Good Fences?

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 6 November 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe. I had hoped that this sermon would lose its relevance after the presidential election. Oh well.)


If you have been particularly observant, perhaps you may have noticed — There’s an election coming up soon.

Something I have noticed this election season, as I travel back and forth between here in Pasadena and my home in San Diego, is that the election makes the borders and boundaries between cities and counties more apparent than usual. The yard signs you see in different places are for different Congressional races — and the billboards support and oppose different issues. Up here in Los Angeles County you have to decide on propositions involving homelessness and how the Department of Water and Power should be run; while in San Diego, we have to decide whether to build another stadium for the Chargers, and whether to require that races for some local offices always have runoffs in November. As you travel from one city to another, the color schemes of the campaign signs change ever so slightly — I guess it’s our Southern California version of fall colors.

Los Angeles County, your home, and San Diego County, my home: They are two communities, with different issues before them. But what happens in each county will affect what goes on in the other — because we’re neighbors.

This is reflected not just in election issues, of course. There are all kinds of cultural ways in which Los Angeles and San Diego behave like neighbors do: similar to one another, but different enough to notice. Like our burritos; you’re much more likely to get french fries in your burrito in San Diego than you are here, and yet we can all agree that those things they serve in San Francisco are a different dish entirely.

More seriously (perhaps): as someone familiar with the Unitarian Universalist community in San Diego, I’ve found it interesting to experience life in the UU community in Los Angeles. Different congregations, different people, different ministers, somewhat different cultures, but facing some of the same problems and opportunities. It’s been an important part of my learning as your intern minister.


So I’ve been thinking about the idea of being neighbors, and today I’d like to talk about some of the things that have come up for me around that idea. I’d like to start by reading you Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”1:

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 neighbour 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 neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
Why do they make good neighbours? 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 neighbours.”


There are two ideas competing in the poem — on the one hand, the idea that “good fences make good neighbors,” the idea that the boundaries between us help define who we are, and that maintaining clear borders and clear boundaries helps us get along — and on the other hand, the idea that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the idea that creating walls and boundaries destroys our wholeness. As Frost writes,

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.

So let’s start with that second idea — that we should consider what it would be like to have fewer boundaries — what it would be like to consider more people to be our neighbors.


Now, if you ask someone in seminary to say something about the idea of “neighbors,” and about expanding our idea of who should count as a neighbor, nine times out of ten the seminarian will start talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, from the Christian scriptures. Even the humanist seminarians. And that’s exactly what I will do — because one of the six sources we claim for Unitarian Universalism is, and I quote, “Jewish and Christian teachings that call on us to love our neighbors as ourselves” — and that is exactly what the Good Samaritan story is about.


I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan before, but let me review it, so the details will be fresh in your mind.

It’s a story from the gospel of Luke.

A lawyer — that is, an expert on the Torah — asks Jesus what he has to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer, and asks him, what does the Torah say, and how do you interpret it. The lawyer answers that the Torah says that you should, first, love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind — and second, you should love your neighbor as yourself. This is actually an answer that is historically appropriate; it mirrors Torah commentary from the first century. In the book of Luke, Jesus hears this answer and says: Exactly, that’s just what you should do.

But the lawyer presses on, as lawyers sometimes do. He asks Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”

So Jesus starts his parable, and tells of a man who was walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, which is a very long day’s journey on a road that passes through a valley that was know to be a dangerous place. The man was overtaken by robbers, who beat him, robbed him, and left him half-dead by the side of the road. A Jewish priest walks by and sees the injured man, but crosses to the other side of the road in order to pass by. Then a Levite — a functionary at the temple — comes by, and also crosses to the other side of the road in order to pass by. Now, if you were a Jew in the first century listening to this story, you would would know what should come next: If someone is telling a story, and first a priest does something, and then a Levite does something, there is a third person you would always expect to be next. It’s kind of like a rabbi, a priest, and a minister walking into a bar; they always appear together. And for a first-century Jew, after having a priest — representing the center of the temple — and then a Levite, a less-central functionary — the next person should be an Israelite, representing the general population of Jews. But Jesus’s parable goes in a different direction: The next person to come by is not an Israelite, but a Samaritan. There was no love lost between the Israelites and the Samaritans. But in the parable, the Samaritan is moved by pity, and helps the traveler, tending to his wounds and taking him to an inn, where he gives the innkeeper enough money to house the injured traveler for two months.

Jesus asks the lawyer, “which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers “The one who showed him mercy.”

He can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan,” but he does acknowledge the point of the story.


It makes a lot of sense that this story is in the gospel of Luke, because it is very much in line with the perspective expressed throughout that book. Luke is full of examples where people at the margins of society are held up. For example, since we’re getting close to December, compare the story of Jesus’s birth given in Luke with the one given in Matthew. In the gospel of Matthew, the birth story is told so that an angel comes to Joseph to tell him about Mary’s upcoming pregnancy. But in Luke, the angel comes to Mary, the woman, rather than to Joseph, the man — and this is notable, in a patriarchal society. In the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is born, wise men from the East come to give expensive presents to the baby; but in Luke’s version of the story, there are no wise men, and no expensive presents… instead, it is shepherds — itinerant field workers — it is shepherds who are visited by angels and told of the birth.

So the parable of the Good Samaritan fits into the larger perspective of the gospel of Luke. It’s a strong story that encourages us, in Robert Frost’s words, to not love a wall; it encourages us to break down barriers. In Unitarian Universalist terms, it is a story that emphasizes the inherent worth and dignity of all people, especially of people we may think of as different from us, or as dangerous.


But how does this work in practice?

Let me tell you a true story of something that happened to me several years ago, something almost straight out of a parable.

I had just parked my car in a small strip mall, and was walking over to a shop, when I heard a commotion in the small alleyway leading from the parking lot to the street. There was a woman in a motionless SUV who was honking her horn. I looked to see what the trouble was, and I saw that there was a man, who looked like he probably lived on the street, who had fallen in the alley and was having trouble getting up. He was blocking the alleyway, and the woman in the car couldn’t pass by. She looked nervous and anxious to be in this situation.

My first instinct was to help the man get up. But I have to admit, I paused. I took a moment to evaluate the situation: Was there danger? What personal boundaries of my own would I be crossing if I went to help him up? Did crossing those boundaries make me uncomfortable? Why? Should I cross them anyway?

It looked like the man might have been having trouble getting up because he was drunk or otherwise impaired, and I wasn’t sure how he might respond to a stranger approaching him while this SUV was looming over him. He was big and fairly stocky, and probably stronger than me. But it was daytime, and there were people not too far away — including the driver of the SUV, although she looked kind of spooked, and I wasn’t sure she would be able to help if anything happened…

After this brief moment of hesitation, I decided that the danger was probably small, and I was prepared to cross my internal boundaries. I approached the man, and talked with him. I helped him up; we walked together to the side of the alley, and I retrieved his bag of possessions, which were still where he dropped them in the middle of the alley. The woman in the car drove off, and the man and I talked for a while. He seemed OK, and did not want any medical care.


What’s the difference between my story and the parable? The parable doesn’t say what the Good Samaritan thought before he helped the man on the side of the road. Do you think the Good Samaritan hesitated? What would you do if you were in the parable? What would you do if you were in an alley with a man who had fallen down, who may have been impaired by drugs or alcohol?


It’s important to have personal boundaries. And it’s important to know when you want to cross them.

This church has a covenant of good relations that all members are expected to follow. You can find it on our web site, and it makes clear some of our expectations of behavior. This covenant helps us understand that while we all have inherent worth and dignity, that doesn’t give us an excuse to behave however we want. There are boundaries between us, borders that define what we can expect in interactions with one another.

But boundaries can be crossed, with permission. We let loved ones do things that we don’t let strangers do. The important thing is to be aware of what our boundaries are, and to know when they are being crossed.

In terms of the poem, we should know where our property line is, even if we choose not to build a wall there — walls come with a cost, and it’s not always a cost that is worth paying.


I think that the spiritual cost of walls is something we, as Southern Californians, are particularly aware of. We live on the border with Mexico. It’s important to have borders, because in democratic societies we need to know who is representing us, in what legislature. We need to know whose laws we live with, whose elections we vote in. But how hard should it be to cross these borders?

We in Southern California can see the costs that come with borders. The economic cost — like the time wasted in the hours-long lines to cross the border. The emotional cost, paid by the families that are separated by it. The spiritual cost: All the political fights about the border, and all of the detention centers we fill because of it.

In this election year, there has been talk of building a wall on the border, larger than what we have already. But we need to keep in mind the price — not just the cost of materials and labor, but the spiritual price.

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.


May we be aware of all the prices we pay for all of the borders in our lives; may we recognize the neighbors across our borders; and may we know when it is good to invite them to our homes, and for us to visit theirs.

Blessed be. Amen.


Image credit: Public domain image by Pixabay user harborlight. Original here.


  1. From The Poetry of Robert Frost by Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Copyright 1916, 1923, 1928, 1930, 1934, 1939, 1947, 1949, 1967 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Copyright 1936, 1942, 1944, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962 by Robert Frost. Copyright 1964, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1973, 1975 by Leslie Frost Ballantine. Reproduced here in accordance with the Sixth Principle (“Poetry Online”) of the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry

3 thoughts on “Good Fences?”

  1. I am still thinking about that woman in the SUV honking her horn.

    I think the idea of personal boundaries still means different things for women than for men in our society. You weren’t sure at first whether there was danger to you personally from that man, but made the decision that there wasn’t. For women, that calculus about whether strange men–especially strange drunk men–pose a danger to us, is very different. We’ve been told so from birth.

    I’d like to think I wouldn’t have simply sat there. But I don’t know what I would have done instead. Called the police from my cell phone, maybe, to get him some help? But that course of action comes with its own drawbacks. What would you advise a woman to do in this situation? Maybe honking the horn was the best she could do–at least she drew the attention of someone who could help, without getting the police involved, which could have been even worse for the man.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you are right about how personal boundaries and the perception (and reality) of safety are different for women than for men. I hope I did not give the impression that I thought the woman is the SUV was doing wrong — I remember her looked scared, and I’m sure she was wondering about her choices, as you imagine yourself doing: “What should I do?”

    Like

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