Dont Fence Me Out
by Rev. Thomas Hall
Fences. All shapes and sizes and heights. I must pass twenty-five fences as I
travel the four miles from home to church each week. Two hundred year old stone fences
around stately stone houses. Cute white picket fences next to doll house kinds of homes.
Chain link fences to protect our goods. Flimsy fences with a single wire that carries a
wallop if a cow brushes against it. If I look down the green corridor of my back lawn,
Ill see at the lawns edge, a rustic wooden fence, unpainted, that encloses
Jesse, a spirited horse who enjoys trotting around inside the fenced area. When you leave
church this morning look at the stones stacked at the rear of the church. Theyre the
remains of a what was once a wall that was used in the 1800s to tie our horses and
carriages to while we worshipped here. Weather has eroded and reduced it to only a
remnant. But it is our own stone fence. Fences to keep out, fences to keep in,
fences to protect or to guard, fences that are traditional more than functional, fences
that are ineffective, says one theologian.
Robert Frost once wrote a poem about fences. Two guys are out on the back forty
walking along a stone fence that separates their property. During the winter, dogs and
hunters have dislodged stones and broken down the barrier, so here they are on this spring
day trying to reassemble their crumbly stone fence. Then one of them says a strange thing,
Good fences make good neighbors. Sounds good enough. Fences do have a way of
making neighbors behave themselves. But the other guy has to ask that dumb question why.
Why do fences make good neighbors? I mean if there were cows, he
says to himself, then I can understand why fences make good neighbors, but there
arent any. Then he concludes, something inside me that doesnt love
a wall. That wants it down.
I wonder if Frosts poem speaks about the dilemma that we face. On one hand
we can understand the old farmers wisdom that good fences make good neighbors.
Weve been ripped off enough to know that fences are needed to guard, to protect, to
keep out and to threaten. But isnt there also something deep down inside us that
doesnt love a wall. That wants it down. I guess it all depends on which side of the
fence were standing on. But one thing is for sure--fences dont have to come
from Sears or have electric charges to make distinctions in our lives.
Not long ago, when our children had gathered up in front of the church for their
story, their teacher imaginatively divided our congregation down the middle to make a
point. Good folks on the right side and the not-so-good folks on the other side. Little
Brittany a little nervous when she noticed that her parents were on the not-so-good side
of the congregation quickly reminded her teacher that her mommy and daddy were good too.
Brittany saw an invisible fence and imagined what it might feel like to be on the wrong
side of the fence.
There were no fences that you could see with your eye when Nissim Gudai went
shopping for groceries in the marketplace. Seventy year old Nissim strolled the
marketplace chatting moments later he lay on the pavement with a knife still buried in his
back. Fences make good neighbors, but sometimes the fences are sharp and
hateful. The stabbing of Nissim Gudai happened next to an invisible fence with a sign that
read: You are Jewish and this is Hebron. You are trespassing. Get out and stay
out of our neighborhood.
Obren thought the Muslims would be only a bad memory a few months ago. Thought he
wouldnt have to see Muslim children playing in the street anymore, or watch their
women hoe in the garden or plant their flowers, or their men bow in prayer. Obren, a
Serbian soldier had seized a Muslim home, one that had been abandoned during the war. But
just as he was getting comfortable in his new home they started returning by the busloads.
Refugee Muslims returning to their village. After all, under the Dayton Peace Accord they
were guaranteed safe return to their homes. But to Obren, this was an invasion. So the
fence went up; a literal fence made up of Serbia soldiers standing body to body blocking
the road, wielding clubs, shovels, rocks, and hammers and bricks. Good fences make
Or take Sergeant Vernon Baker, ret. who a number of months ago received the
prestigious Metal of Honor for his heroic efforts during World War II. When I learned of
this sergeants award, I wondered why 76 year old Baker had to wait five decades
before being honored? Well, like one million other American soldiers, Vernon Baker was
black and since the racial fences were strongly entrenched, there wasnt a single
black veteran who was given a Metal of Honor until 1996. The four other black soldiers who
had also been selected for this honor had long since died. But they didnt die on
enemy soil, they died in America beside an invisible fence called racism.
But thats where the Easter story comes in, we say. Jesus
rose from the dead and that means that God forgives and accepts all of us--no matter what
race, color, or creedal background weve come with. True enough--at least in
theory. But it doesnt take too many Sundays of worship in our congregation to become
aware that there are invisible fences up. Sometimes I see the fences separating the new
arriving members from the long-established members. Sometimes I see the fences go up that
classify between those of us who have worked hard in the church in earlier yeas and those
who have begun to work in our church in recent years. Ive seen fences that separate
us based on age: Did you see what the youth did to their room? Why, when
we were kids . . . Walls based upon different approaches and different ways of doing
things, and different ways of worshipping. Sometimes I listen to folks on one side of the
fence saying I wish we could sing more hymns; but on the other side, folks
say, Pastor, we want more contemporary kinds of worship choruses. So I just
crawl up and straddle the fence!
Seems that all too often in the Church our invisible fences can often play a
stronger role in making distinctions among us than physical ones do. Consider our Easter
lesson in Acts 10. Peter gives a bold, inclusive word to all within ear shot: Because of
Christs resurrection, he says, there are no more fences to keep folks out, for God
doesnt show partiality. Then comes his terrific sermon about Jesus who goes around
everywhere healing and freeing all and everyone. What a profound
word coming from the lips of one who just hours before could have been the grand wizard of
his local KKK! Peter has been given a vision by God to eat, touch, and get involved with
what he and his Good News colleague Jews believed to be unclean stuff. So thick and high
are the fences in Peters imagination, that God has to push the replay button three
times. Three times Peter reviews a rerun of pork, cleaved hooves, and reptilian types
slithering and crawling through Gods troubling vision.
So overwhelming is this vision that God forces on Peter, that at the end of it
about all Peter can do is to scratch his head and say, Oi. Within twenty-four
hours, Peter the Christian, Peter the racist, finds himself standing in the living room of
a Gentile. And there he faces the greatest challenge of his life. Will he tear down the
fence that keeps the Good News inside his little Jewish-Christian enclave--the same fence
that keeps the rest of the world outside?
Well, before he can really struggle through his own mixed emotions on this
issue--God knocks at the door. Just when Peter gets to the part in his sermon where he
says, all who believe in him will have their sins forgiven through the power of his
name... It happens. All hell breaks loose for the fence-builders. Heaven for those
on the outside of the fence. As the crowd on the other side of the fence gets religion and
begins to praise God and speak in other tongues, Peter stands there stunned. All of the
stupid jokes that he has uttered about Gentiles comes racing back, all of the hate and
suspicion and animosity he painfully remembers. And he suddenly realizes that he--the
Christian, the disciple of Jesus--has himself built walls that has kept the Good News from
reaching people. Peter makes a life-changing, fence-destroying discovery. His discovery
frees the Good News to spill out to all lands and among all peoples. But whats
really astonishing is where he makes this discovery: right in the middle of his Easter
sermon and right in the middle of a Gentile living room.
And so this morning we remember the truly Good News that Peter made and that we
must continue to make throughout our journey: that God loves everyone--red, yellow, black
and white--and that those who trust in Jesus will receive forgiveness of sins. Period.
Where are our fences as we gather on the Easter service? What fences have kept us
away from the God who invites, who forgives, and who tears down every fence that we could
possibly erect to keep neighbors and God out?
God offers us an open-fence policy! Did you catch Peters sermon summary?
That everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his
name. Thats the invitation. Period. Not whether we believe in an event or
process version of salvation. The invitation is simply to those who trust in Jesus. Not on
our position on foreign policy, abortion, or capital punishment or any other issue--but on
Gods forgiveness and our thankful response. Easter invites us to return and
celebrate--an invitation based solely on our trust in Jesus. So come. In Jesus Christ we
are invited to come in all of our weaknesses, with our repentance, and even in our sin, to
the One, who through the Holy Spirit is always and everywhere at work tearing down human
fences and defenses, so that we can continuously open our hearts to everyone so they, too
can enjoy Gods resurrection life. Amen.