For Jesus, establishing God’s reign demanded culturally engaged bold action. At its best, this is what MCUSA means when we talk about being “missional.”
For Jesus, God’s reign breaks in when we deny safety and pick up our cross to live like Jesus (Lent 2: Mark 8:31-38); deny exclusive and unjust religious practices to transform religious systems (Lent 3: John 2:13-22); deny the darkness of hate and love the entire world as God loved the world (Lent 4: John 3:16); and deny selfish love and embrace a servant’s posture (Lent 5: John 12:20-26). We see God’s reign being established through each of the ancient heroes who accept God’s call in our Old Testament lections. And we see how the early church testified to the good news of the King in our Epistles. All things are “made subject” (Lent 1: 1 Peter 3:18-22) to Christ who is the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (Lent 3: 1 Corinthians 1:25) through whom comes “eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Lent 5: Hebrews 5:9).
But Jesus didn’t wait for God’s magic wand, Armeggedon, or the rapture to bring such an epiphany. No, Jesus also believed…
#3. God invites us to be part of the solution here and now.
Astonishingly, we’re told by a reputable source that we are to “have the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus (Lent 6: Philippians 2:5)” who clearly saw himself as an active public participant in God’s renewal project for the world. Indeed, we were created to have “a way of life” that is “good works (Lent 4: Ephesians 2:10).”
This is the reason for Jesus’ call to discipleship, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let them follow behind me, deny yourself and take your cross and follow me (Lent 2: Mark 8:34).” Jesus is inviting us to “sign up” by moving from one road (or story) to another. He tells Peter in Mark 8:33 to “Get behind me (Opiso mou).” Then, in 8:34 he says, “if anyone wants to follow behind me (Opiso mou)…” They are the same Greek words. First he tells Peter to get behind him, and then he lets us know what discipleship looks like. It’s not a rebuke so much as it’s an invitation! He wants us behind him, to follow him, to be close to him, in proximity to him, in relation to him. Jesus is presenting us with the details of his Story, details that intrinsically include a clash with the details of the World’s operating Story. Jesus seems to be saying, “Will you join me in living out the newness of God’s kingdom today? Even if it means we’re killed for it?”
The Easter-Pentecost story more than any other reveals the invitation to participation in God’s mission. To Mary, the first to encounter the risen-Lord, Jesus says, “Go to my brothers and say to them… (Easter: John 20:17).” The New Testament texts pick up this cycle of sharing by suggesting that’s how the “message spread throughout Judea (Easter: Acts 10:37).” Likewise, Paul repeatedly mentions how some proclaim so that others might believe (Easter: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11). The kingdom comes from God, through Jesus, to one generation of disciples to the next. We are part of God’s solution to the terribleness of our world.
Following behind Jesus, no matter how radical or upside down the invitation sounds, is “the power of God” present in “those who are called (Lent 3: 1 Corinthians 1:18).”
Where do I sign?
Three essential beliefs made our Lenten texts possible: “No” to injustice, “Yes” to God, and “Sign me up.” It sounds easy enough. But none of us hear Jesus’ invitation in a vacuum. The invitation to “sign on” takes place against the backdrop of powerful social disincentives. Dominant Christian culture (and its inertia/energy) doesn’t always embrace the comprehensive Jesus vision for peacemaking, justice, loving neighbor, God and self; often it will oppose this voice. Thus the Anabaptist’s missional pursuit of peace happens in the midst of pressure to narrow our voice. Likewise, dominant secular culture may be open to the quest for justice, but find our insistence on keeping Jesus at the center of our work and words baffling, if not stifling.
The Lenten season, texts, and spirituality are all designed to sustain the Christian community to follow Jesus in a world that is not. To various levels, each of our churches finds itself on and embraces an identity within the margins. This is to be celebrated, for from the margins the church’s “yes” rings loudest, as together we proclaim, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (Lent 3: 1 Corinthians 1:24).”Check out the Sidebar for resources on how to empower your congregation to “sign on” from the margins.
Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church and blogs for the Houston Chronicle. Follow him at blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor/ or on twitter @thepeacepastor.