Saturday, August 2, 2008

Proper 18, Year A

The Miracle of God’s Grace

Readings: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7. 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

The three passages of Scripture this Sunday are human stories of people who are grappling with difficult situations in their lives. I suspect that is why I find myself resonating so strongly to each story.

First of all, there is the story of Jacob. He is a trickster, a con artist. He has to face up to the inevitable, a face to face encounter with his brother Esau whom he has wronged. He sends his family away to safety. He waits, alone. There in the darkness of the night he wrestles with a man. Is it a dream? So often it is in our dreams, is it not, that we work out our fears and anxieties, our regrets and guilt. Dream or not, they continue to wrestle throughout the night, neither of them willing to give in. Finally as day is breaking, Jacob says to him, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asks him his name. On hearing it, he responds, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob limps away from the place praising God for his very existence.

The story is a lovely metaphor of our human existence. It speaks to our condition. We do wrestle with our fears and anxieties. If you are at all like me, sometimes you do it all night, tossing and turning, worrying about what is going on in your life. You wrestle with yourself. You go over things that have happened. You look for solutions. You admit where you have gone wrong. You decide on a plan of action. You may be exhausted the next day, you may spend the whole day literally limping, but there is something so healing about facing up to all that is going on. The wounds may be visible, but there is a sense of resolution and of looking to the future.

Then there is Paul’s story. He is communicating a personal experience, trying to help others to understand what is going on in his life. He feels a sense of frustration and disappointment with his ministry to the Gentiles. His great hope had been to share his amazing encounter with the risen Christ with his own people, the Jewish community, to bring them to faith. Instead he finds himself alienated from them. He feels at least partly to blame. His sense of failure is overwhelming to him. But truly, ministry does not work that way. We simply go where Christ leads, not where we think Christ should be leading. That is what it means to answer God’s call. Once again, it may keep us up at night wondering if what we are doing is truly what God wants us to do. It may cause us anguish. But in the long run, following God’s lead, doing what we are meant to do, blesses us in ways we could not have asked or imagined. Paul certainly discovered that in his ministry.

And there is Jesus’ story. News has just come to him about the death of John the Baptist. He is in grief. He reacts as many of us do by withdrawing. He goes to a deserted place by himself. He wants time to consider the tragedy. He wants time to consider what it means in his own ministry. But the crowds follow him out into the wilderness. They follow as they always do. They have such need. He has compassion on them and heals their sick. And when evening comes the disciples want to send them away to fend for themselves.

"You give them something to eat," Jesus tells the disciples.

"We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."

Out of his silence and grief, out of his compassion, Jesus performs a miracle. He takes the bread and fish and blesses them. He gives them what they want, a miracle to thrill them and bread to fill them.

We have all been there. We have experienced that need to be alone. Yet somehow the crowds always follow. Our responsibilities, our plans, our worries, the things we have been avoiding or unable for some reason to complete all crowd in on us until we cry out, “I have nothing more to give. I am at the end of my resources.” And somehow God gives us the strength to go on. God’s grace sustains us. We are fed spiritually. We find ourselves from what we considered to be our slim resources to be able to accomplish all that God is calling us to do. All of the stories are about peoples’ ability to overcome great difficulties and maintain their faith.

This miracle, this feeding of the five thousand teaches us about our God, our God who provides for us. We have all been in situations that feel hopeless. We are constantly amazed by the ability of God to take what we offer and make it great. But it teaches us so much more. Jesus sustained physical life with bread. But his real purpose was giving people eternal life. And that is a real miracle in which we participate. He would have these people and us understand that the provision of God is more than enough to fulfill every need of every man, woman and child on earth.

All of this presents to us a tremendous commission. Needy people followed Jesus everywhere. We don't need to look very far to know that the thing most common to people is need of one kind or another. There are millions in our world who have the most basic needs of existence – food, clean water, shelter, freedom, security. There is within each of us a need for spiritual fulfillment, for inner assurance and serenity, for meaning and purpose in life.

As the people of God, we are fed and nourished so that there is no holding back in our life journey. We come to the table of the Lord and bread is shared with one another. Our journeys become the journeys of all. The path becomes one path lived together. That is the miracle of God's love. That is how God graces us. Amen.

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