There’s an Old Peanuts cartoon where Linus tells Lucy that he’s going to be a doctor. You a doctor, ha! That’s a big laugh, says Lucy. You could never be a doctor, you know why? Because you don’t love humanity, that’s why. Linus answers: I LOVE humanity, It’s PEOPLE I can’t stand.
When Jesus speaks of freeing the oppressed, of healing and of release in his very first sermon which is on a text from the prophet Isaiah which we heard last week, everyone is smiling and nodding of course God is like that. This is the God who freed us from slavery in Egypt. The God who led our people to the promised land. God cares. God is love! it sounds so warm and fuzzy. So All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Yes he is and they watched little Jesus grow up and now look at him, where did the years go? Can you believe it? He’s all grown up! and he’s teaching and preaching! They are so proud!
If Jesus had sat down then, everything would have been fine. Most preachers would have sat down then. Gazing out at an appreciative congregation. Most politicians would have stopped then and basked in the crowd’s adoration. But Jesus isn’t most people. Jesus keeps going.He spells out a few of the specific people he’s referring to rather than some blanket humanity. And…well, it’s a few of the very people that the one’s listening to him can’t stand.
there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
Here’s a little background. The prophets of Israel had nothing but bad things to say about Sidon: Jeremiah says: People shall cry out and all the inhabitants of the land shall wail...because of the day that is coming... to cut off from …Sidon every helper that remains. Don’t help them, cut them off.
Ezekiel has even worse things to say: Mortal set your face toward Sidon and prophesy against it and say, thus says the Lord God I am against you O Sidon I will send pestilence into it and bloodshed into its streets and the dead shall fall in its midst by the sword that is against it on every side.
And here’s Jesus specially naming the widow in Sidon and saying that she gets special treatment. It’s the same when Jesus mentions God’s favor towards Namaan the Syrian. Syria and Israel were longstanding enemies. Namaan was a general in the Syrian army that had just defeated Israel. And Jesus brings up a story about Elisha healing Namaan?
In other words, says Jesus, your good God is sharing some of that goodness and love with the very people you hate. The people you wall off. God cares about, not just Israelite widows but a widow in Sidon. God comes to heal, not just Israelite lepers, but a leper from Syria. Everything was fine when Jesus said ALL lives matter, but now that he’s getting specific, like saying Black Lives Matter: and all were filled with rage. It’s fine to say God loves humanity, just don’t tell me that God loves certain people, like say those “invading hordes” of refugees at the border so when Jesus said the equivalent: They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
In the end, Jesus survived that sermon. But his agitational words would not be forgotten and that was just the start of many more to come, words and actions to back them up. Jesus reaching out to those on the other side of the walls his society had thrown up to keep people out, to keep people on the other side.
So many walls. Of course, when I was at the border, I saw many walls. Old walls, made out of old landing pads from the Vietnam war. New walls made out of steel mesh and concrete-filled steel beams, a boon to the steel industry. So many walls and so many people desperate to get to the other side.
I met a transgender woman in Tijuana who had experienced traumatic violence that nearly killed her. In seeking asylum, she would have to ace a test called a Credible Fear Interview which is traumatic in itself. It means reliving some of your worst moments, trying to convince unsympathetic people who don’t believe you, who don’t want to believe you, who are looking for holes in your story, that what you are saying is true. And what if she succeeded and got asylum?
Then she is going to face other walls. Invisible walls of prejudice and hate. Jussie Smollett, one of the stars of the TV show Empire, was attacked in Chicago early Tuesday morning by two people who yelled racist and homophobic slurs and tied a noose around his neck as one assailant screamed, “This is a MAGA country” Earlier last month, Dana Martin, 31, a black transgender woman, was found shot to death in a vehicle in Montgomery, Ala. So, where is the asylum for those who are already here? Victims of racism, transphobia and homophobia who have their own very credible fears?
These people matter, says Jesus. Because God’s love is not some warm and fuzzy general love, but love that touches some of the very people you can’t stand. And they were ready to push him off the cliff.
One of the most moving experiences of my time away was a worship service at the border called at what’s called La Iglesia Fronteriza, the Border Church, at Friendship Park. Friendship Park has quite a history. It was founded in 1971 as a symbol of friendship between Mexico and the US right on the border. Within an enclosed area, people from both sides were able to come together for picnics and other shared events. In 1994 growing hysteria about unauthorized immigration between San Diego and Tijuana, and a mesh fence put up at the border there as part of a Operation Gatekeeper, People could no longer meet in the park but they could meet on either side of the fence. They could touch and pass objects through to one another, family photos, favorite treats.
That lasted until 2009, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security closed down Friendship Park and a second parallel fence was created which stretches into the Pacific Ocean that includes barbed wires, sensors, and surveillance cameras. The fence dividing our two countries was a thick, steel mesh that is difficult to see through and with openings to small to pass objects through. Today instead of a fence you can walk up to, the steel fence on the US side has been pushed back so there’s a big empty area between the two sides. You can barely see people gathered across the emptiness.
In order to have church together, there is a pastor on each side using a phone hooked up a loudspeaker so everyone can hear on both sides. For the confession, we were asked to place our hands on the hard, cold wall. As we confessed the sin that separates us from God and divides us from one another, we actually felt the steely example of just that with our fingers and then the pastor directed us to look up. It was a cloudless day and we looked up into a beautiful, blue sky. As he offered words of forgiveness, he said, en el cielo no hay muros. In the sky there are no walls. The Spanish word for sky is heaven so he was saying, in heaven, in the kindom of God, there are no walls.
The whole service was powerful and meaningful, but my favorite part was the sharing of the peace. The congregation was told to share peace only using our pinkies. Honestly, at first, I thought it was very strange and I wondered why we were doing that. I thought it might be for hygienic reasons but it still seemed very odd. Afterwards, I asked about it. I was told that at one point, when there was a thick mesh fence that you could walk up to, the holes were so small you could only put your pinky through. Divided families and friends could touch fingertips and nothing more in what they called a fingertip kiss.
So today, the border church remembers that time through this action in worship. It is also a way of remembering the power and importance of even very small connections across all that would divide us and keep us apart.
It strikes me that here at Trinity we celebrate a kind of border church worship every week. We worship in a neighborhood filled with dividing walls between the rich and the poor, in a city full of divisions that keep people living very separate lives. We worship in a nation where some fall asleep dreaming of more and more walls, others dream of dismantling them and on the other side, some of God’s beloved children dream of how to cross over or under because it is the only way to stay alive. And in the midst of all that divides us, we gather together to worship God. To share holy communion and holy community. We give thanks for the moments when in spite of our divisions, we can connect with one another, a sign of God’s Spirit at work in our midst. I invite us today to share a fingertip kiss during the peace. A reminder of our friends at the border today and of the preacher who didn’t stop even when they wanted to throw him off a cliff, even as he hung on the cross.
One of the earliest churches, in the city of Ephesus, had a problem with divisions and the letter to the Ephesians that we have in our Bible reads:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross… …So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
And so this morning, we worship again, on the border of that land where none are strangers or aliens, but rather citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. Amen.