John 1:9-10; Isaiah 35:1-2, 5-10
I have been thinking about walls lately. The ongoing debate over the southern border started my musing, but the reality is that we witness walls being constructed everywhere. Some of those walls are physical, some are emotional, some are mental. We witness walls constructed between nations, but also among families, between neighbors, even within our own hearts, sometimes to protect us from ourselves.
I think of the story of journalist Maria Said, who was excited when she first learned she would be spending some time in the African desert working in international development. She imagined living in a small hut of her own, with a palm tree to the side. Perhaps a little desk surrounded by mosquito netting where she could write and work, living not unlike Kristen Scott Thomas in ‘The English Patient’, or Meryl Streep in ‘Out of Africa’. She had a vision of the desert akin to today's Scripture from Isaiah, especially the opening lines: "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”
The reality was much different. In her own words: "For two years, I shared my home with more than 30 children, four freedom fighters, a government bureaucrat, a wife-beater, a Red Cross worker with a taste for liquor, a number of prostitutes, a madman, and all the customers of the tea shop next door." When she first hit town, she found that no housing had been arranged for her, no private hut and no personal palm tree. A townsman showed her an empty place, a room with walls that reached only to the level of her head. A room with half-walls is a room with a view - of everything. It means lots of exposure, lots of community and lots of opportunities to connect. Maybe too many opportunities. This is the way Maria spent the next two years - celebrating half-wall holidays.
Maria quickly discovered that her lofty and idealistic notions of "community" and "neighbor" quickly came down to earth and took concrete form. In this kind of community, there were no time-outs allowed - no private moments to take a deep breath or smooth over loose ends. The rough edges of day-to-day life didn't get addressed in a half-wall world ... they became rougher. Maria was forced to recognize that she was neither as nice nor as neighborly as she had always assumed.
During the holidays, we often witness a false sense of community. We think we've lowered the walls of isolation, unconcern and disinterested privacy. Our sense of neighborliness is satisfied when we drop a few coins in the bell-ringer's bucket or catch up with our year end giving. But our walls are still firmly in place. Granted, this is tough for us. We love our privacy; we enjoy retreating to the haven of home at the end of a hectic day. That’s a good thing – vital and necessary for our health.
At the same time, we long for community and connectedness. And it is this tension between the need to be alone and together that God resolves in the Incarnation. God lowers the walls, and calls on us to do the same. In this text, Isaiah captures the dual purpose of God's coming, the dual nature of his involvement in human life. God is both a truth-teller and a healer, one who dispenses justice and offers extravagant love. In taking this approach, God provides us with a half-wall experience, stripping away our pretenses and helping us to bring together our public and our private personas.
Then comes the good part: The work of healing and peace. "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened," promises the prophet, "and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” This text proclaims good news to a people in bondage, in captivity, without hope, experiencing walls of separation from family and barriers to the peace they crave. This is not solely a physical exile. This text speaks today to those who experience emotional or spiritual exile from loved ones, those who pass through a wilderness period that seems to be unending, those who are weak or struggling to survive. Isaiah proclaims God’s ability to overcome the walls of suffering and despair to bring a glimmer of transformation and good news in our lives, no matter our situation.
Journalist Maria discovered that in her community united by half-walls, times of joy and transformation will emerge. One of the women who lived next door became her best friend. When the dust storms came and the lights blew out, the woman would place her candles on top of the wall so that the two of them could share the light. On nights when she worked late, Maria passed bowls of American-style food over the wall and listened as the woman and the tea shop customers tried to identify and swallow the strange meals. Each night, after they dragged their rope beds out of the hot rooms into the small courtyards, they would whisper over the wall and wish blessings for the next day. The woman called Maria "sister" and made her a part of her family.
I think of Jesus in this context. Jesus came into a world filled with walls. His birth story invited the ridicule and scorn of his family’s community. Joseph’s nationality required their family to travel to Bethlehem, quite a distance from Nazareth in those days, to be registered for the census. And upon their arrival in Bethlehem, the holy family had to overcome a lack of house space and hospitality to find warmth in the shelter of a stable. Walls emerged everywhere, and finally they encountered the half wall of an innkeeper who offered the only space available. But that was enough – there was enough space in that half wall offering for God to take control and change the world, for God to begin the work in Jesus of redefining God’s family.
I think of Robert Frost’s famous poem about walls. Most of us, perhaps nearly all of us, have heard or read selected parts of his poem. But I think his whole poem bears repeating and noting in our current context.
Frost writes, “Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that sends the frozen-groundswell 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 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 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.”
Most people only know Frost’s poem by its last line – good fences make good neighbors. But that line is meant with irony, as we note from the rest of the poem. We catch a glimpse of Frost’s intent with the title of this poem, which most of us do not know. The title is not ‘good fences make good neighbours.’ The title, ‘Mending walls.’ Frost’s poem encourages us to look with suspicion upon the walls constructed in our world to keep people separated and to look with honest critique at the symbolic walls we construct to keep our friends and loved ones at arm’s length.
And in this context, again, I think of Jesus. When Jesus came, the world changed. Walls and other barriers crumbled. The Prince of Peace reigned. The babe of Bethlehem brought together an unexpected crew of local shepherds and foreign magi, lowly barnyard animals and a heavenly host, son of a teenage mother and a carpenter with bloodlines to Israel’s kings. As an adult, Jesus of Nazareth brought together the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, the marginalized and the elite, formed into a band of disciples and followers who are our forebears in faith and examples for how to follow and not to follow Jesus the Christ. In his physical absence, Jesus inspires the church of every age to break down walls and to build bridges of relationship that bring peace, reconciliation, forgiveness and healing to the wounds and walls of our lives and world.
Because Jesus came, the world continues to change for the good, as we seek to embody Christ’s peace in our relationships and world, while we also discern Christ’s peace within our own hearts to engage the tough work of breaking down the barriers we construct daily. But that is what Jesus came to do, and that is what he represents - a hope, a beacon, a chance, to reach out across that wall, vulnerably, willingly, peacefully, to touch another soul and change the world. Amen.