The Holy Breaking


A sermon preached on February 2, 2014 based upon the Mathew 5:1-12 – the beatitudes.
At the deepest level of reality, life is a blessing, a good gift given to us by God out of love; full of beauty and grace. It is a gift that by its very nature is designed to be shared, which is another way of speaking of what it means for us human beings to love.   Love is sharing the gift of life.
This is truth – the fundamental reality that is obvious to very young children without even speaking of it.  But unfortunately it is a truth that we gradually lose touch with as we get older.   Over time we become immune to the inherent blessedness that is life.  Like a fish becoming oblivious to the water in which it swims; we become blind to the love in which we live and move and have our very being.
Instead of life being a gift and a blessing we come to experience it as a great battle, a kind of competition to earn what we see as the limited quantity of good stuff there is in this world, whether that good stuff be money, or the love of others.
A hard shell develops around our hearts to keep out all the perceived threats. We don’t even realize our hearts have become hardened; we mistake the hardness for strength.
Our relationship to other human beings becomes defined by comparison:  Do I have more or less, of the good stuff of life than other people?  Am I superior, or inferior to others?  Our sense of self-worth becomes defined by these comparisons:  I am worthy and valuable to the extent that I am winning the great competition:  I am better looking, I am smarter, I am richer, I am more powerful, I have more friends and admirers than others, therefore I have worth.
If, on the other hand, I look around at others and they seem to have more of these commodities than I do then it seems like I have no worth.  Sometimes we ride a roller coaster; at one moment we feel superior, at the next moment we feel inferior, all based on the comparisons we make in a given moment.
Even in those moments when we feel like a winner, our sense of self-worth can seem like a very fragile thing – so easily lost.  (Whoever wins the super bowl today will feel like a winner – like they are standing on top of the world.  But it won’t last very long.  This year’s winners can easily become – and probably will be – next year’s losers.)
Connected to all this is the fact that as we grow up, it becomes more and more difficult for us to live in the present moment.  We become preoccupied with the future and the battles we will face there to win the good things we feel we need to maintain our sense of worth and for life to feel worth living.
Oftentimes the inability to live in the present moment gets expressed with a preoccupation with money; I know it is that way for me.   Money in our heand in the present moment has value only in terms of the goods we will exchange it for in the future.  And so a preoccupation – my obsessive thoughts longing to reach the day somewhere down the road when the debts we have from sending our kids to college and such — translates into a kind of foreclosure of the present moment.
But the present moment is the only place life is really lived, and in losing the present moment, we lose contact with the blessing of life itself.
The more we come to understand life as a kind of great competition, the more we come to mistrust gifts, assuming they come with strings attached. When we were little children, we received gifts happily, but as adults, we feel compelled to pay our way – make sure we owe no one anything – that we keep our ledger sheets clean.
Many of us become pretty successful at this; we are achievers who seem to live life successfully.  We are thought of as “well adjusted.”  But what if the understanding of what life is we’ve become “adjusted” to is fundamentally out of touch with reality — the truth that life is, in fact, a good gift meant to be freely shared?
What then?  How do we turn and become, as Jesus said, like little children, so that we can dwell in the kingdom of God, which is that state of perception in which we experience the blessedness of life.
And that brings us to the beatitudes that Jesus spoke that day as he began his sermon on the mount.  Convinced that the “normal” way of living in this world is the only way there is to live, the beatitudes make no sense. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek, blessed are you when you are persecuted.  They beatitudes tell us that we are blessed when bad things happen: when we become poor, whether literally poor or simply poor in the sense of losing all the certainties we have counted on; when we find ourselves thrust into grief; when we experience ourselves as meek, which means powerless; when we are persecuted.
The blessing that can be found in these kinds of experiences is the possibility they create that we might find through these crises an opening to that original sense of blessing which was always there, though we had lost the capacity to perceive it.
Take for instance the experience of grief: think of a time when someone we loved died.  We see what so often we missed, that the person, with all their flaws and imperfection, was a gift, a blessing in our lives, though most of the time we took them for granted. In our grief we realize the depths to which we were connected to this person; that there was a great love there that we didn’t fully appreciate.  Time suddenly slows down and we realize how much of our lives have been spent hurrying to the future.  Though there is pain in doing so, we re-enter the present moment.  The hardness of our hearts melts away, and perhaps we feel a great tenderness towards the other people in our life.  It occurs to us that all those strangers who we passed us in the courses of our lives, seeming so alien to us, have all experienced their own losses as heart-wrenching as our own, and we realize that we are, in fact, deeply connected to them as well.
Why, we wonder, did it take the suffering of grief to awaken us?
Sometimes – not always – but often enough, people who are given the diagnosis and the suffering of a life-threatening illness, come to a place of seeing the diagnosis as a gift.  It is one they would never have chosen for themselves, but it had the effect of awakening them to the blessedness of life.  They clarified what mattered and what didn’t.  They ceased to live life as though it were a great competition with other people; they found themselves slowing down, appreciating the little things in life in a way they couldn’t before.
People who have seen their lives crash and burn through addictions will talk about how hitting rock bottom was necessary for them to be on the road to recovery.  They worked the 12 steps and learned to receive the gift of life and love day by day, and to live as a part of a holy fellowship of persons turning to one another for support on their common spiritual journey.
Similar things have been experienced by people when their love relationships have fallen apart, or when a job has been lost – events they would never have wished for, but which somehow provided the opportunity to awaken them to the reality of the kingdom of God.
It’s as if a kind of holy breaking needs to happen in life, a breaking-open of the hardened heart, a kind of humbling, in order to perceive the inherent blessing of life.  I think it was Leonard Cohen who said, “In the broken places the light shines through.” But who wants to be broken?
Those who have never been broken may look like winners to be emulated, but in truth, very little light shines through them.
Where does this leave us?  Do we have to wait around for something traumatic and tragic to bring us low to have our hearts broken open?
No.  We can choose to consciously engage on the spiritual journey, embracing the little losses and heart-breaks that routinely occur in life as a pathway a deeper kind of living.
In a little while we will once more share in what we call “Holy Communion.”  It is not by coincidence that at the heart of this sacrament there is the image of a breaking:  Jesus’ body is being broken, expressed in the breaking of the bread. His life was broken for us, and when we open our hearts to his presence in the broken bread, our hearts are broken open to the love that binds us all together.
We leave behind, at least for a time, the habitual state of competition with one another; we realize that we are all in this thing called life together, and we discover the grace to become blessings to one another.  We come back to the truth that life is a good gift, meant to be shared.

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