“Repairer of the Breach”
This is one of those weeks when I was thinking I needed to have three sermons ready to go – one for if either presidential candidate won, and a third if we still did not have a clear winner. Obviously I was not going to write a sermon completely removed from the context we are living today in the United States, so I thought I needed to be prepared for wherever we would be this morning.
But, as I sat down in front of my computer – while we continued to wait for the election results – I realized that each of the three sermons I was planning to write were going to be about roughly the same thing: healing, perseverance, faith. I turned to my Bible in search of some wisdom and I landed on the prophetic text of Isaiah. Jesus, who was quite learned in Jewish scripture, frequently quoted from Isaiah while he was teaching. Jesus drew wisdom and guidance from Isaiah, and I think today is a good day to do the same.
Okay, brace yourself, because I need to step briefly into teacher mode. The Book of Isaiah is actually a composite writing – scripture written by several different sources that were put together before, during, and after the Babylonian Exile – a time when the Jews were forced to flee and Jerusalem, and the Jewish Temple, were destroyed. Isaiah 58, which we read today, is in the third part of the book – meaning it was written after the Babylonian Exile, a time when the exiled Jews were beginning to return to their country.
The people who returned were looking at their country and not recognizing it. The great structures that had formed and guided their people had been torn down. Could they rebuild, they wondered? What had they lost that they needed to regain? What needed to be let go of, even though it worked for the generations before them? And in the midst of all these questions and fears, they were wondering – where was God in the midst of it and what did God require of them?
There is a reason this scripture speaks to us so clearly today. We look at our country, our state, even our city – and some of us are no longer able to recognize it. We are wondering if the structures and institutions that have formed us as a country still work, and perhaps even wondering if some have been destroyed. What needs to be rebuilt? What needs to be let go of? What must we cling to? We are swirling in questions as we look out into our country, many of the same questions that the people returning from exile were asking. And the question Isaiah is speaking to is the question we must ask ourselves this morning: where is God in the midst of all this? And what does God require of us?
This is the question of our scripture today. What does God require of us? The people Isaiah was writing for were wondering, hoping even, that their prayers and rituals would be enough. Specifically, they were hoping that if they fasted and prayed, then God would grant them whatever they wanted. The people were hoping that if they simply said the right thing and made an offering to God, even though it was completely set apart from social and civic life, then that was all they needed to do. God would grant every wish. God would return order to their country. God would take care of it all – because they prayed with the right words and fasted.
No, Isaiah said. That is not what God requires of you. God doesn’t want empty words or pious, self-serving gestures. It is not about getting the formula right, thinking that if we do, God will do all of the hard work. No, Isaiah said. God gave you hands and feet for a reason. God gave you conviction and love and purpose for a reason. God gave you minds and voices for a reason. God isn’t waiting for you to get the formula right and then God will make everything okay. God wants to be partners with you. God wants you to live out your faith – to make it real, to use all of the gifts God gave to make things right.
Listen again: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hid yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” It is not empty words or pious self-serving gestures that God wants from us. God expects so much more. God created us to be and do so much more.
It has been suggested that the reason our country has become so polarized along political lines is directly related to the decline in religious affiliation. By that I mean, because people are no longer committing to a faith and religious system, they are looking for grounding in other places, and for a great many, that is politics. Human history has shown that we need something greater to be a part of, a larger story and community in which to find guidance and direction. As a less religious country, this theory suggests, people have shifted their fundamental identity to a political party. They worship that political party, and its ideals or platform, with a religious fervor. Rather than identifying as Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish, or Buddhist – people are beginning to identify first as Democrat or Republican. It is not surprising then that the other, in this case the other political party, is seen as evil.
I am compelled by this theory, though I remain open to having my mind changed. I am compelled by it because it helps me to understand the level of unquestioning devotion to a political party that I am seeing around me on both sides of the political spectrum. And it helps me to grasp the hatred I am also seeing around me. If someone’s primary identity is tied to a political party, and they feel their politics are being threatened, then hating those who are seen as the threat makes great sense.
I lament this for our country. We are so much more than our politics. Devotion to a party platform or candidate, especially an unquestioning devotion, is a type of fundamentalism. Speaking as a progressive Christian, religious fundamentalism terrifies me because it demands a cessation of my agency. It leaves no room for questions and wonderment – and I believe it is asking the questions, leaning into doubt, and being open to amazement is what grows us as people. When I look around, I see a political fundamentalism. An unwavering devotion to a party or candidate, a complete unwillingness to have minds changed, and a belief that anyone who disagrees is not just wrong, but evil. This fundamentalism is not just one political party, it is absolutely a part of both. We have seen the dangers of religious fundamentalism, and now in a less religious society, we are seeing the dangers of political fundamentalism. How many in our country assumed that if their candidate won the presidency all of the problems we are in the midst of would be solved? Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden are the saviors of our country. And neither are the Democratic or Republican parties. But as people of faith, especially our progressive, question-loving faith, perhaps we have an insight into what can begin to heal our divisions.
Isaiah said we can’t just rely on God to solve our problems, because God didn’t create us to be simply passive bystanders in our world. God created us to be stewards, to care for this world, to care for our neighbors. God gave us hands and feet, passion and conviction, minds and voices to do the work. And that is precisely what we are called to do in this moment. It is not the president, or the senate, or congress that solves the problems. Nor, I might add, is it only the fault of the president, or the senate, or congress for creating the problems. God gave us agency, which means we can never remove ourselves from the responsibility we bear in the brokenness of our society. Whether we like it or not, God created us to be in community with one another, even if our communities are so steeped in diversity of opinion that it feels like we cannot possibly be from the same Creator. But we are. And as a part of a community that bears responsibility for all of the good and bad, then we are called to bring the good.
It is you and me – using our God-given bodies and our God-blessed voices. We do this grounded in a faith that is both ancient and still evolving. We ground ourselves in scriptures, finding in them ancient words but also actively wondering what they mean for today. We do this open to having our minds changed – fully acknowledging that we do not have all of the answers and that sometimes we are wrong. We do this listening for the voice of the still-speaking God – seeking guidance and wisdom. God speaks to us in the voice of ancient prophets of the Old Testament and modern prophets of today pointing to where we must look. God speaks to us in the voice of Jesus Christ teaching in parables whose meaning is always and completely open for interpretation. God speaks to us in the voices of children, by asking us questions and demanding we explain ourselves more fully and simply. God speaks to us in the voice of our neighbor who fervently supported the other candidate – saying we must listen and hear their pain, and ask ourselves what responsibility we bear in creating it and in soothing it.
I don’t have the perfect formula for how we can heal our divided nation. And if I tried to offer one – Isaiah would object. What I can offer you is a reminder of the ancient, and yet brand-new, wisdom of our faith: “If I remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord 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 rise up foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
Let us pray…
Provider and Sustainer,
We come before you this day, lifting before you
those who need
your healing touch,
your comforting presence,
your reassuring word.
Hear our prayers, we pray,
and make us agents of healing in your name.
Hear our prayers for those
who are wandering
in the wilderness of homelessness,
Make your presence known to them
in the community that surrounds them, Lord,
reaching out to them in love and compassion,
and offering them hope in the face of fear.
Hear our prayers for those
who are hungry, we pray, …
for those suffering from food insecurity
and from spiritual hunger
and hunger for a fulfillment of your claim
on our lives.
Help us to trust in your faithfulness, Covenant-keeper,
and grant us patience in our waiting.
Hear our prayers for those
who lead your people, O God,
that they who answer your call
remain committed to following you,
leading with integrity
and deep love for your people …
that they hear and respond
with compassion and grace …
that they are strengthened by time with you
and guided by your wisdom.
This we pray in Jesus’ name,