by Ellen Sims
texts: Job 38:4-18; Mark 4:35-41
I recently attended a day-long “boundaries training” required regularly for United Church of Christ clergy. Many denominations mandate this training because pastors, like others in roles of authority, have sometimes misused their influence or power and have harmed those in their care. Drawing lines in advance helps all know what boundaries we should not and will not cross.
God draws boundary lines, too. Our UCC hymnal includes a song by Thomas Troeger that appreciates the way life itself has natural boundaries. Scriptures suggest we need to observe certain relational, spiritual, moral boundaries. It’s good and necessary for us to self-limit our desires, to draw lines between what we want and what we need and what others deserve:
God marked a line and told the sea
its surging tides and waves were free
to travel up the sloping strand,
but not to overtake the land.
God set one limit in the glade
where tempting, fruited branches swayed,
and that first limit stands behind
the limits that the law defined.
The line, the limit, and the law
are patterns meant to help us draw
a bound between what life requires
and all the things our heart desires.
But, discontent with finite powers,
we reach to take what is not ours,
and then defend our claims by force
and swerve from life’s intended course.
We are not free when we’re confined
to every wish that sweeps the mind,
but free when freely we accept
the sacred bounds that must be kept.
This hymn alludes to the biblical story about God’s instructions that the first humans might eat from all the fruits of Eden except the fruit of one tree. Maybe the lesson they and we were to learn is the necessity of some limits. The inability to set limits is what gives a powerful man the impression he has the right to grab a woman’s body. When we live without setting limits on ourselves, we can justify enslaving other people, despoiling the land that is not ours, creating systems that imperialistically enrich a few while impoverishing many. One of the first milestones a child achieves is differentiating between self and other. At some point my needs end where you and your needs begin.
But drawing a line for reasons of identity, safety, or morality is different from drawing lines to shut out desperate people who intend no harm. Self-protection is one thing; barricading ourselves from the world’s needs and troubles, many of which we as a people have set into motion, is neither possible and nor Christian. You see, crossing and challenging borders is something Jesus did regularly, and something Jesus and his family did shortly after he was born — when his parents defied a king’s new policy and illegally crossed over into Egypt to save his life from Herod’s death decree. Some laws must be defied; some borders should be disregarded.
I learned this most powerfully when I crossed the border into Nogales, Mexico, during seminary to learn about “border issues” through an organization called Borderlinks. Founded in the 1980s by Rev. Rick Ufford-Chase (one of our Living the Questions 2 commentators), Borderlinks’s mission is to “raise awareness about the impact of the border and immigration policies, and to inspire action for social transformation.” Seminary classmates and I first spent a week or so in Nogales, Arizona, taking workshops to prepare us for the economic, cultural, religious, and political realities we would see across the border. But after we crossed into Nogales, Mexico, we realized immediately how different the world looks on the other side of a wall. While in Mexico, we were housed most of that month in simple barracks at a mission but at times in the homes of poor people in slums called colonias and in hovels constructed from scraps of metal, wood, and plastic. At the home where I stayed, the bathroom was a tumbledown outhouse. The kitchen sink was an old metal container outside. To wash the meal’s dishes, my host would go outside to place our plates on the piece of metal, pour a pitcher of water over them, soap them, and then pour another pitcher of water over the dishes to be left on top of the metal to dry in the sun. The pieced-together walls of our shelter did not reach all the way to the rusted corrugated metal “roof.” And in the mountains of the Sonoran desert in January, the slab floors beneath the sleeping bags we brought were icy.
Throughout our time in Nogalez, we met heroic people: joyful, guitar-playing nuns running soup kitchens and passionate social activists who regularly brought water containers out into the desert in hopes that those trying to cross illegally into the U.S. would not die of thirst. We visited local artists who expressed their people’s plight creatively and labor leaders advocating for safe working conditions in the maquiladoras (factories) and everyday folks who explained how hard they worked and how little they could earn. We learned of the complicated history of NAFTA and U.S.-Mexican relationships in general, and we learned about the billions of dollars our nation had spent supporting repressive, death-dealing regimes in Central America in the 1980s that sent refugees fleeing north. And long before that, U.S. companies like United Fruit exploited poor people in Latin America, thus destabilized local economies and harming the land.
As we seminarians studied that history, we also studied together the Gospel of Mark with an eye toward this important recurring motif: the Jesus we meet in Mark’s Gospel crossed borders.
Mark begins with Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River, a liminal place that sets him in motion. Immediately, the Spirit drives him out to the wilderness. Two verses later he meanders through the Galilee region, tapping disciples and healing the sick and casting out demons and announcing the possibility of God’s imminent reign. In the process he crosses from one territory to another. And he crosses figurative boundaries, too, like the strict lines the scribes and Pharisees drew for Sabbath observance. He also stepped outside the boundaries of appropriate behavior toward one’s own family. Speaking in cryptic parables that transgressed traditional teachings, he moved from one territory to the next, crossing the sea toward an opposite shore.
Which brings us to today’s reading from Mark. It begins: “On that day, when evening had come, he said to [the disciples], ‘Let us go across to the other side. And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.” Again, Jesus moves from one territory to the another. From land to sea. From day to night. From one town to another. From calm to storm.
Visible and invisible borders divide these locations and conditions into opposites. It takes courage to risk moving from one to the other. But at the end of today’s pericope, Jesus leaves a state of peril for one of safety when he speaks peace into the chaos. As we’ll learn next week in the following verses, Jesus will find himself stepping out into the country of the Gerasenes to be greeted by a demon-possessed man. Jesus crossed borders not to flout laws but to serve hurting people and to break down walls that prevent God’s kin*dom from coming in. That mustard shrub we talked about last Sunday? It’s an invasive weed that defies any garden fence that might be keeping God out.
Who knows what you will find when you cross a border? What new call from God might you hear in a different spiritual or geographical territory? How might you connect with someone on the other side of the sea of Galilee—or the U.S.-Mexican border? After all, one of our greatest challenges, especially in this current season of divisiveness, is to care for those different from us.
Our greatest growth happens when we stretch our hearts to empathize with someone we’ve seen as Other — including, maybe especially, those who seem to disregard or harm the “Others” we now hope to embrace. What the Gospels teach us over and over is that the stranger is really our sibling, that ALL are our sisters and brothers. Jesus challenges us over and over to be vulnerable by living a life for others who are different from us. It’s mere tribalism if we only care about those who live within our borders (national borders or emotional/psychological borders). Jesus’s border crossing connected him with foreigners and people on the margins, the folks some find hard to love. Jesus urges us to stand with those who are NOT in power, NOT carrying the guns, NOT in charge, NOT part of our tribe.
Which is the opposite of tough guy political rhetoric that bullies and debases the outsiders, that foments fear-mongering, that dehumanizes and scapegoats people from other cultures.
But it is empathy that will save us. As author Rebecca Solit explains, “Empathy is a narrative we tell ourselves to make other people real to us, to feel for and with them, and thereby to extend and enlarge and open ourselves. To be without empathy is to have shut down or killed off some part of yourself.” Discrimination, on the other hand, involves telling yourself a story that disconnects you from someone else because “they are different in some way. . . . Or that they are not real. Or that they are evil. That you owe nothing to them.”
Solit continues: This “every-man-for-himself” ideology denies how we are connected ecologically, economically, socially, emotionally. “This is an art of disassociation — literally, in the psychological sense of disconnecting from one’s own feelings. . . . But it’s also political disassociation: I owe you nothing; I have no connection to you. . . . My heart is a gated community; my ideology is a border patrol. It’s even a philosophical disassociation: my acts should have no consequences; cause is unhitched from effect; we will not look at how what we did impacts how they live, whether it’s emissions and the climate—or foreign policy and refugees.”
Solit concludes, “Sometimes it seems to me a better way to organize the political spectrum than along a continuum of right and left would be the ideology of disconnection versus connection. . . . In the short term we are working to prevent families being torn apart at our border. In the long term our work must be to connect and to bring a vision of connection as better than disconnection.”
The boundaries God urges us to observe teach us to self-limit our egos to care for others. The boundaries Jesus leads us to cross teach us to connect with and care for others even though our crossing may expose us to raging political or cultural or relational storms.
May we trust that God is with us in the rough waters we are sailing through these days. May we listen for Jesus’s words of peace amidst the storm. May we be assured that God is surely weeping for immigrant children torn from their parents’ arms. In words consistent with holy scripture and in contrast to words emblazoned on a green coat we’ve recently seen at our southern border, let us hear God telling us: “I really DO care. Do U?”