The first time I met Marlin, I was at Westhaven Children’s Home, outside of Montego Bay, in Jamaica. Westhaven is an orphanage for children with developmental disabilities. Our group was there to provide love and care for the kids, and to work on some physical projects at the orphanage to improve their quality of life.
Because of a series of tumors that Marlin had through his mid-section, and surrounding his spine, he could not walk. At that time, Westhaven did not have enough wheelchairs. For Marlin, they had bolted together four two by fours, put a piece of plywood on the top and 4 casters on the bottom. He had these two wooden pegs, that he’d drive into the ground, to pull himself along.
So, when we got off the bus on our first day, all the children came and surrounded our group, welcoming us, and vying for our attention. They knew that we were there simply to spend time with them…to love them. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Marlin, laying on this contraption, dragging himself towards us…with a big smile on his face. He was looking for the same thing all the other kids wanted…to be loved.
And in that moment, when I saw him, on his makeshift cart…with his blinding smile…my heart broke. I spent a lot of time with Marlin that week; hanging out with him, reading stories, listening to his stories. And every year after that, when I returned to Westhaven, I’d get off the bus, I would look for Marlin, right up until he died, probably 15 years ago…
What breaks your heart? What are the things that affect you deeply, in your gut? What makes you feel empathy? What stirs your emotions? Seriously…what breaks your heart?
My heart breaks whenever I encounter people, especially children, in need. My heart breaks when I see injustice…when I see people being excluded. My heart breaks when there is senseless violence…when people are in pain, or grief.
I don’t love having my heart broken. I don’t love the waves of emotions…the feelings, that it creates within me. These are hard to control…and I like to have control of my emotions. I imagine many of you are the same. But I can tell you this…when my heart breaks…when I feel the sorrow, or the pain, or the grief of someone else, it changes me. It moves me to do something.
In our scripture story from Acts today, the followers of Jesus had just experienced the Pentecost… the coming of the Holy Spirit, to them and to their communities. They are in this house, and after this amazing event of receiving the Holy Spirit, the apostle Peter, their leader, begins a sermon. Today’s scripture reading from Acts is just a small portion of that sermon.
Peter says: “Therefore let the entire house of Israel, (that is, all the Jewish people), know with certainty that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah…” And then Peter drops the hammer: “…this Jesus whom you crucified.”
There had to be an audible gasp among the disciples when Peter said this. He was accusing them. They too had played a part in the death of Jesus. Through their sin and brokeness…through their actions…and inactions…they played a part in the crucifixion. And when the disciples heard this? Well, the scripture says that their hearts…were broken.
The scriptures say that these disciples’ hearts broke, and that immediately…immediately, they looked at each other and they said “Brothers…what should we do?”
I think that’s incredible. When the disciples heard Peter’s claim that they bore some responsibility for their Messiah’s death, they did not get defensive which is probably how I would have reacted. No, they understood that their actions…their very hearts…conflicted with God’s purposes. So, asked each other how they could make things right. “Brothers, what should we do?”
I think this reminds us that as unpleasant as it can sometimes be, having your heart broken isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When our heart breaks over something we see or experience, it does things to us:
First, it reminds us of the resurrection. It reminds us that like Jesus, we too experience new life, but only after we die to sin. We have to let go of the things that cause our separation from God…we have to let those things die.
Second, it calls us to repent…that is, to change. To turn in a different direction…to turn towards God.
In this sermon, Peter reminds us that the Holy Spirit is promised to all of the baptized. It is the same Holy Spirit that came to those Jesus-followers in that room, earlier in that day. It is the same Holy Spirit that came to you…in your baptism.
Our story reminds us that it is God’s Spirit that breaks our hearts when we see pain…or need…or injustice. On that day at Westhaven, it was God’s Holy Spirit that broke my heart when I met Marlin… because God wanted me to change…to take a step towards becoming who God created me to be.
And, my heart still breaks. It does. There are things in our world that I see or hear that cause my heart to break and that motivates me…that changes me…that moves me to act.
I saw disturbing new data this week…maybe some of you saw it too. Of the 20 counties that make up southern Minnesota, Steele County, our county, is ranked 3rd highest in homelessness. Yes, number 3. We are behind Olmstead County, that’s Rochester…and behind Blue Earth County…that’s Mankato. Then, it’s us. We have the 3rd highest level of homelessness in southern Minnesota. I have a hard time getting my mind wrapped around that. And my heart…breaks.
I spoke last week with Nancy Williams, Owatonna High School’s amazing school social worker. She told me that currently, in the Owatonna Public Schools, grades K-12, they have a listing of 145 students who are considered to be homeless. They do not have a permanent home of their own. Let me say that again. 145. And that is the number they know about. We know that there are others that aren’t on their radar yet. Now some of those are siblings…we know that. But still…what does that mean? Maybe 60 or 70 families? Homeless? In Owatonna? Is your heart breaking yet?
Dom Korbel, a Trinity member who serves as the Executive Director of Community Pathways told me that two weeks ago, in the food shelf there, they served 725 families…in a week. And they distributed over 31,000 pounds of food…in a week. One year ago, they would serve 725 families in a month. That’s what they did in a week.
What is going on? I hear these numbers…and my heart…it breaks. It just does.
And there are other things. I hear about unaccompanied children having to cross the southern border alone, and my heart breaks. I hear about mass shootings in our schools…or churches…or wherever…and my heart breaks…I hear about people who are disenfranchised because of their ethnicity, or skin tone, or sexuality…and my heart breaks.
In fact, my heart breaks so often, that sometimes I worry that my heart will harden…that someday it will not break. I don’t love the emotions I feel when my heart breaks. I don’t like having to recognize that through my action or my inaction…I bear some responsibility…but I do. We all do. And like those disciples in that room, when they understood their responsibility, my heart breaks.
Our Gospel story today, the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, is one of my favorite stories from the scriptures. These two disciples, who were broken-hearted because of Jesus’ death, met, but didn’t recognize Jesus. And when Jesus sat down with them and broke the bread, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And in that moment, they realized that as Jesus had been sharing with them, their hearts…they burned.
You see, when the Holy Spirit goes to work, hearts that break, become hearts that burn with a passion to make things change. That is the transformation that we experience when we allow space for the Holy Spirit to work within us. Our hearts break, and like those disciples, in that room with the Apostle Peter…and like those disciples on the road to Emmaus…we are transformed.
I have homework for you today. This week I want you to wonder…and to think…and to pray about the question: what breaks your heart? What is it that causes you to feel what those in need feel? What moves you.
And then a second question? How does this cause your heart to burn? How does it change you…transform you…cause you to act? Think. Reflect. Pray. And then I want you to please tell me what you discover…email me…(email@example.com. It’s printed right there in your bulletin) and tell me how the Spirit is stirring within you.
Part of our journey of faith is to be vulnerable about what breaks our hearts, and then to let the Spirit work within us, to convert our hearts from broken to burning…to move us to action. To cause us to care and to act on behalf of those on the margins.
Never forget that your heart breaks, and then burns because Jesus’ heart first was broken by, and then burned for you. From the cross…and then from the empty tomb…Jesus saw you…loved you…died and was resurrected…for you.
My friends…do not let your hearts be hardened. Recognize what it is that causes your hearts to break…and then let God’s Spirit work with in you…let that broken heart become a heart that burns for change. And then let’s follow the Spirit’s lead…and by God’s grace, and with our hands, love will change the world.
Thanks be to God!