Water spills into New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward through a failed floodwall along the Industrial Canal on Aug. 30, 2005, a day after Hurricane Katrina tore through the city (Photo credit: Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

On being ‘repairers of the breach’

By the Rev. John Zehring

People of faith are led to fix things that are broken. That is the message from Isaiah: “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” (Isaiah 58:12).
 
Oh boy, were things broken in Isaiah’s day! When Solomon’s boy Rehoboam took over the united kingdom, he messed up everything he touched. He favored the rich; taxed the poor; ignored his advisors’ plea to speak to people in a civil tongue; mistreated women; had a stunningly low approval rating but didn’t care because he played only to his inner base of supporters; polarized his nation; enjoyed conflict; did not welcome strangers and foreigners; and sought not what was best for the whole but for his own self-interest. He was the worst leader in the nation’s history.
 
The people said, “We’re out of here.” Ten of the 12 tribes took their marbles and headed north to form Israel. The two tribes that stayed behind formed Judah. Israel, the Northern kingdom, was taken by the Assyrians, who took the people into captivity. Judah, the Southern kingdom, was conquered by the Babylonians. The temple was destroyed and most of the people were forced to live in exile, where they sang the hauntingly sad song “By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1).
 
We’re talking generations here. No light at the end of the tunnel. The people who once flourished in unity in the land of milk and honey were now no better off than they were when their ancestors were held in bondage in Egypt. And they wanted to know: What did we do wrong? Where is Yahweh? It does not make sense to us! It feels like evil is winning.
 
Isaiah’s job description was to help people to make sense out of bad things that were happening and to call them to faithfulness to God. That must come first. The genius of Isaiah was that he knew that if a person was faithful to Yahweh, then they would respond with care for the poor, for the oppressed and for all those whom society rejects and avoids. If a person were faithful to God, then she or he would feel led to fix that which is broken.
 
When things are not going well, people tend to do more of the same thing. In Isaiah’s case, the people engaged in more religious practices, such as fasting. The same could be said for other religious practices, then and now. Isaiah told them, “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58:4). Something different was needed. So what was needed? Isaiah put it in the form of a question: “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?” (Isaiah 58:7).

That has a familiar ring to it, from Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food…I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing… . As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35–40).

Jesus and Isaiah are on the same page: Faithfulness to God leads to fixing things that are broken: broken spirits, broken hearts, broken lines of communication, broken people, broken systems, broken breaches and levees.

Do you remember the pictures after Hurricane Katrina of the broken levees in New Orleans? And recently in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean? Broken levees are metaphors for so much of what is broken in our time — symbols of all that has gone wrong in our nation’s priorities pouring through the broken levees of neglect of the poor, racism, social inequalities and an economic system that favors the few at the expense of the mass. Our generation is becoming swamped with broken levees in climate change, in education, in safety nets for those unable to care for themselves, in care for the elderly, in health care, in addiction, in abuse, in denial of equal rights to LGBTQ individuals, in opportunity, in compassion and in hope.
 
Do you remember the pictures of the waters breaching the beaches at Fukushima, Japan, or in Puerto Rico? Those waters, too, serve as metaphors for so much that needs fixing in political leadership and governance, in journalism, in using nonviolent methods for resolving conflict and in the honorable treatment of Muslims, Mexicans, Medicaid recipients and everyone else who might not look like us. 
 
The levees are breaking and covenants are breached. I can think of some to blame. But the Bible does not say blame. It says repair. Why should we expend energy in blame that we can expend repairing the breaches?
 
I wish there were instructions that could tell how to fix the breaches of our time that are bursting and broken. But Isaiah did not prescribe instructions on how to repair the breaches, restore the streets or fix broken levees. What Isaiah did provide was encouragement to his troubled nation, and perhaps to ours, too, to be good, to be faithful to God and then to fix things that are broken for people who are hurting.
 
Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

We, in our churches, are a critical mass — small communities of faith who have the audacity to believe that we can accomplish things far bigger than what you’d expect from groups our size. We believe that the power behind us is greater than the task ahead. Let us want to be good, to be faithful to God and to fix things that are broken. And then, perhaps someday, it will be said about us that we were repairers of the breach.


The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Beyond Stewardship: A Church Guide to Generous Giving Campaigns.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.