At the Border and Beyond
I grew up on the border between the United States and Canada. I think you’ve heard the phrase, “I can see Russia from my house.” Well, when I was a kid, if I climbed out my bedroom window, crawled across the garage roof, and if the leaves were off the trees, I could see Canada from my house.
One of my favorite movies features a resident of Montreal named Gino who shares the confusing experience of emigrating to Canada from Italy. He said, “Nobody told us there were two Americans. The real one, the United States, and the fake one, Canada! And then to make things worse, you find out that there are two Canadas: the real one, Ontario, and the fake one, Quebec! Gino found it unsettling to be Italian in a North American city where almost everyone spoke French.
Life on the border. Life in a strange land. Our Scriptures today are about both. The plight of Samaritans in a sort of no man’s land between Samaria and Galilee, and the dilemma of being an Israelite in exile to Babylon. Jesus and Jeremiah had something to say to those in both places.
Speaking of borders, if you haven’t decided how you feel about a wall at our southern U.S. border, you’d better make up your mind in the next thirty days. What is the right response to those who cross that border in search of a better life? Many of our neighbors here in Boulder County have made that trip or are the children whose well-being was the motivation for that border crossing.
A flood of women, men, and children continues to poor over the border from Syria and a relative few have made their way to our country. Should we welcome them, or should we stop them at our border because all we really know about them is their desperation to avoid death and the poverty that their displacement created?
Jesus wasn’t much of a respecter of borders. He marched straight through regions that others avoided, and in this instance was traveling in an area that wasn’t quite Galilee nor was it clearly Samaria. Galilee was home for him. It was populated by The Chosen whose ethnic and religious identity was clear. Galilee was the safe zone and most people stayed deep in that territory. Samaria was the land of those whose ethnicity and religious practices were suspect and considered inferior.
The lepers that Jesus and his friends came across in that murky land of in-between were unusually diverse. After the mass healing was complete, the one who thanked Jesus for his restored life happened to be a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans didn’t ordinarily mix, but I guess when you’re all in the same wretched boat with a hopeless disease that scares off even your friends and family, religious and political difference don’t mean that much.
The Gospel of Luke gives us a pretty straightforward account of one of the most dramatic miracle stories. It features the worst disease. The most dreaded citizens. Not just one but ten were healed. And then the shocker that only one bothered to say “Thanks, Jesus for giving my life back.”
This story has multiple lessons. I’m pretty sure that the importance of giving thanks needs all the support it can get. I’ve preached that from this text many times. But, there’s another message represented by the ominous border and Jesus’ remark that the only one who gave thanks was a Samaritan.
I don’t know what the other nine were thinking. After years of being dumped in no man’s land because of infectious risk and the distasteful spectacle of flesh rotting from their limbs, maybe they were just so excited to have their bodies restored that they couldn’t get home to their families fast enough. Maybe they sent a thank-you note later. Jesus wasn’t much of a rule-keeper; that’s pretty obvious in the Gospels. But he did find it odd that only one man in ten turned around to express his thanks.
One in ten is a percentage not limited to lepers. Recent suicides of teens and even younger youth has again focused our attention on the bullying of kids who are gay or are perceived to be so. Transgender persons and most notably transgender women of color continue to die violent deaths at alarming rates. Approximately one in ten persons in any given group identifies as something other than heterosexual or cisgender. Very few churches have the ability or perhaps even the interest to reach out and care for those who feel alienated because they are LGBTQ. Beliefs of many Christians or their personal discomfort keep them deep in familiar territory. Those within the Christian community who affirm all persons in their varied orientations and gender identities choose to live on the edge – the border – and hopefully like Jesus are able to care for those who might otherwise be lost.
Traveling on the border is always risky. I met a retired UCC pastor and his wife this summer at a conference who moved from the comfort and relative homogeneity of central Ohio to southern Arizona, close to the border of Mexico. There he spends his days volunteering with his church to serve those who find themselves in the United States without funds or family or the ability to express their needs and hopes in English. Rather than building a wall, the church sees these travelers as people whose stories need to be heard and whose lives have great value. Their efforts are often opposed or ridiculed by neighbors, but they believe that God’s most amazing work happen on the borders.
Jeremiah, who we’ve come to know in recent weeks in the Hebrew Scriptures as the “weeping prophet,” definitely had something to cry about. Not only did he foresee serious trouble for those who persisted in their rebellion against God and the unjust mistreatment of the vulnerable, but in chapter 29, the vision has become a tragic reality. Jerusalem fell. The Israelites were forcibly removed from their homeland and ended up in the region of Babylon where Nebuchadnezzar reigned as king. The people lived as reverse refugees, taken from a place of relative security and delivered to a place where no one wanted to be.
Jeremiah the prophet writes what is essentially a pastoral letter to the people in exile. He doesn’t dwell on their dire circumstances. Instead, he instructs them to build houses, plant gardens, take wives, and make babies. Not only are they instructed to marry and have sons and daughters, but it is assumed that their children will do the same. Jeremiah told them to multiply, not decrease, and the picture is one of not merely surviving but thriving in their new land. There is no mention of returning to Palestine, though many of them eventually would. The emphasis is on making the best of circumstances and living in the moment and making their own better future rather than waiting for it to find them.
The most surprising part of Jeremiah’s instruction is this: “Seek the welfare of the city where you live in exile. Offer your prayers on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” I’m reminded of the words of the Buddha that were read earlier: “All that we are is the result of what we think. If a person speaks or acts with a pure heart, happiness follows.” Jeremiah wisely encouraged the Israelites to choose to see their circumstance as an opportunity to experience the fullness and blessing of life rather than to accept the defeat that Nebuchadnezzar intended for them. Jesus’ instructions to love our enemies and pray for them have the same effect. Whenever we bless those who want to harm us, we show that we are not overcome by evil and that we actually do believe in the triumph of good. Do you ever find yourself in a position not of your choosing where you are surrounded by those who oppose you or who oppose what you value? What would it mean to bless them and to pray for their success? Not for their plans to prosper if you see those plans as wrong, but for them as fellow human beings to grow and become something better?
It’s hard to imagine all of the political and social implications of Jeremiah’s pastoral letter. I imagine that many balked and chose instead to simmer in their anger over displacement. But others no doubt made the best of things and built a home and raised a family and discovered that God crosses borders too and was just as real in Babylon as in Jerusalem.
Do you ever feel like you are in exile? In a land where what you care about is dismissed or ridiculed? Where justice seems to elude those who need it most? Where children are caught in the crossfire of violence? Where women are objectified and demeaned? Where the earth and it resources are spoiled and discarded? Maybe God is saying “settle down here. Pray for your messed up world and for those who contribute to its heartache. As you work and pray for its transformation, your welfare will be found in its welfare.”
I guess we are all displaced in some way. The message here seems to be: don’t be too comfortable, but don’t spend all your energy trying to leave, either. And most of all, don’t believe the falsehood that something or somewhere else will be the source of your happiness.
We find God on the border, and we find God deep in the places where we would not choose to go. May God bring hope and blessing not only to you but to all whose lives you can touch in those places. Amen.