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Last Sunday of the Year 2017

Pr. Michelle Sevig

 

Seeing Christ In The Margins

 

Have you ever taken the time to notice the icons we have in our worship space? Icons are one of the many things that were new to me when I first started attending Holy Trinity many years ago. We didn’t have icons in my Lutheran church growing up, or any other Lutheran churches I’d worked at or visited before. But just as it is with many of the “new to me” practices at Holy Trinity (incense, bowing) I’ve grown to love the icons in our sacred space.

Icons are representations of Jesus, Mary and the saints that are stylized in such a way that they are easily recognizable. They are not simply art, but a window into the holy and are typically used for spiritual or devotional purposes. As it says in our Icon brochure, “Just as the gospel is communicated through words, an icon reveals grace through symbols and forms.” Icons used in this space reveal an expanded narrative about Jesus and the people who trust and follow him throughout the ages.

Last month, when we hosted an anti-racism workshop, Jaysen Frelot the Executive Director of Kids and Race, noticed our icons too. He noted that in many churches he visits he sees a lot of images of a white Jesus, but not much else. Jaysen appreciated the images in our icons that show Jesus with darker skin, saints from Africa and El Salvador, and even icons that commemorate faithful peacemakers who have not received official sainthood, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Ghandi. Jaysen was mesmerized by these icons that opened to him a window into the grace and love of God made known through all of humanity.

This week as I was preparing to lead the scripture study for the pastors who meet to discuss Sunday’s scriptures, I was introduced to a new icon and invited the pastors to look at a photocopy I pirated from the internet (sorry 7th Commandment.)This icon shows Christ with his nail scarred hands holding a barbed wire fence. His eyes seem to look directly and intensely into ours. And it’s not clear which side of the fence Christ is on. Is he imprisoned or are we?

The icon is called “Christ in the Margins” and reflects the scripture reading for today. “When did we see you?” the disciples ask. “Whenever you did it to the least of these,” Jesus says, “You did it to me.” Jesus names the people who are on the margins of life: hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked or imprisoned, and he tells the disciples to love and care for the people who are barely noticed, and see that Christ is among them… in the margins of life.

So after I led the morning devotion with the pastors, asking them to notice what they were feeling, what they saw in the image etc., Pastor Mueller jokingly asked, “You know we have this icon in our church, don’t you?” No! I didn’t. Even though I regularly light the candles next to the icons, I had never noticed this one. I’d never really looked at this icon which makes its home in the very margins of our sacred space, in the back corner of the sanctuary. I was embarrassed, and felt a little silly.

I didn’t notice Christ in the Margins, the icon. And how true is it for all of us that we don’t notice Christ in the Margins, the people?  Who are they? What are their vulnerabilities? What are they longing for?  It’s too simple to reduce this passage to an “if, then” statement. If we volunteer at the pantry or drop a few coins in a person’s paper cup, then we’re doing what Jesus asks. Or if we visit our friends in the hospital or donate books to the prison, then we are fulfilling the expectation to visit the sick or imprisoned. Of course these are important charitable acts, but today’s admonishment from Jesus calls us to be and do more.

It’s too simple to reduce this passage to an “if, then” statement. If we volunteer at the pantry or drop a few coins in a person’s paper cup, then we’re doing what Jesus asks. Or if we visit our friends in the hospital or donate books to the prison, then we are fulfilling the expectation to visit the sick or imprisoned. Of course these are important charitable acts, but today’s admonishment from Jesus calls us to be and do more.

Our synod bishop, Wayne Miller, once said, “God loves you just as you are. And God calls you to be more than you could ever imagine.” This statement has been quoted often, because we all need to be reminded that there is never anything that we could do to earn God’s acceptance, love and grace. And we are continually reminded that in living fully into the reign of God we are empowered to be more fully present to those who hunger for justice, to those who thirst for righteousness, to the ones crying out for healing, the ones who live with shame and to those who are imprisoned in silence.

In recent weeks #MeToo has brought to light those of us who have suffered in silence and shame for far too long. And just this past week, the #ChurchToo has emerged, where people name the abuses they experienced by clergy and teachers in religious institutions. Women and men who have suffered sexual harassment and abuse were shut up and shut down, so their stories were never heard or believed. And now all of us are noticing and paying attention to the hurt and vulnerability that clings to even our closest friends, family and co-workers. Can you hear Jesus saying, “Whenever you listened to and believed one of these, you have done it to me?”

This is just one of the many ways to expand the narrative for hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or imprisoned. There are far too many to name in one short sermon on a Sunday morning. The call to notice those in the margins is not only while we are in church or through service organizations, but in everyday encounters with others, with all the children of God. We are called into relationship, even a relationship that may be unlikely, momentary or sad. God calls us to participate in the unfolding reign of God; to look at each other and see Christ. It’s as simple and as hard as that.

Let’s take a look at the icon again and notice that it’s impossible to tell if Christ is imprisoned and looking out or if we are imprisoned and Christ looks in. If an icon is like a two-way mirror, so is today’s Gospel text. We may be the ones who need to be noticed, helped, and loved. Sometimes we are “the least,” yearning for the promises of Jesus who comes to us, heals our vulnerabilities, and restores us to new life.

When this human life seems too much to bear— when you are the one who is living life in the margins, when your loved ones are lost or dying, when your life is spinning out of control from addiction, financial strain or family strife—Christ comes to you through others in the body of Christ. Christ is here: in community. In word, music and silence. In water, bread and wine. The Holy One notices you, and calls you out of the margins to live fully and faithfully in God’s light and love.