Epiphany 4 C: Moving Beyond Mending Our Walls

Dear Partner in Preaching,

While reading this passage, I kept thinking of Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” and, in particular, it’s most famous line: “Good walls make good neighbors.” While that line is perhaps well known to many of us, it’s easy to forget that the whole of Frost’s poem is written to challenge that assertion. Two farmers are out for their spring ritual of replacing stones that have fallen from the wall separating their two properties. One, the voice of the poet, keeps wondering why they need walls at all: “My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” To which his neighbor responds with the signature line. But the poet isn’t persuaded, “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.’”

And then the poet continues, naming a truth that runs before the poet all the way back to Jesus day and from him up to our own heated debates about walled borders:
“‘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.”

Jesus is likely to side with the poet on this one. Indeed, it’s his dislike of walls that gets him in so much trouble during his first sermon and, eventually, will get him strung up on the cross. It may be a puzzle for some of our hearers why Jesus’ sermon provokes such a violent response. But if you pay a little closer attention, the matter quickly becomes clear.

After reading lines from Isaiah promising release and redemption and healing for those who have been cast off by the world, his audience seems well pleased by his words, even proud of the hometown boy made good. But then Jesus presses on. “No,” it’s as if he’s saying, “When I talk about God coming to free the oppressed and bless the poor, I’m talking about God blessing the people you can’t stand, the people you don’t want to be near, the people you think are your enemies.” And so he reminds them of a couple of stories where God blessed not Israel, but Israel’s enemies. And then they’re mad, so boiling mad that they’re ready to get rid of this so-called prophet.

Jesus’ congregation, you see, would agree with the farmer that says, “good walls make good neighbors.” Walls, after all, keep you safe, mark off important boundaries, and keep less-then-desirable things at bay, whether wolves from sheep, a hostile neighbor from your home, or fear-inducing refugees from your homeland. No wonder so many then and now think good walls make good neighbors. My goodness, but one of the central promises from some political candidates is precisely to build a huge wall between this country and our neighbor to the south.

But Jesus disagrees. When you live into your identity as one of God’s beloved children, you see, there’s no more need for walls to keep the enemies out because there are no more enemies. Walls – and with them all of the ways we define, describe, and bracket out the “other” – are antithetical to God’s kingdom purposes.

Look, I know that’s hard to hear. And even harder to live. Indeed, it can feel like pie-in-the-sky sentimentality. After all, we live in a fearful and dangerous world where walls and locks and laws seem absolutely necessary to keep us safe and bring a modicum of peace and order to word. In this life, perhaps good walls really do make good neighbors.

Perhaps. But perhaps we also fall prey too easily to a deep-seated insecurity that marks the human race and prompts us to overestimate risk, to fear those we don’t know instead of welcoming them, and to resort to violence far too quickly when we feel at risk. And even if there are times or circumstances when we’d agree that good walls make good neighbors, can we at least test that proposition before enforcing it. So when I lock the doors to my house at night to keep my family safe, for instance, can I at least do that with a modicum of remorse, knowing this isn’t what God intends or desires. Because here’s the thing – and I know I’ve said this before – the hard thing about the God we know in Jesus is that whenever you and I draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, we will find Jesus on the other side.

If there is one line that sums up the Jesus we discover in Luke’s account, it’s this: God came to redeem everyone. When we focus on “redeem,” it’s good news. When we focus on “everyone,” and call to mind those we believe have done us wrong…or who frighten us…or who are different…or who seem unnatural… that same line is terrifying. In being drawn back into God’s love we lose all claims, you see, to why we deserve something (and presumably others do not), as we recognize that deserving – like walls – simply has no place in the kingdom of God.

We live in a walls-obsessed age, yet our call is to put a notion into the hearts and imaginations of our people, to question whether we need them, whether God wants them, whether we will find our ultimate security in building higher walls or by falling freely into the hands of a merciful and loving God who, time and time again, showed that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

This isn’t an easy message to preach, Dear Partner. Indeed, I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you that this sermon still provokes outrage, which is why I am all the more grateful for your courage in proclaiming it. Blessings on your preaching, your ministry, and your life.

Yours in Christ,
Mending Wall

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.”

“Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost (1914), can be found in The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems.