HDS Chaplain: Jesus Broke Down Border Walls

February 5, 2019
HDS chaplain Kerry Maloney
HDS chaplain Kerry Maloney

Kerry Maloney is HDS chaplain and director of religious and spiritual life at HDS. On January 29, she delivered the homily at HDS’s weekly Tuesday Morning Eucharist. Below are her remarks.


“Here I am, Lord…I come to do your will.”—Psalm 40: 7-8

The mother of Jesus and his brothers arrived at the house. Standing outside, they sent word to Jesus and called him.
A crowd seated around him told him, "Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you."
But he said to them in reply, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."—
Mark 3:31-35

On January 18, a group of white teenage boys wearing MAGA hats surrounded an elderly Indigenous American man on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, chanting “Make America great again,” menacing him, and taunting him in racially charged ways.

At the center of the original video that circulated globally was Nick Sandmann, one of the boys from Covington Catholic High School, getting in the face of Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder.

There was Mr. Sandmann, standing his ground just two feet in front of Mr. Phillips, smirking as the indigenous man drummed and chanted. Of course, in the days since that first video made the rounds, many other longer videos have come to light, making clear that there were other actors in this harrowing snapshot of white supremacy and some of the twisted responses it can spawn—chiefly, a tiny, religiously unhinged sect known as the Black Hebrew Israelites.

As you know, there has been much finger-pointing and hand-wringing and back-peddling and man-splaining in the days since January 18, and while the original impressions and denunciations (and even the endorsements) of Nick Sandmann’s and his colleagues’ behavior may not have been as nuanced as they ought to have been, the fact remains: That encounter at the base of the Lincoln Memorial—and perhaps, even more, the endless spin on it in the days since—reveals something terrible and terrifying about the soul of our nation.

Lest we forget, this incident happened in the midst of the federal government shutdown over the great border wall dispute, a border at which children have been ripped from their parents’ arms in the name of national safety; a border along which the U.S. military has been unconstitutionally deployed as a racial police force; a border that has become the reigning symbol not of a political boundary between nations but of an insurmountable social and economic barrier to the oppressed, to the poor, to people who are brown. An insurmountable wall to separate those who are in “our” family from those who are not—those who are white from those who are not.

I confess that I was one of the people who read Nick Sandmann’s smirk as proxy for the smug triumphalism over, defiant disdain for, and unapologetic disrespect of people of color and of all racially and sexually “non-conforming” people—even (even!) of the holy elders in those communities—a posture we are unveiling at the center of our national life ever more boldly every single day.

White children mocking and humiliating brown elders. Nick and his brothers from Covington Catholic looked to me like the very face of white supremacy on January 18, 2019, there in our nation’s capital. They looked like me—or at least a part of my spiritual DNA, even if it is a part I have been arrayed against since my birthright into it.

And of course, there’s nothing new there, right? We recoil from it so fiercely not because it’s shocking but because it’s true. “This is what ‘democracy’ looks like”—historically, in a country like ours built on slavery and genocide. It looks just like that showdown at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. And whether we’re the ones staring out from under the brim of a MAGA cap or the ones being stared down or the ones caught in between, we recognize ourselves somewhere in that chilling scene. It’s our sick, sad, sinful story as a nation. It’s our family saga.

Jesus and the early disciples had a great deal to say about families—usually, “Leave them!”  “Make new ones.” “Follow me.”

Today’s gospel is no different, if a bit less stark. Here we find Jesus once again breaking down the great border walls of his own day, redefining and reconfiguring the all-determinant bonds of ancient family life. If Jesus’s apparent denial of his birth family in this text seems harsh, his embrace of the new order he declares is gloriously healing…and utterly revolutionary.

Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

It might be a lazy homilist who would draw a straight line from the stand-off at the Lincoln Memorial to today’s Gospel passage, or from the showdown at the US-Mexico border to this new kind of family gathered around Jesus in this morning’s text, but I might just be that homilist.

There’s something disruptively real and ineluctably liberating in the simple invitation Jesus offers us here. And it’s not a pass. We don’t get to walk away from our history or from our responsibilities to and for it; but we can find our relationships to that history, and to one another, radically rearranged…and, mercifully, redeemed in the household of God.

In Jesus, we are offered a new family story, one with a promise of love so deep, so attractive, and so true that it up-ends everything and outstrips anything we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). It can break any stare-down, stalemate, showdown, or shutdown we find ourselves in—and we find ourselves in countlessly these days.

In light of our family history, in light of the original sin of racism—and all its unspeakable violence, all its smug swagger, all its primal grief—I’m not sure how else except through Jesus’s gracious declaration of a new order we could ever dare say with the Psalmist, “Here I am, Lord. I come to do your will.” But, somehow, today, we do.

By the grace of God, may it be so.

Kerry Maloney, HDS chaplain and director of religious and spiritual life