Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Ephesians 2:14-15, 19-22, Luke 4:14-20 ~
My Junior Year in college, I had the good fortune to take a poetry seminar with Noel Perrin, an English Professor who lived on a farm in Thetford, Vermont. He held class there, which was perfect, because the poet in question was Robert Frost, who lived on a similar farm in New Hampshire much of his life.
If you’ve read any of Frost’s poetry, you know that much of his symbolism comes from the New England countryside and common 19th/early 20th century farming tasks such as apple picking, cider making, and sugaring. One of his most famous poems, Mending Wall, published in the 1914 volume, North of Boston, refers to another common task. As I read it, I encourage you to listen closely. So much of Frost’s poetry has been oversimplified and commodified, and his are not simple poems.
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.”
“Good fences make good neighbors.” It’s funny, for this is the line most people remember. I mean, it closes the poem, and it’s an emphatic statement. But Frost begins the poem with just as emphatic a statement: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And the rest is a dance between the two. Frost would prefer to let the old stones continue falling until they’ve gone back to the fields from which they came. But his neighbor (like his father before him) prefers the boundary, the clarity, the “this is my side and that’s yours” of a good fence.
It’s notable Frost doesn’t argue. He disagrees but rebuilds the wall— walking the line, doing the heavy-lifting balancing dance in unison with his neighbor, cooperatively recreating the boundary. And yet, he can’t help but allude to the man’s darkness. Not the darkness of the forest (“woods only and the shade of trees”) but that of an “old-stone savage armed.” Don’t get too close! “Good fences make good neighbors.”
But do they? I’ll respect Frost’s embrace of complexity and not come down too hard on one side or another. Though I must share that, a few months before his death in 1963, Frost was invited to visit the Soviet Union and read at the Moscow library, and the poem he read was Mending Wall. No doubt, for the party hacks in the audience, the image that came to mind was the concrete and barbed wire barrier erected the year before in Berlin. As the Associated Press reported at the time, “The Russians didn’t know whether to laugh or what.”
In any case, we all create walls, typically out of fear. Whether we live in a gated community or erect emotional barriers that keep others from getting to know or connect with us, walls are built to keep people out—or in: to separate and divide. You belong there. I belong here. Stay put!
The question is: who’s out and who’s in? Or, as Frost wrote: “I’d ask to know what I was walling in and walling out.” For both happen each time a wall is built.
Of course, Jesus knew this, too. Which is why his first sermon quotes the Prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
In this inaugural sermon he emphasizes the setting free of both the “walled in,” the oppressed and enslaved, and the “walled out,” the poor. But friends, I’m convinced Jesus was both a prophetic preacher and a wisdom teacher, so I believe his message brings good news to us all. Meaning, it’s clear Jesus came to bring good news to those who are literally impoverished and imprisoned. But I believe he meant these words symbolically/spiritually as well. He knew those of us walled in or out by our own anger, fear, and despair need only open our eyes (“recover our sight”) to realize we’re actually loved and free.
Jesus understood that the biggest challenge is changing hearts and minds. Because, once this happens, it’s easy to knock down the physical brick and mortar that separate people. And yet, changing hearts and minds is easier said than done. Thus, in the Lukan passage immediately following this first sermon (which he preached at the synagogue in Nazareth), Jesus was driven out and almost hurled off a cliff by his fellow Nazarenes! Which is perhaps why he started teaching in parables…
In any case, Jesus understood walls. He knew some people are considered “in” and some “out.” And he was, without exception, for the outsider. However, I say again, he cared about both physical and spiritual (or psychological) exclusion. He challenged us to overcome both internal and external barriers, to deal with the fear that leads us to create those barriers, to overcome this fear with love, to love our neighbor and our enemy, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (because, often, we find ourselves the hardest to love of all).
Of course, when we think of walls today, we tend to think of “the” wall, or the one our president would like to build for 5.7 billion dollars along our border with Mexico. Some of us also think of the walls separating Israel from the occupied territories of Palestine (see the picture on the front of your worship bulletin). And, a few of us are old enough to have traveled to Berlin and experienced Checkpoint Charlie, the passage from west to east—a short and surreal walk from the vibrant and commercial West to the concrete slabs of the Soviet Socialist East. Note: it wasn’t the West Germans who constructed the wall, it was the East— because they were afraid of the other side…
Walls. The great Chinese Wall was an attempt by the Qin dynasty to keep out nomads from inner Asia, Hadrian’s Wall separated the “civilized” Roman Britons from the “barbaric” Scottish tribes… We humans seem to like them. For we think they’ll make us safe, and we are so often afraid. As Alexander Nazaryan wrote in The Los Angeles Times during Trump’s campaign:
It is likely that some of those who support Trump’s walls are genuine racists, thrilled to find their convictions, long bred in silence, suddenly shouted by the presumptive Republican nominee, then repeated ad infinitum on cable news, treated as serious stuff by unserious people. But many of those who support Trump are simply frightened; the wall represents a bulwark not so much against the Islamic State or the Sinaloa Cartel, but against the 21st century, blowing across the dark fields of the republic like one of those punishing New Hampshire winds that come in October and stay through March.
Yes, he was referencing Frost’s poem (as it relates to the now-upheld partial ban on Muslims and the ongoing debate over a wall on our southern border). His point being that these are not policies to move a nation forward! Rather, they’re fearful attempts to isolate us, provide a false sense of security, and prevent us from connecting with those who, while certainly different, have hearts that beat and love, guts that digest and inform, and heads that think and dream. Meaning, there’s more that connects than divides us. And yet, fear insists we focus on the latter.
The truth is, I’m not up here to provide a definitive answer on border security. I’m no expert, and you know that. Fortunately, there are seven decent Senators (among them Jon Tester, a Montana rancher with ample experience dealing with the pros and cons of fencing) who are working to come up with a compromise. These are complex issues, and, like Frost, I’m unwilling to insist that one poetic trope is universally truer than another. But, also like him, I ask you to think and feel deeply about the two offered by this poem. Because they’re far more than words on a page. They’re challenging spiritual and philosophical complements and contradictions that deserve to be deciphered with integrity, humility and love.
Good fences make good neighbors.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.