Adorning every Protestant church is a cross. Inside, outside, there are crosses over the alter and in the vestibule and the minister’s office and sometimes they stand many stories high on top of the building. The cross, in the Christian tradition, is a sign of victory. Jesus suffered, died and was buried, but on the third day he rose. He suffered and died on the cross, but that cross became the gateway to everlasting life. Jesus conquered death and in doing that, we will rise again in body and in spirit. (Well, that depends on your denomination. Universalists believe everyone will rise again, everyone is saved. Let’s stick with the positive.) Either way, it a sign of triumph; our greatest fear has been defeated. We will live forever. The cross is a sign of hope and of glorious things to come. It’s a symbol of the power and the abiding love of God. If you’re Christian, and even if you’re not, it’s everywhere. The cross can be seen in graveyards and hanging on people’s necks and on highways and byways across the country and around the world.
Roman Catholics are also Christian, but the clean, straight cross isn’t likely to be seen standing 10 stories high in their church yards. Instead, Catholics have opted for the crucifix. This is a very different symbol. This symbol shows us Jesus nailed to the cross, broken, bleeding, dying. Sometimes it’s quite graphic; full-bodied suffering in technicolor. He’s suspended in anguish, nails through flesh and bone, a crown of thorns pressed into his head, blood dripping, eyes beleaguered. This man is struggling for his last few breaths and the moment has been captured and memorialized for believers through the centuries.
On first glance, it’s not pleasant. Certainly not triumphant. Who wants to stare at the image of a young man at the height of his distress, in the last few moments of a painful death? I’m sure some of you spent a good number of days in Catholic school looking at the crucifix over your teacher’s head wishing just about any other symbol was hanging on that wall. Plenty of people find it disturbing and for good reason.
I, on the other hand, love that symbol. It’s far more powerful for me than the cross. The cross is all cleaned up; it’s the end of the story. “See, everything worked out in the end.” Some stuff happened and then we won. Victory. Triumph. Success. But, that’s not my theology. My theology understands, and even needs, that broken body.
I know that broken body well. I have known it in my own life and I have held that body, beaten and bleeding, for many others. In some theologies, the cross is all that matters in the story of Jesus. In the end, there is victory. To me, the story of love and healing and inclusion, the story of a man who inspired a community to give all they owned to the poor and devote themselves to radical community and preaching news of hope, that’s the story of Jesus, that’s the triumph. But that story only has a happy ending because of the risk of love so many people took. Jesus on the cross becomes for me a metaphor of what it looks like when we allow our hearts to be broken, when we break ourselves open in service for the world.
Our power comes from our brokenness. I don’t think the end of that story is the crucifixion. In fact, I’m not sure there is an end to the story. We are still called to live our lives with our hearts wide open. The sign of strength is a heart that has been broken. It’s when we allow ourselves to feel the pain of the world, that we become brave. Courage and compassion are byproducts of the healing of a heart that has been smashed.
Mother Teresa once said; “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” The American novelist David James Duncan wrote about this quote in an essay. He wrote: "...Not just fellow nuns, Catholics, Calcuttans, Indians. The whole world. It gives me pause to realize that, were such a prayer said by me and answered by God, I would afterward possess a heart so open that even hate-driven zealots would fall inside.” He goes on: “There is a self-righteous knot in me that finds zealotry so repugnant it wants to sit on the sidelines with the like-minded, plaster our cars with bumper stickers that say "Mean People Suck" and "No Billionaire Left Behind" and "Who would Jesus Bomb?", and leave it at that. But my sense of the world as a gift, my sense of a grace operative in this world despite its terrors, propels me to allow the world to open my heart still wider, even if the openness comes by breaking—for I have seen the whole world fall into a few hearts, and nothing has ever struck me as more beautiful.”i
When we allow our hearts to be broken, we live in beauty. I think of the the men’s shelter we have here in this building. Ten men, some the same, some different, cycle in and our of our building looking for a warm place to sleep and a hot, healthy meal to eat. We have a handful of volunteers who sleep in the shelter and have for more than 30 years, listening to the stories of the poorest of the poor, the people who become invisible in this city, the people most of us walk past during the day, pretending we don’t see. But those volunteers don’t do that. They make it a point to see. They hold the pain of these men night after night, offering whatever they have to bring healing and hope if only for a night. Witnessing human suffering is an act of courageous love and it has become a profound ministry of this church about which I am particularly proud. On this day when we are celebrating shared ministry, neglecting those in our shelter committee would be a crime. (Stand up?)
About nine years ago, I had a meeting with a colleague, someone I’d never met. It was a professional meeting, but I had suffered a terrific loss just a few weeks before. I’d actually had to cancel a meeting with him, so he knew something was going on and, as ministers are wont to do, he asked in the first few minutes of our meeting, about what happened. I told him a piece of my story which was, admittedly, very sad. As I did, this unknown minister sitting across from me, started to cry. As I’m talking, tears are streaming down his face. He didn’t look away from me, didn’t get a tissue for either of us; he just sat and bore witness to my pain and in that, allowed the edges of his own heart to soften and dissolve. He was completely vulnerable to that moment, ready to see whatever the world was going to show him.
It took me by surprise. I’m used to ministers keeping up professional boundaries, being objective and in some way removed. Had that been the case, this would be a very different story. In fact, it wouldn’t be a story. I wouldn’t remember it at all. I’d remember that I had to postpone my first meeting with this man but once we met, we were able to move ahead with our work. Instead, he took the great personal risk of being open to me, a colleague and stranger and he welcomed me in all my sadness. And today, many years later, he remains a friend. And when he had his own visitation with great pain, he called me and offered me the opportunity to let the edges of my heart soften and dissolve.
When we can be that open, that present to pain, we become stronger and more powerful. And more beautiful. The broken places become the source of our strength and power and splendor.
Do you know what Kintsugi is? It’s the Japanese art of broken pieces, the art of mending cracks in ceramic or porcelain with liquid gold to bring integrity back to an object that has been damaged. But it’s the cracks themselves that bring the piece great beauty. A bowl is a bowl until it has been broken and healed. Now it’s art.
I think that’s true of the human heart. It’s the cracks themselves that bring us great beauty. But allowing our hearts to break is an act of courage. To love is a risk. The loss of love, the betrayal either from the beloved or from this difficult world with its sickness and violence, can so completely devastate a life that it sometimes seems easier not to love at all. When we parent, when we fall in love, when we bring animals into our homes, when we enter ministry or join congregations, when we befriend each other, we risk both great joy and great sorrow.
Not having relationships is a difficult way to live and in most every case, humans take the risk. We allow people to enter our lives even knowing that pain could be on the other side. We pour ourselves out for our children knowing they will one day leave and may even reject our devotion, and yet humans continue to parent. We fall in love and commit ourselves to another person over and over again from the time we’re teenagers, even though much of that love is temporary and sometimes ends in shattered lives.
This is our work, this is our risk. And this is our joy. Michael Leunig, the Australian philosopher, painter and poet writes:
When the heart is cut or cracked or broken,
Do not clutch it,
Let the wound lie open,
Let the wind
From the good old sea blow in
To bathe the wound with salt
And let it sting
Let a stray dog lick it
Let a bird lean in the hole and sing
A simple song like a bell
And let it ring.
To be who we want to be, to live our faith, risking love is a core value. Our story started as a Christian story, with the story of Jesus who broke himself open in love for the world. And it continued with the Universalists who knew that love to be open to all, inclusive of everyone without question or hesitation. Loving everyone, loving the world in all its complications, is Universalist theology. It’s a call to radical inclusion grounded in the idea that God has saved us all, that we are all worthy.
Brave love is critical to the call to ministry. Ordained ministry for sure, but I think we’re all called to minister to and with each other. And that’s a call of love to other congregants and to people in the room who aren’t living up to expectations or who behave in ways we think might be inappropriate and it’s a call to love for the stranger, the newcomer, the person with mental illness who acts in ways that feel foreign; it’s a call to love for the crying child and ornery teen and for all the people who just plain bug you. And this love isn’t limited to the people in the room or in the building; our faith asks us to open ourselves to loving the whole world. The whole world and all its hate and violence and xenophobia and homophobia. It’s loving the world with all the racism, sexism, ableism, ageism and speciesism. It’s loving the climate deniers and anti-vaxers and creationists. Brave love faces all our wild contradictions, the many ways of being human and brings love to bear on all of them.
That’s the message of Universalism. Everyone is loved. And the message of Unitarianism is that the loving must be done by us; whether there is an all-powerful god or not, we are the ones on the ground. The work of love is our work. We have a whole campaign called Side of Love in which we actively work to stretch our arms as far as we can go, pulling in everyone from the furthest margins and making our center whole.
But promoting love is only part of the call, at least in my opinion. I can promote love without the vulnerability of loving. I can fight for justice without letting the borders of my heart dissolve, without breaking myself open and filling the cracks with gold and empathy.
Brave love is different from promoting love or fighting for justice. Brave, honest, open, vulnerable, compassionate love is bold and courageous and life-affirming. It’s a world embracing love, the kind of love that leaves us exposed but not defenseless. It avoids pettiness and small-minded and self-centeredness. Brave Love is life altering; it’s the kind of love that has the power to transform the world. When done properly, symbols of that love might adorn houses of worship and cemeteries and schools and people’s bodies for millennia.
So I ask you as I ask myself all the time. Are we ready? Am I ready? Am I properly prepared for the risk of loving, to break my heart open so that the whole world can fall in? Or would I prefer thinking about the weather and tax season and the dirty laundry both real and metaphorical?
Today we’re celebrating shared ministry. Specifically, we’re celebrating Janice Marie Johnson and her work here in this congregation, past present and future. Before I do that, though, I’d like to recognize that lay ministry, in a much more informal way, is part of our our tradition here at Community church.
I’ve mentioned the people who work in our shelter for whom my gratitude is eternal. I’d also like to talk about hospitality. Who here has served coffee and bagels? Who has prepared or served a meal for us here? And what about our greeters and our ushers? Who welcomes us when we arrive? And those who serve on governance and management- our board and council? (Raise hands) What about those who serve keeping this place running like on our Finance Committee or building and grounds and our PET team? And how about those who oversee the ways we donate our money- John Haynes Holmes and the Doolittle Fund? And our social justice folks, people who bring us racial justice, women’s justice, environmental justice, LGBTQ justice, economic justice?
And, a very special ministry of this congregation is that of art. We have a whole group of people who understand art as a spiritual practice, who keep our own art gallery going and who are helping me bring dance to our shared prayer life. And, of those people, I’d like to hold up Ellen Mendelbaum who has brought us that spectacular stained glass window and who painted us a new chalice. Art is an important ministry here; thank you, Ellen, for bringing your ministry and your gifts to our congregation.
And, we’re celebrating Janice’s work, which is why I’m talking about embodied, courageous love and the risk of a broken heart. In our tradition, we hold a special place for the profession of ordained ministry but unlike some other denominations, we don’t believe that ordination or fellowshipping gives anyone a special line to god. Instead, we believe in what some Protestant denominations call the Priesthood of All Believers. Here, we call it Shared Ministry. Everyone has a critical place in our ministry. Everyone has a call to living a life of love in the world. Everyone is living into the possibility of breaking ourselves open and pouring ourselves out in service of the Other.
But sometimes, someone does that in a way that’s a little more intentional. They demonstrate a little more ambition, a little more willingness to let the boundaries of their hearts soften and dissolve. In addition to the years of training and meeting with a cohort and a Council and passing through a credentialing board, Janice has brought a ministry of love to this church. About a year ago, she started the Caring Team, a group of people in the church who have agreed to take care of our members. While I do long term pastoral care, this team of 14 people do what I call on-site care. They visit people in their homes and in hospitals and nursing homes. They prepare food and help with doctors appointments and otherwise embody love, extending the spirit of this church into the world. Esther is an active part of this work as our Director of Adult Ministry, but it was Janice who imagined it and now who embodies it. (Ask team to stand.)
Janice has worked hard to earn the designation of Commissioned Lay Minister – with the formal title of Lay Minster – but the really hard work, the real ministry Janice has brought to us is her willingness to break her heart wide enough that the whole world can fall in.