Broken Fences

Broken Fences
February 19, 2017
East Greenwich, RI
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Reading   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 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.’

SERMON:   Broken Fences

Earlier this fall, for reasons completely unrelated to church or work or even politics, I was doing some research on resilience, and I learned that the most important predictor of health and the ability to cope with stress is to develop an “intergenerational identity.” Scientists report that people who know family stories; who grow up hearing about grandmother’s home remedies, or the optimistic uncle who went out prospecting and named his baby daughter Mary California even though no gold was ever found are stronger for the telling.  Knowing that your ancestors came from a specific place, and left because they were starving, or pushed out, or adventuresome matters.  Being able to point to a place and say, there was where my parents fell in love, or where my father was betrayed, or where an accident gave my brother a permanent limp  — gives us texture, and tenacity, and a sense of identity over time.  The point is, we all carry bits and pieces of others within us – and that the narrative we create about ourselves can change, depending upon who we look back to, or ahead to.  Children are not missiles launched into the future, and great grandparents are not relics left in a time capsule.  History is not linear or circular.  It is push and pull, up and down, back and forth; yesterday and today.  We need stories about who we are that move backward and forward in time; that capture our hopes and dreams, even when those dreams were not realized by the one who first envisioned a new way.  This research was medical, and based on individual families, but I thought:  Doesn’t that sound like church?

On Thursday morning, as he was brushing his teeth before school, my 18 year old asked, “Is it possible for people to appropriate UU culture?”  This was a surprising question, and it seemed to me there was an agenda behind it, but there was not time for much thought, so I quickly said, Yes, most of the American institutions that were put into place in the late 19th century, such as free public schools and libraries were Unitarian culture that spread to the broader society, and the idea that all people – every color and gender – were equal and should have the same rights was a Universalist principle.  Of course, after he was out the door, I realized this is a wrong answer – no one appropriated these things.  We WANTED those parts of our identity to spread.  Our religious forebears worked very hard to make sure that the blessings enjoyed by some were extended to all.  Our mission now is the same – to spread our message of equality, inclusion, fairness and continuing spiritual growth.  We want to open doors – to let people in, and to get our saving message out.  These days, this is more important than ever.  We choose hope, not threats of hell.  We choose love, not hate.  We tell each other about the places life has taken us, and our dreams of where we might yet go. We open doors.

Donald Trump ran most of his campaign on the rallying cry of a wall – an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall” he called it.  To quote him, “a wall is better than fencing and it’s much more powerful.”    This made me think of an essay that had charmed me years ago, in which Sherman Alexie described how he acquired his powers via Superman.  Really it was a story about learning to read, and what that granted him – close ties to his father, who spent money he didn’t have to buy books, stacking them up every which way in a house he was too often missing from — and a way out – salvation by means of escape.  A novelist, poet, and film-maker, Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation, but was left out of many tribal ceremonies because of severe disabilities that stemmed from hydrocephaly – water on the brain made his head huge and caused seizures, and other kids were merciless.  An outsider among the outsiders, the boy became eagle-eyed.  And in devotion to his father, Alexie picked up his books before he could read.

“The words themselves were mostly foreign,” he wrote,  “but I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph. I didn’t have the vocabulary to say “paragraph,” but I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me, and I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs; of collections of things that went together held in by fences.”

The reservation was a small paragraph within the United State; fencing in the Indians; but within that enclosure, his house was a paragraph distinct from the houses to the north and south, and inside the house, more paragraphs – each person in the family, linked by genetics and shared experiences, but separate, too.  Using this logic, he said, “I can see my family:  an essay of seven paragraphs: mother, father, older brother, deceased sister, my younger twin sisters, and our adopted little brother.”

The day he began to see the world as groups of like things behind fences, he trained his eye on a Superman comic book– and BAM!  Paragraphs took on a new dimension.  Each little squared off panel had a picture, a dialogue, and a narrative.  He unlocked the words by reading the pictures, and moving the story forward.  In a house loaded up with random books, purchased by the pound at Goodwill, Alexie climbed on to an invisible chariot constructed out of his father’s passion, and took flight out into the bigger world.   Maybe it was words that let him soar, but I see the books laid on top of each other likes steps, so a boy could climb up, open the window, and be gone.  Salvation does not only happen at the end of our lives.  It is something that happens every time we use a key to open a door that might have remained locked.

I loved the visuals created by the idea of a paragraph as the ground we inhabit, divided up, demarcated, parceled out.  It is the Word made flesh; a text  made into a geography, and it can seem pastoral — sheep and split rails, or old stone walls with the woods reclaiming them; apple and pine greeting each other, like Frost and his neighbor.  There is actually a lot of research on the role of fences in creating peace.  Boundaries can make us feel safer and grant autonomy — they are not necessarily negative.  However, when there is conflict, the presence of physical barriers always exacerbates the issues.  Who decides on the boundary?  Who says which people belong on which side? The idea of being fenced in on a reservation is ugly, and the larger purpose of Alexie’s essay is to show how he used books to construct his escape.

Fences suggest a kind of liminal space, where our edges meet, and brush up against each other, and our discomfort with that contact. In my neighborhood, chain link fences are viewed as selling points; they make your property more valuable.  People seeking reassurance that the neighborhood is safe are told that a wall will protect us; keep us like Eden before the fall, with the evil on the other side.   It is a way of resisting being changed by new contact.  Never mind that the story of Eden begins with Adam and Eve being told that they were supposed to inhabit the whole earth, not the garden.  They were afraid, and wanted to stay put in a place that never changed, and God is the force that moved them out, into the world and all its adventures.  Paradise, Biblically speaking, is not any one couple’s small corner.  It is all of creation.  We are all in this world together.

August Wilson’s play Fences, which is now a Denzel Washington movie, depicts 1950s Pittsburgh, and the lines drawn between those who inhabit a shared space.  The barrier in Wilson’s play is between black and white, and father and son, and expectations and ideals.   The father in this story keeps telling his son that liking people has nothing to do with anything; that what counts is duty and responsibility.  Wilson writes, “Mr. Rand don’t give me money come payday because he likes me. He gives me because he OWES me. I done give you everything I had to give you. I gave you your life! … liking you wasn’t part of the bargain. Don’t try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you. You understand what I’m saying?”

This has ever been the task of the church; to make sure that we do right, and that those in power do, too.  Certain things are owed, regardless of anyone’s feelings.  There are many stories to tell across barriers of space and time, and hearing them makes us stronger; helps us more fully inhabit the earth.

Talk about a nearly 2000 mile long wall around the southern United States, whether it is a literal wall or a political construct, made me think about Jericho. The ancient walled city is the oldest continually occupied place on this planet.  Instead of being on the far side of the desert sands of Yuma and the Rio Grande, Jericho lies across the River Jordan – in the land of milk and honey that Israel believed was their destiny; promised to Abraham centuries ago, and finally within sight, after all those wilderness years.  From Jericho, you can see Mount Nebo, where Moses died while looking to the land he was allowed to glimpse, but never reach. This city —  behind stone walls that were fourteen feet wide, and a dozen feet high, at which point a brick wall began, and rose another 36 feet, but cut in on a steep angle and then connected to another, taller stone wall — was the first obstacle to reaching the Promised Land, after emerging from captivity and then wandering across the desert.  So perhaps Trump had some Biblical inspiration.  But what happens to Jericho?

The Israelites don’t even have to fight.  There is no tunneling under or launching over.  There is no long siege that prevents food from getting in.  Instead, Joshua leads his people in a silent march around the walls, once a day for six days.  Then, on the seventh day, they circle the city seven times, shout and blow their horns.  The walls come tumbling down, collapsing at the sound of the trumpets.  God describes Jericho as his city, a place where everyone is devoted – and therefore tells Joshua not to take anything, and not to hurt the people; in fact, not even to move in.  And the Israelites do not.  They take nothing from the Canaanites.  The wall coming down is the whole story.  And if you have been to Jewish weddings, perhaps you’ve seen the ritual of the bride circling the groom seven times before the vows take place.  It is a dismantling of the walls built around our hearts, so we can build a new life together.  It is intense; a forced awareness of the barriers that we can have between us, and the need to take them down.  The point is not to be protected with walls, but with love.  The point is to learn how to be in the world, to not be locked in.  Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

Even at the time of this story, Jericho was an ancient city; more than six thousand years old.  It was a place of wealth – a winter resort for the rich and powerful.  In Jesus’ time, King Herod had a palace there.  Many people who could not afford to live in Jericho would visit  – for trade; as a welcome respite from the harsh weather higher in the Jordan valley; to have a chance to be in a rich, diverse city.  It is on a strategic crossroad – between Jerusalem and Galilee, and also on the path to Mecca.  The road itself is a boundary between tribes; Judah on one side, and Benjamin on the other – and the Jericho road is where a famous story about neighbors takes place.  A traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was robbed and beaten, and left by the side of the road.  A priest going by does not stop to help, and neither does a Levite – a member of the priestly tribe.  Both are afraid of what might happen to them if they stop.  Maybe this injured man is faking it.  Maybe the robbers are lying in wait, and will get them, too.  Everyone knows that people envy the money and opportunity in Jericho, and will try to steal it if we aren’t careful.  So, even though these men are leaders, the embodiment of the revered religious institutions, and should care for the injured man, they continue their journeys instead, and get safely to Jericho.  Then a man from Samaria – a distrusted foreign territory, hostile to Jews – comes along.  He sees the victim, tends to his wounds, and carries him to a place of safety, and pays for his lodging, promising to come back and settle the tab on his return trip.  This is the Jericho Road; a place to contemplate what separates us, and why.  The person who was kind and helpful and put himself at risk was the one no one expected anything of; and the priest hurried away without even stopping.

The message of this story cuts both way.  Perhaps we want the parable to be about the undocumented immigrants, and how they are not a threat; but maybe we also need to learn to see that some of the people we are afraid of; the people who have recently come into power can also surprise us.  I do not want to be naïve.  I am not counting on good will and open-mindedness.  I think we will need to work very hard to get what is owed to the people, and the land.   But I am aware that I am on the Jericho Road, and that everyone else is, too.  The wall came down long ago, but the dangers remain, because they come from us.  I always get a little squeamish when I hear people talk about fighting – fighting for what’s right, fighting for a cause.  I want it to be less violent and messy.  But I think the best we can do is fight from a place of love.  Fight for justice and what is right, not against people, not out of fear.

Years and years ago, in 1970, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin held a public conversation they called “A Rap on Race.”  They talked for seven and a half hours, and one of the things Baldwin said that I think about today is this: “I’m part of this society and I’m in exactly the same situation as anybody else — any other black person — in it. If I don’t know that, then I’m fairly self-deluded… What I’m trying to get at is the question of responsibility. I didn’t drop the bomb [that killed four black school girls in Birmingham]. And I never lynched anybody. Yet I am responsible not for what has happened but for what can happen.”

All of us are responsible for the future, and that means we have to understand where we are coming from.  Our collective past is a driving force, and we need to harness it constructively.

We are each other’s only hope.

Let us walk quietly around these barriers that look insurmountable, day after day, and then blow our trumpets, and build a new way.
Closing Words            from Simone Weil
Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us. Every separation is a link

Leave a Reply