Thursday, August 14, 2008

Infinite Steps Upon Water

The Gospel for this Sunday was Matthew 14:22-33

Six hundred-plus Anglican bishops have packed their rochets and chimeres and headed home, leaving a quieter cathedral at Canterbury, but neither leaving nor returning to a quieter Church. They began their two weeks with three days of silent retreat together, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, a brilliant new way to start the Lambeth Conference, speaking well for his instincts: silence those bishops for three days, and get your word in first!

Much of their time was devoted to sitting together in groups large enough to mix the continents and cultures, small enough to share airtime between extroverts and introverts, between eloquent high-profile prelates and humbler frontier types. The chief goal of this once-in-a-decade conference was for our bishops to know Christ in one another and to make known to one another the Christ who emerges from more than six hundred mission fields, each bishop’s missionary story different from the next, the Christ of his or her journey an equally brilliant ray of the one light.

I wonder if the unplanned, unchoreographed moments didn’t carry their own unique discoveries. One was reported in the press: a very early-morning false fire alarm emptied the dorms where many bishops and spouses were sleeping, and out they poured, in their nighties, to wait for the all-clear. And I’ll guess that a lot is clear at that hour, in that state of unreadiness and undress…

And there were well-rehearsed moments, too. Solange De Santis reports in this month’s Episcopal Life that the opening eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral started with a brass fanfare greeting Archbishop Williams, who was clad in white and gold mitre and vestments bearing the ancient cross of Canterbury… Bongo drummers accompanied the choristers… One Bible reading was in Korean and the Gospel was in French. The intercessions were in English, Hindi, Portuguese, Japanese, and French.

The Gospel Book was borne to the center of the cathedral by a procession from the order of Melanesian Brothers and Sisters, from the South Pacific Solomon Islands. The men were barefoot and bare-chested and dressed in grass skirts, the women in colorful shifts. Several held the book on a little wooden boat and danced with it down the aisle, while others played a sweet silvery melody on wooden flutes.

In a document of reflection issued by the bishops, an observation is made: in an age of globalization, why would anyone ever want to lose this precious gift we have as Anglicans, spanning the earth in a heritage of longstanding mutual respect? That risk is in the air, though the Gospel that deserves to be borne in a little boat teaches us to embrace the opportunity that waits within the risk. No risk/no growth is a law of the spirit, not just a maxim of investment advisors.

Peter seems to know it, as he answers Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

“Why would anyone want to name a child Peter?” I heard a trusted friend ask, as we were unpacking this Gospel together. I thought it best to stay very still at that, and just taste the moment rather than take it as personal affront. My trusting this friend helped me keep silence, even as I saw no smile to soften the blow, even as my impulse was high to react.

“He’s so impulsive,” this person explained. I quietly thanked God that I hadn’t proven the point.

Yes, Peter’s story is full of impulses: he is remembered for having swung hard from enthusiastic pledging of loyalty to pathetically anxious betrayal. Quicksilver as he is, he is the rock on which Jesus builds his church. Christian faith is rich in paradox.

Peter is the first to have seen who Jesus is. So in this encounter today he sees that he has to take risk if he is to step into the kingdom that Jesus has introduced to the disciples on that hillside we sat on last Sunday. There economic necessity became an opportunity. When five thousand-plus hungry people stared at those twelve disciples at supper time, twelve empty-handed men urged their teacher to depend on the power of buying and selling (“Send them into the villages so they can buy something to eat! Now!”) But he depended on the power of sharing, he depended on the calculus of grace, and answered them, “You give them something to eat. Now.” And, as we know, a child produced his lunchpail and the rest is mystery.

However you understand the power demonstrated on that hillside, Peter and his companions were intimately part of it. So he knows that he’s on the right track assuming that he must be part of the power being shown on the sea. He must choose in to be in.

Except, well—and here Peter oscillates—he instinctively knows this, but impulsively resists. So he hedges his bets, patron saint of Anglicanism, and blurts out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. If I’m right down deep, call me to do what you do.”

“I do. Come.”

So what is this, if not the early Church employing imagination to teach and evangelize a fearful world. What water are we all called to walk on, to be in Christ? The waters of baptism. That sacrament of full inclusion calls us to grow into the full stature of Christ. Waters don’t get deeper than that. The early Church’s practice of Baptism was to fully immerse the adult believer, three times in the name of the Trinity lowering and raising the person in the living water of river, lake or sea, causing him or her to feel the mystery of being joined to Christ in a death like his so as to be joined to Christ in a resurrection life like his.

More often now, infants and children are candidates for baptism. All the stronger is the message that the first steps are really God’s steps: we walk on the waters of baptism because God makes firm the love that includes us, approaches us before we know how to approach, makes of faith a miracle that leaves behind no footprint, “but only the shimmering place of an infinite step upon water.” And a community wades in with each of us at the font, promising to walk with us as we learn how to be part of the power of Christ.

It was not hard for the early Christians to see themselves in Peter, to let his story make sense of theirs. That still works.

Let Peter be the Olympic gymnast who walks on air, or a swimmer who rides the water, or a pole vaulter becoming herself the catapult. What does Peter’s story teach? Embrace the opportunity within the risk. Get distracted by a strong wind and sink.

Are those examples too unrelated to ordinary life? Let Peter be a first-year student leaving all that is familiar and daring to step across to an unknown future. Or imagine him an aging homeowner realizing it’s time she lives more simply. And Peter teaches? No risk, no growth. Choosing into new life takes a whole heart.

At a time of environmental crisis, let Peter be everyperson, facing urgent evidence that we are called to be one with our fragile world, treasuring life rather than exploiting it. He teaches us to make choices out of deep instinct, not anxious impulse. And to anchor the instinct, and surrender the impulse, to the one who is always within reach of us, who promises, “Take heart, it is I; do not fear.”

(The phrase “but only the shimmering place of an infinite step upon water” is lifted from James Dickey’s poem “Walking on Water”, worth finding in Robert Atwan’s and Laurance Wieder’s anthology “Chapters Into Verse”, Volume II, page 108.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Empty-handed and Full

Scripture cited today includes Isaiah 55:1-5 and Matthew 14:13-21.

“Everything! Counter and scales—
I’ll take whatever you give.
I’m through and off to Athens,
Where a man like me can live.

And Hipparch, the baker, is going;
My chum, who came with me
To follow the crowds who follow
The prophet of Galilee.

We two were there at Damascus
Dealing in figs and wine.
Nice little business! Some one
Said: ‘Here, I’ll give you a line!’

‘Buy fish, and set up a booth,
Get a tent and make your bread.
There are thousands come to listen,
They are hungry, and must be fed.’

And so we went. Believe me,
There were crowds, and hungry, too.
Five thousand stood in the desert
And listened the whole day through.

Famished? Well, yes. The disciples
Were saying to send them away
To buy their bread in the village,
But the prophet went on to say:

‘Feed them yourselves, O you
Of little faith.’ But they said:
‘We have just two little fishes
And five little loaves of bread.’

We heard it, me and Hipparch,
And rubbed our hands. You see
We were there to make some money
In the land of Galilee.

We had stock in plenty. We waited.
I wiped the scales, and my chum
Restacked the loaves. We bellowed,
But no one seemed to come.

‘Fresh fish!’ I bawled my lungs out:
‘Nice bread!’ poor Hipparch cried,
But what did they do? Sat down there
In fifties, side by side.

In ranks, the whole five thousand.
Then—well, the prophet spoke,
And broke the two little fishes,
And the five little loaves he broke,

And fed the whole five thousand.
Why, yes! So gorged they slept.
And we stood beaten and bankrupt.
Poor Hipparch swore and wept.

They gathered up twelve baskets
Full from the loaves of bread;
Two fishes made twelve baskets
Of fragments after they fed.

And we—what was there to do
But dump our stock on the sand?
That’s what we got for our labor
And thrift, in such a land.

We met a man near Damascus
Who had joined the mystagogues.
He said, ‘I was wicked as you men
Until I lost my hogs.’

Now Hipparch and I are going
To Athens, beautiful, free.
No more adventures for us two
In the land of Galilee.”

That was “Business Reverses”, a poem by Edgar Lee Masters, famed for his “Spoon River Anthology”. In case it flew by you too fast, the fellow at the end who had lost his hogs and appears to be a step ahead of the fishmonger and the baker? This former hog farmer lost his livelihood that day when Jesus called to their right minds two shunned and suffering men called “demon-possessed” by their neighbors, a change so frightening to the swine nearby that they ran off a cliff and into the sea.

Remember that intriguing moment? So long as those two homeless men were still seen to be crazy, the hogs were fine. They were used to a normalcy of human dysfunction around them, the crazy homeless men ranting up in the caves, the neighbors keeping their distance, some scornful, some sympathetic. But bring those men to sanity, down from the caves and dressed for breakfast, ready for some bacon and eggs, and the whole status quo got broken—scared those pigs out of their ruts, clueless.

A quieter miracle is suggested by the poet: the hog farmer didn’t despair, didn’t follow his herd over the cliff. He suffered loss, it must have been greater than the fishmonger and the baker, but in the crucible of his empty hands he held hope that such new life as freed those troubled homeless men would grace him with finer life, too. The poet hints that the hog farmer became a disciple, that his loss had freed him to really hear the prophet Isaiah, “Why do you labor for that which does not satisfy?” And to really hear the prophet from Galilee, “Come, follow me.”

That freedom hasn’t yet blessed the poem’s fishmonger and baker. They’re still recovering from their misadventure, that critical moment in our Gospel today when the disciples’ support of locally-grown food vendors (“let them go into the villages and buy food for themselves!”) is thwarted by Jesus’s reply, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

That was the moment when the local status quo was broken. Exactly how, we are not told. Except that outward and visible goods, five barley buns and two dried fish, were the starting point of chain reaction that brought to that herd of humanity such abundance that not only did all eat and were filled, not only were twelve baskets of leftovers packed for take-out, but these several thousand poor had an unforgettable taste of most resilient power.

You may remember that later, several times, Jesus would refer to the power set loose on that grassy hillside. “You are following me, not because you understand the power you felt, that day, but because your stomachs were filled and you hope that will happen to you again.” So it’s important that we pay attention to the question, What is this power?

And you may recall that our patron, St. John the Evangelist, uses all the bells and whistles of this story to adorn his teaching about the eucharist, about the self-offering of Jesus Christ to his people so that his people will offer themselves to his world. St. Matthew recognizes that same pattern in his verbs describing what happens to those buns and herrings: Jesus takes them, blesses them, breaks them, gives them to the disciples who in turn give them to the crowds. That is the action of eucharistic love, thankful love that does not keep but tastes and shares.

What is this most resilient power at work on that hillside? Careful how we answer, still hearing Jesus say it’s about more than filling stomachs, remembering too that the power that met them there meets us here, catching the poet’s point that this power works not just by filling us but also by emptying us, freeing us from laboring for that which does not satisfy…

How is this power God’s power? However we answer that, don’t we expect that God’s use of power will go beyond giving these people fish, and will teach them to fish?

How is this power the people’s power? I find powerful the moment in the story when Jesus tells his disciples they’re wrong in thinking that the answer to life’s challenges lies in buying and selling. That is the way the world may turn, the way the herd may move, but Jesus shows that the kingdom of God, unlike empires and governments, does not muck about with economic stimulus packages and bailouts. It is at this moment that Jesus says to his twelve trainees, “You give them something to eat,” that he may have inspired some in the crowds to give those twelve poor devils a hand.

This moment is heightened in St. John’s telling of our eucharistic story. There, Jesus plays with Philip, asking him “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” This, says John, was to test Philip, for Jesus was thinking along other lines. Philip bites the bait, truly not knowing what to do with that empty-handedness he feels: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little!”

It’s then that additional inspiration flashes forth. A little boy has brought up to Andrew the sack lunch his mother had prepared for him, and Andrew brings him to Jesus. In John’s lesson about eucharist, this must be the offertory.

Is this lad the only person on that hillside who came prepared—or is he rather the first to understand the moment and reach down into his power, the power to share, and, perhaps by being a child, to specially inspire?

“What’s happening up there? It’s Miriam’s boy, and he’s sharing his lunch with the Prophet! Isn’t that sweet? Why here, I have some dates… and what’s that you’ve got in your pouch—is that some dried meat and onion that I’m smelling? You’re happy to share it, too? Let’s see what we can get going, here!”

It’s no small miracle when hands that grip their own possessions open to give and receive, when fear is erased as boundaries around me-and-mine fall open to something greater and finer, the becoming of community, the feeling of common purpose and the finding of common mission.

Someone has observed that it’s not good news, that Matthew counts the number of men who ate, but not the number of women and children. Too often, it is women and children who suffer from hunger and struggle with poverty.

Among the fourteen households burned out last Tuesday night at 716 North Street in Pittsfield, many were women and children. Few of those many residents had much by way of earthly goods, and now they have none. In our eucharist today, we remember that we are fed so that we may feed. What we place in this bowl today will pass to their empty hands, through the American Red Cross. They need us to use our power, while their powers of trust and hope are met and multiplied by the One who knows how to lift up the lowly.

The morning after the fire, one woman, speaking in Spanish, asked firefighters to go to her apartment and find her papers. Captain Ray Tart returned, dripping wet, and handed her a vinyl folder. “Mojado,” she said, “they’re drenched”. Through a translator, Tart explained that a pipe had burst in her ceilings, which were caving in. Reporter Jenn Smith writes, “Still, there were no tears and hardly a cringe from this woman and her family. Asked why, the woman with the folder said, “Jesus Christo.”

The one who knows what to do when we are empty-handed, the one who works through us when our hands are open.

(Edgar Lee Masters’s poem can be found in Chapters Into Verse, volume II, edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder. Jenn Smith’s article appeared in the July 31st, 2008, issue of “The Berkshire Eagle.”)