My parents moved to Malaysia at the start of my sophomore year of college, and our connection to the small Wisconsin town where I’d gone to high school was severed. I had never made connections to any place for long. My dad was a United Methodist minister, and we moved every six or seven years. But the friendships I made in high school were some of the most important in my life, and although I haven’t retained close contact to the people I knew then, I can’t think of them without happiness and gratitude. I remember especially one summer afternoon, after I’d just gotten back from a family trip to California. I’d encountered God on that trip. I’d had an epiphany in the John Muir woods, an indescribable experience of ferns and tall trees and clear light. When I arrived back home, I wanted to tell my friends about it, and we walked together to a grassy hill behind the high school. They weren’t religious, and I hadn’t been up until that point in my life, but there was no judgement when I told them about my epiphany. They were open to anything. They accepted my experience as valid, because I had experienced it, and we didn’t try to assess or control each other’s experiences.
But by the beginning of my sophomore year, I had new college friends. My girlfriend was my one remaining link to the home of my high school years, and that only tangentially, since she’d gone away to college as well, and we’d spent the summer together in Madison, detached from the place where we’d grown up. When I thought of home, I thought of her. So when my parents prepared to leave the country, I wasn’t worried. I was part of a college social group, and had been initiated the previous spring in a rite that was full of joy and weirdness and a kind of grace. I had places where I thought I belonged.
That October, my girlfriend broke up with me. It seems amazing that this break-up was one of the most devastating experiences of my life, given that my adult life hasn’t been devoid of devastating experiences, moments that, in any hierarchy of crisis, should have been far more traumatic. But I was nineteen, and I hadn’t learned how to deal with devastation yet. It was all new to me, and more anguishing because it was so surprising. And the most surprising part was that I found that I couldn’t turn to my new friends for help. Members of my college social group soon got tired of my depression. While sitting at dinner one night, one of my friends said “I know you loved your girlfriend and everything, but she’s moved on to a new thing, and you need to just accept that.” To be fair, I must have been a terribly downbeat person to be around. Whiny and mopey and angry. But I also realized that the community I belonged to was only about fun, and that when I ceased to be fun, I lost my membership in it.
Maundy Thursday is all about good and bad communities, and the fact that a single community can often be both good and bad. As we commemorate the day, we start with a vision of a very good community. Jesus and the disciples gathered together for dinner, for celebration, for the pleasure of being in each other’s company. As they ate and drank, they could forget, for a moment, that Jesus had told them that everything was going to end in death and dishonor. He washed their feet, an act of love and vulnerability that it’s still hard for many people to reconcile themselves to. The sense of closeness in that room must have been profound. But almost as soon as that sense of closeness was really and truly established, it began to break apart. Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him. The disciples, alarmed by this prospect, began to quibble about which one of them was the greatest. Then Jesus told Peter that he would deny him three times. And all of the darkness in the life of a community was present in the room.
Communities can be places of grace and love, of true acceptance and non-judgement. They can be composed of people who want nothing more than to journey together towards some barely defined goal, who are more interested in the journey than the goal itself. People who will support and stand with each other in both good times and bad. And they can be places of control, betrayal, and indifference, full of people who are all too willing to abandon each other. Maundy Thursday is about both kinds of community. It speaks to a fundamental truth about life. People will fail us. We will be hurt.
After dinner Jesus and the disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane. The disciples fell asleep. Jesus prayed alone. This is the final statement that this day has to make about community. Community can never take the place of God. In the end, the perfection we are looking for doesn’t exist within human institutions. It exists only in God, and only very rarely can other people follow us to the moment when we encounter God. But there is always the chance to return from these lonely sojourns into God’s presence, and find the people who are willing to hear what we’ve encountered. To hear, and help us make sense of these encounters, not through judgement, but patient listening. Through summer walks to grassy hills. Through friendship.