Thursday, April 05, 2007

Broken, Blessed, Redeemed

Before I forget, this week's Change of Shift is up over at Emergiblog. Thanks for including me, Kim!

This is one of my oldest homilies -- I preached it on Maundy Thursday, 2002 -- but it's still one of my favorites. I arrived at this version of eucharistic theology after a friend of mine died of an asthma attack at the age of twenty-five; her younger sister, her only surviving relative, donated her organs to try to spare others the pain of loss. "This is my body," indeed.

I don't, unfortunately, have a photo of the St. Stephen's altar, but it's beautiful, even if you don't know the story behind it. Mary Graves Dunn left behind a one-year-old boy, who, in the course of time, grew up and got married: his wife is one of our parish priests. Whenever she celebrates the Eucharist, I think about the powerful family history embodied in, and at, the altar.

The Gospel is Luke 22:14-30.

* * *

“Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” These words, the Institution of the Last Supper, are the source of the eucharistic prayer we hear every Sunday. The eucharist carefully follows that same four-fold pattern: the priest takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the congregation.

Take, bless, break, give. The more you think about that pattern, the stranger it becomes. Why would you bless something, only to break it? Why would you give as a gift something that was broken? Most of us don’t want broken presents. If something’s broken, we throw it away. It becomes garbage. [lift Hefty trash bag, containing an object the congregation can’t see yet] And the more beautiful the gift was in the first place, the more distressed we are if it’s been broken by the time it reaches us.

Many years ago, a dear friend of mine, who lived thousands of miles away, sent me a beautiful glass vase as a birthday gift. I opened the box, saw the exquisite hand-blown glass, and was delighted -- only to realize, when I lifted my new treasure out of its packaging, that it had broken in transit. My friend had carefully chosen the gift for me; she’d blessed it and sent it into the world, where it broke. I mourned the fact that the vase wasn’t whole any more, and I regretfully threw it away. But how would I have felt if my friend had deliberately broken the vase before sending it to me? How would I have felt if she’d chosen the lovely object, blessed it, smashed it, and put it into a gift-wrapped box?

Well, I probably would have thought she was crazy, or else that she hated me. Sane people -- at least outside the church -- don’t bless things and then break them. People who love you don’t give you garbage as a gift. That simply isn’t done. It’s not the way of the world.

I remember the way of the world, very forcefully, whenever I go hiking on Peavine. If any of you have been up there, you know that -- along with lovely scenery and wildlife, and lots of fresh air – the mountain is home to garbage. [Heft Hefty bag.] A lot of garbage. A lot of large garbage: cars and trucks, refrigerators, washing machines, television sets. People haul that stuff up onto the mountain and dump it, and then they use it for target practice. Most of those former major appliances have so many holes in them that you can hardly tell what they used to be.

I’d gotten used to the cars and washing machines. And then one day my husband found this. [Lift ruined head of bass fiddle out of the Hefty bag] This is the head of a bass fiddle. Its body, kicked and caved in and shot to pieces, was lying several yards away from this smaller piece, which my husband brought home. We looked at it and scratched our heads. Maybe somebody got really frustrated with music lessons? Maybe somebody’s auditions didn’t go well? There’s a story here, that’s for sure, but we’ll never know what it is.

What we do know, what we can tell just by looking at this ruined object, is that whoever broke it didn’t bless it first. The pattern here isn’t take, bless, break, give. The pattern here is take, curse, break, throw away. That’s the way of the world, especially here in America, with its malls and consumer culture. The way of the world is so familiar to us that often we hardly see it anymore, hardly comment on it. It can take something as startling as an assassinated bass fiddle on Peavine -- or as shattering as the ruins left behind by a suicide bomber -- to make us wonder if there isn’t some other way, some better way.

Whoever built this instrument loved it. It was designed to be beautiful and to create beauty; it was designed to be part of a whole, part of a band or an orchestra. And then it fell into the clutches of someone who hated it, who cursed it and broke it and discarded it. Look at the splintered wood. Look at the holes gouged into the neck. That much damage didn’t happen by accident. It was deliberate. It was planned. And it took a lot of force. [drop bass fiddle back into Hefty bag -- thunk -- put bag on floor]

We’re here on the eve of the darkest day in the Christian calendar, the day when the most beautiful thing in the world will be broken, nailed to a piece of wood, and discarded on a hillside. That horror was already planned, already inevitable, when Jesus said that first eucharistic prayer, and he knew it. He was trying to tell his disciples, too, but I wonder how much they allowed themselves to hear. “This is my body, given for you.” Did any of them except Judas grasp how literal that phrase was about to become? Did they truly realize that the crisis was only hours away, or did they think that Jesus was just using metaphors again, speaking in parables?

Much later, after the wonder and terror of the resurrection, the disciples will understand what he was saying. Later, they’ll realize that he was already trying to comfort them. My body will be broken, but it will be a gift, too, the best gift you’ve ever gotten, the gift that brings new life: just wait and see. They can’t possibly understand that yet, on Maundy Thursday. And they won’t be able to understand it on Good Friday, when all they’ll know, all they’ll be able to see or smell or taste, is their grief.

We understand it now, don’t we? We listen to the words every Sunday: take, bless, break, give. Of course we know what they mean: we’ve had almost two thousand years to think about them. Well, I’m not so sure. If we really knew what they meant, I think there might be less garbage on Peavine. If we really knew what they meant, I think there’d be more people like Kate McDermott and Jon Rowley, who got married last summer, and who asked for such an unusual wedding gift that it got written up in The New Yorker.

Kate and Jon are gardeners. To celebrate their marriage, they asked their friends to send them garbage. People sent them coffee grounds, banana peels, dryer lint, pulp from juice bars, and a box of buffalo poo, among other things. Kate and Jon, who have both been married before, used these unlikely gifts as compost to help nourish a wedding rose bush. “We are recycled ourselves,” Kate says. “We’re taking all the life experience that most people discard and turning it into something bountiful and full of life.” (Molly O’Neill, “Bridal Registry: Will You Mulch Me?” The New Yorker, August 13, 2001, 26.)

Clearly, these are Easter people: they know about resurrection, about broken things producing new life. They know that redemption is, both simply and profoundly, God’s way of recycling, of saying that nothing has to be garbage, that nothing needs to go to waste, that not a sparrow falls but is counted. But how do you make sense of all that when it’s not even Good Friday yet? What do you do when you’re heading into the darkest time you’ve ever known, or already in the middle of it? What do you do when you feel broken yourself?

I’ve come to believe that the eucharistic prayer is not just a pattern, but a promise. I think it’s God’s way of reminding us that when we feel broken, we can be gifts. I think it’s God’s assurance that if we feel broken, we’ve already been blessed, instead of cursed. We can only feel broken when we have first been whole; we grieve most deeply the loss of what has given us the greatest joy. The hard part, our work as Christians, is to remember the prior blessing and to reach for the future gift. Our work as Christians is to find loving alternatives to the cursing, discarding, despairing way of the world. Our work as Christians is to be co-redeemers with God.

This sanctuary contains a poignant reminder of that work. On Christmas Eve, 1934, a young woman was killed in Berkeley, California when her bicycle brakes failed on a steep hill. Her father, Frederick Graves, was the vicar of St. Stephen’s. He must have felt broken beyond all reckoning; what parent wouldn’t? But if his grief included cursing and despair, we have no record of it. What we have instead is the altar he carved as a memorial, on which he inscribed the words, “Erected to the glory of God in gratitude for the joyous life of Mary Graves Dunn.” In his pain and brokenness, Frederick Graves remembered the blessing of his daughter’s life, and he turned his family’s grief into a gift. Our eucharistic table is itself a kind of eucharist.

“Do this in remembrance of me.” When you listen to the eucharistic prayer this evening, think about the gifts that you, too, have created out of grief and darkness. Only you know what they are. But whatever they are, they are a true remembrance of Christ the Redeemer, whose will it is that nothing go to waste.



  1. That was beautiful, and something I really needed to hear. Thank you, Susan.

  2. Incredible. This brought me to tears, it's so true. I pray that God redeems me sooner rather than later...
    Thank you.

  3. Thank you all -- and Elliott, I'm glad it was helpful to you.


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