Well, it’s good to be home after a week’s vacation. Did that sound like I meant it? I had a wonderful time driving a black Cameo convertible around the Pacific Northwest. I saw breath-taking sites, ate wonderful food, met interesting people, and (thanks to booking with Travelocity) stayed in some sketchy hotel accommodations. I also had a lot of time to read – something I enjoy doing when I am on vacation.
On the flight home I finished a book titled After Visiting Friends. It was written by Michael Hainey, a deputy editor for GQ magazine who is in his early 40’s. The book chronicles his attempt to discover the circumstances of his father’s death, which happened when Hainey was just a boy. A wonderful writer, he uses words to paint vivid portraits of his family members as well as the people he meets in attempt to uncover the truth. Perhaps my favorite description was a of a records bureaucrat who moved with the speed of football linebacker walking off the field after an overtime loss.
Hainey’s mother is a stoic type whose life has become very drab and regimented. She keeps her emotions to herself, never says I love you, and whenever her son comes to visit gives him only a brief, half-hearted, one-armed embrace. Toward the end of the book, Hainey’s grandmother (his mother’s mother) passes away. He was very close to her throughout his life, but even the death of her mother seems not to faze his mother.
But as Mike is driving her and his girlfriend, Brooke, from the cemetery after the burial, his mother does something that, to my reading, is completely out of character. They notice a herd of twenty-to-thirty deer grazing in a corner of the cemetery and Hainey pulls over the car. Its occupants silently watch the creatures as they eat.
Let me read for you the passage from After Visiting Friends:
Then mom says, “Where’s the Ritz?”
She’d packed snacks – Ritz crackers, a tin of Planters, bottles of water. “It’s going to be a long day,” she said in the morning, before we left the house for the funeral home. “It’s good to have something to keep your energy up.”
From the back seat, Brooke hands her a sleeve of crackers sealed in brown wax paper.
My mother opens the door and the next thing I know, she’s walking into the field.
She clutches the crackers in her outstretched arm, like she’s a missionary holding her crucifix aloft, approaching the weary natives on the riverbank, her birch-bark canoe put ashore behind her. The deer go on eating. My mother walks toward a large buck in the center of the herd, his head crowned with a broad rack of antlers. He lifts his head and considers her. My mother stands less than an antler’s worth away. My mother looks at him and then opens her tube of crackers and places one in her palm. The buck shifts toward her, lowers his head, and slowly, gently, nuzzles the cracker from my mother’s hand. He chews it, orangey flakes falling from his wet black lips. My mother reaches out and touches the thick of his neck. The buck is motionless as she strokes him softly. And then my mother offers up to him another cracker and once again he eats it from her palm. My mother looks back toward us, a smile on her face.
Brooke says, “I think you better go help your mother.”
I go to my mother like a man navigating a minefield. I don’t want to spook them.
By the time I get to my mother the deer have formed a soft circle around her. But they’re polite. Standing there, waiting patiently for a Ritz. My mother beams.
“Take some, Mike,” and she gives me a fistful.
I start to hand out the crackers. Wet tongues snatch them from my hand.
Hainey describes a magical moment initiated by the least likely person in the book to engage in something like this. His mother, after all, is the person who goes down to the basement every day to make sure the sump-pump is still working. What she says next caught me completely off-guard and is the reason I wanted to share this passage with you:
When we’re out of crackers, my mother says to the deer, “Sorry, guys. Holy Communion is over.”
From her wax paper sleeve she shakes the crumbs into her palm, scatters the remains over the meadows.
There is more than a little of today’s gospel reading in that story, isn’t there. The gospel begins with Jesus getting into a boat and setting off for a deserted place so that he can be by himself. It is no wonder that he wants to be alone. In the verses just before today’s assigned reading Jesus learns that John the Baptist has been beheaded by King Herod. The solitude he seeks he will not find. The crowds who follow move to the place he intends to set shore. When Jesus makes landfall they are already there waiting for him. The text tells us that Jesus has compassion for them and cures their sick.
When it is evening, the disciples urge Jesus to send everyone to nearby villages to get something to eat. What follows has strong Eucharistic overtones. Jesus takes the little food they have, blesses it, breaks it, and distributes it. Everyone – and the numbers are in the thousands – gets something to eat and has enough. No one is left out and nothing is left to waist. Even the crumbs are picked up.
While there is much that can be said about this story, let me say this: communion can happen any place at any time anywhere.
The rite and ritual we engage on Sunday morning is helpful in that it makes communion a regular feature of the rhythm of our week. It strengthens and sustains us in ways we would miss if we did not participate in it on a consistent basis. But, when we ask in Eucharistic Prayer C, “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us,” we are proclaiming that this moment in church is not an end unto itself. It is meant to enable us to identify better the opportunities for communion that present themselves all of the time in our daily life and drudgery.
There seems to be some common elements to these kinds of ‘communion’. Some or all may be present. There are people. There is food. There is thankfulness. There is sharing. Barriers are overcome, obstacles navigated, challenges yield to possibilities. Typically, it involves something innocuous like a Ritz cracker more than, say, a Ruth’s Chris steak. Whatever it is, it is an intersection of people with one another and with creation. It is a moment in which the divine is unmistakably present. We say of sacraments that they are a visible means of an invisible grace. When communion happens, no matter what form or shape it takes, there is grace. Always there is grace.
This morning’s Old Testament lesson contains what for me is one of the powerful and poignant episodes in all of Scripture. It is the night before Jacob is to meet his brother Esau whom he cheated out of the birth right years earlier. At that time, Esau swore he would kill his brother given the chance, so Jacob fled far away. But now, with Jacob returning home, Esau has his chance. Jacob spends the night alone, by a brook, and there becomes engaged in a wrestling match with another. At first it is not at all clear who this person is. Is it his brother or perhaps one of his soldiers? Is it a river troll – they were common in Jewish mythology? Is it an angel sent from God? At daybreak the wrestler wants to leave, but Jacob will not let go. The wrestler strikes a blow to Jacob’s hip, dislocating it, but still Jacob clings to his adversary. He insists of a blessing. The blessing is this: his name is changed from Jacob (which in Hebrew means to cheat) to Israel (which means one who has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed). Jacob comes to realize that all night long (and perhaps all of his life) he has been wrestling with God.
Jacob’s experience is also a kind of communion, but one very different from the feeding of the five thousand and certainly very different from the feeding of the deer. First and foremost, this communion is contentious.
The other book I read on vacation was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It is the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete interred as a POW by the Japanese in World War II. His experience, first set adrift on a life raft in the vast Pacific Ocean and then as a POW, was absolutely horrific beyond words. How he survived is hard to imagine. When he came home after the war he found it difficult to reengage life. He became, among other things, a raging alcoholic. His wife left him, but then came back. Eventually she got him to go to a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles. He walked out. She got him to go a second time. Allow me to read for you another passage:
What God asks of men, Graham said, is faith. His invisibility is the truest test of that faith. To know who sees him, God makes himself unseen.
Louis shone with sweat. He felt accused, cornered, pressed by a frantic urge to flee. As Graham asked for heads to bow and eyes to close, Louis stood abruptly and rushed to the street, towing [his wife] behind him. “Nobody leaving”, said Graham. “You can leave while I’m preaching, but not now. Everybody is still and quite. Every head bowed, every eye closed.” He asked the faithful to come forward.
Louis pushed past the congregants in his row, charging for the exit. His mind was tumbling. He felt enraged, violent, on the edge of explosion. He wanted to hit someone.
As he reached the aisle, he stopped. [His wife], the rows of bowed heads, the sawdust under foot, the tent around him, all disappeared. A memory long beaten back, the memory from which he had run the evening before, was upon him.
Louis was on the raft. There was gentle Phil crumped up before him. Mac’s breathing skeleton, endless ocean stretching away in every direction, the sun lying on them, the cunning body of sharks, waiting, circling. He was a body on a raft, dying of thirst. He felt words whisper from his swollen lips. It was a promise thrown at heaven, a promise he had not kept, a promise he had allowed himself to forget until just this instant: If you will save me, I will serve you forever. And then, standing under a circus tent on a clear night in downtown Los Angeles, Louis felt rain falling.
It was the last flashback he would ever have. Louis let go of his [his wife] and turned toward Graham. He felt supremely alive. He began walking.
“This is it,” said Graham. “God has spoken to you. You come on.”
[His wife] kept her eyes on Louis all the way home. When they entered the apartment, Louis went straight to his cache of liquor. It was the time of night when the need usually took hold of him, but for the first time in years, Louis had no desire to drink. He carried the bottles to the kitchen sink, opened them, and poured the contents into the drain. Then he hurried through the apartment, gathering packs of cigarettes, the secret stash of girlie magazines, everything that was a part of his ruined years. He heaved it all down the trash chute.
In the morning he woke feeling cleansed… That morning, he believed, he was a new creation.
Zamperini’s certainly was a contentious communion that, like Jacob’s, was life changing.
I have given this sermon the less than clever title “Communion Happens”. There are communions we might miss if our eyes are not open to see the hand of God at work in the world about us and there are communions me want to resist because they involve God’s deep desire to touch some aspect of the brokenness of our lives. I have known both. It is possible to walk past the former and to walk away from the latter. It is possible to ignore the wonder and mystery of life. It is possible to avoid at all costs personal transformation and healing. As people of faith we seek to find moments of communion at every moment in our lives in every place we are through every way it might present itself. We are a Eucharistic people who sense and believe that God the Holy One is in our midst. It is a truth both fabulous and frightening, both awesome and awful. But never forget that communion is always enveloped in grace. Sometimes that grace is amazing, other times it can be painful. I always keep in my mind the image of Jacob – now Israel – limping into the sunrise over the Promised Land and returning home, an injury marking his struggle through life but finally healed and whole. Communion happens and when we partake of it we are better for it. All praise to the One for each and every time God reaches out to us… in mystery, in wonder, in challenge, in need.