Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Genesis 32:22-31 AND Psalm 17:1-7, 15, Isaiah 55:1-5 AND Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21

Almost every afternoon I walk down two flights of stairs and across the parking lot to the swimming pool serving our apartment community. I love the convenience of the pool! I meet a number of neighbors while I’m down there. They come and go. It’s not always easy to carry on a good conversation while also trying to be faithful to our exercise regimens---each one of us seeming to have our own. Nevertheless, the time is often a good social outlet as well as a contributor to good physical health.

One of the newer people I’ve met usually leaves the pool before I do. As he leaves, he always turns, lifts his fist and says, “Power to the people!” It’s a phrase from the sixties. It was associated with the Black Panther movement and was widely used in the protest movements of that era, which was enough to make it offensive to some. Over time, it became more widespread and has been used as the title of films, books, and songs, most notably one by John Lennon.

We have more power than we realize. Our guest speaker talked about it in last Sunday’s sermon, using the story of God calling Moses to confront Pharaoh. Moses gave excuse after excuse, and God kept showing him how he was up to it, especially with a little help from others, especially from Aaron.

I believe some, if not all, of this week’s lectionary readings offer a similar message, perhaps with a little stretch of interpretation in places.

The first is another story in the Abrahamic line, featuring one of Jacob’s dreams again. He wrestles with a man who turns out to be God. (Genesis 32:24) Jacob locks him down, saying, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” (vs. 26)

There are many details in the story worth noticing. During the wrestling match, the man strikes Jacob in the hip, and, at the end of the story, Jacob leaves with a limp. (vss. 25 & 31) Encounters with God can have a lasting effect, can leave one changed. A change of name, in fact, is part of the blessing imparted---from “Jacob” to “Israel,” another sign that Jacob is the bearer of God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac. (vs. 28) Names are important, were particularly so for the Hebrew people (and in many other cultures). Notice that Jacob asks for the man’s (God’s) name, much like Moses did in the story from Sunday. (vs. 29) Addressing someone by name is a power of sorts. At the end of the story, Jacob calls the place Peniel (“face of God”), “for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (vs. 30) We are presented with a God who is not to be feared, a God with whom we can strive and end up blessed.

Think about it. It is a story of power all around. The man, God, says, “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (vs. 28) In scripture, we are not, on the whole, weak, sniveling creatures, groveling in the dust and mud before a despotic God. We have the power to engage with God to accomplish purposes of great consequence, in our personal lives and for the larger good (and blessing) of all peoples and nations.

The Psalms are full of cries and challenges poured out from the heart. “Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend o my cry.” (Psalm 17:1) It is true that most Psalms come round to an affirmation of God’s “steadfast love” (vs. 7), which was discussed here a couple of weeks ago. This week the second Psalm is entirely about the blessings of a “Lord” who “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Psalm 145:8) That assurance, of course, is another element of empowerment---knowing that one is undergirded by love beyond measure. We can be offended by the almost arrogant attitude which seems to recognize no dark side in one’s character, something which happens in more than one Psalm. (See Psalm 17:3 & 5) Even here, though, is perhaps a hint that a strong confident sense of self-worth can be a powerful instrument in God’s hands. There is a verse that tells us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.” It does not, however, tell us to think poorly of ourselves, “but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”---Romans 12:3---It calls for an honest assessment of the gifts God has given us, the blessings we have received, with which we are able to bless others.)

That is a clear message in the Gospel lesson, which gives us the story of the feeding of “five thousand men, besides women and children.” (Matthew 14:21---I wish women and children hadn’t been listed almost as an afterthought!) Jesus has just heard of the death of his cousin, John, the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12), and needs a mental health day. The problem is that this huge crowd followed him into “a deserted place” (vs. 13), and, because he’s full of compassion, he does not turn them away. (vs. 14) The disciples panic when dinner time nears, urging Jesus to send them into nearby villages where they can buy food. (vs. 15) The disciples feel helpless and powerless. Jesus simply tells them, “You can do it.” “You give them something to eat.” (vs. 16)

We could wonder whether or not Jesus is talking about more than food. In John’s Gospel, the story leads into Jesus’ declaration, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35) This week’s reading from Isaiah seems to suggest an eating and drinking which is more than food purchased at the supermarket. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, come, buy and eat! . . . Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:1-2)

In reading the story of the feeding of the 5000, we often focus upon the five loaves and two fish. (Matthew 14:17) Note that in the very next chapter 4000 are fed with seven loaves and “a few small fish.” (Matthew 15:34) In John’s version of the story, we are told that the loaves and fishes come from a boy in the crowd. (John 6:9) Many have speculated that his act of generosity triggered a sharing of food from others present. Sermons have been preached on the miracle of generosity, something we talked about at breakfast this week. Whatever the facts of the case, the story tells us that there were leftovers---twelve baskets in this case, seven when 4000 are fed. (Go down the path of twelve and seven as symbolic numbers if you wish.)

The point I’m emphasizing today is that we all have more than enough to get the job done, if we just believe and let generosity kick in. We have the power to make a difference, to be a blessing to others because we have been blessed. God’s grace has been poured out, “without money and without price,” even upon us.

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