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August 2, 2020 is Pentecost 9A/Proper 13A/Ordinary 19A
Genesis 32:22-31 – Jacob wrestles with God/the angel, in our ongoing walk through Genesis.
Isaiah 55:1-5 – Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Psalm 17:1-7, 15 – An interesting juxtaposition with Jacob’s dream in the Genesis reading: if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress… As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 (16) – The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
Romans 9:1-5 – They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Matthew 14:13-21 – 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.
Prayer of the Day
Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. One does not live by | bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the | mouth of God. Alleluia. (Matt. 4:4)
Before I begin, I want to offer a word of thanks to Aimee Elles on our staff, and John Turnquist, both of whom read and proof these posts each week. Aimee also edits and posts the weekly podcast. Thanks also to Don Carlson who researched some of this post a few years ago.
Genesis 32 – Jacob wrestles with the angel
To fully appreciate this coming Sunday’s reading from Genesis 32, we need to recall where we are in the story. On July 19, 2020 we read about Jacob’s ladder, in Genesis 28. Jacob was in liminal space. In reality, he had fled for his life to the border of Israel and Canaan. In his dream, he was on the border between heaven and earth, space and time. In that dream he received grace, the patriarchal promise of progeny, and patriarchal promise of protection, in spite of his many deceptions and betrayals.
This week’s story is four chapters and twenty years later, according to Genesis 31:41. You know the background story: Last week we read about how Jacob came to marry the two sisters, Leah, the elder daughter of Laban, with the tender eyes, and Rachel, the younger, who is pleasing to the eyes. He worked seven years for Rachel, but Laban switched out Rachel for Leah on the wedding day, tricking Jacob. Served Jacob right, for his many deceptions. So then he worked another seven years for Rachel, who he “loved more.”
Leah gave birth to Simeon, Reuben, Levi, and Judah. Rachel was having trouble getting pregnant, and getting desperate, so she gave her servant Bilhah to Jacob. Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah got jealous, so she gave her servant Zilpah to Jacob. Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher. Then Leah gave birth to Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah. (For a midrash on Dinah’s rape, check out this awesome but challenging read: The Red Tent). Finally, Rachel gave birth to Joseph, then died giving birth to Benjamin.
Jacob had two wives, two concubines and at least fourteen children. This is why I always chuckle when I hear the phrase, “We believe in biblical marriage.” I think not.
Jacob is doing well. His flocks are increasing. He is, however, having trouble with his father-in-law Laban, and also with Laban’s sons. Jacob’s flocks have done better than theirs, so they are jealous. The tension builds. His life is in danger, so God tells Jacob to return to his homeland.
Afraid of what Laban would say, Jacob sneaks out with his wives, concubines, kids and all the cattle which he considers his (but which Laban considers his). 3 days later Laban discovers they were gone and furiously sets out in hot pursuit. 10 days later Laban catches up. It is only a dream from God that prevents Laban from killing Jacob the cheater, who always seems to be in hot water with someone. Laban is angry, at the loss of his daughters, grandchildren and flocks, but somehow they are able reach an agreement. Jacob erects a standing stone, like he did at Bethel after his ladder dream, and they part company.
Safe finally? Except this: A scout tells Jacob his betrayed brother Esau (whom Jacob had cheated out of his birthright and his father’s blessing) is approaching with 400 men. The last time they were together, Esau had vowed to kill Jacob. Uh oh. Jacob divides the entourage into two camps. This gives him a 50/50 chance of surviving. Always the trickster. Then he sends gifts to Esau. A peace offering? 200 female goats, 20 male, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 40 cows, 20 female donkeys, 10 male donkeys, 10 bulls, 30 female camels and so on.
This is the point that our reading for this coming Sunday begins.
In the night, Jacob packs up and sends ahead his wives, slaves and children. Esau wouldn’t kill them would he? Jacob himself stays on the far side of the river to watch what happens. Most would protect the women and children, but ever the scoundrel, Jacob acts in a cowardly fashion. I love it when people refer to the “Heroes of the Bible.” Have they read the Bible? Not so much. These are stories of deeply flawed people in highly dysfunctional families, whom God uses for God’s purposes anyway. This should give us all hope. Is it possible that God can use us too, in spite of our failings?
In the middle of the night, waiting to see how things go with the women and children, and Esau, Jacob is tossing and turning. He has one of his many dreams. This is a bad dream. No stairway to heaven this time. In his dream, he wrestles with a man, and when it is all over, although he prevails, he is left with a broken hip. Did Jacob wrestle with an angel, or with God? Hosea (12:3-5), in his poetic prophecy recalling Jacob, seems to think both:
In the womb he tried to supplant his brother,
and in his manhood he strove with God.
He strove with the angel and prevailed,
he wept and sought his favor;
he met him at Bethel,
and there he spoke with him.
The Lord the God of hosts,
the Lord is his name!
This is a common motif. Remember in June, when we read about Abraham meeting with the three figures near the oaks of Mamre? Later we are told Abraham met with the Lord.
In Jacob’s dream, he asks for a blessing. Classic Jacob. “Give me something.” The man asks Jacob’s name, and renames him Israel (which means “who prevails with God”). Jacob also apparently believed he wrestled with God: “Certainly I have seen God face to face and prevailed.” Jacob was the first to think he was a hero.
This is where our reading ends, but it’s good to know the rest of the story. Esau approaches with over 400 men. Jacob, limping, puts the slaves and their children out front, then Leah and her children, the Rachel and her children. Priorities, right?
At the climax of the encounter, Jacob goes out front to face the music. He goes up to Esau and bows his head to the ground seven times. The listener is in agony to see how Esau will respond. Esau begins running toward Jacob, and the last minute, embraces him and kisses him.
This story is grace upon grace upon grace. All of Jacob’s life is grace, in spite of himself.
Some have called this a pre-incarnation appearance of Christ. That may be a bit much.
Homiletical possibilities abound. Every interesting person I have known has wrestled with God in one way or another. You can wrestle with God, but you’ll probably come away with a limp. Can we as preachers speak of our own wrestling with God? Can you dig deep and tell a story of your own Jacob moment? Let people know that their own wrestling with God isn’t unfaithfulness, but rather a normal experience, one that even Jesus had. “Let this cup pass from me.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…”
In this story, God appears as a dark and disguised threat, not as a protector. Sometimes our experiences of the divine are like that. You will wrestle with God, but it’s an uphill battle. You never come out the same. Just ask Jonah.
Jacob’s dreams and encounters with God come when he is exposed and vulnerable. Has this been true for you? Fears, darkness, loneliness, vulnerabilities, empty feelings of powerlessness, exhaustion and relentless pain are often precursors for a divine encounter. Ever been there?
Jacob is forced to confront his fears, weakness, sin, failings, and ruthlessness. Luther calls this tentatio in Latin. Anfechtung in German. In Luther’s theology of the cross, this is a path to God. Suffering often reveals God. There is no revelation without agitation. There is no art without struggle, without confronting our brokenness, our restlessness, our pain and weakness. Think about Paul’s thorn in the flesh.
When have you wrestled with God? Why? When have you experienced the Dark Night of the Soul, described by St. John of the Cross? What keeps you up at night? When have you experienced undeserved grace and blessing? You will receive blessings, in your divine encounters, but you may come away with a limp.
If this blessing were easy,
anyone could claim it.
As it is,
I am here to tell you
that it will take some work.
This is the blessing
that visits you
in the struggling,
in the wrestling,
in the striving.
This is the blessing
after you have left
after you have stepped out,
after you have crossed
into that realm
beyond every landmark
you have known.
This is the blessing
that takes all night
It’s not that this blessing
is so difficult,
as if it were not filled
or with the love
in every line.
It’s simply that
it requires you
to want it,
to ask for it,
to place yourself
in its path.
It demands that you
stand to meet it
when it arrives,
that you stretch yourself
in ways you didn’t know
you could move,
that you agree
to not give up.
So when this blessing comes,
borne in the hands
of the difficult angel
who has chosen you,
do not let go.
into its grip.
It will wound you,
but I tell you
there will come a day
when what felt to you
was something more
as you moved into
of your new
and blessed name.
from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief
Isaiah 55:1-5 – You who have no money: Come and Eat!
If you choose to preach the Feeding of the 5,000, below, Isaiah 55 may be the better choice for the first reading.
Isaiah 55 is the last chapter in Second Isaiah. First Isaiah, chapters 1-23, 30-39, are pre-exilic. Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55, are exilic. Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66, post exilic. Fourth Isaiah, chapters 24-29, are post exilic.
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
The most profound and troubling words in this passage come in the second verse, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Walter Brueggemann’s article, “Counterscript,“ speaks to these words in 19 theses. Three of the more pointedly germane theses talk about a common script that empires hold, especially today. I quote them at length:
3. The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.
- I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.
- I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot he solved.
- I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.” Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.”
The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.
It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated.
4. This script — enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology, especially in the several liturgies of television — promises to make us safe and happy. Therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism pervades our public life and promises us security and immunity from every threat. And if we shall be safe, then we shall be happy, for who could watch the ads for cars and beers and deodorants and give thought to such matters as the trade deficit or homelessness or the residue of anger and insanity left by the war or by destruction of the environment? This script, with its illusion of safety and happiness, invites life in a bubble that is absent of critical reflection.
5. That script has failed.I know this is not the conclusion that all would draw. It is, however, a lesson that is learned by the nations over and over again. It is clear to all but the right-wing radio talk people and the sponsoring neoconservatives that the reach of the American military in global ambition has served only to destabilize and to produce new and deep threats to our society. The charade of a national security state has left us completely vulnerable to the whim of the very enemies that our security posture has itself evoked. A by-product of such attempts at security, moreover, has served in astonishing ways to evoke acrimony in the body politic that makes our democratic decision-making processes nearly unworkable.
We are not safe, and we are not happy. The script is guaranteed to produce new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness. And in response to new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness, a greater resolve arises to close the deal according to the script, which produces ever new waves and new depths.
This article was written in 2005; it is increasingly true today. A marvelous song of the best songs based on this text from Isaiah 55 John Foley’s Come to the Water – original arrangement and contemporary arrangement. Download the sheet music and MP3 arrangement samples.
I think of all those who are participating in food distributions in this difficult time. Come you who have no money. You who cannot work because of the pandemic, come and eat
Daniel Kirk points out that these first five verses of Romans 9 are an introduction to Paul’s argument in chapters 9-11. If salvation is now open to Gentiles, where does that leave the Jews? Kirk also points out that this passage is quite self-referential. In the English translation, Paul uses “I” or “my” over a dozen times. This is personal for Paul.
In chapters 1-8, Paul discussed the unity of Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) – a unity they shared in and through Christ.
In chapters 9-11, Paul now addresses the unity shared by Jews and Christians. (Chapters 12-16 will concern the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.)
Paul makes it clear that the covenants and promises are intact:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
One should read through chapters 9-11 in one fell swoop to get a sense of what Paul is after rhetorically. 11:25ff is one of the high points,
So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,
‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer;
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’
‘And this is my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.’
Paul is a Jew. In fact, he is a Pharisee. He cannot understand why his fellow Jews don’t see in Christ, the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. This section of Romans has been used anti-Semitically, but not Paul. Paul is a Jew, speaking to Jews. His conclusion, even in his agonizing disappointment, is that all Israel will be saved. God will make good on the covenant’s promises. Period. In other words, don’t think that you are wise enough to determine who ought to be “in” and who ought to be “out.” God is up to the business of inclusion, not exclusion. The reign of God is a centripetal, not centrifugal, force.
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen.
Matthew 14: A Tale of Two Banquets
13Now 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. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When 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.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then 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. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand is an important text. It is one of the few stories that appears in all four gospels.
The text begins, “When Jesus heard this…” The congregation won’t know what “this” is. “This” is the announcement of John the Baptist’s death, Jesus’ cousin. He is devastated, so he does on a boat to a deserted place, by himself.
The crowds, however, followed him. Like the story of Jacob, often God is revealed in the wake of a great crisis. It is when we are flat on our backs that we have nowhere to look but the heavens.
The Feeding in Matthew must be understood in light of the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s wedding banquet. Matthew is contrasting two banquets: Herod’s banquet and Jesus’ banquet. Matthew retains the juxtaposition of Herod’s banquet and Jesus’ banquet in Mark, from which he gets the story.
This Herod is not Herod the Great from the infancy narrative, who, as we know, died, making possible the Holy Family’s return from Egypt. This is Herod’s son, less powerful as indicated by the fact that he is simply identified as Herod the tetrarch. Herod the Great’s kingdom has been split into four territories, weakening it. Nevertheless, Hauerwas (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew) points out that this Herod seems to be skilled in the politics of death like his father before him.
These are two very different meal stories, as Barbara Lundblad (http://day1.org/1259-two_very_different_banquets) and Gordon Lathrop (The Four Gospels on Sunday) have both so articulately pointed out.
Herod’s banquet is in a lavish place. Jesus’ banquet is in a deserted place. In Herod’s place there is plenty. Excess even. It is a place of power. Call it a power lunch. There is plenty for a few, while the masses starve. Important officials are invited. Herod’s wife is there, the one he stole from his brother, an act of power which John the Baptist denounced. Women are brought in to perform and pleasure the powerful men. A powerless prisoner is executed for entertainment. Herod seems reluctant to execute John, but he has promised the party he would give Herodias what she wants. In order to maintain power, the powerful must maintain the myth of power. The leftovers of Jesus’ banquet are twelve baskets of bread. The leftovers of Herod’s banquet are death and decay: John’s head delivered on plate, like a pig, like the final course.
Barbara Lundblad asks,
Is it possible to maintain an empire and feed people who are hungry? The leftovers of empire have almost always been destruction and death–even in the name of peace and security. There is always enough money for weapons, but never enough to feed those who are hungry. Into such a world, Jesus comes with an alternative vision.
We who live in the world’s most powerful empire must ask this same question. When do the bloody sacrifices of being an empire compromise our ability to serve the world, to be a blessing?
In contrast to the banquet in Herod’s palace, Jesus’ feast is outdoors, in nature, a deserted place – a place to which he took his disciples for rest, but the crowds followed. It is not in a lavish place, like Herod’s banquet. Those invited to Jesus’ feast are not the few, the rich and powerful, they are the poor, the lame, the blind, as in Isaiah’s prophecies. This is consistent with Jesus’ preaching (Luke 14:13).
Herod takes much, then leaves behind only death. Jesus takes a little and makes a lot of it. He spreads things out so that everyone has enough. Herod consumes. Jesus multiplies.
The Feeding is an apt parable for a hungry world. Jesus provides for all. Sharing is the order of the day, the principle of the kingdom. “That’s communism!” Someone said to me once. “No, it’s enough-ism.” It’s not about everyone getting exactly the same. That might not be fair. It’s about making sure everyone has enough, that’s all. This is not so radical a concept. People aspire to more than just “enough.” But clearly, there are many in our world who do not have even enough. Half the world lives on $2/day. One quarter live on $1/day. The thing that drives me nuts is that we have the wealth and now the technology to feed everyone. There’s plenty of food. We seem to lack the will. This is my sin too. Me having more is apparently more important than everyone having enough. I reaffirm this self-centered reality with nearly every nonessential purchase.
“You give them something to eat,” is Jesus’ strong call, right up there with, “When I was hungry you gave me food,” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”
Barbara Lundblad echoes the prophetic voice:
Jesus knows we are perplexed, but my excuses are no better than those of the disciples! Jesus knew long ago what economists and hunger activists tell us now: we have everything we need to end world hunger. It would take $13 billion a year. That’s not even 3% of our defense budget.
Don Carlson suggests an article by Walter Brueggemann, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity, as a helpful read prior to preaching. Brueggemann refers to Mark’s account, but it works for Matthew’s as well.
The feeding of the multitudes recorded in Mark’s Gospel is an example of the new world coming into being through God. When the disciples, charged with feeding the hungry crowd, found a child with five loaves and two fishes, Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread. These are the four decisive verbs of our sacramental existence. Jesus conducted a Eucharist, a gratitude. He demonstrated that the world is filled with abundance and freighted with generosity. If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all. Jesus is engaged in the sacramental, subversive reordering of public reality.
The profane is the opposite of the sacramental. “Profane” means flat, empty, one-dimensional, exhausted. The market ideology wants us to believe that the world is profane – life consists of buying and selling, weighing, measuring and trading, and then finally sinking down into death and nothingness. But Jesus presents an entirely different kind of economy, one infused with the mystery of abundance and a cruciform kind of generosity. Jesus promises a new economy.
Five thousand are fed. 12 baskets of food are left over – one for every tribe of Israel. Jesus transforms the economy by blessing it and breaking it beyond self-interest. From broken Friday bread, comes Sunday abundance. In this and in the following account of a miraculous feeding, people do not grasp, hoard, resent, or act selfishly; they watch as the joy of heaven multiply the bread of earth. Jesus reaffirms Genesis 1.
The feeding of the 5000 – or 4000 in some accounts – shows up six times in the gospels. John Dominic Crossan suggests that loaves and fish are an allusion to Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee. Sepphoris, a very Romanized city, was the center for grain; the breadbasket of Galilee. Tiberias, built in honor of Tiberius Caesar, was a very Romanized city that was the center of the fishing trade. Both were built to feed and sustain the empire.
[Herod] Antipas had multiplied the loaves in the valleys around Sepphoris, and he now intended to multiply the fishes in the waters around Tiberias, for the kingdom of Rome. But a magnificently parabolic counter-story tells us how Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes- for the kingdom of God. (Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, p. 126)
As we have had parables about the kingdom of heaven for the past few weeks, this story then is also about the kingdom of heaven vis-à-vis the kingdom of Caesar. Where is nourishment to be found? Where is abundance to be found? To go back to Isaiah, where and what are the things that truly satisfy?
A final Brueggemann article, “Enough is Enough” elaborates on a theology of scarcity versus a theology of abundance, starting with Genesis. Make these very different ways of thinking and being in the world come alive for your people, for their own sake, and for the sake of the world.