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Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Genesis 32:22–31, Romans 9:1–8 & Matthew 14:13–21 

The photo above is a 5th century mosaic from the floor of the ‘Church of the Multiplication’, a Roman Catholic church that is located by the Sea of Galilee at a place called Tabgha, which is believed to be the site of the miracle we have come to know as the ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’. 

I was blessed to have the opportunity to conduct a service of Eucharist at one of the outdoor chapels at Tabgha during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January of 2018. Afterwards we went into the ‘Church of the Multiplication’, where I was able to take this photo of the mosaic, which is positioned just in front of the altar in the church. The area is roped off from the public, and a very stern (and feisty) nun was on duty that day, ensuring that people did not enter the roped off area to take any photos.

Because I had just conducted the service of Eucharist, I was the only member of our pilgrimage group (which consisted of both clergy and lay people alike) who was wearing a clerical collar. When I approached the feisty nun in question, and asked her if it was possible for me to enter the roped off area to take a close up of the mosaic, she replied so sweetly, “Of course Father; please come through”, and she lifted the rope for me and allowed me to enter this sacred space. Needless to say I was the envy of all my fellow pilgrims, including a bishop who was one of the co-leaders of the pilgrimage!

I share this personal experience with you this morning, because today’s gospel passage is obviously the story of the ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’ as told by Matthew. In this story, Jesus and his disciples are in a remote place by the Sea of Galilee, far away from any village or town. A very large crowd (we are told five thousand men, besides women and children) have followed Jesus on foot from the towns where they live, and it is now evening and they are hungry. The only food that the disciples have between them is five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus takes the bread and fish, looks up to heaven, blesses the bread and fish, and then breaks the bread and gives them, together with the fish, to the disciples who, in turn, distribute them to the crowd.

Matthew tells us that the crowd ate and were full; and that the disciples collected the food that was leftover, which filled twelve baskets. Note the use of the significant number twelve which, as we have said many times before, is a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel. The key message from this passage, is the ‘abundance’ of God’s provision for His people. God provides His people with more than they need. I wonder, do you believe that God provides for you, and if so, how abundantly does He provide?

In my own case, I know that God has bestowed many blessings on me; being called to a vocation of ordained ministry, having the opportunity to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the course of that ministry, conducting a service of Eucharist by the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and then being allowed to photograph the mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication, are just a few of the blessings I have received from the abundance that God has provided me. I also wonder, do we perhaps feel that at times we might be unworthy of God’s abundant provision? 

That is at the heart of our first reading today from the Book of Genesis. God, in the form of a ‘man’, wrestles with Jacob through the night, almost until dawn. We need to look at the context in which this story is set, in order to understand its message. Until this point in his life, Jacob has ‘wrestled’ with his brother Esau, his father Isaac, and his father-in-law Laban. In each situation he has relied on deception and trickery to emerge as the victor. Perhaps his ‘wrestling’ with God, is more about him wrestling with his own conscience? 

Even though Jacob is injured as a result of the wrestling, he refuses to let go of the man until he receives the man’s blessing; he is desperate to have God’s blessing. The blessing that Jacob received from his father Isaac, which he obtained by deception, is meaningless unless it is accompanied by the blessing of God. Here Jacob prays earnestly to God for that blessing. And God bestows that blessing on him; in the process announcing to Jacob that he will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, which in Hebrew means ‘striven with God’.

The history of the nation of Israel, and its relationship with God, is fundamentally the story of the Old Testament. Repeatedly, God blesses the people of Israel, only to see them turn away from Him to worship other gods, and to think that they no longer need Him in their lives. Then tragedy and disaster strike, and the people seek God once again and ask Him to save them. Of course, much of the ministry of Jesus was focussed on rescuing the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 15:24).

A Jewish person reading the opening chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans, could have been forgiven for thinking that Paul believed the Gentiles had been welcomed into God’s kingdom at the exclusion of the people of Israel, such is the criticism that Paul levels at the Jewish people, who have largely failed to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, and to welcome the good news of the gospel. Paul is well aware of this danger, and in chapters 9–11, he seeks to address this by arguing how the people of Israel are still ‘included’ in God’s kingdom.

Today’s passage is the introduction to his argument, and Paul begins by acknowledging the fact that they are God’s chosen people, and the promises of God that were made to their ancestors – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – are still theirs. Those same promises speak of the abundance of God’s provision for His people. The descendants of Abraham were to be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the beach; ALL the nations of the world were to be blessed through Abraham; and the land of Canaan, a land of milk and honey, was to be given to the descendants of Abraham.

So Paul’s point is, that even though the Jewish people had not accepted Jesus, or his message, they were still counted as people of God, and were to be recipients of the abundance He provides. 

What might that mean for us, and the world, today?

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