Year A — The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13)

Commentary for July 31, 2011

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Genesis 32:22-31
Every time we approach this text, we are tempted to focus on the question, “So who is ‘the man’ that Jacob wrestles with?” It is certainly intriguing — and the most common approach is that Jacob is wrestling, or struggling, with God.

To be honest, the ancient text is not that clear; that this is a heavenly, or other-worldly, being is fairly clear from the context. The opponent is merely called ‘iys in Hebrew — “man, person, someone, whoever.” Even when Jacob names his opponent as divine, it is elohiym — “mighty one, great one, judge.” This word is certainly used to refer to God in other texts, but can basically be any supernatural being (as the spirit of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28:13, or angels in Psalm 8:5.)

Perhaps the more important focus is on the fact that Jacob is wrestling. In this story, we have summarized his lifelong struggle with God, others and even with himself. He has been extraordinarily persistent in obtaining his goals, and he has survived often by the wit of his mind rather than the sweat of his brow (as was previously pointed out.)

Now, on the eve of his great reckoning with the brother who has sworn to kill him, Jacob again persists in battling what should be a superior being (one who is not, however, above triumphing with a “low blow” as in v.25.) 

It is Jacob’s submission to the greater power of God that matters here. The trickster, the joker, the one who has struggled his way to the top — now holds on for dear life and says, “I will not move on without the blessing of God.” He has come as far as he can in his own strength. 

And, thus — a new name. (See, Harry Potter hasn’t got a thing on the Bible!) The change of name signifies a change of heart, of commitment. No longer the Leg Puller, he is now The One Who Struggled — and Overcame

Jacob has finally arrived — he is Israel.

Psalm 17:1-7, 15
The psalm offers connection to the first lesson with the phrase, “if you visit me by night.” We are examined by God through the testing of our own lives. Sometimes, it is sleepless nights that offer insight or, at the least, deep examination of what matters most to us. May we wake to the satisfaction of God’s likeness in the world around us.

Isaiah 55:1-5
Thirsty, but there’s no water; hungry, but no money for food. What a vivid description of the way we come to God, seeking to be filled…to be saved! 

We are filled with God’s goodness, which is better than bread. Sating the senses lasts for a time, but life in the steadfast love of God — well, now you’re talking about a very long time, indeed!

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
There is no more personal nor important idea than v.18: “The Lord is near to all who call on him…in truth.” In a time when doctrinal issues divide God’s people all too easily, one of the simplest remedies is to remember that, finally, all any of us have to hope for is that God will hear us when we call. God is the final arbiter of truth, much as we might like to stake our title to that claim.

Romans 9:1-5
Paul clearly affirms the work of God through the nation of Israel. They have produced a mighty list of spiritual blessings: the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs and — last but not least — the Messiah!

It is stunning to stop and read that list and think of all that we would NOT have without God’s patient working through God’s people, Israel. No wonder Paul says that his feelings for his Jewish brothers and sisters was an “unceasing” passion.

Matthew 14:13-21
Again, the bulk of the attention in this story goes to the sensational — Jesus’ feeding of more than 5,000 people. The miracle deserves close examination and its implications are, indeed, many and applicable for our lives (you will enjoy Dr. Chilton’s treatment, below.)

But do not pass too quickly by the opening phrase of the text: “When Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there….” Jesus took a blow to the heart when he learned of the grisly demise of his elder cousin, John the Baptizer. 

I once heard Dr. Henry Blackaby say, “There is a great cost to those you love in order for you to be obedient to the will of God.” I can’t help but wonder if something like that didn’t wash over Jesus that day. Certainly, John was accountable for his own life and made his own decisions. Yet, how many people would be called to give their lives for this “call of God” on his own life?

There is always a cost to follow Christ. Sometimes, that cost drives us to withdraw for a moment, to count again just exactly what that cost is to ourselves and others. Hopefully –and by the grace of God — we find a way to emerge once more committed to following “the steps of Jesus where’er they go.” (Words: Ma­ry B. Slade, in The Am­a­ranth, by At­ti­cus G. Hay­good and Rig­don M. Mc­In­tosh, Nash­ville, Ten­nes­see: 1871).

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The first line of our Gospel lesson is when Jesus heard this. “This” is the execution by beheading of his cousin John, John the Baptist, by the evil King Herod.

The shock of bad news stays with us a long time, doesn’t it. I’m sure there are people here old enough to remember where they were when they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Two bits of bad news stick in my memory as clearly as if they happened yesterday; the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the events of 9/11.

When Jesus heard this, when Jesus learned that John was dead, I’m sure his heart sank and his eyes swelled up with tears and his stomach hurt and all he wanted was some time and space to think and pray and be alone with his friends. There’s nothing in the Bible to back it up, but I’ve always enjoyed imagining Jesus and John playing together as boys, at family reunions and such.

After all they were practically the same age; surely they saw each other at Grandma’s house and maybe hung out together as teenagers; maybe fishing and swimming with the gang. Like I said; there’s nothing in the Bible to back it up, but it’s at least likely, don’t you think?

Of course, as adults they went their separate ways. Apparently Jesus stayed near home, working in the carpenter shop while John “got religion” and went of in the desert to study at the Essene Bible College.

Now when John started making a name for himself preaching and baptizing down at the Jordan River, Jesus heard about and decided to go see what Cousin John was up to. And when he got there he was baptized by John and his life changed forever. Jesus came up out of that water, and the Holy Spirit spoke to him and his ministry began.

When Jesus heard this, he was deeply, deeply hurt. He needed time, time to be alone, time to pray, time to gather himself, time to grieve and time to cry. So, he got in a boat and headed out across the water to a deserted, lonely place. But, for Jesus, there was no getting away.

There was no opportunity for grief, no time to pray. The people followed him, ran around the lake to meet him. When Jesus got out of the boat, there they were, thousands of them, waiting for him.

Now, if Jesus had sent them away, asked them to leave him alone; well, that would have been understandable, wouldn’t it? But that’s not what he did. Jesus looked at them, and the Bible says, he had compassion for them. Maybe he looked at their faces, stared deep into their eyes and saw there the same sadness and loneliness and yearning for healing that he felt deep within his own soul. That’s what the word compassion means, to “suffer with” another person.

So Jesus sat down with them and had a healing service. He cured the sick though out the long afternoon. The dinner hour came and went and finally the disciples got hungry. They went to Jesus and said, in essence, “Uh, look Jesus, why don’t we call a break. It’s getting late and these people need to teat. If we stop now, they’ll have enough time to walk back to town before the stores close.”

Apparently the long afternoon had restored Jesus’ spirits. He started teasing the disciples. “Hey guys, who don’t you feed them yourselves?” Jesus was probably grinning while the disciples protested, “But Lord, all we’ve got is five loaves and two fish!” 

Could it be that the disciples were saying, “ All we’ve got is what we brought for our own supper. We’ve only got enough to take care of our own needs. We care about these people and their hunger; but, hey, we’ve got to take care of ourselves first, don’t we?

Jesus smiled and said, “Bring me what you’ve got.” Then he had everyone sit down and he said the blessing and he started breaking the food into pieces and had the disciples give it out to the people. And it was enough. Actually, it was more than enough; they had more left over than they had when they started. Then and only then did Jesus dismiss the crowd, send the disciples away in the boat and slip away into the mountains to pray.

And he had compassion. In the middle of the world’s trials and tribulations, pains and sorrows, mis-steps and mis-deeds, dis-appointments and despair; these four words, and he had compassion , reveal to us the heart and soul of the Gospel.

The assurance that God knows and God cares, the promise that God understands and God heals is the one thing that can keep us going when all else fails. Jesus’ response to John’s death and the crowd’s need is a gentle whisper across the centuries that the God of our salvation IS a very present help in time of trouble.

Jesus knew through personal experience, the pain of loss, the emptiness of the death of a loved one.

Jesus felt the shock and hurt of betrayal and misunderstanding. Jesus experienced first hand the utter loneliness of feeling abandoned by God. Jesus knew the confusion when you do your best, but your best doesn’t seem to be good enough. Jesus compassion for us is rooted in his own experience of the troubles we face in life.

The Incarnation, the belief that Jesus was God in the flesh, is NOT important because it is a miracle that proves that Jesus is God’s Son. It is important because it teaches us that God is not distant and removed from us; but is here in the midst of life with us, not judging and critical but caring and compassionate. Jesus’ acts of compassion, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, teach us how to be the body of Christ in the world. What Jesus began then he continues in us today.

All too often we are like the disciples. We recognize the needs of others, we shake our heads and fret over their troubles; perhaps we even offer them suggestions as to how they can fix themselves.

But when it comes to going beyond that, well we say, “We’ve only got enough here to take care of ourselves.”

The important thing about the feeding of the 5000 is not the miracle of Jesus turning those five loaves and those two fish into a meal for the multitude. The important thing is that this story calls us to raise our eyes above our own needs and above the limits of our own resources so that we can see the needs of the world around us and the power of a compassionate God who will take what we freely give and turn it into enough and more.

We are called to be a community of compassion; a place and a people who show the world that God is alive and God is love. Amen and amen.

4 thoughts on “Year A — The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13)

  1. It's good to see you step outside your usual comfort zone and tackle this text without stories. The reader still experiences the Gospel, and the sermon has an appropriate weight to it. But lose the caps. The meaning is so clear that you do not have to visually shout at us.

  2. Thanks for reading and for honest feedback. Re: all aps; a failure of editing. I wrote the original manuscript for the pulpit and I use caps insstead of quotation marks, not as visual shouting. When I edited it for the blog, I took out the caps, but ineptly posted the wrong version. Sorry for yelling at you. Delmer Chilton, AKA, Dr. Bubba #2

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