Good morning. This summer we’re preaching through a series of sermons we’re calling “sacred community”—based on a series of stories from the Book of Genesis. Last week we began by defining sacred community not as a perfect community, but as one that commits to live life together—in all of its joy and all of its messiness—as a gathered people of God. Throughout this series we’re searching the stories of Genesis for markers of sacred community. Last week we talked about sabbath—or what many of us might simply call rest with God, this is one mark of sacred community; we also talked about relationship—that we need friendship, connection, a remedy for the loneliness that we feel in the world. Those ideas, sabbath and relationship, show up in Genesis 1 and 2. This week we turn to the next part of Genesis where the dominant theme is…brokenness. Brokenness is what we will talk about this morning.
Before I go any further, I want to comment about how today is what we call Montreat Sunday here at Knox. Montreat, for the plenty of you who have never heard of it, Montreat is our beloved Presbyterian camp nestled in the mountains of North Carolina; our high school students travel there each June for an amazing youth conference, they hear great keynote speakers, sing and play, they live closely together, surrounded by dirty socks and hopefully some deodorant, they live surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation; they have important conversations in small study groups and late at night on the porch, and they grow closer with one another, and with God. And then they arrive here exhausted and on Sunday morning meet the greatest challenge of the week: to stay awake through the sermon.
In the past week, our youth have been on a journey that I wish I could duplicate for our whole Knox community. The Montreat experience is so powerful because it is built around a time-tested idea: You invite a group of people to come away from the demands of regular life for a time of life with God together—it’s a week of sabbath. You arrive with some people you know well and are mixed in with new people you don’t know. You’re shaken out of your comfort zone a bit, and invited to sing and play together; you’re given some big ideas to think about and wrestle with; and the hope is that this deep introduction to a shared life with God will be the start of a journey that will continue back at home. If I could duplicate this concentrated experience of sacred community for all of Knox Church, I would do so in a second.
One of the things that makes the Montreat experience work so well is what happens around Wednesday. Wednesday at Montreat is what I have heard jokingly referred to as “crying day.” Why? Because during this weeklong journey from Sunday to Saturday, Wednesday is the time when people cry. You see, you’ve been there for a few days, you’ve started to feel at home and comfortable in the community, and you’ve got some time left. So on Wednesday the hard questions come; the preaching gets more challenging, the small group discussion gets heavier, and inevitably, there is some crying—the good, healthy, growth producing kind of crying, because from time to time, everybody needs a good cry.
Now, here I want to step back from the Montreat experience and talk about the larger reality I am describing. Sacred community is created by the act of sharing our brokenness. When we talk about things that are hard, we allow one another to see that we are not perfect, that we experience hurt and pain, that we have made mistakes, and that we don’t always know or understand our way in the world, we make ourselves vulnerable and real and we become friends. There is no substitute for the reality of brokenness in forming real friendships.
There are many things in the world we also call friendship that are not so real. The best example I can think of is…social media. You know what social media is right—TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, the platform matters little; the idea is the same. This is where you post online about your perfect college plans, your perfect outfit, and your perfect friendships, your perfect job, your perfect kids—all accompanied by a photograph you took a dozen times so that you could get it perfect enough to post. And then teenagers and adults alike take these fabricated self-portrayals and compare themselves to one another, and cruelties and harsh opinions are shared, and in the finest example of irony I can imagine, the creator of the whole thing, who made it up to get back a girl who had done him wrong, he said that you interact with people online this way, and these are your “friends.” No, no, no. Social media has its place and its proper uses, but this is not friendship. Friendship is a sharing of authenticity—including our imperfection and brokenness—because we know that we are in an environment where doing so is safe. Social media is often anything but safe; but friendship is—friendship is where brokenness can be shared and healed.
How did Montreat figure out this mystery—this recipe for friendship? Well, Montreat is a Christian conference center, and Christians, like our Jewish and Muslim siblings who went before us, understand the reality of brokenness because it is written into our sacred texts starting in the Book of Genesis. Genesis 1 and 2 are the stories of Creation. The very next section of the Bible, chapters 3-11 are stories of the reality and power of brokenness in the world.
At the start of chapter 3 just a page or two into your Bible, Adam and Eve are enjoying themselves in a beautiful garden of God’s creation when…a serpent shows up, and leads them away from God. In chapter 4, Cain kills his own brother Abel in an act of jealousy; we see how the presence of brokenness in the world around us infects our very own selves and threatens to divide us from one another. In chapter 6, we meet Noah—a righteous man, who finds himself living a world that is rebelling against God. But by chapter 9, we see how God works through the life of Noah and his family to start things over again, to redeem creation; and God sets a rainbow in the heavens as a visible sign that God is with us, and means to remain with us, even in the midst of our brokenness.
A few things to notice about Genesis 3-11. One is that I might have used terms than brokenness, terms like “evil” or “sin” to describe what is going on here; I used brokenness largely because, for some of us, those other terms have a lot of baggage that keep us from the point—but I am happy to talk with you about those words more, if you want to.
But whether we are talking about evil, sin, or brokenness, there are different ways that we see it show up in the world. Sometimes, it is like the serpent—an external presence that is there, we know not why or where from. Other times it shows up as a part of who we are, the brokenness of being human, the mistakes and malicious things we do to one another. And sometimes it seems completely random. Stories of brokenness lead us to ask all kinds of why questions. Why does brokenness exist? Why does God allow it? Why did this happen to me? Why did it happen to them and not me? Why does it happen to people that do not deserve it and skip over many who do deserve it? Why does it hurt so much? When will it end?
As for answers to these questions, I do not know. Many answers have been proposed, some of them more compelling than others, but all of them eventually fall short of a full explanation. No one really knows why brokenness exists or why it works the way it does. Talking about some of the reasons can sometimes be helpful. But usually the explanations that try to explain it away fail the fastest. And here is the brilliance of the Genesis story—the big idea on which sacred community is based: We cannot pretend that brokenness does not exist; we have to acknowledge it, talk about it, share with one another about it; for that is how we figure out how to live in a broken world.
Finally though, we have to also talk about the fact that there is a rainbow in the story. The rainbow does not erase brokenness, it is a visible sign that God shines through the brokenness—that as the story of Jesus states it, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. We are meant to live and grow together surrounded by this truth, that even though there is a dark side to living in sacred community, a light shines in the darkness, to help us find our way through a broken world.
Montreaters—I want to close by telling you something that I sincerely hope will not sound like I am talking down to you, because I promise I am not. In what you’ve done in the past week, you have done something great for our church community, something we are often very poor at doing. You have brought us a lesson about brokenness, a lesson some of you have lived through in the past week. For all the time adults spend telling you how smart we are, most adults are not good at brokenness, we are not good at Wednesday. We’ve spent so many years, so many decades, learning how to live in a world dominated by perfectionism and comparison that we’ve forgotten how to be comfortable with brokenness, and because of that, many of us find ourselves quite lonely, and we long for the sacred community that perhaps in the last week, you have tasted.
But you can’t have sacred community without brokenness. You just can’t. The Book of Genesis says so. Thank you, Montreaters, for giving me the chance to talk about this today. I hope your experience has been a blessing for you.
Sharing what you have experienced is a blessing for all us. Amen.