Wrestling with God?

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost; 2 August 2020; Proper 13A (RCL); Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21.

Jacob is about to face the consequences of all his trickery up to this point. He is on his way to meet his brother Esau, and is worried about what Esau might do. He has divided his caravan into two, so that Esau falls on one half and destroys it, the other half might escape. Having sent them all ahead, he wrestles with a stranger at the river’s edge.

The narrator never tells us who this stranger is. But Jacob, when the struggle is over, assumes it was God, when he says, “I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.” As in so many instances of encounter, the theophany is not clear until after the fact. The disciples encounter the risen Jesus again and again as a stranger, only to know it was the risen Lord afterward.

And, of course, Jacob does not escape without injury. Although the stranger is not able to best him, he does put his hip out of joint, before blessing him. We are told Jacob walked with a limp the rest of his life. The encounter with the divine does not leave us unchanged. We are also told that this is why the Israelites do no eat the sciatic muscle on the hip socket of sacrificial animals. The encounter changed not just Jacob, but Israel whom he became.

As individuals and as communities, we sometimes struggle with strangers, or with circumstances that we don’t recognize as divine. The struggle threatens to overwhelm us. Perhaps, like Jacob, we are facing the consequences of our own trickery and deception. The struggle will not leave us unchanged.

Paul is bringing his argument about the relationship between Abraham’s family after the flesh and Abraham’s family after the spirit to a close. Writing to the Gentile Christians at Rome, he warns them not to despise the Jews, whether Christian or not. From Israel come the promises of God, and the Gentile Christians are late-comers. Paul expresses his anguish that his fellow Jews have not seen the fulfillment of God’s promises in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. He wishes that he himself could be accursed and cut off from his people if that would bring them to see God’s purposes.

Paul might very well engage in our conversations around race in a similar fashion. Would we be willing to be cut off from being white, if it would bring our fellow kinsman, other white people, to see the purposes of God in the inclusion of all in the promises?

The Gospel reading is the closing bracket of a set of miracles reported six times in four Gospel — sea crossing and feeding in the wilderness. Between the first instance (in Matthew’s Gospel) of sea crossing and this feed, Jesus performs three miracles: the healing of the man with the Legion, Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the flow of blood. Upon raising Jairus’ daughter, Jesus tells those present to “give her something to eat.” He uses the same vocabulary here in the wilderness.

The sea-crossing and feeding stand in for baptism and eucharist, and those making the dangerous crossing are the marginal. A new people is being formed in the wilderness, open to all, on the journey toward God’s promises.

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