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Pentecost 10 Proper 14 August 9, 2020

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

Our first reading today is one of the most famous in the Bible and in Christian education classes—the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was his father’s favorite, and Jacob made his beloved son a coat with long sleeves, what we have come to call Joseph’s “coat of many colors”, or Joseph’s “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Joseph did have dreams, which he shared with his brothers, and this did not help the situation, One dream that particularly got their goat was that they were in the field binding sheaves when Joseph’s sheaf 

rose above his brothers’ sheaves, and the sheaves of his brothers worshipped his sheaf.

In our reading, Israel sends Joseph out to find his brothers. When Joseph finally finds them after some investigation, his brothers conspire to kill him. Reuben arrives just in time to stop them from actually killing Joseph and they decide to throw him into a pit. When Joseph arrives, they strip him of his clothes and throw him into the pit. It is dry, so at least he will not drown.

Then some traders come by, and Judah convinces his brothers to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelite traders for twenty pieces of silver. As Christians, we can’t help but think of the thirty pieces of silver which Judas received for betraying Jesus. The Ishmaelite traders take Joseph to Egypt. 

The Bible is a library of books written over centuries of time, and between its pages we can find all kinds of stories about things we humans can think and do. Together with the birth of Jacob and Esau, with Jacob hanging on to Esau’s heel, this story is one of the classic examples of sibling rivalry. What does it take for brothers to decide to kill their own sibling? Will Joseph seek revenge? Will he forgive his brothers? Joseph has an amazing, God-given gift for interpreting dreams, and we will see what happens.

In our gospel for today, Jesus has just fed over five thousand people. He tells the disciples to go across the Sea of Galilee while he dismisses the crowd. After the crowd leaves, Jesus goes to the mountain to pray. This is something that he did often. He took time apart to be with God. This is his wonderful example to us—to take time away in quiet to ask God for guidance. By the time he comes back to the shore of the lake, night is falling.

The disciples are out in the boat, but the wind has come up and the boat is far from the land. Large waves are battering the boat. The wind has blown them far out on the lake. With the howling of the wind and the size of the waves, they are afraid.

Jesus comes walking toward them on the water— right through the waves, the wind, and the chaos. They see him, but they do not recognize him. They are terrified. They cry out, “It is a ghost!” They are gripped in icy fear.

But then, Jesus speaks to them, and let us remember these words when we are sailing stormy seas with high waves and winds that threaten to swamp us: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

Peter immediately responds to the presence of his Lord. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Come.” So Peter starts walking toward him. But when he notices exactly how strong the wind is, fear rises in his heart  and he begins to sink. He calls out to Jesus, “Lord. save me!” And Jesus reaches out his hand to Peter and saves him. They get into the boat; the wind stops, and Peter says, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

How many times have we been afraid, stricken with pure terror, and we ask our Lord for help, and he stretches out his hand and saves us? We all know that fear can paralyze us. Our Lord can calm any storm. Our Lord can save us from the storms of life. He is reaching out his hand to us right now to steady us, lift us from the chaos of fear, and bring us to a safe place.

In our epistle for today, Paul says many wonderful things. He says, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” Jesus, the eternal Word who brought  the worlds into being, is near us. We can reach out our hands and touch him.

And the other thing that I think is very important for us to remember is that Paul writes here and in other letters, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.” In his Letter to the Galatians,  he writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek. there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28.)

Two thousand years ago, Saint Paul was telling us that there are no distinctions between human beings. God loves us all, infinitely and equally. Any distinctions of race, gender, class, social status and all the other things we humans have used to divide us are created by human beings, not by God. We’re all in the same boat. We’re all in this together.

Here we are, sailing in the high winds and choppy seas of Covid-19, and our Lord is saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” As we look out on the rest of our country and see that the rates of illness and death are rising in places where there have been large parties and other gatherings where folks were close together and not wearing masks, we might imagine to ourselves that our Lord might be telling us, “Do not be afraid, but do not be cocky. This is a powerful virus.Take care of yourselves, and take care of each other. I love you.”

When Jesus reaches out his hand to take us into the boat and bring us to safety, his hand is not only a hand of rescue, but it is a hand of guidance. He gave us minds so that we could do research and determine exactly what we are facing, and then take the actions we need to in order to stay safe and keep our brothers and sisters safe from illness and death. The Way of Love is to help everyone stay safe and stay healthy. May we continue to walk in the Way of Love. Amen.

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.

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 9 Proper 14A RCL August 10, 2014

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

In our first reading, we are continuing the story of Jacob, who has become Israel. Israel now has twelve sons. His beloved wife, Rachel, the mother of Joseph and of Benjamin, their youngest son, has died. Joseph is Israel’s favorite son. He helps his brothers to tend the flocks, and he has just given Israel some negative feedback on the work and behavior of his brothers.

Joseph is a dreamer. He also has visions. Some of those visions indicate that he is going to be more powerful than his brothers. As we can imagine, this does not exactly make him popular among them. On top of that, Joseph has been given what a later musical called his “amazing technicolor dream coat.” His brothers do not like that at all.

Israel sends Joseph out to see how things are going with his brothers, and, as they say, the rest is history. They want to kill him, but Ruben prevents that. Finally, they throw him into a pit and sell him to some traders. They dip his wonderful coat of many colors in goat’s blood and tell their father that Joseph is dead. The traders take Joseph to Egypt, where he reaches the highest position in the land. He becomes the chief assistant to the pharaoh. We will pick up the story next Sunday.

These stories, which go back so far in history, are fascinating because we know about these family dynamics, and they are timeless. Younger brother takes on airs and ambitions, seems to want to lord it over older brothers. Older brothers get mad and do something awful to him. Sibling rivalry is alive and well, and people don’t always behave the way God wants us to. We will tune in next Sunday for the amazing way in which Joseph deals with his brothers.

In our gospel, Jesus has just fed the five thousand. He makes the disciples get into the boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which, as we know, is a big fresh water lake. We can think of Lake Champlain or maybe Missisquoi Bay. When the winds and storms come up, the Sea of Galilee, like Lake Champlain, can be a terrifying and treacherous place.

Jesus dismisses the crowds and goes up the mountain to pray. What a wonderful model for us. He has been working hard. He has been ministering to these people, healing them, feeding them. Loving them. He knows that he needs to spend time with God. He needs to renew his energy. As the song implies, we cannot be a light to others unless we keep putting oil in our lamp. Jesus constantly turns to God in prayer.

Meanwhile, out on the lake, the wind has come up, and the boat is being battered by the waves. They are far from the land and the wind is against them. Jesus comes walking on the water. What is their response? They are so scared that they do not even recognize him. Have you ever been so afraid that you couldn’t even recognize God, or recognize the help that was coming to you? Sometimes, when a person is drowning and a rescuer comes to save the person, he or she will flail about and fight the rescuer. As strange as it may seem, sometimes we do not recognize God’s presence and God’s willingness to help us. They actually think Jesus is a ghost. They scream in fear.

And then Jesus speaks those words, the words we so need to hear: “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.” How many times have we gotten caught in heavy seas and called upon Jesus to rescue us? How many times have we felt overwhelmed with problems and scared out of our wits. We struggle and struggle and finally we remember to pray. Always that strong arm is there. Always that loving face is there. Our Lord is always with us to help us.

That is the point of our epistle today. God is always near us. On our lips and in our hearts. God is Lord of all. If we feel that the boat is sinking, Jesus is right there with us, calming the storm.

Today’s readings are a call to renewed faith, especially in the face of things that we know are beyond our control, things that are terrifying. Like the situations in the Middle East and in Ukraine, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the suffering of so many people around the world, and the pain and suffering of those close to us. We can pray, and there is help. Our loving God does care about these situations and these people.

Loving God, help us to remember that we are all in the same boat, and you are in the boat with us. Give us the grace to pray, to recognize you, to seek your will, and to help you to build your shalom of peace and
harmony. In Jesus’ name. 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.