I’ve written a fair number of words about my friend Father Dan Begin and have decided for various reasons to begin sharing them now and then. This is a transcription of a homily delivered on August 3, 2008, in which Dan explored the theme of choice, based on readings from Isaiah and from Matthew’s account of the loaves and fishes. I hope both believing and non-believing readers can find something to appreciate here.
I can tell you that whatever happens, there is a banquet set before me by a Parent who loves me.
Most of us have never been really, really, really hungry. Most of us, even if we feel really hungry, have actually eaten very recently. Now here is an interesting thing. In the seminary we had a secret society. We would do subversive things, like read the Dutch catechism. We’d read Jean Paul Sartre. We’d read terrible underground books. We were going to solve the problems of the world, though, as you can see, we haven’t quite accomplished that. To solve world hunger, we thought we had to feel what the people felt. So we went on a five-day fast.
After about the first hour on the first day, we were already hungry. By three hours, we were starving, and by seven hours, our hunger was beyond imaginable. By the second day, we just felt blah. Then you develop a headache that you just cannot make go away. On the third day, you still have the headache, and you feel all-over dreadful. By the fourth day, the headache goes away, and you feel kind of high. You hardly think about food, and meal times pass by, and you don’t pay attention. And by the fifth day, it becomes really, really hard to eat, and so when it was time to start eating again, I couldn’t eat a whole piece of toast. It’s hard to get your system to eat again.
Now, this experiment was exciting, because the whole group of us was bound and determined to do this together. We were going to have an experience. Of course, the true reality of hunger is something much different, something we didn’t even get close to.
Around the same time I read an article. I can’t remember where it was or who wrote it, but the author was in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in World War II. He described real, true hunger much better that I ever could. He wrote that the prisoners got only two handfuls of rice every day. After awhile, he said, you lose all motivation. You are totally drained physically, and it’s probably worse to eat a little bit than nothing at all. Eating that little bit is just enough to keep you surviving. You lose all concern for anybody else. You lose the ability to believe in a God or anybody else. Day by day, you just wait for those handfuls of rice.
One day, this man did something that made the prison guard angry, and the guard dumped all his food on the ground. The prisoner just lay on the ground crying, as he describes it, thinking that handful of rice was everything for him, and now it was gone.
Then another man approached and gave him half of the rice he had, half a handful. In that half of a handful, all of a sudden everything came back. The man’s belief in God, his belief in love, his belief in life—everything came back with that gift of only half as much as he was getting regularly. Because of a moment of love, half a handful of rice was worth a whole life. What an amazing thing. Hunger calls us: the only way to survive and make sense out of life, the only way to survive and make sense out of God, is through that sharing of food.
In the Gospel today we hear the story of the feeding of the 20,000. That’s 5000 men plus women and children. You figure it had to be at least twenty thousand, maybe thirty. And notice that the evangelist makes sure to say there are significantly more people besides men in the world. Though the world counts only men, the evangelist says, look at all the women and children—they’re people, too. That was a very profound statement.
Here’s the situation. Jesus’s idol, the person who brought him to the beginning of his ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, the one who got the whole ball rolling, the one who Jesus said is “greater than an angel,” not only was dead, but brutally murdered. He had his head cut off at a banquet. What a horrible, horrible thing.
And Jesus was so horrified, and he was so frustrated. He said to his disciples, “I have to get away. I can’t do this any more.” He needed to just be alone. He found his way to a deserted place, but by the time he got there, the crowds had already heard where he was going. Somebody leaked it. And there they were: 25,000 people. He said, “Oh, well. I guess it’s not time to mourn.” His heart was moved with pity. He was hungry for time alone with his God, but he gave up what little he had to share with others, with 25,000 others.
The apostles said, “Send them away. You’re in control. Tell them you’ve cured their sick. Tell them to go away.”
Jesus said, “There’s no need for them to go.” He didn’t want them to go. Though he didn’t want to see them at first, now he didn’t want them to go. He told the disciples to feed them. And the apostles got testy. Understandably so. They said, “What do you expect us to do? We have only five loaves and two fish and thousands of people.”
He said, “Give me what you have.” Now, this story is recorded in every Gospel. The multiplication of loaves is actually recorded six times, because there are other records of feeding the 2000 or 3000. Six times in four gospels, it’s recorded over and over. It was so significant to the early Christians in the time of the Gospel writing that they made sure it was put in over and over and over again. No other story has six versions.
Jesus was telling them, “You with your very little bit can do anything if you believe. You with your very little bit can change the whole world if you choose. But if you choose to keep that little bit, you tie my hands.”
It was a little boy, as it’s recorded in Matthew, who gave his five loaves and two fish. He came forward, not the apostles. The apostles probably had stuff stashed away, but they weren’t going to tell anybody. A lot of people probably had stuff stashed away, but they weren’t going to tell anybody. Some commentators think maybe that’s what the real miracle was. People took out their stashes. First, they thought, “I’m not showing this to anybody,” and then some little boy embarrassed them and said, “Here’s what I have,” and all of a sudden people started pouring out what was in their pockets, and they had more than enough
But in that moment, something more significant than the food happened, just like with that half a handful of rice. Something happened that said to people, “Once again we can believe that our God takes care of our needs. Once again, we believe that together we can make things happen. Once again, we can believe that life is a banquet, even when we’re hungry. Once again, we can choose the life that’s set before us, knowing that our life is the banquet and the gift and the food. And knowing that even in the hunger we may find something so significant, something so much more powerful than anything we can find when we’re full.”
And the message just shouts out loud and clear. Jesus didn’t take a poll and say, “Who’s a sinner here? You need to get forgiven before you can get any food.” He didn’t take a poll to see who’s good and who’s bad. He just said these are people. It’s just like New Yorkers rushing to help at the World Trade Center. There were people in need. Run and meet those needs.
The first reading from Isaiah is also such a beautiful passage. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. It still flows. Whether you think you see it or not, the water still flows. All you who have no money, come, receive grain and eat. Come, come without pain. Come without cost. Drink wine, and drink fresh milk. But don’t spend your money on what is not bread. Don’t spend your wages on what fails to satisfy.”
Institutions, no matter which institutions they are, over and over and over, want to take control of the meal. Institutions say, “You can eat because you’re one of us. You can’t eat because you’re not one of us. We’ll offer what we have to you over here, but not to you over there. Some people are the kind we want. You others are not.” But unlike institutions, families do not choose who is part of their life. Isaiah—and this is before Jesus—says that God has a family. God is this Mother who has our name written on the palm of her hand, and She will not stop being Mother.
Isaiah speaks of a God who says, “Come, come eat of my food, drink of my wine. Come, share the banquet of life.” This God does not make exceptions. This God does not say it’s only for this one and not for that one. Even if your mother should forget you, this God says, “I shall not forget you, because I am the perfect Parent. I am the one who knows you always and forever, who knows you inside and out.” In the last part of this chapter, Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while He may be found. There’s still time. You can find God. Let the scoundrel turn away from those wicked ways. Let the wicked one repent from his sins and come back. Come back, and eat of the food that God presents to us.” And that banquet is laid out before us right here, right now.
Most of us wake up in the morning, and we look to our Parent who has presented us with a banquet, and we say, “I don’t like that. Get it away. That’s nasty. That’s bitter. That doesn’t appeal to me. It might be all right some other day, but today I want something else.” And we want to give the Parent of the Universe the directions on what my banquet should be. And, of course, my banquet is all about me. My banquet is healthful. I have my medical covered. I have my house in order. I have my banquet, and that banquet is the one I choose.
But what about the reality banquet? What about the real banquet? Whether I choose to accept it or not, I woke up today knowing that I’m going to have an eternal life. I woke up today knowing that I have a God who loves me. I woke up today knowing that I have people who love me. I can’t tell you how things are going to work out in my life, and I can’t tell you how things are going to work out today. I can’t tell you if I’m going to be breathing half an hour from now. It doesn’t matter. I can tell you that whatever happens, there is a banquet set before me by a Parent who loves me.
But there are those in the institutions who would try to take all that away from me. In my mind, I can choose to believe them. Terrorists may make me afraid all the time. And if I choose to walk around being afraid all the time, well, that’s my problem, because they can only kill the body. They can’t kill the soul.
Churches would have me believe that unless I follow particular magic formulas or particular sets of laws, they can exclude me from the love of God. But St. Paul says, “Who, who can separate me from the love of Christ? Who will separate us? Anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or the sword? No, no, none of these. In all things we are conquerors, if we know whose hand we hold. We are conquerors if we know who we are. We are conquerors if we know what we inherit. We are conquerors if we know that we are sisters and brothers and heir to the same thing as Jesus Christ. We are more than conquerors.”
Instead of believing what others tell us, we need to go to the Somebody who knows, and that’s our Parent. We need to say that beautiful prayer that Jesus taught us: “Father, Abba, Daddy.” We need to recognize that nobody, but nobody, can take this away from us. Shame on us if we believe that they can.
We don’t need all of the things that our country provides for us. We don’t need all the things this church provides. We don’t need all the things that the world insists that we need. We don’t need a ten-year plan. We don’t need to go through our medical benefits. We don’t need to have insurance for this that and the other thing.
I was talking to someone the other day who works full-time and then 36 hours more. He said. “I just crave a day off.”
I said, “Quit one of your jobs.”
He said, “Oh, I can’t.”
“You’re working, and your wife’s… “
“No, to pay all the bills, we have to do this,” he insisted.
Well, I thought, if in your mind, you have to do this, you have to do it. It’s what you choose to control you. You choose what separates you from the love of Christ, from the love of life, from the experience that lies right before us.
And so, we’re challenged today by these readings. We’re challenged to ask, “What did I wake up with this morning? This is the food that God has presented to me. This is what God has given me.” I may seek other things and better ways, and that’s not a bad thing, but I can never say I don’t have enough unless I choose to say it. If I give away moments of joy, moments of peace, if I waste my time in moments of anguish and pain and suffering because things are not exactly the way I want them to be, well, then, that four-letter word “want” needs to get out of my vocabulary. “Want” will just destroy me. I need to choose: This is what I have, and this is what I can do with it.
And then I need to dream. Dream! What can I do with this marvelous gift I have? Perhaps I’m ninety-six years old and can’t do much. Maybe I can talk to some child and give her a little story from the past. I can use what I have.
How can I use who I am, what I have, the banquet that’s laid before me, and recognize that it’s a new banquet every day, that there is always enough, and that in God’s plenty I will never go wanting? In choosing that gift, we find that the kingdom is right here and right now.