Repairers of the Breach 2-5-17

Isaiah 58:1-9 Shout for all you are worth, raise your voice like a trumpet!  Proclaim to the people their faults, tell the house of Leah and Rachel and Jacob their sins! They seek me daily, they long to know my ways, like a nation that wants to act with integrity and not ignore the Law of its God.  They ask me for laws that are just, they long for God to draw near. Yet they say, ‘Why should we fast if you never see it?  Why do penance if you never notice?  Because when you fast, it’s business as usual, and you oppress all your workers! Because when you fast, you quarrel and fight and strike the poor with your fist! Fasting like yours today will never make your voice heard on high! Is that the sort of fast that pleases me—a day when people humiliate themselves, hanging their heads like a reed, lying down on sackcloth and ashes.  Is that what you call fasting, a day acceptable to YHWH? On the contrary! This is the sort of fast that pleases me:  Remove the chains of injustice!  Undo the ropes of the yoke!  Let those who are oppressed go free, and break every yoke you encounter! Share your bread with those who are hungry, and shelter homeless poor people! Clothe those who are naked, and don’t hide from the needs of your own flesh and blood! Do this, and your light will shine like the dawn—and your healing will break forth, like lightning!  Your integrity will go before you, and the glory of YHWH will be your rearguard. Cry, and YHWH will answer, call, and God will say, ‘I’m here’—provided you remove from your midst all oppression, finger pointing, and malicious talk! If you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your shadows will become like noon.YHWH will always guide you, giving relief in desert places. God will give strength to your bones and you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never run dry. You will rebuild the ancient ruins, and build upon age-old foundations.  You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, and Restorer of Ruined Neighborhoods.

I was excited to read the assigned reading in Bible Study from Isaiah – especially when it got to the phrase at the end “Repairers of the Breach” because I recognized it as the name adopted by Rev. Dr. William Barber, the great preacher in North Carolina, who started the Moral Monday movement. He insists, along with POWER and other groups, that his movement and his work in non-partisan, that they are working to repair the broken walls, to restore our ruined neighborhoods. I’d like to think today about how we can align ourselves with that good energy.

It’s difficult to preach in these strange times to tell you the truth. Some people were unsettled, if not offended last week. That’s ok. The Gospel sometimes offends. And my interpretation of it may or may not be correct. Just to be clear, I am very unsettled and offended by what is going on right now in our society and I wish we didn’t have to talk about it, especially when folks are so divided and concerned. I think we are in a dangerous time, when the big changes that are going on could be harmful. My sermon today is an attempt to be self-critical. I speak with humility – the most faithful I can be to what God is saying today.

First, listen to the Word of God from the Gospel of Matthew today.

Matthew 5: 13-20 “You are the salt of the earth. But what if salt were to lose its flavor?  How could you restore it?  It would be fit for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. You don’t build a city on a hill then try to hide it, do you? You don’t light a lamp, then put it out under a bushel basket, do you?  No, you set it on a stand where it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, your light must shine before others so that they may see your good acts and give praise to your Abba God in heaven. Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the Law and the Prophets.  I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. The truth is, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter of the Law, not even the smallest part of a letter, will be done away with until it is all fulfilled, That’s why whoever breaks the least significant of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. “I tell you, unless your sense of justice surpasses that of the religious scholars and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

February 5, 2017

Repairers of the Breach

In my twenties, I lived for a few years in a big West Philadelphia house with 4 to 5 other young adults. It was a kind of commune – or a kind of a dorm, depending on how you looked at it. We saved a lot of money by living together; we cooked meals for each other; we worked together sometimes; cleaned house together; and drove each other crazy, eventually. Five people sharing bathrooms, dividing up chores, determined to like each other – yeah, eventually you drive each other crazy. Some people from those days I’m still close with. Some I haven’t seen in years.

We were young and we thought we could make up our own rules. We really tested each other’s boundaries. We thought of ourselves as a support group for people working for social justice. We tried to stop nuclear power plants from being built, and we were all about supporting people’s rights. We carried signs and organized protests of various kinds fairly often. It was a very intense time. I loved it. And I wouldn’t go back.

I’m revealing these slight embarrassing details about my life for a couple reasons in relation to our assigned reading today. The Isaiah reading that Lisa read is a beautiful passage that we often read on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the day – March 1st this year – that begins Lent. It’s the one time of year that Christians think much about fasting. We think about giving something up for Lent – chocolate or smoking or whatever. A few years ago, I gave up speeding for Lent, and ever since, I have driven slower. One year I gave up slouching. I’m still working at standing up straight.

This year I’m going to fast from sugar because I’ve been reading recently about how dangerous our high sugar diet is and I want to try to live completely sugar-free for a month and a half. That should be interesting. Let me know in the next few weeks, if you would – what you are thinking about – for a Lenten discipline – either giving something up or taking something on.

Anyway, as I read this passage for today, “Fasting like yours today will never make your voice heard on high! Is that the sort of fast that pleases me—a day when people humiliate themselves, hanging their heads like a reed, lying down on sackcloth and ashes,” I began to think about the ritual of protest and sign-carrying as a similar ritual action to fasting. Clearly, I have some sympathy and understanding for the anger that people are feeling, but I’m wondering how effective these protests are going to be.

Isaiah is concerned that his people are fasting for show – fasting to show what devout and pious people they are. There’s a way in which I worry that the thousands of people at the airport last weekend made a big show – to try to feel good about ourselves – to show that we want to be good people. We want to welcome everyone to our country. We would welcome Muslims. We won’t keep anybody out. But it’s not true.

What we need is a strategy and organizing, not just a show to make us feel good about ourselves. Also, I am concerned that we are feeding the polarization in our country, rather than disarming that polarization – finding ways to come together. I’m not saying that I am not outraged at what has been happening or that I can support them. I’m saying that we have to find ways to build a broad consensus in the middle of our country, in our churches, in our communities – not fuel the polarization with a “theater of injured decency.”

I visited the Islamic Foundation for Education for prayers on Friday afternoon. Dr. Mustafa invited me to speak and I expressed our appreciation that their mosque is in our neighborhood, and that we want to support them if they need it. Dr. Mustafa said they have been receiving flowers and well wishes from neighbors, which I was glad to hear. They welcomed me and I’m glad we have a friendly relationship with this center of faith.

After the problem of hypocritical fasting, the second point I want to make about our reading from Isaiah is about this interesting phrase “Repairers of the Breach.” A breach is a gap in a wall. The question is are we repairing the gap or repairing the wall? It made me think about “The Mending Wall,” the beautiful poem by Robert Frost. He writes, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and ends it with “Good fences make good neighbors.”

It expresses beautifully the ambivalence we have toward walls, fences and boundaries. We want to repair the breach – to mend the gap, yet sometimes we need boundaries. I think about my days living in community and remember that I don’t mind a little distance now and then.

Though we may need walls and boundaries at times, God through Isaiah calls us to worship without barriers – to worship that unites us with who God is. God is not concerned over whether we have contemporary sounding music or traditional music, worship that makes us look holy or or not. It is not how we look that God cares about, not pious fasting that gets God’s approval. What concerns God is not our reordering of worship, but how worship reorders us. [Andrew Foster Connors, p. 318, Feasting on the Word.] God cares about how we care for each other – for the poor among us, for the outcast and the hungry and the homeless in our midst. This is the fast that God requires – a fast that leads not just to personal holiness, but to the fullness of life God envisions for all of Creation.

As we sing “Bring Forth the Kingdom” we prepare ourselves for the meal which God gives us this day at the beginning of Black History Month. We come to this meal, again, not just for our personal holiness, our own enrichment as God’s people, but that we might be forgiven for the ways in which we participate in the polarization of our society and alienate ourselves from each other and from God.

Responsive hymn   2190 Bring Forth the Kin-dom