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Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak… Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” -Genesis 32: 24, 26b
As we work our way through Genesis, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another Jacob story. Jacob, of course, being quite the character, gets a fair amount of play in Genesis, and certainly he’s someone with whom many of us can identify, at least at certain points in life. But here, today, we do not find the Jacob we’ve come to know, the conniving trickster – not even the trickster tricked, as in last week’s story of his marriage to Leah when he was expecting Rachel. Here, we find Jacob the wealthy, responsible man, with herds and flocks, two wives, two “maids”, and eleven children. Here, finally, we find a Jacob who thinks beyond himself.
Which has, apparently, not gone unnoticed. For finally, God has called Jacob to something that doesn’t seem in Jacob’s best interest. Here, we do not see God blessing him as he runs away from an unpleasant and possibly dangerous situation. Here, God is calling Jacob to account; calling him to confront his fears, perhaps even to undo some of the damage that he had done as a younger man.
Before the verses of Genesis that we read this morning, Jacob enters into a long conversation with God: one that might seem familiar to a lot of us. Even as Jacob begins to follow God’s call back to the land he’d run from twenty years earlier, Jacob questions. “Hey, God,” he says, “I know you promised to be there for me, and keep me safe and all that. But seriously, you’re going to send me back to… Esau?” I paraphrase, of course, but Jacob’s anxiety, even with God’s promises, shines clearly through his prayerful questions.
Because this time, the risk is not just to himself, but to his livelihood and his family as well. And that is a much harder prospect to face.
This week’s Gospel lesson is from Matthew, and it’s the familiar story of Jesus feeding thousands with just a couple of loaves and fishes. I’ve heard – and preached – a fair few sermons on this text; a common take is to suggest that after one little boy was willing to share the food he’d brought, everyone else brought out their lunch as well, and shared, so everyone had enough. Which would itself be a miracle, I’m sure: just think how much better our world would be if we shared our resources more readily! But that alone makes me wonder about the loaves and fishes, for I don’t think humanity has changed that much in the past two millennia. Because it is one thing to risk your own lunch, but another thing entirely to risk the food you brought to feed your children, for example. What would go through your minds, in that moment, as you contemplated putting your entire supply of food into the basket being passed – all of the sandwiches, apples, cheese sticks, juice boxes that you’d packed that morning? What if you just got an apple back? a piece of cheese? What if it wasn’t enough… for you or your children?
Even if it was just a tremendous act of sharing that allowed everyone on that hillside to be fed that day, that isn’t really the miracle. Even if everyone took the risk of putting their all into the basket, the real miracle here is the huge quantity of leftovers, totally disproportionate to number of people who were there. The real miracle is that in God’s equation, when you give all, you receive even more in return.
And that should make us look at our sense of call, and at our living into God’s promises, far more clearly than we often do.
Wouldn’t we all wrestle?
Don’t we, each of us, at some point, wrestle with the apparent dichotomy between God’s call to us – abundant promises and all – and caring for our own? Don’t we, each of us, weigh very carefully how much we are willing to risk? Will we risk our jobs for the sake of fair working practices, as many in our town have recently done? Will we risk our hearts – and possibly even our wallets – for the sake of children whose home countries know a violence beyond our wildest dystopic imaginings?
Faced with such risk; faced with the reality of our fears, we are much more likely to circle the proverbial wagons, and become protective of that which is known and familiar and safe. We are much more likely to push away the new, the different – even to push away the one who is calling us to that very situation that we fear.
And we wrestle; as individuals, as a church. For we are called to proclaim our faith, to bear witness to the continuation of the covenant, to the promises of our still-speaking God. We are called to care not only for those who enter this place, but for all who are oppressed and wounded; especially to those who have been oppressed and wounded in the name of God and the church. We take positions on many issues, and our stances are not always popular ones… though some certainly do provoke stronger reactions than others. And we ask ourselves, on a regular basis: What will we risk?
We wrestle. We wrestle with our commitment to justice, versus our very real, very practical fears for integrity of this building and the safety of the people who enter it. We wrestle with the anxiety that such incidents inspire, versus knowledge that to many, these incidents are common, and that real lives at stake each and every day. We wrestle with hurt against hope, fears against call, human understandings and God-given promises.
We wrestle, and for longer than a night.
But for us, like for Jacob, there is no clear winner. For on one side is the power to take out the opponent with one simple touch; on the other is the human stubbornness to hang on anyway. I can well imagine the words of pain that Jacob uttered when he was struck, yet he hangs on and asks for a blessing anyway. He asks for a blessing, rather than for what his initial hope seems to have been; to be allowed to turn back and avoid the confrontation with Esau, avoid the accounting for his youthful selfishness. He wrestles, he hangs on, and then he limps away, following God’s call, facing his fears, risking all. Jacob goes on as one blessed by the struggle; reassured in the very act of wrestling of God’s presence, reassured in this moment of truth – in this moment of of deepest fear – that he had held God, for a moment, within his very arms.
Jacob’s fears have not gone, but neither have the promises of presence and blessing. And that is miracle enough.
We wrestle, we follow, we risk that which we love. And sometimes, we give up our lunches. And sometimes, we walk off our jobs. And sometimes, we open our hearts and our borders to strangers. And sometimes, we get hurt.
But if we wrestle truly: if we grapple so closely with our God that we might see God’s face; if we wrestle, and we risk, and we hang on despite it all, shall we not be blessed? Shall we not know, within our very embrace, the presence long-promised, covenant to all generations? the miraculous abundance that flows from God?
We who wrestle; we who invite God in for a little face-to-face time; we who follow, despite the risk: shall we not be blessed?
Shall we not be a blessing, a miracle to those for whom we risk ourselves?
May it be so.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest of shrubs… The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened… Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Matthew 13: 31-32, 33b, 45-46
Do you remember the story of Jack and the Beanstalk? Jack and his mother were poor, and when their cow no longer gave milk, Jack took it to market to be sold. Of course, he never got all the way to market, but traded the cow – even without milk, an animal of obvious value – for a scant handful of beans… of very questionable value. I do not wonder at his mother’s temper tantrum, when Jack arrived home; she threw out the beans, afraid and angry. Because this is a fairy tale, however, the results landed everyone far beyond anyone’s initial perception of that handful of beans.
But we don’t live in a fairy tale. We likely think that the mother’s reaction makes a lot of sense… which makes me wonder how often we end up discarding that which seems worthless at first glance?
If you were an ancient Israelite farmer, there is no way you would allow mustard to grow in your field, and you certainly wouldn’t plant it. Mustard is a weed, a totally unruly plant that would be pulled up and discarded as soon as it started to grow. It was, to those ancient farmers, much like crabgrass is to us New England gardeners: an object of frustration and loathing.
Mustard was more than an irritating weed, however: its very nature as a leggy, bushy, unruly plant made it not compliant with Jewish law, which craved and demanded order above all else. To allow mustard to grow – let alone to encourage it! – was to allow an object of chaos in an regulated society, in a law that promoted order above all else. Mustard was like leaven: a corrupting agent, uncontrollable, impure according to the law. The inclusion of these in the purity of the food supply was akin to the introduction of something uncontainable, outside of our control: something worthless and undesirable.
And this is the Kingdom of God? in these ordinary, worthless, impure, less-than pieces of creation?
We are more likely to see the Kingdom in the pearl of great price; in Rachel the beautiful, rather than Leah the nearsighted. Leah, the apparently-undesirable (since, in the first seven years Jacob worked under Laban, she remained unmarried); the one Jacob would have rejected, the one he never treated well… yet the one through whom God worked. Leah was the one through whom the covenant promises were finally realized. For despite her apparent undesirability, Leah was prolific, giving birth to six of Jacob’s twelve sons – half of twelve tribes of Israel – as well as his only daughter. In Leah, we find the sudden, weed-like, yeast-like flourishing of God’s people; the chaotic, uncontrollable profusion of blessing that had long been promised.
That is the Kingdom: the treasure we’d sell everything to possess – in the form of a weed. The profuse, rampant, chaotic blessing and presence that we cannot live without… yet all too often, in forms we don’t recognize and would just as soon discard. For even the seemingly obvious sometimes isn’t; even the pearl had to be sought and weighed, before the merchant decided upon it. Still: a pearl is a relative no-brainer. But when Kingdom arrives in the form of weeds? of beans? of small, forgettable or unnoticeable acts? When the Kingdom takes the form of people who are not valuable by our standards – who do not conform to social or cultural norms, who do not stay within the confines of what we consider right, or proper, or pure, but arrive clothed as the ones who cause problems, and upset the balance… what do we do then?
What do we do when the Kingdom appears as a Nelson Mandela, as a Martin Luther King Jr., as a Rosa Parks, as a Harvey Milk? What do we do when what we primarily notice is that these people are the ones who defy neat, orderly rows of the garden, welcoming all to nest and be sheltered in our otherwise-perfect gardens? What do we do when the Kingdom erupts in our midst, in the form of those who make the dough rise so that all might be fed; who embody the abundance of promise, the chaos of covenant, which promised to God’s people descendents like the grains of sand, like the dust of the earth?
The thing about sand is that it’s itchy. Uncomfortable. Chaotic.
The Kingdom of God does not conform to human standards of worth or value, but calls us to reject those norms and notions; to give everything up for something greater. It calls us to reject our standards of comfort, of purity, of what is good or right or normal. It calls us to live by God’s standards, to embody God’s promises, to invite chaos, to welcome discomfort. The Kingdom invites risk, invites the anxiety that makes us question: why mustard? why yeast? why these elements you can’t control? why a fungus that’s going to grow bigger and broader and more flavorful; why a weed that’s going to become more sheltering, more nourishing, more abundant?
Perhaps real question isn’t why would you seek such a weed, but rather, why wouldn’t you?
In a rare instance of pedagogy, I’m assigning you homework.
For our less-agrarian, less-yeast-averse society: what is the Kingdom of God? Where does it break into your life in wild, weedy profusion? what are the undervalued pearls, for which we would give everything? What is our parable, for this modern age?
I came up with one, the other night: The outpouring of love (Kingdom of God, erupting here in New Hampshire) is indeed like a mustard seed, starting small – “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” And growing in wild, abundant, social-media profusion until it shelters and comforts all of God’s children, promising welcome to those too often bullied and silenced.
For the Kingdom is here, today, in the love that takes away the power of malice. It is here, in the the branching, spreading, sheltering love that holds us all in abundance and grace. For a handful of worthless beans can sprout a beanstalk to the heavens; the forgotten, neglected daughter can fulfill God’s covenant, and one church, in one New Hampshire town, can bring hope to hundreds, to thousands.
That is the what the Kingdom is like. Thanks be to God.
Luke’s Gospel recalls Jesus’ first time preaching in a synagogue, after his baptism. He went back to his hometown, to the people who had raised him and knew him, and preached on the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah, who, like all of the biblical prophets, had spoken truths that no one really wanted to hear – not just words of comfort to a people in search of God, but words of rebuke, and words that called the people and their leaders back into a right relationship with God.
When Jesus preached on Isaiah’s words, he was run out of town. Run out by his own people, for speaking uncomfortable truths.
Uncomfortable truths abound in our scriptures and in our faith. Often, they are couched in a comforting message: Love your neighbor as yourself… But who is our neighbor? The one you despise. The one you would never let near you. The one you think isn’t even entirely human. Love that one as yourself.
Christianity is a faith both of comfort and of discomfort. We should certainly take comfort in God’s abiding presence with us, in God’s grace that holds us up no matter how often we fall. We should take comfort in the assurance that we are beloved no matter what.
But the very fact that we need that reassurance – that we need grace – should keep at least a little bit uncomfortable. The fact that Isaiah’s words, and Jesus’ preaching, still call us back to discipleship; the fact that we continually need to be called back to discipleship, should make us uncomfortable. We are called to a love that does not come naturally to us. We are called to love beyond the barriers that human beings so often erect to exclude and dehumanize one another. We are called to love beyond race, class, sexuality, gender, nationality, mental health, employment or housing status, and religion.
And yes, that makes us uncomfortable.
Sometimes our call can be so uncomfortable that we are willing to remake God in our own image; to put our own prejudices on God and justify our fear, our unwillingness to love – to see every person we encounter as worthy, as made in God’s own image, just as they are and without changing.
Sometimes our call – to love as God loves – can be so uncomfortable that we are willing to act with malice to protect our own sense of who God is, and who God loves, and who God considers worthy. To vandalize symbols of a love that extends beyond our own, beyond the boundaries that are of our own making. To secure borders and boundaries and demonize those who would cross them; those who seek our love and our compassion.
We still need Isaiah. We still need Jesus. We still need the prophetic witness that calls us to a greater love than we feel capable of.
And then we need to respond. The call of discipleship requires us to respond. Not by running the prophet out of town, as the people of Nazareth did, but by bearing witness ourselves to the power and depth of God’s love. By becoming a prophetic witness in our own right, trusting in God’s presence and grace. By not allowing God to be made over in hateful human form. By being the persistent voices that remind the world that God’s love extends beyond all that we can possibly know, let alone understand.
Bearing prophetic witness is hard, as Jesus learned quickly. Speaking love, and grace, and peace, to a fearful world is a challenging call indeed. But the opportunity to love those neighbors who have often heard nothing but hate preached in God’s name is not one we can ignore. The opportunity to open our hearts to the injustice that so many children of God endure on a daily basis leads us all the more deeply into God’s love and presence in this world.
This world is hungry for love. For all the risk and sorrow that our prophetic witness may bring, there is so much more love and support. For all those who would run us out of town, there are so many more who will keep us safe, patch up our scrapes and bruises, and carry our prophecy and God’s love even further into the world. For all the hate in this world, there are many more who are desperate to hear our witness of enduring and abundant love.
Let us continue to bear witness, my friends. Let us continue to speak aloud God’s love, and let us not be silenced. God is still speaking! Let us do likewise.