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8/6/23 Sermon

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Sermon from guest speaker Debby Bliss

Genesis 32:22-31

New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” 29 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. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Matthew 14:13-21

New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled, and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Sermon August 6, 2023 - Hancock UCC Church

A Lesson in Hospitality

So with only two fishes and six loaves of bread, the disciples of Jesus fed five thousand people, and when all these people finished eating, there was quite a lot left over. They passed around some baskets and collected quite a haul of leftovers.

Well, if we want to, we can certainly take this as the story of a miracle. And if we’re going to do that, we might as well know that the loaves in the story would not have been like the “loaves” of bread that we normally picture, which are pretty big and amount to about a half a pound – no, a loaf of their bread would have been more like a tortilla. So we really are not talking about a whole lot of food. That makes it even more of a miracle, doesn’t it. To feed all those people. Many people will treat this as a great miracle. Have you heard it spoken of that way?

According to St Augustine, writing at the beginning of the fifth century – and I’m quoting St Augustine for probably the first and only time ever!– he wrote: “A miracle is not contrary to nature, but only to our knowledge of nature. A miracle is made possible by hidden potentialities in nature, that are placed there by God.”

Isn’t that kind of neat?! Makes me want to read more of it. Ultimately, though, I have a hunch (and I hope you will agree) that the meaning of this story which is found in all the Gospels, goes far beyond “miracle”. It focuses on what is human, and humane.

But here’s the deal: The thing that people appreciated, on first hearing this story – and what we can appreciate now – even though we might have heard it a dozen times – what they and we appreciate is the blessing in the story. We wait for it. We hope for it. It is the crucial detail.

The point is, Matthew has written that Jesus reached out his hand and received this tiny offering, the size of a can of sardines -- which the disciples had collected, and he raised it up toward heaven, and blessed it. Or rather, he asked God to bless it. So the blessing that was sought was a divine blessing. And it was then, and only then, after being blessed, that this tiny little offering could become something that would satisfy the people’s hunger.

And I’m wondering, now, whether you noticed the importance of the blessing in the other scripture we read this morning, which is the fascinating story of Jacob’s wrestling with a divine person? Jacob fought hard to get that blessing – fought so hard that the fight went way past the safety zone, and Jacob ended up with a limp for the rest of his life. Jacob yearned for the blessing. He strove for it. He risked his life and limb to get it. That’s how important the blessing of God was. And is.

I have a feeling that most of us don’t get anywhere near enough of blessing. I mean real, heartfelt, life-enhancing blessing.

Now getting back to the Gospel of Matthew. According to authorities I have consulted, this Gospel can, and maybe should, be read as a “church book”. Actually, a book for churches. It contains many, many ideas that people in a first-century church could have used to help them live the way of Jesus.

So in chapter 10 of Matthew’s church book, a little before the passage we’ve read today, he has Jesus saying to the listening disciples, “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” But I think the Greek word that is used for “welcoming” is actually better translated as “receiving”. The word is dexeto, to receive; dexomenos, the one receiving. I think this should help us to arrive at a little bit better sense of what occurs – specifically -- in the feeding of the five thousand.

Now, you probably know that this whole story of the feeding of a large crowd of people – the “banquet of the Messiah” -- is repeated twice in this Gospel. There’s a second “banquet of the Messiah” in a following chapter, as if Matthew wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it. But we don’t have to take it as God throwing a banquet at the end of the world. We can take it with a current-time and completely realistic meaning. The least to be said about this is that sharing food – receiving a diverse crowd of hungry people – asking for and then receiving God’s blessing for the food and a blessing for the sharing – and receiving a great abundance where there has appeared to be just very minimal resources – all these things are at the very foundation of living in community. And yes, the feeding of the five thousand has a mythical character, surely, but if so, it’s a really good myth, because it gives us a recipe for living, and living well.

And what about those “minimal resources”? It is certainly clear that when need arises for life support, for all but a tiny population of the wealthy, resources are going to be minimal. That’s what the system is. Now, in our current time too. Just like what it was then. Maybe this is why the “feedings” are repeated twice over in the Gospel. It will need to be done with frequency. Early and often. And I’m wondering whether that’s why it is significant that baskets of leftovers are to be collected – in order to provide a seed for the next feeding! “Look at what we still have; let’s see if we can get more for the next time.” It’s a new, more responsive, more equitable, more renewable system than the old one which was based on scarcity. You think? I do.

And talking about feeding a diverse crowd of hungry people, I was invited earlier this year to have Christmas dinner with some people who live down on Horseshoe Pond Road in Chesterville. Their house is situated in the middle of a swamp, and driving there is no picnic! – it’s too hazardous for me to drive, so they picked me up at the head of the road and drove me in, passing quickly through numerous foot-deep puddles, each puddle laced with big chunks of ice – a hair-raising experience. The house has no running water, and they heat with kerosene. These are people who have survived drug addiction, and other sicknesses, and a very hard life, and . . they don’t go to church. We had a fabulous Christmas, just about the best I’ve ever had. And we began to serve out the food, which Joe had been cooking all day on the wood fire. There was a short silence, as I was collecting myself and wondering what I could possibly say, when Joe stood up and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus!” And he then, looking intently at each of the people at the table in turn, he asked God to bring a particular blessing for each one of us. His prayer went on for a number of minutes. What a terrific blessing! I am still grateful for having received that precious divine gift. It resonates.

Finally, what Joe shows us is that we don’t forget anyone when we give a blessing. To bless what we have received from God, means that we bless all those who have gathered. We receive them no matter who they are or where they are on their life’s journey. And in the act of blessing, we receive Jesus. As well as receiving the God who sent him.

Will you kindly join me in a spirit of prayer. Kind and gracious God: Help us to receive all that you have given us. And give us the blessing of wisdom and discernment to know how to give to others in abundance what we have abundantly received. Amen.

Debby Bliss – August 6, 2023

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