Good Fences Make Good Neighbors – Part 1 of our Advent Sermon Series

The actual mending wall according to one website on Robert Frost's farm
The actual mending wall according to one website on Robert Frost’s farm

Robert Frost has always been one of my favorite poets.

And the poem we’ll share this morning, “Mending Wall,” is such a beautifully well-written piece of work.  It is so simply told, it reads like a story, but has such great underlying meaning about the walls we build around ourselves in our lives.  The oxymoronic title has double meaning, but it doesn’t pop out at you right away.  The poem seems to be about two guys mending the wall together, a wall that had been broken down.  But walls bring separation, not unity.  There can be no mending when walls are built.  There can be no mending when walls are built.  Something that seems to elude the man on the other side of the fence.  But you’ll understand as we hear this together as I read from Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall.”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulder in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there,
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

People like fences.

We build them around everything – our homes, our churches, our schools.  We build fences around our nation we like fences so much.  But have you ever asked yourself why?  I like the way Frost frames it, “What am I walling in or walling out?”  What am I walling in or walling out?  Because just as fences serve to protect us, they also serve to isolate us from our neighbors and from the world around us.  The thing is, God wants us to live a different life.  God wants us to live a life without fences.  God wants us to live a life without fences.  By their very nature, fences cut us off from the community he wants us to be a part of.  We read from Paul’s letters to the 1st century church that we are to “bear one another’s burdens.”  We read from the pen of Solomon, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall one will lift up his fellow.”  And we hear from Christ to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  None of which we can do very well with a wall around us.

Sometimes we build walls to give us boundaries.

Whether those boundaries are physical or emotional or psychological, the walls we build are not always made out of stone or wood.  Sometimes those walls can be perceptions, stereotypes, or defense mechanisms.  And that’s not always a bad thing.  Walls can be useful, but become dangerous when we rely on them too much.  They can confine us, limit us, and restrain us more than protect us. At UCLA, I had a roommate Wayne who was a really nice guy, but had all of these racial stereotypes. When we first met, I think he was genuinely surprised I didn’t have a pocket protector or an abacus around my neck.  Wayne had opinions about every ethnicity on the planet and pretty much none of them good.  If you can imagine a stereotype about Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans, or some other race, Wayne thought of it first.  We’d stay up late at night just talking about life and he would make the most awful comments about people based only on the color of their skin or the shape of their face.  If you didn’t know him, you’d think he was a hard and fast racist, but the funny thing was, I met most of Wayne’s friends and they weren’t at all what I expected.  Instead of the sea of monochromatic faces I expected to find, his friends were a rainbow of different colors.  White, black, brown, yellow, red…you name it.  I couldn’t figure it out until one day he and I were talking and he made a comment about “all Asians” and then he looked at me and said, “Except for you, Craig.  You’re one of the good ones.”  I just said, “Thanks, Wayne.”  But in that moment, I knew.  I knew what the difference was between me and “all Asians.”  Wayne knew me, and because he knew me, he let me inside the fence.  How many times has that happened to you?  Or how many times have you had preconceptions about a person or a group of people and thought you had it all figured out until you got to know them better and suddenly, they didn’t fit the picture in your head any longer.  Too often we keep people outside our walls simply because we don’t know them.

Jesus spent his entire ministry breaking down those walls.

Wherever people needed to see God, there he was.  Women, children, lepers, people of other beliefs, people of other races, people of every kind of occupation – Jesus went to them all!  He constantly and consistently broke down walls to show people love, mercy, and kindness like they had never experienced before.  And he broke down the biggest barrier of all – the wall between us and heaven.  God left Heaven to become Emmanuel, “God with us” and in the leaving opened the gate that allowed us to renew our relationship with him – a relationship that wouldn’t have been possible if Jesus had not come to get us; if Jesus had not been willing to break down those walls.  And because Jesus is the model for what it means to be a Christian, we have to do it also. We have to be willing to be God’s people in the world and that means crossing barriers other refuse to or are unwilling to cross.  God talks about this in our Scripture reading today.  If you have your Bibles, please open them up to the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, chapter 10, beginning with verse 14.  Deuteronomy 10:14.  This is a very interesting passage, in part because of the way it’s set up.  The words we are about to hear talk about our obligation to those different from ourselves.  It talks about how we are to remember that we have once been in their shoes and not to become so arrogant or self-righteous that we forget our own roots, our own heritage, and that’s a lesson we can all learn from.  In the previous chapter, Moses tells the Israelites that they are about to conquer armies much stronger than they are.  The Lord is about to deliver their enemies to their doorstep but instead of celebrating or boasting, Moses warns the Israeli people not to think they had anything to do with it.  He says to them in Deuteronomy 9:6,6 Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” It is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. And he spends the rest of the chapter REMINDING them of how stiff-necked they have been.  And to emphasize the point, he begins to talk about the grace of God and how important it is that we remember we are saved by God’s grace alone and that more than anything we remember to treat others with the same grace and love we are given by God.  And that’s where we pick up in our passage today.

To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.  Yet the Lord set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all nations, as it is today.  Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.  For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.  He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.   And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.  Fear the Lord your God and serve him.  Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name.  He is your praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.  Your forefathers who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.  

I love the juxtaposition that Moses uses right at the beginning.

God is Lord of even the HIGHEST heavens.   God is Lord of the heavens and the earth and everything in it.  Moses is trying to emphasize just how far greater God is than we are.  And yet, despite how high he is above us, he chose us to be his people.  And because God has made it his mission to defend the fatherless, the widow, and the alien, we must do the same.  If it is that important to the most powerful being in the universe, how can we who are like nothing in comparison, dare to ignore what God cares about?  And then Moses turns it on them and says, “for YOU yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”  For you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.  God has done these things for us when we were the alien in our own land, how can we turn our back on the aliens, the widows, and the fatherless amongst us?

From the movie Farewell to Manzanar
From the movie Farewell to Manzanar

When I did my thesis project on Japanese-American Methodism, I ran across this story.

A little girl, the daughter of a Japanese-American Methodist pastor, was locked up in one of the assembly centers with her family.  She was playing near the barbed wire fence surrounding the center and a dog was trying to crawl underneath.  She turned to the dog and said to it, “Don’t come in here little dog.  If you do you can’t get back to America.”  This story epitomized for me the low point of what we can do to one another, when we are willing to treat people like the enemy whose only crime is looking like our enemy.  Those who have been interned know the valuable lesson of this story, that we cannot afford to be a people who show hatred, intolerance, prejudice, or injustice toward our fellow brothers and sisters.  We, of all people, cannot afford to forget the lessons of the past.  And we must instead turn forward and recognize those walls in our lives that keep us from one another.  Challenge yourself over the next few weeks as we explore this concept together and seek within yourself what walls you have surrounding you.  What preconceptions do you have about other people?  What preconceptions do you have about church?  What preconceptions do you have about God that maybe you need to have challenged?  And then begin to work on breaking those down. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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