Blessed are the Heartbroken

Sermon preached  May 24, 2015

Texts: Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27


Jimmy Ruffin, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”

Blessed are the heartbroken.  What a strange thing to say, particularly on Pentecost Sunday, that day in the church year when hear the story of the coming of God’s Spirit in a special way.  In that story, the disciples of Jesus are all together in one place. The writer may mean the twelve disciples, now called apostles or it may be the larger group of about 120 mentioned in 1:15.  This group was together, and good things seem to happen when people are together, working together on God’s work, worshipping nad praying together and caring for each other.  Anyway, they were together when something remarkable happens.  The sound as of the rush of a violent wind is heard.  Tongues of fire appear.  The apostles are filled with the Spirit.  People begin to speak in other languages.

This speaking in other languages is really helpful because it is the Feast of Pentecost, a time when Jews from around the known world gathered to worship – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, visitors from Rome, Cretans, Arabs – it almost takes speaking in tongues to read this passage – thank you Mike.  Into this wide gathering voices are heard speaking of God’s “deeds of power.”

So wild a scene is this that people begin to wonder what this group has been drinking.  Almost as amazing is Peter.  Peter had not exactly distinguished himself around the time of Jesus’ death.  Now he, filled with God’s Spirit, begins to speak about what it going on from the Scriptures that all these folks share.  God’s Spirit is arriving, and it will touch female and male, younger and older, slave and free.

So where in all this might one find the idea that the heartbroken are blessed?

Taken in isolation, this story of God’s Spirit might not lend itself very well to answering Jimmy Ruffin’s question, “What becomes of the brokenhearted?”  It may not seem to fit with the idea, “blessed are the heartbroken.”  But it is not the only Scripture reading that discusses the coming of God’s Spirit.

Look at the passage from Romans which we read.  What happens when the Spirit arrives?  There is groaning, a groaning in all creation for a newer day, a newer world.  There is sighing, sighing too deep for words.  Groaning, aching and sighing, words that fit broken hearts.  When the Spirit shows up there is not only winds and voices, a ceartain kind of creative chaos, but also groaning and aching and sighing.

Can this, too, be a gift of God’s Spirit?  Can a broken heart be a work of God’s Spirit?

There is certainly a lot in our lives and in our world that can break our hearts.  In our individual lives unfulfilled dreams can be heartbreaking.  Relationships that we put so much hope into can fall apart, leaving us with broken hearts.  Families, when things are not going well, can be heartbreaking.  When we see families struggling mightily, particularly when there are young children, don’t our hearts ache.  We groan with creation as we see damage done.  An oil pipeline, not currently in use, ruptured this week on the California coast, coating beautiful beaches near Santa Barbara with oil. From one news report I heard the company who owned the pipeline has some history of inadequate maintenance.  The world is still too violent, too marked by division.  Recent events have once again brought to the fore racial divisions in our nation.  The Islamic State has captured more territory in Iraq and Syria, including a valued archeological site.  Their history has been to destroy precious historical artifacts as idolatrous.  Heartbreaking.

It is Memorial Day weekend, a time when we remember those who lost their lives in service to the United States.  Sons and fathers and husbands, daughters and mothers and wives have not come home from battlefields.  Many of our families have been touched by such loss, or if we have not, we feel the heartbreak.  And many of us take this time to remember others in our families who have died.  I have walked the road with many as they deal with death in their families, and did again this week.  My heart always breaks some each time.

Groaning, aching, sighing – hearts that can be broken, is this really a gift of the Spirit, part of the work of God’s Spirit?  I think it is.  The alternative to not having a heart that can be broken is something the Bible calls a hard heart.  That’s not who we want to be.  We want to be those who can feel the heartbreak in the world, I think.  When God’s Spirit arrives, our hearts are softened, more easily broken.

I have been helped in my thinking here by the work of a woman named Elizabeth Lesser.  I don’t know much about her, only words she has written that help me understand the gift of heartbreak.

I know I have shared these words before, but they are so meaningful to me.  Sadness… is not the opposite of happiness.  The opposite of happiness is a closed heart.  Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness.  A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion.  An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality.  Joseph Campbell calls happiness the “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.”…  We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy….  I have come to believe that the opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart.  Happiness is ours as we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness.  (The New American Spirituality, 180)

If I were to describe the gift of the Spirit in heartbreak it would be twofold: God’s Spirit works in our lives to keep our hearts soft and supple, keep our hearts feeling.  Sometimes what we will feel is pain, grief, and brokenness, a broken heart.  As already discussed, there is enough out in the world to break our hearts, and most of us also know inner heartbreak.  Then the gift of the Spirit is this, that when our hearts are broken, they can be broken open – become bigger and stronger.

Elizabeth Lesser wrote a second book after the one I have quoted from.  It was entitled, Broken Open.  It is about openness, about having a heart that can be broken open.  In the book she shares the story of a rabbi badly injured in a car accident.  His pelvis was shattered.  His femur had been knocked out of its socket.  The rabbi reflects on his experience, first by quoting another rabbi.  Rabbi Scnhuer Zalman said it clearly when he wrote: “A broken heart is not the same as sadness.  Sadness occurs when the heart is stone cold and lifeless.  On the contrary, there is an unbelieveable amount of vitality in a broken heart.”  In the middle of the mystery of pain, I harvested this precious jewel.  I also harvested the love and beauty right here, in this world.  I may have been dealt a broken body and heart, but I can also tell you I have had more love and compassion poured over me, through me, and around me than I ever knew existed.  (Broken Open, 89-90)

One could read Acts, chapter 2, as another example of the Spirit’s work of heart break and breaking open.  The disciples certainly had their hearts broken with the death of Jesus.  Even here they are no doubt still trying to figure out what his death meant even in light of his resurrection.  The Spirit does not simply take away the experience of heartbreak, but opens the disciples up to deeper experiences of the Spirit.  The work of the Spirit is making larger the heart.

One of the most poignant stories for me about the work of God’s Spirit as breaking hearts open comes from a letter I received a number of years ago, a letter I still treasure.  For four years I was a pastor for a number of churches on the Iron Range.  Two of the churches had part-time secretaries, and the one in the office I was in most frequently was named Phoebe, a church member.  Phoebe had known some real challenges in her life.  Her husband had died suddenly when she was still relatively young.  Following his death, Phoebe, who was from the Range, went back to school to earn a teaching license.  She taught in Houston, Texas for a time, a long way from Nashwauk.  She later returned to Nashwauk, and during the time I was her pastor, she began to do some lay speaking.

After I was appointed as a district superintendent, Phoebe sent me a note that I continue to cherish.  I have been blessed by knowing you and working with you rather than for you.  You have encouraged me enormously in going forward in my journey of faith.  But more than that, you have somehow, and I really don’t know how or when this happened, brought me back to allowing myself to feel things.  I had intentionally cut myself off from feeling real emotions not wanting to get hurt again.  You have made me realize that to live fully one must feel things – love, caring, sadness, and pain.  I want to thank you for this.  My life may have pain, as it does now, but living will be fuller and more meaningful.  In 2002 I was asked to be part of Phoebe’s funeral in Nashwauk.

An important part of the work of God’s Spirit in our lives is to keep our hearts soft and supple.  That means our hearts will break, but the Spirit is also at work helping to have our heart break be a breaking open to love, to life, to each other, beauty, and joy and God.  What becomes of the broken hearted, when it is Spirit heartbreak, we are blessed.  Amen.