This story of the woman coming to synagogue on the Sabbath feels strangely familiar because it happens sometimes; people (that we do not know) come to the church on a Sunday and need help. By the time they find the pastor it is only minutes until the service starts so I invite them to worship with us and tell them I will talk with them after the service. In essence I am the religious leader saying, “There are six days for work, to come and ask for help, why not come on one of those days?”
There is a kind of urgency on the day of worship, and there are more people around. As my friend David often says, “If you want someone to do something, don’t ask when they are alone. Make sure to ask them in front of someone else.” He is right. When others are around I am more likely to hear Jesus’ voice, and Isaiah’s voice, in my head, “You hypocrite. Who are you to hold tight and not offer food to those who hungry? Who are you, with all you have, to not share even just a little?”
But this woman in the synagogue, bent over for 18 years, bent over – for a whole generation – she does not ask for anything. She just shows up, like she always does, on the Sabbath to be part of the gathering for worship. It is Jesus who calls her over, it is Jesus who creates a scene. I can imagine that Jesus has recently read this passage from Isaiah 58, and feels that it his duty as a child of YHWH to reach out to this one, to “satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” It seems like he stopped reading at verse 12, before the part about “not trampling the Sabbath.”
Or maybe he did read the part about the Sabbath, but he interprets it differently than the mainstream religious leaders. He does not believe he is “serving his own interest” by healing a person who has been bent over for 18 years. He is not “going his own way,” or “pursuing his own affairs” by inviting her to wholeness. He is fulfilling the first part of the Isaiah’s prophetic word, “remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of fingers, the malicious talk.” For surely this inability to stand tall has caused finger pointing and evil gossip which only tightens the yoke of misery and further burdens the woman.
So, contrary to how the gathered crowd is used to hearing Isaiah, as old poetry or as an ancient text that will eventually be fulfilled, Jesus steps up and walks right into a new interpretation.
“You say you know the prophets, like Isaiah. But you are hypocrites! Which of you doesn’t let your animal out of the stall on the Sabbath? This daughter of Sarah and Abraham has worn this yoke of Satan for 18 years. Shouldn’t the Sabbath be the day she is released from the shackles that bind her?”
As a pastor, I have some sympathy for the religious leaders in the synagogue that day. It is not easy to plan a worship service, and have it run smoothly so that everyone is inspired – and undisturbed. To have this young rabbi come in and disrupt the morning worship and then have the unmitigated gall to call the leaders hypocrites! for following the text as it is plainly written. I know I would be humiliated (and chastised) and furious. To top it all off, the gathered congregation basically turns its back on its own leaders; the people pivot to Jesus, this yoke-breaking, needs-satisfying, responsive-in-the-moment, visiting, young rabbi. They see in Jesus new energy and joy, a fresh way of living into an old text.
Jesus makes this simple if-then proposition in Isaiah come alive. If you do this, then this will happen. If you remove the yoke from among you, if you offer your food to the hungry, then your light shall rise in the darkness.
It is not a magic formula. What Isaiah writes is more like a recipe that makes for justice. It is an approach to life that puts people ahead of convenience. It is an approach that demands we shift our gaze.
If we de-center the wealthy and powerful, then we can see those who we usually ignore. Isaiah says if we pay attention to those who are in need, then we will start to see and experience the world in a different way. There will be light where we thought there was darkness, there will be full sun when we thought it was all shadow. If you satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then… you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail; you shall be called the repairer of the breach. In a world made more dangerous by climate change, this vision, even if it is metaphor, is enticing.
A word about this phrase “repairer of the breach.” This refers to the protective wall around the city, the wall that has not been properly tended and is now crumbling. It can be easily breached by enemies, endangering the whole community. It doesn’t have the same ring to our ears since so many of us are against walls built to keep out “invaders.”
And in yet another irony about walls, that must be mentioned today as we remember 1619, the most famous wall in this country – “the original wall for which Wall Street is named, was built by the enslaved at a site that served as the city’s first organized slave auction.” from Municipal Bonds: How Slavery Built Wall Street – By Tiya Miles, in NYTimes magazine,1619 Project, p.40
Try to hold all the various walls in mind, even as we recall that in Isaiah’s context, the wall meant protection from violent warriors. To be called a repairer of the breach meant a dedication to “reclaiming safety and dignity from those who would steal and destroy” the community. (from footnotes to Isaiah 58 in The Inclusive Bible)
It is this understanding that the Rev Dr William Barber has in mind; his organization is called, “Repairers of the Breach.” The website features Isaiah 58 – 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. Repairers of the Breach, in this contemporary incarnation, seeks “to build a moral agenda rooted in a framework that uplifts our deepest moral and constitutional values of love, justice, and mercy, to redeem the heart and soul of our country. https://www.breachrepairers.org/about
That is a high goal, a lofty vision. Where in the world does one even begin to chip away at a goal like that?
A starting point I have learned from Dr Barber, as well as from our work with Congregation Action Network (formerly known as DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network) is to shift our attention – from those who have the most money and power, to those who have been disempowered.
At meetings of Repairers of the Breach, and its sister organization the Poor People’s Campaign, it is not just clergy, sympathetic politicians and professional activists that get the mic. The “impacted folks” get substantial time to tell their truths. At gatherings with Congregation Action Network, we always hear from individuals who are most affected by ICE detention and family separation. The people who are “bent over” and struggling every day, tell their stories, share their experiences and their wisdom. How else will those of us who are well educated and have money, how else will we even know what it means to live next to the breach?
Well-intentioned as we may be, as people with degrees and wallets full of credit cards, we may be unaware of the power we have. It is all too easy to step into that breach and start making plans for repairs, coming up with solutions and ways to quickly implement them. But if we truly want to live into love, justice and mercy, then we must listen to the people who are most affected, who struggle to live in safety. If we truly want to be part of repairing the breach, then we must show up, and shut up, and listen. It is a first step toward helping restore dignity to those who are most impacted by the breach.
There are lots of ways we can show up, it doesn’t just have to be at big meetings of the Poor Peoples Campaign or Congregation Action Network. We can start anywhere to shift our attention from the president and people of power to those who are most affected by the abuses of power. We can start listening almost wherever we go. Instead of listening in on the well-dressed customers at the next table at the restaurant, watch the people who bus the table or mop the floor. What might we hear? We can take an extra minute to talk with the people who sweep the office hallways or learn where the nannies at the park are from. Or try talking with the kids or parents at school who don’t seem to speak English as their first language. (We can show up by reading the 1619 project from the New York Times to get a different sense of US history.)
It is not easy to shift our gaze from the powerful to those who are bent over. Power is like a magnet that attracts us, wants us to watch it. But if we want to be repairers of the breach, then we must learn some new ways of being which may be uncomfortable. Because let’s face it, we who are used to being in power may be humbled as we try to figure out what it means to walk with, and as, repairers of the breach. When Jesus healed the woman who was bent over, she and the gathered crowd rejoiced but the religious leaders, the people with power, were angry and humiliated. It will be good to remember that, as we shift our gaze away from power. We may hear things that feel unfair. Our feelings may be hurt when we find out how we are viewed.
It might happen on Sundays too, if we really take in what we read in the prophets and the stories of Jesus. These are texts written to inspire and uplift those who feel overwrought and overlooked. These are not meant to comfort those who hold power and look on as the protective wall crumbles.
We who are used to making the plans and knowing the answers, may find this all troubling and uncomfortable. I hope we are already uncomfortable with the power in this country that gets more explicitly racist and vengeful every day. Taken together, it all makes for unsettling feelings of vulnerability. That is a great time to remember that when we feel vulnerable, we are most likely to understand what it means to be powerless. (and that God most often sides with the powerless.)
It is also good to remember that we do all this with a sense of balance, showing up – and finding places to breathe and rest and regroup. If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, not going your own ways, or serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you will find your happiness in YHWH.
May God help us to shift our gaze away from the powerful so that we truly see the strength of the vulnerable.