Repairer of the Breach.
Every so often I’ll have a someone I went to college or high school with
Send me a facebook message and say hi
They might want to catch up a bit
Ask about kids or Kansas City or things like that
And then the conversation often turns to my work as a pastor
“That must be crazy” is often how it starts
“these are really stressful times.”
“Yes, I guess that’s true.” Might be my response
“But I’m not sure what we’d do without it
faith gives us space to explore questions of meaning, and purpose
but more than that: it ROOTS us in values that are important
things like COMPASSION
and GIVING ourselves away.”
There usually is a digital silence for a second after that
Which is fine, because those are big things to think about
After shooting the breeze about kids and whether the Royals are going to be any good this year
But often the reply is something like
“Yeah, I can see how that can help
things seem to be falling apart right now
it would be nice to have something that is putting all that back together.”
So I’ve been thinking this week about why we gather as church
And part of that thinking has been about Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is that agency of our national church
That works to coordinate our common response to natural disaster and human catastrophe
So it also helps coordinate our denominational refugee efforts.
I called them to get some guidance about calling Jewish Vocational Services in the fall
For those of you who were here last week to hear the sermon on blessing and welcoming foreigners.
It is by nature a world-wide agency, but they also work locally,
Whenever tornado or flood or wildfire or hurricane hit a community.
Sometimes their work gets very small, very focused.
Their last effort here, in Kansas City, was when Westport Presbyterian Church
Had a fire destroy half its building
We called them
And they had a team on the ground
Helping their pastor Scott
And their congregation pick up the pieces.
That is what they do: they help pick up shattered places, broken lives.
In their own words, they stand in the gap,
On our behalf, they go to where the broken place is and they stand THERE
And do all sorts of things, depending on what
Truly is helpful
If they need water, they find water
If there are homes that were flooded
They get teams of volunteers to help muck them out
down to the studs
and rebuild with sheetrock and grit.
When it makes sense, they partner with other agencies to be more effective.
And other times, when disaster hits an area and there are many people
Focusing on the crisis, they step back a bit
And plan how we can be involved for the long haul
Building a plan for what to do after
The first and second responders do their thing.
Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast states in August of 2005.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance were among the few agencies that kept a presence
In Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi for more than a decade.
I took a group of high schoolers down to New Orleans one Summer to work
At a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance site
Even though I was working at a different congregation,
That trip included our very own Hannah and Meg Swagerty.
It was two summers after the hurricane hit
And we saw the destruction.
You could see the high water mark on the side of houses
And the spray paint marks left by search and rescue crews
After they had checked the home for survivors
Blocks upon blocks where only one or two families remained
Next to row upon row of abandoned house.
It was a somewhat bleak time. Sure felt like it.
But there we were, 16 teens and a few sleep-deprived adults
With sledgehammers and respiratory masks
And these blue PDA t-shirts
Standing in the gap of New Orleans
Resolved to say a resounding “NO” to the forces of chaos.
Here’s a picture of our crew with our PDA shirts: “Out of Chaos: Hope”
We did the sorts of things that this congregation often does
during a Christmas in October Saturday
We worked on homes and we met families
and we shared ham sandwiches on white bread
We read scripture and we prayed
and we sang Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin”
In our 12 passenger vans
And then we came back home.
And began planning our next trip, the next thing.
Some of you may remember that we welcomed Laurie Kraus
as a guest preacher last fall.
She’s in charge of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
Among other things, she was telling us about hope in Aleppo, Syria
Where we maintain and support relationships with beleaguered Christians
In that war torn city.
Laurie told about her friend, Pastor Ibrahim Nseir,
Whose congregation refused to abandon the city even after their church
Was the center of a protracted battle that left their sanctuary ruined.
When the infrastructure of the city failed, and electricity and clean water
“became as precious as gold”
they built a well, right there in the church, and they gave that water to everyone.
The people of Aleppo would line up, for hours, every morning, to get water
Freely given, to all
“by a church” as Laurie put it
“stubbornly refusing to flee… as their city continues to collapse.”
Now, that well was run by a generator, and the fuel for the generator ran out.
And Pastor Ibrahim went searching for fuel, so they could get it going again
So people could drink water again.
“Very early in the morning,” he said
a church elder warned me that the Muslim man across the street,
who owns a gas station,
had been seen poking around at the generator by the pump.
I was furious, suspecting that he had poured sand in our generator to ruin it.
We have heard many stories like this…
I went over to confront him, but first, I checked the pump.
When I did, the generator started right up, and cool water flowed from the well.
I walked over to our Muslim neighbor,
my mind in a confusion of feelings and wonderings.
I said, “did you fill the church’s generator?”
He said he had.
I took out my wallet and said,
“I will give you the money I have, and more when we can get it, to pay you for the fuel.”
He said to me: “I cannot take your money.
For weeks now, I have watched people come to your church for water.
I was sure the Christians would only give water to their own.
But you have shared what you have with everyone,
regardless of their religion or politics.
You have given what you have in the service of all of us in Aleppo,
and I am privileged to do the same. The fuel is my gift to you.”
I’ve been thinking this week about why we gather as a church.
Maybe it is because of this text in Isaiah, that Larry read for us this morning.
Every week, the recommended scriptures include a passage
from the Hebrew Bible and a passage from the Gospels,
and lately both have been the sort of readings that don’t mince words.
Here we have another back and forth between God and God’s people
Much like we heard last week from the prophet Micah.
The people Isaiah was speaking to are a lot like us, in a sense.
We want to know what to do.
We want to know how to live.
They wanted to know how to live good and holy lives,
Lives that loved God
Lives that showed upright behavior.
And so they worked hard at it, and they developed rituals and practices
That they felt would bring them closer to God.
They would eat this, and not that.
They would have a priest make an offering on their behalf
If they transgressed the law
They would fast on fasting days, all in an effort to demonstrate to God their desire
To be the kind of People God wanted them to be.
Isaiah seems to be speaking to them at one of those times
And he goes after their fasting practices.
The people are doing their thing.
They’re fasting, but they’re not feeling God’s appreciation.
Why do we fast, but you do not see, God?
Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?
But that’s not the fast that God chooses.
Isaiah criticizes the people for their willingness to do these things
To go through the external motions of religiosity
While they allow people around them to suffer.
You fast only to quarrel and to fight.
You oppress your workers.
Such fasting will not make your voice heard on high.
And Isaiah instead offers another approach:
Fasts are intended to help us humble ourselves, not to gain favor in the view of others
So what is the fast God chooses:
Loose the bonds of injustice
Let the oppressed go free
Share your bread with the hungry
Bring the homeless poor into your house, and Cover the naked.
As an aside: Did you notice how that sounds a lot like Jesus
When we mentioned last week how anyone
who tends to someone in prison
or feeds the hungry or welcomes the stranger, they tend to him?
At any rate, Isaiah tells the people that when they do these things
When they stop focusing on THEIR OWN rewards
And start looking instead at helping others in their need
THAT is when God starts to take notice.
The LORD will guide you continually
Satisfy your need in parched places
Will make your BONES STRONG.
You shall be like a watered Garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
How’s that for an image, after hearing about a well in Aleppo?
You shall rise up the foundations for many generations.
You shall be called the REPAIRER of the BREACH,
The restorer of streets to live in.
One way to think about our job, as a church, is to be a Repairer of the Breach.
This is what we do, through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance
Where we stand in the GAP of human pain
And seek to address it.
We also do this through the Presbyterian Hunger Program,
or the Self Development of People project, all three of which are the target
of the One Great Hour of Sharing special offering in Lent.
But its not just nationally.
We do this right here, in our church, at The Kirk
Every time we go to Center Elementary to support that school and its families.
Every trip to Cherith Brook to break bread with the homeless of Kansas City
Every caravan to Harvesters to sort cans that will feed our city’s hungry.
Why the church?
Because here we are given a charge: to go out into the world
And serve others in God’s name
Not so that others will notice
Not so that we’ll be lauded
But because there is need, and we can help
And God smiles upon it when God’s children love each other.
So Jesus was on a hillside
Teaching his disciples and the crowds who had come to listen.
He told them about God’s blessing
Particularly to those who are hurting, who are hungry, who are reviled and persecuted.
And then he turns to those who are listening,
And he says something profound:
YOU ARE THE SALT OF THE EARTH.
By that Jesus means you are those who are here to make life beautiful
Just as food tastes so so good with just the right amount of salt.
You are those who are here to preserve food so that it doesn’t spoil
Which is what they used salt for, among other things
in those days
Your job is to make sure that the good things don’t go to waste.
YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.
You are the people who will help others see and take notice
Of all that God is doing in the world
How God shows God’s favor to the hurting and the outcast
Whether the immigrant or the refugee or the widow
Or the mourning
You are the ones who illuminate what is going on
So people can see and understand that what I am doing
Is a fulfillment of everything I taught you
In the Law and in the Prophets.
Did you notice:
It wasn’t ENCOURAGEMENT to be salt.
Jesus wasn’t ASKING us to be light.
No: You ARE Salt of the earth. You ARE light: so let it shine.
What good does it do if you don’t heed your calling
And fail to add flavor to your lives and the lives around you?
What will it do for you to hide your light under a bushel basket
When you can shine brightly for others to see.
I said last week that one of the stresses of these days, it seems
Is that we don’t really know what to do.
We want to help, but we’re not sure how.
And our current environment seems suddenly more turbulent, more combative.
I saw a brief video clip this week
That I think accurately portrays how I feel like this past month has been for many of us:
Here it is:
Does it feel like that to you, this culutral strife?
What is our role during times such as these?
What can a Kirk do? What can a denomination do?
What can we as individuals do?
Its not easy, this life of faith.
It would be easier to hide our light under that bushel basket
Or to hide the salt shaker under our napkin
Than to get involved. Its true. It would be.
But that’s not our calling, that’s not what gives us hope.
We are a people who brave action, even when its not expedient or clear or even safe.
We send people into Syria and into New Orleans and into our neighborhoods
To love and to care and to serve.
But we’re called to join with others to find the breaches in our world
And seek to repair them.
There are different names for this:
Reconciliation: when we’re called to bring people who are at odds with each other together.
Justice: when we’re called to advocate and strive for righting wrongs,
for standing with the hurting,
for giving up our own privilege so that others can be brought to wholeness
Forgiveness: when we let go of the hurt done to us by another
Love: when our heart extends to another, and we seek their good, their welfare
These are the values that we as people of faith are rooted in.
They are all important, too:
You can’t reconcile without attending to justice. You can’t love without forgiveness.
And you can’t be a church, or a person who follows Jesus, without accepting
As part of your identity
That you are salt, that you are light,
that you are Christ’s hands and feet in this world, thanks be to God.
That’s all well and good,
But you’ve not told me what I can do
In this stressed out, CAN FIGHT of a time we’re living in.
Well, ok, maybe not
But it doesn’t really work that way.
You are to be guided by these values, by this commission
As we navigate, together, but each in our own way
what are, quite honestly, unchartered waters.
But here’s the good news: every time we think that all there is is conflict,
Or that the going is too tough
Or things are hopeless
Just then, God has this way of reminding us otherwise
Like when a Muslim neighbor fills up your generator
Or you share a sandwich with a stranger
As you muck out their home
Or you are greeted by a neighbor
Who gives you a chance to go and say hello
And begin the harder work of
Getting to know them
So that you can enter
relationship with them.
Just like, when we are the hungriest, the most needy
We’re offered the bread of life, and the cup of salvation
A reminder of a table open not just for us
But for all, from east and west, from north and south
A table of justice. A table of reconciliation. A table of welcome.
A taste of the kingdom we’re living in this very hour.
May we, all of us
Seek to be repairers of the breach
Light and salt to the world.
Standing in the gaps where-ever they might be
Saying: NO! Love shall win!
Because, my friends, Easter is comin’
May it be so.
Laurie Kraus illustration from her sermon “Welfare States,” preached at The Kirk on October 9, 2016.