Weekly Preaching: August 6, 2017

July 24th, 2017

Ordinary time... and yet two of the most un-ordinary, extra-ordinary texts in all of Scripture. First is Genesis 32:22-32. I’ll offer some comments, and offer you this sermon I preached on this 3 years ago. It’s hard to beat Frederick Buechner on this story: vintage Scripture meets vintage Buechner, who’s given us not one but two spins on the story, one called “The Magnificent Defeat,” and the other from Son of Laughter. Sometimes I think it’s the kind of story you just stare at, and marvel. I’m not sure there’s a lesson or a takeaway at all. It’s Wow, what an amazing night for Jacob. 

It’s tempting, and inviting, to psychologize. I love the song Sara Bareilles wrote for the musical Waitress — a song of a woman who’s lost her self somewhere along the way, like Jacob:

I'm not anything like I used be, although it's true
I was never attention's sweet center
I still remember that girl

She's imperfect, but she tries
She is good, but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won't ask for help
She is messy, but she's kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone, but she used to be mine

The Bible doesn't speak of not being the person you used to be. But this feeling gets at the heart of human existence, is "biblical" without being in the Bible — and the song is the sort of secular song one could use in worship without needing to baptize it.
Edgy and aggressive, yet alienated and floundering, Jacob gets jumped — or did he do the jumping? He wrestles all night with... God? an angel? A stranger? Himself? Preachers can just tease and ask here; no need to answer, no need to choose.  

I love his “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” Is this the exemplary prayer? The blessing somehow is the struggle; the blessing somehow is the wound, causing him to limp away. Buechner understood this so well.  It sort of exposes those “touched by an angel” stories as vapid; if an angel touches you, you’re wounded.
I love to play with Bible names. Jacob would have been the Hebrew name of Jesus’ brother James. Did they ever wrestle? What is it to engage with God, barely survive, and stagger away? No simplistic prosperity Gospel here, and please don’t then simplify or trivialize it. Watch Jacob in the shadows, and be lost in wonder.

* * *
Then the Gospel: the feeding of the 5,000. Matthew 14:13-21I preached on this at Duke Chapel six years ago; the sermon starts at the 32 minute mark. I started with some humor about how people at church dinners ask the pastor about multiplying inadequate food… and about a horrible stewardship sermon I heard on this text.
The text’s better moments are when the disciples point to hungry people, Jesus says You give them something to eat! Love it. And then an unlikely boy, fulfilling once again that “a little child shall lead them” — or in this case, “a little child shall feed them.”

The leftovers simply amaze me. In my Duke Chapel sermon, I explored this at some length. Jesus should have dazzled them with precisely the amount of food needed! Or maybe he should have been like our churches, giving them just a smidgeon to get by, questioning them sternly regarding why they were out of food…. But there is this lavishness, this bounty, this superabundance. Sam Wells has written so profoundly on this aspect of God’s nature, and what it means for us as a Church (in God’s Companions, for instance).
Can we recall any moment of God’s superabundance? I preached in Haiti a few years back in a rural, poor-by-Haitian standards place. We had stuffed two suitcases full of cookies. When the service ended, my daughter had set all the cookies out. The children squealed with delight. Yes, they needed food, which we were working on, and economic stimuli, and education, and lots of other things we were laboring toward together. But for one moment, there was sheer glee over the bountiful gift.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. 

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