WHAT ARE THE CHILDREN DOING? Today we heard a strange word in the reading from the Old Testament. The prophet Isaiah said that when you take care of people who are hungry and give people what they need so they can live, then “you shall be called the repairer of the breach.” What do you think that means, “repairer of the breach?”
“Breach” is not a word we use really often. I’ve heard the term “security breach,” and that might mean breaking through a city wall—so how do you repair a brick wall? You have to put bricks back together with mortar and cement and build it back up again.
If a computer has a security breach, that means someone found a way to get information out of the computer, so how do you repair that? Someone who knows a lot about computer security has to write a code so that no one can get into the computer’s information.
There’s also a “breach of contract” or a “breach of trust,” which means someone didn’t keep their part of an official agreement, and the way to fix that might be to pay money back or work with a lawyer or go to court to make a new agreement.
Isaiah wants us to learn how to take care of each other but also to fix what has been broken. That’s what it means to repair—fix what is broken.
If I give everyone one part of a long string of yarn, and we all stand up in a line, we can look kinda like a wall, right? But what if I cut the yarn with my scissors—now there has been a breach! How can we fix it? (Tie a knot in the yarn)
This breach is an easy one to fix—other things are harder to fix. But you have the power to help! I want you to notice where things are broken and think about—how can this be fixed? You might have a solution that nobody else has thought of.
We still have hungry people in this world, people who need food! Have you brought food to share with the food pantry? You are helping repair the breach, just like Isaiah called the people of God to do. And people need other things than food, too! There are some people working together here at our church to build a Little Free Food Pantry that will stand outside in the church yard, where people can pick up food that they need, and maybe some other things they need too, like first aid items for their health, or things like that. You might notice something to share, and you will be helping repair the breach.
Let us pray. Loving God, thank you for giving us everything we need. Help us to notice what our neighbors need and help us repair the things that are broken. You want everyone to live healthy lives, and we want that, too. Amen.
What would it be like to be a repairer of the breach? A restorer of streets to live in?
Do you ever think of that while driving around here in St. Louis, swerving to avoid potholes? What does it take to make repairs, to restore what has been built and then broken? We’re still trying to figure that out, as a city, as a society.
The problems are so many, so different, so big that it’s easy to conclude, it can’t be fixed. But that is untrue. There’s always something that can be done to repair, or to say it another way: to make reparations.
Reparations—yikes. That’s a word with a history. In this country, when we hear the word “reparations,” we think of some amount of money or financial benefit given to people of African descent whose ancestors were once brought here as slaves. Slaves were not paid for their work, so some financial benefit can be paid to their descendants now, as a way to address the injustice that has been suffered, the generations of systemic oppression, and the inequity and inequality that persist even now.
But how can we possibly make reparations for that much evil? It’s too big! There’s too many people. How can we account for who is a descendant of an enslaved person, especially when historical record-keeping is as incomplete as it is? Besides, that was a long time ago! Why can’t we just leave it in the past, make an apology perhaps, and move on?
I’ve thought some of these things, too, in my life. I didn’t question the privileges I had in my life, that my ancestors were paid for their work, that my ancestors were able to purchase, own, and keep their land and sell it for money if they chose to. But as I have learned about all these things that my Black and Brown and Indigenous neighbors could not enjoy, wealth that they could not pass down to their own descendants, it has made me wonder how can we begin to repair this brokenness. How can the system begin to change?
Some people are talking about this, coming up with ideas: a task force appointed by the governor of California to address historic inequities, a reparations committee formed by Boston’s city council, our own mayor has created a commission to study what reparations could look like right here in St. Louis. In a statement reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mayor Tishaura Jones said, “We cannot succeed as a city if one half is allowed to fail.”
Mayor Jones also noted that the U.S. government paid over one billion dollars to Japanese Americans who were imprisoned unjustly during World War II. In Florida, survivors of a racist massacre in the 1920s were paid more than one million dollars and a scholarship fund was set up for their descendants. The city of Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, has addressed discriminatory housing policies by granting money to Black people to pay for mortgages and home improvements.
Various governments are looking into ways to address historic inequities, which is a good start. We can support those efforts as people of faith, we can get involved with the work of restorative justice, but as people of faith, why should we be interested in this issue of reparations?
Jesus would tell us that it’s because we’re salt and light in the world—we’re supposed to be setting the good example by the way we care for each other and care for our neighbors. But this message didn’t start with Jesus; Jesus is repeating the same message of the prophets who came before him, like Isaiah.
In the section of Isaiah we’ve read today, Isaiah is telling the people of God that all their religious observance—fasting and prayer, trying to get God’s attention and earn God’s favor—is really about serving their own interest. God would rather see a religious fast that involves loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless—in your own house!—and clothing the naked.
These are the things that bring light into the world, and not because we’re forced to do this or enter into the work grudgingly. God already gave us everything we need, God’s love is so big we have enough to share, and this is how to begin to repair the breach and restore the streets where we live, right here and right now.
Can reparations be part of this faithful work? I believe it can. It can be a statement of faith to address not only the current and ongoing needs of people in poverty, but also to address the history of injustice that has got them into poverty. It is possible to repair our relationship with history by acknowledging and learning our history and making steps to move forward in a new way.
So how can a group of faithful people, a church, participate in reparations? We already collect food for food pantries, we already give money to organizations which are caring for people who are poor, what more is there to do? Well, some people have gotten creative.
One thing all churches do is gather for worship. We do this at least once a week, sometimes more often, you know pretty much what to expect, right? There’s all the leadership you see during worship, the volunteers who provide hospitality and help us move through the liturgy.
What you may not know is that there’s a lot of preparation that goes on behind the scenes for planning. We have a worship and music committee that arranges events to accompany big worship festivals and make sure the choirs have what they need, and they set a budget for licenses.
What do we need licenses for? For playing and singing music. A member of the worship and music committee, Dawn Schuessler, looks at every song and every piece of music that is used in worship and tracks down the copyrights to make sure we have permission to sing and to play these. Every single week. I don’t know if you noticed, but we like to sing, so there’s a lot of songs.
This congregation has long had the practice of securing permission for music and keeping our licenses updated. Every year, the congregation purchases licenses that allow us to play some hymns and pieces of music—we pay an amount to a licensing company, and then every week for every piece of music that is chosen, we report what music we’re playing, and that licensing company pays royalties to the composers and lyricists for their work.
Now, you might think, who cares? It isn’t even that much money. But gifted composers and lyricists make money and some even make a living this way. We have had composers and lyricists in our congregation—Bob Chamberlin and Kim Kolander both have written music that is sung and played in churches. Members of the congregation who have known and loved and respected the work of these men, we agreed that it’s the right thing to do to secure copyright permissions and make sure the artists receive their pay.
This is not an easy task—there are some songs, even songs that are printed in our Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal!—that are not covered by a license and need special permission. Our friend Dawn tracks down these permissions, and sometimes a separate fee must be paid, and other times, permission is not granted, so we have to choose another song to sing.
These things have always been important, but when the pandemic came along and we began livestreaming worship, that changed the kind of license we had to have, because now in addition to public performance of a piece of music AND printing the lyrics and/or music in a weekly bulletin, we also started broadcasting it online, where anyone can see or hear.
That changes the license agreement and changes the permission. Online video-sharing websites don’t want to be responsible for broadcasting music illegally, so they also make sure the church has permission—if you have watched the livestream or the recorded video, you’ll notice underneath the video screen a whole long list of song titles and authors and permissions that is printed there. And after two weeks, we remove those videos so the music isn’t staying out there online forever, because that would take a different kind of permission that we don’t have.
So whew, that’s a lot! And Dawn keeps up with all of this, God bless her. But there are some songs that don’t need permission to be sung, and these are songs in the public domain. That means the composer or lyricist died many years ago and has no estate that’s still collecting royalties on their music. So you could say, yay, it’s free! And often, that’s what we do—use the song, give credit to the composer and lyricist and print their names in the bulletin, but we don’t look for ways to give money for what we’re using.
By now, you’re probably wondering: What does this have to do with reparations? There’s an entire genre of songs known as African American spirituals, which is how they’re labeled in our hymnal, though Black communities prefer to call these Negro Spirituals. These are songs sung and composed by enslaved people who were brought to the United States. Now, slavery was a long time ago! But these songs never died—they kept getting sung and shared and passed down for all these years. I bet you even know some of the songs. Swing low, sweet chariot. Wade in the water. This little light of mine.
These songs have been considered part of the public domain for a long time, but do you think the people who actually originally composed those songs ever received compensation for their intellectual property? Were royalties ever paid to their estate to benefit their descendants? No.
That’s an injustice. There’s the breach. Is there a way to repair it, to make reparation? One way to address this would be to stop singing the music, but then we would silence the voices of those who were historically oppressed—that’s not better.
Some church musicians have practiced making reparations whenever they use Negro spirituals in their worship service. The United Parish in Brookline in Massachusetts decided to learn about spirituals and they take up a collection every time they use a Negro spiritual in worship, and that money is then donated to an organization in their area that supports Black musicians, Hamilton-Garrett Music and Arts.
The church has donated almost $13,000 as part of this effort, and in an interview with Religion News Service last fall, the president of Hamilton-Garrett, Gerami (juh-RAH-mee) Groover-Flores, said, “The descendants of the people who created this music are still here and still alive. And even if we do not know the names of their ancestors or who the composer is, we can do our part in acknowledging the work that their ancestors have contributed to this body of music that we appreciate today.”
There are ways to begin repairing the breach, and we can do this with thoughtful, meaningful action. Could our congregation join this work of paying money for singing Negro spirituals and give that money to a local organization that promotes music in Black communities? Could we invite Black musicians or music instructors to teach or consult about worship music of people of African descent, and pay them for their time? Maybe you have other ideas too—share with members of the worship and music committee (wave your hands, worship and music committee!).
There are many ways to repair the breach. God sent Jesus to heal the brokenness in humanity and by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is still at work among us, healing and repairing us. Don’t be afraid to ask God where to start in repairing the breach and restoring our streets. Isaiah also said, “You shall call, and the Lord will answer.” May our songs be a testimony to God’s grace and mercy.
 https://www.stltoday.com/news/national/california-reparations-task-force-meets-to-talk-eligibility/article_5ec92269-9847-514a-884b-927ff63b7f3d.html  https://apnews.com/article/politics-boston-slavery-government-and-6a5e36f746db813b2f42444e180be7b2  https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/st-louis-mayor-to-appoint-reparations-commission/article_2cdac9b9-f957-5a99-9ae3-dec041f0cd9b.html  https://www.npr.org/2022/01/08/1071542936/some-white-congregations-are-paying-to-use-hymns-written-by-enslaved-african-peo  https://religionnews.com/2022/10/21/new-projects-offer-churches-ways-to-pay-royalties-on-the-spirituals-they-sing/