A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, July 24, 2016
Mending Wall by Robert Frost
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders 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 out-door 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 offence.
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.”
Something there is that does not love a wall. But what is it? Is there something deep in you and me that wants to break down the walls and set all creation free, free as it was made to be from the mind and heart and hand of God? The neighbor says, “Fences make good neighbors,” but is it truly so? Fences keep us at a distance from each other. Can we really know and love and care for our neighbor as long as there are walls between us? Neither of today’s ancient texts seem to support the notion that good fences make good neighbors. “Something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down.”
We rarely turn to Leviticus for instruction. The ancient Holiness Code, laid out in chapters 18, 19 and 20 of Leviticus, contains instructions, rules, and regulations which we’d rather not consider. Some of it we reject outright as bound to a rather primitive culture we’ve grown beyond. But, as I suggested last week with the passage we read from Deuteronomy, there may be material here to which we ought to give a second thought.
Our original focus was on verses 33-34. Here is the ancient instruction to welcome the stranger that fits with our theme for this month. However, as I often do, I thought we might give this passage a little context. The key verses are part of a chapter that carries a kind of random collection, lifting up aspects of Jewish Law that are covered in other chapters and books. Most important, as with Deuteronomy, is to understand how this law is rooted in a people’s relationship to God. This law is the outgrowth of the covenant between God and God’s people. “You shall be holy, for I your God am holy.” That’s the foundation. We are made in the image and likeness of God who is holy. So, we are to be holy as well.
Hmmm. We don’t leap to embrace that mandate, do we? It smells of a sort of self-righteousness. “Goody two shoes,” “best little boy in the world,” “holier than thou” are phrases that come to mind. Who wants to be like that? There’s no fun in being holy, is there? Well, I wonder if there isn’t a wall right there that needs to be broken down – the wall between the holy and the ordinary, heaven and earth, the sacred and profane. Remember when God was playing in the mud and dancing with the stars, pulling the whole creation into being? It’s hard to say the Holy One doesn’t know how to have a good time. That’s part of our genetic make-up, too.
Being just, loving mercy, practicing compassion, walking with God in humility, embracing the things that make for peace, harmony, well-being – in short, the things that comprise the wholeness and holiness with which we have been formed do not preclude joy, play and laughter along the way. As the old song sings, “Since love is Lord of heav’n and earth, how can I keep from singing?”
We might even chuckle at some of the laws in the old Holiness Code, as long as we understand they had meaning and significance when they were first declared to a people who were trying to be God’s people in a hostile environment. We enjoy Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, Star Trek and Star Wars. But, instructive as they might be, we don’t turn to them for our salvation. I imagine that witches and wizards, mediums and astrologers are not the same threat to faithfulness today as they were thousands of years ago when they represented a much stronger religious reality.
We know from our own experience that we can find joy in the Sabbath and play in our worship. We love our seniors along with our juniors and everyone in between. We find wisdom and delight, friendship and care, faithfulness and fun as we gather week after week in our own desire to be God’s people. We want to love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Love, which is at the center of holiness, is not a downer. We need to remember that. We break down the wall between the sacred and profane because an ever-present God demands it of us. Taking on holiness does not allow us to put up walls of superiority and judgment.
But what of the stranger, the alien, the outsider? It is no laughing matter when we read we’re to “love the alien as yourself.” “Remember,” the text asks, “when you were aliens in Egypt? How did it feel? How did you like it? How did you survive?” Then consider the stranger in your own land. Remember the song we sang on the first Sunday of this “Welcoming the Stranger” month? “We have each been a stranger, we can try to understand.” Will we?
Some people think fences make good neighbors, which is really saying. “There should be a place for those folk, but not in my back yard.” Unfortunately, underlying that sentiment is a kind of racist, classist, xenophobic mentality that neither shows love nor practices holiness. We don’t like the notion that we might have to give something in order that strangers become neighbors, aliens sisters and brothers, outsiders part of the Beloved Community. Somehow we think we’ll be diminished if we let go of what we have. But what we have does not define us. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are to be holy as God is holy.
“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 offence.”
Let’s take a few minutes and consider walls. Each of us has a strip of colored paper. I invite you, on that strip of paper, to name a wall in your own life that you would like to see brought down. Maybe it is a stranger you find difficult to welcome. Maybe it’s a colleague with whom it is a challenge to work. Maybe it’s a family member from whom you feel estranged. Maybe it’s an old friend you can’t forgive. Maybe it’s an enemy you can’t embrace. Maybe it’s a practice or a habit; something you said or something you did. Whatever it is, it has created a wall between you and someone, some group, your better self, God – maybe all of the above. What are the walls in your life that need to be broken through?
Now consider the poetic wisdom of the writer of Ephesians. “The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this…He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over.” Christ does this for us. Because we struggle with what it means for us to be holy as God is holy, Christ came to show us the way.
Remember he’s recorded as saying to his followers that he hasn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it? The writer of Ephesians is overstating his case here when he argues that the law is repealed. It is probably more accurate to say that the law is reformed and renewed in the Christ. Yes, it had become clogged with fine print and footnotes. People, especially those in power, were more concerned with the letter of the law than the spirit. When the law works to build walls between people it fails to serve its function. It’s time for breaking down the walls.
In this text from Ephesians, the two groups brought together in Christ are ancient enemies – Jews and Gentiles. There are serious barriers built up here over time – between insiders and outsiders, a legacy of bitterness, disdain, enmity. The miracle of God’s holiness lived out in Jesus Christ breaks down the walls of hostility and brings these old foes together in a new entity as old as life itself – God’s Beloved Community.
Do these ancient words speak to us today? We considered some of our personal walls. Maybe some of those had social implications. What about our own context? The society we inhabit? The culture we create? Where are there walls that need to be brought down? As I noted earlier, there are barriers of race and class, of country and culture, of politics and religion. Some of those barriers are built from language, some attitude, some feelings like fear and hatred, some, literally, from concrete. We hear hateful political rhetoric. We privilege the rich and famous. We militarize our peace keepers. We demonize difference.
And then we watch while an actual wall is built in the Middle East to impede the movement of Palestinians and keep them from their ancestral homes. We allow the candidate of a major political party in our own country to label our Mexican neighbors as “rapists and murderers;” then run on a promise to build a literal wall between our countries. We read of walls and other barriers on the borders of countries like Hungary and Bulgaria to keep Syrian refugees in their place, millions of them, crowded into tents, strung out like a parking lots, in the desert. Sudanese refugees are turned aside to face the terror of their land in turmoil. Children fleeing, alone, across hundreds of miles, to escape gangs and violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, are rounded up at our borders and sent home to face the worst. God looks at our small blue green planet from afar. Seeing no borders to defend, God weeps at our unholy lack of hospitality.
Still, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” Something deep down inside that believes that hospitality is life-giving. Something that longs for breaking down the walls. Something that worships the Holy One. Something that loves neighbor, including the alien, as one’s self. Something that desires to draw us closer to each other. Something that wants to practice justice, mercy, humility, compassion. Something that remembers when we ourselves were strangers and doesn’t want anyone else to ever feel like that. Break down the walls, draw the circle wider, something there is that does not love a wall and its name is love.