SERMON: Forward With a Broken Heart (SKSM)

This is the text of the chapel service I did on Tuesday at Starr King School for the Ministry. Though it has the same title as a recent sermon I did in my congregation, it ended up being a very different sermon. Many people have requested a transcript, so this seems the best and easiest way to give them access, while sharing it with the rest of you readers.

You are welcome here.
No matter your age, your size, the color of your eyes, your hair, your skin,
You are welcome here.
No matter whom you love, or how you speak, or whatever your abilities,
You are welcome here.
Whether you come with laughter in your heart or tears,
You are welcome here.
If you come here with an open mind, a loving heart, and willing hands,
You are welcome here.

I’m sure we didn’t mean to look at the world through rose-colored stained glass windows. We didn’t mean to, but something that happened in my congregation this year helped us see that we had been doing just that.

At South Valley, we have something we call the ‘Word of the Month.’ The practice began five years ago when I had a realization that this new group of people would have no idea what certain words meant to me. I decided to focus on certain hot button religious words. Rather than avoid difficult language, I decided to jump right in. The Word of the Month was born. That first year, among other things, we discussed incarnation and resurrection, prayer and freedom. And slowly we began to build a common language.

The Word of the Month has grown since then, and now it is the hub around which all aspects of the church’s program turn. Each month, the Word of the Month is the focus of newsletter columns, worship services, small group ministry discussions, and our Religious Education program. For a month at a time, the whole church, from children to our eldest members, delves into a single topic and looks at it from as many angles and perspectives as we can find.

As you may have already guessed, choosing the actual words has grown more complicated. That first year, I just chose them. Then I asked for suggestions from the congregation and got enough words for four years! Most of the words were pretty predictable: Love, Hope, Truth, Patience, Spirit, Forgiveness; but occasionally someone would suggest a word that would puzzle me.  How is the congregation supposed to spend four weeks focused on fear? How do we advertise that?  “Come to South Valley for a Month of Fear?!”

For the most part, the worship committee and I have chosen words that we think are deep and have some hopeful or redeeming quality. A word like “fear” or “hatred” would be transformed into “courage” or “fearlessness” or “compassion.” We weren’t intentionally looking at the world through rose-colored stained glass windows, but month after month we found ways to give our words a positive spin.

I’m not sure what got into me this year.  I really don’t remember what led up to the moment of change, but in this year’s planning, I took a stand. “I want to try something harder,” I said.  “I want us to talk about brokenness.”  The worship committee was a bit stunned, I think, but after a few minutes of conversation, they gave their consent, with one condition. We would spend the last three months of 2006 exploring a trilogy of words: brokenness, forgiveness, and wholeness.

Now I had been taught, at this very school and by many wonderful teachers that one of the great tasks of any religion, philosophy, or spiritual practice is to help individuals cope with brokenness and disappointment. I had been taught that and yet, in my ministry, I had somehow come to believe that as minister, a part of my job was to be the ever-hopeful cheerleader of the spirit. Due in part, no doubt, to my propensity for seeing the glass half-full, I had forgotten a part of my calling.

In this old world of sorrow, it is vital to name the brokenness that we all face. Our world is far from perfect. Our lives are not perfect. We are not perfect. We face sorrow, loss, and pain. We all witness, through the media or our own experience, the war, genocide, slavery, abuse, loss, and greed that literally steal the lives of so many and the hope of so many more.

I know that to deny the pain and oppression in the world is dangerous. I know that remaining ignorant or indifferent to suffering allows it to continue. I know that turning all the words of the month into pleasant, hopeful words keeps us from developing key parts of our humanity: the longing for justice, the urge to help make things better and simple decency and compassion. But even though I knew, it took me five years to turn my congregation’s attention to brokenness.

Gordon Cosby, a Baptist layperson, said twenty years ago:

We go numb in the midst of a society filled with violence, and we need — in the face of that numbness — to be so moved that we break through to a place of divine power. It is divine energy living inside each of us that can speak truth to power, divine energy that we as a community can enable in each of us, divine energy that the world needs.
He called this being “seized by the power of a great affection.”

I believe we need to be seized by the power of a great affection–an affection for the world, for each soul, for the earth that is our home. I believe we need to be seized by that affection and that the only way that can happen is if we allow ourselves to feel–to truly feel–the pain of brokenness.

And yet, we seem to be getting better and better at ignoring the pain. One online movie rental company boasts more that 65,000 titles from which to choose. We’re seeing news story after news story telling us that a majority of automobile accidents are now caused by distracted drivers, a category that didn’t even exist a few years ago. The world is broken, and we, in the words of Pink Floyd “have become comfortably numb.”

I have been thinking a lot about this numbness and its cause and effects in my life and the lives of people around me. I’ve been thinking about what it means to minister in the midst of a society that insists on perpetuating a myth of painlessness. The myth is,”We should never feel pain.” From headaches to heartaches, it seems like there are a thousand remedies–from pharmaceuticals to Dr. Phil–aimed at keeping us from feeling pain. Again and again we are urged to turn away from the brokenness and pain so that we can feel comfortable and numb.

This propensity to numb out–to fill every minute of the day with busyness or distraction–feels as though it protects us. And yet, I believe it endangers us. As we tune out the brokenness and pain, we tune out our capacity to feel, to care, and to engage. And that may endanger us even more than the dangers that we are constantly being told threaten us. By “going dead” we may as well be dead. We have no connection. No meaning. No power. No rage. By distancing ourselves from the realities of brokenness we become trapped behind our rose-colored walls.

Joanna Macy says it well:

We must help people realize – and it means continually having to realize it ourselves – that this thing we’re asked to take in, this grief, stems from our capacity for compassion, which literally means “to suffer with.” We are compassionate beings, and if we stifle our compassion, our capacity to be present to our world, we go dead. We go dead.

Alice Walker titled a book of short stories The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart. I have always remembered that title, and it has often comforted me. In an interview about her book, she explains:

You know, what are hearts for? Hearts are there to be broken. And not just about falling in love, but broken hearts about so many things that pierce us deeply. The value of a broken heart is that it gets bigger. It opens, it gets bigger, and it is really an honorable condition. I stress that because many people fear it; they think, “Oops, pain! Let me run away from here!” But pain, actually, is unavoidable anyway. To have your heart break over a genuine emotion and a genuine belief or passion is very good for you. [Y]ou become bigger in your capacity to deal with life and other people.

The way forward is with a broken heart. Not forever heartbroken, not overwhelmed with grief and despair, but broken open, made bigger in our capacity to deal with life and other people.

I have learned to look for wisdom in paradox, and I see a paradox here: to be whole, we must be broken. We must face the suffering in ourselves and in the world and let it break our hearts. We must look and touch and grieve and cry and rage, because the way forward is through. And we need to stick together. We need to hold each other as we face the grief, encourage one another when despair grows overwhelming, and work side by side, not as victims of our brokenness, but as witness to all that can be salvaged there.

I’m reminded of a passage in Barbara Kingsolver’s book Small Wonder:

In the long run I find it hardest to bear adversaries on the other end of the spectrum: those who couldn’t care less, who won’t or can’t fathom the honest depths of love and grief, who opt out of the bull-ride through life in favor of the sleeping berth. These are the ones who say it’s ridiculous to imagine that the world could be made better than it is. The more sophisticated approach, they suggest, is to accept that we are all on a jolly road trip down the maw of catastrophe, so shut up and drive.

I fight that; I fight it as if I were drowning. When I come down to this feeling that I am an army of one standing out on the broad plain waving my little flag of hope, I call up a friend or two and offer to make dinner for us. We’re the theater of the street, the accurate joy of children’s hearts, the literature of tomorrow’s wisdom arrived today, just in time… In the long run, the choice of life over death is too good to resist.

This is much of what ministry is about. In the midst of the brokenness, we are asked to face the pain and choose life over death. And as we experience our hearts being broken and broken open, we are given an opportunity to share the strength of our compassion and resolve with our communities and with the world. May it be so. May this be the beginning of a Great Turning among us. Amen. Ashe’. And Blessed Be.

Let us take a few moments to be together in silence, in the spirit of meditation and prayer.

Spirit of Life and Love, Holy One, Dear God,

So much is broken. So many are wounded, abandoned, and ignored. So many times, in spite of our good intentions, we turn away. Sometimes we are afraid of the pain, afraid to let it in, afraid of being overwhelmed by so much that is so wrong. Sometimes we choose comfort over compassion, knowing that even so, we have turned away from life.

So much is broken and so many have been convinced that they are alone and powerless in the world, but we can choose another way. We can choose to accompany one another, to acknowledge one another’s pain, to hold one another accountable, and to live fully, with open, broken hearts, in community.

In this quiet place, in this holy moment, we know there are those among us who are carrying with them sorrow, worry or grief. Let us listen to one another as we speak of the burdens we have been holding.


Holy Brokenness, as we acknowledge these cares, may our hearts break open and grow in compassion and commitment. May our resolve to ease suffering be strengthened. May we begin again, determined not to turn away from this beloved broken world. May glimpses of wholeness guide us as we make our way forward with broken and loving hearts. May we intentionally embody the spirit of grace and compassion in this world. May it be so.

Amen. Ashe’. And Blessed be.

adapted from Wangari Maathai, from her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

We are called to assist the earth,
to cleanse her wounds
and in the process, heal our own
indeed, to embrace the whole creation
in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder.
This is our hope:
That the children born today may still have
a bit of green grass under their bare feet,
a breath of clean air to breathe,
a patch of blue water to sail upon,
and a whale on the horizon to set them dreaming.
Amen. Ashe’. And Blessed Be, friends.
May it be so.


3 thoughts on “SERMON: Forward With a Broken Heart (SKSM)

  1. I think that Baby Boomers have unintentionally made their progeny think that a person is never supposed to feel pain.

    Used to be that if you didn’t make cheerleading that was it.

    But then they decided that every girl who tries out needs to be on cheerleading. So there’s cheerleading for every sport because God forbid anyone get left out.

    That’s just it. Pain is inevitable in life. We can’t numb away the inevitable. Pain is occasionally healthy, as you pointed out in your sermon.

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