Genesis 32:22-31, Matthew 14:13-21

A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

When we enter our Cathedral, before our worship begins, we may find ourselves drawn into pondering the God we have come to worship. It may be that we look around us at the windows or the reredos or others gathering with us, it may be that we listen to the choir rehearsing, it may be that our minds are heavy with wondering about things happening for us or the world. The Cathedral Choir enters from under the organ loft and, before they enter, their prayer is the Choristers’ Prayer, “Bless, O Lord, us thy servants who minister in thy temple …” The clergy and the servers who lead them gather in the sacristy and we sometimes pray a beautiful prayer – “Go before us, O Lord, in these and all our doings, and further us with your continual help…” As I spoke these words last Sunday, I found myself thinking about the God who goes before us. I found myself thinking that God has gone before, and given life to, and suffered with, and led God’s people in all ages and in all things, in times of war and times of peace, in times of plague and times of healing. That whilst we find ourselves very shaken in this time of pandemic which has, truly, changed the world, God is not unfamiliar with God’s world changing slowly or sometimes with great speed. God accompanies us steadfastly however things are.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, describes this God who accompanies us as a witness, a witness that is best encountered through not a description or a definition, but a narrative, a story. He says this:

One thing that certain kinds of religious language do is to suggest that, paradoxical as it may sound, the best way of representing the unrepresentable presence of “Being”, [God in other words] the unconditional witness to which/whom I seek to be open, is not by any concept … but by a return to narrative. …we could see the parable of Jesus’ own life and death as precisely the narrative that Jesus’ own stories lead up to, the displaying of the consequences of having the unconditional spoken and enacted in human life. And the …narrative of Christian discipleship is one of growing in the recognition that in our relation with the narrated figure of Jesus we are growing in our exposure to the ‘infinite resource’ of God, the reality or presence that has no interest to pursue and no selfhood to defend.[1]

I love this idea – that God is a witness who has “no interest to pursue and no selfhood to defend.” Put simply, Rowan Williams is saying that God is utterly comfortable in God-self! Rowan Williams is also saying that we best ponder God, find insight into God, through story.

Today, we have two stories of encounters with God upon which to reflect. Two stories involving encounters of human beings with God, human beings who have both interests to pursue and selfhoods to defend, human beings who are not comfortable at all with themselves.

The Old Testament reading tells the story from Genesis Chapter 32 of Jacob’s wrestling with a stranger at night. We will be guided by the Hebrew scholar, Matthew Anstey’s, thoughts on this story.

Jacob, whose name Matthew Anstey interprets as “deceiver”, has indeed engaged in much deception in his life before the part of his story we read this morning. As his story unfolds, Jacob, the second of two twins, indeed engages in rivalry and deception – he tricks his brother Esau and his father into giving him the privileges of the firstborn, known as the birthright and the blessing.

Later in Genesis we hear of Jacob’s two nighttime encounters with God.

Jacob experienced his first nighttime encounter with God—the famous “Jacob’s ladder” encounter at Bethel on which Lynn Arnold reflected two weeks ago. In that encounter, God promises Jacob that he will be the one through whom God’s promise to Abraham will be fulfilled. God promises land and offspring and most preciously, God promises Jacob God’s presence.

In his second nighttime encounter with God this promise is fulfilled. Jacob is anxiously seeking reconciliation with his twin brother Esau. The night before he crosses the Jabbok river where he will encounter Esau, Jacob finds himself wresting with an unnamed man, one that Matthew Anstey calls a God-man. He writes, “This God-stranger wrestles with Jacob through the evening. Jacob did not decline this nocturnal struggle. They were, we realize evenly matched. God is represented neither as a bully nor as a doormat. God meets Jacob on his shadowy night at the level of his capacity to resist. Yet here the mystery deepens, as the stranger cannot overcome Jacob, so he injures him, dislocating his hip in some way.”[2]

The story continues in Genesis:

The man says to Jacob, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ Jacob replies, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ The man says, ‘What is your name?’ And he replies, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man says, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 

Jacob has wrestled with God and finds himself with a new name and a new limp and a new blessing. His name is transformed from a name, Jacob that hints of rivalry and trickery to a name, Israel that means the one who has wrestled with God. The encounter with God changes Jacob into one, permanently disabled, whose identity is not about himself but about God. He does not, though, find out God’s name. If we read on in this chapter we will find the story of reconciliation of the newly named Israel with his estranged brother Esau.

We might, as we sit in our Cathedral, reflect on this encounter with the God-man. Are we during the pandemic, wrestling with God? Is this our encounter in the night time? It is not that God imposes the virus upon us – we must be clear about this – but as we struggle with what the virus means, with the breaking down of ways of living that we thought certain, of new distanced ways of relating imposed upon us, of less freedom in travel especially to visit those we hold very dear, are we left limping, permanently changed in some way? Are we even renamed in some way?

In the second story that we have before us this morning from Chapter 14 of Matthew’s Gospel, we witness the God-man, Jesus, responding with compassion to a large crowd. The story opens with the words “Now when he had heard this …”  Jesus has just heard of the murder of his friend, cousin and the front-runner of his ministry, John the Baptist. Jesus wants to go away for a time in a boat to a deserted place but the crowds follow him and, filled with compassion, he cures those among them who are sick. It is as the day draws to a close that the disciples find themselves engaging with Jesus in a way not dissimilar to Jacob. A form of wrestling takes place. The disciples, too, come to see themselves in an utterly new light.

The crowd before them is hungry and the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowd away into the village to buy food. Jesus says to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They reply, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ The disciples see scarcity, lack.  ‘Bring them here to me.’ Jesus says. He sees abundance.  And ordering the crowds to sit down on the grass, Jesus takes the five loaves and the two fish, looks up to heaven, and blesses and breaks the loaves, and gives them to the disciples who give them to the crowds. And all eat and are filled; and there were twelve baskets of broken pieces left. The disciples see scarcity. Jesus sees abundance. The miracle grows from their eyes seeing what Jesus sees.

As we sit in our cathedral reflecting on the possibility that like Jacob we are in some sense limping, we cannot have failed to have heard the words in this second story. Words we hear each week. Jesus looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the loaves and gives them to the disciples to give to the crowds to eat.

“Take, eat. This is my body given for you.” If you’re limping, my body is given, whole, for you. If you think all you have is insufficient, is scarcity, my body will be abundance given for you.

As we come forward, 1.5 metres apart, the hands we reach out covered in hand sanitizer, our minds wondering, worrying, about when our world will be free again, Jesus gives his very self and says to us, “Take, eat. This is my body given for you.” And somehow, although we are still limping and still frightened and still puzzled by this pandemic time, we find ourselves renamed, restored, blessed.

[1] Rowan Williams The Edge of Words pp89-90.

[2] Matthew Anstey “The Elusive Blessing – Aging and Spirituality p111.