“Broken Fences”

November 13, 2016

The First Parish of Watertown

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

 

Opening Words                               from Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nov. 9, 2016

Our constitutional democracy enshrines ….the principle that we are all equal in rights and dignity, freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, and we must defend them….

So, let’s do all we can to keep advancing the causes and values we all hold dear: Making our economy work for everyone, protecting our country and our planet, and breaking down all the barriers that hold any American back from achieving their dreams.

We … say with one voice that we believe that the American dream is big enough for everyone, for people of all races and religions, for men and women, for immigrants, for LGBT people and people with disabilities, for everyone.

So, now our responsibility as citizens is to keep doing our part to build that better, stronger, fairer America we see, and I know you will.

 

I hope you will hear this. I have spent my entire adult life fighting for what I believe in. I’ve had successes and I’ve had setbacks, sometimes really painful ones…. You will have successes and setbacks, too. This loss hurts, but fighting for what’s right is worth it. …

Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.

I still believe as deeply as I ever have that if we stand together and work together with respect for our differences, strength in our convictions, and love for this nation, our best days are still ahead of us.

We are stronger together, and we will go forward together.

Scripture tells us, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.”

So, my friends, let us have faith in each other. Let us not grow weary. Let us not lose heart. For, there are more seasons to come, and there is more work to do.

 

Reading   Mending Wall, by Robert Frost

Frost was the very first poet to take part in a presidential inauguration.  Because Kennedy closed so many campaign speeches with Frost’s line, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” the president invited the poet to speak.  Frost was 88 years old, and the winter sun made so much glare he couldn’t read.  Lyndon Johnson got up and took off his hat, tried to hold it to make a shadow on the page, but Frost gave up, and recited an old poem he knew by heart instead.

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”

Perhaps you noticed on Wednesday that both Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton – leaders who believe in diversity and inclusion – quoted from the New Testament in their speeches acknowledging the painful defeat to a man who represents a party that believes itself to uphold Christian values.  Oddly, perhaps, this made me feel better.  It was reassuring to know that each had a source of strength and comfort to turn to; and it helped me, too, because I know those parables, and I know those lines.  They are speaking a language I understand.

I have never qualified as a Christian myself.  I was born a UU, and I do not accept the idea of an exclusive faith; of one right way.  But I thought, in listening to these gracious and righteous remarks, they are showing us something here.  They are demonstrating faith for us, and in a language that many, many people will be able to hear.  About three quarters of our country identifies as Christian.  After this election, in which nearly half the people who voted rejected the core principles of our Unitarian Universalist faith, we are left deeply shaken.  It is hard not to see this vote as legitimizing hate and rage, and even enshrining it as Christian.  But in listening to Clinton and Kaine, I was reminded, the angry people do not own the Bible.  And, by extension, they do not own our story.

Earlier this fall, for reasons completely unrelated to politics and church, 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.” That 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?  And isn’t that what I was responding to when Kaine and Clinton used a sentence or two from the Bible?  When I saw that Leonard Cohen had died – our rabbinical Zen priest – I had these swirling pieces of my own past:  the band here, at this church, playing Hallelujah, talking with Judy Kamm about how much Cohen meant to her, and thinking about baffled kings and broken hallelujahs; about David and Israel.

Maybe this collection of books is not our primary religious inspiration, but knowing the language of the Bible and the stories it tells, which are foundational to Muslims, Jews and Christians – might offer us a chance to engage with the population we are sharing the world with. This is most certainly a time when our faith is needed – not just for ourselves; our personal healing and struggle to accept the country we inhabit – but for all of the people; for those who now have legitimate fears based on their racial, religious, or sexual identity.  Who we are in the wake of this election is the same as we have ever been, but perhaps with more work to do at a time when we might have thought we could rest.

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 this, such as someone thinking we are not a legitimate religion.  There was not time for much thought if he was going to be on time, 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, as our capital campaign reminds us, to open doors – to let people in, and to get our saving message out.  And now, in the wake of this election, this is more important than ever.

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 talked about acquiring superpowers at the age of three, when he began to understand the purpose of fences.  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 decided to love books.

“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… It was a fence that held words. The words inside 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.”

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. Think of all the chain link in our neighborhoods, and the way Trump drew support by reassuring people that a wall would protect us; keep us like Eden before the fall, with the evil on the other side.   We could resist being changed by voting for change.   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.  Even for those behind walls, there are transactions across borders.  We are all in this world together.

August Wilson’s play Fences 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 seems to be our task now; to make sure that we do right, and that those in power do, too.  Certain things are owed, regardless of anyone’s feelings.

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 really 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, and on the final circuit, they 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 their dismantling.  The point is not to be protected with walls and force, 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.  Later, it became a winter resort for the wealthy; in Jesus’ time, Herod had a palace there.  Because the city was very low, it stayed warmer than the surrounding area; but it was expensive.  Many people who could not afford to live there would visit Jericho – for trade, and as a welcome respite from the harsh weather higher in the Jordan valley.  The walled city exists 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.  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.  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.  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 who 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, 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                                 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.