August 18, 2019: "Broken To Be Made Whole"
“Broken To Be Made Whole”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 18, 2019
Tomorrow marks the end of my seventh year as your pastor. Over these years I’ve talked a lot about the time I spent in India during seminary. For a month, we toured all over, riding the trains at night, visiting temples and churches and military sights during the day, all the while listening to how some of the most disenfranchised people in the world understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most profound for me as student at a Christian seminary was being submerged in a part of the world where Christianity is a minority religion. In every place we visited, we were surrounded by Hindu temples and holy sites. Hinduism is based on the worship of many gods and their temples and holy sites are filled with statues and images of their gods. And these temples and shrines are everywhere! It was not uncommon to get off the bus at a bus stop and be greeted by a statue of Ganesh in a shrine no bigger than the size of a fire-extinguisher box hanging on one of the station’s light polls. Ganesh is one of the most important gods in Hinduism, depicted as having a human body with the head of an elephant.
Wherever we went, we saw statues of Ganesh, but it was not until we were in line outside of the Taj Mahal that our tour guide pointed out something about the statues of Ganesh I had not noticed before. All the statues of Ganesh that I saw on the trip were ornate, covered in fresh flowers, surrounded by burning incense. In the midst of that I had failed to notice that one of Ganesh’s tusks is broken and he holds it in his right hand. Hindu folklore teaches that Ganesh suffered the injury in a battle symbolic of the ongoing struggle between good and evil. With that broken tusk, Ganesh wrote the Mahabharata, one of the most beloved and sacred texts in Hinduism. Only with brokenness can completion be found. Only through suffering do truth and beauty emerge.
The idea that brokenness can move humanity one step closer to completion, to beauty, to truth offers us a unique vantage point on the gospel lesson today. Jesus speaks harsh words in this passage, words that are passionate and urge action. Jesus says that the kingdom of God has been inaugurated on earth and we are fools if we do not see it. Seeing the kingdom should be as apparent as predicting the weather. However, Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it and often we don’t get it, either. The kingdom that Jesus brings, according to this passage, is not one of peace and harmony but one of division and hardship. That division, Jesus says, will reach us at a very personal level, right inside our very homes. It will be felt in the most private space of our lives, within our most intimate relationships. Such division will cause great suffering as families of blood and families of faith are broken and divided. Can beauty and completion come to life from such division, conflict, and suffering, such beauty as is depicted in the statues of Ganesh with a broken tusk?
Let’s think for a moment about the relationships Jesus mentions in this text. Jesus mentions relationships between father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, because in Jesus’ time these relationships had something in common: all were built on duty and obligation. Relationships in the time of Jesus could be based on affection and romantic love, but more often than not, they started with duty. In the relationship between a father and a son, the son was obligated to follow in his father’s footsteps, particularly if he was the first-born. The father may have loved his son, but ancient fathers were more interested in keeping the family blood line going than they were in showing affection. The son was expected to learn the family business and carry it forward. First-born sons also never left home. Even if they married, the son would move his family into his mother and father’s house, and this new generation would slowly take over the house as the older generation passed away.
The mother and daughter relationship mentioned in the text was just as complicated, though for much different reasons. It is most likely that Jesus is speaking here of a mother and her unmarried daughter. This means that the daughter was still living in her parent’s home and she was technically still their property until a suitable match could be made. The unmarried daughter had one obligation to her family, and one alone: chastity. Her value to her family and to society was based only on her ability to be presented to her husband as pure and untouched on their wedding day. Anything less would bring shame and dishonor on the woman’s family, and it would likely bankrupt the family business.
As for the relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, you guessed it: complicated. New wives moved with their husbands into his parent’s house and marriage was viewed as a union created to serve the interests of the family and the new wife was obligated to maintain her marriage contract in a manner that would benefit the whole. The new wife may also have been one of many women living in the home. Some were likely servants and maids, but others were wives to brothers and men in the family. But one thing was true: Mama was in charge. The new wife was contractually obligated to obey and serve her husband but, if she was smart, she also obeyed her mother-in-law and served the entire household, too. Either way, the new wife was on the fringe, never fully integrated into the family. Unless, of course she gave birth to a son—then she may be viewed by the rest of the family as a real, whole person.
These duty-based relationships are the target of Jesus’ passionate warning about divisions. Jesus targets these relationships because, simply said, they do not allow for full human flourishing. In each of these relationships someone is always under someone else’ thumb. The son is pressured by the father and forced into a way of life he may not even want. The daughter is kept under lock and key because society puts more emphasis on the condition of her body on her wedding day than on the abilities of her mind, heart, and soul. And God bless the daughter who—she is also valued, or not, for what her body can produce and shamed if she does not meet the family’s expectations.
These sorts of relationships leave broken families in their wake and they contribute to a society that is extremely fragile. These sorts of relationships are not entirely foreign to us today, are they? They may take on different forms, with different actors, but I believe we are all familiar with relationships that are based on duty and obligation alone. It is a significant cause of domestic violence—one partner does not meet the other’s expectations so they turn to violence. It is at the heart of the economy we participate in—we pay someone to produce something for us, and if they don’t, we’re not above going to war about it. It is the reason why most pastors between the ages of 25 and 40 leave pastoral ministry within the first five years of being ordained and never return—they missed a call, forgot to mention a prayer request in worship, preached a sermon that made someone mad and then whole church turned on them. It’s why there are so many different Christian churches right here within our community—this church or that one didn’t meet my needs, didn’t feed me, so I’ll go look elsewhere.
But the good news in all of this, believe it or not, is that Jesus came into the world to break these types relationships apart. He came to bring this sort of division and strife when these destructive and deadly relationships are broken apart, beauty and completion can come to life. Jesus came into the world to teach us that we are creatures made in God’s image and we are not valuable because we can produce…we are valuable because we are made in God’s image. That’s a full stop. Period. And that ‘we’ means everyone—all people have been made in God’s image and are worthy of dignity, honor, and respect. Jesus came to teach us that this must be the basis of all of our relationships; anything less leads to violence, suffering, and discord, and it must be torn apart. We see Jesus’ teaching in how he interacted with the woman at the well and the men who were paralyzed and waiting for healing in the temple. These people had nothing to offer Jesus, no goods or services, nothing that Jesus could take advantage of. Yet, he built relationships with them based on their sacred worth and dignity. And he healed them and set them free for a new and transformed life.
Jesus came into this world to teach us that we must approach all things and all people from a place of love and not from a place of wondering what’s in it for us. When we approach everything wondering what we’re going to get out of it, we will inevitably be disappointed, we will be angered, we will become hostile. That’s just who we are and that’s why we confess our sins week after week and hear the good news of God’s pardon and mercy. We are quick to turn on each other when expectation are not met, and the weekly cycle of confession and pardon turns us back to the path God intends for us to walk. Think about our relationship here as pastor and congregation. There have been plenty of times in the past seven years—and there will be plenty more in the years to come—where I have disappointed you, failed to live up to your expectations, or made you angry. And, quite frankly, there have been plenty of times in these years together where you have disappointed me, failed to live up to my expectations, and made me angry. Many of these could have been the end of our relationship together. But we’ve survived each of those times, and we will continue to survive and thrive, because our calling together is not at first built on duty and obligation, but on love. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing or someone’s misfortune. Love forgives.
Think today, my brothers and sisters, how your life would be different if you built all of your relationships on love and not on duty, expectation, or obligation. Think of how your life would be different if you approached every person ready to receive what God is going to offer you through them instead of waiting to see if you’ll get what you think you deserve from them. Think of how your life will be different if you let love lead. Will love make it perfect? No, and it never will. Will love make your life happy and jolly and carefree all the time? No, and it never will. Will love make your life faithful, filled with joy, resilient, compassionate, and strong? You better believe it. And even in the imperfect times, the light of Christ shines through. That is the challenge and the calling today. We must seek out, build, and maintain relationships of love, dignity, respect, equality, equity, peace, justice, and mercy. We must let Jesus’ dividing power conquer the relationships we’ve built that are dangerous and deadly for all involved. We must uphold the relationships that give us life and bring life to the rest of the world. If we don’t, we will continue to slog along in a world that looks no better than Good Friday. But if we do, if we do the hard work of Jesus and allow his Spirit and love to be our guide and foundation, each day we will experience the glory of Easter morning. By God’s goodness and grace, may it be so. Amen.