Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Genesis 32:22-31; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
August 6, 2017
Every day we have encounters with God. Some are rather dramatic and others are not even noticed. We have seen from our scripture readings three different encounters – one encounter is an intense wrestling match. Another encounter carries such a heavy load that Paul is ready to die for his kinsmen. Then the third encounter is characterized by strong compassion in the feeding of the hungry. Our question this morning, then, is how could these encounters possibly represent any experience that we have? We see that there are times when we have intimate experiences with God that leave us drained. We may even have deep concern with those relatives or close friends for whom we are ready to make great sacrifices. Then there are times when God gives us a nudge to help others who are hungry.
The first encounter is that of Jacob and his physical encounter with God. Everything is at stake here. Jacob’s family and future are on the line. This is Jacob’s first confrontation with Esau since Jacob (whose name means “Grabber”) had snatched both birthright and blessing from his brother. The last encounter with God was at Beth-el when Jacob saw angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. He was told that all the land would belong to his descendants, they would number as many as the stars and through them the earth would be blessed. Jacob had heard nothing else in the 14 years he had worked on his uncle’s sheep farm. So, he may be wondering was that really a promise at Beth-el, or just a dream? And might that dream come to a tragic end the next morning when he faces Esau?
Jacob could easily lose everything. Esau’s throng was nearly a small army that could easily crush Jacob’s. And given what Jacob had done to him, Esau would seem to have every right to do so. No wonder Jacob wrestles all night long, the “Grabber” is trying to find something to grab onto – some hold that he could keep.
Have any of you wrestled? In college, I took a wrestling class. Now that is one sport that demands every sinew of strength that you possess! It is like trying to concentrate every ounce of strength in hopes of moving an immovable object. One time, being a good academic, I studied for an exam all night long. The next day I went to my wrestling class to face my opponent and I quickly used up all my limited strength. All at once my body totally rebelled and I collapsed and was pinned by my opponent. Now nothing was put out of joint but I certainly felt very weak afterward.
In Jacob’s case, he would not relent in his wrestling. Even when, at daybreak, his opponent puts his hip out of the socket, Jacob will grab one more thing: a blessing. The blessing begins as a new name. No longer “Grabber” (Jacob) but “Wrestler-with-God” (Israel). The blessing begins with the new name, a new identity. Grabber won’t survive the night or what lies before him. Wrestler-with-God will. Then the stranger disappears, but his presence can be seen and felt in Jacob’s limp.
The story that Genesis continues to tell of Jacob’s life seems to tell the story of a whole different man. We no longer hear about the deceitful and greedy Jacob and this new Jacob isn’t one to run from his problems. Whomever it was that Jacob wrestled that night by the stream, he does limp away a better man!
This odd and remarkable story reminds me how our everyday encounters with God so often both wound and bless us. The story of Jacob may recall some of our experiences. When we look back on our lives, there are things that seemed at the time to be ordinary experiences but were really encounters with God. For Jacob, it was a wrestling match. For us it could be anything such as the birth of a child. We can certainly remember the compassion of a friend at a difficult hour. Then there are those we are praying for those who are serving overseas – we pray for them and try to send them assistance. And, we all grieve when tragedy occurs. These experiences change us, bless us, and leave us with many kinds of scars to remind us that we are different because of these encounters.
Then we come to Paul’s encounter with God when he is ready to die for his countrymen. In his confession of lament, Paul said he would be ready to be cut off, and accursed for the sake of his kinsmen. He says that his people have everything – adoption, glory, covenants, law, worship, promise, patriarchs, even the Messiah – everything! Everything God has ever offered in salvation is with them, nothing lacking. They have it all, yet many of them have nothing in the end. At the same time, many others are now being accounted righteous by faith in God’s promise of mercy, and the salvation which comes to all in Jesus Christ.
There are many Christians in all parts of the world today that have no Jewish people in their congregations. There are historical reasons for this, including the centuries of atrocities that Christians or persons claiming the name Christian have committed against Jewish people. In our recent history, we remember those of Hitler in Germany and Stalin in the Soviet Union. We cannot go back and undo what our forebears and some of our contemporaries in the faith have done to our Jewish siblings. But, we can resolve to do better going forward – and not only toward Jewish people. This week’s reading from Romans invites us to join in Paul’s sorrowful lament for the sake of the salvation of others. What forms of anguish are we in our congregation willing to endure, so our community can experience the joy of salvation?
Remember, too, that in Holy Communion we confess our sin, and seek reconciliation with God and neighbor. We offer thanksgiving, recalling the whole history of God’s saving work with humankind. We were slaves; God delivered us and continues to offer deliverance to all on earth. We were blind; Christ heals our blindness. We were sinners; Christ dined with us and died for us. We are still slaves, blind and sinful, with all humankind. Christ continues to offer himself to us in bread and wine. We are now able to continue God’s mission. We must do our part so that all we encounter hear and experience the good news of salvation.
The last encounter we see Jesus trying to find a quiet deserted place, but the crowds would not leave him alone. Before Jesus showed compassion for the hungry he learned of the sordid story of the execution of John the Baptist by Herod. Jesus is in Galilee, Herod’s territory, when he gets this word. He gets in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, hoping for some time apart to pray. Yes, even Jesus was troubled when he hears of the unjust treatment of this herald of his coming. Jesus was not setting out on the deep waters, the boat stayed along the shoreline. From where he was sitting, he could see what was happening there. Crowds were assembling, following along the shore as Jesus’ boat continued to sail. He could probably hear them, so neither solitude nor silence was possible. Whenever he would pull ashore, he knew what he would find. The crowd was waiting for him. That was all the rest he would get!
What follows parallels the Holy Communion. We take the bread and wine offered by disciples. We bless God. We seek God’s blessing on the bread. We break it and distribute it to those gathered. We gather the remains, and reset the table. Then we are sent, fed and healed, into the world and our next places of ministry. We have in the Holy Supper experienced the very presence of Jesus our Savior. There is also the deeper parallel as well. Just as Jesus heard of the death of his close friend, we get shocking news of some new atrocity that happens every day. Sometimes, these things shock our souls, and we feel the need to get away, to stop in our tracks, to regroup. But Jesus faced his sorrow by showing compassion to those who were in need.
During my time as a hospital chaplain, I frequently observed the sorrow of loved ones who were experiencing tragedy. My greatest desire would have been to simply wipe away the tears and turn their mourning into singing. That was not my option or capability. But what I could do, was to show them compassion and walk along side of them, to offer them a drink of water or meet any of their immediate needs.
Sometimes we face the same temptation that the disciples had as we minister to others in Christ’s name. Just like the disciples we may ask, “Jesus can’t we just send them away?” They asked Jesus to send the people off to be fed elsewhere. We often think that what we have to offer, is not enough. Then we assume that what we have in our hands, is all there is and it won’t do any good. There are too many in need. The twelve disciples could not possibly imagine how anything that they had could feed five thousand!
Jesus’ simple action of feeding a crowd with what was at hand counteracted the disciples feeling of helplessness. God’s abundance is right here, right now, and we think we don’t have enough! Not because our supplies are too small, but because we feel helpless in the face of such need. When we see the tremendous need here in our community and around the world we must not forget that our resources include God! When we multiply all the gifts of all those who belong to Christ’s body, indeed there are far more gifts available than just those represented here in this congregation. That is how the ministry of God’s kingdom grows, by becoming a vital force when we band together in the unity of Christ.
As we minister to those in need a strange thing happens. Not only are their needs met, but we are fed as well. As we live among the sick and needy all week long let us show the compassion that Jesus showed. Then we will be enriched by the experience. But, if we hoard our small portions for ourselves, we will become the ones who are hungry.
These encounters that were described for us in God’s Word today clearly challenge us. We are challenged to seek to draw closer to our Savior, even if it requires us to wrestle with the many demands in our life. In the final analysis, our priority is Jesus. As we draw closer to him we can become the instruments of his blessing to those we meet in our daily lives.
As we see those who are suffering because they have turned from the only source of true happiness, we are challenged to extend ourselves. We are not asked to die for those who need our Savior – Jesus already did that! Our role is to let them know through the way we live our lives, that Jesus is truly the way of joy and comfort.
Finally, each of us is challenged differently when we see someone in need. At times, a hug is sufficient. Then there will be times when we must make a sacrifice to allow Jesus’ compassion to show through us. The important commitment that our Savior is calling on us to do today, is to be willing to serve others as an extension of his love.
Are we ready to ask our Savior to use us in all the activities that we will experience this next week? When we make ourselves available to be his hands and feet here in our community, we can be a blessing. We can point others to Christ and by our actions we will show the compassion of Jesus our Lord! Amen!