Friday, January 3, 2014

Pick Up the Pieces

Sermon preached December 29, 2013

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23

            Play some of “Pick Up the Pieces,” The Average White Band (
            “Pick Up the Pieces” – probably not a bad post-Christmas song.  We pick up the house, discard wrapping paper and packaging.  We do some post-guest cleaning.  If we have young children, we are probably putting together something that may have broken already.
            The phrase, “pick up the pieces” implies brokenness, and that reminds me of a different song: Bob Dylan, “Everything is Broken” (
            Now that’s not a very cheery thought.  It seems counter-intuitive for this holiday season when we praise the generosity and good spirit of the human community.  But then the story from Matthew’s gospel, coming on the heels of his telling of the birth of Jesus, isn’t very cheery either.  It is much more an “everything is broken” story.
            Herod, infuriated that the wise men did not report back to him, goes on a killing spree – a spree worthy of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and most recently, Kim Jong Un in North Korea.  Threatened by a child who others might consider a king, Herod “killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.”
            The sad reality is that this story from Matthew seems so real, because history has seen it repeated again and again. Destructive conflicts are readily apparent.  Petty grievances find their way into state policies.  Everything is broken.  I have already mentioned the recent executions in North Korea.  South Sudan is in the headlines.  The world’s newest nation, created in 2011 through a peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war, South Sudan has been plunged into violent, murderous conflict.  Rivalries between the Dinka and Neur tribes has escalated, and there has been violence between militias and government troops.  One sad story coming out of the recent funeral for Nelson Mandela was the initial exclusion of Archbishop Desmond Tutu from the state funeral for Mandela in his hometown village.  Tutu has become a vocal critic of the ANC government, who was in charge of the guest list for the state funeral.  After poor publicity, Tutu was invited to attend and did.
            But the brokenness of the world is not just out there.  It is also found in our lives.  In his wonderfully written new book, Unapologetic, which has the wonderful subtitle: “why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense,” Francis Spufford writes about the human heart.  Examining the human condition, Spufford says he finds a “human propensity to [mess] things up” – though he uses a more colorful word.  What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy.  It’s our active inclination to break stuff, “stuff” here includes moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects….(27)  let yourself take seriously the implication that we actually want the destructive things we do, that they are not just an accident that keeps happening to poor little us, but part of our nature; that we are truly cruel as well as truly tender, truly loving and at the same time truly like to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting or breaking love, scorching it knowingly up as the fuel for some hotter or more exciting feeling (29-30).
            Couldn’t Matthew have just skipped this story?  Couldn’t we just ignore the brokenness that permeates our world, and also finds its way into our lives?
            There is brokenness.
            There is God.
            We cannot just read the story in Matthew in isolation from the larger story of God in the Bible.  Isaiah tells us something important about the larger story.  I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all the Lord has done for us… according to the abundance of his steadfast love….  It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them.
            If the song about the world and about our lives is sometimes “Everything is Broken,” the song of God is a song about “Pick Up the Pieces.”  That’s what God does – heals, frees, loves, offers new beginnings.  The biblical word “saves” has the same roots as the word for healing and wholeness.  God saves, that is, God heals.  God makes what is broken whole.
            Gregory Boyle is a Catholic priest in Los Angeles who works with gang members.  He is the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program.  He writes about his ministry and experiences in Tattoos on the Heart.  There he tells the story of baptizing George.  George, 17, and his older brother Cisco, 19, are both gang members.  George has been taken out of his typical environment and placed in a camp.  This is where Father Boyle as come to know him, and he has seen changes in George, from tough street kid “into a thoughtful, measured man, aware of his gifts and talents previously obscured by the unreasonable demands of his gang life.”  George has completed his GED and wants to be baptized as a celebration of that and of his new sense of who he is.
            The night before George’s scheduled baptism, his brother Cisco is walking home before midnight.  A half block from his apartment, rival gang members sneak up and open fire on Cisco, killing him instantly.  Father Boyle consider cancelling the next day’s mass at the camp, but George’s baptism is scheduled.
            When I arrive before Mass, with all the empty chairs in place in the mess hall, there is George standing by himself, holding his newly acquired GED certificate.  He heads toward me, waving his GED and beaming.  We hug each other.  He is in a borrowed, ironed, crisp white shirt and thin black tie.
            At the beginning of Mass, with the mess hall now packed, I ask him, “What’s your name?”  “George Martinez,” he says, with an overflow of confidence.  “And George, what do you ask of God’s church?”  ”Baptism,” he says with a steady, barely contained smile.
            It’s the most difficult baptism of my life.  For as I pour water over George’s head: “Father… Son… Spirit,” I know I will walk George outside alone after and tell him what happened.  As I do, and I put my arm around him, I whisper gently as we walk out onto the baseball field, “George, your brother Cisco was killed last night.”
            I can feel all the air leave his body as he heaves a sigh that finds itself a sob in an instant.  We land on a bench.  His face seeks refuge in his open palms, and he sobs quietly.  Most notable is what isn’t present in his rocking and gentle wailing.  I’ve been in this place before many times.  There is always flailing and rage and promises to avenge things.  There is none of this in George.  It is as if the commitment he has just made in water, oil, and flame has taken hold and his grief is pure and true and more resembles the heartbreak of God.  George seems to offer proof of the efficacy of this thing we call sacrament, and he manages to hold all the complexity of this great sadness, right here, on this bench, in his tender weeping.  I had previously asked him in the baptismal rite, after outlining the contours of faith and the commitment “to live as through this truth was true.”   “Do you understand what you are doing?” … “Yes, I do.”  And, yes, he does.  In the monastic tradition, the highest form of sanctity is to live in hell and not lose hope.  George clings to his hope and his faith and his GED certificate and chooses to march, resilient, into his future. (85-86)
            This is a story about brokenness, and about the healing and hopeful work of God, a God who is about picking up the pieces.
            And God invites us to work with God in God’s healing task.  One of my favorite post-Christmas reflections is offered by Howard Thurman, and you will see this again in my newsletter article.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.                Howard Thurman

            There is brokenness.  There is God.  There is healing.  There is work to be done.  Amen.

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