Given at Sojourners UCC on 16 October 2016.
I didn’t grow up in the church, but it was in high school that I began to pay more attention to religious people. I began to wonder about these pious folks. They seemed happy. It looked like they had their lives together. I thought, perhaps, I should give this church thing a try.
So I started going to church. And I honestly can’t remember a lot of the teaching I heard when I was first there, but I remember being emotionally overtaken by the possibility of being saved.
I vividly recall kneeling at an altar, and as I was inundated with tears, I repeated a prayer to invite Jesus into my heart. My dad and I were baptized together in a river and I knew with absolute confidence that being saved was the only way to be.
I was diving into a life that I believed God wished me to live.
I wanted to continue that Christian life in college so I moved into a “substance free” dorm my freshmen year at JMU and explored many Christian groups on campus such as InterVarsity, Campus Crusade for Christ and YoungLife. I ended up sticking with InterVarsity. I attended large group worship and joined a small group. I continued to exist in a world where I viewed being saved as a shiny, happy, uplifting reality.
I started growing in two very distinct and opposing directions, as I had a small group Bible study that I loved; but I also had joined the rugby team. And this community of friends didn’t claim faith. They didn’t fit into my understanding of a moral Christian lifestyle, but they heard me and cared for me and they were completely authentic.
I continued to juggle these experiences. I genuinely desired to fall more deeply in love with the God of the scriptures, but reality was confusing.
As I continuously wrestled with the conflicting actualities of faith and religious life, I also became less adequate in suppressing my questions about my own sexuality.
Up until this point in college, I had never allowed myself to even remotely consider my same-sex attractions or the palpability of a same-sex partner. It just wasn’t a possibility. I didn’t know any gay people. I couldn’t fathom what would happen to my life if I were gay.
So I didn’t think about it or consider it. I simply went about my teenage years making sure to excel in academics and athletics and every extracurricular activity I could manage.
But now, in college, I couldn’t ignore the topic of homosexuality any longer. I was hearing about it in my Christian circles and I was experiencing it through my first ever friendships with gay and lesbian people, particularly with some very good friends on my rugby team.
During my junior year of college, I became quick friends with a new member of the rugby team. As our friendship grew, I began to notice familiar feelings. Feelings I had experienced in a few previous friendships, feelings that went beyond the common care, concern and closeness experienced by friends.
After some time, our friendship transitioned to something more. We were both confused and a bit surprised by our connection. We weren’t sure how to proceed, but we decided to move forward, out of the friend zone.
We didn’t tell anyone. Not one soul. We were both scared and didn’t know how to approach the realities of a same-sex relationship. And I had clearly been taught that homosexuality was inherently sinful. We lived a secret. And our secrecy would quickly become toxicity.
As I attempted to uncoil the conflicting realities between a religion that would ostracize me and the realization of my true sexual self, I began a slow descent into darkness.
I needed help, I needed support, I needed to share, but I felt utterly and devastatingly alone. I was so gripped by fear and shame, that I didn’t know what to do.
So I prayed. I prayed a lot. God please fix me! And when the God who hears prayers and transforms all, didn’t fix or shift or change my desires, my prayers became shouts and cries. And yet, I was still alone, confused, terrified and not, in the least bit, straight.
When my secret girlfriend abruptly ended our relationship, I was devastated and all the more alone. I sank into a deep depression. I stopped eating. I couldn’t sleep. My impeccable grades began to slip.
I felt broken. I hated myself. I wanted to die.
It took me many years to realize that I was not, in fact, broken. I learned to realize that the brokenness of society and the brokenness of the church and the brokenness of shame culture was crashing in on me, attempting to desecrate what was and what always will be, sacred. I was traumatized, I was wounded, I was in a horrible place. But I was not broken.
I wrestled with God and I came out limping, but blessed.
I have taken a great dislike of the popular Christian phrase: We are broken. It’s recently been used in more positive ways, with folks saying that we’re all broken and that’s actually a good thing and there’s beauty in our brokenness. Which is a fine idea. And I’m not trying to throw shade at the people who use that term, broken, to name the difficulties of the human condition that bind us all together.
But when I hear the word broken, I just imagine a busted up toy that’s been discarded at the dump, or a tool that’s no longer useful or a car sitting in a field, rusted and abandoned.
That’s why today, I want to make sure that you know…
You are not broken. You do not need to be fixed.
You are messy. You are becoming. You are a horrible, incredible mix of sorrow and joy. But you are not broken.
Perhaps the brokenness of the world sometimes crashes in on you, causing pain and causing you to wonder, is it me that is actually broken?
But as Wendell Berry says, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places. “
You are not broken. You are sacred. Perhaps you’ve been desecrated by the brokenness of trauma, harmful relationships, harmful culture or the harmful status quo. But you do not need to be fixed. We do not need to be fixed!
Because fixing is not redemptive. Transforming is redemptive. A caterpillar does not fall apart and get fixed into a butterfly. A caterpillar transforms in a butterfly.
You are not broken. You are becoming you.
With all the awfulness that has been exploding around our country and our world, I wanted to make sure, first and foremost today, that you know you are not broken. And I also want you to know that neither is anyone else.
You see, if we try to fix ourselves instead of transforming our pain, we will almost certainly transmit our pain to others through anger, blame, projection, hatred, or scapegoating. We will make others feel as though they are broken.
The cycle of fixing and blame and shame is an ugly one.
David Brenner suggests that shame lies at the core of our feeling of brokenness. He said that “It arises in response to a profound sense of vulnerability. It is being caught in God’s garden with your pants down and a half-eaten forbidden fruit in your hands just at the moment when you hear God calling your name and walking toward you. That’s naked vulnerability–something that is so intolerable and unstable that it quickly resolves into shame. What the Genesis story of the Fall tells us is that our fundamental problem lies in the fact that we want to be a god, not human. We hate the vulnerability that comes from being human. And when we experience it, we grasp anything available to try and cover our nakedness rather than embrace it. Shame and vulnerability make us want to run and hide.”
Shame makes us feel broken.
There is nothing shameful about our naked vulnerability. We can bare all: All of our pain and doubt and hopelessness, and we can stand in that uncomfortable space knowing that we are not broken. We are not alone. We can see the naked vulnerability of others and remind them that they are not broken.
Here I was going to make a bad joke about getting naked with God and getting naked with each other, but I’m not going to do that.
However, I will claim that in our scripture passage today, we see Jacob getting naked vulnerable with God. Wrestling. And surviving. Not unscathed but not broken. Carrying a limp that is a blessing.
This passage has an interesting history that precedes it. Jacob was a trickster who stole the birth right from his brother Esau by making some tasty stew and making his arms hairy.
So of course Esau is crazy angry because Jacob stole his birthright (which was a big deal) and he promises to kill Jacob. Jacob flees from home and a lot happens with his four wives and his uncle and finally, he’s on his way back to his home, to Esau, when we encounter him in Genesis 32.
He has just sent lots of presents ahead to Esau. He’s hoping that the two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys, will make up for the fact that he pretty much ruined Esau’s life. Jacob is afraid, he’s ashamed, and he’s probably feeling broken.
He’s so afraid that he sends his family away for the night, either for their safety or for his desire to be alone in his anxiety. He’s completely alone, vulnerable. And in this naked vulnerability, he wrestles with God all night.
He walks away with a limp. But also a blessing.
God did not fix him. Jacob had an overwhelming experience, the power of which left him wounded in body and astonished to be alive, face to face with the Divine. The encounter transformed him.
When I first encountered Christianity, I was led to believe that God would fix my life. I thought if I prayed enough, that I could fix my broken self. I even had the inkling that I could help fix other people. But when I hit my lowest point, I cried out to God and I was not fixed. That experience left me, like Jacob, wounded and astonished to be alive.
It was a transforming experience.
Walter Brueggeman says that, “There is something of the divine in our deep human conflict and something of humanness in the holiness of God, for at night heaven and earth come at us jointly and redefine us in radical ways.”
If we can stop trying to be fixed and stop trying to fix others, heaven and earth will come at us jointly and redefine us in radical ways; transforming our pain.
And I think that’s what the movement of Jesus is all about. Being together in our naked vulnerability, set free to challenge and fix what actually is broken: The criminal justice system, the treatment of women, or access to healthy and affordable food.
The good news is that we don’t have to fix each other! But we can join in mutual transformation when we fix food deserts or access to healthcare or the dehumanization of black bodies.
We begin to transform our pain when we come together to fix the brokenness that bears down on us and bears down on our sisters and brothers.
You are not broken. We are not broken. They are not broken. Let us usher transformation by communally fixing the brokenness of our society which tries to define us.
You are not broken. We are not broken. They are not broken. Be bearers of this truth.
And this, as Walt Whitman says, is what we shall do…
“Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
Let it be so. Amen.