Most preaching is aimed at the people in the middle. How do we preach to the outer edges so those people can feast, too?
I preached on five verses in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. In verses 40–45, Mark tells us about a man who lived on the outer edges of society.
He was stuck away from the community, covering his head and yelling out “unclean, unclean.” He was not allowed to live within the community. His disease made him unclean. And anyone who came in contact with the leper would also be considered ceremonially unclean. In fact, in ancient times it was believed that leprosy was the result of some vile, hidden sin. Leprosy, it was believed, was a God-given punishment. He was stuck outside, on the outer edges.
Can you imagine kids at night, going to bed and hearing off in the distance, the haunting chant of the leper, “unclean, unclean”? The image in their minds would have been one of a monster—someone who had done terrible things and as a result, his face, his body, was disfigured and distorted. This man was stuck outside, on the outer edges.
I started to wonder, as a preacher, did I consider the people on the outer edges? In our congregations, they’re not lepers. So who are they?
I think most preaching is aimed at the people in the middle. The brunt of the message hits them and some of it trickles over to the extreme edges—the youth and the elderly. But most weeks, the people in the middle are served up a main course and the outer edges often get the sides—potatoes or pilaf. The message spills over to them, but not in a direct, practical kind of way.
I want to think about preaching to the outer edges—preaching to the outer edges in a way that allows them to feast.
There are kids, there are young people, who feel like they live life on the outside, looking in. Like the leper, they’ve been pushed to the outer edges. There’s life and laughter and a whole world around them, but they are outside of it—not part of it. Maybe they’re on the outside because someone else has pushed them there; maybe they’re on the outside because they don’t know how to get into the community; maybe they’re on the outside because of something they said, or the way they dress or the way they look, or because of what they can or cannot do. But I am certain that every kid, at one point or another, knows what it’s like to be on the outside, looking in.
And I imagine that the elderly among us also know what it’s like to be outside, looking in. Maybe it’s new ideas and fresh faces that have pushed them outside; or maybe lack of mobility or loss of hearing or sight has pushed them to the outer edges. Maybe it’s serious illness that has pushed them outside. Or maybe they’re on the outside because of something they said, or the way they dress or the way they look, or because of what they can or cannot do. But I imagine that many of our oldest folks know what it’s like to be on the outside, looking in.
Jesus cared for the people on the outer edges. Mark tells us that Jesus reached out and touched the leper. Imagine what that felt like for this man. When was the last time someone reached out to touch him? When was the last time someone looked him in the eye, instead of shielding their eyes from him? This wasn’t a one finger poke, or a brush of the skin. Jesus pressed his fingers against the man’s deformed body.
My husband was talking to a woman at work who had just lost her mother. She said to him, “I miss her. I miss the way she feels. I wish I could hug her.” After that, I had a little meeting with my mom and dad. They are a big part of my life. I see them five days a week. My dad comes over every morning and feeds [my son] Tim while I get Jack and Sam off to school. My mom and dad come back later in the day if I need to run errands or go to work for a few hours. If we have a meeting or Bible study at night, they come back. In this little meeting I said, “We’re going to start hugging. Every time you leave, we’ll hug.” There are some days that I hug my parents ten times. It’s funny now, but that human contact is important.
Do you know there are people—especially the oldest among us—who have not had meaningful physical contact in years? The squeeze of a hand, a hug from a son or daughter, the stroke of fingers through the hair. There are kids, who are on the outer edges; sometimes they seem so distant and unapproachable, but what would they give for an embrace overflowing with love and compassion? Once a child reaches age seven, particularly boys, physical contact by parents decreases dramatically.
Jesus touched the leper. He cares for people on the outer edges.
When you preach, consider the people on the outer edges. Let them know that God’s touch can be felt in the most outer reaches. In the loneliest, most desolate places, God’s touch is present. In the situation where it seems nobody can help—God can reach it. It’s not too far for His touch. Preach to the people on the outer edges; they need God’s touch.
This post is lightly adapted from “Preach to the outer edges” by Patricia Batten in Preaching Points: 55 Tips for Improving Your Pulpit Ministry, edited by Scott M. Gibson (Lexham Press, 2016).
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