“You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12).
When Isaiah first proclaimed this promise, and issued this challenge, the prophet had in mind the physical cityscape of Jerusalem after the awful events of 586 BCE. The Babylonian army had broken through the city’s protective walls, looted God’s house –the Temple – of all its gold, silver, and bronze, burned the homes of the rich to the ground, and deported the ruling elite.
But as we also heard in our first reading, the social/economic/religious fabric of Israel had been rent asunder. The bonds between people and between people and their God ruptured. The privileged trample the sabbath, pursuing their own private interests on God’s holy day, on what should have been the community’s day of restoration. The powerful go their own ways, serving themselves alone, with no concern for the poor or
What would it take to repair the breach?
Remove the yoke of bondage from among you, demands Isaiah; the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil against members of your own people. Offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.
By the time of Jesus, centuries later, Israelites had indeed repaired the physical breach, one stone, one brick at a time. The Temple was back in business. The houses of rich rulers rebuilt and inhabited. City walls once again standing proud and tall. The social breach, however – not so much.
In today’s gospel reading we find Jesus in a synagogue on the sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). The prime-time public gathering of his people. A woman appears. Bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. Surely, she is one of the afflicted Isaiah spoke of. Bent double. Tethered to the little patch of dirt in front of her feet. Kept from rising to her full stature. Unable to meet any other person face-to-face. Always craning and contorting just to look up from below and askance at people towering over her. Vulnerable. Never able to see what lay ahead, what was coming at her by way of opportunity or threat. Both stared at and invisible.
Jesus and the gospel writer Luke push back against their cultures’ assumption
that illness is a consequence of the character or behavior of the sufferer. Neither points the finger of blame at the woman for her bent-over state. Instead, they see a demonic force opposed to her God-given humanity at work. “A spirit…had crippled her,” possessed her; a spirit of weakness or infirmity or incapacity (13:11). For eighteen years! No wonder Jesus uses the language of social/economic liberation, rather than physical sickness: “Woman, you are set free” (12).
Jesus does see the invisible woman. Jesus speaks to her, before she makes any request of him. And as if pronouncement is not enough, or remains at too great a distance, Jesus lays his hands on the woman – incarnating his compassion in a sacrament of touch and inclusion. By seeing the bent-over woman, by speaking to her and on her behalf, by closing social distance from her, Jesus repairs the breach between human affliction and flourishing.
But the rift gets reinstated with a vengeance by the third character in our gospel story. The leader of the synagogue. The people’s social/economic, as well as religious, leader. “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he complains, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” How miserly he is, zeroing out the woman’s eighteen years on account of one day in seven. There are times for freedom and restoration, he thinks, but this is not one of them. Unwilling to identify with her infirmity himself as a man, as able-bodied, as privileged, no urgency motivates him. And how restricted the leader’s vision of God and God’s compassion is. You untie your donkey, your ox, on the sabbath and lead them to water, Jesus observes; suggesting the leader acts only on behalf of what he considers his own, his possessions, objects of worth for him. The bent-over woman – not his, not his concern, not even his people. By contrast, Jesus acknowledges her as kin, rather than the tethered beast of some demonic spirit of infirmity. “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan had bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”(16)
So, do you already sense where this sermon might be headed? Our readings
from Isaiah and Luke seem so pointed and pointed so directly at us here and now. It would be a gross understatement to say that the social/economic breach in and around our United States is massive. And growing. Exactly four hundred years since the first enslaved African arrived in Virginia. Children in cages. Gun violence. Voter suppression. Disdain for the natural world and all of God’s creatures.
How do we even begin to repair the breach?
I don’t know. It’s all so overwhelming. Sure seems like a demonic spirit of
bondage beyond any and all of us. Most days – even though I believe in resistance and repair – I’d prefer just to hunker down and hide. And of course, my privilege as white, male, straight, educated, and affluent allows me the illusion of being able to hide out. Most folk on this planet lack such luxury.
We might look to Jesus’ example with the bent-over woman. We might begin to repair the breach by seeing, by speaking, and by closing social distance. Which would help us acknowledge all others as our own people.
But how do we learn to see and speak and close distance? How do we move
from seeing to speaking up? From speaking about, even on behalf of, other people, to coming alongside them in solidarity or standing in between to protect them?
Worship here at St. Paul’s is fundamental to my personal and professional life. I
suspect it could be more crucial to my citizenship in city, state, nation, world. Each Sunday morning, that black notebook is available in the entryway for us to add our own prayer requests, which are then offered up to God during mass and throughout the week. Two weeks ago, I committed myself to writing in one item from the week’s news under “We pray for all nations and peoples” or “We pray for this city, and our community,” as scrupulously as I name friends or family who are sick. Last Sunday, it was the people of Kashmir. Today, the people, animals, and plants of the Amazon. For I have discovered elsewhere in my life that if I write things down regularly in the same little book, I become more accountable to living out my intentions. Repairing the breach
one prayer at a time. Perhaps for you, it’ll be some other aspect of Sunday Eucharist or the Daily Office.
You may laugh, but I did not know until a few days ago that The Rev. Dr. William
Barber II’s movement for “equal protection under the law, peace within and among nations, the dignity of all people, and care for [the earth as] our common home” is called “Repairers of the Breach.” I now have signed on to their national call for moral revival and made a small donation. You might gravitate instead to Stacey Abrams’ “Fair Fight” initiative to safeguard and extend voting rights or Eric Holder and Barack Obama’s efforts to end partisan gerrymandering. Repairing the breach one poor person, one immigrant, one voter, one law at a time.
But such seeing and such speaking can still be done from a safe social distance. How about up close in the physical and social/economic space of Seattle with our housing issues? The School of Theology and Ministry where I work partners with Plymouth Healing Communities – birthed by Plymouth Congregational Church downtown. Not just Plymouth Housing, a sister organization, but Plymouth Healing Communities (PHC). For, as their newsletter says: “The companionship programs of PHC are the key to helping residents who have experienced homelessness and who are affected by mental illness to remain stably housed so that their healing can continue. These programs are varied, from live-in companions at House of Healing,
Hofmann House, and soon Eng House, to the Community Companion Program where volunteers are paired as one-on-one companions to residents who seek that supportive relationship.” Repairing the breach one neighbor at a time.
And what of all those tents right out there on the sidewalk along First Avenue
North, just a hundred feet away, and those who live in them? Here, I must confess, I’m much more like the synagogue leader in today’s gospel. Miserly. Unwilling to identify. Acting only on behalf of what I consider my own. The tents and their inhabitants: not mine, not my people.
Or – just maybe – I’m also like the bent-over woman. Unable to stand up straight.Tethered to the little patch of social/economic dirt in front of my feet. Possessed by a spirit of weakness. Of infirmity. Incapacity. Hoping against hope that Jesus might see me, speak to me, and close the distance. Beginning to repair the breach one afflicted person set free from bondage at a time. Me. And you?
Stacey Abrams: https://fairfight.com (accessed August 26, 2019).
Eric Holder and Barack Obama: https://democraticredistricting (accessed August 26, 2019).
Plymouth Healing Communities, “2019 Summer Newsletter,” page 1. Also: https://plyhc.org (accessed August 26, 2019).