How would a prophet be received today? Would he or she be ignored by the media? The good news about the present day and age is that there are plenty of outlets for prophetic voices. People get their news from multiple sources. Our task is to faithfully decide who is most faithful to the Gospel message.
Today’s scripture was written by third Isaiah, and was a reality check for the people. Might it be a reality check for us, too? The last church I served in San Francisco used Isaiah 58 as a Lenten focus—a sermon for each verse or two. It’s that important.
The 12th verse of Isaiah 58 is the focus of today’s sermon "Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in."(Isaiah 58:12)
Let's think about the breaches which we have in today's society:
Democrats and Republicans.
Baptists and Congregationalists.
Pro photo ID and anti photo ID.
Pro freedom to marry and anti freedom to marry.
The haves and the have-nots.
Folks who live in the city and those who reside at the lake
Educated and non educated
Those focused on the past and those focused on the future
love and hate
action and apathy
peace and war
congress and justice
the young and the not so young
compulsory heterosexism and liberation
just and unjust
male and female
The open-minded and the closed-minded
Disabled and temporarily able-bodied.
saved and unsaved
politically correct and everyone else
First world and the 2/3rds world.
The one percent and the 99percent.
You get the picture.
There are plenty of breaches out there and we are supposed to repair them? Why? So that the cities will be safe again. So that we can live and dwell in the house of God forever. So that there will be peace and justice together at last and all people will be set free. All are noble and holy and faithful goals.
The first church I served was in Hartford, CT. In the shadow of the great insurance headquarters, Cigna, Aetna, Traveler’s, the Hartford, laid a city beset by violence, brought on by extreme poverty. As the insurance industry was making its millions, Hartford as the 4th poorest city in the nation and the inner-city member of my congregation worked three jobs to make ends meet, if they could find the jobs, just to send their children to overcrowded and all-but-segregated schools. Talk about a breach. Jennifer knocked on my church office door shaking after an incident. She told me she was sitting on the front steps of her apartment building with her 6-year-old granddaughter Jilissa. It was a hot summer day—too hot to be inside. She heard shots ring out in the hall of the building. A man ran to her and Jilissa and used Jilissa as a human shield as he took his shots back. Jennifer and Jilissa probably still live with the posttraumatic stress of such an incident. I found myself not really knowing how to be a repairer of that kind of breach, but I know I was to be a restorer of streets to live in. Our little church sought to be a safe haven for people in the midst of violence. But it just didn’t seem like enough. It’s easier to make safe spaces in the midst of a storm. It’s a lot harder to be a repairer of the breach. Can’t we deal with an easier moral lesson on a steamy Sunday morning?
On June 29th, 5-year-old Nizzel George was killed sleeping on a couch when his house was riddled with bullets here in Minneapolis. How can we restore the streets to live in? We participate in rallies and our eyes are opened up. It’s a good start or a helpful reminder of the work still ahead of us.
The Occupy Our Homes movement has rallied people to come to the aid of people being foreclosed upon. They are raising the consciousness of the community and seeking to repair the breach. We can’t effectively restore streets to live in without addressing and exposing the breach.
Isaiah is challenging us to reclaim the purpose of the worshiping community. The people to whom this scripture is addressed had just returned from the 50-year Babylonian exile. They were holding all of their old fasts and rituals in the ruins of the old temple. They were doing everything they thought they were supposed to be doing. But they weren’t getting the response from God that they thought they deserved. In a moment of self-righteous pity, they began to blame God in verse 3:
“Why do we fast if you don’t see? Why humble ourselves if you will not notice?”
Well, God does see. God does notice. Oops. God’s answer is not an answer they want to hear. Perhaps because it’s the truth. The prophet Joel calls us to rend our hearts not our garments. In other words, we need to do more than simply go through the motions of fasting and worship. Fasting, worship must be accompanied by work, otherwise it’s hypocrisy. We are called to repair the breach between worship and work. John Calvin even addressed this: “Hypocritical fasting…is not only a useless and superfluous weariness, but the greatest abomination.”
“Behold” bellows YHWH through Isaiah, “in the day of your so-called fasts, you seek your own pleasure and you oppress your workers. Look you fast only to quarrel and to fight.” (vv. 3 & 4) It was as if YHWH was saying that people are more interested in fighting when they come to church than they are in hearing God’s word or doing Gods work. “This kind of fasting does not make your voice heard on high” (v.4)
Should we in our holy reverence become self-absorbed and self-consumed as if we had no other responsibilities except for making ourselves personally humble to God? To the idle worshippers, YHWH says, “Is this the fast I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow your head and heap ashes alone? Is this what you call a fast, a day to acceptable to YHWH?” (v. 5)
Well, you know the answer. YHWH says that true fasting involves combining penance with work. YHWH says, “The fast I choose is to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…it is to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house, to cover the naked, and not to hide yourself from your sisters and brothers.” (vv. 6, 7) He deals with the macro level, but also deals with the micro level.
Isaiah places worship and work on the same level, by using a number of “if and then” statements. All of these statements surround verse 12 on repairing the breach. The breach is only repaired “IF”, starting in verse 9: “you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.” Oh that’s a hard gap to bridge. It’s easy to point the finger, lay blame. It’s a lot harder and I dare say more important, to find a solution.
“IF” in verse 10 “You offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted”. Have we done all we could to satisfy the needs of the afflicted. Our congregations are in deep discussions about housing homeless families in our churches in the coming year through Families Moving Forward. It’s a great response to today’s scripture.
But it is not only an issue of doing good work. It is also an issue of doing good worship. “IF” in verse 13, “you refrain from trampling on the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; IF you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of YHWH honorable…” The Sabbath is trampled on not only by non-church-goers who don’t see the need for worship. Yes, we trample on the Sabbath if our worship does not inspire us to do God’s work. IF we do our work; IF we worship right; IF we take our faith seriously enough to ask the hard questions, THEN you will become not only a repairer of the breach, but also a people who have real delight in YHWH. You will become a people inspired; a people who are clear about your interests; a people who will be called the repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.
Isaiah 58 basically tells us that there are requirements to living as people in God’s commonwealth. The message of faith is not simply “I’m okay, you’re okay.” The message of faith is that all members of the human family are your kin. Therefore when one of them hurts, we all hurt. That is why Isaiah says that he fast that God chooses is to loose the bonds of the afflicted, to let the oppressed go free, to cover the naked, to feed the hungry, to avoid the urge to point our fingers and fight. These are the requirements of the family of God. These are the requirements of faith. These are the requirements of the believer.
IF we do all of that, says Isaiah, “Our light shall break forth like the dawn. Our healing shall spring up quickly. God will be ahead of you and behind you.” (v. 8)
“You shall ride high on the heights of the earth and your heritage will be restored (v. 14)
“God will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; IF you do all do this, you shall be called the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in.” (vv. 11, 12)
And most importantly, “You shall call, and God will answer. You shall cry for help, and God will say, “Here I am”.” (v. 9)
Third Isaiah, the probable writer of Isaiah 58 railed at the people in words similar to those of Amos, Zechariah, and the others of the Isaiah school of prophecy because the people had forgotten that they were once slaves. They forgot that the Hebrew Bible is a story of a people’s liberation from slavery. But when the people moved from the newly liberated to the conquerors of other countries, they lost their way. As Palestinian liberation theologian Naim Ateek says, echoing the prophetic psalmist, unless the people of the Holy Lands embrace justice, the land will vomit them out. The prophet’s role is to remind people of their sacred story lest they make the same mistakes over and over again. Perhaps when we get beaten up and beaten down, when we think that there is no hope, we have simply forgotten our story.
Our story as Christians is this: Christ came into this world in order to show us a new way. It’s actually an old way retold: A way beyond the pointing of the finger; beyond the speaking of wickedness; beyond apathy; beyond the numbing silence of our journeys, beyond injustice; beyond hopelessness and despair.
This way is laden with tears and difficulty, but something worth doing is also something worth struggling for. We need to remember our Christian story. There is too much tyranny in our lives to live without our liberative stories. We need them and we need each other.
Minnesotans United for All Families is doing great work. As they seek to defeat the marriage amendment that seeks to limit the freedom to marry, they are encouraging people to not run to the arguments of equality and justice. While we resonate with that reasoning, is not seeming to make a difference with people on the opposite side. The breach just seems to get bigger. So we shout louder and tell the others that they are bigoted or close-minded. We hear them calling us unfaithful and destroyers of society and unchristian. And the breach gets bigger and bigger. In 31 states, laws and amendments have passed to limit the freedom to marry. 31 and 0. That’s quite a record. And the breach just keeps getting bigger.
So how do we repair the breach? How do we restore streets to live in? MNUnited has called on people to have 600,000 conversations between now and November. And the focus of the conversations is not so much equality and fairness and justice—at least that’s not the leading statement. The focus of the conversations is on what marriage means to us. Why do people get married? All of a sudden you are having conversations about children, and love and affection and commitment. And you start to see common ground. This campaign seeks to repair the breach, and make the streets safe to live in.
That’s one example of repairing the breach.
This past week, the people of Granville, Ohio were without power. A devastating storm hit a week ago and it took until last night to get everyone back up on the grid. A storm is a great equalizer. Everyone is in the same boat. No one has AC, or hot water, or refrigeration, or cell phone chargers, or computer chargers. You have to talk with your neighbors. It’s too dang hot inside the house. People pull dusty chainsaws out of the shed and get to work clearing debris. Huge cookouts occur before the meat goes bad. My Peace Fellowship friends the Burketts have an above-ground pool that got a lot of use. Can you imagine scores of people using a pool for a week without a working filter? Out of necessity, people began to see their neighbors. Now that the power is back on, will they retreat inside again to their private cocoons? Or will they take advantage of the fact that a disaster brought them to the brink of repairing the breach?
My grandparents were married for 64 years when my grandmother passed away. When we were growing up, we would often ask our grandparents about their secret for staying together for so long. My grandmother would say, "We have a match made in heaven." My grandfather would just say, "Harumph!" (in typical Donley male stubbornness, I am told).
Well, about 10 years before she died, my grandmother had a stroke. She spent a good bit of time in the hospital and when she returned home, she was very depressed. Her mind and her body were fragile. She seemed to have lost the will to live. My cousin even caught her taking a bunch of pills one day during her recovery as a way to end her misery. My stubborn grandfather refused to believe anything was wrong. Denial isn’t only a river in Egypt.
Finally at the doctor's behest (they would not hear of this advice from family) they begrudgingly went to a marriage counselor. The first time in 55 years of marriage. For the first time, they spoke of their joys and fears. They spoke honestly about their needs. My grandfather needed to let her do things so that she would feel useful. He needed to stop doing everything for her and making all of the decisions. Up until the last year of her life, it became her job to do the dishes. She did it mostly by feel, since she was legally blind. It would often take her two hours. We would offer to help or do them for her, but my grandfather was clear that we should never take away her therapy. It was her way of feeling useful. And those dishes were spotless.
When she had a subsequent stroke, he kept her at home. He knew that familiar surroundings and routines would help. She made a complete recovery in a matter of months. When we asked him in the years following the therapy sessions about their marriage, my grandfather said, "We have a match made in heaven." All because they repaired the breach.
Sisters and brothers, we are called to be repairers of the breach. Restorers of streets to live in. We need to start by recognizing the breaches out there. Committing to do something about it and then actually doing something. Then, says Isaiah, your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall rise up quickly. Your vindicator shall go before you and the glory of God shall be your rear guard. Then you cry for help and God will say, “here I am”.
Let us remember our stories. Let us claim, articulate and celebrate them. Tell your stories of hope and love and redemption to another person. Be energized by what you share. Let us be moved by the lessons of our lives. Remember that worship and work are kissin’ cousins. May we continue to repair the breaches between each other, powers and principalities, and between our lives and God's desire for us. And through it all may we all become repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in. AMEN.