About Our Church

 Sunday Services

 Mission

 Education

 Youth Fellowship

 Music Programs

 Join a Group

 Interfaith Ministries

 Sermons
  Current Year
  Prior Years
  Other Writings

 Pastor's Page

 

 

Repairing the Breach

Sermon - 2/04/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 58:6-12

It was seventy years after the Babylonian exile when the people of Israel returned to their homeland, somewhere around the year 530 before this common era (BCE).  As I have noted previously, and I think I did a couple Sunday's ago, life was extremely hard for the people of Israel in that time.  The glory of the return to their homeland was very short-lived.  It was a difficult time, rebuilding the nation, rebuilding their homes, rebuilding the temple and so forth.  And some, as a result doubted that God was with them.

An unknown prophet, who's words were added to the prophet Isaiah, records the questions on their lips.  And we read in the 58th chapter, the third verse:

3Why do we fast, but you do not see [referring to God]?
   Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?
[And the prophet responds]
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
   and oppress all your workers.
4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
   and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
   will not make your voice heard on high.

In other words, the problem is not the lack of religion, the lack of worship, the lack of prayer and devotion, the problem is much deeper than that.  And the prophet summarizes it in these words, which is our text for this morning:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
7Is 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,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.


If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10if 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.
11The 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.
12Your 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.

 

Now those of you who were here last Sunday, do you recognize any phrase in there?  Do you recall the phrase that I noted gets picked up out of this text and inserted into Isaiah 61 that Jesus then reads in the synagogue in Nazareth, as recorded in Luke 4?  Let the oppressed go free -- that's the phrase that gets picked up and inserted.

I think that's simply a way of saying that the good news to the poor that Jesus proclaims, the coming acceptable year of the Lord, includes all of this as well.  And the prophet here, speaking to a nation seeking to rebuild itself from the foundation up, says in essence that it will all be for naught if that deeper moral foundation of justice and compassion for the oppressed and the powerless is not built up with it.  And Jesus picks up that theme and says this is not only the foundation for the nation, it is the foundation of God's reign here on earth.

And the result will be a complete transformation of the world:  the light overcomes darkness, gloom becomes noonday, parched places are transformed into lush gardens, ruins are rebuilt, and then you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in.

I suppose there are many places in the world that we can apply this to, including here at home.  Thinking about developing Franklin Blvd, restoring the streets in Glenwood, or repairing the breaches in the levees that they now say in Oregon are in trouble.  I think in particular of New Orleans.  

Week of Compassion launched a two-year recovery effort and has added a full-time staff member to do nothing but coordinate groups from Disciple congregations to work with local congregations in those areas affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Their goal is to find 750 work groups over the next two years who will go in and help rebuild those homes, to repair the breach, to restore the streets to live in.  And the offering that we receive at the end of the month for Week of Compassion supports that work.  There's a challenge for us as a congregation, to think about as we look ahead in the next couple of weeks.

I think of the Darfur region in the Sudan, the steadily worsening crises there.  Next Sunday, we're going to have a photo exhibit from photojournalist Paul Jeffries, who's a member here in Eugene over at First United Methodist Church.  He works for Action Churches Together (ACT), and has been to Darfur and he spoke about that here before.  We're going to have that exhibit as part of our Week of Compassion, and the Sunday after that will be an opportunity to view a video of the Darfur Diaries after worship.

And so our offering supports that work as well.  Week of Compassion issued an additional grant of $25,000 just two weeks ago because of that steadily worsening crises, to assist those refugees -- nearly a half a million of them -- fleeing the violence there.

These are controversial topics.  And you all know how much I hate controversy J.  So I thought I'd stick with a safe topic this morning -- Israel and Palestine.  Certainly one of the most troubled places in the world, where the possibilities for peace seem to grow dimmer by the hour.

I want to begin, since we're focused on the Week of Compassion during this month, on a story that they just posted on their web site this past week.  And they write:  

Stories of pregnancies ending in death for either newborn or mother due to time at Israeli-West Bank border checkpoints are common, as are the frequent, if matter-of-fact, recollections of travel restrictions that can turn a 45-minute trip into a 17-hour journey.

A report released by UNICEF in mid-December said that with "a massive swell in unemployment, and two-thirds of the population already living below the poverty threshold, humanitarian conditions have been pushed to the brink of collapse. The very fabric of Palestinian society is under extreme duress."

One of those who has watched this situation unfold is Dr. George Imseih, a pediatrician who works at a clinic supported by Action Churches Together, a program supported by the Week of Compassion. He said emotional and psychological problems are becoming increasingly prevalent among the clinic's patients, given the area's high rates of unemployment and increasing militirazation.

A particularly dire problem, he said, is the increase of family
violence, which, along with mental health problems, is not something that people in a culture marked by modesty and decorum speak of freely or openly.

Then there is the problem of medical access itself - for many
patients, getting to the clinic and the attendant difficulties of
making their way through a dizzying maze of checkpoints are problems enough.

"We don't want to blame everything on the Israelis," said Dr. Imseih, a soft-spoken, gentle man. "But the Israeli occupation is having a major impact on the situation here." He added, "Building bridges would be better for Israeli's security than building walls."

The resolution that was passed by the General Assembly of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ meeting in Portland in the Summer of 2005, on that security barrier, or wall, made a very similar point.  It states:

When barriers are constructed, hostility that exists becomes exacerbated.  Differences between peoples can only be addressed through bringing them together, not by adding further divisions.  The impact of the barrier on the Palestinian people has been more devastating that abstract facts can convey.

The Sabeel Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem reports that Palestinians have been separated from their places of employment, their farmlands, hospitals, schools, places of worship, and their families.  In the first phase of the wall alone, 100,000 trees have been uprooted, and in some cases those are Olive trees that take centuries to grow.  Thirty five thousand meters of irrigation networks have been destroyed, and so on and so forth.

Oddly enough, ironically, the security barrier that is being built was first conceived by moderates in Israel, not by the hawks or those on the very conservative side, but by those who simply wanted to put a stop to the terrorist bombings so that they could work on building peace.  At the time, they assumed that the wall would be built along the green line, the internationally accepted border of 1967 between the West Bank and Israel.  But the reality, as it turns out, has been entirely different.  What I think most Americans are probably not aware of, is that most (and some say all) of that wall has been built entirely on the Palestinian side and is taking in huge chunks of Palestinian territory, with 375,000 Palestinians now suddenly finding their homes on the Israeli side of that barrier that some fear will become a permanent border.

Jimmy Carter tells a story in his new book of the Santa Marta monastery and three other convents near Bethany that are now on the Israeli side of the barrier and nearly all 2,000 of their parishioners are on the other side.  Have been cut off from their place of worship.

Father Claudio Ghilardi, who is the priest at Santa Marta, says "For 900 years, we have lived here under Turkish, British, Jordanian, and Israeli governments, and no one has ever stopped people from coming to pray.  The wall is not separating Palestinians from Jews, but rather Palestinians from Palestinians.  It is scandalous".

At that General Assembly in 2005, there were a number of protesters there who passed out information to us that they wanted to be sure that we received, that we heard the other side of the story.  And I do think it is very important for us to hear that other side.  And they assert that the security barrier has been built only for legitimate defensive purposes and in fact has saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.  Israeli as well as Palestinian lives.  And they also note that before the Intifada began in the year 2000, that people could move freely across those borders, without any difficulty.  And that the fault, therefore, lies not with Israel, but with the Palestinian Authority's failure to stop the violence against innocent people.

Now, undoubtedly there is truth to both sides, and we need to be able to listen to both.  But that makes it difficult for us to know how to respond.  And further complicating the issue is anti-Semitism.

You may have heard that this is a topic that I have a little interest in, if you saw yesterday's paper.  And what makes it really difficult, you see, is that anti-Semitism works in two different ways.

First of all, it is a very strong and often subtle course that permeates our culture, influencing us in ways in which we may be totally unaware.  Subtle anti-Semitism easily teams up with more overt anti-Semitism which causes us at times to see everything that Israel or Jewish groups do as negative.

For instance, I had an E-mail exchange with a friend, a local peace activist, in which I cited the work of the American Jewish Committee on the genocide in Darfur from the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, as an example of the good, humanitarian work being done by that group.  And this person responded that I had been fooled by an obvious Zionist ploy to divert attention away from the "real" genocide that is occurring in Palestine.  I think that is anti-Semitic for at least two reasons:

First of all, it says that even the good done by Jews is sinister.  And secondly, it equates the human rights abuses by Israel in Palestine with genocide as a way of saying that what the Palestinians are suffering is just as bad as Jews suffered during the Holocaust.  And I think that is not a legitimate comparison to make.

The second way that anti-Semitism complicates this issue is in the reverse.  Made by those who charge anyone and everyone, and every critique of Israel, as being anti-Semitic.  For instance, Jimmy Carter (who engineered the Camp David accords that began the peace process which is now stalled) has been called anti-Semitic for his book on Palestine.  

So what are we to do?  Can we in fact be advocates for peace in the Middle East in a way that speaks up for the disenfranchised in Palestine without being anti-Semitic?  And I want to make the case that we can do that, and lay out seven basic principles for us:

First of all, to begin with our core beliefs as Christians, that God loves all people.  That all are created in the image of God.  Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, and Muslims.  We are all equal in the eyes of God.

And second, that the call of this loving, compassionate God is for justice for all people.  As articulated in this passage in Isaiah, as well as in many others.

Third, and this is where I think many begin to go astray, that we recognize  the unique role of Christianity in the promotion of anti-Semitism, based on the false notion that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, that we above all others have a particular responsibility to combat anti-Semitism.  That the basis for the Holocaust will never take hold in our world again.

Fourth, that we recognize because of that history, that nearly 2,000 years of persecution that has been the result of this anti-Semitism, the absolute necessity of a Jewish homeland and the right of Israel to exist in a secure state at peace with its neighbors.  And let me quickly just illustrate the importance, and also the difficulty, of that.  Name for me all the countries you can think of that we think of as being Christian nations -- predominantly Christian, whether it be Protestant or Catholic.  What are those countries?  [Responses from the congregation: America, Canada, Italy, most of Europe, most of South America].  Name for me all the countries that you can think of that are predominantly Muslim [Responses from the congregation]:  Egypt, Saudi Arabia, quite a few, most of the Middle East.  Name for me, in the history of the world, all the countries predominantly Jewish?  Only 1 -- Israel.  And what we always have to remember, Israel, a nation that is the equivalent to Oregon west of the Cascade Mountains, not a very big country.  A nation of just under 6 million people, surrounded by 22 nations that are Arab, predominantly Muslim, of 300 million people.  And you begin to see the importance as well as the difficulties there.

Fifth, also it is important for us to recognize that Palestinians, too, have a right to a homeland.  And this year marks the 40th anniversary of the occupation.  The longer that occupation continues, the more unstable the entire region becomes.  Polls have shown that 60% of the citizens of Israel favor a two-state solution, and are willing to accept the 1967 borders in exchange for peace with the Palestinians.  I think we need to support the Palestinian right to self-determination, and call upon government to once again lead that peace process.  Leadership that has been sadly lacking in recent years.

Sixth, we need to bring balance to the discussion.  We need to read Jimmy Carter's book, as well as read the critiques of it.  We need to hear why Bishop Tutu thinks that the current situation is similar to the apartheid of South Africa as well as to hear the criticism of why some think to make that analogy is itself anti-Semitic.  We need to pay close attention to the news, to hold them accountable for accurate reporting.  Do they report Palestinian casualties in the same way as Israeli?  Do they show the same kinds of pictures?  Give us the names of the victims?  The rate of deaths among citizens in Palestine is 4 to 1 in comparison to Israelis.  The rates of Palestinian children killed since the Intifada began is 7 to 1 to Israeli children.  Do we see that kind of reporting in our news?  We need accurate facts, we need to weigh the interpretation of those facts from both perspectives.

Last, especially since this is the Holy Land, we need to keep reminding ourselves and our leaders of the Biblical vision for the land.  And I think Archbishop Tutu says is very well when he says:

We in South Africa had a relatively peaceful transition.  If our madness could end as it did, it must be possible to do the same everywhere else in the world.  For goodness sake, this is God's world.  We live in a moral universe.  The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists.  Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end, they bit the dust.  Injustice and oppression will never prevail.  Those who are powerful have to remember the litmus test that God gives to the powerful:  what is your treatment of the poor, the hungry, the voiceless?  We should put out a clarion call to the government of the people of Israel and to the Palestinian people, and say:  peace is possible.  Peace based on justice is possible.  We will do all we can to assist you to achieve this peace because it is God's reign.  And you will be able to live amicably together as brothers and sisters.     

I began with a quote from the Jewish prophet 2,500 years ago, and I'd like to end with someone who I think is a modern Jewish prophet, Rabbi Michael Lerner, who was here in Eugene last year, and has a wonderful book "Healing Israel/Palestine", that I think presents a very balanced viewpoint and is very challenging.  Much more in-depth than Jimmy Carter's book.  In it, Lerner says:

Peace can be achieved in the Middle East.  The scary news is this:  it depends on ordinary people like you and me to make it happen.

And then, he concludes:

Love and kindness and generosity will prevail.  That is what it means in practical terms to believe in the spirit of God.  The belief that there is a force in the universe that makes possible the transformation from that which is to that which can and should be.  That power is in each of us.  And if we can overcome our egos enough to find ways to work together effectively, if we can withstand the anger that gets directed at us, when we believe in the possibility of a world based on love and justice and peace, then we will be able to make a real contribution, right now, in this time and place, to the process by which the world will be healed. 

 

May it be.

 


Home | About Our Church | Services | Mission | Education | Youth Fellowship
Music Programs | Join a Group | Interfaith Ministry | Sermons | Pastor's Page
Questions or comments about this web site?  Contact the WebMasters