In some sense, we believe that we live in unprecedented times, but I am a student of history. I don’t think that the times are unprecedented … they are, however, unsettling.
When I was in seminary, we was told a word to remember would be antidisestablishmentarianism. It took us a while to figure it out, but since it contains a double negative, it kept us guessing and never quite sure we had really figured it out. What we did know was that we were experiencing fundamental shifts in societal institutions that had begun a generation earlier. If we were honest, these institutions had been going through dramatic shifts for centuries.
It was as if we knew we were on a long train that was going through various landscapes and terrain, yet it seemed different for us as our own train car was going through the same things in our own time.
And it continues.
We have experienced shifts at the global level that come as a result of a global economy and global connections in a world made ever-smaller with modern technologies in communications and transportation. We have witnessed (first-hand, for some of us) political turmoil in other countries … economic collapse … war … poverty … and massive migrations as refugees have sought hope in an increasingly inhospitable world.
We have experienced breakdowns in family systems as family structures continue to change. We have experienced brokenness in religious communities, even as we have in our United Methodist Church.
Then, as if this level of brokenness wasn’t enough, we have experienced an assault on American democracy in the very recent past … culminating with the siege on our nation’s Capitol Building. As I said, all of this, while present in world history, is very unsettling when it is happening to us.
Brokenness defines so much of what we experience at the collective level. It is institutional brokenness that challenges some important foundations upon which we have stood and are trying to stand even now.
In the midst of this, Jesus comes to remind us that the one thing that remains certain is God. Jesus recognized the frailty of human institutions whether he was talking about friendship, marriage, religion, or government. Jesus recognized that sometimes the frailty exists due to decisions and power structures that are beyond our control. Yet Jesus also recognized that often we are the ones who break the very structures over which we exert influence.
More than that, Jesus comes amidst the brokenness and the frailty of our institutions to offer a word of hope. As we have experienced God at work in our own brokenness at the more personal parts of our lives, so we are invited to experience God in the brokenness at the level of institutions and and organizations. God reminds us that we are people who need each other … we need human community … yet God also knows that our various expressions of community can harm as much as they can heal … they can destroy as much as they can build.
So where is God in the midst of brokenness at these corporate levels?
God is in people who take a stand for those who are being crushed by brokenness at that level. As we have celebrated Black History in a season when we have to keep reminding ourselves that Black Lives Matter, we have again heard the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that taking the middle ground is not an option. We are called to be more than lukewarm in our opposition to injustice for injustice finally to be defeated. This is a time to stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized or oppressed in any way. It is a time to speak truth to power.
God is in people who practice forgiveness. The greatest images for me are images of forgiveness that do not act like nothing happened, yet which continue to speak the truth and offer love in a new, more accountable way. In reading Bishop Desmond Tutu’s book on forgiveness written with his daughter, the one thing that stands out for me is that the commission in South Africa was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It wasn’t a “forgive and forget” kind of reconciliation. It was a time of naming the wrongs and harms perpetrated by the White leadership under the system of apartheid, and it was a time of reintegrating into a new culture.
And God is in people who seek a new normal. As we see our institutional structures fall around us where, as Jesus says, “not one stone will be standing upon another,” we who are Christ followers are called to seek a “new normal.” This is a new way of imagining human community, knowing all the while that each system or institutional structure we create will itself become frail and broken over time. We are called to see the God to whom these imperfect structures point.
When we see ourselves and our institutions as vessels, we will have discovered the God to whom all creation points. It is about relationships, it is about grace, and it is about love.
God, we offer ourselves and our institutions to your love and care. Speak to us amidst our collective brokenness, and remind us that you are the God who calls us to the place of wholeness and hope. Amen.