Once again this year at the Jazz/ Fringe Festival we had an informal service of worship. The last such service we had was at the time of the Brecon Folk Festival and we called that one “Faith and Folk”. We could not use that title for this one so we decided to call it “Faith at the Fringe”, And that title made me think: it can have two different meanings. On the one hand it can simply mean an expression of Christian Faith at the Fringe Festival. And that’s what our service was. But an alternative meaning is this: “faith at the fringes of life”. And it’s that I would like us to think about this morning.
Faith at the Fringes
The Bible is full of stories of people who were at the fringes of society – people who were marginalised or persecuted. But they were people whom God raised and used for his purposes. Indeed, throughout the Bible, God seems to choose the “fringe” people, the outsiders, the oppressed people, to fulfill his purposes.
In the Old Testament we could think of many such people. Let’s just name a few now:
There was Ruth the Moabitess, who was a foreigner and a migrant. And there was Rahab the harlot of the Canaanite nation who gave refuge to the spies when they entered the Promised Land. Both of these women are mentioned in the family tree of King David, and then later in the New Testament in the ancestral line of Jesus Christ himself. And King David himself came from the fringes: he was the youngest son of his family, a mere shepherd boy, despised by his older brothers.
Then we could think of Hannah, the despised second wife of Elkanah, who was childless. God answered her prayers with a son Samuel who became a leader of the new nation . And then we can think of Gideon, the least important member of his family, belonging to the least significant clan of his tribe, who was raised up by God to defeat a mighty army. With just 300 men Gideon defeated a vast host of Midianites.
Notice how many of these people are women. That’s because ancient Israel was a very patriarchal society. Women were usually sidelined. But on occasions God called women to be leaders. What about Deborah who led Israel to victory when there were no men of sufficient calibre take on the task of leadership?
And then there is Moses – a despised Hebrew boy child whose life was only saved because his mother hid him in a basket among the reeds at the fringe of the river Nile. His first great experience of God came to him while he was acting as a humble shepherd for his father-in-law Jethro, out in the back of the desert. It was there God spoke to him from within a burning bush.
Moving to the New Testament we see the same story: God chooses people from the fringes of society.
Elizabeth was an older, childless woman who had no human hope of ever bearing a son. And yet by God’s grace she became the mother of John the Baptist the great precursor of the Messiah.
And what about the Virgin Mary herself? She was just a humble peasant girl, not a princess living in Herod’s Palace, but yet she was raised to the highest position that any human being has ever had – male or female. She became the mother of the Son of God.
Listen to these words of Mary from the Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
God brings down the proud but raises up the humble and the despised.
And then we can think about Zacchaeus the despised tax collector, who could not get to see Jesus. Zacchaeus was so hated, as a man who worked for the Romans and who oppressed the people, that no one would allow him to get to the front of the crowd to see Jesus. Because he was short he couldn’t see over the heads of the people and he was forced to climb a tree. But when Zacchaeus did look down from his tree, into the eyes of Jesus Christ, his life was transformed. He repented of his sins and made recompense for the evil that he had done.
Another despised tax collector was Levi (or Matthew as he is also known). He was sitting at his tax gatherers booth when Jesus came and said,”Follow me”. Levi left everything and followed Jesus. You know, these tax gatherers – although they were rich men they were really despised, especially by the religious Jews, because they worked for the Romans. For all their wealth they were men on the fringes.
And what about the various “immoral women” and prostitutes who are mentioned in the Gospels as following Jesus. They were despised by all respectable people but Jesus spoke to them words of life, accepted their adoration and turned around their lives.
The Woman at the Well in Samaria was one such. Not only was she an outcast in her own village (forced to draw water in the burning sun at midday when no one else was around) but she also belonged to the despised race of the Samaritans. They were regarded is little better than pagans by the Orthodox Jews. When she met Jesus he turned around her life.
Then there was a Roman Centurion whose servant was healed. Romans were beyond the pale as far as religious Jews were concerned.
Then there was the Syrian Phoenician woman whose daughter was ill. This woman was was both a Gentile and a pagan but Jesus healed her daughter.
In ancient times women were regarded as unclean during their menstrual period. They were not allowed to go anywhere near the house of God or to mix in society. So imagine what a problem it would be if you were a woman suffering from a continuous flow of blood from the womb. You would be regarded as continually unclean. You would keep away from everyone else. You would be an outcast. In the Gospels we read of one such woman who had the courage and the faith to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, and who was healed instantly of her condition.
Lepers also were unclean and isolated from society, but Jesus touched them and healed them.
Jesus welcomed all the people who were on he fringes,.
I have mentioned just a few of the people in the Bible who were on the fringes. There are many other instances we can think about. The next time you read some of the stories in the Old Testament or New Testament look out for the people who were on the fringes – they were often the ones God helped and the ones he used to rescue his people from danger.
People on the fringes today
How do we react today to people who might be on the fringes? There are many such people within our society. Some of them are just people who just don’t really fit in. They may have awkwardness socially, they may suffer from mental health issues, they may be painfully shy, they may be lonely. There are many people like that.
Others may be carrying some great burden of guilt which they cannot get rid of. They have secrets to which they can tell no-one but God. They feel they would not be acceptable if they were to tell others – to confess their guilt. There are some people who don’t come to church because they think they are not good enough. There are people who suffer from desperately low self-esteem.
Then there are people who have gone “off the rails” – as we might say. They might have turned to a life of vice or crime. Perhaps like the harlots in the New Testament they have become sex workers – selling their body for money. They might be addicted to drugs or alcohol and have terrible problems. They may feel unable to break out of their habit. They might have turned to thieving to feed their habit.
All these people could be considered as being on the fringes. And then there are homeless people, and there are migrants and asylum seekers, strangers in a strange land. They have fled perhaps war and persecution and now they find themselves in a place where they don’t understand the culture and don’t have many friends. They also are people on the fringes.
God loves these people. He loves people on the fringes. He wants to help them, he wants to save them. He wants to cleanse them and lift them up and to use them in his purposes. How are they going to hear about Jesus if we don’t reach out to them in some way or another?
It might be just a matter sometimes of being kind to someone. You can’t always overtly preach the Gospel to people but you can always show them something of the love of Jesus. This is what the Street Pastors are aiming to do, with some success, as they go out on the streets of Brecon.
Perhaps you feel that you are on the fringes yourself. Yes, even the most apparently successful and seemingly confident people often have deep insecurities. Often we feel that we don’t really fit in with others. We feel that we are out on the fringes, looking in from outside. And Jesus calls us to himself.
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30)
“Come to me he says,”and I will wash away your sins. And I will bring into my Kingdom, and I will make you sons and daughters of God – part of his family. And you will know God to be your loving Heavenly Father, you will know me to be your Saviour, you will know the Holy Spirit as your Helper and Guide.”
God loves you! He loves people on the fringes – and those were often the people he chose to use for his purposes. Yes, he chose these people – rather than the self-satisfied Pharisaical types who thought they were so good. In fact they were “so good that they’re no good” to God. He wants humility in his people and he can do amazing things when he finds it. God can use you!