Texts: Psalm 63: 1-8
John 21: 1-13
A Small Good Thing
This past week I found myself trying to heed the advice of the Apostle Paul in the book of Philippians, doing my best to recall that which is good and honorable, upright and true. Like many of you, I’ve been searching for wisdom, for that which can provide a sense of ballast in a stormy moment. I’ve had lots of conversations with old friends, and with many of you as well. I’ve read the Bible. I’ve listened to old songs, gone for walks, and reached for historical antecedents. I’ve poured a few strong drinks. And I’ve returned to a story that I read years ago, one that I believe speaks a word that we all need to hear right now. I’d like to share it with you.
It’s a story by Raymond Carver, published in 1983. It’s called “A Small Good Thing,” and it contains as rich a pastoral theology as anything I know. It’s a sad story, but at least for many of you whom I’ve spoken to, these are sad times. Sometimes sad times require sad stories. Even so, I ask you to bear with me – the story goes somewhere.
Carver’s tale tells of two grieving parents, Howard and Ann, whose son has been hit by a car during his walk to school, a day that happens to be his eighth birthday. In a moment of absentmindedness, the boy steps into oncoming traffic and is knocked to the ground by the car, hitting his head on the pavement. Initially, he seems fine, but after an hour or so he loses consciousness and is rushed to the hospital. Doctors are optimistic, cheerful even, and they assure Howard and Ann that their son simply has a mild concussion and that he should wake up any time. But hours and then days drag out, and Howard and Ann become despondent.
Meanwhile, they take turns going home to rest and to bathe. When they do, the phone rings, and on the other end a strange, creepy voice asks them about their son. “Have you forgotten about him,” the voice wonders? “Where is the birthday boy,” the voice asks? At other moments, there is only silence on the line. The anxious parents slam the phone down and wonder who could be so cruel in a moment like this. They feel rage inside. Then they go back to the hospital to maintain their vigil.
After several days of this, the unthinkable does occur, and their son dies from what is called an occluded hemorrhage. When there is nothing more to be done at the hospital, they return to a terrible and barren house, and, eventually, to the disturbing phone calls. The phone rings, there is silence on the other end, and the mother, Ann, loses it. “Who are you?” she shouts, wishing she could kill whoever is on the other end of the line. And then suddenly she knows. She realizes beyond a shadow of a doubt that the caller is a local baker, a man she had hired several days earlier to bake a cake for their son’s birthday. She gets in the car with her husband, furious from grief, and she drives to the bakery. When they arrive, Ann pounds on the back door of the bakery, for it is very early in the morning. The baker answers the door. He’s older, and overweight. He has a thick neck and squinty eyes that make him look rather mean. He knows immediately that the game is up. “I don’t want no trouble,” he tells the parents. But the parents push inside, and Ann gives full vent to her fury. “What kind of evil person are you,” she shouts. “Don’t you know that we just lost our son, our boy?” And then she slumps to the floor in her grief, utterly spent.
To everyone’s surprise, Howard’s, Ann’s, and our own as readers, the baker takes off his apron and offers the two parents some chairs. Then he sits down with them, and after a while he tells them how sorry he is. He tells them a little about what made him behave as he did. Here’s what he says: “I’m just a baker. I don’t claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I’ve forgotten, I don’t know for sure. Now I’m just a baker. That don’t excuse my doing what I did, I know, but I’m deeply sorry. I’m sorry for your son and my part in this. I’m not an evil man, I don’t think. Can you forgive me?”
And then he says and does the most marvelous thing. “You probably need to eat something,” the baker said. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small good thing in a time like this.” He pulls hot cinnamon rolls from the oven and the three of them, the grieving parents and the lonely baker, sit there until the sun comes up. Carver tells us that it is warm there, and that the parents “do not even think of leaving.”
“Eating is a small good thing in a time like this,” is what the baker says. “Come and have breakfast,” is what Jesus says to his disciples in one of his resurrection appearances in the Gospel of John. It’s not an accident that nearly every one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances takes place against the backdrop of food. Indeed, it’s not an accident that from beginning to end, the Bible is strewn about with mentions of food – tables set before me, feasts prepared in the presence of enemies, a small meal shared between a lonely prophet, a widow and her daughter, bread broken and a mysterious traveler recognized as the risen Jesus. To a group of perplexed and traumatized disciples, Jesus appears one last time. “Come and have breakfast,” he says. To eat together is a small good thing when the world falls apart, or when things get hard, as things tend to do from time to time, whether in our personal lives, or in our collective lives. Cinnamon rolls, grilled fish, turkey and gravy, bread and wine – sometimes these are the elements that allow us to collect ourselves and to notice the fragile and precious humanity of those before us.
To eat together is a bodily act, one that reminds us of our needs, our limits, of our frail mortal flesh that requires constant sustenance and care. To eat together is to be reminded of that which binds us, for we are all frail mortal flesh together. To eat together is a reminder of the pleasure we can and do share in one another’s company, a reminder of what it is to feel alive to the world. To eat together is to mark a passing – of one more year, of a job accomplished well, of somebody we love who has departed from us. To eat together is also a way of inviting newcomers into our company. To eat together is to be initiated into moments of wondrous beauty, as complex tastes stimulate our tongues, as strong drinks rush to our heads, as the smell of cooking food ushers us into the fullness of the present, and also into gatherings long since dissolved. Many of us will rehearse those culinary scenes this week as we gather with others for Thanksgiving. There’s a risk with all of that, to be sure, for at times, holiday gatherings can be fraught with tension, or with unspoken pain or frustration. We often tread gingerly around the table. This year more than most, many of us will tread gingerly around the table. Even so, something deeper and truer than a perfunctory ritual is taking place. I believe the act of gathering and eating together that many of us will perform later this week is a pastoral and theological act, where we do our very best to celebrate the goodness of being together, the joys of shared life, the pleasures of our senses, the depth of our sadness, and the value of simply being with one another.
Several years ago, I spent a year working at Bridgeport Hospital as a chaplain, and I witnessed suffering in that place that unnerved me. I often found myself wondering what kept people going through it all. The loss of somebody they’ve loved for years, the loss of mobility or freedom, the loss of an imagined future, the loss of beauty and youth – where do people find the strength to go on, I wondered? I don’t really know, not for sure. I do know, however, that often in the midst of the storm there would be an impromptu meal – coffee and rolls brought by the hospital staff or fast food hastily gathered by a well-meaning relative. If those things weren’t present, as often as not, food would factor in the bedside talk – memories of home cooked meals, or anticipations of the meals that would need to be prepared in the coming days. Sometimes it was as simple as the yearning for the plenty symbolized by a Chinese buffet. In all those bedside gatherings, rituals of eating, and rehearsals of culinary memories and dreams performed something that the Bible, and Christian liturgies, know well. In the midst of the storm, eating together is a small good thing.
We need small good things right now. We need reminders of the grace and beauty, the wisdom and truth that still persist in the world. We need reminders of that which connects us one to the other. We need small good things like gatherings such as the one I attended on Friday at the Berlin mosque, of friends from across racial and cultural and religious lines who pledge their mutual support. We need small good things like wise old stories that we can reread, and we need practices like the welcoming of new members into our community. We need small good things like the reading of poetic words that remind us of who we’ve been, and who we might yet become. We need small good things like the bread and the cup, where somehow and in some way Christ becomes present all over again. “You have to eat and keep going,” the baker says. “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says. Wherever you are along the way today, full of anticipation for a holiday celebration, full of sadness or fear or dread, full of confusion, full of nothing much at all: know that you are welcome here at this table. In a time such as this, eating and drinking together is a small good thing. May the grace and peace of Christ be present to you anew as we eat and drink together. “You have to eat and keep going.” May the grace and peace of Christ become present to us all in this small good thing. “Come and have breakfast.”