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Homily, Commemoration of Polycarp

The following sermon was preached by Benjamin M. Stewart, Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship, Dean of the Chapel, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, February 23, 2011.


Matthew 5:38-48

In the grand scheme of things it looks pretty insignificant. If you even noticed it at all, you might simply chalk it up to a little agrarian nonchalance. In order to see it, you’d need to go all the way out to the far edges, to the boundary of the field. There you would find a small swath of grain left standing, unharvested, around the edges of the field, looking a little like just a job not quite finished.

But what you would be looking at, out there at the ragged edge of the field, would be something understood as sacred, of divine importance:

You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.  When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

Out there, at the edge of the field, hidden away among the hard-to-reach corners of the vineyard, out of sight along the ground after the harvest, God is up to something extraordinary. At a place that could be mistaken for an afterthought, God is teaching the people how to live on the land without wringing every last penny out of it for profit, but rather letting it go, releasing it—and letting it go for the poor, the immigrants, and the marginalized.

In one way of thinking, in this little practice that looks a lot like simple sloppiness at the far edges of the field, we can see the entire sweep of God’s salvation, its burning center: God providing for, feeding those who are pushed to the edges, the margins.

When Ruth, a foreigner, is in a precarious position without much social standing or financial support, it is this left-behind grain that she gleans and depends on for her survival.  And it is there, from those precarious, hungry margins, that Ruth finds herself welcomed into the heart of Jewish tradition, moving from that margin, that edge of the field, to become a hero of the faith and the ancestor of David.

Today, February 23, is the commemoration of Polycarp, bishop and martyr. Polycarp stands as something of a transitional figure in Christian history. Tradition says that Polycarp was born early enough to have been taught by some of the original apostles—especially perhaps John, who tradition says lived so long—and yet Polycarp’s ministry also was long and so extended into the mid-second century (Irenaeus knew him). When he faced martyrdom around the year 155 and was commanded by the Roman proconsul to renounce Christ, he is famously remembered to have said, “For eight-six years I have served Christ, and he has never injured me. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Polycarp rebuked the Roman Empire by ascribing the royal title not to Caesar but to Jesus who was crucified by that same Roman empire. And so when Polycarp is put to death, he becomes one of the first Christians outside of the scriptures to be known as a martyr. Likely pretty frail in his old age, and receiving his death without seeking to do violence, Polycarp joins a cloud of witnesses that have been quite literally written off by the powers of the world, marginalized; and yet, in the faith of the early church, these martyrs were witnesses of God’s mighty power that is found hidden at the margins of both harvested fields and of empires.

So many years later, on a day like today in Chicago, when political power is on our minds, and to some extent is being viewed as centralized in a single person, the witness of old Polycarp and a cloud of others, recalls to us that Christians measure true power (no matter who is elected mayor) by how it tends to the neglected margins, the edges of the field that feed the poor and the alien. The margins, in God, become the central thing, the central place, where the real action is.

For many of us, Chicago and LSTC have served as the center of our world for at least this academic term. And in these recent days there is a good chance that you have been exploring locales that look a lot less central and more like the distant margins, the “edges of the fields”—scoping out MIC sites in places you didn’t know existed; interviewing with prospective internship supervisor #8 or more; waiting for regional assignment.  Many of the places to which we may be sent look a lot less “central” than a place like 55th and University. But to the extent that a ministry context to which we are sent looks marginal (or to the extent that we worry that we ourselves are marginal, and not up to the tasks of ministry), we can be assured that it is precisely there, hidden at the edges, that God chooses to work the ground. That ground is holy.

Jesus’ difficult teaching in the Gospel today reaches to the farthest of margins—to the enemy, to those who appear to be set against us. At the far edge of our circle, where the enemy lies, Jesus confidently proclaims a reversal: where the old law of an-eye-for-an-eye meant that we should take from those who take from us, Jesus says freely give; where the old law said hate your enemy Jesus says love in the name of the perfect love of God who sends fruitful sun and rain on the evil and the good. In this text, Jesus takes whoever it is we would most marginalize and points us to what God has been doing since the days of Moses: at the margins of our fields, often hidden, often looking weak or untidy, God is tending the vines and the grains to become bread broken, wine poured out for those who stand far off. The scriptures repeat it, and Jesus finally does it with his body, in the flesh: If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Jesus so trusted God’s promise that he lived his life at the margins, with the lepers, with the religiously uncredentialed, the sick and the poor, giving his life even to the enemy, trusting God’s strange way of tending the field, offering this surprising bountiful harvest for those at the very edge that even death could not destroy.

You can read the bulletin today and know that Kaila baked the bread today. And Chad picked up the wine. But maybe it’s also true to say that our bread and wine come from that very place that God calls into being in the text from Leviticus: the grain for our bread gathered from a small, unkempt-looking swath at the far edge of the field, set aside for the needy. The grapes for this wine plucked from the hidden places of the vineyard – the place that God, in great love, has set apart for the poor, the alien, and even for the sinner and the enemy. Like our sister Ruth, it is by that gift that we all find our way to the table. When we take the bread and lift the cup, we eat the grain from the edges, set aside for those far off, and find ourselves, beggars it is true, brought near in the mercy of God.

But it is not only that God feeds us from the edges of the fields, where the grain grows surprisingly as a gift for the poor, where the grapes are hidden for the immigrant. Also utterly by grace, at the marginal places that God sends you to serve—at the hospital bed, leading the little breakfast bible study, praying beside the grave—at whatever places to which you have been sent, God is not wringing every bit of economic utility out of you, but has set you aside to be that fruitful, surprising land that bears the good fruit of the Gospel as a gift to every outsider, every wanderer, so that in the imperfect, slightly unkempt fields of our ministry, at the edges, the world may know the perfect love of God in Christ Jesus.

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