Coming and going, leaving and arriving, exit and entrance. That’s the theme lying underneath our passages for today. That’s the theme permeating the verses we heard from Matthew and Exodus. Departures and arrivals—the movement of people. Follow the commandments, Jesus says in Matthew 5, so you can enter the kingdom of heaven—it’s all about a journey, migration, the passage into a new world. Entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
And in Exodus, the people are leaving one land for another—wandering and camping their way to new life. I’ll read the first few verses from chapter 19 again; listen to all the movement packed into the phrases, all people in motion: “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain” (Exodus 19:1-3).
They come and go, they camp and journey, then camp and journey again. And all along the way, God watches over them, God leads them and protects them. “I bore you on eagles’ wings,” God says, “and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). God goes with them, with them on their wandering pilgrimage to freedom.
On May 8—a few weeks ago, this month—Claudia Patricia Gómez Gonzáles left her hometown of San Juan Ostuncalco in Guatemala, traveling 1,500 miles to Texas, crossing from Mexico into the United States somewhere near Laredo, and making it to San Bravo, several miles into the United States. She was on her way to Virginia, to reunite with her boyfriend, and find work, but a U.S. border patrol agent killed her in San Bravo, Texas.
“She left home 15 days ago,” her mom told reporters on Thursday. “Mamita,” Claudia said to her mom before she left, “Mamita, we’re going to go on ahead, I’ll make money. There’s no work here.”
Her boyfriend Morales Yosimar, waiting for her in Virginia, was devastated when he heard the news—mi princesita, he called her. That was her nickname, “princesita,” little princess. She was nineteen years old. We don’t know much about the U.S. federal officer who shot her, other than he has been a border patrol agent for fifteen years, a skilled professional, now a killer.
Princesita Gómez Gonzáles is part of a whole movement of people who have been enslaved by an global economy that keeps them poor, barely alive, desperate for work, and desperate to escape the network of U.S. gangs that have migrated to Central America.
She’s like the Israelites in our passage from Exodus, on the move, liberation on the horizon, a migration empowered by hope. She is like the Israelites in our bible story, except then she isn’t—because she never makes it to the arms of her loved one in Virginia, she never gets to the place where they imagined they could make a life together, she dies in the desert, and the hope beating in her heart, pulsing through her veins, empowering her journey—that hope now leaks into the sand around her body, a dead life with unrealized dreams pooled around what used to be her.
Sometimes it seems like the best we can do when we gather to worship, when we gather around our Scriptures, is to press the two worlds together, the Bible and our lives—to press the realities of our world into our Scriptures, to press the verses into our world, and to feel what happens to us when they don’t fit, when one makes no sense of the other, when all we have are jagged edges, mismatched puzzle pieces.
On the one hand, there’s God who says this in our passage from Exodus: “Indeed, the whole earth is mine” (19:5). And, on the other, there’s Jeff Sessions, Trump’s Attorney General, in a speech in Arizona, with the power to claim that some of the earth belongs to him, not God: “We are not going to let this country be invaded,” he said, “We will not be stampeded.” For Sessions, the border marks what belongs to his jurisdiction, to what counts as his land to rule with his law. For Sessions, people are invaders, like Princesita Gómez Gonzáles, part of a stampede—that’s a word people use when they’re talking about cattle, about animals. The border has become a slaughterhouse.
The chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa once said that “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta,” an open wound, she said, bleeding.[i] The border as a wound, a piercing of the land, cutting through peoples and places, severing loved ones who have always been on the move.
Over the past few years, after separated thousands of children from their parents at the border, the U.S. government can’t find 1,500 of them. They lost 1,500 children who they severed from their families in courts and detention centers along the border. 1,500 missing kids, taken into custody on U.S. soil—and who knows if any of them will ever be reunited to their families.
What do we do with these borders, with the violence at the borders, the violence because of the border?—what do about Princesita Gómez Gonzáles, her story, her life, her body another casualty of the border? She is one among many, most of whom we will never hear about. That’s what the woman said who recorded the violent scene on her phone, Marta Martinez: “This is not an isolated case,” she said. “This has happened before. The exception to this is that it was videotaped.”
There’s a word of judgment for us, here in Matthew’s Gospel, in the words of Jesus, who says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). In Greek it’s the same word for righteousness and justice—this is a call for us to live into God’s righteous justice, the God who, as it says in Exodus, the God who declares, “Indeed, the whole earth is mine” (19:5).
And if the whole earth is God’s, and if God has come to liberate people from oppression, from enslavement, then the violence of the border is imperiling all of us—because that border is a marker of economic slavery, of ethnic segregation, of quarantine: that border might be a barrier divinding us from the kingdom of heaven, banishing us from a kingdom of justice, of righteousness.
If I press these Scriptures far enough, there is perhaps a word of promise—a hope that isn’t quite as real as I would like it to be, but still there as a prayer, perhaps, a prayer for another world. “I am the Lord God,” it says in Exodus, “I am the Lord God who brought you out of slavery” (Exodus 20:1-2).
The hope is that our God will always be that same God, the one who sets free, the one who guides people on the move, the one who leads us on our migration to the kingdom of heaven. “I bore you on eagles’ wings,” God says, “and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4).
That’s our prayer—not only for ourselves, for our own salvation, our liberation, but for Princesita Gómez Gonzáles and all the others: a prayer that God will be with them, that God will hold their lives and their dreams, and that God will hear our prayers for a wounded world, broken yet still alive, somehow—some of us still alive, hoping and praying and laboring for another world, the kingdom of heaven.
[i] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, 25.