Broken Things are Powerful

Paula Northwood January 15, 2017

Scripture Luke 4:16–21

Early in Jesus’ ministry, he travelled home to Nazareth. Hear these words from the gospel of Luke:

When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
     because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
     and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I invite you to listen this modern paraphrase:

When you went to your home town, you went to church on Sunday as you were raised to do. You were asked to read the scripture. So you opened the bible and read: “The spark of the divine is in me and God has called me to work to end poverty, to release those incarcerated unjustly, to speak the truth to those who are prejudiced, to raise up those who are oppressed, to work for women’s rights, to advocate for the immigrant, and against religious oppression. To proclaim that this is the year we will do God’s bidding. You put the scriptures back on the pulpit and sat down. Everyone was looking at you and so you said, “Today these words are put into action.”

Please join me in a spirit of prayer:

For ancient words that give us courage, friends that bring us joy and new songs that give us hope, we give you thanks, O God. Amen.

*             *             *

In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway said that the world breaks us all, but some of us grow strong in those broken places. I think that is what Eugene McCarthy is speaking to with the line “Broken things are powerful” in the poem “Courage After Sixty.”[1] McCarthy, a Minnesotan congressman during the ’50s and ’60s, who even made a run for the presidency in 1968, had seen plenty of brokenness. By any measure, 1968 was a horrific year: an endless war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. We were a nation torn apart on race and war and culture. McCarthy didn’t get the nomination and he didn’t end the war. But he stepped forward when antiwar forces needed him the most.

I have Jim Lenfestey to thank because he reminded me of this poem. It is such a good poem for our time, no matter if you are over 60, like many of us, or even if you are fast approaching 16, like our Confirmation students. No matter who you are or what age you are, you may have shown up here this morning feeling a little bit broken. But the paradox is that only within our brokenness can we find strength, courage and power.

A few years ago my wife, Andrea, and I were invited by friends to hike around the top of Mount Hood in Oregon. The 40-mile Timberline Trail circumnavigates the mountain with elevation dips from 3,000 to 7,000 feet, along with many sheer drop-offs. One of our friends was celebrating her 50th birthday. On the morning of the start of our six-day trip, our friends backed out. Andrea and I decided to do the hike anyway. We had trained, travelled to Oregon and set aside time for this adventure. We were going to do this! So we repacked our gear and headed out like any journey, one foot in front of the other. The first day was idyllic; a warm day in June, the sun was shining, the sky a deep azure as we hiked on a trail through fields of wildflowers. It was breathtakingly beautiful. That night, we camped on a flat spot in view of a gurgling stream. In the early morning we unzipped the tent and looked out. Everything, and I mean everything, was covered with . . . snow.

We discussed the possibility that the rest of the trip might be in winter conditions. Should we go back? Of course not! Hearty Minnesotans that we are; we pulled on extra layers and continued on the way, one foot in front of the other. We traversed mountain streams where the bridges had been washed away, meandered through dense forests of towering pine and scrambled over fields of boulders. But then I heard a flapping, a sound that I could not attribute to nature. Andrea’s boot sole had come apart. We stopped and assessed the situation. Going back did not seem any safer than continuing.

In case of an emergency, we had a suture kit along, and I thought could stich it together, but the thread and needle were no match for the tough leather and quickly broke. Andrea devised a solution that included duct tape and a bandana. We also decided to do the six-day trip in four days to reduce the time that our makeshift solution had to last. Again, we hit the trail one foot in front of the other.

For days I trailed behind Andrea and the broken boot. It became a symbol of perseverance, ingenuity, resilience and grit. This was a demanding hike, and more than once we questioned our wisdom in staying the course. We traversed an area above the tree line that looked like a moonscape, stark in its beauty. It was challenging not to let the grueling path of one step at a time obscure the bigger goal.

But finally we saw it, way in the distance and down the mountain: the Timberline Lodge where we had begun. It filled every pore of our being with hope. We still had at least five miles to go, and we were exhausted, our feet blistered and, because of a clogged water filter, a bit dehydrated. A few hours later, with bone-weary bodies and a broken boot, we finished . . . stronger than we began.

We can get bogged down by the daily grind, disheartened by daily struggles and broken-hearted by what the world throws at us. In all of our lives there is brokenness, whether from a failed marriage, a friend or lover’s betrayal, estrangement, or our body’s betrayal, chronic pain, a terminal illness. Or maybe it is a broken dream, the child never birthed, the book never finished, the great job never attained, the apology never given, the forgiveness never received or offered. Or maybe it’s a broken heart, a death so painful it takes your breath away, a love lost with a longing so deep and hurtful that you don’t know if you can take one more step. Or maybe it is a broken spirit, disappointment in a church or a community or a country that doesn’t live up to its promises. We are a broken people, every single one of us.

And yet. And yet. As Leonard Cohen said, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Sometimes it helps to get a fresh perspective. We need to look up, move from looking at our feet to the horizon. We need something big to balance our despair. Our spiritual practice can enlarge our perspective. The spirit is big. God is big. We need God to show us a bigger horizon, give our life a larger perspective, as Martin Luther King, Jr., had when he said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

When Jesus reads the text about brokenness in the world and his response to it, he does not do it from a position of bravado but of humility. Jesus traveled the countryside, one foot in front of the other, down dusty trails, breaking legalistic customs, breaking taboos, breaking bread with the downtrodden, telling parables about seeds that break open to produce new fruit. He preached to the powers that be about how structures of society must break so new forms can emerge. He shared how hearts must be broken open to find new possibilities for love. And yes, we know how the story ends—it is from his own brokenness, his own sacrifice of life, that new life emerged and changed the world.

Today we are celebrating Dr. King’s birthday. Based on his writings and speeches, if Dr. King were among us today, he would say that it is not enough just to look outside ourselves to see the places where society is broken. It is not enough to talk about institutions and workplaces that fracture and separate people based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. We must also look at the ways that we ourselves manifest these bigotries, how we are the very ones who uphold and advance these institutions and workplaces. Dr. King would remind each of us that we cannot heal the world if we have not healed ourselves. So perhaps the greatest task, and the most difficult work we must do in light of his teachings, is to heal ourselves. And this work must be done in relationship with our justice work in the world.

Dr. King’s teachings invites us to grow strong in our broken places—not only to mend the sin-sick world in which we live, but also to mend the sin-sick world that we carry around within us. And we can only do that if we are willing to look both inward and outward, healing ourselves of the bigotry, the biases and the demons that chip away at our efforts to work toward justice in this world. And our differences have been used to divide us instead of uniting us, so consequently we reside in a society where human brokenness, human isolation and human betrayal are played out every day.

We know that the struggle against racism that Dr. King talked about is only legitimate if we are also fighting anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, sexism, classism—not only out in the world but also in ourselves. Otherwise, we are creating an ongoing cycle of abuse that goes on unexamined. I find it paradoxical that so often in my life, when I’ve felt a relationship not working well, I’ve focused on the other person and how much I wanted them to change. Even though changing myself is the one thing I can actually do, it seems to be the thing I’ve been most resistant to.

We are foolish if we think we can heal the world and not ourselves. And we delude ourselves if we think that King was only talking about the wounds of institutional racism, and not the personal wounds we all carry as human beings. But there is good news: We do not do this alone. We are all in this together.

Had Rosa Parks not sat down and refused her seat to a white man on the bus that day in December 1955, and many other small acts that many others were doing, Dr. King could not have gotten up to preach a social gospel, which catapulted the civil rights movement. Or, like the mathematical geniuses in the movie Hidden Figures, which tells the (until now) untold story of African American women who provided NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the first successful space missions, we are stronger together.

Let us mark Dr. King’s birthday by reexamining ourselves in light of his example and teachings. And in so doing, let us uncover not only the ways in which the world breaks us, but also how we respond to our brokenness, how we can use it to let the light in, let the light of Christ shine through acts of restorative justice and healing that fulfill spiritual teachings.

I believe that when we use our gifts in the service of others as Jesus and Dr. King taught us, we then shift the paradigm of personal brokenness to global healing. We also shift the paradigm of looking for moral leadership from outside of ourselves to within ourselves; thus realizing we are not only the agents of change in society, but also the moral leaders we have been looking for. We become the change we wish to see in the world, as Gandhi exhorted us.

At a recent board meeting, we were discussing the state of our world, and one person said,” I think every 50 years or so the world needs to vomit.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that. We try to swallow our disease, our brokenness, our greed and our prejudices. We tamp down our feelings, but, like the body, the world wants to be healthy, and so it all comes spewing forth. We can complain about the stench, or we can put one foot in front of the other and go get a mop and start cleaning it up.

In keeping Dr. King’s dream alive, our job is to remember that our longing for social justice is also inextricably tied to our longing for personal healing. Wholeness and personal healing does not mean perfection. It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. We may descend into darkness but we also rise to the light; we are our betrayals but we are also our fidelities; we are our failures but we are also our successes; we are sometimes ignorant and sometimes wise, sometimes secure in our convictions and sometimes deep in doubt and fear. “‘Broken things are powerful.’ Things about to break are stronger still.” Sometimes we are consumed with our brokenness, but we can walk ourselves into hope, one foot in front of the other and lead with love.

[At this point, activist and musician Melanie DeMore started singing: “We gotta put one foot in front of the other and lead with love.”]

[1]“Courage After Sixty,” by Eugene McCarthy

Now it is certain.
There is no magic stone.
No secret to be found.
One must go
With the mind’s winnowed learning.
No more than the child’s handhold
On the willows bending over the lake,
On the sumac roots at the cliff edge.
Ignorance is checked,
Betrayals scratched.
The coat has been hung on the peg,
The cigar laid on the table edge,
The cue chosen and chalked,
The balls set for the final break.
All cards drawn,
All bets called.
The dice, warm as blood in the hand,
Shaken for the last cast.
The glove has been thrown to the ground,
The last choice of weapons made.
A book for one thought.
A poem for one line.
A line for one word.
“Broken things are powerful.”
Things about to break are stronger still.
The last shot from the brittle bow is truest.