This sermon was preached at Common Ground on November 17,2016
by Sarah Buteux
We began with a poem.
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 neighbour 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 neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? 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 neighbours.”
The idea that “good fences make good neighbors,” and that such fences need to be mended from time to time is as old as the hills and you can find it in varied forms across multiple cultures. The proverb came back into fashion here in the states after Frost wrote this poem, and it’s such an interesting poem because it really wrestles with whether we need fences at all.
Our narrator owns an apple orchard that abuts his neighbor’s pine forest. They meet every Spring to walk the wall that divides their property and replace the stones that have fallen down; so many stones that our narrator questions if nature itself is protesting the very existence of this wall.
He wonders aloud to his neighbor about whether they really need this wall, since neither one of them raises livestock and it’s not like their trees are going to get away or escape into each others yards to cause mischief, but the neighbor is resolute that good fences make good neighbors. He believes that having a clear boundary is important perhaps because it not only marks what belongs to who, but helps each man define who he is: one a farmer of apple trees, the other a farmer of pine.
Our narrator isn’t so sure. He thinks his neighbor is being old fashioned, that there is perhaps a better way for humans to live alongside one another, that maybe we don’t have to be so preoccupied with who’s who and who owns what. It sounds as though our apple farmer is ready to get rid of the wall altogether.
But there’s a catch to this poem, because whether the narrator realizes it or not, the wall he’s not so sure about, the wall that exists between his neighbor and him, actually does more to bring the two of them together than keep them apart.
For it is the wall that calls to them every spring, the wall that gives them a safe opportunity to walk side by side and engage in a common purpose, the wall that gives them a reason to come together and talk, even if it’s always only from the other side. There’s a wonderful ambiguity to this poem and it’s an ambiguity I’ve been feeling in my soul since last week.
There is a part of me that would love to see the walls of division come down in this country and simply let the healing begin.
And there is a part of me that wanted to build a wall around Massachusetts last Wednesday to keep all those other people out.
I’d be delighted if we could all just get along and trust people to do the right thing. But my trust in people is badly shaken right now given just how many voted for a man I do not trust at all.
Had you asked me two weeks ago, I would have had a lot more sympathy for the narrator of this poem. I was actively wondering what it would take to convince people on the other side that we can’t afford to be taking sides anymore. That there are issues facing all of humanity right now that are so big – issues like climate change and income inequality, the refugee crisis and nuclear proliferation – issues so big that we can’t afford to think of them as partisan issues. We need to come together and solve these problems as one people because if we don’t we will all lose.
Good fences may have made good neighbors once, but in my mind I was thinking it was time to look at the big picture and realize that we’re really all on the same side and need to start acting that way. I was with the apple farmer of this poem, ready to evolve past walls. But now, I don’t seriously think we should build a wall around Massachusetts, but I must say I feel remarkably grateful to live within these state lines. Borders and boundaries feel appropriate somehow. I like my neighbors here. But I’m not so sure about the people who live our there. And then I think of Jesus…
I remember that 2000 years ago a teacher of the law asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. “Love God and love your neighbor,” said Jesus. “But who exactly is my neighbor?” asked the lawyer. Who indeed?
Does anyone remember how Jesus responded?
He responded with the parable of the good samaritan. A story that begins with two good righteous people passing by a man on the road who has been beaten and robbed and left for dead. The surprise of the parable is that it is a Samaritan who stops to help the man, a samaritan that binds his wounds and carries him to safety, a surprise because the Samaritans and the Israelites were mortal enemies and a samaritan was the last person the teacher of the law would have expected to do the right thing.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor
to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” asked Jesus.
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
I had originally thought I’d talk tonight about how Jesus calls us to evolve past our labels and enmities and cross those lines that separate us, but I confess…the way of the Samaritan seems harder than ever to me now. Not taking seriously the beliefs that divide us feels incredibly reckless. I don’t yet know how to be like him in this new world. Whereas I know all too well what it’s like to be the priest or the levite who didn’t stop to help, who were more interested in keeping to themselves, avoiding trouble, and staying safe.
Because I’m pretty sure they didn’t stop for the same reason I wanted to build a wall around Massachusetts last week. I think they didn’t stop because they were afraid.
I’m afraid. Which makes me wonder if maybe I have more in common with the people I’m afraid of then I care to admit given how much they’ve talked about building a wall these past 12 months.
Our fears are not the same, but that feeling of being afraid, of not knowing what the future holds, of wondering how you will protect those you love… I think people on all sides can relate to that feeling.
And so I wonder if maybe that’s where I need to start. I wonder if I can maybe use that fear rather than let that fear use me. Maybe I can use it to build empathy inside me, an empathy that can help me reach across a wall I’d just as soon build ever thicker and even higher.
Those of you who know me well, know that I come from a family that I love deeply and disagree with completely on almost every social and political issue you can dream up. My conversation with my parents did not go well the day after the election and we’ve barely talked since. But my conversation with my sister Christin, who is probably the most conservative person in my family, was beautiful, not because we agreed on anything, but because she called up and said, “how are you? I can only imagine how hard this is for you and your people.”
“People are really scared right now,” I said.
She could have blown that off and told me that they don’t need to be afraid because he who shall not be named is not as bad as everybody thinks, but instead she said, “Tell me what they’re afraid of.”
And I did. And she listened without judgment. She listened with compassion.
And then she told me what people in her community had been afraid of had Hillary been elected, and I didn’t blow her off. I listened without judgment. (Alright maybe a little judgment, but I kept it to myself.) But I did listen with compassion.
And then, rather than reassure each other that our fears would probably not be realized, we both acknowledged that if this election has taught us anything it is that we don’t know what the future holds.
There is a wall of ideology that separates my sister and I, and I don’t think that wall is ever going away. But as we talked plainly and listened deeply to one another it was as if we sat down on that wall together. We met there in that place of division and were able to share the burden of all the emotion and uncertainty together.
We agreed at the end of the conversation to keep talking and sharing about what was going on in our communities so we could know how the other side was feeling and pray for one another. And although I am still deeply worried, thanks to that conversation, I am not without hope.
So I want to invite you to talk with one another now, but even more importantly, I invite you to listen, without judgment. Listen with compassion. Go ahead and play with this metaphor of mending fences. Think about real relationships in your life with those you disagree with.
Is there a fence that needs mending? Is there a wall that needs to be built up in order for you to stay safe and sane? Is there a wall that could come down entirely with better communication and prayer? Is there a wall with room for a gate? Go ahead and play with this idea and see what comes.