Saturday, July 10, 2010

Good Neighbors

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, July 11, 2010

Text: Luke 10:25-37

“Something there is that doesn't love a wall,” begins one of Robert Frost’s best known most often quoted 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. …

What it is that doesn’t love a wall is, of course, frost. The poet is punning on his name. It is frost that destroys walls. But more than that it is Mr. Frost himself that doesn’t like walls. He says as much to his neighbor:

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.'

The neighbor is a bit conservative, one might say, repeating his father’s proverb, savoring it, handling it like a stone from the dark stone age. Of this neighbor, the poet says,

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."*

Many people quote Frost’s poem as they do the Bible, imagining that the proverb at the end is a chunk of common sense not to be disputed. The poet might think so, too—since he participates in this annual ritual of rebuilding the stone wall—but he is ambivalent. Something in him doesn’t love a wall.

“Who is my neighbor?” is one of two questions that dominates today’s gospel lesson. The other question is one that lies silently beneath Jesus’ story. “Why the walls?” The first century religion into which Jesus was born was as convinced as Frost’s neighbor that walls were necessary, and not only to make good neighbors, but precisely to keep some people from being neighbors. Some of those walls had to do with honest attempts to order society. Priests and Levites, temple officials, did not touch corpses without becoming ritually defiled (and quite possibly disease carriers, although that was not exactly the point). Something there is in people that does love walls. It is that part of us that wants to make sure that power and privilege are secure. Funny thing about that. As it turns out, one does not have to be a person or a member of a group that boasts of power and privilege. The powerless and the underprivileged sometimes have as big a stake in erecting, repairing, and maintaining walls as do those who demonstrably profit most from them. It seems to be, like Frost’s annual wall-mending day, something that human beings just do, whether they profit from walls or indeed like them much.

Walls keep people in and they keep people out. They make us at least feel secure, whether we are or not. And they advertise the boundaries that one dare not cross without considerable peril. The robbers who terrorized travelers on the Jericho Road had their own kind of walls, and not just the rocks they could hide behind to plan and execute their ambushes. They, like their gang descendants in Maratrucca-13 in Washington, had staked off their territory which one entered at one’s peril. The Samaritan lived behind another kind of wall. It was a wall of discrimination and hate. And when one is discriminated against, one colludes with wall-building. You hate me, then I’ll hate you. Leave me alone behind the wall you have built, and there I will nurse my pain, my un-belonging, build my bombs, get back at you.

Storyteller Jesus ingeniously sets up his hearers to expect a third traveler who would break the pattern of the first two. And since the first two are clergy, who better to break the pattern than a normal Israelite lay person, someone who might do a neighborly thing because that is what normal Israelites would do? Don’t stick your head in a book and pull your burro over to the other side of the road; go, check out the man lying in the ditch. But, surprise! It is not the average, faithful Israelite neighbor who acts in compassion and mercy or even curiosity. It is somebody from the other side of the wall. It is a Samaritan.

Remember the way the story got started. Jesus has had a conversation with a lawyer who, testing him, asked him a question about the Law: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus returns the question with a question: “What is written in the Law. How do you read?” The lawyer answers correctly by quoting the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your strength, and with all you mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” But unable to let it go, the lawyer, seeking to justify himself, asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

So the story tells us that neighbors are frequently those behind walls. Neighbors are the ones who are frequently invisible, often alien. Now the interesting thing about the story is how it ostensibly answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?” but really focuses on “Who does the neighborly thing?” It really does not matter whether one sees the Samaritan or the wounded man as “the neighbor.” They are neighbors to each other. But the only way that can happen is for at least one of them—in this case the Samaritan—to come from behind the wall. He does precisely what the priest and the Levite do not do: he crosses the boundary and acts as if the wall is not even there. Not only does he dismount and get involved; he treats the wounds, carries the hurt man to an inn, stays there and takes care of him overnight. On top of all that, he gives two day’s wages to the innkeeper with instructions to take care of the man until he comes back, and makes an open-ended promise to pay whatever more the innkeeper charges (trusting, I suppose, that the innkeeper might not be inclined to rip him off just because he is a Samaritan).

Given the way we pigeonhole people, we are inclined to give the lawyer in the story little more of a break than his tribe is willing to give Samaritans. He is a lawyer, very possibly a smart-aleck lawyer, trying to trip up Jesus with his fancy schmancy questions, a member of the religious and social elite—all the things that make us want to see him cut down to size. But Jesus will have none of that. “Which of these three proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” he asks. And the lawyer replies, “The one who showed mercy on him.” Jesus replies, “Go and do likewise.” Don’t be too quick to imagine that the lawyer turns away, disgusted at the thought of behaving like the Samaritan. This might have been the moment when he heard the Truth, and this the story that let him in on it. For after all, that is why Luke is telling the story to you and me: to let us know what the Reign of God is like, to let us see how it is that eternal life is not something won by maintaining walls but by practicing living as if there were no walls.

None of us is likely to think that boundaries are a bad thing, or in Frost’s terms, that all fences have no use. I certainly do not think so. But boundaries do not have to be walls and walls do not have to keep us captive. The life of God—eternal life you might call it—the only life worth living––requires behaving like God. And behaving like God means finding that part of us that does not love a wall. It means coming from behind the fences and daring to believe that the man in the ditch is as really a part of us as our own arm or leg or eye. It does not take much to see in the face of the Samaritan one whom we recognize. For the Samaritan is none other than Jesus himself, healing the wounded, caring for the stranger, taking the trouble to get involved, creating a relationship that could never happen if fences were paramount, behaving like God. “Go and do likewise” is not a judgment or a sentence. It is a statement of what the lawyer, you, I, all of us, have to practice and practice and practice until we become the place where the Spirit of God makes a dwelling.

* "Mending Wall," Selected Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1963), p. 23.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

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