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A Crack in the Wall – 4/29/2012

Last year, James Mitchell, a dedicated member and supporter of this congregation, stood where I am now and told us a story about how he had sat out where you are in the congregation one day and looked up to see a crack in the wall. That crack, right up there, where the wall begins to become the ceiling. Curiosity about that crack and the cause that lay behind it led folks in this congregation to address a structural issue in the roof at the rear of the building. And figuring that out helped people focus on some larger problems with our beloved church building, eventually leading to the restoration of all of our outer walls. We have that little crack to thank for the renewed beauty of our church home, and for the vibrant yellow of our building.

In life we need walls, for safety and for shelter. And when the walls we depend on are not there or are not up to the task, it can be a hard, even a dangerous thing. I have been told that just a few years ago, before these walls were insulated and basically rebuilt, you could tell which way the wind was blowing just as well in the sanctuary as you could outside. Walls set a limit to a space, and sometimes those limits can be lifesaving. One of our most basic human needs is the need to feel safe; to have some place or idea or belief that we can find sanctuary and solace in. The author Virginia Woolf wrote that, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Some sense of security is necessary in order to fully express our potential and become all that we are capable of becoming, particularly when one or more of our identities are dismissed, disregarded, dismembered or disdained. The walls that shelter us, from storms of wind and rain or from storms of intolerance and oppression – those walls are precious indeed.

Yet, Robert Frost reminds us, “Something there is that does not love a wall.” Barriers of all sorts, both the physical and the metaphorical, wear out and break over time. In fact the walls most likely to tumble are those that carry the most weight, or stand against the heaviest blows. When they fall, we return to that state that is as natural to us as we are deathly afraid of it: we are made terribly vulnerable once again.

Some years ago I spent a week on a service and witness trip to New Orleans. It had been almost two years since the storm that flooded, crushed, burned, and drowned that city. One of the many projects which our little group of volunteers were enlisted in was the gutting of houses. It is a practice that on the face of it seems even more distasteful than that name – gutting – would imply. The water that filled much of the city stayed high and still for days after the storm, long enough to leave buildings drenched to their rafters. Walls and floors and ceilings no longer offered surety or support; they were now simply crumbling derelicts. Left untended for months or years, waiting for their owners to pull together enough money to return from wherever they had fled to for survival, they soaked wood and drywall became a breeding ground for hazardous mold. The walls themselves had turned against their owners.

In cases like this, the hope of saving even the bones of the structure lay in tearing out everything rotten and compromised in the building. Some folks managed to do it on their own, but for many folks in New Orleans even watching their own house be gutted was too painful and too raw. It was a scene of violence against something they loved. But just like the violence of a life-saving surgery, hope motivated the work. When the worst of the rot and the mold were gone the work of healing the house could begin again. Ceilings and floors and walls could be rebuilt and rooms filled with new belongings; as much as the insurance might cover or the kindness of friends and strangers would allow. The water that scoured New Orleans swept over the levees in some places, and broke through them entirely in others. It poisoned the walls of the city, so that they had to be torn down, but in the breaking of those walls, new possibility also came through.

As painful as it sometimes is, as inconvenient as it almost always is, we need the barriers we live with and depend on to be impermanent and breakable. Because the line between the security we need to flourish and grow and the comfortable complacency we crave, but do not need, is very hard for us to see on our own. The walls we build to keep us safe too easily become battlements. Strung with barbed wire and set with watch-posts and spot-lights, we become afraid to ever step beyond them, and paranoid about anyone else who might cross the same lines. Inside the walls that encircle our identities – the pieces of ourselves that matter most to us – that sneaking, dangerous, mistaken idea that whatever I happen to be is the best sort of way to be, begins to creep in. And woe to anyone, who lives beyond our walls and even more so to any who would enter or leave our hallowed ground if the self-appointed gatekeeper does not feel that their papers are in order. We need our walls to crack sometimes, so that we can see through to the other side, and be shown the barriers and the blockades that are holding back life rather than protecting it.

There is a story in the Qur’an about the prophet Moses, and how in order to serve his community, he sought wisdom from a great mystic called al-Khidr, “the Green One”. In the story, the two go on a journey in which Moses sees Khidr do several strange things. The trip begins when they board a ship to set off across the sea, and the Green One breaks a hole in the side of the boat. Later, their journey ends during a visit to a foreign town; they receive no hospitality and are treated very poorly by the people there, and yet Khidr takes the time to repair a wall in the village that was beginning to crumble with age. His companion is bewildered and dismayed by all of this, until the Green One finally explains: the ship belonged to a kind-hearted man. Khidr broke its hull to save the vessel; if it had sailed on towards its original destination, it would have been seized by a wicked king, and its owner left with much less than a damaged ship. The crumbling wall belonged to no one, but buried underneath it was a great treasure, which rightfully belonged to two orphans. They were so young and vulnerable now that if they suddenly came into a great sum of money the unkind villagers would surely swindle them out of it. But because the wall had been repaired, their treasure would not be found for several years; enough time for the children to grow to maturity and be ready to defend their birthright.[i] We cannot always see for ourselves which of the lines that shape our lives need to be reinforced, and which need to be washed away.

The mental – and in some places very real and physical – wall, that constitutes the border between this nation and all other nations has become a national mania. We reached a low-point last year when the various presidential candidates seemed in a contest to out-do each other on how dramatically and violently they could promise to sharpen the line between the United States and Mexico. That line cuts through towns and hearts and families; it has been used to divide people and communities against each other and to reduce millions of human beings whose lives and work benefit this country to the level of disposable abstractions. And the obsession with that line has also inspired some wonderfully creative methods of protest. In one that has been going on at least since the 1970s, games of volley ball periodically break out between teams on opposite sides of the 21-foot border wall. No matter how we divide ourselves, one from another, our natural curiosity about and interest in one another will eventually reveal itself. We have an innate understanding of our connectedness, even when something appears to be in the way.

It is not that good fences make good neighbors, as Robert Frost’s neighbor beyond the hill would claim. It is rather that good neighbors make good fences. When a relationship of trust and compassion exists between two people, or two groups or two nations, they build only the barriers they truly need between themselves. The wall that is just as strong as it needs to be, to keep your cows from wandering into my orchard and tripping over the roots. Or the fence that is just as tall as it needs to be, to keep my dog from digging up your bushes. But not so strong that we cannot take it down together if its purpose is ever through, and not so tall that we cannot meet on either side of it some spring day, and chat about the weather, and the news in town, and how has your mother has been lately? I will keep her, and you, in my prayers.

When we are constantly on guard, caught up in our personal walls as though we are lost in a maze, we miss out on the opportunities to learn and to grow, the seeds of hope and love and justice that we may discover in another person. There is a story in the Jewish tradition about a great Rabbi who was very wise and renowned in his community. He was a holy man, and always seeking after new degrees of holiness that he had not yet achieved himself. One night he dreamt of the world to come, the age when the world shall be whole again, and all shall be justice and peace. In some traditions it is held that when that day has arrived, a great meal will be served to satisfy those who toiled in the world before it was perfected.

In his dream, the Rabbi beheld this meal. He saw the wonderful colors and smelled the fragrant spices of the food. He felt the soft comfort of the grand chair in which he was seated, at the table of the righteous. Just before his dream ended the Rabbi looked around and into the face of the man who was seated next to him, a man he did not know. But as he awoke he heard in his mind the name of the man and the town where he lived. The Rabbi was filled with joy to receive such a wonderful and prophetic dream, and he was very curious to meet this man, whom he was destined to sit beside at the banquet for the healing of the world. Knowing himself to be a deeply wise, profoundly holy, and very important man, the Rabbi greatly wished to know what sort of exalted figure he would be honored to sit beside at the blessed meal to come.

The Rabbi set out for the town where this man lived. On the way there he had to cross an old, decrepit bridge over a loud river. He arrived near sundown on a Friday, a time when any observant Jew would need to be at home, preparing to welcome the Sabbath. He found the man’s simple, tiny house empty. Beside this, it was filthy and clearly it had not been cleaned for many months. The Rabbi waited and waited until well after sun-down before the stranger from his dream, the owner of the house arrived. He was the same man, to be sure, but his face was dirty and his clothes were tattered. The poor man accepted the Rabbi into his home, but with none of the honor and ceremony to which the important holy man had grown accustomed. He was offered food, but he quailed to eat it, for although his host clearly was Jewish, it seemed he kept none of the commandments, and the food from his kitchen was visibly not kosher. The Rabbi’s heart sank, for now having met the stranger he was destined to share the bread of the restored Eden with, he felt that there must be some terrible flaw in his own heart. How else could he explain the shame of being placed on the same level as this lowly, borderline-apostate?

In the morning, the Rabbi set out back to his own village in despair. Again he crossed the same rushing river, its water even higher and faster than the day before, and no sooner did he touch the far bank than the water surged even higher and swept away the old, rickety bridge. The Rabbi began to continue on, almost glad to be cut off from his future dinner partner, when he realized that he was not carrying his coat; he must have left it behind in the home of the stranger. But there was no hope of reclaiming it now, with the bridge carried away by the river. The Rabbi turned back to look once more in the direction of his lost coat when he saw something across the river: the shape of a person striding towards him. It drew closer and closer to the river, and the Rabbi swung his arms in warning that the bridge was out, but the figure just kept coming until the Rabbi recognized it as the man he had been so disappointed to meet. He was carrying with him the Rabbi’s lost coat.

The man came to the edge of the water, and did not break stride. He only took off his own meager jacket and through it before him onto the water. As the man from his dream began to walk – almost run, really – across the water, holding out his lost coat towards him, the Rabbi realized that he was witnessing a miracle. He was humbled to have met this man, clearly so holy that he could walk across a raging river, supported only by his jacket, and so kind that he would travel far to return a lost coat to a stranger who had judged him so harshly.[ii]

When our walls crack, they present us with new challenges to our understanding of the way things are, and our place among them. They let in new air, new light, new ideas, new people. To every soul, and nation, and community, these cracks offer new opportunities to grow into the fullness of what we need to be. As we heard earlier in the service, our congregation will consider at our congregational meeting this May, whether or not to open a new crack in our wall. The choice is whether or not we will become a host congregation for the Family Promise organization, to invite recently homeless families to share our sheltering walls for a week at a time, a few times a year. Whether or not to feed them, keep them company and give them a safe place – a room of their own – a sanctuary against the wounds of life. This is the matter before us to decide; if we say ‘yea,’ it will take plenty of work and time and energy on all our parts – it is not a thing to be done casually.

But I will leave you with this thought. This crack, up here where the wall becomes the ceiling. It says something about the people who belong to this building. It suggests that we are not so concerned with the surfaces of things, that we would neglect what truly matters. If our priorities were different, we might have covered it over by now, at the expense of other projects or programs or amenities: turning off the heat in the winter to save money, or making some other equally poor exchange. The message of that imperfection in our wall is that we have better things, higher things, nobler things to do than agonize about it. This is one of the messages our sanctuary sends: to the guests who enter it, and to each of us. If our message to ourselves is that we have great things, needed things to do together – and friends I love that message – then we had better be on the look out for more and more good and worthy things that need our work.

[i] Qur’an 18:65-82.

[ii] Based on a story credited to Heinrich Zimmer in the magazine Parabola, Volume XV, No. 3.


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