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Pentecost 10 Proper 14A RCL August 13, 2017

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Last Sunday, we had an interesting and unusual event in our lectionary. When a feast of our Lord, such as the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, or, the Transfiguration of our Lord, comes on a Sunday, that feast supersedes the normal lectionary. This past Sunday, in reading the lessons for the Transfiguration, we skipped the lessons for the ninth Sunday of Pentecost.

So I am going to fill in just a little of the story of Jacob and his family. Last Sunday’s readings described Jacob sending his two wives, their two maids, his eleven children and all his possessions to go ahead of him so that, when they got to his brother Esau and Esau asked them whom they belonged to, they would say, “Jacob,” and Esau would know that his brother was returning home. It was Jacob’s sincere prayer that seeing his possessions and wives and children might inspire mercy on the part of Esau and prevent him from killing Jacob.

Meanwhile, Jacob stayed back and had his wrestling match with God. This left him with a dislocated hip and a new name, Israel. Esau did indeed have mercy on Jacob, and now we see how large the family of Jacob, now Israel, has  become.

But that old sin of envy and jealousy is running rampant. Envy is defined by my mentor David Brown as, “The inability to rejoice in the blessings and good fortune of others.” Joseph is loved by his father. He has a special cloak, that coat of many colors, that “amazing technicolor dreamboat.” He has a special place in his father’s heart, and his brothers want to kill him. Fortunately, Reuben persuades them to throw Joseph into a pit and at least leave him alive. Then, when the Midianite traders come by, Judah comes up with the bright idea of selling their brother to them for twenty pieces of silver. Thus Joseph is taken into Egypt.

In our epistle, Paul is quoting Scripture, specifically Deuteronomy 30:11-14. We do not have to go to great lengths to find Christ. We do not have to bring him down from heaven, and we do not have to bring him up from hell, where he descended to share his love with everyone and every part of the creation so that no one will be separated from him. The writer of Deuteronomy was referring to the law when he said, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” But Paul is extending that wisdom to our understanding of our Lord. He is near us. We do not have to go far to find him. He has come to earth to find us and to heal us and forgive us and give us grace to continue on our journey to him, and he is walking with us every step of the way.

Jesus is God walking the face of the earth. God has come to be with us. God loves us so much that God would come to be one of us.

In today’s gospel, Jesus has just fed the five thousand. He tells the disciples to get into a boat and go to the other side of the lake while he dismisses the crowds. And then, what does he do? He goes up to the mountain to pray. He goes to be with God, his heavenly Father. Jesus did this whenever he could. He went to God for guidance, sustenance. He went to his divine Father for feeding, refreshment, true peace, true direction. This is something we need to do each and every day, several times a day. The great moral theologian Kenneth Kirk said that this habit, recollection, going into the presence of God and reordering our hearts and lives, is the practice of the presence of God, and he said that recollection is “the habit of referring all questions to God.” That is what Jesus did so often, and that is what he is doing at the beginning of this gospel. He is so deep in prayer that by the time he comes back to what we are pleased to call reality, the boat is way out in the lake, the waves are high, and the boat is being battered by wind and waves.

Early in the morning, Jesus comes walking across the water, and they think he is a ghost. You know how the mist can sit on the water early in the morning. Everything can seem quite other-worldly, ghostly. They cry out in fear.

And he says those words that we can carry like treasure in our hearts: “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.”

Dear impetuous Peter imposes a bit of a test,”Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come.” So Peter jumps out of the boat into the water and he is doing just great until he notices how very strong that wind really is, and, just like that, he sinks like a rock. But he calls out to Jesus and Jesus reaches out his hand and grips him in that strong loving handclasp, asking him why he doubts. And they all know who Jesus really is.

This gospel has at least two very powerful messages for us. The first is that we need to spend time with God. We need to make time in our busy days to “be still and know that God is God.” We need to bask in God’s presence and let God’s love and healing seep into the depths of our being.

The other message is about fear. It is important to remember that fear is not always a bad thing. If we start to climb up a sheer mountainside with sharp drops on all sides and we feel afraid, that could be a helpful message that perhaps we are not quite up to that level of mountain climbing. So, on the positive side, sometimes the feeling of fear can be a helpful warning on behalf of our self-care.  

Then there is the other aspect of fear, and that is that fear can get in the way of our faith. Wise people have said that faith is the other side of the coin of fear and that faith is fear that has said its prayers. For me this means that sometimes we forget the message of our epistle and gospel today. We forget how close God is. All we have to do is reach out and the loving and steadying hand of Jesus will be there.

There are many scary things in this life and in this world, but we can’t let them stop us in our tracks. We are here to help God build God’s shalom, and we have to be about that work. Sometimes it can feel like a storm with ten foot waves and winds of fifty miles an hour out on the lake. But God is always with us. Amen.

Pentecost 8 Proper 13A RCL August 3, 2014

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

Our first reading today goes back centuries into ancient times. It was passed down though the oral tradition and was first written in our scriptures by the person we call the Jahwist writer, or J,  because this scholar referred to God as Jahweh. This writer worked around 950 B. C., so this version of the story dates back three thousand years.

God has called Jacob to return to his homeland. After some discussions with his wives, Leah and Rachel, and some negotiations with Laban, their father, Jacob has set out for home.

Jacob has heard that Esau is coming his way, and he is quite sure that Esau is still intent on killing him, so he splits all his possessions into four groups and sets them traveling at intervals so that, when Esau meets the first group of livestock and other possessions, those who are supervising that group will say, “All of this belongs to Jacob, “ and Esau will be impressed with Jacob’s wealth. Even after all that God has tried to teach Jacob, he is still operating on the assumption that one’s value depends on how much stuff one has. He is assuming that Esau operates on that value system as well, and that Esau  will be impressed and perhaps subdued by meeting four successive  accumulations of Jacob’s possessions. Also,  Jacob reasons, if Esau captures one or two of the groups of possessions,  one or two or three other sets of his wealth may still escape and remain his.

In terms of his spiritual journey, Jacob does a wise and courageous thing. He decides to spend the night alone by the River Jabbok, a river that feeds into the Jordan. In those days, people believed that, when you crossed a river, there was a river spirit there, and you had to get that spirit’s permission to cross. That is the origin of this story.

The identity of Jacob’s adversary is not made clear in our translation. He is simply referred to as “the man.” Jacob and his adversary are about equal in strength. The adversary injures Jacob. He strikes Jacob on his hip socket and Jacob’s hip is put out of joint.

They wrestle until the dawn is almost breaking. The adversary asks Jacob to let him go. But Jacob will not let him go until the adversary blesses him. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, we believe that Jacob is wrestling with God. God blesses Jacob and gives him a new identity. Jacob, the Supplanter becomes Israel, one who has “striven with God and humans and has prevailed.” Jacob names the place Peniel, because he now has seen God face to face. As the sun rises, he is limping because of his battle with himself and with God.

We all know what it is to wake up at two or three in the morning, worrying about a problem, perhaps a family member in distress or something else that has been weighing us down. We have all struggled with God in our own ways, maybe not as dramatically as Jacob, but in our own ways and in our own times. We have also wrestled with the darker sides of ourselves. Why don’t we just take the easy way out for once? What harm could it do to lie just this once? Or fudge the books? Or take this little tax break? Or this little drink or drug? What harm could it do, just this once, to take the easy wrong over the difficult right?

None of us is perfect, though we all try to seek and do God’s will, with the help of God’s grace. The reason this story is so compelling is that we have all wrestled with God, and that is because God is always calling us into more wholeness and more health.

Jacob comes out of this battle with a new identity and with a wound. We are constantly growing into the people God calls us to be, and we, too, are wounded.  But, you know what? We are stronger for those wounds.  Linda Sanford has written a wonderful book called Strong at the Broken Places.  There is much truth in that title.

Every time we go though a challenge and a struggle, with God’s help, we grow stronger.

Our gospel for today is the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus is tired. He has just heard about the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. He gets into a boat and goes to a deserted place by himself. Perhaps he is grieving John’s death. Perhaps is is scared, knowing that the authorities are watching him. Certainly he can use a rest, because the crowds are following him everywhere. They need his healing and they are hungry and thirsty for physical and spiritual nourishment.

When he gets to shore, the crowd is there. The disciples want him to send the people away to buy food. Jesus tells them to give the crowd something to eat. The disciples come from a theology of scarcity. “All we have is five loaves and two fish.” Jesus tells them to bring the offering to him. He makes sure everyone is seated on the grass. What a difference it can make when we take a situation that could be chaotic and introduce some order and calm.  Just taking the time to get into groups and sit down on the grass helps everyone to focus on the attention and love that Jesus is bestowing on these people.

He takes the bread, looks up to heaven, blesses the bread and breaks the bread. And feeds all these people with twelve baskets left over.

This is a Eucharistic action, to take, bless, break, and give the bread to the people. Jesus does this for us every time we gather to celebrate this feast of Thanksgiving.Jesus is always with us, to listen to us and care for us, to give us the grace to take the next step in our journey toward wholeness. And at every Eucharist, he feeds us with himself, with his love, his grace, his energy, his very self.

Our readings tell us that every encounter with God is filled with God’s grace.

May we always be deeply grateful to our Lord for his never-failing grace and love.   Amen.

Pentecost 7 Proper 13 July 31, 2011

Pentecost 7 Proper 13A RCL July 31, 2011

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

 Our first reading this morning comes from ancient sources, from a time when people believed that there were river gods or river spirits and one had to get the permission of those gods before fording the river. It was first written down by the writer we call the Jahwist, or J , who worked around 950 years before the birth of Christ, three thousand years ago.

 Jacob is headed home to see his father, Isaac. He has become rich. He has two wives, two maids, all kinds of livestock. He has sent some servants with gifts for his brother Esau, whom he cheated out of a birthright and a blessing. He is afraid that Esau will kill him.

 The servants come back saying that Esau is headed their way with four hundred men. Jacob is scared. He divides his wives, maids, and possessions into two portions and sends them over the river, figuring that, if Esau gets one batch, the other batch may be preserved. As we can see, Jacob thinks that success equals material possessions.

 During the night he wrestles with, the text says, “a man,” but we know that it is more than just a human. Various people have said that Jacob wrestled with an angel, but, by the end of the passage, we know that Jacob is wrestling with God, or perhaps with his darker side, as God calls him to become the person he is called to be.

Although this is a very old story, it has universal implications. If we are at all honest, we know that all of us struggle with certain aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to look at or examine. We would rather ignore these parts of ourselves. But God calls us to grow into wholeness. Sometimes this has a high cost. We all have wounds of one kind or another. Sometimes our own wounds and the struggle to bring our darkness into the light of Christ can be the source of our ability to help others on our journeys. I think of the insightful book by Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer.

Jacob wrestles through to a new identity, Israel, one who has striven with God and human, and has prevailed. Jacob knows that he has seen God face to face, and yet has survived that experience. He will forever walk with a limp.

The next day, Esau arrives with four hundred men. Far from killing Jacob, now Israel, Esau hugs him and kisses him, and they weep together.  We will meet Jacob again.

In our epistle, Paul expresses his sadness that his fellow Israelites are not all choosing to follow Jesus. He expresses his respect for all they his people have. In our time, it is crucial that we respect the faith of others, whether we are talking about Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, the spirituality of our First Nation peoples, or any other faith expression. Regarding Judaism, one of my most beloved mentors often points out that, in order to be a good Christian, we must first be a good Jew. In other words, we need to study and respect our heritage from Judaism.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is tired to the bone. The crowds are following him everywhere he goes. He gets into a boat to go off by himself. But the crowd walks around to the other side and meets him when he arrives. He has compassion on them and cures the sick among them.

The disciples want him to send the crowd away so that he and they can have a quiet supper. But Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” They take stock of what they have to work with. Immediately, they express a theology of scarcity. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” We don’t have enough. He tells them to bring him the loaves and fish. He takes them in his hands and looks to heaven. He takes, blesses, breaks, and gives this food to the people. This is a eucharistic action. When we take what God has given us, when we offer that to God, when we ask God’s blessing upon the gifts, when we break the bread and share it, it becomes more than it was, It becomes the food that Jesus gives us, the energy of his loving self, the gifts to do our ministry. So these five little loaves and two fish become enough to feed a crowd of over five thousand people.

Jesus can make a feast out of five little loaves and two fish. Jesus does not need a lot to work with. We don’t have to be a huge church with a vast staff of clergy and several choirs. We don’t have to have an organist every Sunday. We do not have to have oodles and oodles of programs. That was the Church of the Christendom era, as Anthony Robinson calls it in his book Changing the Conversation.

A small and lively congregation can wrestle through to its own sense of identity just as Jacob did. And it doesn’t have to emerge with a limp, either. A small congregation can be creative about finding ways to do high-quality Christian formation and support for its members and can discern the ministry or ministries to which it is called. I think Grace has been engaged in that process for many years.

When we think of ourselves, I hope we will be careful. Instead of saying, “Well, all we have is five leaves and two fish,” while comparing ourselves to great cathedrals, may we always remember that, with Jesus’ help and grace, we have all the gifts we need to do the ministry to which he is calling us.                            Amen