Sermon Seeds: Face to Face/Deepened Relationship
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 13
Genesis 32:22-31 with Psalm 17:1-7, 15 or
Isaiah 55:1-5 with Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Additional reflection on Matthew 14:13-21
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Face to Face/Deepened Relationship
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
For so many reasons, I began working on this reflection in need of an attitude adjustment. Whenever we focus on an overly familiar passage from the Bible, it may be only natural to dread the feeling of boredom with “that same old story,” or of frustration at trying to say something new or different about it. This particular narrative might also provoke confusion about what a passage filled with so much ambiguity really means, and perhaps even a measure of discomfort with the imagery of assault, physical or otherwise, employed by the author. And then there’s that problem of Jacob, the patriarch who hardly qualifies for sainthood, to put it mildly. Part of us is repelled by the way he lies and cheats his way to success and wealth, and part of us may feel strangely drawn toward him, and might even see something of ourselves in him.
The dramatic story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger – God or an angel, we usually say – on that riverbank long ago has been an irresistible subject for artists: painters (Rembrandt, Delacroix, Gauguin and Chagall, among others), sculptors, novelists, poets (like Rainier Maria Rilke), modern playwrights (like Tony Kushner, in Angels in America), and even musicians like the group U2, in their song, “Bullet in the Sky.” (My first time to use Wikipedia for Sermon Seeds, but I couldn’t resist.) Psychologists, too, both professional and amateur, love to “wrestle” with this text as well, or maybe put it to rest too quickly and too simply by saying that Jacob is struggling with the inner demons of a guilty conscience. So modern that approach, and so inadequate for the text before us.
But an important challenge for lectionary preachers is putting this text in the context of Jacob’s larger story, as well as Israel’s story, and our own, in order to do it justice, to bring it to life. Preaching and Bible study differ in some ways, but I think preachers will have to bring some great Bible study into the pulpit this week, sketching out that larger picture, linking this story and its echoes to the stories before and after it. Spending time with the following passages was the best attitude adjustment I could ask for, as I considered Jacob’s late-night struggle there, on the edge of returning home to the land he had been promised, and the future that he hoped still lay ahead: Genesis 25:19-34, 26:34-33:20, and 35:1-15.
For example, in these passages we learn that this isn’t the only time Jacob has heard from God, or the first or only time he’s named a place, or, for that matter, the first time he’s been asked who he is. And even though we may think of him as cunning and sly (and I don’t mean that in a good way), Jacob surprises us in the earlier part of this same chapter 32, when he first returns home and starts sweating about facing his brother’s understandable and long-standing wrath. Here, almost home (such poignant words, so full of longing), Jacob offers a humble prayer, asking God to protect him, and admitting that he’s “not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (v. 10a). (In The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts, Dennis Olson notes that this prayer of Jacob is the longest prayer in Genesis.) Maybe it’s a prayer born of fear, but it does endear Jacob to us a little bit, if we can get it out of our heads that he has sent the women and children and animals on ahead, where they may face Esau’s wrath first.
Two weeks ago, we read another familiar excerpt from the above passages, about the night Jacob was on the run from home and from Esau’s anger, when he had the sweet spiritual experience of dreaming about a ladder to heaven, and of hearing God’s voice making those promises of land and descendants and blessing, and most of all, of God’s presence and protection with him, always. Frederick Buechner calls this “not the nightmare of the guilty but a dream that nearly brings tears to the eyes with its beauty” (“The Magnificent Defeat” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons). There, at the gate of heaven and the house of God (28:17), Jacob made some promises, too, to be faithful to God and to tithe all that he received, that is, if God would keep him safe and give him food and clothing, and someday bring him home in peace. (Most of us, of course, have lists like this one, for God: we can almost hear the “etc., etc.” of our own prayers).
Jacob also named the place of this “awesome” experience: Bethel, or House of God. Ancient stories often explained where and how places got their names, and this is one of several about Jacob naming a place out of his own experience. In the first fifteen verses in chapter 35, we read of God sending Jacob to Bethel again, and we hear several reminders that this had been where Jacob encountered God while on the run from Esau, and where God answered him in his distress, and where God made promises to “keep” him and provide many descendants for him, and where God gave him a new name. We also read once again that Jacob had sense enough to raise a pillar to mark the holy place, to give it a name, too. Some repetition in an oral culture is necessary for the memory of the storyteller, and some repetition is also just plain good for us, who need to be reminded of God’s steadfast love. (“In an oral world, according to Walter Ong, “you must think memorable thoughts.”)
This week’s passage is between those two Bethel bookends in the story of Jacob: here, he is in-between but also on the edge, just on the outside. The drama of his flight from home is matched by the full happiness of his later establishment at Bethel, along with wives, “maids” and children, servants, flocks, and assorted possessions, and those promises, and the new name, as well. Here, though, on this dark and scary night, in spite of the passage of many years, the accumulation of vast wealth, and the success of besting his clever and calculating uncle (it must run in the family), Jacob is shaking in his proverbial boots. He has sent ahead herds and herds of gifts to his brother, hoping to ease his way home by softening Esau up, but he doesn’t know that it will work. Now, here he is, on the bank of the river, all alone in the deep of the night. Barbara Brown Taylor describes something of Jacob’s state of mind, as he anticipates Esau’s anger: “He had changed,” she writes, “but he could not imagine that Esau had” (“Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine). Perhaps Jacob has developed enough of a conscience to realize that his brother has every right to feel fresh anger at the return of the one who has stolen everything from him.
Rather than a sweet dream, Jacob is visited by a stranger who wrestles with him all night long. We call that stranger God, or at least an angel, but there are ancient roots in this story of another kind of being. Gene Tucker explains that the fact that Jacob’s “opponent fears the daylight and refuses to divulge his name, suggests a nocturnal demon,” and therefore it’s possible that “the narrator has taken over an ancient, pre-Yahwistic tradition…reinterpreted it as a confrontation between Israel’s God and her ancestor.” The significance of insisting on knowing the entity’s name is ancient as well, because even we know (and feel) that names have a kind of power, and in those days when words meant even more, knowing that demon’s (or deity’s) name “was to obtain a measure of control over it” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
Frederick Buechner describes this more poetically in his sermon on this text: “The faith of Israel goes back some five thousand years to the time of Abraham, but there are elements in this story that were already old before Abraham was born, almost as old as humankind itself. It is an ancient, jagged-edged story, dangerous and crude as a stone knife….Maybe there is more terror in it or glory in it than edification” (“The Magnificent Defeat” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons). “Already old before Abraham was born….” Just think of that: what strange beauty this story begins to have, after all.
Jacob and his visitor wrestle all night long, almost till dawn, without a clear winner. The visitor resorts to crippling Jacob by striking his hip, and still Jacob will not let go. Terence Fretheim sees a different meaning in “the man’s” insistence on leaving before the light of day, not because the daylight is a problem for him, but because of the awful risk to Jacob of seeing God face to face (Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Bible). And yet that is what happens, if we are to believe Jacob: he names the place “Peniel” (“The face of God”) because, he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (v. 30). At least he uses the passive voice, rather than saying that he himself succeeded in this remarkable thing. Ironically, while Jacob counts himself lucky or blessed just to have survived, his opponent declares him the winner, or at least the one who prevailed. In either case, at least this was, as Hank J. Langknecht puts it, “finally a fair fight. No taking advantage of a hungry brother or a blind father or having to outsmart a wily father-in-law. Here it is Jacob wrestling to an honest draw” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
Both Jacob and the place of this struggle are given new names, and Jacob’s is given as well to his descendants, who also will struggle with God. By the time these stories were fashioned into the narrative of God’s people, Gene Tucker writes, “The people of Israel, like their patronymic ancestor, had striven with powers both human and divine and, in the time of the monarchy, knew that they had prevailed and been blessed” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). However, while Dennis Olson agrees that “Jacob’s limping becomes a metaphor or paradigm of Israel’s life with God,” he also reminds us that Esau represents Israel’s eastern neighbor, Edom, and that the two nations had a testy relationship after Edom helped Babylon conquer Judah (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). We read and remember and paint pictures of short stories like today’s passage, but we rarely read Chapter 36 of Genesis, which might impress on us a greater sense of the importance of Esau and Edom, since it provides a long list of the sons of Esau and the clans and kings that descended from them.
Several themes unfold in this face-to-face encounter between Jacob and God. Commentators like Terence Fretheim emphasize the initiative and active engagement of God in our lives, even though that isn’t always a pleasant or comforting experience. The way this story is told, God is the one who gets things started, not with a dream or a vision but with an embodied struggle, Fretheim says, “more than a dark night of the soul.” He suggests that this is one of the ways God seeks out “openings” in our lives, in order “to enhance the divine purpose” and to get us in shape, so to speak, for the challenges that lie ahead: “To go through it with God before we go through it with others provides resources of strength and blessing for whatever lies in the wings of life.” Jacob responds well, and receives a new name that recognizes “who he has been and presently is, not what he becomes in this moment,” that is, “Jacob’s strength and capacity for struggling well” (Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Bible).
Obviously, we too struggle with God, individually and communally. One thinks, for example, of Elie Wiesel and the anguished and angry questions he has had for God about the terrible suffering of his people; the slaves who were carried off and considered “property” by “good,” Bible-reading Christians; or those who have suffered at the hands of religious institutions that lose sight of the heart of God’s justice and compassion, and focus instead on their own power and preservation. We struggle in our own lives with illness and financial uncertainty, with personal disasters and broken relationships, and most of all, with the suffering of those we love. Today, we witness the anguish, for example, of those affected by the reckless shooting down of an airliner over Ukraine or of the children at our border and their desperate parents who see us as their best hope for a decent life. And there is the suffering of the earth itself and its creatures, at our mercy but receiving very little of it.
Beyond the suffering caused by human sin, accident, and neglect, we are aware of the suffering of those whose lives are devastated by wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters – and the compounding of that anguish by human indifference and inadequate response, with a loss of interest once the story fades from the headlines. Hank J. Langknecht encourages preachers on this text (and undoubtedly others) “to give voice to anguished questions about justice or war,” for “Christians are also free to strive with God” (New Proclamation Year A 2008), and we do so not with detached consideration but up close, face to face, with deep consternation. I once heard a commentator on television remind us that “It is the speaking of truth that allows suffering to be heard.” Often, the pain of God’s children and God’s creation will keep us awake at night, and struggling with God. Richard Pervo asks an important question about that struggle, and provides a good answer as well: “What kind of god will get into a nighttime brawl with a mortal and come out no better than even? From the perspective of spirituality, the answer is: the kind of God we need” (New Proclamation Year A 2011). What kind of God do you need? What kind of God does your congregation need?
Jacob’s larger story, not just this week’s short excerpt from it, is persistently about blessing. In addition to the blessings God promises him, Jacob has already stolen another from his brother, and now demands yet another from this stranger, and gets it. James Newsome suggests that, “even in the midst of our struggles with God and with self, the most enduring word is a word of God’s grace,” and he describes grace in the “ultimate irony” that “being confronted with the mirror that God held before beleaguered Jacob, a mirror that reflected a flawed and sinful Jacob, Jacob saw also Peniel, the face of God” (Texts for Preaching Year A). And Dennis T. Olson brings all of this together beautifully in his commentary on the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau (33:4-11) that follows Jacob’s night of struggle with God, for Jacob’s gifts to Esau are described as a “blessing” or berakah, “the same word used for what Jacob originally stole from Esau.” Jacob then sees the face of God, again, in his brother, his former enemy, who accepts and forgives him: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (v. 4). Jacob’s response, seeing in Esau “the face of God” (v. 10), shows just how far he has come: “As Jacob had seen the face of God in the struggle and reconciliation with the wrestler,” Olson writes, “so Jacob sees the face of God in the face of his reconciled enemy/brother who had sought to kill him. In both cases Jacob encounters the beloved enemy, one divine and one human, and emerges from the struggle with greater blessings and a more abundant life” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
Two sermons on this text by great preachers will provide more ideas and approaches for exploring this powerful story, one by Frederick Buechner and the other by Barbara Brown Taylor. Buechner’s words about the theft of Isaac’s blessing that set these events in motion are exquisite and help us to understand Esau’s anger, for “we also know that words spoken in deep love or deep hate set things in motion within the human heart that can never be reversed.” Buechner also wonders about Jacob’s ability to get away with things, to succeed through the “kind of dishonesty, which is also apt to be your kind and mine,” the kind “good” people often use to get, at any cost, what they want and may even believe they deserve. He touches the heart of Jacob’s desperate need by describing that last moment, clinging to the stranger: “what he sees is something more terrible than the face of death – the face of love. It is vast and strong, half ruined with suffering and fierce with joy, the face a man flees down all the darkness of his days until at last he cries out, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me!'” (“The Magnificent Defeat,” Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).
Barbara Brown Taylor provides another much-needed attitude adjustment when she notes our preoccupation with a comforting faith in a God who will take care of the chaos in our lives, since “it is God’s job to make it stop. God is supposed to restore the status quo and help everyone feel comfortable again,” even though the Bible, she cautions us, will not support this belief. In working with this text, then, we can’t skip over the wrestling, even though “[w]e want to be saved, only gently, please, by gradual degrees, so that we can see where we are going and say, ‘Yes, this suits me fine.'” Taylor helps us to see Jacob as more like us, presenting God with our “conditions for our belief in God,” and we “persist in telling God what it means to be with us – to keep us safe, to feed and clothe us, to preserve our lives in peace,” while the God of covenant provides a very different answer to that prayer, one that involves struggle, and questions that aren’t always answered, and yet always a blessing that promises God’s presence with us every step of the way. Taylor describes Jacob’s obsession with holding onto the visitor most beautifully of all the commentaries: “According to the Midrash,” the visitor “must go because he sings in the morning choir before God’s throne, but Jacob is unsympathetic. He has got hold of someone who smells of heaven, and he simply will not let him go” (“Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine).
For further reflection:
Shannon L. Alder, 21st century
“You will face your greatest opposition when you are closest to your biggest miracle.”
Mary Balogh, 21st century
“Was memory always as much of a burden as it could sometimes be a blessing?”
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 20th century
“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, 20th century
“Calvin: ‘There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.”
Franz Kafka, 20th century
“My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.”
Ravi Zacharias, Recapture the Wonder, 20th century
“The world is larger and more beautiful than my little struggle.”
Food, and the sharing of it, are powerful in many ways, in feeding our bodies, but also, symbolically, in feeding our spirits. Isn’t the offering and sharing of food – whatever bit of food we have – at the heart of hospitality, just as much as offering shelter, just as much as inviting someone in? And don’t we feel nourished in more ways than one if we eat our food in the company of others? That seems to be what this story, told by all four Gospel writers, is about: Jesus, meeting our most basic human needs, our deepest hungers. Feeding the hungry (not just ourselves but a hungry world) is also at the core of the gospel: as Fred Craddock reminds us, Jesus told us that “the question, What did you do in the face of human hunger? would be on the final exam (Matt 25:35)” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). In this story, Jesus sets an example for us (in school we used to call this “giving us a study sheet”), but even then he worked through his disciples, just as he works through us today.
First, though, we set the scene: things have not being going well, so Jesus has to teach in parables (the insiders – his followers who presumably have ears to hear – will know what he’s saying, and the powerful outsiders won’t). Still, in his hometown, his own people “took offense at him” (13:57). Then Jesus receives the bad news that John the Baptist has been murdered by Herod (the powers-that-be at work). A certain tension arises between two meals: on one hand, Herod the guilty has thrown a big birthday party for himself, a feast for his cronies, ending with the murdered John’s head served “on a platter” (14:11). That meal is marked by lust for many things, including blood, and unfolds into the horrific murder of a great man. Even Herod knows this, and “was grieved” (14:9). Food was there, and companions, yet this meal was not blessed.
On the other hand, as Jesus withdraws to “a deserted place,” the scene is set for a very different meal, with different hungers fed and a very different experience of power and of community. Both Herod and Jesus give commands, but one set of commands is death-dealing and the other is life-sustaining. What draws people into the company of a man like Herod, and what draws them into the company of Jesus? Herod sits in a palace, with guards and a prison below him. Jesus stands on a deserted hillside, far from the seat of one kind of power, but right at the heart of a much greater power. But because Herod feels threatened by Jesus, or at least by “these powers at work in him,” he becomes an even greater threat to Jesus (Roger E. Van Harn, The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Fear is a most dangerous thing, and Herod is motivated by fear just as Jesus is moved by compassion.
Perhaps Jesus’ own needs were very different from those of the crowd. With John dead, perhaps he thought that it would be wise to flee to a remote place. Perhaps. No one knows for sure. But we can be sure that Jesus’ own heart must have been broken. Barbara Brown Taylor says that Jesus has “lost his prophet,” and the crowd has undoubtedly heard the news, too: “Sometimes, after very bad news, it does not matter what you eat as long as you eat it with someone” (“The Problem with Miracles” in The Seeds of Heaven). Perhaps, in that deserted place (ironically, now filled with a crowd), they were all able to draw strength and consolation from being together and looking to Jesus with hope and longing, and in sharing a meal together.
Jesus, disregarding his own needs as usual, goes to work, fueled by compassion at the sight of the sick people gathered around him. This story is so familiar that we seldom linger at the scene, or perhaps we’re distracted by trying to figure out (to explain?) the nature of that miracle. (Just how did that happen? Did bread and fishes suddenly materialize, or did lots of folks reach into their pockets and bags and, amazingly, share with one another? Can miracles be explained?) I think about the people in the crowd itself, and how it would have felt to leave my village behind, my home (if I had one) and the market where I might buy food. At least I would have had the company of others, presumably a lot like me – a person in need, a person moved by hunger, spiritually as much as physically. As I think about how all that must have felt, I hear the question Jesus asked back in Chapter Eleven: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” So we might wonder what would draw us out into a deserted place, and what we most want to see, to feel, to touch. What do we hunger for most? What would draw us out of our safety zone, our comfort zone? What indeed are our deepest needs – not our wants, but our needs?
We’re not the first to hear this story, of course, although much of it might go right over our heads. When the early church told this story that was at the heart of who it claimed to be, many of its members would have remembered even more ancient stories. There’s the very similar story of Elisha in 2 Kings 4, when a few loaves fed a hundred people, with a dialogue – and results – that were very much the same (plenty for all, and lots left over). Presumably the early Christians would have also made the connection with the story of Moses and the people of Israel wandering in the desert, hungry and lost and seeking, just like them (and us), and being fed by manna from heaven. (In The Cultural Life of Jesus Year A, John J. Pilch says that Matthew never missed an opportunity to link Jesus with Moses.)
Even today we remember the story of manna from heaven, and as Christians we gather at the table and remember what Jesus did with bread on that hillside. The words used by Matthew here are familiar from the Last Supper account and from our own celebration of the Eucharist as well: the verbs – take, bless, break and give – are simple but powerful, and apply to our lives just as they apply to the bread we share with one another and with the world. In fact, this work of the church goes on in every age and every wilderness, for “the church is always in the desert,” Thomas G. Long writes, “the place where it cannot rely upon its own resources, which are few. The church is hungry itself and is surrounded by a world of deep cravings…” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
Long’s description of the church’s resources as “few” is thought-provoking for those who embrace a theology of abundance. Most folks in churches (pastors and lay members alike) would say that their church “needs” more money, more members, more “help.” Our perception is one of scarcity, even when we truly desire to act compassionately (the disciples around Jesus could have been motivated by compassion when they urged him to send the people into the villages for food).
More important than “how” the miracle worked is the “why,” of course – Jesus’ deep compassion for the suffering of the people, and his response. The “what” for us (the “so what?”) is the command to go and do likewise, but how can we do likewise if there isn’t enough to go around? And that gets to the deeper reality of abundance under the appearances of “not enough.” Barbara Brown Taylor says that where the disciples saw scarcity, “Jesus operated under a different set of assumptions….Jesus knew beyond a shadow of a doubt…that wherever there was plenty of God there would be plenty of everything else” (The Seeds of Heaven). We know from Genesis and the story of creation (and our observation of nature) that God has provided far more than we need to survive, but we have failed to share generously. Instead, we have too often hoarded and held back.
Still, abundance is there, and somewhere, deep down, so is the generosity. John Pilch claims that the kind of sharing that may have happened in response to Jesus’ own trusting generosity and blessing (an explanation many offer for the miracle; a miracle, I read years ago, is “a great wonder”) would have been far more likely in that culture than in our own (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). Still, it seems hard to believe that the disciples who first saw such meager resources were not astounded to see the abundance right before their eyes, however it happened. David Bartlett identifies this story with the “more promising parables” we have been reading in recent weeks, of tiny mustard seeds that grow into great trees and a little leaven that makes bread for many (New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels).
But what about the “so what”? Barbara Brown Taylor has a problem with miracles that “mesmerize” us and lead us to leave everything up to God. “Miracles,” she writes, “let us off the hook. They appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, do it all” (The Seeds of Heaven). Are we really disciples of Jesus, following in his ways, responding as we believe he would respond to the need around us? Roger E. Van Harn says that our response is indeed a matter of discipleship, which is “not merely a matter of managing limited resources; it is a matter of giving what we have in faith, hope, and love in acts of worship” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). (The same could be said of stewardship, which is one spiritual practice of a faithful disciple.)
And so, it’s not going to happen unless we participate, Taylor says: God tells us, “Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead” (The Seeds of Heaven). Bread, a simple and most necessary thing – both physically and spiritually – is indeed a powerful thing, and the sharing of it is at the heart of our life together in the church. Does your church’s celebration of the Eucharist have something to do with the feeding of a hungry world?
For further reflection:
Beatrice Stoner, 21st century
“In the church we have overemphasized one’s “response-ability,” the capability and inclination to respond, almost to the exclusion of one’s ‘receive-ability,’ the capability and inclination to receive. A reluctant receiver gives reluctantly, while a conscious receiver is more likely to give generously.”
James Russell Lowell, 20th century
“All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action.”
Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century
“Mercy has converted more souls than zeal, or eloquence, or learning or all of them together.”
Seneca, 1st century
“There is no delight in owning anything unshared.”
M. F. K. Fisher, 20th century
“People ask me: ‘Why do you write about food, and eating, and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way the others do?’…The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.”
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he st