St. Matthew 14:13-21
For some weeks now we have been reviewing a family history as we follow the fortunes of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob, and Esau. In each of the stories we are aware of not only God's presence, but of his visitation, as well. Such as the visit of the three "men" to Abraham and Sarah; and the subsequent promise of a future family. Or, Abraham's vision of the divided sacrifice, and God passing through the victims seen as a torch. We walked with Abraham and Isaac to Moriah, and we listened as Abraham argued with God over the fate of Sodom.
The same has been true with Jacob. The visions at Beth-El, and the vision at Mahanaim, both see an intimacy of Jacob and God. These are, in short, remarkable people; a people of destiny and promise, and their stories are engaging. I can remember when I first started taking Hebrew in college. It wasn't the vocables or the difficulty of the language that startled me, but rather that their words betrayed the humanity of these biblical families. Their problems, their dreams, their mistakes and their triumphs rang with a sense of human familiarity.
These are also a flawed people. Abraham offers up his wife as a sort of sexual offering to Pharaoh. Jacob and Esau are disrespectful of the traditions around the birthright. Jacob and Rebecca use trickery and deceit to gain the birthright for Jacob, and trick Isaac into offering the blessing. Jacob is not exactly forthright or honest with his uncle Alban. All of this leads us to today's story, the wrestling match. These men, these women, these are the people that God tests.
Wrestling with God
Is our devotion to God, actually a struggle with God? I am reminded of a personal story in my first parish, a small Lutheran congregation south of Boston, Massachusetts. We didn't have much, and met in a storefront. There was no secretary, so each week I prepared the bulletin for Sunday using a mimeograph. Remember mimeographs? I would prepare the stencil on the typewriter and then publish the bulletin. On weekend, I placed the stencil on the machine, took a couple of turns, and the stencil tore. Unnerved I prepared another stencil, placed it on the machine, produced about ten bulletins, and the stencil tore again. Calmly I prepared a third stencil, placed it on the machine, and began again, only to have it tear again. I raised my eyes to heaven and firmly announced, "I'm doing this for you, don't you know!?" It was sort of a prayer; a prayer and a struggle.
In the book of Jonah we meet a reluctant prophet, who would rather run off to Spain than to announce good news to Nineveh. He struggles with God over the message that he has been called to announce. In Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, a dark angel pursues Jesus into the desert, until Jesus gives up the struggle and submits to God's will. I am also reminded of Hannah, who rails at God to give her a child. All of them struggled. All of them believed.
We cannot all be like Mary, our Lady. We all cannot find it in ourselves to say, "Let it be to me according to your will." Jacob, however, wrestles with God, and finds that his life, his name, indeed, his destiny is changed. He contends with God through the night, and in the midst and at the end of his struggle he demands a blessing.
Have you wrestled with God, or do you just accept it all? Do you give up the quiet of the night, and peace at the last (as Compline puts it) to a deep conversation with God about who and what you need to be? This struggle is a lesson that we can learn from others: Jacob, surely Mary Magdalene, Peter, who never gets it right, or Archbishop Oscar Romero, Victoria Rue, Desmond Tutu, Gene Robinson, Paul Moore, and Honor Moore. Lots of struggle, lots of fire, lots of faith!
I suspect that you've learned it in your life as well this struggle with God. As individuals we are called to it. And now, here at this church, the whole community is called to struggle with God over we shall be, how we shall be in mission, what our message might be.
In the baptismal rite, we hear "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and are marked as Christ's own forever." I am recalling one Ash Wednesday when I prepared ashes for the liturgy and mistakenly put cinnamon oil in them. After my colleague and I had generously signed those attending the service, and after I too had been signed, I took my seat. Gradually I noticed a tingling sensation on my forehead, which soon gave way to a burning sensation. I looked out into the congregation, where all sat with a slightly pained expression on their faces. Following the service, people refreshed their faces in a large basin of water we had placed in the Narthex. There they were: nice little welt crosses on everyone's forehead (marked as Christ's own forever!). A visiting Episcopal priest remarked to me, "My, you Lutherans really take Lent seriously!"
But we all have been marked, and Jacob as well.
"When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him"
Is there a moment in life, in your struggle with God, where you have been marked by God in a new way so as to remember your relationship with God? I can recall attending a Dignity mass in Philadelphia, where a hanging on the lectern proclaimed, "Thank God I'm gay." I couldn't go there yet, but God marked me with that phrase, as I struggled to believe it.
Jacob holds onto the man with whom he is struggling, and Jacob demands a blessing. What have you asked for and what have you demanded? In fact, what have we asked for and claimed as a community here? What blessings have we received? What new name have we received?
Let us not be like the disciples who respond to the situation in today's Gospel (too many people, too little food) with "We only have five loaves and two fish." To this predicament, Jesus gives thanks, and then says to the people, "Eat!" Touched by deprivation, Jesus only sees the promise.
We shall eat then, at this Eucharistic board. And then, what shall we see? What new name shall we bear?