Repairers of the Breach
by Louise Westfall
I swear I could hear a collective sigh of relief filling every space on Wednesday. The anchors of our democracy held. We had a safe inauguration and peaceful leadership transition. Rumored mob violence didn’t materialize. Nobody died. Now President Biden and Vice-President Harris are settling in to the hard work of governance, made all the more difficult by the deep divisions that persist. No one imagines that our country is miraculously mended, and unending prayers must be made for God’s hand of healing to be upon us all.
But even though the Bible exhorts us to “pray without ceasing,” it never imagines that is all we have to do. In fact, the morning text rails against hollow religious practice that is not backed up by deeds of compassion and justice. Here the prophet Isaiah calls out the people’s hypocrisy and how they have turned away from God’s commands. Ironically, the people themselves (or perhaps their religious leaders) have provoked Isaiah’s fierce language. They have complained that God is ignoring them, though they are praying and fasting and worshiping, doing all the right things to demonstrate their faithfulness. Why isn’t God paying attention? A reading from the prophet Isaiah, in the 58th chapter, verses one through twelve. Listen for God’s Word to all of us who have wondered why God isn’t better at problem-solving and miracle-making. [Isaiah 58:1-12]
You shall be called the “repairer of the breach.” That verse, that image, resonated differently with me following the January 6th insurrection described as “breaching the Capitol building.” A breach is a violation; a rupture; a tear—and that day a hallowed space and much more was violated, ruptured and torn. One of the poignant photographs I saw took place in the wee hours of the morning following the ratification of the Electoral College votes. A colleague spotted Congressman Andy Kim quietly and all alone cleaning up debris and trash left behind by the rioters. When you seem something you love that’s broken, he explained, you want to fix it. What else could I do?
That the inauguration was held on the same spot where the crowd scaled a wall, smashed windows and broke through doors was itself a repairing of the breach. Restoration. Cleansing. A new, hope-filled beginning.
–work that must continue, and much harder work, frankly, than physical repairs and clean-up. For there are wide breaches in our national life revealed in those who accept lies as truth, who harbor bitter resentments and distorted perspectives. We see a gaping breach in wealth disparity in our country, and in social, economic, and racial inequalities of all kinds. For the church I believe, the task of repairing these multiple breaches is to pray… and then rise from our prayers ready to wield the power of redemptive and reconciling love. The prophet doesn’t distinguish between piety and practice, as if they were two different things. Yet how often have we perpetuated that distinction by suggesting that the church shouldn’t get “political” and should focus more on the spiritual lives of its members? How often do we reduce the scope of faith to the state of our souls, and in so doing avoided the pain and suffering of neighbors? Isaiah sharply critiques that analysis and ritual that soothes and pacifies the believer into ignoring the injustice of neighbors. You serve your own interest on your fast day; and oppress all your workers. As a church seeking faithfulness to God, we cannot miss this jarring juxtaposition of two arenas: personal devotion to God and concrete service to neighbors in need. Keeping them separate has resulted not only in great community harm, but jeopardizes our relationship with God.
Love is self-generating; it multiplies exponentially and there is no limit to its creative and transforming power.
But when we put them together??!! Oh my friends, see the light breaking forth! The grace and goodness abounding! In God’s amazing purpose stitched into the very fabric of creation we belong together. The generational poor? The people held back in systemic inequality? The single mother in Denver whose minimum wage job does not cover rent for a home for her children and herself? They are our kin, our sisters and brothers and aging parents and little kids. We cannot “hide ourselves” from them and then pray to God that the hungry be fed, the homeless housed, and for peace to come into all the world. It is God’s plan for everyone to flourish. And that will happen when we understand that our salvation is tightly linked to others’ salvation. We cannot be fully free until everyone is free; we cannot know abundant life in the way God intends until all people share it as well. See how this truth is woven throughout our religious sacraments: when we present a baby for baptism as we will later in this service, the entire congregation promises to love and nurture her as a beloved member of this community. Communion in the Presbyterian Church is extended to anyone and everyone who is hungry.
Our friend Kent Groff introduced me to a word from the Zulu language of South Africa that expresses this idea: Ubuntu. Literally translated “I am because you are” it’s a reminder of our kinship and interdependence, realities that are baked into God’s creation of beloved community.
The Presbytery of Denver and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado are offering an online class to help us become more effective advocates for “breach repair” of some systemic injustices. Information about signing up for the two- hour Zoom next Saturday is in the bulletin and e-newsletter, and I hope you’ll join Molly and me. But look, there are lots of ways to bridge the chasms between and among us. One Central member called this week to enlist volunteers to help non-Internet-using seniors register online for appointments to get the Covid vaccine. Did you read the Denver Post story about the young furloughed airport worker who has been sending cards and letters across the country to ease the solitude of older adults in isolation because of the coronavirus? He has sent over 500 letters and heard back from close to 150 people. Almost every time I receive anything back it is pages, Wesley Morgan said, smiling. They just have so much to share and talk about. And honestly, friends, I think the deep divides in our national life will be healed only as we learn better how to talk with one another, addressing each other respectfully, listening to each other’s hurts and fears and hopes to uncover the human connections that are surely there.
And Isaiah gives us another even more glorious reason to do so: when our faith propels us to pursue justice, light will shine like daybreak; the anxious, parched places of our lives will shimmer with well-being. The community itself will become healthy and strong. Can you imagine our City flourishing like a garden–its streets freed from the debris of clustered encampments because everyone has a place to live in dignity? Can you picture the boards coming off windows, the graffiti of the voiceless erased because they are finally seen and heard? We have to believe it in order to see it. This is how God works in the world. This is how God makes miracles. Love is self-generating; it multiplies exponentially and there is no limit to its creative and transforming power. Our ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; we shall raise up the foundations of many generations; we shall be called repairers of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
The inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, ended her magnificent poem with a strikingly similar call to healing and repair…guided continually by the Divine, working through and in us.
When day comes, we step out of the shade,
Aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it,
For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.