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Monday, July 25, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 32:22-31 AND Psalm 17:1-7 OR Isaiah 55:1-5 AND Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21

This week’s readings invite us to look at what happens when we humans encounter God and to reflect on the kind of God we encounter—or who encounters us.

In Genesis, chapter 32, Jacob wrestles with a man (an angel?, God?) all night. (vs. 24). Is it a dream? It is an experience of divine presence in some way or other. Jacob holds his own, demanding a blessing, and comes away from the encounter with an injury as well as a blessing. (vss. 25-26) Jacob’s name and God’s name come under discussion. (vss. 27-29) For Jacob it is an experience in which he has “seen God face to face” and not been struck by death, and he gives the place a name to remind him of that experience when he passes by again.

I offer some questions to consider as you reflect on this story:

1. In what ways have you/we wrestled with God, or wrestled to understand what it means to experience the divine?
2. What experiences have you/we had that might be described as seeing God “face to face’? If that description doesn’t work, how would you describe any experiences of the divine you have had?
3. Jacob came to a new understanding of himself, symbolized in a new name, an injury, and a blessing. How have you/we been changed in encounters with the divine, discovering new vulnerabilities, new missions, new possibilities, new grace, even a new identity?
4. What memories of encounters past shape your/our faith today? Do we mark such enounters in the maps of our spirits so we can draw future strength from those experiences?

The reading from Psalm17 can be seen as the Psalmist wrestling with God, praying for vindication. (Psalm 17:1-4) He calls upon God with confidence because of God’s “steadfast love,” concluding, as if we’ve been drawn into another dream, “when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.” (Vss. 7 & 15)

More questions:

1. What frame of mind do we carry into any encounter with God? Do we feel judged, seeking vindication? Do we feel self-righteous and pure, demanding vindication?
2. What do we find out about the nature of faithfulness and love in our encounters with God? Is God fickle so that we feel like we’re walking through a minefield, or do our encounters help us find stability and consistency in life—or maybe a loving foundation undergirding life so that we are always able to start anew?

Isaiah 55 and the Gospel lesson from Matthew both seem to point us to encounters where we are fed. In Isaiah 55, we have wine and milk which is freely given. We often spend our money on things that don’t satisfy, when God offers “what is good” and wants us to “delight” ourselves “in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1-2) The source is that same covenant of steadfast love identified by the Psalmist. (vs. 3) It is a love which reaches out to include all nations. (vs. 5)

In Matthew, Jesus is the divine presence who notices that the people are hungry and sees that they are fed, all five thousand of them (plus the women and children who seem to be included almost as an afterthought). (Matthew 14:15-16 & 21)

However one interprets the “miracle” in this story, the feeding begins with an act of sharing. They have five loaves and two fish and donate them to the cause—or respond to Jesus’ command, “Bring them to me.” (vss. 17-18) Everyone eats his or her fill and there are twelve baskets left over. (Vss. 19-20) Was it sheer magic or did others step forward with food they were holding back? All we know is that the people gathered, they were hungry, and they got everything they needed. Is the story about physical food or about spiritual food? It is a story about encountering the divine and being fed. Jesus, on more than one occasion, spoke of the importance of spiritual nourishment.

Notice how the story begins: “Now when Jesus heard this . . .” Heard what? His disciples brought him a report that John the Baptizer, his cousin, had been beheaded by Herod. Jesus was in deep grief trying to get off “to a deserted place by himself.” (vs. 13) Instead he sees the gathered crowd and goes to them filled with “compassion for them and cured their sick.” (vs. 14)

Some more questions:

1. What kinds of encounters with the divine have fed and nourished your/my spirit?
2. Have any of your/our encounters with the divine been enriched when you or someone else shared something that nourished all?
3. What do you/I count as spiritual food?
4. Compassion is often rooted in experiences of pain. We know what pain feels like and so are able to respond to others when they hurt. In your/our encounters with the divine what do you/we learn about compassion, about a reality which absorbs our pain so that we can move on? Where does compassion—human and divine—come from? What can we learn from Jesus about compassion?

Psalm 145 is a hymn to divine compassion, as well as nourishment. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love . . . his compassion is over all that he has made . . . The eyes of all look to you, and you give them good in due season . . . The Lord is near to all who call on him . . .” (vss. 8-9, 15 & 18)

Finally, what do we do with the reading from Romans? In this week’s reading, Paul’s mind takes a leap and he spends three chapters considering the fate of the Jews who have gone before. Paul was an educated and devout defender of Jewish faith and practice. A sudden, dramatic, divine encounter challenged the way he looked at the world, so much so that he was “blind” for three days. (Acts 9:8-9)

Paul knew that he had been nourished by “the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” of the faith of his ancestors. (Romans 9:4) He cannot imagine a God who would reject all that. His belief is so strong that, as he wrestles with the issue, he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart. He even declares that if the Jews are to be cut off, he would wish himself to be cut off as well. (vss. 2-3)

As Paul works his way through these three chapters, that all-inclusive love he has sung about at the end of chapter eight triumphs. We may not find all the complexities of his thinking relevant or helpful, but we need to note that, in the end, he declares, “ . . . all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:26) On his way to that conclusion, he works his way through some of the patriarchal history we’ve been following in Genesis, noting that lines of inheritance took unexpected turns from the very beginning. (Romans 9:6-15) He deals with the image of new branches being grafted into old roots. (Romans 9:17-24) His bottom line is that knowing and experiencing the love of God (belief) trumps any questions about which branch or which root has priority. He warns against claiming “to be wiser than you are,” and concludes with another ecstatic declaration of the mystery of it all. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! . . . For from him and through him and to him are all things.” (Romans 11:33 & 36)

So, after considering Paul’s journey, what questions about our own encounters with the divine do we ask?

1. Have there been experiences in our lives that have shaken the foundations, the traditions, the rituals, on which we had relied in the past? What has the divine been saying to us in the them?
2. Some go through life acting as if every new insight involves rejecting all old insights. Paul would have none of that. How do the old and the new blend as you reflect on your encounters with the divine? What old insights continue to give you strength and nourishment? Where has the new taken you? How do you respond to the possibility of new encounters, new insights, yet to come?

Let this week’s readings be an occasion for examining our encounters with the divine and paying attention to how they have shaped and are shaping our lives.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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