Wrestling with God, a hungry crowd of 5000 and a surviving a pandemic

GOSPEL: Matthew 14:13-21
16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

If you were all here in person, I would probably begin with an informal survey where you would raise your hand. Even though you aren’t here, we are going to try it anyways. I’ll pretend like I know what your answers are. 

So 4 and half months into this pandemic, who here is feeling a little tired of social distancing measures? 

Most of you? Okay, that makes sense. 

Who here is ready to go back to normal? 

Everyone? I can see that. 

Who has learned or acquired some new skills or abilities during this time, such as new technologies or cooking and baking or puzzles or new workout routines? 

Ah, yes, I see a lot of hands up. 

Who here finds themselves judging pre-pandemic tv shows by pandemic standards, as in hey those people aren’t social distancing!? 

Yup, a lot us. 

Who finds themselves judging others about their social distancing while out and about in public?

Be honest now. Yeah, most of us eh?

Who here has bent a social distancing rule to see family or friends? 

Yeah, almost all of us.

Who is ready of trust that most other people will diligently follow restrictions in order to keep us all safe?

That few of you… umm hmmm… 

Okay, who feels completely confident in government plans to re-open our economy safely and without unnecessarily increasing risk? Including the re-opening of schools?

Anyone? I am not surprised. 

Who is anxious about jumping back into fully participating in public life before a vaccine? 

Wow… most of us… yup….

So on the surface our little informal survey shows a pretty mixed response. Most of us are pretty tired of all the pandemic restrictions and ready for life to go back to normal. Yet, we also are finding it hard to trust that our neighbour and trust political leaders to safely guide us through this pandemic. And most of us are guilty of bending the social distancing rules ourselves. 

So we want all this stuff to be over, but we aren’t sure we are ready to trust the outside world. 

This Sunday, on the 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time, we continue with the story of Jacob and his family (the grandson of Sarah and Abraham). We also hear a family story from Jesus’ life and ministry, the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two small fish. And in both, there is a glimpse of just where we may be at these days.

Jacob is the second born Son of Isaac. And Isaac the second born Son of Sarah and Abraham. Abraham is one of two brothers. And from Abraham all the way to Jacob’s own sons, God shows a surprising pattern of preferring second born sons to pass on the covenant, the promise given to God’s chosen people… when of course by normal Hebrew custom, the double portion and birthright was passed on to eldest sons. 

So far we have heard the stories of Isaac following his brother Esau by holding onto his heal right out of the womb. And then tricking his older brother out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. Jacob then met the angels of God descending from heaven on a ladder. And last week Jacob was tricked himself into years of servitude in oder to marry the woman he loved. Women with whom he would father 13 sons and more daughters. 

Yet, finally this week we meet Jacob in an unusual place. He is into solitude. Despite being surrounded by his wives, children, servants and herds he is fearful about finally being reunited with his estranged brother. 

As Jacob sends his large posse ahead, he spend the night alone on the river Jabbok. There he encounters and then wrestles with God. 

While Jacob encounters and wrestles with God alone, the disciples are wrestling with things in the midst of a great crowd. Shortly after the popular John the Baptist was executed by King Herod, a community in shock gathers around Jesus. Even as Jesus mourns his cousin, he is confronted by a community in crisis. A great crowd gathers before him and he teaches and heals them. 

By the end of the day, the disciples are worried about feeding the masses. They implore Jesus to send the crowds to the villages for food. But Jesus tells them to feed the crowds and all that they can come up with 5 loaves and two fish. Seemingly not enough for 5000. 

Jacob’s lonely dark night of the soul and the disciple’s consternation about the feeding the crowd may seem to have little in common at first glance, yet in both stories there is wrestling with circumstances. Jacob wrestles not just with the unknown stranger in his tent, but with the prospect of meeting his estranged brother across the river. The disciples wrestle not just with feeding the crowds, but with understanding just what is going on with their beloved teacher as he compassionately preaches to the masses in crisis. 

Mixed feelings about complicated situations all around. 

Certainly we recognize the wrestling. Certainly we recognize the difficulty understanding just what and who we are wrestling with and why. 

As we struggle with how long this pandemic is lasting with no clear timeline for an end in sight we wrestle with our feelings of wanting life to go back to normal and fearing a serious outbreak of the virus in our community. 

Jacob chooses to wrestle with this stranger and to focus on winning a blessing, rather than the looming confrontation with his brother in the morning. The disciples become event planners and managers for Jesus, focusing on the practicality of feeding the crowds rather the looming confrontation between their Messiah Master and the religious authorities (like his cousin John just faced). 

And our wrestling pushes us to focus on issues other than the big ones before us. Our whole world is debating the technicalities of safe re-opening. We are twisting ourselves in knot over border closures, self-quarantine requirements, safely opening malls and hair salons, remote working conditions, school and day care reopening and of course resuming in-person church services. We are trying to avoid thinking about how this prolonged pandemic and 2nd wave realities will force us re-evaluate how we structure out society, what we consider safe working conditions, how we support families, the elderly, students rather than forcing so many to live on the brink of financial ruin just to keep our consumption of cheap products habits afloat. 

We would rather wrestle all night and demand a blessing or mask wearing then consider what our world needs to become on the other side of this pandemic. We would rather event plan the catering than consider just what God might be already up to in our midst, changing and transforming and preparing our community for the next thing by giving us what we need. 

And yet, as Jacob wrestles, God blesses him with a new name. Israel – the one who wrestles with God (and wins!). A new name confirming his identity as the bearer of his families birthright, the covenant and promise of God’s chosen people. An identity confirmed by the embrace of his brother Esau, whom God had blessed in the way that Esau needed.

And as the disciples distribute the loves and fish, they discover that their Messiah teacher insists on being revealed even in event planning. As they pass the food around the meagre offering blessed by Jesus, they discover an unimaginable abundance. Enough food to feed thousands and 12 baskets left over – enough for the 12 tribes of Israel (the 12 sons of Jacob). 

And certainly, as we wrestle with our pandemic world… with our event planning and insistence on the things we imagine to be of importance, God is already at work preparing to surprise us with the very things we need. 

With the abundance of covenant promise. 

With the blessing and identity that we have trouble accepting. 

With the revelation of the divine even in event planning. 

God is already at work bestowing us with the gospel promise of life and salvation no matter how we gather to hear it – in person or online. 

God is already preparing to walk with us into places that we never imagined we would fear, workplaces and schools, malls and restaurants. And God promises to go with us out into the world or stay with us at home. 

God is already carrying our tired and aching souls. Tired from pandemic, tired from compliance. Aching for community, aching for the familiar. 

God is already where we need God to be, even when, especially when, we would rather wrestle with some other problem, focus on some other issue to keep from having to face the looming danger, the presenting problem, the uncertainty of today that was unforeseen yesterday, and the uncertainty of tomorrow that is unimaginable today.

And so today, with mixed feelings prevalent in our hearts and minds, with wrestling with the things we think we can control in the face of problems and overwhelming anxiety… we go with Jacob across the Jabbok river, we collect the abundance of 5 loaves and two fish with the disciples…

Today, God is already before us, already in our future, already preparing us for the world we need to face. God is already making ready the blessing and abundance we need. 

Today, God reveals to us again that God is already ahead of us, already in the places we have mixed feelings about going toward… And God promises that no matter what will befall us that our future is held in God’s hands. 

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