A lot has happened since you and I were last together. While I was on vacation, a Malaysian air liner was shot down over Ukraine, most probably by Russian separatists. Israel and Hamas have been trading missiles and bombs over and into the Gaza strip, with hundreds of Palestinian deaths, largely civilians, and dozens of Israeli deaths, mainly soldiers. Ceasefires go up in smoke. Thousands of unaccompanied Central American children still stream through our borders and wait for adults to care for them. Congress…well, actually, not a lot has happened in Congress since you and I were last together.
Bruce and I were not so isolated or far away on vacation that this news didn’t find us…on our car radio as we traveled; in the newspapers we picked up to read over leisurely breakfasts (even leisurely Sunday breakfasts! What luxury!); or in our e-mail feeds when we checked them. The pain and sorrow and suffering of the world is no longer easy to escape, unless you really work on it. Even on vacation, even when you try to get away, the struggle goes on, our heart strings keep getting tugged at.
Our two readings for this morning–perhaps both fairly familiar–would seem to demonstrate the two poles of the religious life. On the one hand, the reading from Genesis tells the story of Jacob wrestling with, who? An angel? God? A river demon? Himself? Wrestling all night long until just before dawn Jacob’s hip is knocked out of joint and his opponent begs him to let him go. Jacob refuses unless the divine wrestler blesses him. “What is your name?” the “man” asks Jacob. And when he tells him, he says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel [i.e. the one who strives with God], for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
So there’s the wrestling with, the struggling with, God, on the hand. Have you been there? Why did you let this happen, God? Where are you, God? Why does the world have to be this way, God? Why can’t it be easy, just this once? I don’t want to do this thing that You keep putting in front of me to do, God. Can’t you help me stop (fill in the blank…)drinking…taking pills…eating too much…worrying…whatever? Can’t you do something to bring peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Between the Sunnis and Shia? How can you let this beautiful, world you created burn up or get destroyed? All night long they wrestled, until daybreak.
And then there’s the sitting on the grass to be fed by God. That’s why we go on vacation. That’s why we come here, some of us anyway. Even Jesus, when he had heard about the death of John the Baptist, “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” I just need to get away. I just need to be by myself. “Do not disturb,” please. Leave me alone. I know you’ve been there too. And if you think God is the reason for whatever has driven you to this place, it’s understandable that you’d want God to leave you alone. But maybe what you want is for God to hold you, or for God to feed you.
They do seem like opposite poles–wrestling with God on the one hand, maybe even getting your hip knocked out of joint, and on the other hand, sitting down on the grass where God offers you food and drink and rest–but each place is a place of blessing. If you only hang out at one pole–either relentlessly wrestling or endlessly sitting–the blessing fades, life is diminished. We know what relentless stress does to us and our bodies–it essentially fries us. But total, endless relaxation isn’t any better for us. You’ve heard of the phrase “Use it or lose it?” It turns out we need both stress and relaxation. Stress is only bad if there’s no let up. Creativity, new life, and strength all require labor, resistance, something to push against. That’s the wisdom in the rhythm of that first creation story–6 days of labor followed by a day of rest–the wisdom of keeping sabbath each week, the wisdom of taking time off, the wisdom of regular retreat or sabbatical time.
But the thing is, God was both in the wrestling and in the feeding. God is in the midst of our struggles for justice and peace and God calls us away to a deserted place. It’s not an either/or. It’s both/and.
We know that Jesus was not the only person in his day to be called “messiah” or even “son of God”–the Roman emperors claimed that name for themselves. He wasn’t the only healer or even miracle-worker. But from the very beginning of his gospel, Matthew calls Jesus “Emmanuel”–”God with us.” The gospels are clear, as one commentator writes, that all of the miracles or wonders that Jesus performs are “signs of the character of the God whose presence Jesus bears.” (David Lose, in the meantime, 7/28/14) The feeding of those five thousand plus people that day was one of those signs and wonders.
Jesus has gone away to a deserted place to re-group after he hears the news of John’s death. Gone away to grieve? To pray? To escape Herod? But the crowds also go away to that deserted place. Perhaps they too are overwhelmed at the news of yet another holy man being crushed by Rome. Perhaps they are looking for the next holy man to step up. We know many of them were in need of healing; all of them were hungry.
And when Jesus saw them, Matthew tells us, “he had compassion for them and healed their sick.” He had “compassion”–it’s not just pity, one commentator says, it’s a “body-related” word–”gut-wrenching” is more like it. Compassion, grief, hunger, all these deep body experiences, none of them intellectual statements of faith. “He had compassion for them and cured their sick. When 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.’” As if this crowd had money to buy food! “Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’”
“The place of abundance is here,” Jesus said to them. The disciples said, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” Send them away to the places where they sell food, send them to the marketplaces that are full of food. “They need not go away,” Jesus said; “you give them something to eat. The place of abundance is here.”
Imagine if we said that as a mantra–”The place of abundance is here.”[Mark Davis, Left Behind and Loving It, 7/28/14] Instead of waiting for “them” to do something about hunger, or war, or injustice, or pay for the new furnace or bring you fulfillment, what if we considered, “the place of abundance is here.” “Bring them here to me,” Jesus said of the 5 loaves and 2 fish. Which was really Plan B. Plan A was, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples couldn’t believe that was a viable option. “Bring them to me. The place of abundance is here.”
Frederick Buechner some thirty years ago drew a beautiful picture of what the “church” looks like at its best. “He was imagining people who come to church week after week – [from the wrestling to the resting]–what they looked like, what they were thinking, how they were changed. [2CC–changing lives since 1865]. Perhaps, on any given Sunday, Buechner mused, they weren’t changed much at all. He wrote:
Yet they kept on coming anyway, and beneath all the lesser reasons they had for doing so, so far beneath that they themselves were only half aware of it, I think there was a deep reason, and if I could give only one word to characterize that reason, the word I would give is hope.
They came here.. To get married and stood here with their hearts in their mouths and their knees knocking to mumble their wild and improbable vows in these very shadows. They came to christen their babies here–carried them in their long white dresses hoping they wouldn’t scream bloody murder when the minister took them in his arms and signed their foreheads with a watery cross. They came here to bury their dead, and brought in, along with the still finished bodies, all the most un-still, unfinished love, guilt, sadness, relief, that are part of what death always is for the living. In other words what they were doing essentially beneath this roof was offering up the most precious moments of their lives in the hope that there was a God to hallow them–a God to hear and seal their vows, to receive their children into [God’s] unimaginable kingdom, to raise up and cherish their dead. I see them sitting here, generations of them, a little uncomfortable in their Sunday best with their old faces closed like doors and their young faces blank as clapboard; but deep within those faces–farther down than their daydreams and boredom and way beyond any horizon of their wandering minds that they could describe–there was the hope that somewhere out of all the words and music and silences of this place, and out of a mystery even greater than the mystery of the cosmos itself, a voice that they would know from all other voices would speak their names and bless them. [from “A Room Called Remember,” cited by Theodore J. Wardlaw in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2014, p. 10]
Out of the mystery, a voice they would know from all other voices that would speak their names and bless them. Jacob wrestled for that. The crowds were hungry for that. Even Jesus strained to hear the Voice above all other voices that named him as Beloved. Broken and blessed. All of us, broken and blessed. This bread, this cup, broken and blessed. The place of abundance is here. We take and eat, take and drink, and so blessed we go out to offer God’s love and abundance to a hungry and thirsty world. “You give them something to eat.”
May it be so.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark