Scripture: Acts 2:42-47
“[My] husband and I were on our honeymoon,” begins Naomi Shihab Nye as she tells the story behind the poem we used as our opening prayer this morning. “And we had this plan to travel in South America for three months. And at the end of our first week, we were robbed of everything. And someone else who was on the bus with us was killed…We didn’t have passports. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have anything. What should we do first? Where do we go? Who do we talk to? And a man came up to us on the street and was simply kind and just looked at us — I guess could see our disarray in our faces, and just asked us in Spanish, “What happened to you?” And we tried to tell him. And he listened to us, and he looked so sad. And he said, “I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened,” in Spanish; and he went on. And then we went to this little plaza, and I sat down, and all I had was the notebook in my back pocket, and pencil. And my husband was going to hitchhike off to Cali, a larger city, to see about getting traveler’s checks reinstated — remember those archaic things? And so this was also a little worrisome to us, because, suddenly, we were gonna split up [and this was before cell phones]. … And as I sat there alone, in a bit of a panic, night coming on, trying to figure out what I was going to do next, this voice came across the plaza and spoke this poem to me — spoke it. And I wrote it down.”
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
The poet in me could end this sermon now. But the preacher in me has a bit more to say. When I read our scripture this week, I heard this poem in my head too. These are both stories about finding ways to live in the midst of the unknown, in the midst of late night lonely panic, in the midst of a tear in our social fabric that undoes us in ways large and small. From vastly different times and worlds and at entirely different scales of being, these are stories of stitching ourselves and our communities back together, seams visible.
The early Jesus followers knew what it was to lose a beloved, knew how it felt to lose a whole future that had seemed certain, knew what it was like to wake up daily with sorrow too. Our scripture story today is about how they began to speak it outloud so they could “catch the thread of all sorrows and see the size of the cloth,” like Nye writes.
First, I imagine, the enormity of the change in their world from Jesus’ living through his death and through the simultaneous fear and great joy of his resurrection and encountering him again must have been overwhelming. It was one of those times when the world as they knew it must have felt like it stopped. But what was next wasn’t at all obvious. This is what theologians call a “liminal” space or time, when we are feeling fancy.
Modern mystic Richard Rohr wrote this recently,
“[Liminal space] is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed—perhaps when we lose a job or a loved one, during illness, at the birth of a child, or a major relocation. It is a graced time, but often does not feel “graced” in any way. In such space, we are not certain or in control…The very vulnerability and openness of liminal space allows room for something genuinely new to happen. …”
Sound familiar? Naomi Shihab Nye and her husband were in a liminal space after the horrors they encountered on the bus on their honeymoon. We are in a liminal space now globally as the reality of the pandemic rages and we have no idea what our individual or collective worlds will be like in the months to come. Jesus’ first followers were in another liminal space in our scripture story. What can we learn from each other about how to be graced by this liminal time amidst our sorrow and very real experience of physical and spiritual vulnerability?
We need communion.
Communion is what Naomi Shihab Nye experienced with the stranger on the street who listened to her and her husband’s story of trauma with nothing but loving presence. We need this kind of communion of being heard and witnessed to be able to sit with the sorrow of these times and be softened into kindness instead of being hardened into emotional shut down or rage.
We need communion like the apostles practiced too – holding all things in common so that everyone had enough to eat. Their communion reminds us that breaking bread is blessing that should be available to everyone. Their communion can remind us that meals are not owned by those who consume them, but instead that whatever we have comes from Divine creation, from the hands of so many in the dirt raising crops, from the labor of those kneading dough or packaging goods while being underpaid and not getting sick time. This communion holds the whole story from farm to table, if we listen well.
And finally, we need communion because we need the container of ancient ritual. Jesus learned to bless the bread and wine from those before him and passed on another variation of the ritual we call communion to his followers. For thousands of years, people have sought out communion alone in musty churches with nothing but God and a piece of bread and a sip of wine. Others have gathered over rambunctious feasting tables with those they call beloved for the same ritual. No matter how we celebrate, we have said the words of blessing Jesus taught us in hundreds of languages and with as many theological variations too. And in all of those words, and in the simple practice of a meal, we can remember we are not alone. In this ritual, we find our grandparents and their prayers and also our decedents and their prayers, all held together.
Communion is how we move towards the grace of God seeking us in liminal space. And each time we practice it, whether by listening with our whole beings to another’s pain, by making sure everyone has enough or by partaking in the prayerful ritual itself we’ve inherited, we are made a little more whole by God.