God Without Borders
In the name of God who is never where we expect God to be.
What a bizarre story—this story of Jesus and his encounter with the Gerasene man possessed by demons. Jesus and his disciples have just crossed the sea, the border, from Jewish to Gentile lands. And when they get out of the boat they immediately encounter a poor soul possessed by demons. The townspeople couldn’t control him, so perhaps to help him, but certainly to help themselves, they had him chained up. But, possessed, he is far stronger than any chains, so plan B is to label him an outcast and send him, naked, out of the land of the living to dwell in the land of the dead. Now, while the disciples at this point in the Gospel story are trying to figure out who Jesus is, the demons recognize and know him on sight. And they ask, the man asks, Jesus to go away.
“What is your name? What are you called? Define yourself.” Jesus asks the man, who replies with a description of a Roman military formation. The same military which destroyed the area and filled the tombs among which they are standing. “Legion.” The demons and Jesus then have a back and forth, and, surprisingly, Jesus allows the demons to go into a herd of pigs hanging out nearby. At which point they run off the cliff into the deep—the abyss—the same water where in the story right before this one, Jesus just calmed a storm and demonstrated his mastery over the deep.
But the oddest thing is the reaction of the townspeople at the end. There is no rejoicing at the healing of this man. Rather, they are scared of him. They want him gone. And they want Jesus gone too. Why? I’m not really sure, but perhaps it was because they knew how the world worked and this was not it. They knew who this man was and they were familiar with the label they had put on him, the demons had put on him. Or perhaps it was because Jesus was somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be with people he shouldn’t be with. Among Gentiles. In a graveyard. And this offended their sense of order.
It seems to be one of those eternally baffling things about God, that God is always in the last place we expect. In the last person we expect. This puzzles and, if we are honest, offends and annoys us. We like setting up boundaries and labels. Partly because our brains are wired to classify things and people, to sort them into groups—it is how we make sense of our lives. But also because we, like the people of Gerasa, want to control our world. We want to make sure we know who is in and who is out. And we definitely want to make sure we are part of the “in” group. So we come up with labels. Labels that are often used to define, to exclude, and create fear. And we come up with boundaries and borders, designed to shut out those we have labeled as other.
Which brings me to one of our current national shames. This week was both the week in which we observed national refugee day, and the one year anniversary of our government implementing a policy of separating families at our border with Mexico. One year of the ongoing human rights violation that is these concentration camps for mostly brown and black bodies off which people, companies, are making obscene profits. One year of separating mostly black and brown children from their families, and then losing some of them. One year of black and brown mothers and fathers desperately trying to find their children only to discover, on finding them, that the courts will not return their children to them. One year, according to a recent report, of children sleeping on the floor, not being able to bathe or change their clothes, and being fed uncooked frozen food. One year of infants and toddlers not receiving proper medical care and dying. One year of this going on in our name and in the name of God. The only name for any system that does this, the only name for this, is “evil.”
This is where we are now. And this is who we are. And I hear you thinking, as I have thought, wait no. This isn’t who we are, this is just what our government is doing right now. But the raw and ugly truth is that none of this is actually new. The raw ugly truth is that America ripped indigenous children away from their families and their land in the name of God. That America enslaved African born children, taking them away from their families in the name of God. America snatched Japanese American children from their families via fabricated fear and put them in concentration camps the name of God. America sent fleeing Jewish refugees back to Europe to face death in the name of God. What is going on now is the same as has been going on for centuries: labeling, othering, and fear mongering. It is not about immigration, it never has been, it is about separatist ideology. About white cultural fear of black and brown bodies. About Christian fear of non-Christians.
The great tragedy is that all of this, all of it, is in direct opposition to the dream of the God who is wildly expansive and inclusive love—the God under whom this nation claims to exist. We say we are one nation under God, yet we are doing a bang up job of ignoring God, of ignoring the sacred texts both Jews and Christians attribute to God. The texts that command us to love our neighbor and care for the stranger (read refugee & immigrant). The sacred texts that tell us time and time again that the only label that applies to any human being is beloved child of God—child of the God who does not recognize or accept our labels, borders, or names. In today’s story the demons try to name the man but Jesus rejects that name, that label. He will not accept anything but recognizing the full humanity, the dignity, of this man who has been labeled as dangerous, other, and cast out of his community. God who laid out the foundations of the world and delights in all of it does not recognize, does not know our borders and boundaries, whether they are applied to people, religions, or nations. They are, in fact, an offense to God.
Yet while on some level we know they are an offense to God, they are part of the system in which we live, part of our culture, and crossing them is hard. We get scared. We don’t know exactly what to do, but we know whatever it is the first step will be dealing with our own internal prejudices, and that is something we would really, really like to avoid. We get scared of what the culture of Empire might do to us—we know what happens to trouble makers, those who can’t be controlled. They end up naked, wandering in the land of the dead. It is scary and it is hard work for us to reject labels and to cross boundaries. Ironically, it is even hard work for the church, we who follow this boundary crossing rabbi Messiah, to become a truly border-crossing, multiracial, multiethnic church. While we at St. Peter’s have started this work, and may be further down the line than some, we still have a lot of work to do—a lot of conversation, education, prayer, and willingness to be open to the wild, uncomfortable, wind of the Spirit to truly become border crossers, to truly become a multi-racial, multi-ethnic church. In the meantime, I urge you to respond to the current refugee crisis however you can—work with an organization like Project Corazon or RAICES, call your elected officials, daily, protest, do whatever you can wherever you can.
Through the grace of God and as signposts on the way, every once in a while we get a glimpse of what a borderless church and world looks like—a world without “the other”. This last week for me it was Sing Philadelphia, where children spent the week singing, doing theater, creating art, playing, and eating together right here at St. Peter’s. White, black, and brown children. Children from different socioeconomic situations. A little girl in a hijab having lunch next to a girl wearing a cross around her neck. Children eating, laughing, playing, fighting and resolving it. Ask Sean, Darryl, Kate, or any others who ran the camp—it is work. Hard and sometimes painful work. Misunderstandings happen. Tension happens. We make a mess and put our foot in it. But there hasn’t been any situation that cannot be worked through. This, to me, is what God’s vision, dream for the world looks like. What the heavenly banquet described in the Bible looks like. A messy, motley, crew of the whole diverse lot of God’s beloved sharing a meal. A banquet without borders.
This morning we baptize little Isabella—one who is, by her birth and life, a border breaker and boundary crosser. She is the child of two mothers. A child who is Jewish and Christian. A child who is Latino and white. A child who is beloved of God. The world into which she was born and in which she will grow up is not an easy one. My prayer for her, my prayer for us, is that we will allow the expansive, inclusive love of God to fill us—to give us courage to name the demons that plague us and our world and to cast them out—cast our lot with those who offend Empire. Cast our lot with the God in whom there are no labels, boundaries, or borders and who is never, ever, where we expect.