During in-person worship, Pastor Carol showed a video of Claudine Leary, founder of Watoto Read, telling her story. You can watch the video here or scroll down this page.
Isaiah 58:9b-12; Romans 8:31-39
Shortly after President Biden took office, he addressed the personnel of the Department of Defense. In his remarks, he said, “As your Commander-in-Chief, I will never hesitate to use force to defend the vital interests of the American people and our allies around the world when necessary…But I believe force should be a tool of last resort, not first. I understand the full weight of what it means to ask young, proud Americans to stand in the breach.”
In a speech in April of this year, he echoed those words. He touted the courage and resolve of the Ukrainian people and “the fearless and skilled Ukrainian fighters who are standing in the breach.”
The phrase “standing in the breach” suggests courage in the face of great danger and the willingness to sacrifice oneself to protect others from an enemy, even when the odds are against you. It suggests seeing a need or an injustice, and responding, even when it requires great personal sacrifice. Some people might say that Liz Cheney has been doing that—standing on principles she believes in, in spite of knowing the tremendous price she was likely to pay, and in fact did.
Stories of those who stand in the breach amaze us and inspire us. We look up to those who are willing to protect others—especially when we are the “others” they’re protecting. We may wonder if we could be so bold, so brave, so unselfish in the face of a dreaded enemy—whether that enemy is armed with guns and with injustice. But, what if the enemy who’s about to storm through the breach is God?
We find the phrase “standing in the breach” in several places in the Bible. The word “breach” is used most often to describe a literal gap in the walls that fortified ancient cities—gaps which would allow an enemy army to enter. Standing in the breach was literally what the local military or citizenry would have to do to prevent the invaders from entering.
But a breach is also a metaphor for a break in a relationship, whether between people or between people and God. We read in Exodus that the Hebrew people created a breach between themselves and God when they made a golden calf to worship. In Joshua we read of a case of mistaken unfaithfulness. The tribe of Reuben had built an altar on their side of the Jordan. When the rest of the Israelites discovered it, they accused the Reubenites of a breach of faith in the God of Israel.
“Not so!” the Reubenites protested. They had built a copy of the true altar so that their children could worship God even if they weren’t allowed to worship with the rest of Israel on the other side of the Jordan. The altar did not, in fact, indicate a breach of faith, but the story shows how seriously such a breach was taken.
The most serious breaches between God and God’s people are described by the prophets. These breaches are made by injustice. Yes, God expects faithfulness, but faithfulness to God includes more than just going through the ritual motions. It requires right treatment of others, especially those who are vulnerable. The prophet Ezekiel reports how the people of Jerusalem had failed in this in the days leading up to the Babylonian exile. Chapter 22 is a dirty-laundry list of ways in which the people of Jerusalem had created a breach between themselves and God by their unjust treatment of others.
Jerusalem’s leaders were guilty of everything from sexual assault to extortion and bribe-taking. Its officials had destroyed the lives of others for dishonest gain. Its priests had profaned all that was holy and had misrepresented God’s teachings. Its prophets, God says through Ezekiel, had “smeared whitewash” on behalf of the leaders and officials. The prophets had spread false visions and told lies for them. They had said, “Thus says the Lord God,” when the Lord had not spoken. Finally, the people themselves—at least those with money and property—had extorted and robbed, oppressed the poor and needy, and exploited the alien who had no way to obtain relief. The situation was so bad that God had renamed Jerusalem “the Bloody City.”
The people of God should have been living securely within the walls of faithfulness to God and to God’s teachings. God had instructed them in how to honor God through their worship and through their treatment of others—all others. But, act by dishonest and cruel act, they had been making breaches in that wall.
It’s tempting to think that the wall Ezekiel speaks of separates God’s people—including us—from the sin that lurks outside. It’s tempting to think that any breach in that wall allows sin to come inside to attack us. But the sin that God speaks of through the prophet is not on the outside of the wall. It’s on the inside. It’s on the inside of each and every person, given our sinful nature, and that sinfulness finds its expression inside the walls, not outside of them.
These words should give us serious pause. We claim to be a God-fearing, even a Christian nation, but it’s not hard to find contemporary examples of every one of God’s complaints against the people of Jerusalem, from the most powerful right on down to ordinary people. And, lest we be too eager to point fingers, we need to look at ourselves, too.
We may not rank among the so-called “One Percenters,” but we are rich beyond imagining compared to most of the world’s people. We may not think of ourselves as having great power, but we do have influence, among our families and friends and co-workers, over our employees, in our community, and—yes—in our state and our nation. We may not personally commit the acts that God found so abominable then and finds now, but the ways in which we vote, the ways in which we spend our money, and the ways in which we treat others have the awful power to support those who do and widen the breach between us and God.
The good news is that we worship an ever-hopeful God. Through Ezekiel, we learn that God had sought someone to repair the wall and to stand in the breach on behalf of those inside. God hoped that someone was faithful enough to lead the people to repentance and to plead for them while they mended their ways and their relationship with God. That’s what Moses had done when God threatened to destroy the Hebrew people during the golden calf incident. According to Psalm 106, God would have destroyed them, “had not Moses stood in the breach before God” to turn away God’s wrath.
The bad news is that, in Jerusalem, God didn’t find that person. No one was willing to take a stand against the wrongs that were being committed, the lies that were being told, the false teachings that were being spread, or the injustice that was rampant. No one was willing to risk their own comfort or security to speak up for the truth. No one was willing to defend the defenseless. And so, the consequences of their unfaithfulness flooded through the breach in the wall, in the form of the Babylonian army. The city was destroyed, the “haves” were taken into exile, and the “have-nots” were left behind to survive as best they could.
Fast forward seventy years, and Isaiah picks up the story. God announces that Jerusalem has served her term and her penalty is paid. Unfortunately, in spite of all that’s happened, there are still some who refuse to live according to the righteousness that God requires. They are still inclined to commit the sins that created that terrible breach between them and God in the first place.
But also among them are God’s appointed messengers with a message for the soon-to-be-former exiles: “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. The 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. 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.”
Isn’t that a call and a promise to take your breath away and make your heart pound? All that God requires is what God has always required: that God’s people be merciful as God is merciful, compassionate as God is compassionate, just as God is just. That God’s people look to the needs of others—to remove the barriers that keep them from realizing their full potential and the burdens that keep them weighed down. That God’s people speak truthfully, and kindly, and with integrity. This is our daily worship of God—keeping God’s commandments and striving to grow in holiness.
This is challenging work—work which many will say, “It can’t be done.” Or, “It shouldn’t be done.” Or, “We don’t want it done.” But God is good, and God promises that we will have the strength and the nourishment and the guidance we need to undertake the work which all of God’s people are commissioned to do.
And when we do that work, what a difference we make! We become a light of hope in a dark world. The good in the world that has been damaged will be restored, and the wobbly systems supported by injustice will be replaced by new foundations upon which future generations can rely and build. We will be called the repairers of the breach, and the restorers of streets to live in.
Imagine the streets of our nation without the sounds of gunfire, without the shouts of protest against what strips people of their dignity. Imagine the streets of our nation, filled with children of all colors and religions and backgrounds safely playing outside together. Imagine the streets of our nation, lined with safe, affordable homes for those who were once homeless and forgotten. Imagine a nation where difference is met with courtesy rather than hostility, and where all people are treated as beloved children of God. Imagine the streets of our nation transformed by the people of God who take seriously God’s promise that, by the way we live, we can be the restorers of streets to live in.
Are you rolling your eyes at this as an impossible dream—just the words of an idealistic preacher with her head in the clouds?
Tell that to my friend Claudine Leary. Claudine became a refugee from the genocide in Rwanda. With help from the Jesuit Refugee Service, Claudine eventually finished her education and graduated from Africa University in Kenya. She married an American, whom she met when he was on a mission trip to Kenya. She became an American citizen and earned an MBA. She then followed God’s call into ministry and became an elder in the United Methodist Church. She and her husband built a normal, comfortable middle-class life together.
But, Claudine never forgot the hardships she and so many others had endured in the refugee camps, and which 22% of the world’s population endure in refugee camps today. In 2105, while she was still in seminary and raising three children of her own, Claudine created a nonprofit organization called Watoto Read. (“Watoto” means “children” in Swahili.) Listen as Claudine tells her story. Listen to Claudine tell her story:
Since Claudine and those who joined with her began their work, they have built or renovated fifteen classrooms serving 120 children a day. They’ve built nearly 400 benches, each seating five children. Because teenage girls often have to drop out of school because of a lack of feminine hygiene products, Watoto Read partnered with others to provide 21,000 hygiene kits for girls. Because preschool is a key part of the learning process, Watoto Read has provided financial support and supplies for 67 preschools. And, to keep children in school during the pandemic, Watoto Read provided nearly 1200 families with supplies to protect against COVID-19.
This is how an ordinary woman, who faced extraordinary hardship, joined with other ordinary men and women to become repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in. We are called to that same mission. And if that seems impossible, and maybe even frightening to you, remember this: God has already begun the repairs by providing the foundation stone in Jesus Christ.
God provided the means by which the breach in the wall between God and humanity could be repaired, and God promises to be with us as we continue that work. As Paul declares, in anything that makes us afraid, we are more than conquerors through him who loves us. When the job of street repair seems too big, and our resources seem too small to fill even a pothole, we have only to remember this: we have a God who will guide us continually, satisfy our needs in the parched places, and make our bones strong. And, we have a Savior from whom we can never be separated.
Yes, the phrase “standing in the breach” is in the Bible. It occurs where God’s people have forgotten who and whose they are, and the consequences of their actions are ready to pour in. The conditions that existed when God sought someone to stand in the breach in Jerusalem continue to exist today. There is a breach in the wall of righteousness and justice, because God’s kingdom has not yet been completed here on earth.
But God is looking for faithful people who will do more than simply stand in the breach. God calls us to repair it. God calls us to remove the yoke of poverty and prejudice and division. God calls us to stand against the pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil. God calls us to offer our food to the hungry and to satisfy the needs of the afflicted. God calls us to be restorers of streets to live in. By God’s grace, by the Spirit’s power, and with the constant presence of Jesus, our light shall rise in the darkness, and we will be the repairers of the breach. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young