Sunday sermon from January 15, 2012
Text: Ezekiel 22:23-31
Given at Slackwood Presbyterian Church, Trenton, NJ
Careful readers of the bulletin will note perhaps a familiar ring to this week’s sermon title. It’s true, I admit: maybe I’ve gotten a bit bored with my own titles, so I’ve decided to borrow this one in its entirety from the Lennon/McCartney school. “Fixing a Hole, Where the Rain Gets In” – otherwise known as track #4 on the greatest album ever recorded, the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I haven’t checked this with Dawn, but my hope was perhaps we could do a whole series, so, maybe next week “I am the Walrus”?
Fixing a Hole Where the Rain Gets In, to Stop My Mind from Wandering’… the lyrics aren’t complicated. But neither is it entirely clear what Paul was talking about, and, as is true for most things, there are people on the internet arguing about it. There’s the psychological school, which suggests that Paul is engaging in a program of social withdrawal, fixing the “holes” in his daily pattern that force him into engaging with undesirables in the world. There’s the ever-popular psychochemical argument, which points to tracks like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and argues somewhat reductively that the whole gang is clearly on drugs, and, as such, our attempts to make sense of their lyrics are ill-advised at best.
But there’s a third option, hardly as scandalous, but nonetheless a vocal minority exists to suggest that Paul McCartney is simply and literally patching holes in his roof. Perhaps bored on a Saturday afternoon, his mind wandering, he remembers some spot exposed by the last storm and decides to do some opportunistic repair. Clearly it doesn’t help the boredom, as he then bothers to write a song about the experience. But the point still stands: look, songs about love, death and the human condition are fine and good, but somebody also has to sing about roof repair. These things are important, too.
I know I’m preaching to a congregation with no shortage of handyman experience; I’m sure you all have patched quite a few roofs in your time. And so as we journey through this Biblical year together, and as we find ourselves in some places in Scripture that we have rarely lingered on, I want you to add Ezekiel 22 to the list of good-texts-for-handymen. Yes, Jesus was a carpenter. Yes, the epistles have no shortage of imagery about foundations and living-stones. But here in Ezekiel, with the enemy at the gates of the city, with the nation in panic and God’s anger kindled against them, on the cusp of exile, on the cusp of the destruction of the temple, on the cusp of losing everything they hold dear, what Israel really needs is to patch a hole in the wall. With everything on the line, God roams the city: I sought for anyone who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me, so that I would not destroy the city; but I found no one.
Seriously, what’s God got to do around here to get a wall fixed?
At first it sounds like a simple enough of a request. The city built these walls; surely it can take bids on a quick repair job. But God’s request is so much more complicated, and even a bit puzzling: give me someone to repair the wall AND stand in the breach; but, if you repaired it right the first time, why would there still be a breach to stand in? A breach is just a spot where the defensive walls have crumbled, a spot where the invading army could focus its assault. Fix the spot, and there’s no more breach; or, leave the breach there, but defend it. And frankly, who wants to defend it with all that extra scaffolding lying around? And who wants to be the repairman working while the battle is raging? Can’t we pick one, and why on earth does God seek for us to do both?
So, cards on the table: what we’re talking about isn’t just how to negotiate with contractors. This text is about judgment, any way you look at it. God speaks to Ezekiel and offers a scathing critique of every corner of Jerusalem society. The political leaders have indulged endless warmongering; God says that all they have created are widows. The religious leaders have failed in any way to observe what is holy; they are hypocrites in God’s temple. The prophets have smeared whitewash on their belief, an image too powerful to rephrase. The people have committed widespread and systematic failure to attend to the neediest among them, and so, as the story so often goes, Israel’s failure evokes God’s wrath and retribution: God sends the invading army against Jerusalem, and then, with the enemy at the gates, even then nobody will repair the wall; nobody will rise to the city’s defense in the breach; whatever the opposite of getting out on good behavior is, that’s where we are, sitting in judgment.
I’ll wager that it’s not the first or last prophesy of judgment you’ll hear in 2012. Perhaps it is the apocalyptic tenor of the times: we have reached the last page of the Mayan calendar, and with the alarmism of environmental decline and nuclear Armageddon so rampant in our midst, it is easy enough to find ourselves anticipating the imminent arrival of a judging God. And easier still to ascribe the terror of natural evil to the hand of that same judgmental Almighty. Last year, when devastating earthquakes destroyed much of northern Japan, the response from some nearby corners of Christianity was to see in these events God’s retributive motives: the day before, you see, the Japanese government had issued a statement deploring Israeli policies of settlement in the West Bank; God’s response, presumably in God’s protectiveness of the Israeli state, is to wreak judgment and destruction upon the Japanese people. If only they had behaved; if only they had repaired those walls; now, instead, they stand in the breach, the first line of defense against the armies of the Lord of Hosts.
Go back further. I’m sure you remember Jeremiah Wright announcing that 9/11 was God’s judgment against America’s policies of foreign domination, America’s “chickens come home to roost.” I’m equally sure I won’t be the first or last person to mention those lines as the 2012 election lurches into high gear. And go back further: in those days when we all sat and watched New Orleans sink into the water, when we watched as families died from the exposure of their own rooftops, as we were told by the Reverend Falwell that Katrina was God’s judgment come against the city, punishment for its moral failures, punished like Sodom, destroyed like Jerusalem, the levees breached not by mechanical failure nor by the colossal force of Lake Pontchartrain pushing against them, but rather by so much sinfulness. The levees broke, and the waters of God’s judgment washed the city clean: pity to any who would stand in the breach.
Do you hear the either/or? Either repair the walls, see to your own sinfulness, leave off your foolish ways, repent, the time is nigh – or stand in the breach before God and face the judgment. Not just the fate of cities, but even our own fate: God’s judgment stands ready to destroy you; prepare yourself to face your fate. Make your amends. Find the places where your outer defenses have broken down, and make your repairs: the Lord comes, and comes to judge. Once in my youth my family received a postcard, one of many I suppose sent throughout the area, informing us that we were going to hell. It was sent from a congregation in the region, I suppose their own take on public service outreach. The implication was clear: straighten up and fly right. Fix the hole before the rain gets in; repair the wall, or stand in the breach.
Of course, you can flip it entirely: you can stand in the breach, and ignore the repairs. God looks for one person to stand in the breach before him – but God is already in the city, in the arc, in the temple, the traditional house of God in Israel’s theology. The Psalmist writes that God is always in the midst of the city. So it’s quite unclear what standing in the breach before God means: are we supposed to stand and face our judge? Or does God, in a very literal sort of way, have our back, as we face what evils are sent against us? Put differently: isn’t this what Jesus is for? Don’t we claim with the scriptures that Jesus died for our sins; in that death, does he not stand in the breach of the wall and fight off the armies of judgment; in that death, does he not stand behind the broken levee and hold back the flood waters of destruction? Last Sunday in the liturgical calendar we remembered the baptism of Jesus; in the Gospel of Mark, the river Jordan rushes over him and the Heavens are torn in two; the whole game changes as the waters of cleansing judgment roll down off of his forehead. Surely here is nothing less than the foundation of our Christian hope, that Christ died for us and for our salvation, that our sins are washed away; that the judgment has already happened and yet we stand acquitted by God’s grace, that Christ has stood in the breach and our great sinful city has been spared.
And yet the water still gets in. Just ask New Orleans. If Jesus died for that city, then why does its destruction still matter; if Jesus has already saved those imprisoned inside the inhumanity of the Superdome, why would it matter how we respond, whether we respond, whether we care? If Jesus has already borne the burdens of the lower 9th ward, why should we care that it was the poorest sections of the city, the neighborhoods at the bottom of the hill, where the flood waters ultimately found their home? If Jesus stands in the breach, does it matter why the levees broke? Does it matter that some neighborhoods were worth more than others, that some lives were worth more than others? Our former president rushed quickly to the breach; he stood in front of the 17th street levee three days after the collapse, a moment that seemed to show repairs well underway, a staged photo-op that distracted construction and repair crews from active work zones simply for the sake of publicity. Can we be so glib, standing in the breach and ignoring the repair? Does it matter that the walls fail; does it matter that the levees were faulty, if in our faith we can simply abdicate responsibility for the affairs of this world?
Surely it does. Surely these things matter. Surely Christians have real work to do in this world. God tells Ezekiel that the people have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress. Surely this judgment is upon us, and when that judgment comes to New Jersey, what levees have we failed to secure? Where is our hidden injustice? Where will the flood waters seep in to Camden, to Trenton, even to Slackwood? Where are the walls we have failed to repair, where is the injustice we have ignored, wherein will God’s righteous judgment find us lacking? Katrina was not God’s judgment against New Orleans; Katrina was a natural effect of ocean temperatures; and God who collects our every tear weeps with us for its destructive aftermath. But where the levees broke, where flood waters overwhelmingly found their way to the least advantaged; where help came last of all to the most unfortunate; when the levees broke our own sinfulness, our own evil, was made manifest to the world, our own failures set the flood waters upon our neighbor: surely for this, surely for this, and for so many other injustices – for the disrepair in our own community, for our failures of reconciliation, for blind eye we turn to poverty, for the deaf ear we turn to the cries of the voiceless; surely for this, God’s judgment is upon us.
We cannot have it one way or the other. We cannot simply repair the walls and prevent the judgment; we’re bad contractors, we don’t do good work, we’re imperfect sinners, every one of us, and nothing we do will secure those walls against the flood. But nor can we simply stand in the breach, stand on faith, not on our own, not face-to-face with this water, not without at least trying to patch the holes. The truth of the Christian life has to be both/and – it has to be this paradox, that we have God’s grace because of nothing we have done; that we have God’s judgment because we have done nothing; that we repair the walls, but not well; that we stand in the breach, but not alone.
Our Lord Jesus Christ stands in that breach; he faces the judgment waters, the waters of his baptism; he was dead and re-born. And so face-to-face with our own, remember, of all things, the waters of your own baptism: that we are already judged but forgiven; we are already condemned but set free; we are already dead, but that the things of old have passed away, that in Jesus Christ everything is a new creation. Face-to-face with the judgment, we stand in the breach, and the one we call Messiah stands before us, and the waters rush past him, and the flood surges around him, and the waves shake the foundations of the earth, but he is unmoved, and in his gracious shadow we are called children of God.
But face-to-face with the gracious waters, remember, of all things, your baptism: that in baptism our Lord Jesus Christ was sent forth from the waters with a mission of justice, peace and reconciliation; that we are likewise sent, from the breach to the wall, from this place into the world, with a mission to the poor, with a mission to the oppressed, with a mission to our every neighbor. That judgment stands not before you but rather behind you, that we have already been overcome by the waters, that we have already been convicted by the flood, but freed for purposes no longer our own, freed for the service of a world that so desperately needs repair, freed to rebuild the wall and stand in the breach, always at the same time, freed for the service of the one who stands in the breach before us. This is where we live, awash in the baptismal waters of gracious judgment, and yet called to fix the hole where the rain gets in. We’ve got to try. These things are important, too.