Week 4: Do you with your favoritism really believe in Christ Jesus?
Vicar Anna Helgen
Wednesday, 9 March 2016; Texts: James 2:1-17; Luke 16:19-31
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Good fences make good neighbors.” Have you heard this phrase before? It was a popular colonial proverb that Robert Frost used as an expanded image in his poem Mending Wall. It has a charming sentiment, but I wonder about its truth. “Good fences make good neighbors” seems to imply that in order to have a good relationship with our neighbors, we need to have clear boundaries on our space. We must know where one property ends and where another begins. We must maintain our own space, and thus keep ourselves at a distance from our neighbors.
In Frost’s poem Mending Wall, the narrator meets his neighbor to walk the stone wall that separates their property. Each year they take this walk together to make repairs on the wall. And as they walk, the neighbor insists that good fences make good neighbors, but the narrator seems unsure. He reflects that there are no animals, like cows, that need to be enclosed. Instead their properties are sprinkled with apple trees and pine trees. The narrator also notices that nature wants to resist the wall. As the ground swells, boulders and rocks fall to the ground for no apparent reason leaving behind large holes in the wall–holes that they must fix each year as they walk the wall together. The narrator wonders to himself, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / what I was walling in and walling out.” The poem ends unresolved and we are left to hear the neighbor’s declaration once again, “good fences make good neighbors.”
Frost wants us to consider that question seriously. Do good fences really make good neighbors? Are borders necessary in order to maintain relationships among people? Or might there be another way, a different way? These are questions that Jesus invites us to consider as well in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
This parable sets up an immediate distinction between the rich man and Lazarus who are separated by a wall–both a physical wall that keeps them at a distance from one another as well as a metaphorical wall that separates them based on their economic class. The rich man is dressed in purple and fine linen and feasts sumptuously. Outside of his home, and beyond the wall, lies Lazarus, who sits at the rich man’s gate, starving and covered in sores.
The wall around the rich man’s home is what separates these two characters. It serves to show the contrast between them. It keeps people like Lazarus at a distance. It protects the “haves” from the “have nots.” While the rich man likely knows of the poverty that surrounds him, he chooses to stay within the comfort of his home, within the wall, and ignores the needs of his neighbor Lazarus.
We build walls, too, and happily live within them. We drive pass the person on the street asking for money because we’re separated by the wall provided by our vehicle. In middle school, we build walls of disdain between ourselves and classmates who are less cool, less affluent, or less athletic. We might even wall ourselves away from noisy, messy neighbors by building high privacy fences. One of my friends has mentioned before how automatic garage doors wall us from our neighbors–because you no longer have to get out of the car to open the garage door and shout a hello to the neighbor in the yard next door!
Several days ago I saw a video clip from a rally for a presidential candidate who has plans to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. During the rally, the crowd began chanting together, “Build the wall. Build the wall. Build the wall,” the chants growing in volume and enthusiasm.
Are we really so afraid!? Why do we feel the need to keep others out? To make distinctions among people? Especially those in poverty, those who are victims, those who live on the fringes? This “out of sight, out of mind mentality” is dangerous. It’s what leads to the rich man’s eternal torment. Do we want to create more walls? To build our neighbors out of our lives? Is that what Jesus calls us to do? Even in Robert Frost’s poem we see that nature works to erode the wall that divides the neighbors. Could it be that God is at work in the world to do the same?
This parable gives me some hope for us. After Lazarus and the rich man die, their fates are switched. The rich man is buried and Lazarus is carried off into heaven by angels. While in torment, the rich man longs for a drink of water. Lazarus, on the other hand, sits comfortably at Abraham’s side. The wall that once separated them in their previous life has now morphed into a great chasm and has become fixed, and no one can pass from one side to the other.
The hope for us today is that we don’t live in that reality. We live in the here and now. Walls exist and they separate us from others, but they are not fixed. We have the opportunity to change them, to deconstruct these barriers, to see beyond that which separates us. And so we can take the instructions from James seriously and Christ’s commandment to us: to love your neighbor as yourself.
To love our neighbors requires that we break down the walls that divide us–both the physical and the metaphorical walls. It requires that we make space. That we imagine a reality where there is nothing in place that puts us at odds with one another. Nothing that sets us against one another as “haves” and “have nots.”
Jesus shows no partiality. God makes no distinctions. God’s new reality disregards privilege, stereotypes, wealth, and all social barriers. God’s Spirit is at work in the world now, removing the barriers and walls that separate us, and helping us to see one another as God sees us–as beloved children, created in the image of God, members of the same body of Christ. As we begin to see as God sees us, we become closer with our neighbors, and we build relationships with them. The lines that once separated us become blurred, and it’s no longer possible to tell where one person ends and the next begins.
Good fences don’t make good neighbors. People make good neighbors. May God’s love embolden you to break down the walls that divide us and to see all people as God sees us.