Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 18 • 3 Aug 2014


Genesis 32:22-31
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21


Rev. Chris Udy


My favourite storyteller
is an American priest named John Shea.
He’s now providing
leadership development programs
for Catholic healthcare systems in the US,
but for thousands of people around the world,
John Shea’s the man
who tells the stories of the Bible
as if you’re in them.
One of his recent books is called ‘Gospel Light’ -
and in it John Shea talks about
how he finds his way into a story -
what the gateways for revelation might be.
He says God calls us into a Bible story
through the things that don’t fit -
the things that don’t make sense,
that don’t add up.
Gateways of revelation – all kinds of revelation,
not just religious or spiritual –
take us by surprise -
because it’s when we see things that don’t fit
that we realise our world and our universe
is bigger than we’d believed,
and we start to pay attention -
and that’s when we get pulled in.
 
Today we read two of the most powerful
and profound stories in the Bible -
both contain large gateways for revelation -
and neither of them make sense.
So, using John Shea’s method
to discover the heart of these stories,
let’s see what we can find.
 
Over the last few weeks
we’ve been reading stories from Genesis
about Abraham and his family.
Two weeks ago
we read about Jacob,
running away from his father and brother,
and dreaming about a ladder to heaven.
Now it’s half a lifetime later,
and he’s on his way back home,
when he has another midnight encounter.
Between these stories he’s married - twice -
and fathered 11 children.
He’s made a success of himself.
He’s a clan - almost a nation.
He’s wealthy, respected and powerful -
but he’s still a long, long way from home,
and if he’s ever going to come
to a place of rest and peace,
he knows he will have to face up
to the brother whose blessing and inheritance
he stole by tricks and deceit.
 
The time came
for him to leave his Uncle Laban
and, typical Jacob,
he’d made plans to leave in secret and in haste -
but Laban chased and caught him,
and at Mizpah Laban taught him
that there was more to life
than trickery and wealth;
that relationships of honesty and respect
could be made and maintained -
and that everyone would benefit.
There at Mizpah
Jacob and Laban blessed each other
in a wary sort of way,
and said - “May the Lord watch
between you and me,
while we are absent, one from the other.”
 
So, for the first time in his life,
Jacob had said an honest goodbye,
and then he turned his face towards his brother.
 
As he came closer and closer to home,
he began sending messengers and gifts
ahead of him down the road -
220 goats, 220 sheep,
50 cows, 30 camels, and 20 donkeys.
And as he came closer still,
he sent his wives Rachel and Leah
and his eleven children,
and everything else he had
ahead of him again,
until he was left alone.
 
And then - our reading said -
“a man wrestled with him until daybreak”.
And that’s one of John Shea’s gateways of revelation.
 
It doesn’t make sense.
The story says Jacob was left alone,
but there was someone there
who wrestled with him until daybreak.
It takes us by surprise - it doesn’t fit -
something else is happening
that isn’t immediately obvious.
 
How could Jacob wrestle
when he was alone?
And who can Jacob wrestle
when nobody is there?
 
Most of us have nights
when sleep’s impossible,
and something in our heads or hearts
pulls us one way and then another -
when we struggle to get a grip
and pin it down -
and find ourselves churning round and round
like fighters in a ring.
Sometimes we can put a face to our opponents -
and sometimes we know
we’re fighting our own shadows -
and sometimes again,
our adversary stays nameless -
not just one problem
or an identifiable person -
but something bigger and deeper
and more complicated -
something behind and above
and in and through
everything that’s happening to us.
 
Jacob wrestled
until dawn was about to break.
His adversary hit and wounded him,
wanting to break free -
but Jacob held him fast,
wanting something useful
from this night of sleepless struggle -
and he said
“I won’t let you go
unless you bless me.”
 
Fights that leave us with a blessing are good fights.
They’re the fights worth having.
When a problem’s resolved,
or confusion’s clarified,
or an evil’s confronted,
it’s a good fight -
it might leave us with wounds,
but the fight’s worth having.
But when fighting is dirty:
when nothing’s resolved
and damage is done
and the problems remain -
and you know
there are landmines still to find
and treachery to come -
then fighting is worse than useless -
and it leaves us in frustrated misery.
 
Jacob wanted a blessing from this fight -
so when his opponent asked him for his name,
he told the truth.
“Jacob” - he said -
the name he’d had from birth.
It’s a name that means ‘trickster’, or ‘supplanter’.
His opponent replied
“Your name is no longer Jacob,
but Israel -
because you have struggled with God - and prevailed.”
 
God’s blessing is given
to show us who we really are -
to let us see ourselves honestly and truly -
and to show us
both our weakness and our strength.
Our struggle with God
is one of the ways
God reveals us to ourselves -
and, like Jacob,
the truth can leave us wounded and limping
as our weakness – our wound - is revealed.
But healing is also God’s gift,
and when we know the truth about ourselves,
our healing can begin.
 
So Jacob - the trickster -
is now Israel - the man who wrestles with God -
and with that new name
Israel met and found forgiveness from his brother.
And his children also became Israel -
a nation of people
who continued their struggle with God,
and found both great wisdom and truth,
and suffered some terrible wounds –
while they also inflicted some -
as the generations passed.
 
As Paul wrote in our reading from Romans -
“to them belong the adoption,
the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
to them belong the patriarchs,
and from them, according to the flesh,
comes the Messiah, who is over all,
God blessed forever. Amen.”
 
There is no way we could be who we are
without Israel.
Our faith and our hope
draws on the roots of Israel’s struggle with God -
and as Christians
we continue to wrestle and strive
to hear God’s blessing
and to know God’s purpose
for all of Abraham’s descendants –
including those, like us,
who’ve been adopted into that warring family,
and are implicated and involved
in whatever reconciliation, peace and justice
they have yet to find.
 
Our second story comes in here.
It’s Matthew’s telling
of the day when Jesus heard
that his cousin, John the Baptist,
had been killed.
Naturally, he wanted to do his own
private and personal grieving -
so he went away, to a deserted place.
 
But the crowds - the people of Israel -
who had responded so strongly to John’s preaching,
and looked to him for leadership -
were now left frightened and confused,
and they followed Jesus
out of their towns and villages
to the lake where he’d found refuge.
By the time he came ashore
the crowd was huge,
and he recognised their need
for compassion and healing.
But when the day was nearly over,
the disciples grew worried about practicalities.
“Send the people away to find food” they said -
but Jesus told them
to do what they could - with what they had.
 
All the disciples could find
were 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread -
maybe enough for their meal -
certainly not for a crowd.
But Jesus asked for them,
and they gave them to him,
he ordered the crowds to sit on the grass,
and said grace -
and then he broke up the food
and gave it to the disciples to distribute.
 
And everyone ate -
and everyone was filled.
And when they collected what was left,
12 baskets were needed to carry it all.
Someone with a seriously sexist perspective
provided Matthew with a quick count -
and said there were 5000 men there
that evening by the lake -
but he apparently forgot
to count the women and children.
5000 men plus women and children -
let’s have a guess at 10,000 people -
being fed and satisfied
with 5 loaves and 2 fish -
and from whom 12 baskets of bits were collected.
 
That doesn’t make sense;
it doesn’t fit:
it’s another of John Shea’s gateways.
 
Something else is happening
that isn’t immediately obvious;
we’re meant to be surprised and ask questions
and wrestle a bit with this story -
because Matthew’s no fool -
he knows that sardine sandwiches
don’t appear out of thin air -
and he wants us to look deeper.
 
We know this is a defining moment -
a gateway of revelation,
where the universe gets bigger -
so we need to see what’s happening around it.
 
John the Baptist had stirred up Israel.
He’d given the people hope,
raised their expectations -
and now he was dead.
Jesus had then stepped in.
He’d offered them compassion and healing,
and now - out here in this desert place –
this wilderness -
with night about to fall -
he would provide them with bread.
 
But who provides bread in the wilderness?
Who guides his people when night closes in?
And if there are 12 baskets needed
to collect all the broken bits together -
what does that mean?
 
The people who ate Jesus’ bread that night
were sharing a meal with God.
Matthew’s revelation
is that it was God in Christ
who loved and healed reconciled them,
and it was God who filled and nourished them.
Just as God had for Israel’s descendants
when they were in the desert,
Jesus provided something like manna,
and just as God had chosen and called
the 12 tribes of Israel -
now Jesus was gathering together a new people -
12 baskets of wounds and brokenness -
to take them home with him.
 
All through his ministry
Jesus met to eat
with the most inappropriate people -
religious and political leaders,
and tax advisers with questionable ethics -
as well as ordinary folk
like Samaritan women, roman collaborators,
waterside workers, children and foreigners.
Eating got him into trouble.
Those who feared him
said he was keeping suspicious company -
but he kept on doing it,
and just before he was killed,
he told his disciples to keep on eating together -
and that he would join them,
in one way or another.
 
Ever since, Christian community has been formed
around the meal table -
and not only this one here.
The real power of Christian community is released
when we share whatever we have
with whoever we’re with -
and food’s a great place to start.
 
Around meal tables we tell stories -
we reveal the truth about ourselves -
we offer friendship,
we celebrate achievement,
and we experience grace -
especially experience grace.
Every time we sit down together
we offer - to some degree -
the patience and forgiveness that God gives best -
and when we offer even a little forgiveness
God is at work -
building a new people
out of broken bits.
 
We are no longer only
people who wrestle with God -
we are also people who eat with God -
and the image Jesus used most
for human life perfected -
for the Kingdom of God and the promise of heaven,
is a banquet - a celebration dinner -
a heavenly meal
prepared for all God’s people -
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,
and all the rest of God’s children -
including you and me.