A favorite poem of mine is “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, with its image of two New England neighbors engaged in the annual repairing of the stone wall that divides their property. The narrator can see no good use for this wall between them, but the other steadfastly repeats the adage “Good fences make good neighbors” as he replaces stone upon stone. This week’s gospel reading brought again these words from the poem to my mind: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
Why is it that we humans so love and tend to our walls? From Jericho to the Great Wall of China, from the Berlin Wall to the Israeli West Bank Barrier, to the walls cautiously constructed that guard our own hearts and closely held views, we, like the stalwart farmer in Frost’s poem delude ourselves into thinking that these barriers serve a good, if not noble, purpose.
Jesus knew a thing or two about barriers; after all, he was in the business of shattering them. He constantly upset the status quo, dining with sinners, touching the unclean, forgiving the sinner, working on the Sabbath, and raising the dead. At the same time, our Lord also knew that his barrier-busting ministry would inevitably lead to our human propensity to throw up walls and draw lines of separation. Luke, in this week’s gospel reading, records Jesus plainly stating that following him would lead to divisions–within families, between loved ones, and among good, faithful folk. He was right, and we’re still at it!
While it is a whole less likely in our present culture for families to be divided over religion, it does still happen. Maybe it doesn’t involve the question of various inter-ethnic dating among Lutherans, or Protestant/Catholic marriage, but in many circles more than an eyebrow will be raised if a Christian decides to practice Buddhism or if a young person converts from Islam to Christianity. Still, this is more the exception than the rule. Most parents are simply delighted if a child develops a life of faith.
Unfortunately, what is much more likely is division amongst the branches of the Christian family tree. We’ve managed to fragment from first century Christianity into more than 30,000 denominational groups (depending on whose figures one uses). The splits erupt both from major theological differences and from seemingly smaller issues such as whether to support missionaries or have fellowship halls or instrumental music.
Take my own denomination, for example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We’re a relatively new denomination, officially formed in 1988 from three predecessor churches (Lutheran Church in America, American Lutheran Church, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches), all three of which were the result of other previous mergers and splits among American Lutherans. The ELCA is currently the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, with more than 4.6 million members.
In case you’ve missed it somehow, the ELCA has been dealing with its own family feud for the past year, a result of Churchwide Assembly actions that included adoption of a revised social statement on Human Sexuality and passage of a resolution stating that the church will find ways for rostered leaders in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships” to serve congregations. The results of these actions have caused deep pain in many ELCA worshipping communities, pitting family members against one another and splitting congregations. Some congregations have withheld mission support, others have withdrawn their membership entirely,still while others are attempting to form yet another denomination.
I can empathize with my friends and parishioners on both sides of the issue; however, it makes me sad that this particular issue that has caused such fission. I have yet to meet anyone who plans to leave the ELCA (or any other body, for that matter) because the members refuse to take all of Jesus’ words literally and therefore sell their possessions and give them to the poor. No one that I know of has raised a ruckus because our denomination is not doing more to stop the human trafficking that is fueled by wanton greed and rampant consumerism in the western world. Sure, I’m probably over-simplifying the issue, but the fact remains that we continue to build walls and draw lines that we will not cross in the name of God, Jesus Christ, and doctrinal and/or moral high ground.
Perhaps our tendency toward fractured-faith forecasting, prognosticating about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the current state of the world with all the ease of predicting the weather should give us reason to pause. Jesus certainly issues a strong statement against such behavior. Before we draw more lines we cannot or will not cross or build walls against what we interpret with great certainty to be God’s prophetic word, we might do well to consider carefully the hypocrisy and false certitude we project in the name of Christ. It isn’t a simple subject, and I certainly don’t don’t claim to have all the answers.
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.’
It seems to me that the “something” that doesn’t love a wall in this case is the good news of Jesus Christ. That fact alone gives me reason to stop, to think, to pray, and most of all reason enough to fall to my knees at the foot of the cross, fully dependent upon the grace and mercy of God, that, thankfully, is not bound by walls and petty, fallen human behavior.
Photos by Tim Sackton used under a Creative Commons License. Thanks, Tim!