God Beyond the Walls

Kings remote and legendary will pay homage,
    kings rich and resplendent will turn over their wealth.
All kings will fall down and worship,
    and godless nations sign up to serve him,
Because he rescues the poor at the first sign of need,
    the destitute who have run out of luck.
He opens a place in his heart for the down-and-out,
    he restores the wretched of the earth.
He frees them from tyranny and torture—
    when they bleed, he bleeds;
    when they die, he dies.

Psalm 72:10-14 (The Message)

I have never been a powerful person. In fact, I have lived most of my life as an outsider. I grew up poor, ministered as a high-church liturgist in the low-church tradition, advocated for a disavowal of the nationalistic fervor in American Christianity in a religious movement steeped in patriotism, and moved theologically leftward as many of my friends and family remained conservative. While none of these parts of my life necessarily warrant an outsider label, it is the context in which they occurred that caused me to feel like I was standing beyond the wall, gazing in. Would I ever be able to go inside?

Perhaps you, pilgrim, feel the same way.

The Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrated on Sunday, January 6, is a reminder that the God of the Christian tradition is a God of those on the outside. The appointed Psalm text in the liturgy for Sunday is a rich song of irony to those at the center of power inside the walls. It is a song that emphatically declares God’s priorities. And in so doing, it tells us something profound about how God both understands and exercises power.

Psalm 72 sings, triumphantly, that a true exercise of power isn’t dwelling inside the walls and basking in the glory of protection. It is the active pursuit of liberation and solidarity. The mystery of the divine is that God not only sides with those who find themselves down-on-their-luck or purposely oppressed, God is part of that group. God doesn’t stand at the center of the religious bureaucracy, God walks with those who are cast outside the walls. God “opens a place in [God’s] heart” for such people, but even more, God bleeds “when they bleed,” God dies “when they die.” God dwells in the margins in solidarity with the outsider – a wondrous and beautiful mystery.

I think Psalm 72 sings the good news of Christianity. It is good news for you who have been pushed out of the church. It is good news for you who have been pressed down under the thumb of someone wielding their power. It is good news for you who have been hurt, broken, betrayed by those who had the ability to stand up and help you. It is good news because when you are pushed out, pressed down, hurt, broken, betrayed, God is there with you, lamenting with you and opening a place in the divine heart for you. 

The Magi, whom we remember on Epiphany, were stargazing magician-priests from far outside the religious and cultural power centers of first-century Judaism. Yet they go to find Jesus, heralded as kings, and pay homage to the God wrapped in fragile flesh, held in the arms of a poor, young, seemingly insignificant girl in Bethlehem.

God opened a place in the divine heart for these pilgrims. The Magi followed the light to that place, and they still show us the way. So, don’t gaze up at the wall and lament your status on the outside. Gaze up at the heavens, beyond the paltry constructs of the “powerful,” and behold the wonder of starlight that is illuminating to you the Holy One, standing right beside you.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,
Christopher

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