Heidi C. Heath
Preached at UCW on 4-27-14
The Arizona desert is the place where hope and desperation meet.
It is a place where people risk everything, EVERYTHING, for a chance at new life.
The borderlands or Las Fronteras as they are called are a sacred, holy land full of the promise of what is to come, and reminders of what has already happened. There is a deep and abiding sense of present danger.
It is a collection of scattered images. Crosses marked simply with the word: Presente! Here. Prayers in mason jars left by passers by. Shoes that once bore the weight of hope worn through to their very soul. Bibles in Spanish and English with tattered, waterlogged pages long abandoned by a formerly faithful reader.
It is a liminal space.
A place of transition.
A threshold of sorts.
About an hour South of Tucson, Arizona is a small city called Nogales. Known to locals as “Dos Nogales” or both Nogales, there is actually a Nogales on each side of the US/Mexico border. It is one of the busiest ports of entry into Mexico, and the US in this part of the country. For many years, the residents here considered themselves one big community on each side of the border. In many ways they still do, although now the sharp, jagged edges of the border fence have been driven through the middle of town. They look at one another through steel bars, watched over by tall towers staffed by the border patrol.
I recently traveled to Las Fronteras with a group of theological students from across the country. We made the journey to Nogales as part of an immersion program to study together issues of immigration and economic justice, and what they call us to as 21st century faith leaders.
It is a particularly hot day when we arrive to a dusty parking lot surrounding by chainlink fence and cemeteries in Nogales, Mexico. We are taking into a small, shelter like space. In cracked and sagging plastic lawn chairs, we sit with a group of migrants who are preparing to cross the desert.
Huddled in this small room, we hear harrowing stories from each of them. Many have already traveled so far, from Guatemala, Honduras, or the southern most point in Mexico. They have left behind parents, children, friends, and all the life they’ve known. One of them has already been extorted for money on her journey north. One young man is wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. They speak earnestly and hopefully about what they dream of for a new life. They share with us that they are preparing for their first attempt to journey across the desert.
As we hug them goodbye, each of us has tears in our eyes. We are overcome by the realities of what likely lies ahead for them, and deeply moved by their seemingly unfailing sense of hope. We walk silently to the parking lot.
This is Las Fronteras embodied.
Liminal space. The space in which you leave behind everything you know and stand on the cusp of something new, unknown. The space between an old, familiar comfort zone and the clarity of what comes next.
In many ways the disciples were in liminal space of their own as they begin this week’s Gospel reading.
It has been quite a time for our merry band of misfits.
The women have just traveled to the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week only to discover that Jesus is GONE. After having a close encounter of the heavenly kind with the risen Christ, they return to tell the disciples about it.
This week’s story opens on our group of Jesus beloved followers huddled in a dark room together. Having discovered their beloved Rabbi and teacher is risen from the dead, we might expect a dance party. Instead we find them terrified.
And really, that makes sense. At the end of his life when the going got tough, one betrayed him, one denied him, and everyone of them would leave him alone before it was all over. I imagine they were a little worried Jesus was going to show up and ask them to account.
They were in liminal space. They had left behind all it was that they knew before Jesus died, thought they were sure of what had happened, and now felt like they didn’t really know anything at all.
Unstopped by a locked door, Jesus appears to them. And instead of a wrath of Heavenly anger breaths to them a word of peace, of Shalom. The sense of deep and abiding peace that the world cannot give which we read about in John’s 14th chapter.
Already prepared for their disbelief, and knowing they are caught in a type of deep transition, Jesus appears to them bearing the marks of the wounds inflicted on him at his death. I can imagine the scene in my head as they look with wide eyed amazement upon his hands and side, taking it all in as he wraps them in words of God’s everlasting Shalom and breaths spirit into their hearts. He returns again and invites Thomas to place his hand into his side. He returns to his disciples embodied. Resurrected, but embodied. Embodied just as they knew him to be.
There are any number of things that could have happened next, but here’s what didn’t happen. Jesus did not blame. He did not send the disciples forth on some kind of campaign to exact his due. He did not return violence with violence, but instead yet again broke the cycle of violence we inflict on one another and preached a word of peace.
Thomas has gotten a bit of a bad rap as a flaky doubter. But really, Thomas wasn’t asking for anymore than the other disciples had already received. And Jesus shows up to give it to him.
Because, that’s our Jesus. A Jesus who knows the form that we need him to take at any given time in our lives to help us move from one liminal space to the next.
Coming out of the 40 days of Lenten wilderness into Eastertide, we may feel like we are standing in a borderland of our own. While we have unburied the Alleluias and proclaimed that Christ is risen, we have not fully made the journey into Easter.
Like the disciples, we are locked in a room stuck somewhere between our 40 days in the desert and living as God’s resurrection people. Despite having seen Jesus raised from the dead, our fears and doubts and disbelief overwhelm us. Our communities have journeyed on to Easter, but we are still stuck at Good Friday.
Perhaps some of us are like the addict, taking the first steps into the tentative days of early sobriety. But we don’t know how to tell people yet, because if we do it might all fall apart and we might have to let go of trying to maintain the image that we “have it all together.”
Perhaps some of us are like the grieving mother who heartbreakingly lost her child in her second trimester, and has no idea how to reconcile herself with a God who suddenly feels so far away. But it feels like there is no space for our grief among the cheers of Christ is risen!
Perhaps others of us are feeling pulled to be like the migrants. To make a radical change, leaving behind our comfort zone, and stepping out into the in between space of the unknown for the promise of something better. But we are afraid.
Are there fears, doubts, or anxieties weighing you down this morning?
Beloved, fear and doubt are holy. They are part of the process.
But they are not the end of the story.
Jesus proved to us that he cannot be stopped by locked doors. But no matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey, he comes to step right into the heart of our pain, our anxiety, our fear, and our doubt. He breathes upon us a word of peace, and wraps us in the Holy Spirit.
And he keeps showing up again and again and again.
Jesus came back for Thomas and will keep coming back for us.
We don’t have to do it alone.
We may be lost in transition, having left behind the wilderness of Lent, and not fully arrived at Easter, but the resurrection promise is still ours to claim.
Being an Easter people in a Good Friday world doesn’t mean that Good Friday only happens one day a year, or that because we’ve experienced the resurrection Good Friday is over. Good Friday happens all around us everyday and our hearts are forever changed. That’s why Easter is actually 50 days long in the church calendar. We are not Jesus and sometimes resurrection takes us a little while longer.
But here’s the good news. Jesus breaks through the doors into our locked rooms, and sends us forth with constant reminders that he is with us on the journey. Jesus loves us just as we are and too much to let us stay that way, hidden, lost in translation, full of fear and doubt, if only we will open our hearts to let him. And if you aren’t ready yet? That’s okay. Because Jesus will keep coming back until you are. And Jesus will keep gathering us week in and week out in this beloved community, so that we can walk with each other out of our comfort zones and into the glory of God’s borderlands.
Beloved there is a world out there who needs to know that they are being pursued by God’s grace, and that they are loved by a God who never, EVER gives up on them.
So get out your walking shoes, take a deep breath, and open your hearts, if you dare. We’ve got work to do. And if we are really lucky, in the words of Annie Dillard: the waking God will draw us out to where we can never return . Amen.