Carlos Wilton, May 27, 2012; Day of Pentecost, Year B; Acts 2:1-21
“Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia… in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
– Acts 2:9-11
Borders have been in the news lately. But then, I suppose they always are.
Whether it’s the border between the United States and Mexico, with the never-ending debate over what sort of fence we need…
Or the border between Israel and Palestine, marked by its massive and impassable wall, taller than the one that used to run through the center of Berlin…
Or the disputed border between North and South Korea, still a flashpoint of hostilities, more than half a century after the Korean War ended…
Borders are a reality of the lives of nation-states, and the people who live in them.
I saw a movie not long ago, in which a border figures prominently. It’s an Israeli film with English subtitles, called The Syrian Bride. It’s a fictional story, but based on some real-life situations that have actually happened, and still happen, in the borderlands between Israel and Syria.
It’s the story of a young woman named Mona, a member of the Druze people. The Druze are an ethnic minority who have lived in northern Israel, Syria and Lebanon for centuries. They have their own language and their own religion. They’re grudgingly tolerated by the much larger nations in which they live.
Mona and her family live in a Druze village in the Golan Heights – that strategic region Israel captured from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967. The nearby border between those two nations is one of the most heavily-fortified in the world – and one of the most difficult to cross. Only a handful of people are allowed to pass through the border fences each year.
The problem is that Mona is engaged to marry a man – one of her own Druze people – who happens to live in Syria. She’s never met him, although they’ve talked on the phone. It’s an arranged marriage, which is common in her culture. The two families know and respect each other. She trusts her parents to have chosen well for her, but she’s sad at the prospect of leaving her family. What makes the parting even sadder is the harsh fact that, once she crosses that border, the Israelis will never let her return. Unless relations between Israel and Syria thaw – which no one thinks likely, any time soon – the only way Mona will ever see her family again is if they can contrive to meet together in some neutral country.
Her wedding celebration is an odd one, because of the border that runs straight through the middle of it. First there is a lavish wedding feast, put on by Mona’s parents, for all the people of their village. The groom is not present; he has not been given permission to enter Israel. As soon as the party’s over, Mona and her family drive to the border for the tearful farewell, before she crosses through the chain-link and barbed-wire fences alone, to meet her new husband and his family. The actual wedding ceremony will take place on the Syrian side, with no members of her family present.
It’s taken months to obtain visas from the two governments to allow her to cross. When she arrives at the Israeli border checkpoint, in her wedding dress, everything seems to go smoothly at first. The Israeli border officer stamps her passport, and a woman officer of the Norwegian army – a member of the U.N. peacekeeping force – escorts her through the fence into no-man’s land.
It is there that a complication arises, one that only a true bureaucrat could appreciate. In fact, you could call it a perfect storm of bureaucracy. It seems the Israelis have just changed the type of rubber stamp they use on the passports of travelers leaving the Golan Heights. The new stamp declares that Mona is leaving Israel, something that never used to be the case for earlier travelers.
This is decidedly not OK with the Syrian border guards – because their nation has never given up its claim to the Golan Heights. If they let Mona into their country, accepting this passport that says she has just left Israel, does that mean their country is giving up its claim to the Heights? Suddenly Mona, wilting in the hot sun in her wedding dress, has become a symbol of everything that’s dysfunctional between those two nations – even though she, as a member of the stateless Druze people, does not belong to either one.
Tense negotiations ensue. Phone calls are made to Jerusalem and Damascus. Jeanne, the sympathetic Norwegian officer, borrows a metal folding chair from the Israelis and carries it over for her to sit on, and also gives her a couple bottles of water. This is all part of Jeanne’s shuttle diplomacy, as she drives her U.N. jeep the short distance from one immigration-control station to the other, and back.
Both families are there as well, on opposite sides of the border. They can see each other through binoculars – and they can see Mona, forlornly sitting there, surrounded by barbed wire. Her new husband is there as well, pacing nervously on the Syrian side – but he’s helpless to do anything, because the Syrians won’t let him cross into no-man’s-land to be with his bride.
The negotiations drag on for hours. Finally, Jeanne, the Norwegian liaison officer, gains a small concession from the Israelis. The immigration-control officer agrees to cover over the offending rubber-stamp image with correction fluid. But then, the Syrians decide that this is not good enough, and it appears that the wedding will be delayed by weeks, even months. (If, in fact, it can happen at all.)
Just as everything seems impossibly tied up in knots, Mona – who has been sitting there patiently all this time – takes matters into her own hands. She gets up without a word, and begins walking, with great determination, towards the Syrian border. She has no passport, no luggage, and she’s wearing a wedding dress. Will the Syrian border guards shoot her?
Everyone is so completely dumbfounded by the simplicity of the solution – her decision to simply cut the red tape and walk across – that no one does a thing to stop her. Mona walks through the Syrian checkpoint unchallenged, and into the arms of her new family.
What is a border, anyway? It’s a line on the map, nothing more. If you drive your car from upstate New York into Canada, on the way to Montreal – as our family has, on occasion – there’s a sort of toll gate you have to stop at, to show your passport, and a rest-stop with a duty-free shop. But I’ve never seen a dotted line imprinted on the earth.
There’s no border fence between the U.S. and Canada. The bear and the deer and the raccoons cross the invisible line with impunity. Some of them change their nationality several times a day. No one is waiting to ask them for a passport. It’s only the human beings – the so-called higher life-forms – that worry at all about such things.
If you read today’s New Testament lesson, from the second chapter of Acts, you’ll see some borders there, as well. (Well, not literally, but by implication.) There are those several verses that are among the most dreaded among lay readers of scripture: because of all the difficult place-names that tumble out, one after another. Let me read them again for you:
“And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
You know, of course, that on Pentecost the disciples were gathered there, in Jerusalem, when there came the sound of a rushing wind, and tongues of fire appeared over their heads, and the Holy Spirit did something mysterious and miraculous and wonderful. Suddenly they could all understand each other, no matter what nation they came from, no matter hat language they spoke! It’s as though the Holy Spirit did something sort of like Mona, the Syrian bride, decided to do in that movie. It’s as though the Spirit said, “Borders? They’re nothing to me. I decree – for a few hours, at least – that they are no more. The curse of Babel is hereby suspended. Everyone can understand everyone else!”
Whatever happened there that day was such a wonder, and such a marvel, that the church of Jesus Christ has been telling and retelling the story ever since.
It’s got something to teach us today, I’m quite sure. The borders are still there. If not the borders between nations, then the unofficial borders that separate groups of people from each other. You kids in school know all about them. You call them cliques – the groups of students who eye each other uneasily across the lunchroom, and wouldn’t dream of getting up and sitting at each other’s table.
There are the various races, as well: the sinful categories we all sort ourselves into, based on completely irrelevant physical characteristics, such as the color of our skin or hair, or the slant of our eyes. Government forms still ask us to declare whether we’re White, or Black, or Hispanic, or Asian, or Native American. Then, along comes someone like Barack Obama – the product of a marriage that would have gotten his parents thrown into jail in half a dozen states, at the time they were married – who just doesn’t fit any of those categories. The news media persists in calling him our first Black president – when, in fact, he’s just as much White as he is Black.
Did you know Obama is part Irish? A few years back, he even visited the little Irish village where his ancestors came from. There’s a YouTube video I just love. It’s a hit song, popular in Ireland at the time of his election. The first part of it goes like this:
“O’Leary, O’Reilly, O’Hare and O’Hara:
There’s no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama.
You don’t believe me
I hear you say
But Barack’s as Irish
As was JFK.
His granddaddy’s daddy
Came from Moneygall
A small Irish village
Well known to you all.”
And it goes on from there: a catalogue of how absurd and nonsensical are the racial categories we used to assume were rock-solid and unassailable.
Tiger Woods is another, even more complicated example. His father is African-American, Chinese and Native American. His mother is Thai, Chinese and Dutch. How does he ever fill out his census forms?
The point is, in the eyes of God, race is just another border, another arbitrary dotted line imposed by sinful, misguided humans across the map of the human family. Do you think God cares about such divisions? Do you think that, at the gates of heaven, beside a barbed-wire fence, there sits an immigration-control officer, with a rubber stamp, saying, “Passport, please”?
What the Bible says on the subject is Jesus’ famous parable of the sheep and the goats – where the official sitting at the gates of heaven is none other than the Son of Man. He separates the people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats – and some of those people are mightily surprised to find themselves in one category, rather than the other.
How does it happen, they demand to know, that they find themselves in the other group?
“Simple,” says Jesus:
“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
The point is, it’s not the country or condition of our birth that makes one bit of difference, as God, the righteous judge, will weigh our souls one day. Nor will it be our net financial worth, the diplomas on our walls, the sort of community we could afford to live in, the abilities or disabilities we may have, nor the clubs that thought enough of us to accept us into membership. In the eyes of God, such divisions have no more actual, street-level reality than those dotted lines on a map.
It’s rather like that final scene of the film, The Syrian Bride. Our passage into heaven, one day, will be like the short, determined walk of Mona in her wedding dress, into the loving embrace of one who is waiting there for us. No fence, no barrier, no checkpoint of human construction will have the least influence on whether or not we can complete that journey. At the end of the day, it’s only love that matters.
[9:00 Service conclusion]
This morning we’re going to ordain and install ruling elders and deacons to provide spiritual leadership for this congregation. Some of them, I know, are wondering if they are really up to the task. One of the most important qualifications they can bring to this work is a stubborn refusal to give any credence whatsoever to the border-lines so many of our neighbors work so hard to construct and maintain. The call of a Christian leader is to strive to live a life without borders. We on this earth are one, great human family, each of us related, one to another. Don’t you think it’s time we all start living as though we truly believe it?
As we sing our next hymn, let us all dedicate ourselves anew to our calling as disciples.
[11:00 Service conclusion]
This morning we welcome five young women of the Confirmation Class into active membership in this church. If there’s one thing I hope they’ve learned – besides the meaning of what it means to confess Christ as Lord and Savior – it’s a new appreciation of the fact that disciples of Jesus Christ are meant to live their lives as though there are no borders. We on this earth are one, great human family, each of us related, one to another. Don’t you think it’s time we all start living as though we truly believe it?
As we sing our next hymn, let us all dedicate ourselves anew to our calling as disciples.
Copyright © 2012, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.