Sermon: Finding Jesus On the Margins

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

Luke 16.19-21 (NRSV), emphasis mine

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and inspires our time together.

Good morning.

This week we witnessed the continued breaking open of deep-seated racial tensions in our country. I want to name that because it is in the room, and I believe that it matters deeply to God how we live our lives together. I also want to name it because I am from a town very near Charlotte, North Carolina and this chapter of unrest hits very close to home. Literally.

It also just so happens that I am charged with closing our sermon series on Finding Jesus. The question of “where is Jesus” is especially important to consider in times of uncertainty, fear, violence, and upheaval; but I want to broaden the conversation a bit by sharing my quick-and-dirty answer to the question of “where is Jesus?” For me the answer is simple: he’s on the margins.

I grew up in church. As many of you know, my parents raised my brothers and me as Baptists in North Carolina. I sung in the children’s and youth choirs, participated in the youth usher board, attended Baptist Training Union, and cut my teeth in public speaking in the North Carolina General Baptist State Convention Oratorical Contest (where I placed in the top three every year for three years). Church was important for me in my younger years, but there reached a point when it all stopped working and I started questioning everything I had come to know about God.

In fact, I went to seminary still questioning, but by the time I matriculated at the Interdenominational Theological Center, I had given up all hopes or desires of ever being ordained. To be clear, I felt a connection to God as revealed in Jesus Christ, but I just could not connect with Christians. Even after I fell in love with the Episcopal Church, I still had no desire to pursue ordination. My heart was just too broken from years of being told over and over how much God hated me because I was gay and how I was destined to spend eternity in Hell despite my best attempts to change and going to bed every night praying, crying for God to change me.

That all began to change during my final year at the ITC. I decided to do a yearlong Clinical Pastoral Education internship with a mission congregation of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, an Ekklesia Community called Church of the Common Ground. Church of the Common Ground is a community that serves the homeless of the city of Atlanta. It was one block north of the municipal jail on the corner of Trinity and Peachtree. Our parishioners were some of the poorest, often drug and alcohol addicted, occasionally criminal, deeply wounded, most beautiful people I had ever met. I had the privilege of walking alongside this community as they left their storefront location, often the only safe shelter many of our parishioners ever had, and transitioned to a mobile ministry housed in the back of a cargo van.

I found Jesus in a woman who was homeless, and HIV+, and addicted to Crystal meth, and in an abusive relationship with a boyfriend, or pimp, or both. She would often come to the Morning Prayer that I led with a black eye or bruised shoulder. She would weep tears of sadness and grief at the Confession and whisper “thank you” at the Absolution. Despite all that life tried to take from her, she still possessed an inner radiance.

I found Jesus in a tall, black man whose name I have forgotten, but whose presence I never will. He was such a calm, wise presence, who shared what little he had with the whole community. One day he disappeared for a few months. When he reappeared we found out that he had been arrested and, because he didn’t have access to bail, he spent months in prison. His crime was being homeless and sleeping on the street.

Whatever I gave to this community, I received so much more in return. When I left them after a year, this entire community laid hands on me and sent me into the world, changed. This community restored my faith that church can be a place of welcome, and inclusion, and healing, and compassion. Those things have stayed with me and continue to impact my ministry. I strive to continue to create spaces where folks on the margins can find comfort, healing, and wholeness in the face of a world that will too often turn away from and ignore their pain.

Our human tendency to turn away from pain of another is at the very heart of our Gospel this morning. In this “Parable of the rich man and Lazarus,” Jesus tells the story of a man, named Lazarus, whose pain and scars were visible to the rich man if the rich man were simply to stop long enough, to transcend his own discomfort and ignorance, and to see the suffering of a fellow human being. This story is not about the evils of wealth. It is about privilege and the things that stand between us and the full expression of our humanity in another person. When the rich man looked over and around Lazarus, the Bible says that “even the dogs” comforted him.

As I was speaking through the thought process on this sermon with a parishioner just a few days ago, it came to me that neither God nor Jesus are mentioned by name in this parable. Instead, we have “Father Abraham” who represents the welcoming arms of God. If we peel back the layers of Jesus’ subversive speech, we might be able to see that the dogs stand in for the incarnation of Christ in the midst of our suffering.

Where do I find Jesus? I find him as the constant, persistent presence pulsating on the margins, in the dirty, uncomfortable places others would rather not go, drawing the whole world towards the culmination of the Reign of God. Bringing in the Reign of God is God’s job, not ours. God invites us into that work of healing, and restoring, and reconciling. Our baptism commissions us to be agents and apostles of God’s Commonwealth of Compassion, but we must never be so presumptuous as to assume that God’s Reign depends on us. Scripture makes clear, right here, that if we fail to care for the poor and the oppressed, God will use even the dogs.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop in South Africa during the fall of the Apartheid regime, says that “the church exists primarily to worship and adore God. It must praise [God’s] most Holy name. But it can never use this as a form of escapism. Precisely because it worships such a God it must take seriously the world [God] has created… and loves so much.”[1] He continues that if the church does not set about the work of meeting and ministering on the margins, “then when liberation comes it [the church] will be consigned to the outer darkness for having retarded the liberation struggle… Woe betide all of us if the grace of God fails to move… all churches to be agents of the great God of the exodus, the liberator God.”[2]

That place of outer darkness is the place where the rich man wound up because he couldn’t be bothered to meet Christ on the margins, in those dirty, uncomfortable places of human suffering. That is the testimony of the cross – the presence of God as revealed in Christ is found squarely in the midst of human brokenness.

It’s the animating presence of God swirling over our dry and dusty places singing the resounding refrain to the Pharaohs of every age – “Let my people go!”

It’s the comforting warmth sitting in the ashes with Job, repeating the defiant chorus against the face of death – “I know that my redeemer lives!”

It’s the suffering, broken body of our Christ hanging between two other insurrectionists on the old rugged cross crying out to his fellow sufferers – “today, you join me in paradise!”

It’s the presence of God that finds a way to break through my malaise and reminds me again and again that, even when I am at the end of my rope and cannot summon up words to express the depth of my anguish, “if God’s got us then we gon’ be alright / Do you hear me? Do you feel me? We gon’ be alright!” [3]

I have to believe that, even in the darkest of nights, in the most painful of moments, when nothing seems to make any sense whatsoever. I have to believe that even God is there with me, somewhere, somehow, and that when I cannot see God’s hand, I can trust God’s heart. It is a heart so full of compassion that breaks with mine, but one so strong that keeps on beating even when mine fails.

That is where I found Jesus and continue to find him again and again: in the space that is left when my strength or words fail in the face of such immense human suffering. I find him there, whispering a song of love, a song of life, and a song of liberation.

Finding Jesus is an individual journey that each of us is called to pursue. If you are looking for him and cannot seem to find him, you might try looking in the unexpected, often uncomfortable places where even the dogs live. You might be surprised at what you see.


[1] Desmond Tutu. “The Role of the Church in South Africa.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kendrick Lamar. “Alright” from To Pimp a Butterfly

Advertisements