Sunday 18 • 6 Aug 2017

Genesis 32:22-31
Matthew 14:13-21

Rev. Chris Udy

The stories Ginie just read
are the lectionary passages for today,
and I should begin by saying
that I couldn’t have asked
for better inspiration.
Both these passages express
something essential
about our tradition of faith
and about a lifetime
of preaching and leading worship
in a Christian community.
And they come together
into an interesting question:
does a Christian community really need
a preacher or a priest?
And the answer to the question –
just in case you need to leave early,
or you like to go to sleep in the sermon –
the answer is … no, and yes … and yes, and no.

So – do we need a preacher?

Let’s begin with Jacob.
Jacob, you’ll remember, was a trickster.
When his brother, Esau, was starving
Jacob bargained with him for his birthright –
the blessing and respect due
to a father’s first-born son –
and for a bowl of red lentils Esau agreed.
Then, when it came time for their father Isaac
to bestow his final patriarch’s blessing,
Jacob wrapped goatskin around his forearms
so his almost-blind father thought
the son he was blessing was Esau.
Jacob then had to run away
from his brother’s and father’s anger,
and ended up in the household
of his uncle Laban.
There Jacob continued his trickery,
working out ways to prosper
at his uncle’s expense –
but in Laban Jacob had met his match,
and when Jacob wanted to marry
and start his own family,
Laban deceived him
into marrying Laban’s older daughter, Leah,
before he could live with Rachel,
the love of his life.

Years passed, and Jacob grew wealthy,
but he still hadn’t learned his lesson,
and when he tried to run away again,
taking people and possessions
that were precious to uncle Laban,
Laban caught up with him,
and forced Jacob to see
the damage he was doing
to his family relationships
and to his own character and spirit.
As they left each other, Laban told Jacob
that he would need to answer to God
for the harm he’d caused
and the way he treated others –
and they parted with an awkward blessing,
really a kind of warning -
the Mizpah benediction:
“May the Lord watch between you and me
while we are absent, one from the other”.

So when Jacob had his midnight confrontation
he was on his way back home,
to confront his family history
and to seek forgiveness from his brother Esau.
The story never identifies
the one who wrestled with Jacob,
but when Jacob asked his opponent for a blessing
at the end of their dark struggle
he was told ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob,
but Israel,
for you have striven with God,
and with human beings,
and you have prevailed’.

All of us share in Jacob’s struggle.
We all spend midnight hours
wrestling with God,
trying to reconcile our regrets
and find our way into the future,
and, like Jacob in our reading,
we’re all wounded in that fight.
As we grow we accumulate bruises and scars
both in body and spirit.
Life leaves its marks on us;
we carry on our faces and within us
mementos of failure,
memories of friendship lost or betrayed,
ghosts of our unfulfilled potential.
We’re all wounded –
and many teachers of our spiritual tradition
remind us that we need to respect,
not resent, our wounds.
Wounds make us more tender –
they help us feel things more intensely,
and when we attend to them
they can give us wisdom.
Wounds and bruises teach us empathy –
they remind us that, like everyone around us,
we are also limited and human,
and just as Jacob had to learn
to respect the hopes and needs
of his family and neighbours,
our wounds help us understand
what life might be like for other people.
When we limp a bit – as Jacob did –
after his night of wrestling,
we’re reminded that we need to move more slowly;
so we have time to see those around us more clearly,
and so we begin to understand
that the world isn’t easy for everyone
to access and navigate.

Ultimately it’s our wounds and bruises,
our unique and individual wrinkles and scars
that make us who we are.
They give us our identity:
our true name.
As we grow, we come to understand
that no matter how long we wrestle,
God will never reveal to us God’s true name;
there will always be a mystery
at the heart of our life and faith –
but if we persevere in the struggle,
God will help us find the truth
about who we are.
The danger is that, like Jacob,
we’ll try to find shortcuts to wisdom,
we’ll try tricks, and other deceptions,
we’ll go looking for certainties
when there are none:
every one of us has to wrestle.

We don’t need to have a preacher
to find wisdom in Jacob’s story –
our own truth – our God-revealed name –
is our connection with the God
we wrestle with over a lifetime.
We don’t need a preacher to look within
and learn who we really are,
or to receive God’s blessing -
but a preacher can come in handy to remind us
that our stories have a context,
that life is always lived
within a wider frame.
Jacob’s wounds were opened
when he broke faith with his brother, and his father,
and with all the others he hurt
when he played tricks, and told lies,
and ran away.
Jacob’s wounds began to heal
when his uncle called him to account,
and his healing continued
when he looked for his brother’s forgiveness.

When we do our work well,
we preachers try to put life in context.
We try to show where our stories come from;
we reveal their wider frame –
and then we look for application
looking for context once again,
but this time in the present, here and now,
in a community,
in a world where God is present and active
and ready to be wrestled.

When we do our work well
preachers look for blessings –
for benedictions from God –
remembering that some blessings are also warnings.
We remind our communities
that there are no short cuts to wisdom;
that the Bible isn’t a book of magic spells
and the life of faith is not insurance.
Preachers are not needed
to reveal God’s truth in our lives,
but we do need them to remind us
that wounds are holy,
and they need to be attended to
if we want to hear God’s wisdom.

So – we’re done with preachers - what about priests?
Our Gospel reading
is Matthew’s account
of Jesus feeding the crowd beside the lake.
It’s another significant passage
about what it means to be in ministry –
this time about being a priest.
In our faith tradition
priests gather a community
to share in communion.
They bless and break the bread, as Jesus did,
and somehow a miracle happens:
as Matthew describes it, people eat, and are filled,
and when the broken pieces are collected
there’s more than what they had
at the beginning of the meal.
12 baskets full, Matthew suggests,
symbolically enough for all the tribes of Israel –
all those children Jacob went on to have,
and among whom we’re included
through the priestly, welcoming work
of Paul – the Apostle to the gentiles –
and all the other Apostles of our faith.

Meals are fascinating things.
One of my favourite books is called
‘The Rituals of Dinner’,
and in it the author – Margaret Visser –
talks about sharing a meal
as one of humanity’s pinnacle achievements.
She says that something significant happens
whenever you gather a group
of the most aggressive and acquisitive animals on earth,
bring them all together in one place
and equip them with instruments
that could easily cause wounds
if turned on one another -
then you present them with a limited supply
of something they all want.
In that light
every meal is a miracle –
but the miracle isn’t really about the food.
We might be focussed on the bread,
and on the stories being shared,
but the miracle
is what happens around the table:
the miracle is the community that forms,
where people are then nourished
not only in body,
but in spirit and in mind.

We don’t need a priest at the table
to provide the food and drink –
the bread and wine.
A central point of the story of Jesus
feeding the crowd at the lake
is that he told his disciples
that they should give the crowd something to eat.
They said “we have nothing here
but five loaves and two fish”;
‘what we have is not enough’ …
but in the end it was – and it always is.
With a blessing, and a miracle,
everyone ate, and they were filled,
and there were baskets full left over.
The work of the priest at the table
isn’t to provide the food,
it’s to make sure everyone
is given a place.
When we celebrate baptism
we welcome people in,
when we gather a congregation for communion
the work of a priest, when we’re doing it well,
is to make sure everyone has been included.
Most of the time that’s easy,
and a community grows itself;
what we need for nourishment
comes from the others around the table –
but sometimes priests need to notice
that there are some who don’t have a place.

Sadly, the Christian community
is sometimes blind
to the folk it’s excluding.
Matthew, for example,
in telling his story,
even says that, while “those who ate
were five thousand men”,
all the women and children there didn’t count!
And that’s doubly ironic, because
when John records this story
he says the loaves and fish they all enjoyed
came from one of those children who didn’t count –
it was a little boy who supplied
the food that they all ate!

The history of God’s people tragically shows
that people God intends to share in communion
have been excluded,
sometimes by accident, by mistake,
through blind oversight -
but sometimes they’ve been excluded by intention,
through prejudice, as policy,
in the way we make decisions,
in the words we use for worship,
even in scripture.
Sometimes we’ve left out
whole groups of God’s people – women, children,
people of a particular race or class
or sexual orientation;
sometimes we leave out people one-by-one,
maybe because they’re awkward, or angry, or unwell.
When we priests do our work well,
priests can make sure
that there is space around the table,
that those who come are blessed and made welcome,
and that the stories and food we share
are nourishing for everyone who comes.

So a Christian community doesn’t need
a preacher to help us find God –
but a preacher can help make connections
to the world our stories come from,
and shine some light on where we might be going.
Christian community does need a priest
to make sure that all are welcome,
but the miracle that grows around the table
and the nourishment we share,
doesn’t belong to the priest,
it comes when all God’s people
bring what they have to the table.

It’s been a life-giving privilege
to be a priest and a preacher here,
and in some other places also.
It’s been a delight to share meals of all kinds,
and to hear and tell the stories of faith with you.
Sometimes it’s been a struggle
to find something nourishing to offer Sunday by Sunday,
and sometimes my scars and wounds and wrinkles
have been less a source of wisdom
and more an indication
that it’s almost time to retire.
The call to ministry
has led to a life of fascinating interest
and wonderful, warm, deep relationships
in which God has always been present,
I have discovered my true name,
and you – the people of God –
have been a well of profound meaning,
always sustaining companionship
and true joy.