Weekly Preaching: August 2, 2020

July 29th, 2020

Personal curiosity: I'll be "back" preaching this Sunday after being out for my father's death. So in general, after such a loss, but especially this time because many saw my "Complicated, Infrequent, Maddening" blog about his life and death... Do I talk about it? Or just do Sunday?

Genesis 32:22-31. Can we read a text from the perspective of a hymn? Charles Wesley, before composing “Come, O Thou Traveller Unknown,” must have spent a lot of time ruminating on this story. Estranged from his brother for decades, with a troubled marriage, Jacob is alone, anxious, on the run, evidently thrashing up against the limits of existence.

He can’t even get a good night’s sleep. Terror of all terrors, he’s tackled by … well, it’s too dark to see. A robber? Is it Esau? An angel? God? The ambiguity is the reality for Jacob — although the implication is that God is somehow, mysteriously in the thick of this life-threatening assault. Wesley’s surprising insight is that he imagines Jacob actually inviting the perilous encounter: “Come, O thou traveler.” Come. Bring it on. Jacob never shrank from trouble, and instigated plenty of it on his own. He’s a fighter, someone who weirdly enjoys conflict. The Bible portrays a God who enjoys it as well. What an odd religion Israel and then Christianity have: we argue with God; we can do combat with the Almighty. God allows this. God welcomes this. God seems to want a relentless, ferocious openness, honesty and grappling from us.

I may open my sermon by telling about the Father's Day night I came home alone to a dark house. Everyone in my family had to be somewhere. I was feeling a touch sorry for myself. Unlocked the door, and before I could turn on the light, I was grabbed by a screaming man who wrestled me down. Terrified, it was only when he laughed that I knew it was Love that had attacked me in the dark. It was my son, who'd parked down the street and was determined to surprise me. Was I ever...

I wonder what sudden assaults we undergo. There is actual assault, of course ... but then, the pandemic? A sudden, unanticipated, unsought encounter with truth? What about news, like "it's malignant," or "your dad died"? — and you are face to face with horror, hope, death, life ... God. Perhaps here I will bring in the subject of the loss of my dad. Moments in history: George Floyd's death said Now is finally the time to deal with it. Harvey Weinstein's ugly story said Now is finally the time to deal with it. Jesus, after all, was above everything else so very urgent in saying Now. Decide Now. Follow now.

There may be something in here about how we think about strangers. A “traveler unknown” arrives in Jacob’s camp. Who are the strange travelers in our world? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reads Genesis and Exodus as if God is telling the truth about the stranger to each one of us: 

“If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers … Though they are not in your image, says God, they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.” 

Indeed, Wesley’s hymn presses the traveler: “Tell me if thy name is Love.” God is in the stranger. Love is in the surprise encounter in the dark. God is with Jacob – by being against him, by wrestling with him.

Jacob doesn’t try to escape. The hymn grasps this: “With thee all night I mean to stay and wrestle till the break of day.” Does Wesley’s hymn help us see this, which might be implied in Genesis 32? Jacob has chutzpah, a cockiness that dares to fight anybody, God included. And he fights even God to something of a tie! And he isn’t merely a survivor. As always, he’s getting something to take home: “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” He had stolen the blessing from his brother — and now he insists on blessing again. Is it a model for prayer: we grapple with God, then we grab hold of God and won’t let go until we get the blessing?

Just as the sun begins to rise, Jacob limps away from the scene. He is wounded, marked by the encounter. There are pains that come from our battles with life and God. Sacks speaks of “honorable scars.” In Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair, a woman notices what used to be a wound on her lover’s shoulder, and contemplates the advancing wrinkles in his face: “I thought of lines life had put on his face, as personal as a line of writing — I thought of a scar on his shoulder that wouldn’t have been there if once he hadn’t tried to protect another man from a falling wall. The scar was part of his character, and I knew I wanted that scar to exist through all eternity." Jesus' scars persisted, and they still do. Jacob is scarred; he limps, his wound the badge of honor from having engaged mightily with the Almighty.

Jesus, we might recall, had scars after Easter, scars he earned when he gave life to all of us, not blotted out by the resurrection (John 20:27). Frederick Buechner envisioned this when he preached on Jacob limping away from his contest with God: “Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” Genesis 32 isn’t about Jesus. Or to the eyes of faith, is it? Wesley’s hymn imagines an inquiry into the name of this nocturnal stranger, guessing that it’s Love — with a capital L — and finally, and delightfully concluding, “Tis Love! Thou diedst for me.”

Romans 9:1-5. Paul maybe doth protest too much: “I am not lying!” So defensive! And yet so effusive in his adulation of Israel. Anti-Semites never read Romans 9: “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs.” Exactly. We Christians would always do well to reflect with endless gratitude and joyful solidarity with our Jewish neighbors.

Matthew 14:13-21. Jesus’ habit — that he “withdrew to a deserted place” — is exemplary. As is, though, his “interruptibility.” This is the ministerial life, and also the ideal life of the laity, as we zigzag between the discipline of time alone with God and then being willing to be interrupted to respond to a person needing mercy. Jesus’ “compassion”: the Greek, esplangnisthe, is so evocative, meaning an inward turmoil, a twisting of the guts. Jesus really feels what he feels for the people. He’s not ordering them around or judging them; his entrails get all contorted, like a woman’s womb in labor.

Hard not to admire his reply to the disciples informing him of the obvious — that the crowd is hungry: “You give them something to eat.” Emphasis on the you. The five loaves and two fishes were commemorated in an unforgettable mosaic in the little church on the shore of Galilee. My questions, raised in a sermon I preached on this text in Duke Chapel a few summers back (which I’d commend to you as the best I have to offer), are: Wouldn’t a better miracle have been to have produced just enough for the crowd instead of all the leftovers? What did they do with the leftovers? Worship the bread (in Catholic style)? Distribute it to the poor? Why the waste? Or is it a story that shows God’s lavishness, that God really does give us more than enough — what Sam Wells calls a “superabundance”?

At Duke I told about Dorothy Day giving away a big diamond ring to a poor person. Who says it should be sold and distributed according to the world’s calculus? Maybe God wants fabulous things for the poor as well. I’d encourage the preacher to think of moments of God’s superabundance. I told about an ordination I preached in Haiti. We had a lovely service planned, a nice dinner, and appropriate gifts for the ordinand. But we got the idea of loading extra suitcases full of Oreos for the kids (and grownup kids). It was a giddy feast, unexpected, yes a bit wasteful — but God’s like that, right?

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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