Some people say, (and, I hope only jokingly) that the best way to tell exactly where the state line is between Arkansas and Missouri is that once you get into Missouri, there are fewer personal possessions scattered in the front yards of houses. I will leave it to you to see if you can discover the state line using that method as you take your vacation trips.
I do know, however, that once you cross a jurisdictional line, be it state or national, it feels different. I was never so aware of this distinction as I was the one time I went over the U.S-Canada border between Bellingham, Washington, and Vancouver, Canada. It amazed me. The people all look the same. They drive the same cars. The landscape on one side of the border is identical to the landscape on the other. But somehow I felt a bit less secure. In trying to reconstruct why I felt that way, I think it comes down to the fact that I knew that my legal system and safeguards were not in effect. I had significantly different rights as a guest in that country than I have back across the border in my own country. Uncle Sam was not guaranteed to take care of me should I get into trouble.
Those of you who have traveled outside the country may have had similar feelings. At the end of a trip, there is something relieving about stepping past the customs officer at places such as the Houston or Atlanta airports. You are back home and your people are again in charge.
That situation of who is in charge, who is our friend or enemy, and how we act as we negotiate those situations is what both the lesson from First Kings and the gospel of Luke deal with. What happens when we step across the border? What happens when we love our enemies, a question that has great importance these days as we deal with patriotism in light of ongoing wars in the Middle East? With those questions in mind, let’s get down to work to see what we learn about God in today’s lectionary texts and about the good news that Christians are called to proclaim.
The tendency of a lot of people is to turn the story of Elijah in the First Book of Kings into a five-dollar miracle story, of how it is that lightning can strike wet wood and cause everything to burn up. But set aside that sort of thinking. The story is about the seriousness of going into another country and finding out just who it is that in charge. It is a story about crossing boundaries. Compare it, if you wish to the idea of prime minister of Canada taking over the administration of a North Dakota country courthouse. It simply isn’t done, at least according to our standards.
Elijah goes into the land of Ahab, king of Israel. Remember that at the time of this story there is a king of Judah, who reigns in Jerusalem, and there is a king in Israel, who reigns primarily in Samaria. (To help you understand the importance of this fact, remember that in the gospels when the Good Samaritan is held up as an example of goodness, it is shocking because no Samaritan from the north could be considered good. They were the equivalent of today’s people who live just south of the Rio Grande River on the border of Arizona; we build fences to keep them out.)
We also need to remember that gods were considered local in the days of Elijah. They had power inside their own territory, but not outside. The God of Judah dwelt in the Temple at Jerusalem. The further from Jerusalem, the less this god’s power. This story is set on the very northern edge of Israel, beyond Judah, figuratively as far away as that part of Alaska from which Tina Faye, in the guise of Sarah Palin, said she could see Russia.
There is a profound theological change that takes place in this story, as we people of the Judeo-Christian world view it. Elijah, in his ability to have his own sacrifice accepted when the sacrifice of the local Baal was not, gives evidence that God’s reach is universal; it knows no territorial boundaries. Think what that says to us. Nothing anywhere in all of creation is greater than God. Just when we think we can conform God to how it is that we want God to be, God might just surprise us by setting all our water-soaked ideas on fire and consuming them. Or how about the fact that our chief gods these days seems to be money and power, gods that get put on display in the form of real estate or new cars or expensive cosmetics or the delight in keeping the poor in their place? The theological statement in the Elijah story is that God trumps all those lesser gods and attitudes. It ought to be scary for those of us who are definitely in the top 10% of American life.
What happens when we see God as larger than anything else that there is? We no longer fear what surrounds us. We start being unafraid to cross boundaries, unafraid of what might lie beyond our sight. And when we start living that way, we start finding our salvation. For proof, look at today’s gospel.
What we often take away from the gospel story is that Jesus is able to heal people, in this case a slave of a centurion. But there are lots of healing stories. The unique twist of this story is once again focused on boundaries and who is able to cross them. The centurion is a Roman soldier. He is in the area as an occupying army officer. His allegiance is to Rome. But did you notice what the story says about him? The quote from the Jewish elders is, “He loves our people.” That was a dangerous thing to be said about a Roman soldier. It is almost treasonous. It is an example of loving one’s enemies. His superiors would not like it, much as many of us would not like binding up the wounds of an enemy soldier by an American soldier in the midst of a firefight.
Look what happens when the centurion loves his enemies; the people associated with him find health, or as we would say in turning this story into a universal theological truth, the people find salvation. The good news for us: when we love our enemies, we find wholeness.
God’s love has no boundaries and cannot be limited by us and our division of the world into good and bad, us versus them. When we step across all the human-drawn boundaries we start finding health and wholeness. That is our good news. Stop putting up walls, stop putting up artificial boundaries, and we will be healthier people. Stop worshipping all the lesser gods of money and power and acquisitiveness, and we will find wholeness. It is a message that can change the lives of every last one of us. It begins when we decide that wherever we journey, God and God’s love are going to trump everything that we might encounter. Amen.