Sermon, February 5

The word of the Lord came to the prophet Ezekiel: Mortal, say to them: You are a land that is not cleansed. Its princes within it are like a roaring lion tearing the prey; they have devoured human lives; they have taken treasure and precious things. Its priests have done violence to my teaching and have profaned my holy things. Its officials within it are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain. Its prophets have smeared whitewash on their behalf, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord God’, when the Lord has not spoken. The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress. And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. (Ezekiel 22, selected verses)

And I sought for anyone who would stand in the breach, but I found no one.

Ezekiel is the great prophet of the fall of Jerusalem. He told the leaders and people of Judah that they were doomed to conquest, destruction, and exile; and he told them why. He reminds them of how completely they have fallen away from God’s intentions for them, the holy ways of the ancient Covenant. No one remembers, no one cares, that they were chosen by God to be a people set apart to live with justice and compassion. No one will stand in the breach, and call the leaders and people back to what they’re meant to be.

The breach. It’s an evocative image for the Old Testament writers, and an unfamiliar one for us. Imagine the landscape of the ancient Near East: dry, rocky, rural, studded with small towns and cities – enclosed by walls. Civic architecture was also defensive architecture, as in parts of medieval Europe. Cities and towns were built so you could gather everyone in from the countryside and hunker down for a while, when a neighboring tribe or nation came to pillage or conquer. When the enemies approach, you shoot at them from the top of the wall, or drop things on them, and drive them away. City walls kept the enemies out. Kept people and livestock safe from arrow and sword, from becoming casualties or spoils of war.

At least, the city walls kept people safe if the attacking enemy wasn’t very motivated. If the enemy was motivated, they would lay siege. They’d camp out around the city, outside the walls, and wait. Nobody can go in, nobody can come out. How long will the food last? The water? How long will the city’s rulers hold out as their people starve? Once the city and is defenders are weak and demoralized, the enemy might get around to attacking the wall. Ezekiel mentions siege towers, ramps, battering rams. Eventually, one way or another, they’ll get over or through. Eventually the city wall will be broken – breached. The enemy soldiers will stream in, all tramping boots and flashing swords.

The breach in the wall means you’ve lost. It means your whole way of life, everything you value, is about to go up in flames. If you see a city in ruins, chances are it has a breach in its wall. If you see a city with a breach in its wall, chances are it’s in ruins. And if you want to rebuild, if you want that ruin to become a city again, if you want to renew your people and your way of life – you’ve got to restore that breach. You’ve got to fill it in.

Late in the book of the prophet Isaiah, in the chapters written as Israel returned from their time of exile, to reclaim their land and rebuild Jerusalem, a prophet who wrote in Isaiah’s name uses the image of the breach. I think he knows the Ezekiel text; I think he’s alluding to it, as he speaks hopefully about renewal for God’s people, about the possibilities ahead as they return and rebuild:

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if 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… 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.”

The repairer of the breach. I hope you can hear, already, that that image means much more than just using rubble and mortar to fill in a hole. The breach is more than just the breach. When Ezekiel issued his fierce indictment, the city wall was still solid, the enemy still far off, but the people were already compromised, vulnerable, because of their sin. Because they cared more about wealth and power than about humanity or holiness. The city wall might as well be broken already.

Likewise for Isaiah, repairing the breach is so much more than just fixing the wall. It’s restoring a whole way of life, grounded in faithful love for God and neighbor. The city wall isn’t an image of exclusion or insularity, here – elsewhere in the same passage, the prophet speaks of city gates that are always open, day and night; of all the nations of the world streaming into the holy city. This is not a wall to keep people out. It’s a symbol of wholeness and integrity.

Friends, we’re in a time of rapid change, of tumult and struggle, confusion and fierce clarity. Our new president has a very different vision for our country than the previous administration, and a lot is happening very fast. In this congregation, many of you feel like we’re under attack. Like everything you value is about to go up in flames. Some of you wanted big changes in our government, but now you’re questioning whether these are the changes that you hoped for. Others may be satisfied, even pleased with the events of the past two weeks – but feel like you can’t talk about it with your friends. This is Madison, after all.

I need to confess that there have been many moments in the past weeks when I have felt like a resident of Jerusalem, watching the city wall crumble before the force of a battering ram while Ezekiel says, I TOLD YOU SO. Comfortable white folks who think of ourselves as justice- and mercy-minded have had some real eye-opening moments. We’ve been alarmed by the idea of an increased crackdown on undocumented immigrants – and the immigrant community has said, Where have you been all these years, while the legal paths for immigration were narrowed to near-impossiblity, and our families lived in fear of detention and deportation? We’ve been alarmed by overtly racist speech becoming more mainstream – and people of color have told us, I’ve been hearing this my whole life. We’ve been alarmed by restrictions on the number of refugees allowed to build new lives in our nation – and advocates have pointed out that the U.S. has always accepted very few refugees, considering our size, wealth, and the witness of that tall green lady in New York Harbor. The voice of the prophet in my ear says, If you haven’t been outraged, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention.

Waking up, like this – it’s humbling. And disheartening. It makes my heart ache to realize that not only is our nation not living up to our biggest boldest brightest ideals – but that it never has. Not even close. Not if we’re honest. Not if we’re paying attention.

It’s tempting to sink into the bitterness and anger and despair of the prophet Ezekiel, who sees so much around him that is profoundly broken, and no one who cares enough to respond. No one. But Ezekiel isn’t our text for today. Isaiah is. The prophet who wrote in Isaiah’s name, who takes up Ezekiel’s image of the breach and turns it from destruction towards restoration. And where Ezekiel gives voice to anguish, Isaiah offers – hope. Conditional hope. We have, always, unconditional hope in the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ; but our hopes for this world, this life – require our commitment, our engagement. We can’t assume that things will get better on their own. But if – if. If people undertake, together, to stop pointing fingers and speaking evil, to share our bread with the hungry, to house the homeless poor, to break every yoke that weighs people down, then … then our light shall rise in the darkness, and our gloom be like the noonday. Then we shall be called repairers of the breach.

Ezekiel tells us that the breach has always been there; Isaiah tells us that we always have the capacity to repair it. To carry what we can, boulder or mortar or pebble, to pile in that space, the gap between the world as it is and the world as God made it to be. To build our way together towards a whole way of life, grounded in faithful love for God and neighbor.