Genesis 32:22-31; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
Ordinary 18A; Proper 13
Jacob was left alone. Jesus withdrew to a desolate, deserted place.
In the first instance, after Jacob sends his family and all he owns ahead of him and as he fears for his encounter with the brother he cheated, a sleepless night of wrestling with the divine ensues. In the second, the needy crowd pursues Jesus and, having compassion on them, he returns to the fray of their relentless demands. In both cases, neither Jacob nor Jesus find the rest sought. What is it about being alone at night that brings forth those things we cannot let go, those fears that will not leave us, the wrestling with anxiety about the past and the future? Why is it that when we feel most depleted, most in need of a respite, people seek us out and require even more of us?
These two stories – Jacob wrestling and Jesus feeding the 5,000 – are often heard in a cursory way if we are familiar with them. Yes, we know that Jacob will not let go of that divine figure until he is blessed; and blessed he will be, given a new name and purpose, left injured but very much alive and aware of God’s presence. Yes, we know that Jesus will not neglect the crowd, will not send them away hungry and will heal and feed them, creating a miracle of abundance out of the most desperate of circumstances and places. God shows up. God provides. Our nightmares are ripe for God’s unimaginably good vision. Our emptiness is the space where God’s fullness overflows. It is good, hopeful and encouraging to know the endings to these iconic narratives. Esau does not come out to meet Jacob in order to kill him, but rather to be reconciled to him. The desolate place of the 5,000 desperate people will not result in acres of suffering but instead a lush landscape of feasting. God blesses us in and through some of the most painful of circumstances. We can trust this truth.
And yet… what of the refugee camps in our world, the prisons awash in the coronavirus, the growing numbers of those going to bed hungry? What about those who will be left alone tonight to wrestle with their fears of what will greet them tomorrow morning? Are the angels being deployed to them? Is Jesus going to have compassion for them? For us?
What cannot be overlooked in both Genesis and Matthew is the reality that Jacob and Jesus move toward that which is most daunting. Jacob, as terrified as he is, continues to make his way toward Esau. Jesus, as tired as he is, as big as the crowd, as complex their suffering, comes back to the shore and walks right into the middle of all that chaos. It is the disciples in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 who want to send the people away. The disciples, perhaps out of practical compassion, tell Jesus to send them away so that they can go find food. Desolate places, like food deserts and war zones and natural disaster sites, do not have the basic provisions needed to sustain life. Can we fault the disciples for looking at the setting sun, the clamoring crowd, the lack of resources, and saying, “Let them go find a place to eat and to sleep.”
Most of us do not expect the divine to show up when we are alone in the night paralyzed with fear. Few of us imagine that bread and fish will multiply in places of poverty and pain. All of us would prefer to be shielded from facing those we injured and those for whom we cannot possibly provide. How is it that Jacob keeps holding on to that night visitor? Why is it that Jesus insists we give the people something to eat? Blessings and bread do not come in these stories without persistence and presence, wrestling and doubt, some courage and at least a little trust.
God renames Jacob and uses his failures and faults for divine purposes. Jesus multiplies the meager resources we human beings offer God. Blessings come from above, but they also entail a lot of gritty, groundwork on the part of disciples if we remain in those desolate, frightening, chaotic places where others have no choice but to reside. Miracles make their way through the wounded flesh and barley bread. The signs of God’s intervention in our lives are revealed in our limping; resurrection is confirmed in the marks of nail holes and spears. Reconciliation cannot come without tangible repair. Baskets of leftovers cannot exist without first giving over of all we have in our hands.
In all the otherworldliness of Jacob’s wrestling and in all the inexplicability of Jesus’ satisfying of the masses with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, there is within these iconic Bible stories much that is absolutely earthy and relatable. Who among us has not dreaded an encounter with a loved one we hurt? Who among us has not wanted to send away those who demand more from us than we feel we have to give? Who among us have not felt desperate for food, for care, for compassion, for healing? Who among us does not walk around wounded and yet, at least on some days, know we are blessed and are therefore overwhelmingly thankful? Who among us have not been astonished at the desolate, dark, desperate places where we ultimately declared, “This is Peniel, the place where I encounter God, face to face”?
In these difficult days, the days that turn into weeks and months and perhaps even years, the temptation (or at least mine) is to turn away from the people and places whose needs feel overwhelming. There are moments I long to escape from myself, so consumed with what happened in the past, so anxious about what tomorrow will bring. The temptation is to get in a boat and row away from all on the shore that needs tending and feeding. The temptation is to turn back from facing those whom our actions and inactions have hurt — sometimes for hundreds of years. These biblical stories remind us, however, to set up camp in the very places we long to escape. Keep moving toward those with whom we need to be reconciled. Keep listening to Jesus’ words to give people something to eat. Keep handing over to God all we have no matter how small or seemingly inadequate the offering. God’s blessing will come, there will be more than enough for everyone to be satisfied and we will know God’s presence perhaps through the pain of our wounds that reveal divine, transformative power.
- When have you wrestled with God? Over what? Did you leave limping? Blessed?
- In this season, are you feeling overwhelmed by the needs of the world? Tired? Are you able to find places of rest that enable you to reenter the chaos with hope and energy?
- What is it that you have to offer Jesus for him to bless and use to feed others?
- Do you feel compassion for the crowds? Or are you experiencing compassion fatigue? Are you experiencing Jesus’ compassion for you? If so, how?
- With whom do you need to be reconciled? Individually? As a community? What repairs need to be made in order for that reconciliation to be possible?
- Are there people or circumstances that God is calling you to forgive? How can you do so?
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