Boundaries

This article originally appeared on March 6 at A Positively Poetic Priest, the blog of Mother Elizabeth Yale, Priest in Charge at St. John’s, Franklin. 

“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 offense.”

This is a portion of Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall.
The poem talks about mending a wall in the spring with the neighbor on the other side.
It goes through how the wall fell apart, and as we heard, we hear him wonder
about why there is a wall in the first place.
The only thing the neighbor says in the poem is
“Good fences make good neighbours.”
But Frost brings up a good question in these lines
why do good fences make good neighbors
why build a wall
is it because you’re walling something in
or walling something out?
It seems that there are good walls,
which keep people safe,
and then there are bad walls,
which keep people apart.

Though Frost wrote this poem more than a hundred years ago,
it still pertains to us today.
The question of walls or boundaries
is quite a serious one.
Recently the question about President Trump’s wall between Texas and Mexico
has gotten many people up in arms, both in favor and against.
Even more recently, the Winter Olympics in Korea
reminded us all of the tension between North and South
split with the DMZ, the demilitarized zone,
a long fence splitting the country in two.
And while we have these recent examples
controversial walls between neighbors is not a new thing.
The Berlin Wall
The Israeli West Bank wall along the Green Line
The wall in Baghdad.

Unfortunately though
it seems these walls
haven’t created good neighbors.
The amount of fighting, rallying, negotiation talks, and protests
which happen around these walls
doesn’t make it look like any of them are helping
develop good boundaries.
Just because we have physical walls
doesn’t mean we have good healthy relationships.

However, boundaries are very important in our human lives.
We need boundaries
to lead happy healthy lives.
Boundaries are involved in pretty much everything we do as human beings.
In order to be clear, the definition of boundary
is what is okay in a situation and what is not okay.
Basically, knowing where the line is between okay and not okay.

We have boundaries in all aspects of our lives.
Physical boundaries
such as our skin
our personal space
our privacy.
We have emotional boundaries
our circles of trust and confidentiality.
We have financial boundaries
our own personal accounts
business accounts
and lots of laws to keep those boundaries in peace.
We have social boundaries
both stated and unstated
which let us know what is okay to do with other people and what is not okay to do with other people.
We have occupational boundaries,
which determine what is our job and what is not our responsibility.
(We all know the phrase, “That’s above my pay grade.”
which is a boundary we all know when something is not our responsibility.)
In every aspect of our lives there are healthy boundaries
necessary to keep us whole, safe, and able to function.

Yet, we also have lots of unhealthy boundaries floating around in our society.
Where it seems acceptable to break other people’s feelings of what is okay and not okay.
We have seen this explode with issues of sexual harassment and abuse in the last year.
Unhealthy boundaries lead to conflict, disrespect, and distrust.
All of which we have in gigantic amounts throughout our society.

In her research on people living wholehearted lives,
Brene Brown, a social researcher working in topics of shame, resilience, and living healthy lives
points out from the data
that one of the most compassionate things we can do as human beings
is have good clear boundaries.
Where we know for ourselves what is okay and what is not okay
and we talk with other people in respectful ways when boundaries are broken.
Respectful, healthy communities are built around people who have healthy boundaries.

And while Brene Brown’s research has only come out in the last couple of years
this idea of good community being born out of having good boundaries among people
is so ancient
its biblical.

We see the first example
in our reading from Exodus for today.
Exodus was written sometime in the 15th century BC,
So about three and a half thousand years ago.
God gives Moses the Ten Commandments
which are to govern the community of Israelites in their life together
and in relationship with God.
The Ten Commandments
are rules, effectively, good boundaries of what is okay, and what is not okay,
for the people to do.
God says, it is not okay for us to have any other gods than God.
Its not okay to murder other people.
Its not okay to covet what other people have or to gossip about them with other people.
God says we definitely should
keep sabbath time, to rest,
we need to respect other people, especially our parents.
The people who had fled from Egypt
were trying to create a new kind of nation
a new kind of community
and having healthy boundaries
good rules for communal living
were very important to the health, safety, and longevity of the community.
Even in the gospel story for today from John
the story of Jesus overturning the market tables in the temple
is a story with boundaries
and the breaking of boundaries
at the heart of it.
Jesus goes to worship in the temple
and finds the place having been turned into a marketplace.
Understandably at that time
there was still animal and crop sacrifice going on in the temple
and people did need to buy cattle or birds
or grains or fruits in order to give to the temple.
However, the understanding is that the money changers and market sellers in the temple at that time
were gouging the people who came to worship.
They were lining their own pockets and being unfair to the people.
They were breaking the good boundaries of living in community
they were preying on the poor people of the land.
Jesus drives them out.
He reinforces the good boundaries of the community
making clear that what was going on is not okay.
Jesus’ mission in the world is to return the people
including us
to right relationship with God.
Which does mean pointing out the ways in which we have strayed from that relationship
and broken its good healthy rules.

What does this mean for us today?
During this season of Lent
we are called to remember the ways in which we have broken the boundaries of good community
we are called to repent for the ways in which we have strayed from right relationship.
We are called to return to good healthy clear boundaries and community.
We are called to repair the relationships which have been broken among us.
Thankfully, Jesus has already promised us
that he will forgive us
he will rebuild the temple
though we chip away at its walls
with our brokenness and unhealthy boundaries.
Thankfully, God loves us more than we can imagine
and continues to try to meet us in right relationship.
Thankfully, we can rely on God’s grace to catch us when we fail
and return us to faith and trust.

Like Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall
we are given the opportunity each year
to mend the relationships
the broken places in our lives
and return to healthy good relationships
with each other
and with God.
Amen.

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