feeding five thousand and wrestling with god: scars and blessings

(A sermon based on Genesis 12.22-32 and Matthew 14.13-21)

Often when we hear this Gospel story, we are struck by the enormity of it. A deserted place. Five thousand people, sick and hungry. So much need! So many people fed! So much left over!

But the way the lectionary pairs this Gospel reading with the story of Jacob makes me think about it a little differently. And the lectionary gives us a little tease, doesn’t it? The lection, or scripture portion for this morning, from the Gospel of Matthew starts out: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

Heard what? When Jesus heard WHAT he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. What did he hear?

We’ve been reading along in Matthew every Sunday, but the lectionary readings don’t include the entire Gospel. The last few weeks we’ve been hearing parables while Jesus was by the lake, but in between last week’s reading and today’s reading, Jesus has returned home to Nazareth and been rejected there. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” they asked derisively. “Isn’t Mary his mother, and don’t we know all his brothers?” “Where did he get all this knowledge?” And so they rejected him.

And then immediately before this morning’s reading, Jesus gets the awful news that his cousin, friend, and predecessor in announcing the Kingdom of God, John the Baptist had been killed, beheaded by the King. John’s disciples had carried away John’s body and buried it, and they had just told Jesus what had happened. So, THAT’S what Jesus had just heard, when our reading starts out saying “Now when Jesus heard THIS, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

Jesus was broken-hearted at the death of his friend and cousin.
He needed space. He needed time away. Maybe he was doing some interior wrestling. But the crowds followed him. They followed him with their brokenness and their need. They were seeking something, too.

Jesus didn’t just heal their sick and feed them. Although he did that. He also empowered them: “You give them something to eat,” he said to the disciples. Those are words for us, too.

“You give them something to eat.”

And so I think that we could say that on that day, Jesus and that multitude of people, including the disciples, were a blessing for each other.

Jacob, as you may remember, was a twin. And he spent his life trying to get ahead. Literally. He’s the one who, when he was born, was clutching after his brother, Esau’s heel. It was as though Jacob was trying to be born first. And later, he would steal his brother’s birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. And if that’s not bad enough, when their father was old and blind and dying, Jacob pretended to be Esau and stole their father’s blessing that should have only been for the oldest son. So our friend Jake is not a model of honesty and fairness. He’ll do whatever it takes to get ahead. He has faults. Like you and I, I suppose.

We all have faults, though we don’t like to talk of them much. And there are times when we think we’ve worn out our welcome wherever we are. Maybe it is time to go home. Robert Frost says that home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

We don’t know why Jacob was going home, but we do know that he was pretty uneasy about it. He sends half of his family one way, and half the other way, and he waits. We don’t know what he’s waiting for. But it is while he’s waiting that he meets God and wrestles with God. They wrestle all through the dark night until the daybreak.

Have you had the experience of wrestling with something or someone during the night? Have you ever woken up and re-lived a conversation? Maybe you said something you wish you hadn’t. Or maybe someone said something to you that really stung. Stung so much you woke up thinking about it, wrestling with it in the night.

As dark as the night is, sometimes it is during the night when we are most aware of our faults and others’ faults.

As dark as the night is, sometimes it is during the night when we see that the path we’re on is not the right one for us.

As dark as the night is, sometimes that’s when we work things out in our hearts and in our heads.

Sometimes we wrestle at night just like Jacob. Sometimes we feel like Jacob, too. The reading tells us that he was afraid. Doesn’t matter that he’s big and strong. He feels afraid. Doesn’t matter that he’s got wives and concubines and children and wealth. He feels afraid. In verse 11, just before our lectionary reading picks up, we learn that Jacob is afraid of his brother Esau, and he prays to God that God will save him from Esau. Jacob even goes so far to remind God – as if God might have forgotten – that God had promised Jacob that everything would go well for Jacob and Jacob would have descendants as numerous as the stars. And so Jacob wrestles with God through the night.

And at daybreak, Jacob demands a blessing from God. That’s pretty bold, no? And God gives him a blessing. But here’s the thing, Jacob’s hip went out of joint in the struggle, and even after the blessing his hip is still out of joint. When he left that place of wrestling and blessing, he left with a blessing, but he still had a limp.

All of us bear scars of one sort or another. For some of us – not all, though – our deepest scars and our greatest blessings may have come from the same experience. That is how I feel about living with and caring for my mother while she had Alzheimer’s Disease. It was horrible and painful to see her so diminished. But it was a tremendous blessing to be together, to take each day as it would come together. To know the blessing of friends who truly and deeply cared for us.

That experience shaped me in ways nothing else in my life before or after has. There were moments of grace during those years that were borne of that wrestling we were doing with that diagnosis and her experience of limitation, and my experience of limitation! And running through the middle of all of that, through all of those years, I see the tender touch of Jesus brushing against us over and over again. His heart was breaking, too, you see.

But if you’re like me, you wish that maybe it could have been some other way. Couldn’t we have a blessing without the wrestling? Without the suffering? I don’t have an answer for that.

I know I’ve received blessings without any struggle; they were just pure gift. But those other blessings wouldn’t have been the same without the wrestling. And the scars I have, well let me tell you something. Have you ever broken a plate? Or a glass or vase? I’m sure you have. We all have, right?

Well, there’s a kind of Japanese pottery repair called Kintsugi. It is very beautiful. Picture a deep blue ceramic vase that has fallen on the floor and broken into any number of pieces. When a practitioner of Kintsugi repair does his or her magic, they put the pieces together using a resin between the broken pieces, but that resin contains gold dust. So when the piece is put back together using the gold resin, the cracks end up being the most beautiful and unique parts of the vase. There’s no attempt to hide the damage. No effort to make it look as though it never had been broken. In fact, the places where the breaks occurred are actually illuminated or highlighted by the gold. It’s a way of accepting the bumps and bruises that come with life.

And it reminds me of the words from a Leonard Cohen song, reflecting ancient Sufi wisdom, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Friends, when we wrestle in the darkness, may we always seek a blessing. May we acknowledge our broken places, our scarred-over wounds. And may we find a blessing. May we always look for it, wait for it … and at the blessed sunrise may we find a blessing.

And may God bless you!

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