Monday, August 1, 2011

Resources of Heaven, Known on Earth

Scripture for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 32:22-31; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

On the main stage of scripture this summer has been the drama of the Jacob saga from the Book of Genesis. He has tricked his brother Esau out of his inheritance rights, then fled the country both to escape Esau’s wrath and to find a wife. Make that two wives, we saw last week, and a tribe of children (make that twelve tribes, in time), all of which was indeed a long story covering twenty years and a major humbling of cocky Jacob.

Now it is time for him to return to the land of Canaan, the new and so-called Promised Land which Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and father Isaac and their generations had been settling, claiming as given to them in the providence of God. At a deeper level, these stories are about the creation of the nation Israel. We heard this morning the pivotal story of Jacob being renamed Israel. For God’s promises to be fulfilled, Jacob/Israel must be reconciled with his brother Esau, who occupies the land.

Burning in Jacob’s memory is his brother’s hot anger at being deceived, twenty years ago. Is it typical of some of our fears that we don’t give other people credit for having changed since we last offended them?

The context for our portion of the story today is this. Every creature making up Jacob’s world is in caravan approaching the border: his two wives, their maids, all the children those several women have brought into the world by him, goats, sheep, camels, cows, bulls, donkeys, and assorted servants. Many hundreds of animals and dozens of people are encamped at a place called Mahanaim, as Jacob gets his act together.

He sends emissaries to Esau, with a prepared speech alerting Esau to what he doubtless already knows: Jacob is coming with an entire village of family and retainers, and wants to find favor in Esau’s sight.

Something is lost in transition here. Jacob’s agents hightail it back to report that they found Esau, “and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him!” Nothing is said about what was said in their encounter with Esau, leaving Jacob to fill in the blanks.

Is it human nature that, in the absence of knowing, fearing takes over; and in the presence of a guilty conscience, fearing multiplies? Jacob, greatly distressed, reverts to type (he is a prototype Episcopalian) and first, before praying, problem-solves… and then prays. He divides his caravan into two companies, hoping to cut his losses if Esau attacks.

Then he prays, “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.”

The next day, Jacob selects a present for Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, and on it goes (you get the idea)—we’re talking a major financial stimulus package. Again, emissaries are rehearsed for a speech to Esau. Jacob sends this whole bleating, mooing, whinnying parade on it way, and, before settling down for the night, says, “Perhaps he will accept me.”

But this night, Jacob will not be settled. He rises and sends on its way all that remains of his caravan across the ford of the Jabbok, an eastern tributary of the Jordan River. He is left alone. But not alone. A lot remains to be settled, and Jacob wrestles with all his life. He wrestles not just with his issues: it is an actual opponent he fights. The other half of his long-divided self? Even when Jacob is at his lowest, he does not give in. His adversary pleads, “Let me go, for the day is breaking, and a far more important thing must happen…”

“Not unless you bless me,” stammers Jacob. And in the exchange that follows, Jacob emerges with a new name, Israel, the one who strives with God and with humans, and prevails. Jacob has been struggling with God, and wins God’s blessing. That, says the story, is the story with the nation Israel.

There is quite a struggle going on in our Gospel today. One crowd after another presses in on Jesus for his blessing, his healing, his teaching. He has to escape, for his soul’s health. He takes a boat. They follow by the land route. His heart melts at their neediness.

Is it to protect him—or to protect themselves—that his disciples interrupt his flow of compassion, tap their wristwatches, cast a disapproving look around the barren landscape, and say, “This place is a wasteland. There’s no time left in the day. Send these people away to the villages before the stores close—or we’re going to have a catastrophe on our hands!”

“They need not go anywhere. They need you to feed them.”

“But… but…”

“Yes. And, and… Bring to me here the food you have.” In John’s version, a child provides the loaves and fishes. Here, it must be the disciples who empty their pockets, and among them is barely enough to feed the twelve. “Take no staff for your journey, no money, nothing extra,” they quote him to one another under their breath. “Of course that’s all we have.”

And yet it is not all they have. So many ages ago, Jacob dreamed of a ladder uniting heaven to earth, announcing that the resources of heaven are available on earth, not because they are earned or deserved or even recognized, but because it is God’s nature and desire to give.

So it happens on that hillside. What happens? They balance the budget between what they have and what they need. Jesus takes the little that came out of those abstemious disciples’ pockets and makes a big deal of that bread and fish. He takes them into the public eye, gives God the eye, blesses the problem of not-enough by breaking it open to public scrutiny, and reveals how this is simultaneously the solution, the giving that he models for the disciples to do, and they in turn model for each person in the crowd to do, each person who has (tucked away in unabstemious pockets—no one told them not to be prepared) sharing with each who has not.

There’s much to be learned at the new Neighborhood Center food pantry in North Adams, on Eagle Street. Stuart, Cynthia, Rich, perhaps others of you too, can tell stories like some I’ve heard: how community members come with so little, need so much, get what’s available to be shared, then come back a couple of weeks later with something they want to share, like supermarket coupons they can’t use. And how, at the end of a Wednesday the shelves are bone bare, but by the time next Wednesday rolls around the shelves are full again—the up-front volunteers may not know how that happened, while the back-room crew of shelvers know just where that food came from, having unloaded the Food Bank truck that someone’s giving has paid for, and having emptied the shopping bags of nonperishables from local donors. And it’s all amazing and very Godly.

No less now than two thousand years ago, Jesus’s disciples are called to feed the crowds. Those in whom the Messiah is glorified are given the Messiah’s work to do. That may be at the Neighborhood Center where, last Wednesday between 9 and 2 one hundred families were served, lined up along Eagle Street waiting their turn. And it will be in the refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia and in the chaotic nation of Somalia, where hundreds of thousands, the vanguard of millions, are in danger of death by starvation.

And it will be in Washington, where it is given our elected representatives to deal with national debt and credit, to model abstemiousness without failing to feed the hungry, without creating yet more hungry, and without passing the bill to our children and grandchildren.

What ever became of Esau and Jacob/Israel? Since this isn’t appointed to be read next week, let me tell you:

“Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.

“But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, ‘Who are these with you?’ Jacob said, ‘The children whom God has graciously given your servant.’ Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, ‘What do you mean by all this company that I met?’ Jacob answered, ‘To find favour with my lord.’ But Esau said, ‘I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.’”

Then there follows a very civilized exchange: “No, I insist!” “Oh, I couldn’t possibly.” “No, I urge you to accept…” And so Esau did accept, and did what was wanted by Israel, the man (the nation) of problem-solving and of prayer.

May such a good reconciliation be achieved in Washington tomorrow, an outcome that models giving, forgiving, sharing, and the acceptance of responsibility.