Sermon: "Wrestling with God"
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 17,1-7, 16; Romans 9.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21
Over the past few Sundays, we have looked at several of Jesus’ parables. The parable of the sower reflects God’s profligate sowing of the word of the kingdom of heaven and love; the parable of the good seed and the bad seed reflects God’s forbearance; and the parables from last Sunday reflect different aspects of the nature of God’s kingdom. We also noted Jesus use of parables to introduce the kingdom of heaven in a way which confronted people with an existential decision – an either/or, willfully following the lies of the world or choosing to become part of God’s kingdom on earth.
The gospel reading for this Sunday moves away from Jesus’ teaching about God and the kingdom of heaven and confronts the disciples with a call to action. Although our lesson considers the feeding of the 5000, the chapter opens with a feast celebrating Herod’s birthday. Here we have the trappings of wealth, power, and prestige. Herodias’ daughter danced and greatly pleased the king such that he promised to grant her whatever she asked. After consulting with Herodias, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Although Herod enjoyed conversing with John the Baptist, his reputation was on the line. John was beheaded and his head was delivered on a platter. John’s disciples then buried the body and told Jesus of the event.
Having heard this news, undoubtedly grieving John’s death, Jesus withdrew by boat to a deserted place. People followed on foot. When Jesus went ashore, he discovered a large crowd waiting for him. Moved by compassion, he healed their sick. Along about evening, the disciples said to Jesus, “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” (Matthew 14.15; NRSV). Their request was reasonable – send the people away so they could get home in time to buy their food. Imagine their shock when Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Matthew 14.16; NRSV).
Wait a minute Jesus – we checked and all we have with us is five loaves and two fish – that’s not enough for you and the twelve of us! But Jesus said, “Bring them here to me.” Jesus ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, took the loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, gave them to the disciples, who, in turn, gave them to the crowd. They ate and were filled, and twelve baskets of leftovers were collected – perhaps representative of the twelve disciples and the twelve tribes of Israel. We are told those who were fed were about 5000 men plus women and children.
This account from Matthew is interesting. It helps to remember that Matthew was casting Jesus as the new Moses – hence, the Sermon on the Mount parallels Moses’ receipt of the Law but has Jesus reinterpreting the Law. Moses was reared in the courts of Pharaoh among the wealth, power and prestige of the court, but ends up leading the children of Israel through the wilderness where God provides manna. The feeding of the 5000 is another parallel wilderness account, but even better – the people do not have to go out and collect manna, for Jesus takes the loaves and fish, looks to heaven, blesses, breaks, and gives! Here we have the pattern of a Jewish meal – a pattern we repeat in the celebration of the Eucharist wherein we take the bread, look to heaven, bless it, break it, and give it. Indeed, Jesus’ life fit this pattern.
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Ibid.). We can only speculate as to Jesus’ reasons for saying this to the disciples. Was he teaching them to own and act on problems they encountered? Was he teaching them what they could accomplish with limited resources? Was he teaching them to rely on God? We do not know. I find myself wondering about the disciple’s reaction to hearing “You give them something to eat.” In the brief interlude between saying this and his command to bring the loaves and the fishes, the disciples assessed what they had and undoubtedly wrestled with how they were going to accomplish what Jesus commanded.
Sometimes the ball gets dropped and we find ourselves at a Wednesday evening soup supper with no soup – we might wrestle for a minute or two before picking up the phone and calling Domino’s Pizza. This was a wilderness – there were no fast food outlets, but Jesus came up with one. We sometimes say everything is contained in the Bible – here we have the first fast food outlet with instant delivery!
Yes, the disciples must have briefly wrestled. Today’s reading from Genesis provides us with another account of wrestling. This match lasted all night – a lot longer! Jacob had been living in Haran, had worked for his uncle Laban and married his daughters, Leah and Rachel. Jacob had tricked Esau out of his birthright; he in turn had been tricked by Laban. Jacob’s family and wealth had grown to the point where he heard Laban’s sons complaining. God instructed Jacob to return to the land of his ancestors – this meant he would encounter Esau. Jacob prayed: “Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number’” (Genesis 32.11-12; NRSV).
Hoping to ameliorate Esau’s wrath, Jacob dispatched a series of gifts of flocks and herds in advance of his arrival with the message that his servant, Jacob, was coming behind. The account tells us what Jacob was thinking: “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me” (Genesis 32.20b; NRSV).
As they drew closer, Jacob sent his two wives, his two maids and his eleven children across the ford of the Jabbock, but Jacob remained behind. He wrestled with a man throughout the night until daybreak. When the man realized he could not get the better of Jacob, he struck Jacob’s hip socket such that his hip was out of joint. The man then requested Jacob let him go, but Jacob refused to do so apart from receiving a blessing. The man then said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed” (Genesis 32.28; NRSV). “Israel” means “the one who strives with God” or “God strives” (NRSV note). When Jacob asked his name, he refused to give it, but granted his blessing. Jacob then named the place Peniel and said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (Genesis 32.30; NRSV).
The disciples wrestled with Jesus’ command; Jacob wrestled with a divine being. In both instances, God granted blessings. How often do we find ourselves wrestling with God when God would have us receive a blessing or be a blessing for someone else?
When prompted to do something for others, we often claim we lack the necessary resources. Perhaps what we are really lacking is creativity. For the past several years I have enjoyed attending the Kratochvil’s pizza party which serves as a fund-raiser for the food pantry. Everyone has a great time and each year several hundred dollars is raised. St. Paul’s Wild Game Feed is another instance of contributing to our community through providing a gourmet meal and a contribution to local charity. An old adage says, “Many hands make light work!” Many hands also contribute abundant resources. Some have suggested the real miracle in the feeding of the 5000 was that Jesus’ example of sharing prompted everyone else who had food to share it. Perhaps – who knows? But we do know that setting the example is sometimes all that is necessary.
When prompted to do something for others we often wrestle with time and energy constraints – we may be tired. We lead busy lives and we need to work at slowing down, to think more in terms of tithing our time, of making some of our time a gift to God through service to others. When it comes to energy, many testify to the energizing effect which comes from doing something for others. In giving, we are so often renewed.
I encourage you to ask yourself where you are wrestling with God, and what blessing you may be missing. There is a certain value in wrestling, for it indicates the Spirit’s presence, but there is greater value in granting God the victory. May we so live our lives. Amen