“Being Broken Open” Sermon Video and Text

“Being Broken Open”
Preached at Joint Worship for Earlham School of Religion and Bethany Theological Seminary
Richmond, Indiana

September 14, 2012


“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” Psalm 51:17

“God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. God has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Isaiah 61:1

“It is our wounds that enable us to compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of.” – Rachel Naomi Remen

“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.” –Rumi

Jesus Walks with the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus and Appears to them in the Breaking of Bread
Luke 24:13-35

It was a warm August evening, Seattle Washington warm that is, the breeze gracing the 75 degree mark, and I was sitting at Café Presse, trying to get some words on the page and write. I sit at a narrow bar, looking out through large plate glass windows to a crowded terrace, filled with couples, girls on an evening out, and what looks like a visit with out-of-town parents. A man pulls up on his bike, another cruises in behind him, they lock their bikes and make their way towards dinner or a glass of wine. A young mother walks by, ear buds in, 3-year-old daughter skipping along in tow. The sun is at that golden time and Indy music lilts in the background.

Not many blocks away, three over and up two steep hills to be precise, is where I had been all afternoon. At Swedish hospital, where I have been all summer in a Clinical Pastoral Education program and where I had been answering calls all day as the on-call chaplain. After walking down the hill, and out of the sterile smell of sanitizing gel, into the fresh air, the faces lingered with me.

The woman I had just sat with and listened to as she told me of her long and desperate struggle with chronic illness. She tells me of suffering. Of feeling helpless, discouraged and not knowing where to turn. She had grabbed my hand, looked me in the eyes and asked,

“Where is God if I’m suffering like this?”

Earlier I stood with a couple, brand-new parents as of three and half days ago. We were in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, hovered over the infant bed where their son is hooked up to 6, (“just count-um” the mom says to me), different machines that are helping him breathe, eat, pee, be medicated, and monitor his oxygen, heart and his ongoing seizure activity. His father expresses wonder at what their son’s future may look like after the stroke he had when he was 48 hours old. His parents are teary and shaken as they tell me the story. “We’re optimists, we feel lucky we brought him in when we did”. I move into another room. Family is gathered, is it time to say goodbye to their grandmother? Can the family be at peace? Another room. A homeless woman, pregnant, denying recent drug use but testing positive. “I’ve had a lot of loss in my life”, she shares, “people just keep dying on me”. I listen. And wonder, what does the future look like for her? What does the future look like for her child? And I wonder: Where is God in this suffering?

When I stand in these rooms, when a chronically ill woman grabs my hands and looks me in the eyes and asks “where is God if I’m suffering like this?”, my brain quickly starts churning through the theological explanations, the constructions that can help sort through the laws of providence, the origin of evil, the power of human freedom. Her eyes bring me back to the moment at hand. And words bubble up in me: “God is here. God is in this suffering with you. God is walking beside you, holding you, strengthening you and will never leave you.” She starts to cry and I see something change in her face. The anxiety lowers slightly and for a moment she’s being held, apart from her questions and worries and pain. In her brokenness she touches something bigger than herself, a Loving Presence. So often feeling illusive, so constantly available.

My time as a hospital chaplain this summer was humbling. As chaplains we witness brokenness, pain and suffering. Day after day after day we’re exposed to these snapshots, moments, these sacred spaces where people are encountering their own mortality or the mortality of one they love. We walk into rooms where the people we encounter are facing the day where “everything changed”. We witness these moments and stand by to be a presence, a space to acknowledge, reflect back. We’re reminded daily that no one is immune to being broken.

You all know this. This is not a message that is confined within the walls of a hospital. Each one of us have our life stories, the places in our lives where we have encountered loss, or change. We are not immune to brokenness; we’re not exempt from pain and struggle. I believe each of us, when we sit with the question of “what was a time where ‘everything changed’”, we each could find a story. Loss of job. Serious illness. Children leaving home. Divorce. Moves. Internal conflict and confronting our inner battles. Loss of a loved one. Walking through loss with those we love. Seeing the brokenness in the world around us. Shootings. Starvation of millions of children. Mental illness. War. We could name so many.

And why? Why all the brokenness?

In our scripture today, Luke 24:13-35, we see this image of breaking…breaking of bread…Jesus was seen in the breaking of bread. The disciples were walking along the road, talking with Jesus, walking with him, hearing about the scriptures, telling stories, experiencing the companionship of Christ. But they didn’t know who he was. They had walked all day with him, but it wasn’t until they sat down for dinner, he picked up the loaf and broke it that they recognized him. It was in the opening up of the bread, that they saw him as the person they had spent the last three years with. It was in the breaking that they saw Christ.

I wonder if we are not the same way. It is in the breaking we see the Divine at work in the world? It is through brokenness that we encounter and are formed by our Creator?

Texts from my faith tradition, Swedenborgianism, offer the idea that physical things represent spiritual realities and particularly look at imagery in the scriptures and how God’s message comes on a variety of levels. In the book Secrets of Heaven Emanuel Swedenborg expounds on this passage from Luke.  Secrets of Heaven 3863 reads:

“It came to pass when Jesus sat down with them, that He took the bread, and blessed, and breaking it, gave it to them, and their eyes were opened and they knew him”. By which is signified that the Lord appears by good, but not by truth without good, for “bread” is the good of love.

This passage illuminates the image of bread as goodness, as love from the Divine and offers the idea that God appears to us not merely in truths without good, but in the goodness itself. Jesus had been walking with the disciples sharing wisdom and truth and stories, teaching them and their hearts burned inside them. Yet it is not until they are seated at the table and he breaks the bread that they recognize him as the Christ.

Walk with me in this way for a moment. What speaks into our lives in this image of bread breaking? If bread is a symbol for love, if we see Christ in the breaking of bread, could one not posit that when our hearts are broken open, we’re given a precious opportunity to see how the Divine has been molding us and teaching us along the road and in the breaking we see God with us?

Before we move any further I want to clearly state my theological stake in the ground: Hurt, suffering and pain are not God’s will. I do not believe for a second that the Loving God of the Universe ever wishes for, or could even contemplate inflicting pain on the human race. The origin of suffering, evil, pain is another sermon—but I will give you my current theological cliff notes: there’s a bigger system going on here and God is not the cause of suffering. God is the God who is with us in it, walking with us and accompanying us. God is the force urging and bringing good out of struggles and using pain to break down the places in us that are stuck, that need to be moved. God is the God who is walking with us.

It is out of these places of struggle that we can find the Divine One molding us, breaking us out of unhealthy patterns, breaking down the view of ourselves and our views of God that are not serving us, and flowing in with healing and renewal. Marianne Williamson, a contemporory spiritual teacher puts it this way:

“Spiritual progress is like detoxification. Things have to come up in order to be released. Once we have asked to be healed, then our unhealed places are forced to the surface.”

There are parts of us that need to change. Our old way of being needs to change. We all need transformation. And our world needs transformation. Pain and suffering in the world often alerts us to systems and structures that need to be exposed, broken down, rebuilt, redeemed.

It is not a clear-cut system. The rules aren’t: do everything “right” and you will not experience pain and loss. We live in a much more complicated ecosystem. Our own inner-beings are complex and filled with paradox. We live in a world where there is freedom to make choices, choices that have consequences. And we live in a world where our individual choices and our communal choices ripple out and the collective affects us. Sometimes bodies break down. Sometimes people die in accidents. Sometimes people we trust betray us. Sometimes we do our best and things don’t work out the way we planned.

I don’t like it honestly. There’s still a piece of me that is attached to the idea that there is a set of rules that one could follow that would make it all “work out”. But that doesn’t seem to be the system. The system seems to include times where we are worn down, cracked open.

So, when we encounter these seasons, be they a moment or years, we can choose to encounter them as a sacred space of opportunity. A time to choose something new and to look at ourselves and the world differently. When we encounter times of brokenness and suffering, knowing that it can be an opportunity for transformation can change us and guide us in how we encounter and lean into brokenness.

This past winter I took a class from Carole Spencer on the Christian Mystics, the great teachers, contemplatives and prophetic voices of the church throughout history. We saw that across the mystic traditions, there is a similar three stage process that is outlined: purgation/being emptied out/being broken, illumination, infilling God’s presence, and unification—being connected and united with God. As I was taking this class I was walking through a dark time in my own journey. When we read St. John of the Cross, and he talks about “the dark night of the soul,” I could relate. I found great comfort and power in having words to name the feelings of darkness and great strength in knowing that this could be part of a journey closer to God.

The darkness, the brokenness became an opening, a crack for God to break through to cracks and crevices in my soul. Parts of me that I had held “within my control” were crushed and things I had counted on were no longer true. I wondered how I could even consider being in ministry when I was so flattened and broken. Weren’t we called here to seminary to be taught and built up as ministers for God? How on earth could I ever contemplate being there for others on their spiritual journeys when mine was crumbling and being flattened?

When we encounter these times when we feel we have nothing to give, times when God is working us over, chiseling away, forming us in the refiners fire, blowing away the chaff so hard we feel we might be blown away with it or be consumed by the heat. During this time I wrote a song, or a song came to me. I found strength and healing putting voice to my feelings of helplessness and I found the Divine One’s hand on my back when I was able to cry out, like the psalmist, lamenting the dark places and groping around to feel how God was working with me, standing with me. I share it with you this morning, (because we are talking about vulnerability after all…and we’re all friends here right?) as an offering, a witness to the Sacred breaking in. As I share it, I invite you to close your eyes and let the Sacred speak to you, move in the cracks of where you are today.

Broken ©Anna Woofenden 2012

You call to feed the hungry,/To comfort to those in need.

You call to clothe the naked,/To offer some relief.

My soul cries out,/My soul cries out.

I’m broken,/I have nothing left to give.

You say You’re always present,/Closer to my heart.

In trial and in struggle,/In restless night’s apart.

My soul cries out,/My soul cries out.

I’m broken,/I have nothing left to give.

I feel the pain around me,/I ache with loss and fear.

How can I keep on going,/Will You hold me near?

My soul cries out,/My soul cries out.

I’m broken,/I have nothing left to give.

I am the one who’s hungry,/I’m lost and I am raw

All I have to offer,/Myself empty and flawed.

My soul cries out,/My soul cries out.

I’m broken,/I have nothing left to give.

Surrender to Your journey,/Formed by the fire.

I have no strength left in me,/It’s You that I require.

My soul cries out,/My soul cries out.

I’m broken,/I have nothing left to give.

Giving voice to these feelings and finding witness in community we can find wholeness. God can flow into those cracks and broken places with gentle healing, strong molding and formation and reconciliation and hope.

As I’ve been preparing this sermon I’ve felt resistance – to sharing this topic, singing a song of lament, wrestling with what could be a “downer” of a topic. Coming off of this summer, I want to bring you a cheery message. CPE is great. Go God. There’s part of me that wants to wrap it all up in some pretty little theological box and hand it to you. To tell you that this “seminary formation process” is as glossy and smiling as it looked on the brochures when we first applied.

But that would not be honest to the message that’s on my heart, and that would not be the gospel truth for this morning. The truth the Divine One is teaching me is that life is messy. And if I’ve learned anything this summer doing chaplaincy work, it’s that life is messy and no one is immune to this messy. There are no magic religious fixes, no pithy phrase that can wipe away struggle, grief or doubt.

And while we’re at it, being formed for ministry is messy. And painful. And just so we don’t leave anyone out, being human is messy and each of us are formed through engaging in it. Henri Nouwen talks about the “wounded healer” how we are formed through our struggles and wounds and how, if we allow it, these wounds can become a source of powerful ministry. He writes:

“…ministry is a very confronting service. It does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.”

As I came back to school, just a few days after finishing CPE I was so ready to be a student again. A full course load and a stack of books greeted me as welcome change after the summer in the hospital. I had put in my 11 weeks of learning and giving, gotten my certificate and was ready to focus on my classes, disappear into the readings and put the memories of death and suffering, trauma and loss behind me. But it turns out it doesn’t work that way. My body and psyche are still processing the summer and demanding attention to give space for healing of secondary trauma, to move through the compound grief that piled up. I hit a point last week where I cried out. “I didn’t sign up for this!”  A gentle reminder came back from a colleague. “Yes, yes you did. That’s part of the ‘formation’ process. It’s in the fine print. You consciously agreed to God rearranging your life in answer to call to ministry.”

Yes, yes I did. We all did. We continue to. It is what forms us. Engaging in the lives we encounter, engaging in our own process of discovering authenticity and wholeness, it’s part of what we signed up for. It’s part of our formation for ministry, our formation as spiritual beings. As we heard in one of our readings this morning from Rachel Naomi Remen,

“It is our wounds that enable us to compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of.”

Because here’s the secret, that I know all of you know: it’s in the brokenness that we see the Divine at work and that we are formed. The presence of God that walks with us through the joys and the sorrows, the pain and the celebration and works us down to the core of who we are created to be. The way you can look back at a difficult time and see how you grew closer to God in it. The humbling that comes when we are honored to witness loss with another. The theological de-construction that takes you to the place of wondering and doubt that you never wanted to encounter. The reminders we receive to hold life as precious and sacred after a loss. The intentionality we can take into who we are and the choices we make as we’re healing from struggle. It’s in these spaces of brokenness that we are reminded; we glimpse that which is true all along. We are not alone. We cannot do this on our own.

And that’s where another gospel message, the good news, shows up: the gospel of community. We can experience the power of being a community that can walk with each other through the joys and celebrations and in the struggles and dark times. I see in this group faces that know brokenness and that know community and know the joy of God’s Spirit moving. I feel a spirit here that offers a place for people to come and be real, to bring their whole selves. A place where those that are struggling can give voice to it and can feel God’s love and care, in the message and in being lifted up by this group. And I hear a deep passion and desire from this people to be this to the community, to our current ministries and our future ministries, to the world. That you are here, gathered together today, because you know that people’s lives are breaking, that there is loss and pain in the world AND you know the power of God’s love and healing and the power of people who are humbly looking to be the hands and feet of God. Conduits of the Divine work in around us.

Because at the end of the day, we are vessels, vessels infused with Divine Light, urging and pressing to be received and to flow through us. We are vessels that are cracked and broken, broken wide open to receive God’s ever-flowing energy and love. We are humans, all of us, walking broken in a broken world. Does that sound depressing, maybe, or maybe it’s beautiful. We can wallow in the brokenness, or we can dance. Dance as we’re broken open. Dance as we tear the bandage off. Find the beauty, because in the brokenness that the Sacred flows in. It’s when we surrender to something bigger, because we realize we have no choice left, that the Spirit moves. It’s when we’re willing to walk knowingly into a room filled with pain and suffering, to be present, engage, and witness and name the Divine urging and pressing to be received. If we are willing to be broken open by the world and filled to overflowing with God’s love. Then broken is beautiful. Broken is sacred. And broken is holy.

 May the God who breaks us open, the God who heals the brokenhearted, the God who walks beside us every step be with us all. Amen.