Bread, Juice, Joy, Miss Sarah and Me

The tradition I grew up in celebrated communion each week. Because the elements were served the people I loved – pastors, friends, the people I considered my spare parents, youth leaders – I always associate sharing the bread and cup with a kind of chosen family.  It is a joyful feast, calling to mind the people who shaped me as a person and a spiritual being.

When I was asked to serve as a Junior Deacon there, I helped to prepare and distribute the elements. And, I was added to the list of those who went with the elder responsible for carrying communion to our “shut-ins.”  Most were elderly but healthy, simply unable to drive or to tolerate sitting in pews for the length of the service. Those visits helped make up for my grandparents living too far away for us to spend much time together. Miss Sarah, however, was different.

The first time I took shut in communion to Miss Sarah, I understood how God redeems and makes beautiful the broken places in our world. She seemed ancient to me, but she was probably in her 80s. A series of strokes left her unable to speak clearly.  She had cataracts and so could barely see. And her hands were so shaky, she could hardly hold onto a thing.  When we walked in, I was taken aback by the impossibility of it all. How could we ever help this frail woman who couldn’t swallow jello take the communion elements?  To be frank, at 15 or 16, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in her room.

But as soon as the elder with me told Miss Sarah why we had come, her face changed.  She started singing a hymn that I recognized, and she reached out for my hand and held tight as we prayed.  She choked down the bread and spilled much of the juice that we offered, coughing and taking time to catch her breath.  And then she cried as she recited the Twenty-third Psalm in her halting voice.  It was beautiful.  If the mystery of the sacrament is how we somehow find ourselves in the presence of Christ in the breaking of the bread, it was no mystery that morning.  Miss Sarah led us straight to him.

Thirty years, three careers, a seminary degree and lots of internship hours later, I find myself a part-time preacher as I await ordination. I thought of Miss Sarah as I packed up a borrowed travel communion kit for my first visit to a health center as someone’s Pastor.

I had been visiting Myrt for the past several weeks. I met a son as he sat vigil in the hospital while she was unable to do much more than blink, and I celebrated with her sister when she had recovered enough to go to a rehabilitation center. I have provided news of our congregation (in my best Lake Wobegon style) on visits, listening as she echoed first just the Amen and then some phrases of the Lord’s Prayer as we closed our visits. So when the therapist helping her to relearn how to swallow said that communion would be great therapy, we joyfully set the date.

Saying the words of institution, I invited a student nurse, her therapist, her long-time caregiver, and her sister to join with Myrt and the congregation in celebrating the Lord’s Supper together. We held hands, saying the Lord’s Prayer with a mix of trespasses, sins and debts, and we laughed about the way we brought different words from our diverse backgrounds. We watched closely as Myrt chewed and swallowed the wafer, which required so much more concentration and work than before her stroke. I held the tiny plastic cup to her lips, careful not to tilt it too quickly.

Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  I could see a change in Myrt’s face, a radiant joy. Even as she waits for her voice to grow in strength, for her words to come when beckoned, she was already proclaiming the truth of God’s grace in her life to our little circle. Just as Miss Sarah had done all those years ago. When I peeled off my Guest sticker and walked out to the car with my little black box having been emptied of bread and juice, I was struck yet again by the gift I have been given in this calling to serve others, to offer them nourishment in the Word and in the sacrament. I give thanks for those who have fed me over the years, and for those who have proclaimed the beauty and mystery of faith in ways that transcend words.

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