“What breaks your heart apart and open?”
An interviewer with Work of the People recently asked Nadia Bolz-Weber that question.
She paused before speaking to let the question sink in. We’re accustomed to politicians and celebrities who respond with prepared statements and a polished camera presence.
Most public figures have a prefabricated message and take every opportunity to deliver it. An interviewer’s question is just an excuse to say what they have already practiced saying.
By contrast, Nadia paused to listen to her heart. And she shared honestly with us what her heart was telling her.
Nadia said something like this.
What breaks my heart open and apart is being smack up against my limitations and my mistakes… stuff I haven’t done right or done well or done when I needed to and yet having someone forgive me. It’s when I receive grace and mercy from God or from another person. I’ll do anything to not need it. I would rather get it right, nail it every time.
Ain’t that the truth! Me too! I would rather keep kidding myself that I can nail it every time than to have to admit that I’m shattered and can’t put myself back together again.
To put that another way, nobody likes being Humpty Dumpty.
You remember Humpty Dumpty. He’s the broken egg of nursery rhymes.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Humpty is a broken egg. There’s nothing any of us can do to put a broken egg back together.
And we are broken. Unlike Humpty, we have not only the tendency but also the capacity to deny our ruined state for years, even for a lifetime. We will scurry and push and strain to make ourselves whole using a variety of strategies that the world has taught us.
Mostly those strategies involve trying again and again to get life right. To rid ourselves of imperfection and failure. We scramble to avoid the shame of needing compassion from someone else—from God—for our perpetual inability to be flawless.
We seem to want to keep playing the performance-reward game, especially when it comes to God. Despite what the Bible actually says, again and again we fall for the notion that God will reward us for acting right and thinking right.
The same old illusion keeps working its toxic magic on us. If we just try hard enough, if we just draw on our own inner strength, we can get life right.
Maybe a few deficient people—you know, the ones we call “less fortunate”—need God’s help. But not me. Not once I really get the hang of it. In the meantime, I’ll hide my failures and embarrassing imperfections from everybody else and cope quietly with the gale-force shame storms that blow in from time to time.
I suspect that this is the spiritual dynamic at work in his detractors as Jesus identifies himself as the Bread of Life.
For some listening to him on that day, and for a number of people walking the planet right now, this bread from heaven stuff is a little hard to stomach.
People who had just feasted on the earthly bread that Jesus had previously provided through a miracle—and had even chased him down to get more bread—are drawing the line at this bread from heaven business.
They say, “Who does this guy think he is?”
They’ve been happy to follow Jesus around the countryside so long as it was on their own terms. And their terms were derived from the performance-reward game.
In other words, if we follow you around the countryside, you are obligated to give us some bread. We pressed the right button. We pulled the right lever. We inserted the right number of quarters in the bread machine. So, give!
Our strength, our abilities, our competence are not the point. God’s compassion is the point. God’s power to restore, to redeem, and to heal is the point. And we will only get the point from the perspective of our own weakness.
We have to admit that we’re Humpty Dumpty.
Our only way forward into wholeness is to open ourselves to a power greater than ourselves. We have to take a great risk, the risk of trust. We have to trust that this power can and will do for us what we are utterly incapable of accomplishing for ourselves.
And that is just where the crowd that day—and just where the crowd today—is likely to draw the line. Nobody likes being Humpty Dumpty. Nobody wants to admit that we are ruined and shattered.
I don’t know for sure why this is true. But I do have a few guesses.
Such an admission makes us vulnerable, especially in a world that prizes success and marginalizes those who are down on their luck.
We confuse weakness with being bad or unlovable or a loser in a world that seems to value only winners.
If we admit our need for God’s compassion, we must surrender any of our own condescension toward others. For lots of us, refusing to say that anyone is lower than us feels like a loss of status.
In his birth, death, life, and resurrection, Jesus teaches that our weakness is God’s chosen entry point into our lives. As Paul puts it, God works through our weakness.
Our weaknesses are personal and they are social.
As individuals, some of us struggle with anger and fear. Some of us drink too much, eat too much, or buy too much stuff. We may have trouble holding our tongue or speaking up when we should. There are as many workaholics as there are goldbricks. Selfishness, miserliness, and harsh judgment are not in short supply.
The fractures in our society are just as real. Race divides us, granting privilege to some and routinely putting others at a disadvantage from the very start. Honest, hard work is underpaid and questionable business practices reap staggering rewards. Unless they come with their own deep pockets, we treat the handicapped and the elderly with less dignity than some of our pets.
Eternal life does not look like this. And in Jesus, God has come to impart eternal life beginning right now.
Paradoxically, it is only as Humpty Dumpty that any of us can see the new, eternal life with which Jesus is infusing us. Once we admit that we have been shattered, we can experience how we are being made whole.
Only those who have known themselves to be fractured can experience themselves as mended. And it is through those whom God is mending that God is healing the world.
Bishop Jake preached this sermon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jennings, LA.