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.”)