Breakdown = Breakthrough
(Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19)
When Kiran and Tula were little, my father gave us a small, wooden, collapsible table that he had made. He thought that Kiran and Tula would enjoy having a small table in the family room that they could use for art projects or to eat at. I put the table in the family room and, sure enough, they enjoyed having it there. Unfortunately, the table started collapsing when we didn’t want it to collapse. I put it back together a few times and lined up all the pieces correctly so that it wouldn’t collapse again – or so I hoped! A few days later, the children came to get me because the table was falling apart again. This time it had fallen apart so completely that I took it apart even further because that was easier than trying to put it together. The pieces are now in a bag in our basement, awaiting (all these years later!) further inspection by either Brian, me, or my father!
My father has made a number of these tables. He and my mother have one that they have used for years with no problem. Apparently, there is some kind of flaw in the table that he gave to us that causes it to fall apart easily. You could say that it’s too bad that the table has this flaw. Or, you could say that it’s a good thing the table showed its flaw so quickly. That way, we are made aware of the flaw and we can respond accordingly. Rather than continue to try to put it together only to have it fall apart yet again, we can try to figure out what is wrong with it and fix it or, if it can’t be fixed, stop using it. If there’s a flaw that will cause an eventual breakdown, better to have the breakdown reveal itself so that the flaw can be dealt with accordingly. You might say that the breakdown led to a breakthrough! If we didn’t know about the flaw then we couldn’t fix it, but now that we know about it, we can fix it!
When there is a fatal flaw in something, that thing has to fall apart before it can be fixed or replaced by something that doesn’t have a fatal flaw. The table that my father gave us is a small example of this. It had to break down before we could break through to a table that worked. The table is a small example of this, but there are many other examples, both small and large. Jesus gives us an example of such a thing in the gospel passage for today. He tells of the destruction of the Temple that is to come: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (Lk 21:6).
The Temple was supposed to have been a place that glorified God, both in its physical appearance and in what went on there. It was supposed to have been a place of worship and justice. Instead, it became a place of corruption and pretentiousness, a place that refused to recognize God at work in Jesus because of the desire of those in power to protect their own interests. The Temple had a fatal flaw in the pride and self-interest of those in power there. That fatal flaw led to the Temple’s destruction. The Temple did break down, eventually. It is this breakdown that Jesus foretold.
It’s disturbing to have something or someone break down. A breakdown looks and feels awful: scary, messy, painful, raw. It produces anxiety because the pieces no longer fit together and we wonder if they ever will again. Maybe things or people will stay broken and won’t be able to be fixed. If they can be fixed, we wonder what they will be like after they’re fixed. Will they be different from before? Better? Worse? The journey from breakdown to breakthrough is disturbing because we don’t know what is going happen in the long run.
Jesus describes the dark place of breakdown in the gospel passage. He talks of wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, arrests, persecutions, and betrayal. He describes a time of dysfunction. When there is a breakdown, things don’t function like they are supposed to. If your car breaks down, then you can’t drive around like you’re supposed to. If society breaks down, then law and order don’t operate like they’re supposed to. If a person breaks down, then he or she can’t function like he or she is supposed to. Whatever it is that breaks down, that thing can’t function like it’s supposed to, so that thing or person is no longer dependable.
Jesus describes the dark place of breakdown, but he also describes hope and endurance. He points out that a breakdown gives you the opportunity to testify. Jesus was talking about testifying to him, to being his disciple. At that time, it could be a dangerous thing to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus was arrested, persecuted, tried, convicted, and crucified, and his disciples risked the same. We can read about the persecution of his disciples in the Book of Acts. We can also read about the persecution of modern-day disciples in this book (show the book, Extreme Devotion). It’s a dangerous thing to be part of a religion that challenges corruption and injustice because the people in power that benefit from corruption and injustice don’t want it to be challenged. They don’t want justice to prevail. But Jesus said that he would give his disciples words and wisdom that none of their opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. And he said that by their endurance they would gain their souls.
Jesus asks us to testify to him when we are in the midst of a breakdown, whether that breakdown has to do with the world, with our country, with our state, with our community, with our church, with our family, or with ourselves. If we are the one experiencing the breakdown, then we testify to Jesus by hanging in there and believing that a breakthrough to a better way of being is coming! If we are a witness to the breakdown of someone else, then we testify to Jesus by supporting that person through the breakdown, whether that support comes in the form of food, or comfort, or prayer, or hope, or sharing the gospel. If the breakdown happens on a large scale, such as the crises that are taking place currently in our world, we testify to Jesus by being faithful disciples who follow the will and walk in the way of God. Some of us travel to places of need as nurses, doctors, journalists, clergy, politicians, and so on; some of us stay where we are but send money or supplies; and some of us pray, pray, pray. There are many ways to testify to Jesus, as long as you are coming from love and working for justice, healing, and wholeness. And when you keep on testifying to Jesus, when you keep on coming from love and working for justice, healing, and wholeness, the breakdown will transform into a breakthrough to a better way of being somewhere down the line.
A few years ago, I read a wonderful story of a breakdown to a breakthrough in The New Yorker magazine. The story was about Tom Shadyac, who used to be a big comedy director. His films include, “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Nutty Professor,” “Liar Liar,” and “Bruce Almighty.” Together, his films have grossed more than a billion and a half dollars around the world. In 2007, Tom had a breakdown of sorts. He had a bicycle accident that led to a post-concussive infirmity so severe that it led him to a search for meaning in life. Tom made a documentary about the bicycle accident and his subsequent search for meaning, titled, “I Am.” The New Yorker magazine writer describes the documentary as a “passionate, if patchwork, film that interweaves interviews with evolution scientists and Desmond Tutu, quotations from Emerson and Einstein, a discussion of quantum entanglement, and footage of an emotionally susceptible dish of yogurt, all to suggest that the natural world is deeply interconnected – and that we are by nature cooperative, that markets don’t measure our value, and that the heart, not the brain, is our primary organ.”
While it is impressive that Shadyac embarked on a search for meaning and made a documentary about it to share his insights with the world, what is more impressive is what he did with his personal life. He gave up his private jet and his cell phone, sold his seventeen-thousand-square-foot compound in Pasadena, moved into a trailer park in Malibu, helped build a shelter for the homeless, funded the rescue of African child soldiers, and began touring the country – sometimes by bicycle – to screen his film. In other words, he started walking the walk as well as talking the talk.
Clearly, Tom Shadyac’s breakdown led to a breakthrough to a better way of being. He seemed to be living the life as a successful Hollywood director of comedies. But he believes that the bike accident knocked him into his heart. He says, “As a director, our society teaches you that you can stand on top of the movie and say, ‘I’m the most valuable – or maybe the second most valuable, after our star – so I deserve all this stuff. Give it to me.’ But, if I ever do another Hollywood movie, I’ll arrange to get something like the Director’s Guild minimum. . . . The rest will go into a charitable account.”
Shadyac has broken down, broken through, and he was loving it! He was not doing all the great stuff he was doing for other people because he thought he should, but because he loves it! He stated, “I’m doing [this] because it’s awesome. Imagine being able to have a dialogue with a freed slave from Ghana, James Kofi Annan, and then taking the resources that I have, which would otherwise sit in a bank account, and buying him a boat so he can go back and free others. Now, c’mon – it’s going to take a heck of a Maserati to beat that.”
You may be wondering why it takes something as dramatic as a breakdown in order to have a breakthrough to a better way of being. Why can’t change for the better come about in a gentler way? I think the answer is that we don’t like change. We’re afraid of change. It’s uncomfortable. It’s scary. It’s unknown. We’d rather stay with the devil we know than risk the devil we don’t know, right? So we keep on going with the way things are despite the signs that the way things are just might lead to a breakdown. The first time the table my father gave us collapsed, I hoped that it was an anomaly. I put it back together hoping that it wouldn’t happen again. I didn’t want to face the fact that it probably would happen again because that would mean that I’d have to work at fixing it and I’m a busy, working mom and would rather not use my time fixing something until it’s absolutely clear it has to be fixed. So, we kept using the table and now it’s absolutely clear it has to be fixed. It took a breakdown for me to have a breakthrough about the table!
The same is true in both the large- and small-scale aspects of our lives, our society, and our world. We’re not going to do things differently unless it’s absolutely clear we have to do things differently, and it’s not absolutely clear we have to do things differently until there’s a breakdown. The breakdown forces us to break through to a better way of being.
The next time you’re in the middle of a breakdown or witnessing the middle of a breakdown, know that it may be God’s way of getting you or someone you know or the world to have a breakthrough. Know that in the middle of the breakdown, in the midst of the trials and tribulations that come with it, a breakthrough is being born. Know that if you hang in there, God will give you the words and the wisdom you need to endure. And know that by enduring you will gain your soul as it breaks through to a better way of being. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, November 15, 2015, the Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Nov. 15, 2010, p. 35.
Image is from a Limping Into Truth, a blog authored by Dave Criddle.