Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, August 3, 2014
[Genesis 32:22-32; Matthew 14:13-21]
God speaks to us in concrete ways about down-to-earth matters, not in lofty universal concepts. Friday’s daily meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was entitled: Abstract vs. Concrete.
Richard Rohr explains the difference between the abstract and the concrete like this: “The universal divine incarnation must always show itself in the specific, the concrete, the particular (as in Jesus), and it always refuses to be a mere abstraction. No one says this better than Christian Wiman: “If nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors vagueness. If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time ravaged self.” When we start with big universal ideas, at the level of concepts and –isms, we too often stay there—and forever argue about theory… At that level, the mind is totally in charge. It is then easy to think that “I love people” (but not any individual people). We defend universal principles of justice but would not actually live fully just lives ourselves. The universal usually just gives us a way out. The concrete gives us a way in!” [Repeat this line!]
Today’s two Scriptures portray God… and Jesus showing up in concrete, practical ways, not in universal “isms.” The Old Testament story about Jacob’s return to his homeland after many years in hiding portrays his “one-on-one” wrestling with a messenger from God. Having stolen Esau’s birthright, Jacob fled his brother’s wrath and spent over 14 years serving his Uncle Laban in Haran. He was now married to two women and had many children and flocks of sheep. In our story he is on his way to apologize to Esau, hoping to offer him flocks as a peace offering.
But in Genesis 32, Jacob sends his wives, children and flocks to the other side of the Jabbok River, so he is left alone until daybreak. He wrestles with a stranger all night long. I want to describe this as a “dark night of the soul” for Jacob. By the end of the struggle it seems the One with whom Jacob is wrestling is God. That’s Jacob’s interpretation. The stranger asks Jacob his name, which means: “holder of the heel, to follow or to be behind” or “to supplant, circumvent, assail, overreach", from the Hebrew word for "heel", עֲקֵב ʿaqeb).
However, God renames Jacob -- “Israel” – for which the meaning is much less clear. The name derives from the word for God, “El” and a Hebrew verb difficult to translate. The origin is mysterious, but after a detailed discussion of all the possible meanings, some commentators conclude: Israel means: God persists or perseveres. Abarim Publications translates Israel to mean “worthiness to govern a nation.” In this struggle, Jacob receives a new name and identity, but he is left with a limp, as a daily, concrete reminder that he met God face-to-face.
Jacob’s exile from his homeland and family humbled him profoundly. Laban deceived him and made him work 14 years before he rewarded Jacob with the daughter of his choosing. But the hard work and humbling prepared Jacob to become the person God was calling him to be and to lead the nation God loved so much. He became the father of the 12 sons for whom the 12 tribes of Israel are named. God did not reject him, but “used all things for good” in his life, in preparation for his high calling.
God finds us, even when we are far off track and brings us back to the purpose for which we were born. That is good news, if we have ears to hear it.
The New Testament story is a favorite, recorded in all four Gospels. It’s concrete, real as dirt, as you can see on the cover of your bulletins. Five loaves & two fish in a small basket held by a young boy and a crowd of 5,000 to feed. We marvel and enjoy the story, because we hear the story from a 2,000 year vantage point AFTER the miracle and applaud with joy. We don’t identify with the mortified disciples who are asked to feed the people in the middle of a wilderness where there’s no food. Jesus’ expectation of the disciples was jarring and counter-cultural. If some of us had been there, we may have resigned on the spot to look for a Messiah or Church with much lower expectations than Jesus.
I imagine the disciples huddling together, saying: “Jesus expects way too much of us. What is he thinking? He came out here in the wilderness where there IS no food to feed people. We shouldn’t HAVE to feed them. They’re poor. They can’t repay us. What can we possibly get out of this? This isn’t how it works in the Roman Empire.”
While they are huddling together, what was going on historically? How did Jesus end up in this wilderness? The events immediately preceding were disturbing ones. Jesus had visited Nazareth, his hometown, where the people rejected his words, because they knew he was Mary and Joseph’s son. He couldn’t be a prophet; he was a carpenter’s son. And then Herod Antipas executed Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. So Jesus chooses a safe, out-of-the-way place to teach the people, an alternative to the political drama taking place in his hometown and in the Roman Empire as a whole.
Jesus offers the crowd compassion. While Herod is killing a local prophet, Jesus is attending to the daily needs of the crowd in an out-of-the-way place. Unfortunately, in this out-of-the-way place there’s nothing to eat. The disciples have a very clear & practical answer: “Send the crowds away, Jesus.” They are too many and we are too few.
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt “they are too many and we are too few?” The disciples had good reason to ask Jesus to send them away, if you study the Roman culture of the time. In Roman society there was a patron/client relationship between the rich and the poor, which was clearly unequal, but it worked for them. In times of hunger or famine, the poor clients would appeal to the rich to take care of them, but those clients would also work for and serve the patrons, like indentured servants. However, in this deserted place, there was no possibility the crowds would serve Jesus and the disciples. They would get no “return” on any investment they made in these hungry crowds.
Jesus’ words were clear and jarring: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” (Mt. 14:16)
The disciples answer: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
Jesus asked them to bring what they had…to Jesus, which they did. Then Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the bread, gave the food to the disciples and the disciples gave the food to the crowds. EVERYONE ate and was filled. There were 12 baskets left over. Those who ate were about 5,000 men besides women and children.
I don’t know what you get out of this, but what I hear is this: when Jesus is in the center or at the head of the table, there’s ALWAYS ENOUGH.
I’ve been in church long enough to know Jesus is not always in the center of our suppers. We worry. We fret. We even prepare too much, because heaven forbid anyone say: We ran out or didn’t prepare enough. Sometimes we’re so caught up in our serving anxiety we fail to notice people aren’t coming, because our so-called hospitality is more about us than about those whom we serve. With Christ in the center of our serving, there’s always enough and people are attracted to us.
I honestly don’t like talking about food. But everything we do in church involves food, so we may as well tackle the subject head on. Relationships and food go hand in hand, whether we like it or not. But sometimes, more often than I like, the FOOD trumps the relationships. We are caught up in the “count” – how many are coming? How many have signed up? When will we know? How much should we buy? What if there is too much left over? What if we don’t have enough? I have to do my shopping on Thursday.
My answer is usually: “I’m not sure; I can’t tell you. Let’s wait and see.” My answer drives people crazy, just as Jesus’ answer drove those disciples crazy.
Feeding people is a profound act of FAITH. We have enough food in the church kitchen RIGHT NOW to invite everyone to stay for lunch today. We have enough with the left over supplies from previous meals.
Tonight we won’t be serving left-overs. Instead we invite everyone to come back to church at 6:30 for a Spud-o-Rama. The Youth will be baking potatoes, preparing sides, and serving dessert. We don’t know how many people are coming. If you let us know, we can share that information with our cooks.
But whether you do or don’t, the truth is: There will be enough! There will be more than enough IF CHRIST IS IN THE CENTER OF OUR SERVING. Peoples’ hearts will be touched if Christ is the unseen host of this meal. We have invited the Mexico Mission Team from Antioch and Raeford Presbyterian Churches to be our special guests to share their program, because we want to open our minds and hearts to the possibility of joining them on a mission trip. They have been engaged in this work for years. We’re also asking people to make donations to our youth program, because our young families have financial needs & we want them to expand their vision of God’s purpose for their lives.
You’re invited as GUESTS, but also as HOSTS and HOSTESSES for an event tonight that is bigger than we are. Our Executive Presbyter: Rev. Bill Reinhold and his wife, Ginnie, will be joining us. Are we going to worry, like the disciples did, or are we going to “offer ourselves” as the boy with two fish and five loaves offered himself to Jesus? Feeding people is an act of FAITH, not a duty to be endured or a task to be accomplished begrudgingly. Will God be the host tonight, or will we? Jesus sets the table for us out of deep love & desire, wooing us into a relationship of trust. This table is one of abundance, not scarcity. There’s always enough. God feeds us, because God loves us. L