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Borders

Borders can be places of drama and danger. 

I’m not just talking about the borders between nations and peoples.  Those places are bad enough. Usually, if a nation crosses the border into another country, they are marching either to victory or defeat.  Dig through your history books.  Read about World War I and II.  Read the history of the wars in the Middle East and around the globe.  Wars almost always have their roots in border disputes.

But these are not the borders I am talking about.

We all have our own personal borders as well.  We have what we consider our space.  The other night I thought I heard somebody in my space.  It was late at night and I heard a sound downstairs.  I felt vulnerable and afraid, so I sent Jeana to see what was going on.  No, I’m kidding.  I went to check.  It was just our cat.  She’s usually in our bedroom at night but somehow she got out and went exploring and made a noise.  I didn’t like the thought that somebody might have cross my personal border in my home.

We build a lot of these kinds of “personal space” borders, don’t we?  They take the form of gated communities, guard towers, security systems, guns, and surveillance cameras – all aimed to keeping out the people we feel need to be kept out. 

But this, also, is not the kind of border I am talking about.

There are also psychological border that we create.  We can be stand-offish, aloof, and distant.  These are tactics we employ in order to keep others from becoming too close.  We do the same thing with attitudes like racism, classism, sexism, and all the other –isms we use to keep away those we consider to be undesirable.  

But I am not talking about any of these “borders” either. 

What am I talking about?  What borders am I referring to as places of drama and danger?  Why I am talking about the nearby bookstore named “Borders.”  In my experience, a Borders Bookstore can often be a place of drama and danger.

Not long ago I found myself in a “Borders Bookstore” late at night.  I was waiting for my son to return from a band trip.  Now if you have never been in a Border’s Bookstore on a Friday night around 10:30p.m., you are missing a cultural experience unlike anything you’ve probably seen in the city of Richmond.  There are all different people in a Border Bookstore late on Friday nights. 

There were two guys on a date, affectionately holding hands.

There was a group of high school aged kids wearing dark clothing and dog collars, all sporting unusual body piercings and tattoos.

There was a lady who was sort of stumbling around.  The smell of alcohol was all around her.  What kind of person gets drunk and goes to a bookstore for a good time? 

There were a group of women at a table near the coffee bar discussing what sounded like some sort of new age religion. 

At another table sat some folks discussing plans to attend the Richmond Tea-Party Convention.

There were several families in the store, all with children in tow.  One was a Muslim family.  The other was Hindu. 

There were lots of other types of people wandering the store that night: a few Rednecks, some Hispanics, and one fellow who looked like a Native American.  Then there was Jeana and I, a Baptist clergy couple.  We had to be the most out-of-place people in the whole establishment.  It was a surreal experience.  When I crossed the threshold of the Borders Bookstore it was like all the others borders I spoke of earlier began to converge in one place as dozens of people who might otherwise not encounter each other were brought face-to-face. 

Sometimes it is very easy to draw lines and separate ourselves from others.  It’s so easy to allow ourselves to start thinking in terms of “Us” and “Them.” Of course, the “US” are okay, while the “THEM” are the undesirable.  That’s why we build those all barriers, those walls, those borders. 

But then, in some sort of twilight zone kind of place, the border lines that divide us become blurred and we start to see one another as everyday people – different, unique, strange, wonderful, weird, and wacky – and yet sharing more in common than we might otherwise admit.  We see our common humanity, our common frailty, our common brokenness, our common need for the gifts of mercy and grace. 

That’s what happened for me when I was in the Borders Bookstore.

It happened for Jesus’ disciples in the text that we read today (Luke 17:11-19).  Jesus was traveling along the border between Galilee and Samaria.  He was traveling along the line that divided two religions, two races, two cultures, two ways of thinking, and two ways of acting.    Jesus was traveling through the middle of a border dispute while preaching and teaching and embodying the Kingdom of God.

If crossing all these lines weren’t enough, Jesus came right out and crossed one additional border.  We should know that Jesus’ religious tradition had its rules.  In its rules there were certain lines that you did not cross under any circumstance.   The Law prescribed that a person should not get anywhere near a leper because lepers were considered impure.  Lepers were outcasts, excluded, the most undesirable of the undesired.  The government didn’t help them.  The synagogue didn’t help them.  Their only hope was that some kind strangers might pass at a distance and leave them a few morsels of food.  Nobody would cross the border that separated the leper from the rest of the world.

Then Jesus happened along.  If there is one thing you can say about Jesus it is that he never saw a border that he didn’t cross.

He was already traveling along the border between Galilee and Samaria, crossing back and forth between the two regions, darting in and out of the towns and villages, telling everyone about the advent of God’s Kingdom.  Now, as he was preparing to enter yet another town, Jesus encounters a band of lepers.  They shout at him from a distance, warning him to stay way.  But Jesus doesn’t stay away.  He approaches them.  He communicates the loving acceptance of God.  Then he proclaims their healing and sends them to their priest so they can get the proverbial “stamp of approval” and permission to re-enter society.

Somehow they had heard something about Jesus.  They know he is a healer, a miracle-worker, a prophet.  So when Jesus crossed the border and stand where they stood then commanded them to go, they went.  And while they were traveling, they looked at their hands and feet, and what had once been mangled flesh was now healed and made whole.   

Upon seeing this, they all began to run faster.  I imagine them singing and shouting their praises to God as they looked for their priest.  They want to get their paper-work in order.  They want to get back to their homes.  They want to embrace their children.  They wanted to make love to their wives.  Can you blame them for running?

There is one, however, who pauses.  He looks at his hands and feet, no longer infected with leprosy.  Then he looks back that the one who had performed this miracle.  Then he goes back to say thank you.

I guess I can understand why this text is so often used during the Thanksgiving season.  It does paint a wonderful picture of gratitude.  This leper comes back to Jesus.  He is full of joy.  The Greek says that he throws himself at Jesus feet, shouting his praise.  He is full of gratitude.  But as much as we’d like this to simply be a story about sending thank-you notes, there is something bigger going on here.. 

This must have been quite the scene.  Can you imagine how uncomfortable the disciples must have felt about the whole affair?  After all, this fellow was a bit over-the-top.  But then the text tells us one little fact about this fellow that must have really got under their skin.  He was a Samaritan. 

For the disciples, this guy was a two-time loser – a Samaritan with leprosy.  He was a leper, which would indicate in their minds he was a big-time sinner.  On top of that, in their mind, he was a half-breed who worshipped a bastardized version of the one true God.  Jesus might have healed him of his leprosy, but there was no way he could be healed of being a Samaritan.  There was no way he could ever be one of “US.”  He was and would always be one of “THEM.”  Jesus needed to stay away from people like that – and so did they.

I understand the way they felt.  It is a little of what was going on in my mind that late night in the Borders Bookstore.   These are not “my kind of people” I thought to myself.  Then I thought again and realized how stupid a thing to think that was.  They were people – so that made them my kind of people.  They were created in the image of God.  They were people loved by God.  There was not better place for me to be then where I was that night. 

I think that’s just the kind of thing that Luke was trying to get his readers to think about as he remembered this story of Jesus.  Do you remember the question we’ve been asking as we have been making our way through Luke’s Gospel?  We’ve been asking, “What would it mean to actually follow this Jesus?”

As Luke worked with the stories of Jesus, he sought to create a narrative that would help his readers to answer that question.  He wanted the early church to apply the message of God’s Kingdom to their daily life and circumstances.

In the early church many non-Jews were coming to faith.  We know, as we read Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, that the arrival of these Gentiles was causing a great deal of turmoil.  The church was beginning to look like a late-night excursion to a Borders Bookstore.  There were all sorts of people coming on board – differing races, differing cultures, differing lifestyles, differing everything.  Luke’s early Jewish audience probably heard this story in the light of these transitions and thought:  “The outsider – the outcast – was the only one who recognized Jesus for who he was.  The other nine, who were his own people, completely missed the boat.” 

That’s how the early church heard this story.  How might we hear it?  Where does this story intersect with our lives – with our church?

Perhaps we are like the disciples.  We don’t want the outsider to get too close.  We want the church to be a nice mixture of people who look, think, and act just like US.  We don’t want any of THEM hanging around.  We want to keep the undesirables at a safe distance and we certainly don’t intend to cross any borders to be where “those kind of people” hang out.  

Maybe we’re like the nine who went their way.  We just want to get to the church and have somebody declare us SAVED.  That’s what prompted the nine to find the priest.  That’s what prompts many folks to run to the church.  We want some preacher to declare us healed.  We want some preacher push us under the water and say that we are now SAVED.  Then we can get back to our lives, even if that means we forget all about the one who made it happen. 

Or maybe we are like the tenth leper. He realized that the “Law and Order” of organized religion had nothing to offer him.  The only one who had anything to offer was the one back there who had made it possible for him to be a healthy and whole person.   So like that one, we go to Jesus.  We fall passionately in love with Jesus.  He becomes our way, truth, and life.  He becomes our Savior, Lord, and Life.  He becomes our all.  Now that we know him we know that our life will never be the same.

Or perhaps we are like the nine in a differing respect.  They were only obeying the rules.  They needed to get their papers in order.  They needed to present themselves to the priest.  Stopping to show gratitude is not in the playbook.  We just want to be good religious folks and obey all the rules.  The Samaritan steps outside the rules and regulations to seek a relationship.  But we don’t have time for that sort of thing.  We want to obey the rules. 

Barbara Brown Taylor says that the nine were only fulfilling expectations of the Law.  They were only doing their duty.  They were simply fulfilling their obligations.  She writes that “Nine behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love.”

Maybe that’s the lesson.  You and I spend so much time trying to find ways to fulfill religious expectations and obey the rules and regulations of what it means to be a good church-going person.  What if it is not about that? 

What if following Jesus is not about fulfilling the expectations and obeying the rules of what it means to be a good church-going person?

What if following Jesus is not about doing the religiously prescribed thing?

What if following this Jesus…
What if worshipping this Jesus…
What if witnessing about this Jesus…
What if giving to this Jesus…
What if reading the words and stories of this Jesus…

What if all these things are about being in love?
 
Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “I know how to be obedient, but I do not know how to be in love.”

I understand that.  You do, too, I imagine.  I think that this is what this story is all about.  Luke is trying to tell us that following Jesus is all about a passionate love affair.

Let’s be honest, for most of us being a Christian is all about doing the right things.  It’s about trying hard to “practice” our faith.  When we use words to describe the Christian faith, those words describe concepts like duty, expectation, and requirement.  We have a responsibility (there’s another of those harsh words) – we have a responsibility to pray, obey the rules, learn about God, study the Bible, share my money and my time and my talents, seek justice, observe the commandments, etc.  We seldom talk about things like love affair, passion, praise, joy, celebration, and intimacy. 

The Samaritan in this story teaches us the importance of being passionately in love with Jesus.  This story also teaches us that serving Jesus is not about obeying the rules, but rather about crossing over all those borders we build into our lives, so that we can connect with people, love them, and share with them the good news that they are passionately loved by God.

Baptist preacher Tony Campolo tells a story about flying to Hawaii to speak at a conference. The way he tells it, he checks into his hotel and tries to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 a.m. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling.

He gets up and prowls the streets looking for a place to eat an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He goes in and sits down at the counter. The fat guy behind the counter comes over and asks, “What d’ya want?”

“I’ll have a donut and black coffee.”

As he sits there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night’s work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him says to her friend, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which her friend nastily replies, “So what d’ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?”

The first woman says, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the fat guy at the counter, “Do they come in here every night?”

“Yeah,” he answered.

“The one right next to me,” he asked, “she comes in every night?”

“Yeah,” he said, “that’s Agnes. Yeah, she’s here every night. She’s been comin’ here for years. Why do you want to know?”

“Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?”

A cute kind of smile crept over the fat man’s chubby cheeks. “That’s great,” he says, “yeah, that’s great. I like it.” He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, “Hey, come on out here. This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes’ birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here.”

His wife comes out. “That’s terrific,” she says. “You know, Agnes is really nice. She’s always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her.”

So they make their plans. Tony says he’ll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turns out to be Harry, says he’ll make a cake.

At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!”

They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.

At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She’s stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.

And when the birthday cake with all the candles is carried out, that’s when she totally loses it. Now she’s sobbing and crying. Harry, who’s not used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbles, “Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake.”
So she pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells, “Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!”

But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if…I mean, if I don’t…I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”

Harry doesn’t know what to say so he shrugs and says, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want.”

“Oh, could I?” she asks. Looking at Tony she says, “I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I’ll be right back, honest.”

She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. They look at each other. They look at Tony.

So Tony gets up on a chair and says, “What do you say that we pray together?”
And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her salvation. Tony recalls, “I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.”

When he’s finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”

In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

Harry thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that.”

We’ve been asking the question Luke’s Gospel is prompting us to ask:  “What does it mean to follow Jesus?”

Here’s another way of asking that question:  “What kind of church is God calling us to become?”

Here’s another:  “What borders is God calling us to cross over?”

You see, God has cross all sorts of boaders to include us all.  By grace you have been included in what Btheologian Baxter Kruger calls “then Divine Dance” that takes place in the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  You are INCLUDED.  So, why not live the kind of life that shares the good news with others that they, too, are included?  Why not invite people to come and join the party of God’s grace?

* Message inspired by a exegesis from Kate Huey

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One Response to “Borders”

  1. NRIGirl says:

    Good one Pastor. Inspiring… Makes me think if there are any borders I need to overcome.

    Care for some Coffee with Jesus?!

    ~NRIGirl

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