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Don’t Fence Me Out
Acts 10:34-43
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, I’ll see at the lawn’s 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. They’re the remains of a what was once a wall that was used in the 1800’s 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 aren’t any.” Then he concludes, “something inside me that doesn’t love a wall. That wants it down.”

I wonder if Frost’s poem speaks about the dilemma that we face. On one hand we can understand the old farmer’s wisdom that good fences make good neighbors. We’ve been ripped off enough to know that fences are needed to guard, to protect, to keep out and to threaten. But isn’t there also something deep down inside us that doesn’t love a wall. That wants it down. I guess it all depends on which side of the fence we’re standing on. But one thing is for sure--fences don’t 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 wouldn’t 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 good neighbors?”

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 sergeant’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t die on enemy soil, they died in America beside an invisible fence called “racism.”

“But that’s 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 we’ve come with.” True enough--at least in theory. But it doesn’t 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. I’ve 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 Christ’s resurrection, he says, there are no more fences to keep folks out, for God doesn’t 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 Peter’s 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 God’s 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 what’s 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 Peter’s sermon summary? “That everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” That’s 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 God’s 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 God’s resurrection life. Amen.