Hello, friends, it’s an honor to be speaking with you today.
Today I’m going to be talking about the way of Jesus when the world breaks. That’s the title: The Way of Jesus When the World Breaks.
We’ll unpack those words some more.
You’ll be hearing that phrase “the way of Jesus” a lot in the weeks to come, probably well beyond that.
And “when the world breaks” is the title of a recent book by a fellow pastor in the post-evangelical collective. His name is Jason Miller. The subtitle of that book is “the surprising hope and subversive promises in the teachings of Jesus.” It’s a good book. It’s a reflection on the scripture I’m about to read for us, a famous passage the tradition has called the blessings, or the beatitudes.
Words like these – hope, promises, blessings – they can be hard to access, strange words to say when the world breaks. And yet they are words we need, they are words faith calls us to.
We’re going to talk about different ways the world breaks, about the kinds of wounds that don’t heal, or at least that don’t heal all the way.
That means we’re going to talk about the wounds of war, and specifically the conflict, the war in Israel and Palestine.
And we’ll talk a little about personal wounds like trauma as well.
I don’t aim to say anything graphic or retraumatizing or anything today. But I’d planned on speaking on something like this to start our “Way of Jesus” series, and then personal and global events both pushed me into proximity around so many wounds. So I’m very tender this week. Perhaps you are as well. If so, let’s be tender for a moment together, trusting in the kindness of God and the kindness of this community. If you need to step back or step out at some point, though, that’s welcome too. We value freedom here.
These are huge topics. When it comes to the trauma of war, the pains of multigenerational trauma and violence, even the topic of personal trauma, none of us have the answers. It’s too big. When it comes to wounds that don’t heal, world-breaking pains, we only ever have the beginnings of what to say, but we’ve got to say what we have, I believe, and not be silent.
And I think what I have to say is a couple things about the way of Jesus toward finding God, finding life when the world breaks, or maybe about God’s ways of finding us, and helping us find ourselves and one another again when the world breaks. And I think that’s important, I think that’s good news.
So let me read today’s scripture, and pray, and get into it.
This is the fifth chapter of Matthew, the first 12 verses. It’s set in Matthew at the beginning of the longest, maybe the most important set of teachings of Jesus that the world has. People call it the Sermon on the Mount. And it starts like this.
Matthew 5:1-12 (New Revised Standard Version)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
2 And he began to speak and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Blessed are you. Happy are you…. as your world is breaking apart.
Jesus’ words are so strange.
Matthew sets Jesus up within his tradition to be a new Moses here: a mountain-top revelator, a wisdom maker, a law giver for his people.
But Jesus doesn’t start with law old or new. He’ll get there. We will too in a couple of weeks. But Jesus begins with these blessings, these pathways to God, these promises of the good life.
The Greek word we translate as “blessed” or “happy” is makarios. Jason Miller calls this “the blissful existence of the gods.”
And Jesus says that god-like blessing – comfort, peace, mercy, an inheritance befitting the children of God – it can all be yours.
And the way in is poverty, humility, mourning, hunger. The hard work of kindness and peace-making and love in the face of opposition.
Some commentators think Jesus is commending a way of being in the world. If you want the blissful existence of the gods, here’s the way. It’s purity of heart, it’s mercy, it’s peacemaking.
Some commentators think Jesus isn’t commanding a way of being, but promising a path to happiness and blessing for people who think they’ve missed it. If you’re poor, if you’re small, if you have suffered loss, if you long for a better life or a better world, you’re not excluded from the happiness of the gods. No, no, there’s a way in for us all.
A promise for those who think the gates have been shut on us. Or a surprising path to what’s best for us all. I think it’s some of both of those things.
But they’re strange words. They’re meant to catch us off guard, I think, to stop us in our tracks for a minute, so we can shift our assumptions. So we can break open a little more and let the light in.
One of the years when my life broke open was in 2017. It felt at first like it was just breaking apart.
I don’t want to swim into the details too much, but I’ll tell you three things.
In 2017, Larry Nassar was on trial for the sexual abuse, the sexual assault of hundreds of girls in America’s national gymnastics program. I found myself following the coverage relentlessly and sitting in my car or my living room just crying and unable to focus on much else.
At the same time, someone I knew and trusted sent me a critical email which casually mentioned by name the neighbor who had sexually abused me when I was a preteen. This person mentioned what had happened to me as a bad thing that happened to me as a kid, but at least not so bad – after all, I turned out OK, didn’t I?
And then thirdly, in response to that email, and the sadness and anger it provoked in me, I looked up that neighbor to discover that in recent years, he had reoffended again, had abused another pre-teen boy, and was tried, convicted, and returned to prison.
Those three things were hard for me to process.
I was well into my forties. I had done a lot of healing and growth work around my childhood and these issues, but that year broke my world open again.
And I needed help.
To be clear, I am not thankful for any of these things – the horror of widespread sexual abuse and assault of children, my own scarred wounds, people who touch our wounds without care or kindness.
These are curses, not blessings.
But with the help of God and friends, amidst these curses, I was drawn deeper into understanding the beautiful and broken story of my life in ways that in time increased my peace, hope, and faith. I am so grateful for this life of mine. It is so good. I was also drawn deeper into love – love for myself, love for the living God, love for life, love for you.
Jesus says it can be like this. The poor in spirit, the meek, the humbled – God’s kingdom, the beloved community, is especially for them. Comfort, nourishment, the full inheritance of the children of God is for them. For us.
How is this so? I don’t think I can reduce it to a formula, but I find the words “mourn” and “hunger” helpful.
To mourn is not just to be sad, not just to grieve, but to do something with that grief – to bring that grief into the light of day, into relationships or community of some form.
And to hunger and thirst is to want things to be made right. This word “righteousness” – dikaiosune – really means righteousness and justice. It’s not just about personal morality, it’s about all things, all things, being set right, just, whole.
In my case, I was so sad, so angry, day after day, that I couldn’t function fully. I knew I needed help. I asked a few people I trusted to help me in finding a therapist. And after a couple months, I found someone I thought would be OK, maybe just good enough, but who turned out to be great.
I also chose, I chose very carefully, two other people to talk with these wounds about. Our wounds are not for everyone. We can’t trust everyone to be safe with our wounds. But if we trust nobody, things usually get worse. Time alone never heals. Time alone never heals.
We need the help of God and friends.
In my case, the therapy and the friendships helped me to feel and express and understand some very old griefs. It was a time of mourning for me. Thanks be to God, my therapist, my wife, one other trusted mentor and friend met that mourning with great compassion and encouragement for me to more deeply learn and practice compassion for myself as well.
Knowing I’d hit a moment in life where I needed more time and space for healing in my inner life, I also embarked upon an ancient, year-long structure of reflection and prayer designed to come more deeply into an awareness of God’s great love for us and into discovering the reality, the presence, and the work of God’s spirit with us, day after day.
That’s the way of Jesus. Part of it, at least. To live in a beautiful, but terribly broken world, and out of our poverty of spirit, to mourn, and to hunger and thirst for things to be set right. And to hope that God is with us, that we still have an inheritance of blessing. And to ask for help in finding it.
Some people call trauma that wound that doesn’t heal.
A clinician in Psychology Today published an article on the 7 Hurts that never heal. They are:
-the death of a loved one
-mental illness or chronic illness
These are wounds that cut so deep, or persist so much, that they never fully leave us. Pain can lessen, but it may return. And the healing that comes will still leave scars.
The article said that we cope with these hurts that never heal by sharing them – not with everyone, but not alone either. We share them. And we look for pathways for growth, and for some way they can become incorporated in our purpose. We hope to become wounded healers for ourselves and for others.
There’s nothing about fixing or removing these things. Not possible. But we heal in part when we don’t bear them alone, and when with the help of God and friends, this garbage starts to compost into material through which we grow and help.
Bad religion shames us for these hurts. Or like another addiction, it tries to offer us ways to deny or escape these wounds that never heal.
The way of Jesus names our wounds. None of us go through life without any of them. But it names our wounds as beloved children. It names our wounds as access points to pathways of healing – to mourn, to long for a better way, to ask for help, to give and receive mercy, to grow into peacemakers ourselves, no matter the cost. And to take joy in the goodness that comes our way in all this.
The way of Jesus does promise a life free from hurt. I can’t promise you that either. But the way of Jesus promises that our wounds can take us into the holy, to be held, to be accompanied, to taste the bliss of the gods, amidst the hurt of this life.
Friends, if our world were not at war, that’s the talk. The way of Jesus in our hurts that do not heal. But remember those seven hurts that do not heal – death of a loved one, permanent injury, trauma, etc. – they’re all playing out in Israel and Palestine right now, and for many who have loved ones there.
And to be alive right now and to care about this is to be in a constant state of exposure to trauma.
A lot of people have had a lot of words to say this past week. Many of those words have missed the mark, have dug into one wound or another.
But with the help of God, and with your trust, in prayer, and in relationships with many who are grieving, I’ll do my best for a minute.
Last weekend, Hamas militants from Gaza attacked civilians in Israel. Hundreds of civilians, perhaps over a thousand, including children, elderly, were killed, brutally, in a large-scale terrorist attack.
Friends and colleagues of mine, world leaders as well, have named this as the largest attack on Jews since the ending of the Shoah, the Nazi Holocaust, nearly 80 years ago. Each victim a beloved community member, an image bearer of our Creator God.
It’s also true that this attack, and these deaths, have occurred within a context. Palestinian people and lands have been occupied by Israel for decades. Numbers are contested, but many, many, many thousands of Palestinian Arabs have been injured and killed in the generations-long conflict.
Israel proper is a very small nation, and it is filled with Jews and Arabs who have suffered losses in violent conflict. It is also filled with people whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were killed in the 20th century’s largest, most infamous genocide.
It is also true that Palestinian lands are occupied and encircled. Palestinians are a stateless people who suffer large rates of poverty and suffering and human rights violations. Israel has declared war against Hamas, the perpetrators of the terror attack. That war now includes a siege of Gaza, a strip of land the size of an American city, containing over two million people, half of whom are children, all of whom also beloved community members and image bearers of God. Access to electricity and food and medical supplies is being cut off, which is its own war crime.
There’s more to say. And it’s changing every day. I don’t want to keep describing world events and trauma to you. I will likely not get it all right or say it all right. I am not an expert on any of these things.
But I say this to say that children of God have suffered, and are suffering, enormous wounds that do not heal. Most of us are proximate to this suffering not just through the news but as American tax-payers. And many of us, in our networks of family and friends and travel, are proximate to these wounds relationally. I know I am. I’ve reached out to and heard from friends, neighbors, colleagues and partners in our interfaith justice work. I’ve been offering my shared grief and listening to what people had to say.
Let me just pass on some of their words to you – as models of grief that hold wisdom and compassion as well.
From one rabbinic friend: I am sad to see the news of innocent civilians killed & terrorized in Israel with surprise attacks by Hamas. I am also worried about the innocent civilians in Gaza who may pay a terrible price. This horrific cycle of violence is endless. May God not extinguish our hopes for peace.
From a Palestinian Christian with ties to our church: You can condemn the killing and kidnapping of civilians. And you can condemn eight decades of occupation and oppression. There’s room enough for both.
From an Muslim scholar and journalist who has preached with me here before: In Islamic law, non-combatants are never legitimate targets in war. There are no exceptions for “colonial settlers” — which Muslims themselves could be, in various contexts. It is a principle all Muslims should defend — and call on Israel to respect.
From the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:
You can’t have it both ways: It’s morally indefensible to kill Palestinian civilians, even when framed as a fight against terrorism. And taking the lives of Israeli civilians is equally inexcusable, even when framed as a battle against occupation.
Lastly, from leaders Telos, Americans working for just peace for Palestine and Israel and in other global conflicts:
There is no doubt that Hamas committed a war crime against Israel and Israeli citizens. These unjustifiable atrocities must be condemned and prosecuted. Hamas must be held accountable. All hostages must be returned home safely and at once. Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas. And to pursue justice for the victims of its crimes and freedom for all hostages. Israel does not have the right to indiscriminately retaliate against the millions of civilians in Gaza. International law and the rules of war prohibit collective punishment in any form. War crimes do not justify more war crimes. Atrocity does not justify atrocity.
Friends, as I listen, there’s a lot that I don’t know. But here’s four things I do know about this suffering when the world breaks.
One, I believe that victims, the wounded, need the way of Jesus. I’m not saying Israelis and Palestinians need to become Christians or believe in Jesus or anything like that. That’s an offense. People can choose their faith, their religion, and their lack thereof. No, I’m saying victims, the wounded, need the way of Jesus we’ve talked about here. They need to grieve and mourn in the kindness and relationship of others’ compassion. They need to grieve and mourn their community’s losses, and as I hope you heard in some of our friends I quoted, for our healing, they’ll need the power, the love to grieve their enemy’s losses as well. This giving and receiving of mercy saves us all, even if that mercy is in the hows and whys of how we defend or resist.
Secondly, If we have passion around this conflict, if we find ourselves thinking unmerciful thoughts or saying or writing unmerciful words, we might want to slow our roll for a minute on our most strident opinions and try to listen to someone else’s pain. So we can be sure that when we advocate, we do advocate for a justice that is merciful, a justice that heals. This week, I’ve tried to listen more than talk and have reached a place where I have some clarity about what I’m asking my national representatives to do and not do, as well as things I will and won’t say in the court of public opinion.
Three, if we’re not directly impacted by this conflict, we still have the opportunity to mourn with those who mourn, and so to walk in this way of Jesus as friends. People who mourn with others listen more than talk. People in mourning need to be embraced, they need our presence more than answers or judgment. That gets complicated sometimes because grief includes anger, and people can say some pretty raw things when they’re angry. Mostly, though, when we show up for others in their grief, they experience this way of Jesus immediately. There’s a blessing that comes. I’d invite you, my friends, to join me, in showing up for the grief of your neighbors. You can do that personally, with anyone you know that might have ties and stakes to Palestine or Israel. You can do that publicly too. On Monday, I went with my neighbor to a Jewish organized event for Israel, and then later I went to a Palestinian event by myself as well. There was more going on at both events than grief. There were things said at both events that I can not abide. But I stood there in silence to grieve with those who grieve.
Lastly, in addition to advocacy and shared grief, I urge you to pray now. To turn your questions and grief and anger and humility and poverty of spirit to God and ask for peace, ask for access to your inheritance, ask for help and mercy.
In our GBIO community, an ancient prayer has been circulating the past few days. A prayer from two hundred years ago, prayed by a rabbi in what is now Ukraine. I’d like to share that prayer with you all, to close in praying this prayer together, that in the worlds’ hurts that are not healing, and in our own world-breaking hurts as well, we could know the presence, the help, the nourishing love and blessing and peace of God.
Rabbi Nachman’s prayer for peace:
May it be Your will,
Holy One, our God, our ancestors’ God,
that you erase war and bloodshed from the world
and in its place draw down
a great and glorious peace
so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation
neither shall they learn war any more.
Rather, may all the inhabitants of the earth
recognize and deeply know
this great truth:
that we have not come into this world
for strife and division
nor for hatred and rage,
nor provocation and bloodshed.
We have come here only
to encounter You,
eternally blessed One.
we ask your compassion upon us;
raise up, by us, what is written:
I shall place peace upon the earth
and you shall lie down safe and undisturbed
and I shall banish evil beasts from the earth
and the sword shall not pass through your land.
but let justice come in waves like water
and righteousness flow like a river,
for the earth shall be full
of the knowledge of the Holy One
as the waters cover the sea.
So may it be.
And we say: