Sermon for March 21, 2021 -- "From Broken Hearts to Buds and Blooms" -- Julie Waterdu

“From Broken Hearts to Buds and Blooms

March 21, 2021

Julie Waterdu


                It’s not just the virus that has marked this past year. It’s also the violence. It’s not only masks, it is moving away from others. It’s not just fear of infection, it is fear of intimacy. It is not only prayers that the pandemic will end, it is confusion about how to extend caring. I know I am aware of a protective shell around my heart, I imagine you have felt this as well. But I don’t want that protective shell to stop me from feeling the grief and sadness, outrage at yet another mass shooting motivated by racism, hope that more people each day are getting vaccinated. I don’t want to stay locked up, numb, hardened.  

            With the Greeks who came to celebrate the Passover and approached Philip, we say “we wish to see Jesus.” Jesus, the embodiment of God, who did not shy away from bodies, did not buy into the theory of untouchables, did not stand idly by when lofty leaders wielded violent and unjust means to keep the rigid rules of the powerful in place. Indeed, it was his refusal to stand idly by that brought him into the final confrontations with those in power. It was his refusal to harden his own heart that led him to that seat of humility as Mary knelt before him just days before, pouring that lovely scented perfume on his rough and worn feet, an act of such profound love that others were embarrassed and angered by it. It was his own humble heart that could be seen as he rode the donkey into Jerusalem, as he made his way towards the festivities of Passover. We wish to see Jesus, they said, having heard of him and his teachings and ministry. We wish to see Jesus. The one who has healed the sick, given sight to the blind, even raised Lazarus from the dead. We wish to see him.

            In this time, we need reassurance. We need to remember the promises of God and our place in history as God’s people, remembered and not forgotten, forgiven and called forth. It’s not always easy to do in these difficult days. So much of our lives is two-dimensional, meeting with family and friends over video calls, talking on the phone, even when we get together we are masked. On Sunday mornings, we enter into a sacred space this way, masks off, and it does help. It helps to let our guard down and share tidbits of our lives. While we are not embracing in person, sometimes it is possible, isn’t it?,  to feel the emotional and spiritual connection with one another. And today, we are invited to feel that connection within our own hearts and bodies.

            We wish to see Jesus. And we wish that Jesus will see us. I am in a book group with five friends and although we dutifully bring the book to each monthly meeting, the main thing we do is check in with one another. We do so in the manner of spiritual buddies. On Friday, when I shared with them my own update, that I haven’t had any recent trips to the ER and things have been relatively calm around my place, one asked a question about what the plan is. I described the general instruction to cut down on stress and yet these friends, who know me well, reminded me that when one has a heart problem, of course it is connected to stress. Stress, as we know, can literally contribute to broken heartedness. What is the plan to heal that brokenness?

            What came from the conversation was no medical advice, or referrals to a better, more attuned doctor, they didn’t say a word about changing my diet or medications they’d heard of. There was no attempt to help “fix” me. Instead, they were present with me, they held me, they tended to what I named as my own need for deep connection with people and things that nurture my heart and do not contribute to a hardening.

            I experienced, in that moment, something sacred. Then another woman spoke up of some struggles and sadness she had, and another, all of us authentically speaking of those challenges and heartaches we’ve noticed at home and in the larger world.

            Though they lived in another time and place, the people of Israel, like us, had endured terrible hardship. Much of what they experienced was a result of their own sinfulness. God had given them guidelines for living a noble life, God had sent them prophets and kings to lead them, and they would not pay attention. They were in the process of rebuilding after they had essentially divorced God and God was about to divorce them. Earlier in the book, as they turned increasingly away from God and forgot the exodus out of slavery into the promised land, as they focused their attention on worshipping other Gods, on greed and violence and oppression, it is that that “Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron pen. It’s etched with a diamond point on the tablets of their hearts…” (17:1.) Their hearts had turned to stone and upon that stone was written sins, not the laws of God.

            They could not sing the praises, they became estranged from each other, they wept, instead, by the waters of Babylon. And still, God remembers. Not their hard hearts, but the original goodness of these people. God led them through the reason because God loved them, and could not stop loving them. Again and again, as the people turned away and their hearts were hardened, God promises: “I regard them as good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not pull them down; I will plant them and not dig them up. I will give them a heart to know me, for I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart” (24:5-7.) When the prophet Jeremiah addressed the people of Israel, he said “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” It was a covenant that would not be written on stone tablets, but would be written on their hearts. Like the covenant in Genesis that was offered by God, this covenant, too, is initiated by God. It isn’t dependent on certain actions or rituals. The people don’t have to prostrate themselves before the altar. It is an unbreakable covenant, not etched in stone, but invisible, spiritual, something that is like an embryo placed within the heart.

            As they separated from God, terrible things did happen to them. They lost their land, they were forced to live in exile. They suffered gravely. There were viruses, and violence. Nothing was as it once was, and hope was hard to find. And still, a few of the elders survived, the seed that was planted within was still present. God told them to settle down. Ride it out. Just a while longer. In the meantime, although you’re still in exile, build houses, cultivate gardens, marry, have children. They are told to protect the welfare of their enemies while waiting for God to return them home. In 70 years, they were told, they would God would bring them home.

            This book of lamentations is one in which the downtrodden and brokenhearted find they are in good company. Words are given to the suffering. And then, the promise is renewed, rewritten, planted within.

            We wish to see Jesus in this time of suffering. We wish to witness spring arising, new life. These are not empty wishes, nor do they seem easy to attain. Both Jeremiah and John offer us a way forward. If we believe the promises of healing and restoration, if we study this text that says that God’s love is written upon and planted within our hearts, it is grounding, healing, a return to home. For this reason, it is why, when I see people in my ministry as a counselor, I invite people to place their feet on the ground, firmly, allow themselves to feel supported by the earth, supported as they sit in a posture of dignity. Allow yourself, now, to feel the settling of your breath and body. Yes, the virus and violence is still in the world, you may be aware of a shell of protection around your own heart, or the tension of your body, so well equipped to fight off the enemy or freeze in place. Name it, as is done in lamentations. Acknowledge the those tears you’ve wept by your own river of Babylon.

            And then, place your gentle, warm, loving hand upon your own heart. There is a seed planted there. An embryo waiting to grow. A God-shaped piece ready to be cracked open in order to bloom.

            In the gardeners world, there is a process a seed must go through in order to grow. Planting in the ground is not enough. Conditions must be right. Some seeds, like morning glory and nasturtium seeds for those flower growers among us, sprout more quickly if the gardener knicks the hard outer shell and soaks them in water overnight before planting. The water starts it all. Water, too, was what started Jesus’ growth, as he came up out of the waters of the river where he was baptized, and went into the wilderness. Once the seeds are planted and they imbibe in the water, the splitting of the shell occurs and, when the temperature is right, dormancy is broken and a root goes down, seeking more water, while a shoot grows up, seeking the light. When Pastor Edward Markwardt talked to a plant specialist by the name of Dr Gibbs about this process, about what really happens when a seed begins to grow, he was told this:

            “… inside every seed is an embryo, and in that embryo is a root which goes down into the ground; and a shoot that goes up into the sky. Every embryo has a root and a shoot; and inside that little embryo, there is an “on” and “off” switch. Pastor Markquart says “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that seeds have “on” and “off” switches. But they do. Every seed has a little “on” and “off” mechanism. And when you plant a seed into the ground at 40 degrees for 40 days, that mechanism goes on, but if the temperature is at 20 degrees, the mechanism stays off. There is a miraculous mechanism which goes on and off. Now there is also a thin coat around that seed which protects the oxygen from coming in prematurely. And then when this dormant seed is planted into the ground, for 40 days at 40 degrees, the switch goes "on" and the seed takes in water, and it miraculously begins to expand, and the seed coat is broken, and it begins to mature and produces sugar and protein; and then out comes the little roots and the little shoots, and the shoots produce more seeds which produce more fruit. And that’s what happens when a seed dies,” said the professor. "It's a miracle” (from Sermons from Seattle, sermon for Lent 5B.)

Jesus said, “Unless a seed dies, it remains a single seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds and then much fruit.” You may only feel the hard coating around your heart some days. The seed of love is planted within. We need to find ways to connect to others, to acknowledge the unfavorable conditions we are in, the threats to hope and assaults on love, the particular struggles we are having, in order to remember our hearts deepest longings, and the hope God has for us and for the world.  Perhaps by remembering our own baptismal waters, or feeling the drops of spring rain on our faces, by allowing tears to fall freely, we will begin to experience the breaking open of those seeds. There are things we can do to help the conditions that support growth. Jesus says to walk in the light, believe in the light, become the light. Jeremiah reminds us that our attempts to divorce God won’t work, because God’s love is written into the very fiber of our nature. My friends tell me it is okay to let down my guard and be honest, and in doing so, I find I am not alone.  It is in the breaking down that the rising will begin. It is in the little deaths that growth will spring forth.

May it be so with you as you go into this day. Amen.