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Pentecost 9 Proper 13A August 2, 2020


Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14: 13-21

Our opening reading today is one of the most fascinating passages in the Bible. It goes back centuries, to a time when people believed that you had to be careful of local deities who governed rivers. This story was passed down by word of mouth and was finally recorded by the Biblical writer we call J because he calls God Jahweh. J’s ministry took place around 950 years before the birth of Christ, over three thousand years ago.

Jacob has schemed during his time with Laban, and he has managed to grow wealthy by taking more than his share of Laban’s many flocks and other possessions. Laban has not been exactly pleased about this, but the two men have made a covenant, so at least Laban is not pursuing Jacob.

Now Jacob is going home, and, of course, he has not forgotten that his older brother, Esau, had vowed to kill him. He sends messengers ahead to tell Esau that Jacob is on his way with many possessions and is seeking the favor of his brother. They have met Esau and given him the message. Jacob is hoping that Esau will be properly impressed with all of Jacob’s things, see that Jacob is a man of substance and power, and maybe decide not to kill Jacob after all. He has heard from his messengers that they have met Esau, and Esau is heading toward Jacob with four hundred men.

Jacob splits all the people and animals and possessions into two groups and sets them on ahead, thinking that, if Esau kills everyone and everything in one group, perhaps the other group will survive. Then he prays to God for help.

It is night, and night, especially in those times, was considered a mysterious and dangerous time. Anything could happen.

Now Jacob is left alone and vulnerable on the banks of the river.  The text tells us that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” They are about equal in strength. As they struggle, the man strikes Jacob in the hip and knocks it out of joint. Then the man asks Jacob to let him go because dawn is coming. But Jacob has figured out that this is not just a man. This is at least an angel and probably God. Jacob says he will not let his adversary go until the adversary gives him a blessing.

God asks Jacob his name, Jacob tells the truth. His name is Jacob. In those days, people believed that giving your name gave the adversary power over you. Jacob is surrendering his power to God. And then God gives Jacob a new name—Israel.  Jacob the supplanter becomes Israel, “he who has striven with God and man and has prevailed.” He is now the head of the tribe of Israel. Jacob names the place Peniel, “for I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” Scholars tell us that Peniel means “the face of God.”

Jacob has seen God face to face. In ancient times, people believed that you could not see God and live. But Jacob has actually wrestled with God and has been given a new identity. He will forever walk with a limp. Sometimes our struggles leave us with scars.

This story is so compelling because all of us have struggled. We have struggled at times with God, asking for direction in difficult situations. We have struggled with ourselves when we get to a crossroads in life and we’re trying to discern which path to take. We have struggled to take what we know is the right and difficult path instead of the wrong and easy path.

Now, we are struggling with a deadly virus and all of its implications. Should we wear masks when we are around other people and can’t social distance? Definitely yes. Our medical experts make that clear. Should we open our schools, and, if so how? Should Congress pass an aid package, and, if so, what should it contain? Will life ever return to normal, or what we used to call normal? At this point, we may have more questions than answers.

As it turns out, Esau arrived with his four hundred men, and Esau hugged and kissed Jacob, and they both wept with joy to see each other. God is always at work. God is always with us, transforming us into the people God calls us to be.

In our gospel, Jesus has just heard of the murder of his beloved cousin, John the Baptist. He goes off in a boat to a deserted place to pray and the people follow him. When he goes ashore there is a huge crowd, and he has compassion on them and heals those who are sick.

Evening is coming. The disciples tell Jesus to send the people away so that they can buy food. But Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” What is their response? “We have only five loaves and two fish.” They are operating from a theology of scarcity. This is all we have, they think. We can’t possibly feed these people. 

Jesus takes the loaves and fish, looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the loaves and fish. This is a Eucharistic action. The disciples feed the people and there are twelve baskets left over. Over five thousand people have been fed. Last year our food shelf fed a little over four thousand people. God always gives us the gifts we need to do our ministry.

We are struggling with a powerful virus. And we are struggling with our long history of racism. Jacob thought Esau was going to kill him. Instead, Esau hugged and kissed him and they had a good healing cry. The disciples saw only a huge crowd of hungry people for whom they could do nothing. Jesus fed the crowd. God is always at work. God is a God of abundance, a God of healing and wholeness, a God of transformation, and, always, always, a God of love.

God is leading us on our journey through this pandemic and our journey toward honoring the dignity of every person. God is also feeding us with God’s wisdom and guidance in the difficult decisions we will need to make. God is calling us to stay on the path of the Way of Love. Let us seek and do the will of our loving God. Amen.

May we say together the Prayer for the Power of the Spirit.

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