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Repairers of the Breach
Reverend John Leedy
July 17, 2016
Isaiah 58: 9-14
A reading from the fiftieth-eighth chapter of Isaiah:
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, here I am. If you 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 raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
These past two weeks have seen enough death and chaos, heartache, and terror to render us speechless. The deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. The deaths and injuries of the Dallas police officers. The two mosques that were shot up and vandalized. The Bastille Day terror attack in Nice. God help us, these past two weeks…
We indeed find ourselves in a parched land. Our bones cry out, our cities lie in ruins, our foundations are shaken, our generations are in peril, the bulwarks of peace have been breached, and our streets are unfit for living. The burden of oppression weighs heavy. The burden of racism and bigotry in our country is crushing. The yoke of violence hangs like millstone around the neck of our land. We have become acclimatized to this yoke of violence, so used to its weight that we are blind to its affliction. Blind and deaf, save for the cries of families whose children, fathers, mothers, and friends lie trampled by its affliction. In the midst of all of this, where is reconciliation? Where is unity? Where is peace? Where is God?
These are the questions I bring this day. These are the questions I’m sure many of you bring this day. We bring in these questions, these heavy, weighty questions, and we drag them into this place. We drag in these questions, along with our grief, our frustrations, and our dismay. We drag them down the aisle of this holy place and set them beside us in the pew. These things are heavy things, burdensome things, and for just a moment, we come here to unburden ourselves on this, our Sabbath day. We just need an hour to rest, a day to recharge, a moment’s peace before we pick up these questions and the concerns of the world and we drag them back out with us.
But as we offer our praises and prayers to God, we look down and our burdens remain there beside us. We see them there, the questions, the emotions, the grief, all sitting there next to use in the pew, and we are reminded that not everyone can worship in the freedom and rest of the Sabbath as easily as we do. How can we worship in the freedom and rest of the Sabbath while the yokes of racism and bigotry continue to haunt our brothers and sisters? How can we offer prayers when the prayers of others are met with violence? How can we celebrate life and re-creation on the Sabbath when gunshots continue to take life and reap destruction in our land? How are we to keep the Sabbath holy when there is still so much work left to be done?
We have heard it said that you shall do no work on the Sabbath. We heard it first as children, being read to us from the second chapter of Genesis. I remember looking up at a poster on the wall of my Sunday school classroom and seeing that fourth commandment that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.”
But when we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, we realize that there are indeed certain works that must be done as a part of Sabbath keeping. “If you 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.” Removing the yoke from among you, offering your food to the hungry, satisfying the needs of the afflicted – each of these involves some kind of work. Just ask any of the volunteers that help out at UPLift, Micah 6, or Street Youth Ministry. Moving 8,000 pounds of food in from the alley in the July heat will certainly work up a sweat. Working with those who are afflicted takes a toll on our energy, our time, and our resources. So what are we to make of these labors that Isaiah prescribes to us on the Sabbath?
I think for Isaiah, the answer lies in the words found in the rest of the fourth commandment. We all know the line “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” But we often forget what comes next. “But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.”
For Isaiah, the people of God will be unable to observe the Sabbath in its fullness until all people are able to observe the Sabbath in its fullness. You see, Isaiah sees a world where widows and orphans are neglected. Isaiah sees the poor starving in the streets, the sick being ostracized, and the foreigner being mistreated. Isaiah sees the faces of these people, these most vulnerable, these most oppressed of the world and understands that they are unable to find rest. It is not enough to be unburdened and free on the Sabbath while others are being crushed under the yoke of oppression. It is not enough to find safety and comfort in the Temple of the Lord when there are still parched places, breached walls, and streets unfit for life. It is not enough.
And like Isaiah, I think we see it, too. We see the systematic oppression of Muslims in this country. We see black men and women being killed and incarcerated at a higher rate, a much higher rate, than white men and women. We see acts of terror being committed against the gay and lesbian community, the transgender community, against school children, immigrants, and police officers because gun violence has been allowed to go mainstream in our culture. Parched. Breached. Unfit for life. We see it. We feel it. We hear it. We are surrounded by the cries of the afflicted and oppressed and honest to God sometimes it is just too much. It is too overwhelming.
How do we help remove the yoke of burden? How do we work for the freedom and peace of our neighbors? How do we repair the breach? So we sit here, in this sanctuary with our grief, with our questions, and with our frustrations. Where are you God? We need your help.
And the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, “You shall cry for help, and God will say, ‘Here I am.’” Today we cry out for help. Today we cry out for guidance. We call upon the Lord to show us how to make a difference in the lives of those who are burdened. We cry out for a calling to action. And the Lord hears us, and answers, “Here I am.”
A few weeks ago, the 222nd General Assembly met in Portland, Oregon. One of the matters that came to a vote was the final approval to adopt the Belhar Confession. Adding a new confession to our Presbyterian Book of Confessions is a big deal and a time intensive process. This is the first time that a new confession has been added in our denomination since the Brief Statement of Faith was added in 1983, 33 years ago. The Belhar Confession was born out of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa. The confession takes a stand against racism and injustice by seeking reconciliation and unity in the midst of division. And as I was wrestling with the weight, this heavy weight of my questions and calling out to God for help, I began reading the words of the Belhar Confession. And echoing just behind the text, I heard the voice of God saying, “Here I am.”
We believe that God has revealed God’s self as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people.
Here I am.
We believe that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged.
Here I am.
We believe that God calls the church to follow God in this; for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry.
Here I am.
We believe that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
Here I am.
We believe that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
Here I am.
On this Sabbath day, we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah speaking into our hearts in the text of the Belhar Confession. Remove the yoke from among you. Offer your food to the hungry. Satisfy the needs of the afflicted. Refrain from the speaking of evil and from pursuing your own interests. These are the good works of the Sabbath. These are the good works that allow us to see God in our midst, lifting up our burdens, and the burdens of all those who suffer in our world.
We see God, arms open in comfort, sitting next to the grieving families of fallen police officers.
We see God, fist raised in protest, marching in Black Lives Matter rallies across the country.
We see God, with tears of joy, accepting the prayers for peace of all God’s children.
We see God holding the hammer of justice, igniting the forge where our swords may be beaten into plowshares.
We see God standing with us, encouraging us not to give up the fight, to never cease in our efforts to work for justice, equality, and reconciliation.
We see God, calling the church into the fullness of the Sabbath, a Sabbath where all are free to rest and find re-creation.
And we see God, calling us into the world yet to come – a world where we shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Our ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; we shall raise up the foundations of many generations; we shall be called the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in.
Rise up church. For this is our Sabbath day. Amen.