Summer 2019: Places
July 28, 2019
Rev. Fritz Nelson
The Israelites can see the Promised Land. They can taste the milk and honey. They anticipate being able to leave their desert wanderings, being able to settle down, plant crops, build houses, make for themselves a new life. Like many before them and billions after them, they cross the Jordan in pursuit of those unalienable rights endowed to them by their creator: life, of liberty, of happiness. Their crossing will be a holy moment, sacred – even sacramental. The last shackles of slavery will fall off. They will be free to become the people, the nation, God has called into being.
God creates us, calls us, to cross borders. He called Abraham to leave his home and wander as a stranger to a strange land. He called the Israelites out of Egypt to settle in the very land promised to Abraham. In the same way God called my spiritual ancestors the Puritans to cross the Atlantic and settle in New England, my biological ancestors to cross the same ocean and settle in Kansas, and my friend Gabriella to crawl through a hole in the fence between Tijuana Mexico and San Diego, ultimately settling in Massachusetts.
We are border crossers. Global citizens. Migrants, refugees, pilgrims, lovers, entrepreneurs, adventurers who cross borders in search of safety for their families, employment, religious or political freedom, education, space to breathe or distance from problems. On a map we see lines and boundaries. But on the ground we move.
My friend Elina, born in the Ukraine, immigrated to New York as a teenager, and now migrates between Paris and Switzerland. My high school friend Steve, moved to Germany after college, where he married a girl from England and his kids speak German as a first language. My sort of half-sister Franci, as a teenager in Guatemala, ran away from her dysfunctional family, crossed the US border alone and made her way to distant relatives in Massachusetts where she could go to school. My second mom Jill met and married an American visiting her home country of Australia. Their daughters now live in London, England, Istanbul, Turkey and Philadelphia.
Global people, global citizens, border crossers. Our spiritual ancestors the Israelites purify themselves, take up the ark containing their holy relics, and enter the flooded Jordan River. As he did when they crossed the Red Sea a generation earlier, God splits the water. The people cross over onto dry land. They are home. In the land God gifts them. In the land where they’ve never lived In the land also occupied by others.
When we cross borders we come into contact with the other – fellow global citizens who look different, act different, speak different, believe different, eat different. When others cross borders they come into contact with us. The Israelites saw those already living in the land they were to possess as threats. Forty long desert wandering years had formed them into a people, in a nation. Too much interaction with other people, other cultures, could threaten the identity they’d forged. Moses’ instructions to Joshua are shocking:
“As for those towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes stay alive. You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do, and lead you to sin against the Lord your God.”
Yet the genocide never happened. Instead another understanding emerged – one codified in the ancient Torah laws. The alien, the foreigner among you deserves special protection. They shall not be taken advantage of economically. They shall be guaranteed equal justice. You shall provide hospitality and refuge. You must love the alien, the foreigner, as yourself. Why? Because you were once slaves who became refugees. You were border crossers as we all are border crossers.
Jesus, a Jew born in Roman occupied Palestine (as the Romans called the land called Canaan by the ancient Israelites) has, among his ancestors, a Canaanite prostitute, a Moabite refugee and a woman whose first husband was a Hittite – all sworn enemies of ancient Israel. Jesus himself would be a refugee in Egypt. His gospel would be spread by a Jewish radical from Turkey who, weaving his way through the multi-cultural, border strewn Roman Empire would pen these words:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
At some point in the next few months those words will hang in the stairwell going down to the new conference room. I’ve commissioned my aunt, an artist specializing in protest banners, to boldly paint those words as a reminder of God’s expansive grace toward those who cross borders. To remind us our God constantly crosses whatever borders we define – spiritual borders, economic borders, geographic borders, cultural borders. To remind us to stand against those who would seek to build walls, erect barriers, to define who can be in and who can be out; who deserves justice and who can be exploited; who deserves opportunity and who threatens it; who deserves to live and who can be allowed to die; who is loved by God and who is beyond his bountiful grace.
The Israelites crossed the Jordan in search of a a new land, a new hope, a place where they’d be free to become the people, the nation, God had shaped them. God walked with them as God still walks with those dwelling in the borderlands. Today, as we gather, God is present in the borderlands, working through his church – this church – to reduce the death toll among migrants crossing our southern desserts, to provide safe havens and resettlement help to refugees, to build schools for the children of those fleeing war in Syria, to work for reconciliation along the borders of class, religion and race and gender.
Borders make us comfortable. They make us feel safe. They make us feel secure. But every time we erect a border, our border crossing God makes his way to the other side – and calls us to follow.