Year A: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (August 3, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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 ‘iysin 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).

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

While I was in college, I went to see a college chaplain to talk about the things in the creeds I didn’t believe.  I really expected her to try to argue me into belief.  Instead, she smiled and leaned back in her chair and said, “Yeah, a lot of people have trouble with those ideas.  Instead of talking about what you don’t believe, why don’t we start with what you do believe.”

As we talked through the Nicene Creed, we came to the line, “for us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven,” and I realized that as much trouble as I was having with the “he came down from heaven,” part, I had no doubt that whoever Jesus was and whatever it was he did on Earth, he did indeed do it, “for us and for our salvation.”  It was a tiny foothold, but it was a place to start. I thought of that conversation when I read Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand.

For the last few weeks, our Gospel lessons have centered on Jesus parables of the kingdom.

“The kingdom of heaven is like – – a sower goes out to sow, a mustard seed, leaven in bread;” all of which have to do with how the kingdom takes a small thing and turns it into a big thing quickly.

Today’s lesson shows that “the kingdom of heaven is like a man who took five loaves and two fish and turned them into more than enough for over five thousand people.”  This lived out parable also show that the kingdom of heaven, in the person of Jesus, is indeed here, “for us and for our salvation.”

As the story opens, Jesus has just learned the sad news of his cousin John (whom we know as John the Baptist) being beheaded by the king.  Jesus needs time to grieve and acts to get it, stepping into a boat with his disciples and sailing across the lake to a lonely place.  But the crowds figure out where he is going and run to meet him.  Can’t you just imagine Jesus looking out at that crowd and thinking, “Come on people, give me a break.”  I’m almost positive some of the disciples, probably Peter and James and John (the Sons of Thunder) were already out of the boat, acting like burly body-guards, pushing people away.

But Jesus will have none of it.  The text says “he had compassion.”  For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.”  The kingdom of heaven is like – – – Jesus.

So, in the midst of his own grief, Jesus reached out to those in need.  Too often, we leap over the next few words to get to the miracle part, but we need to linger here a minute.  The text says, “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”  In the mainline churches, many of us have shy away from the healing ministry of Jesus.  Perhaps it reminds us too much of tent revivals and TV evangelists with big hair and expensive suits.  It’s not so much that we think it’s wrong; it just seems a little tacky.

But Jesus’ ministry of healing was a profoundly important part of his mission.  Jesus was not, in the words of an old Johnny Cash song, “so heavenly minded that he was no earthly good.”  Jesus changed people’s lives in the here and now as well as in the sweet by-and-by.  For us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to take up our cross with his, we must embrace our own call to cure and heal the lives of others.  It is a call for us to go beyond the anointing with oil and laying on of hands to a ministry of getting involved in the nitty-gritty of people’s day to day needs and problems.  We are called to join Jesus in having compassion and in channeling that compassion into positive action on behalf of others.

Now, here comes the part of this story that directly relates back to the mustard seed and the leaven.  Just like the disciples, we look upon a world full of problems and we think there is nothing we can do, or that what little we will do won’t amount to much.  With the disciples, we say, “Send the crowds away  . . . we don’t have anything here but five loaves and two fish.”

We can’t do anything about it; we don’t have anything here but some old folks and a few kids.

We can’t do anything about it; we don’t have anything here but enough money to pay the bills.

We can’t do anything about it; we don’t have anything here but, but, but, but . . .

And Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.”  Bring me the five fish and two loaves.  Bring me the old folks and kids, bring me your money, bring me what you’ve got.

And Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to the disciples to distribute. And it was enough for five thousand men, plus the women and the children. Indeed it was more than enough, there were basketfuls left over.

The kingdom of heaven is like – a mustard seed that turns into a tree that grows big enough for a bird to roost in.

The kingdom of heaven is like – leaven that a woman puts in the dough and the bread rises and rises and rises.

The kingdom of heaven is like – Jesus taking loaves and fishes and turning them into a feast that knows no end.

The kingdom of heaven is like – a congregation of Christians bringing all they are and all they have to Jesus, and being ready to be a part of the amazing new things God will do through them.

Amen and amen.

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