The Arrival of the Riffraff — Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

Read John 12:20-33

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself” John 12:32

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. That’s my main thought, so I’ll repeat it. When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive.

“Riffraff” – what an interesting word! In English, it was originally a phrase – “rif and raf.” The phrase meant “one and all, everybody, every scrap.” It also meant the “sweepings” or “the refuse.” We have lost the inclusive aspect of the word and kept the insulting element. Who would have guessed?

Photo by Marcin Dampc on Pexels.com

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Expect the scrubs and scraps, the off-scoured and up-swept, the usable and disposable people. Expect the latecomers, the newcomers, the strangers, and foreigners. Expect the outcastes and outsiders, the rebels and resisters. When Jesus says “all people,” Jesus means “all people.”

In two weeks, we Western Christians will celebrate “Visitors’ Sunday,” also known as Easter. “Visitors’ Sunday” is how a sainted old curmudgeon described Easter to me. “I stay away from church on Easter,” he told me. “That’s when the riffraff shows up.”

I was startled. “Really? I think that’s a good thing!” My old acquaintance was unimpressed. “We haven’t seen hide nor hair of these characters since Christmas,” he grumbled, “if ever. They take all the back rows and make the regulars sit in front. They bring their kids and their breakfast cereal and their toys. They’re noisy and rude and don’t know any of the liturgy. I just stay home.”

My eyes wide, I pushed a bit further. “That’s an interesting perspective,” I said. “I’m wondering how you feel about the Sunday after Easter, when hardly anyone shows up?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “That’s when the real church people show up,” he smiled. “My favorite Sunday of the year.”

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. My old acquaintance saw that as, at best, a personal inconvenience. I see it as the best possible news in the world.

I am riffraff. I come from the scrubs and the scraps. I am the off-scoured and swept up. I am wired to be an outcaste and outsider. I respond by rebelling and resisting. It’s not just that others treat me as riffraff. When I am honest, I admit that I see myself as riffraff too.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. The human way to deal with this influx of outsiders is to play the “better than” game. I may not be much, I say, but at least I’m better than “x.” X is whatever person or people group on whose backs I stand to get a bit higher in the pecking order.

The “better than” game is the basic principle of the system of white, male supremacy. In the early days of colonial America, the greatest fear of wealthy, white, male landowners was that black and white servants would join together to overthrow the power, position, and property of the wealthy.

Those fears were realized in 1676 during Bacon’s Rebellion. This rebellion was an armed revolt of both black and white servants against the wealthy white men in Virginia.

The rebels were defeated and captured. The leaders were executed. But the real result of the rebellion was the enactment of the “better than” game in the Virginia colonial legislature.

The wealthy and powerful white men created a legal caste system. Black people were at the bottom. Slavery was the primary tool in the game. Poor white people could not be enslaved. In fact, the lower-class white men gained status by enforcing the new slave laws for their wealthy overlords.

The “better than” game produced what W. E. B. DuBois called the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness. That wage says, “I may not be much, but at least I’m better than those” Black or Native or Brown or Asian or female people.

That public and psychological wage has been used to manipulate white, working-class men from 1676 to the present moment. And many of us non-wealthy white men have happily cooperated.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Expect the riffraff to be welcomed, embraced, and included. Expect everything in the system to change – beginning with me and my place in that system.

Wealthy, white, land-owning men understood the disruptive power of Jesus and his message. So, they passed laws that made it illegal to teach slaves to read and write. They created schools for Native children where the stated goal was to “kill the Indian in order to save the man.” They deported 180,000 U. S. citizens of Mexican descent back to Mexico to reduce competition during the Gold Rush.

These powerful men resisted voting rights for women and lynched black men who wanted to vote. They decreed that Christian baptism had no impact on black people in this life. That impact was limited to the next life. They whittled the New Testament down to an apology for white, male supremacy.

Here’s the problem. The price of the “better than” game is that no one can be good enough.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive – starting with me. When Jesus is lifted up, the “better than” game is over.

The system that pits humans against one another to benefit the one percent – that system is demonic. “Now there is a moment of judgment for the world,” Jesus declares in John 12:31. “Now the ruling power of this world shall be expelled outside.” The Greek words double up the “outsideness” of that ruling power to leave no doubt.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Expect enough space for all – except for that system of keeping all the space for a few. When Jesus is in charge, there is no room for the “better than” game.

What provokes this assault on power and privilege? Well, there were these Greeks, you see. It was Passover time, and faithful worshipers came to Jerusalem from all over the Empire. They came to make their sacrifices in the Temple. Greek was the language of much of the Empire. So it’s not surprising that Greek-speakers were among the pilgrims.

They probably weren’t Jews. Instead, these Greeks were probably non-Jews who found synagogue worship, study, and practice meaningful. As non-Jews, they could be admitted only to the outer courts of the Temple, on pain of death. They came as latecomers, newcomers, strangers, and foreigners. They got wind of this new guy, and they wanted to see Jesus.

The Greeks flipped a switch in Jesus’ plans. “The time has arrived,” he announced to the disciples, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.” When the riffraff shows up for Jesus, expect something big to happen.

This worried the religious authorities – the system of power, position, and property in Jesus’ day. “Look at this,” they complained to one another in John 12:19. “There’s no leverage here. The whole world has gone after him!” The Greeks fulfilled their worst fears and Jesus’ final plans. The time had come.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive – starting with me. If I am beloved, I have no need of “better than.” Not only is there enough life for all in God’s world – there is abundant life for all.

There is room for all in God’s world, except for systems that deal in death and traffic in tyranny. So, there is room for all of me in God’s world, except for my sins of self-absorption. God’s world will not accommodate the powers of anti-life among us or in me. Therefore, this journey includes some dying.

The one who lives life as it is must lose that life. There is no room, for example, for the system of white, male supremacy in God’s world of love. If there were room for that, it wouldn’t be God’s world.

There is no room, for example, for all the  -isms and prejudices that block my vision and harden my heart. If there were, I couldn’t be open to God’s healing mercy. All that is not of God must die to make room for God’s abundant life.

That’s a painful process. It goes badly for those of us who are powerful, privileged, and propertied. The ruling power of this world doesn’t surrender without a fight.

Some would rather die – or kill – than be changed. Thus, we see the horrific, demonic violence directed toward Asian Americans, most recently, by a white, Christian man, terrified by change and enraged by his perceived “losses.”

In spite of that, human life is better when the “better than” game is abolished and abandoned. The zero-sum approach to life leaves us all poorer, angrier, stupider, and less human.

When our sinful self-absorption falls into the ground and dies, we discover that we are not alone. When we abandon our Western, capitalist, hyper-individualism, we discover genuine community and authentic humanity.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Christian congregations must embrace this truth or die. If we move beyond our panic about power and our focus on survival, we may draw closer to Jesus alongside the rest of the riffraff.

After all, no matter what we crusty curmudgeons say, Easter is coming.

2 thoughts on “The Arrival of the Riffraff — Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

  1. I wish they would show up but I’m not sure our churches are “The Welcome Place” they advertise to be…

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  2. I am positive most congregations are not. Many will close if they refuse to be changed. It’s a good thing it doesn’t depend only on us for the gospel to be effective. I’m a cynic who lives in hope.

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