One Body: Finding communion in a time of loss, grief and separation



The first reading is adapted from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in the Christian Bible, used in liturgies for the communion service, a ritual meal of remembrance and atonement. Its words, familiar to me since childhood, have been echoing in my mind and heart all summer long, a refrain I cannot escape. This is my body, broken for you. Thisismy body, broken for you. The words and concepts may be familiar to you, or not, and are not a part of our congregation’s regular liturgical practice, though some Unitarian Universalist churches do celebrate communion. To talk about this fully, to explore the ways we might derive meaning from it, or delve into its complexity, are far beyond our means this morning. Broken bodies, however, and our struggle to properly remember the sacrifices of others, are a theme we can understand.

The night he was arrested, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take, eat. This is my body, broken for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying,
"This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me."
For as often as you eat this bread and drink from this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Thes econd reading is by the UU minister, the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed:
​The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.
It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.

One Body: finding communion in a time of loss, grief, and separation


Alan, my husband, Chris and I greet you from the Great Hall, with our wonderful tech team, Lucy and Steve, holding us up through the ether. This is a service that we have celebrated for several years now in the beautiful open air tabernacle at Laurel Park, bathed in sweet breezes of late summer, against the faint hum of Route 5 traffic, with the rituals of gathering and reunion in the air, as community members join us and enlarge our circle, with children (and others) free to get up and play around the edges, encircling us with a fringe of delight.

But this year, of course, is different.

It keeps unfolding in ways we could not have imagined — in this spring and summer that have brought much suffering, but focused our eyes, ears, and hearts with laser-like precision on what we share, and what divides us — we have been separated physically, but not socially. We have seen less of each other, but valued it more. The fine line between love and loss, life and death, has helped us understand what we value, and what is worthy of our attention.

In the beginning, tales of valor and encouragement rose like sourdough from the dens, and balconies, and YouTube videos of the world. There were other stories, of exhaustion, despair, and grief, stories too hard to tell as we muddled through. Stories that united and divided us. Some of us experienced the pandemic in our closest circle, and lost family members directly, or indirectly, to Covid, deprived of the ability to visit, to grieve, and to ritually mark those losses within the circle of community.

Those of us privileged with quiet shifted even more deeply toward attending to this larger, more difficult story, as witnesses. The difference between needs and wants formed a chasm in front of us, as the essential and inessential formed fault lines that corresponded to the deep inequities of our society. We were all part of that story, and the story was complex and interwoven.

And then came the moment in May when George Floyd was murdered, a moment of shared attention, grief, and rage, experienced just as many of us had stopped long enough to tune our attention to the delicate unfolding of spring into summer. Eight minutes and 46 seconds of pure terror and agony. A man’s life taken by an agent of the state as if it were just another day atvwork, which apparently it was. As he cried for his life, for mercy, for his mother, his humanity was laid on the table before us. It felt as though the earth shook.

I know I have heard from many in this congregation another kind of cry. Cries of empathy, and those cries often leading to a sense of guilt. Expressions of personal despair. From people already engaged with the work of social justice, feelings of deep remorse, of shame, of not being enough, of not knowing enough, of having too much, of doing too little.

I keep noticing this. This is also a subject worthy of our attention. I want to say to you when I hear this, that we are all hurting and all need to be restored, that seeing our own hurt as invalid deepens the divides between us, rather than closing it up.

But it’s hard. How do we calibrate our awareness and our action appropriately in the knowledge of so much injustice? How do we distinguish between our roles as individuals and as part of interlocking systems that raise some, crush others? How do we find our way to being part of one body, the sacred body of life, of which we are a part?

In most Christian liturgical traditions, the communion is a ritual meal that memorializes the death of Jesus as a means of redemption, of literally or figuratively becoming one body. A kind of remembering that is connecting, and healing. Those long lines of cars in parking lot communion services in the early pandemic showed the need many people felt to partake in this ritual, to receive the sacrifice, and to begin again, to become whole in themselves, and connected to a larger body.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, some framed his unwilling death — understandably quite controversially — as a sacrifice that could put a stop to the killings of Black people. Not saying that he offered himself, but begging for meaning from a senseless act. Wishing to see the potential for redemption in his loss. A body, broken for us. Not to afflict us, but to save us from further suffering, by connecting him and us to the countless other Black lives taken, lives stretching back four hundred years, those named and unnameable.

At our Society, we are mostly, but certainly not exclusively, privileged, White, and educated. It can be hard to feel that it is valid to tend to our own broken humanity. But we must. Because we believe that each life is important, that each person has worth and dignity. We are all tired. We all need rest. In our awareness of our own grief and our own frailty, we must find rituals that connect us to each other and to the web of life; not as the webmaster, but as a small piece, right-sized and common, a pixel in the web of humanity. Common as dust.

I am saying this to you because I need it, too. As I may have said or implied every summer sermon of my adult life, religion is remedial for me. I am a slow learner. I know many of you very well, and see in the squares before me those who know and do better, religious adepts whose suffering and joy, whose bodies and minds appear to live in harmony. But because I am really bad at this, and because the weight of this moment had frozen me, body and mind, into despair, I want to tell you where I’ve most recently found some redemption, and ask you some questions.

How do you find the place to be OK? How often do you take time to restart? To allow yourself to be a human among humans? To partake in communion with all of life?

Breaking from our spiritual tradition of questing, I actually have a partial answer to this question, just for myself. I’m not just going to float the question. And I acknowledge from the outset, my answer reveals one of the whitest things about me: being able to swim well.

I have found communion this summer at the DAR, the Goshen Ocean, Upper Highland Lake. A state park with a lake, open to all, daily. The friendly rangers, the priests of the park in their gray-green habits and masks, wave you in, clean the bathrooms, and raise and lower the state and park flag at dawn and dusk to mark the edges of the day.

People from all over show up there to swim, to grill, to splash and walk, to gaze, to read, to stop, to lounge, to cool, to blast hip-hop out of boomboxes upon occasion. It is always the same, and always different. A little congregation of later swimmers may strike up an acquaintance, or silently glide into the water with their swim buoys, glad to be able to swim out far into the lake after the teenaged lifeguards have taken their whistles home.

On a single evening last week, I conversed in Spanish with a Central American family, and met a family from Belarus, days after their disputed election. There they were, in Goshen, like foreign emissaries provided by the park service. Being with people, as people, may be more likely at a state park than in a church.

Stop for a moment and consider that we have, in our Commonwealth, a Department of Conservation and Recreation calling us to stop, and rest, and reconnect. Despite this, it took a pandemic to cancel my daily dip in chlorinated water, and bring me to the source, to float on the surface of our planet, held up by the watery skin of Earth, to glimpse paradise. This is what I mean by remedial.

Poetry surrounds us. In that lake, I have been invited spontaneously to swim out with a group of women who meet at a lake every night at 6:30 to swim and talk. In the center of the lake, at sunset, under huge skies, one of them told me her daughter had died last year, at 13, in an accident. Treading dark water, we managed to talk about it. On another shore, a man told me that he had lost his wife five years ago. This was fresh on his mind. His aged companion told me she canoes out until just before the ice comes. I have met many dogs, a physical therapist, and an electrical engineer, the granddaughter of a policeman in Wakefield, Mass, and old friends. A mother on the beach remembered Chris from a time when her toddler melted down in a grocery store. And how kind he had been about it. A nurse who is also body worker lamented the advent of data-driven management that managed the humanity right out of a local human services agency, in six short months. There are visiting grandparents. Curious kids. Brooklyn refugees moving back, but worried about leaving their community connections behind. I have met our own Beth Ann Jedziniak and her friend Judy, who are, judging by their swimming practice, way more religious than I am.

It is literally all there, on that lake that sometimes contains no one but us and the ducks. One night, a young duck showed me how he picks blueberries with his bill from the water, paddling, and straining up to get just one at a time.

But mostly, it is stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, glide, gaze, look, stretch, breathe. No lap lines, no rush, maybe that rock on the other side for a target. My husband, Chris, reads a book about the failed attempt to end slavery without civil war on his phone while he waits for me to emerge. Arms grow a little stronger, green-white in the light as they pull through lakewater at dusk, body and mind feeling whole again, feeling connected again, feeling just right, feeling in communion with something too vast to hold.

I wish us all the experience of connection, of shared public spaces in nature, of the experience of religion as our most mundane and frequent act, daily moments of redemption that keep us connected to the larger body of which we are a part.

May we all find our way back to the source. AMEN.