Sermon Kintsukori Rev. Steve

Kintsukuroi 4/5/2020 – Rev. Stephen Cook


April 5, 2020

Years ago, I guess in the early Nineties, I traded in my old car for a new one—newer one.  It was a Ford Escort, which was the top selling car in the country.  Now I’ve owned many vehicles and I’m under no illusion about cars.  If a car is properly maintained, I expect it to last for a few years and some thousands of miles but in the end, of course, they’re all going to go to automobile heaven.

Based on year and mileage, this particular car should have been in the middle of its lifespan; I found—to my great chagrin and expense—that it was not.  At not quite 50,00 miles, the clutch went bad, then the cylinder head warped, necessitating tows and big repairs.  I later learned that this car was notorious.  Ford made them very cheaply to sell very cheaply, betting that they would last just long enough to cover the American way of ownership:  hold on to it for three years then trade it in or throw it away.

It has been said that America is a “throw away culture;” if something is not perfect or it breaks, don’t repair it; just throw it away.  The new item is better and shinier.  We have mountainous landfills that prove this.

Then there is the trick of making things cheap, one way and throw away in order to avoid the labor of recycling.  This moves costs away from the company to the public.  Some of us will remember when the beverage industry did this by changing from reusable glass to throwaway plastic bottles.  In those days, deposits were 2 cents on the 12 oz. and 5 cents on the quart sizes.  A trip to the store with some of these would garner a kid 50 cents or more, enough for a comic book, a candy bar and a soda.  (Kids, ask your grandparents.)  It’s a tribute, of course, to the rising environmental consciousness of the last few decades that we have begun to reverse the worst of the “throw away” culture–reinstating deposits on bottles and cans and, here and there, making things with real integrity that are intended to last.

I contributed a little to that during my years as a joiner for Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers up in Maine: there are pieces of very good furniture out there with my name on them that will be around for generations and I’m pleased with that.  It doesn’t break down or fall apart; you’d have to try really hard to damage Thos. Moser furniture and even if you did, it would still be worth repairing because its quality abides in its strength, usefulness and beauty.



Strength, usefulness and beauty—these make a thing worthy of repair—a thing, yes; but even more so, a person.  Each one of us—despite our flaws—is worthy of repair because each one of us is endowed with strength, usefulness and beauty.  No matter how we may be damaged—even shattered—we can be repaired and we are worthy of being repaired.  We are worthy of being repaired in a way that upholds our dignity and worth, and restores our strength, usefulness and beauty.

And so, we come to the mysterious title of my sermon this morning:  kintsukuroi.  It is a Japanese word, (and later on, I’m going to check my pronunciation with Makkiko, our native speaker) and the best translation seems to be, “golden repair” or “golden joinery.”  And now I’m going to invite you to do something that no preacher is supposed to do, which is direct your attention to something other than the preacher.  It has been on your screens and is also on the Facebook page announcing today’s service.

It is a photo of a beautiful, blue bowl that has been severely damaged–not just chipped but broken into ten or twelve pieces–essentially destroyed.  In a throw away culture—boom, into the garbage!  However, someone decided that this bowl had enough strength and usefulness and beauty to be worthy of repair and repaired in a way that did not attempt to hide the damage.  Rather than pretend that nothing ever happened, kintsukuroi repair makes obvious the fact that breakage has occurred.  The repair uses lacquer infused with gold to highlight the very breaks themselves in a way that uplifts their random beauty.  It also celebrates that the piece has once again been made whole and reclaimed its strength, usefulness and beauty although, because of the damage, that strength, usefulness and beauty will different than it was before.  It treats the breakage and the repair not as something to be hidden or denied, as if shameful, but rather as part of the history of the object, of its life, if you will.

Now quite aside from repairs to ceramic ware, this gets into some important aspects of Japanese culture and aesthetics that are very different from what we know in the West.  Rather than elevating flawless perfection as the ultimate ideal of beauty, the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi embraces the marks of wear or use in an object as a way of honoring its past.

Well, that’s fine for pottery:  but what about people?  I think this has everything to do with people and how we manage to make our way down the road of life, collecting our dings and dents and damage along the way.  Sometimes, it’s worse than that.  Sometimes we get broken, broken into pieces, and it seems like we will never, ever be put back together again. Then, if we do get put back together, because we can’t hide them, we can be extremely aware of our scars, our glue seams and the bits of us that will always be missing from now on.  We know that if we were not perfect before, we are even less perfect now.  So, in our hearts, we can feel, “I’m used and old.  I’m broken and just glued back together.  What can I be worth now?”

It has been said that often it is easier to forgive others than it is to forgive ourselves, perhaps because we know, sometimes too well, all of our mistakes; we are too keenly aware of our shortcomings; we may have internalized too deeply the message that because we are damaged—perhaps because of what has happened to us, perhaps because of our own mistakes—we might carry so much shame that we believe we are beyond forgiveness, redemption and repair.  I will say that this is not true—that we are never beyond forgiveness—however, if we do come to believe that we are, then it can be impossible for us to do the work of letting go and reaching out, and so be able to begin again in love.

This’s why I find the philosophy behind kintsukuroi so profound.  It is completely the opposite of covering up or being ashamed about the fact that we have been broken.  The mending of kintsukuroi is not just sticking back together; it is making whole again in a different way, reclaiming strength and usefulness, while creating different beauty than was there before—and with gold!  Kintsukuroi has lifted up the story of the vessel by calling attention to its very brokenness and thus to the fact that it was worth being so lovingly repaired—and I do mean lovingly.  This is not done with gold-colored super glue—it doesn’t take five minutes–this is a highly skilled craft.  Lacquer infused with gold goes on layer after layer and it takes weeks to complete.  Repairing something with kintsukuroi is a tribute to the worth and dignity of the object, and to its strength, usefulness and beauty

This gives me a way to think about how a method of Japanese pottery repair is a metaphor for the Creative Spirit of Love at work in the universe—the Life That Maketh All Things New.  That Life, that Love, recognizes our innate worth and dignity, and assures us that there is within each one of us an inborn spirit that rises to strength and rises to usefulness and rises to beauty, and as a part of the fullness that has always been in the universe, it can continue to rise within us, continue to return, continue to bring us forward even after damage and disaster—if we let it.  This Ultimate Love recognizes that we are not throwaways, that no human being is disposable, that we are all worthy of loving repair.  We will be different after damage and disaster, we will be changed, but we can reclaim our strength and our usefulness and our beauty as the new persons we will have become, not hiding who we are, not ashamed of our repairs, in fact, lifting them up–in gold!  May that fullness of Creative Love always move within us.