What We Need is Here
The Word in the Wild, Proper 13, Year A
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled, and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (NRSVUE)1
“And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.”
-From “The Wild Geese” by Wendell Berry
Over the last few years, I’ve been making a serious study of soil science. Most of us, myself included, pay little attention to the ground beneath our feet. And truth be told, even many involved in agriculture, as it is now commonly practiced, see the soil as little more than a medium for the right mix of fertilizers. But one of the most astonishing facts I’ve come upon in my study is that, chemically, most of the world’s soils have all of the basic elements to support plant life—the Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus necessary for growth. What makes a healthy soil in contrast to depleted dirt is not so much the basic chemistry, but the availability of those nutrients for life. A desert may have all of the basic elements for plant life, but they haven’t been unlocked in “bioavailable” form.
What is it that makes those abundant nutrients available to plants? The community of life in the soil and those substances, like soil organic matter, that support them. It is the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes of the soil that provide the first level of community that enables plants to get the nutrients they need.
I thought of this reality of the soil as I read our Gospel reading for this Sunday. It begins with Jesus going to the wilderness. This is a place away, a place for solitude. As such, it is also a desert in which none of the secure realities of domesticity are at hand. There are no houses or fields, no wells of water. Like the Israelites led to freedom through the wilderness of Sinai, this is a place where the seeming abundance of civilization is unavailable.
But it is just there that a deeper kind of abundance can be found. It was for that reason that Jesus went to the wilderness to pray, and now that the crowds have followed him there, he wants to show them this reality. Where the disciples can only see a “deserted place” and a late hour, Jesus wants to show them that they have the time and resources they need right where they are. What they need is the ability to see them.