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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Something there is that doesn't love a wall

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, Ephesians 2:11-22
VII Pentecost, Proper 11, July 23, 2006
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
The Rev’d Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

I don't know about you, but I've had enough of sheep and shepherds.

I want to talk this morning about walls.

Jesus doesn’t seem to have many of them – indeed, even though he and his disciples are weary and ‘on retreat’, still he allows the sick to be brought to him for healing. Paul, in his letter to the church in the ancient church at Ephesis, speaks of a wall rather pointedly:

“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Paul probably wrote this when he was a prisoner, about the same time he wrote his letter to the church at Colossae, which, together with Ephesis, are rather insignificant towns of Phrygia in Asia Minor. As a very serious student of the bible (I studied with the Jesuits, after all), I have written in the margins of my seminary study Bible, “The Church becomes important.”

Apparently, I thought I was, too. Becoming important, that is.

Paul is writing this letter from behind walls, because walls were going up everywhere in the early Christian community. There were scandals of divisions and splits and infighting among the churches. Paul was writing to these communities about uniformity in their lives so that there might be unity in the churches.

You’ll excuse me if I note that this sounds altogether uncomfortably familiar. It seems that the old saying is true: The more things change, the more they stay the same. We are presently engaged in a Christian jihad of sorts, attempting to enforce uniformity in the name of unity. Then, it was about circumcision. Today, it’s about sexuality.

Since the inception of the church, some form of division always seems to be brewing, some order of wall is always in the process of being built. We heard it in the first hymn we sang, “By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed;” and, “Midst toil and tribulation and tumult of her war.” The media, however, never seems to pick up on the importance of church unless there is a scandal of some sort – the most current one being the scandal of division. Isn’t it interesting that the church becomes important only when there is division or scandal?

Our own personal families are no different from our church family. I know you well enough to know some of the walls your families have created. I, too, have learned a few things about walls over the years – in the church, in the nation, and in families – the most important of which came from my father. It’s probably the nature of things that, after more than four years of being with you, that I’ve probably begun to retell some of my stories, but this one is worth while, I think.

It is a gift from my father, who did not intend it as a gift, I think, but it is a gift I treasure none the less. It stands for me as a modern parable and a cautionary tale which helps to explain St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and Jeremiah’s message about scattered sheep, as well as this morning’s gospel lesson about the need to “come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

My father fought in what he always proudly referred to as "the Pacific Theater" of WWII - the longest time being spent, as he would say, "deep in the jungle" of the Philippines. One night, taking cover from some enemy fire, my father got separated from the rest of his battalion. He wandered around for hours in the pitch blackness of that tropical night - unable to see his hands or feet in from of him, much less "the enemy."

Suddenly, he came upon a wall. He put his hands along it and followed it for what seemed like miles and miles and miles. It seemed never ending. He cursed that wall, thinking that it kept him from returning to his battalion. He cursed that wall, fearing that it placed him in grave danger. He grew more and more fearful and weary with every passing hour. Finally, the extreme heat and humidity overcame him and he slumped exhausted at the base of the wall, resigned to face his death in the morning's light. Before long, he fell into the deep sleep of the doomed.

My father says he awoke to hear Pilipino voices not far off in the distance. He looked and saw the wall and suddenly, the truth dawned on him even more gloriously than that tropical morning. The wall that he had followed with his hands for miles and miles and miles, the wall that had been the only thing he knew as a tangible certainty in that jungle besides himself and his gun, the wall he had cursed long into that dark tropical night because he believed it separated him from safety, that very self same wall had actually provided protection for him.

Indeed, if that wall had not been there, he might have wandered off and walked directly into enemy fire or been taken prisoner and tortured, only to beg to be killed. Turns out, the wall saved his life. My father would always end the telling of that story with these words: “So, before you make a judgment about anything, just wait to see it in the light of another day. Because, you know, some things in this life are not always what they appear. That's because the ways of God are a deep mystery to the minds of mortals.” (Okay, he said 'man' but it's my story so I'll make the editorial changes.)

There was once a wall separating East from West Berlin, Germany. There is a wall separating the Protestants and Catholics of Belfast, Ireland. There is a wall separating the Israeli’s and Palestinians in Jerusalem. Neither of those walls succeed in keeping anyone safe. There is a virtual wall between Mexico and the United States. There is a wall which grows stronger in the proposed changes in our immigration laws.

There are proposed walls which will be erected, over time, in our church. The proposed Anglican Covenant will create walls which separate those who believe the church should be guided by a strict rule of conduct and belief from those who believe the church should be guided by an open door for all who profess a love of God, a belief in Jesus, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Whether any of these walls are being constructed for exclusion or our safety will be determined over the test of time – examined, as my father cautioned, in the light of the dawn of a new day. As he said, some things in this life are not always what they appear because the ways of God are a deep mystery to the minds of mortals.

I only know one thing for certain: When the wall in Berlin came down, there was great rejoicing. I also know that there is nothing sweeter than when the walls of hurt and pain that have grown between individuals or families finally come tumbling down and there is reconciliation.

And, this – a poem about Mending Walls by Robert Frost, with which I will leave you to consider:

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."

The words of my father are that some things in this life are not always what they appear, because the ways of God are a deep mystery to the minds of mortals.

And the words of the gospel are these: “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”


1 comment:

Jeff Martinhauk said...

How wonderful.

It seems to me that even if we cannot or should not break down the wall (like in your father's story) we can at least talk over it (like in the poem). But instead we so often try to drag and pull the other over it, be it barbed wire or electrified, be the other kicking, screaming, or whatever. Seems like maybe that's not the right approach.