Borders, Boundaries, and Barriers

This rumination is inspired by the Super Bowl. Well, actually, a Super Bowl advertisement. Stick with me as I share the back story.

The Gospel according to Mark begins with the erasure of a border; the shattering of a boundary; the breaking of a barrier. As Jesus comes up out of the water at his baptism, Mark tells us that  Jesus sees the “heavens torn apart.” (Mark 1:10) The word here is intended to speak of a rather violent tearing. Ancient people believed that the sky was a dome that separated heaven from earth and that if it was breached, divine presence would spill into the world, which was a dangerous thing. Coming too close to the presence of God could lead to destruction. (Remember the scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when the Ark is opened and all heaven breaks loose?) The rent heavens mean God is loose and among us – perhaps to our peril.

At the end of the gospel, Mark tells us that when Jesus breathed his last breath on the cross, another boundary between God and humanity was destroyed. Mark says, “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38) Behind that curtain was the “holy of holies” – the presence of God. Only the high priest could enter pass behind the curtain at appointed times without being under the penalty of death. It kept the holy and the unholy apart, separated by a fixed wall of fabric. Jesus’s death destroyed that barrier. God is loose in the world. Holy and unholy are hopelessly mixed up. The Divine Parent has decided to move in with the kids.

In between those two bookends of broken boundaries, the ministry of Jesus leaves the landscape littered with kicked over fences, transgressed boundaries, toppled over tables and walls. He touches lepers, welcome sinners, eats with the unclean, travels to Gentile country and interacts with demons. Every story is a new way for Jesus to tear down the walls that divide heaven and earth, and human from human. Even stuffing him in a tomb does not work. God destroys the unassailable boundary, the immovable wall between life and death in the resurrection.

So, there I sit, watching the Super Bowl and an ad comes on that features a little girl and her mother on a journey. The ad ends without resolution and refers me to see the rest online. Apparently, the network was unwilling to sell the airtime for the whole message. Here is the ad in full…

Did you see the Jesus figure in that ad? (I am NOT saying that 84 Lumber meant to place a Jesus figure in the ad – but, with Mark’s image of Jesus playing in my head, I’m free to make connections – it is what I do!) The lone man in the truck who labored through the night is Jesus (yes, let the darkness, the wood, the carpenter images play as well). Salvation happens when the mother and daughter walk through to the future they sought – the reunion with family, the hope of a new day. This add touched me because it declared the gospel (good news) in a time when we’re all full of anxiety over the news about walls and boundaries and people who look, live or worship differently than we do.

The ad touched me more personally too. My grandfather came here from Sweden – twice – seeking the life of promise that America seemed to offer. The other strands of my family were all immigrants from Norway and Ireland. They also heard cries of “America first” from the immigrants who preceded them.  One of the prevailing values I learned growing up; one of the values from which my patriotism grew, is summed up in the poem inscribed at the Statue of Liberty. It reads “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This value for welcome, for sharing, for opportunity freely given is America at its best.

Now, I am painfully aware that this poem does not speak to the experience of all too many. Native people were, at best, conquered, subjugated, and contained. At our worst, they were subjected to genocide as their food was slaughtered, disease spread, and outright massacres occurred. Then there are the huddled masses on slave ships who found no opportunity, but instead were enslaved, dehumanized, and murdered. At America’s worst, we have committed genocide, slavery, murder and violence. Whenever we catalog, classify, and color code human beings – even in the name of economic growth or national security – we move in the direction of death and away from the kingdom of God.

At our best, we act in ways that resonate with the boundary breaking, border crossing, barrier bashing messiah, named Jesus. And before we argue that one must take care to protect oneself, remember he died for others instead of seeking self-preservation. That is what love does.

Building walls and keeping out the “wrong” people is in the news a lot lately. I’m not sure I can find much in Jesus life, death, and resurrection that advocate for such. I can however find that if we classify people, Jesus will mix our system up. If we catalog folks, he will – in the acts of his followers – laugh at the catalog. If we color code people, he will show up in the vast array of colors we disdain. If we build a wall, he will most assuredly sneak in at night and put in a door. He did, after all say, “I am the gate….” (John 10:9).

As far as this “timid” prophet is concerned, we’re always better off to embrace our best selves instead of our worst because our best self is found in Christ.

Pax Christi.


© 2017 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved.