Unburying Brokenness

Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, has dozens of stories of triumph. Stevenson and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative have advocated for and freed hundreds of people who were unjustly convicted and sentenced. Those stories are all deeply moving. But I was most affected by a story of failure toward the end of the book.

Jimmy Dill was wrongly accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was mentally disabled and suffered a significant speech impediment. Stevenson and his colleagues worked feverishly to have Dill’s sentence reviewed and his execution stayed. But all their attempts were defeated.

Stevenson narrates his last phone call with Mr. Dill, just a short time before the execution. Some of Mr. Dill’s last words to Stevenson were, ““Mr. Bryan, I just want to thank you for fighting for me. I thank you for caring about me. I love y’all for trying to save me.”[i]

As Stevenson sat at his desk, Mr. Dill was executed. Stevenson teetered on the brink of despair. He wondered why he did all this. “I can just leave,” he said aloud to no one but himself. “Why am I doing this?”[ii]

In a few moments, the answer came to him. “I do what I do because I’m broken, too,” he wrote.

My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.[iii]

Bryan Stevenson was tempted to bury his brokenness in denial and despair. Fortunately for him, and for all of us, he was saved from that tomb.

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) tells the tale of a fearful slave who buries his brokenness and inters his insecurities. Jesus makes clear that this behavior is not consistent with what it means to be fully and functionally human. I can’t help but think about President Trump, buried in the White House in denial and despair. What little humanity remaining in that poor soul is draining away from him by the second.

What does the third slave bury? He buries his fear. He fears the punishing power of the master if he gets it wrong. So rather than risking failure, he tucks his fear in a napkin, lays it in a hole in the ground, and covers his anxiety. With his terror safely tucked away, he can get on with his normal life. Normal, that is, until the time comes for the accounting.

With his fear, he buries his sense of vulnerability. But if Matthew is right, it is the vulnerable who are blessed. It is not in the absence of vulnerability but right through it that we find blessings. We can be broken open by our suffering. Or we can become unbreakable. This is the choice the third slave makes. In securing his skin, he loses his soul.

With his fear, he buries his capacities for joy…and love. I return over and over to the words of C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in the casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven, where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.[iv]

It seems that President Trump is simply refusing delivery on the reality of his election loss. The consequences of this refusal range from the comic to the consequential. I know most people are distressed but not surprised by his response. After all, walls are his answer to everything from immigration to protests outside the White House. He seems sure that if he simply denies the loss, it will eventually go away.

Passing judgment on this behavior is easy. But in his current actions, I think Donald Trump is the most American of presidents. After all, we have refused delivery on tragedy, loss, and accountability for much of our history. In this moment, Donald Trump and I are uncomfortably alike in our responses. Too often, Donald and I have believed that brokenness is best managed when it is buried. I know such a response is pathological, even when I do not resist the temptation. President Trump believes such a response is both normal and necessary. I feel sorry for him (a little bit).

What does Joe Biden offer that Donald Trump does not? He offers his brokenness. For me, the most telling line in his speech the other night was when he said he knows about losing. He wasn’t talking about election defeats. He was talking about a cherished wife and daughter, a beloved son. He was talking about how his losses have broken him open.

I do not have 20 years of income to protect and hide (does this refer to the third slave or the forty-fifth president?). I have not lost a national election. But ten years ago right now, I did lose my first spouse, Anne. Repeatedly, since then, I have struggled to keep my heart out of the hole that beckons for its burial. I have not been particularly successful in resisting, so I have a bit of empathy (for a few seconds now and then) for poor Donald.

This parable drives me every three years to another quote from The Four Loves. “If I am sure of anything,” Lewis writes, “I am sure that [Christ’s] teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt if there is anything in me that pleases [Christ] less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground — because the security (so to speak) is better?”[v]

I want to bury my brokenness. In the process I become unbreakable. That’s a living death.

The Christian good news is that God embraces our brokenness, finally and fully. That brokenness is wrapped in a napkin and put in the ground…for a little while. But it cannot stay buried. The brokenness of love always gives life. We Christians worship the breakable, and broken, God on the cross.

The third slave buried his brokenness because he did not trust the character of the master. He expected that failure would be punished, that the beatings would now commence. He did not know (or trust) that the master blesses vulnerability and makes risking holy. After all, Creation itself has always been the risk that Divine Love takes for the sake of relationship.

When we bury our brokenness, we lock up the very sources of blessing in our lives. It’s back to the Beatitudes again — poverty of spirit, mourning, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, peacemaking — in our fear we lock away precisely these pains. In the process, we make our hearts unbreakable. We make ourselves unblessable. That is what happens to the third slave. His fear makes him impervious to blessing, so the outer darkness is the only place that can accommodate him.

It is vulnerability which makes God fully human (if we can trust Paul’s words in Philippians 2). And we, who are created in God’s image, can only be fully human in our vulnerability. Becoming unbreakable makes us sub-human, inhuman, and inhumane. If we cannot unbury and welcome our own brokenness, we cannot welcome the brokenness of others. Instead we must punish them for their imperfections and failures.

That practice has been raised to the level of national policy and political philosophy.

As part of our morning ritual, Brenda and I read devotionally from a selection of Henri Nouwen quotes. A few days ago, we read this passage. “Your whole life is filled with losses, endless losses,” he wrote in Finding My Way Home.

And every time there are losses there are choices to be made. You choose to live your losses as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression, and resentment, or you choose to let these losses be passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. The question is not how to avoid loss and make it not happen, but how to choose it as a passage, as an exodus to greater life and freedom.[vi]

Unburying my brokenness – that’s not a bad description for the daily path of discipleship. And it is my prayer that the current inmate at the White House might, miracle of miracles, discover a bit of his true humanity in the time to come.

Notes:


[i] Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, p. 288. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., page 289.

[iv] Page 121.

[v] Page 120.

[vi] Quoted in You are Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, page 343.

Text Study for November 15, 2020

Gospel Text – Matthew 25:14-30

What do we do while we’re waiting? That’s a rather good question as the Covid pandemic grinds on, as our struggles with our own racism persist, as the political mills continue to grind, and as the darkness of winter closes in. What do we do while we’re waiting? As one of my pastor colleagues often says, we dare not waste a good crisis. How shall we grow in faith, hope and love in this time between the times?

That’s a good way to focus our thinking on the texts for this second to the last Sunday of the church year. What do we do while we’re waiting? What do we do with what we’ve been given?

First, let’s review the narrative arc in Matthew described last week. It is important to read Matthew’s gospel always in light of Matthew 5:1-12, the Beatitudes, and Matthew 25:31-45, the Parable of the Last Judgment. In light of that final parable, we know that Jesus comes now, not only later. As he comes now, however, he is unexpected and hidden.

The theme for Matthew 25 is announced in Matthew 24:44 – “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” This theme sets up the four parables that conclude this section of Matthew: The Unfaithful Slave, The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, The Talents, and the Sheep and the Goats. Each parable in its own way illustrates and magnifies this theme.

Robert Farrar Capon notes an important feature of these parables. They are, he writes, “about a judgment pronounced on a world from which God, through all its history, was effectively absent or to put it more carefully, was present in a way so mysterious as to constitute, for all practical purposes, an absence.” Clearly, God does not need or desire billboards or the work of a public relations firm. The God we worship is not and will not be at our disposal. That relationship is the other way around.

Capon notes a second commonality in these parables, what he calls “the principle of inclusion before exclusion – the rule that any characters who are made outsiders at the end of the story must always be shown as insiders at the beginning.” In our current reading he notes that the third slave was no less a part of the company than the other two. “Those who are congratulated at the end are those who believed in the mysterious, vindicating parousia of the main character and who lived their lives on the basis of that trust,” he writes. “Those who are condemned are those who did not.”

All three slaves are included. It takes action on the part of the third slave to be excluded. That action is to turn away from the master’s plan. Trust in the master, Capon asserts, results in a way of life consistent with that trust. The first two slaves in the parable lived as if the master was going to return. The third slave hedged his bets. If the master didn’t return, then the third slave got to keep the talent, and he wasn’t about to put what might become his own money at risk.

A preacher can extract a stewardship principle here. We are tempted to live as if the money (or whatever other gift we have in mind) actually belongs to us. In fact, we are always playing the game of life with God’s money. A faithful steward lives that way. What do we do while we wait? We manage the master’s stuff on the assumption that it still belongs to the master!

However, the text is not about how productive a slave is but rather how trusting and trustworthy. The parable “emphatically does not say that God is a bookkeeper looking for productive results. The only bookkeeper in the parable,” Capon continues, “is the servant who decided he had to fear a nonexistent audit and who therefore hid his one talent in the ground.”

Capon suggests (and I agree) that this is another take on the “failure to party” theme that is a through line in Matthew’s parables. He encourages us to see that “this one is about the ebullience of the lord’s joy at throwing his money around… The only reason that judgment comes into it at all,” Capon concludes, “is the sad fact that there will always be dummies who refuse to trust a good thing when it’s handed to them on a platter.” There’s a line too delicious not to quote at some point!

Capon makes a third point, which is amplified in an article by David Lose – “the sheer needlessness of fear, the utter non-necessity of our ever having to dread God.” The third slave offers a rather unflattering portrait of the master as a hard, cruel, and avaricious man. The master does not dispute the description but does not own it either. Instead, the slave has to deal with the consequences of having such a jaundiced view of a master who seems intent on including his slaves in the bull market of the day.

In his 2014 article, Lose poses it this way: “The landowner’s response might be a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as he decides to act in just the way the third servant has characterized him.” Could it be that the God we see is the God we get? If we see God as a terrible judge, we will respond accordingly. “On the other hand,” Lose writes, “when we view God primarily in terms of grace, we are surprised and uplifted by the numerous gifts and moments of grace we experience all around us. And when we imagine God to be a God of love, we find it far easier to experience God’s love in our own lives and to share it with others.”

This line of thinking takes us back to Luther’s Reformation experience perhaps. When Luther saw God as a terrible judge, God’s righteousness was a burden and Luther’s response was to hate such a god. When the light of gospel grace broke on Luther’s awareness, his whole universe changed. You might want to ask your fellow congregants to take a moment and reflect on this. What image of God really shapes your relationship with God – the cruel manager or the joyful master? If you raise the question, stop for a few moments, and let your listeners marinate in the question.

Of course, this text is not merely addressed to individual disciples. It is addressed to churches as well. Do we treat our congregation as our own property, acting as if God has no claim on it now or in the future? What difference does it make if we remind ourselves regularly that this is God’s church, not ours? In what ways are we burying what we have been given in order to keep it just the way it is? How does that fit with God’s desire for all the world to come into a deeper relationship with God in Christ?

Sometimes people wonder how to make a church grow. That is, of course, the wrong question. God wants the church to grow. The real question is what are we doing that prevents the church from growing. And when will we stop doing that?

A final footnote is in order. There is an alternative way to read this text. It is possible to read it as a critique of the economic system and the need for Christians to resist that system. You can find a description of this critique in several places, such as Malina and Rohrbaugh’ s Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. In brief, this reading sees the master just as the third slave describes him. The third slave resists the value system of the master, just as Christians need to resist the extractive values of the empire.

There’s much to be said for this reading, but I think it interrupts what is a clear narrative arc in Matthew. No matter how attracted I am to the alternative (and there are good reasons to consider it), I don’t think it stands up in the end.

First Reading – Zephaniah 1:7-18

Zephaniah prophesies against Judah as the southern kingdom heaves a sigh of relief, having dodged the bullet of Assyrian conquest that obliterated the northern kingdom of Israel. But complacency is not an attractive feature. The prophet critiques the practices of the royal court that seek to curry the favor of the powerful by adopting foreign dress, practices, and religions. Worst of all, the powerful are convinced that God doesn’t really care one way or the other. They say, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” They are, the prophet notes, sadly mistaken.

Eric Mathis puts it well on the workingpreacher.org site.

“The day of the Lord is all about calling upon those who are full of indifference and complacency and determine that God operates in the same way. God’s words, spoken through Zephaniah, indicate the exact opposite. God is not indifferent. God is not complacent. God is actively working to ensure that there will be an ongoing relationship between God and God’s people, and this is the heart of this particular oracle. God is not indifferent, and neither are we as God’s people to be indifferent about our relationship with God, about politics, about the social well-being of all, or about anything else that God cares about.”

The investments the rich and powerful have made are in vain. “Though they build houses,” Zephaniah writes, “they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.” The life of entitlement shall soon come to an end. Assuming that God has no opinion on injustice is not an accurate view of the Lord. This loops us back to our gospel reading for a moment.

We get another terrifying description of the Day of the Lord. There is frightening detail in this description. It continues throughout chapter two of the book. The only good news comes at the end of chapter three. Even this horrific judgment is temporary. There will come a time of restoration. However, no one should count on that any time soon.

Second Reading – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Let’s review the issues in this letter. The Thessalonian Christians have become confused about the nature of the end of the world. They expected Jesus to return before any of them died. Then the funerals began to mount up, and they had a faith crisis. They were concerned that their loved ones were going to miss out on Jesus’ return since they were already dead and buried. Paul seeks to correct their understanding and to comfort their anxiety.

On the one hand, there is no need to be concerned about the coming of the Lord. They haven’t missed it! On the other hand, there is no reason for complacency. Paul assures them that the Lord will indeed come and urges them to remain alert and ready. “Christ’s guaranteed return and their status as people of the day should serve as words of encouragement for them,” writes Amy Peeler, on workingpreacher.org. “They have nothing to fear when the master returns to the house but should use the promise of his return to excel still more. Paul says they are already encouraging one another with this hope.”

So, what do we do while we’re waiting? Keep awake and stay sober (verse 6). Work on the condition of your armor (verse 8). And “encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing” (verse 11).

And there you have it. Well, no –that’s not quite right. I find that I will have more to say this week as I respond to this parable and to this time. So, I’ll be back…

Final thoughts, illustrations, and resources

Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Kindle Locations 6366-6368). Kindle Edition.

David Lose. http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-23-a/: “How do you imagine God?”

Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.

Mathis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2184

Peeler, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2109