Living on the Fringe
In our increasingly secular society, I am frequently told “I don’t need to go to Church to be a good person. I am charitable and try to be ethical. Isn’t that enough?” Smiling, I think “That’s a good start,” and wonder if they really want me to answer the question—which is, after all, usually asked in a place wholly inappropriate for a theological discussion.
Someone asked me the question this summer, at a backyard barbecue. It was a time when our lectionary readings from Mark contained references to the fringe or hem of Jesus’ cloak. Laughing to myself, I realized that that is how I feel right now: on the fringe, knowing this was not the moment to respond in depth, and yet thinking this person might be seeking an answer to that question: “Is it enough?”
The fringe seemed to provide a sufficiently brief but still potentially thought-provoking answer. The first reading, from Mark 5:27-28, describes the woman suffering from a hemorrhage:
“She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd
and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I
will be made well.’”
The second, Mark 6:56, references a much broader group:
“And wherever he went, into villages, or cities, or farms, they laid the
sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even
the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
“Have you ever heard these stories?” I asked. The first was familiar to my questioner, the second was not. Continuing, I asked if she had ever thought about the word fringe? “No? That’s not terribly surprising—but if you did,” I said, “you’d remember that there are two uses for the word.”
My Oxford Dictionary defines fringe as a border: either the border or outer edges of an area, community, or group; or the decorative edges of a garment—braids, twists, or tassels and such.
The first of these frequently has negative connotations, associated with being on the outside of the group—excluded, not entitled to the same access as those closer in might be to all the community has to offer. The image in this case is of something dusty and dirty.
The second meaning is typically associated with something elaborate and beautiful. Gorgeous threads twisted and braided into elaborate patterns, adorning a lush draping garment of silk or velvet, as depicted in the Reign of Christ window over our altar at St. John’s in Pleasantville.
The cloak Jesus was wearing at the time of these stories was likely a bit worn and tattered, in need of washing and mending—much like those who reached out with such extraordinary trust and hope to touch its dusty fringe. These folks were relegated to the fringes of their communities due to health issues, socioeconomics, ethnicity, and/or gender. Their needs were unseen by those in power; their presence was inconvenient. How could they hope to have access to one of the foremost rabbis of their time or gain access to the halls of government?
Yet they audaciously persevered, despite the obstacles. Somehow, they knew they too were worthy to receive grace, somewhere in them grew the awareness that God offered more life than they were currently living. “Would such awareness transform your life?” I asked my questioner at the barbecue. “Has such awareness transformed your life?” She answered with a qualified “yes.”
It occurs to me that “the fringe of Jesus’ cloak” is exactly what and where we are called to be as Church. The elaborately twisted and braided beautiful fringe of privilege is narrow; the easily grasped fringe, the fringe in need of washing and mending, is the lifeline from life lived in a chaotic and fitful world. It offers joy to all who take hold of it: a place where we are all recognized, welcomed, embraced, and yes, healed, by the power of loving acceptance and inclusion.
This is why I go to Church. Charity and ethics do not in and of themselves recognize that we too cling to the fringe, in need of healing. In the Church we are at once hungry and offering food. We practice living in a strange betwixt-and-between place where grief and joy mingle side by side. We live in the dusty fringes of the common world and on the gorgeous, braided fringes of the promised Kingdom of God. From this place we strive to grow able to see siblings in each other’s faces, we work to build relationships solidly grounded in the love of God. From this in-between place we are washed and mended.
We come together in Church to be fed, to learn and grow in our faith, to praise the One, True, and Living God who gives us breath. We come together to gain the courage to live life differently and to build the strength to feed, teach and help others to know that God is God and God’s is the only cloak we need. We come together in Church and then are dismissed to go and spread this Word.