“You feed them,” said Jesus to his disciples. Right. Because that’s so easy. Crowds of tired, hungry people and no one packed much for the journey. The disciples heard their own stomachs rumbling. Feed them how? “Like this,” was Jesus’ response. “Gather what’s available, bless what you have, break it down, and give it to those gathered. You will have more than what you will need.” This is what Jesus said. This is what Jesus did. This is what we’re supposed to do. Yet, the questions of whom do we feed, what do we gather, what do we break, and what do we share is so much more complicated than loaves and fish. Or is it?
I didn’t sleep well last night. My dreams were echoes of a day spent at the scene of an explosion that left several people injured and two people dead. As I stood with the crowd of those waiting to hear news of those missing, or connect with friends or family caught in the building when it collapsed, or to locate their children who’d been at the school when the gas leak exploded, there were tears and there were questions. How could God let this happen? Why didn’t God stop this? Why did God let people die here? Each time I managed to fall asleep, someone would be shouting at me to do something to make it better as the smell of smoke hung heavy, like fog trapping everyone in helplessness. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t fix anything. I couldn’t find words to speak into the despair and anger. It was a long night.
Long ago, Jacob had a similar night. He wasn’t coming from the scene of a disaster so much as he was coming from the disastrous decisions he’d made in his own life. He was caught between the deceiving self-serving ways of his past and the future God was calling him into. If he was going to continue in God’s way, he had to face his brother. He was unable to sleep. He wrestled with God, perhaps because God knew he was capable of so much more than selfishness. Jacob must have had some idea because he would not let go until he was blessed. He held firmly, refusing to let who he had been determine who he would be.
Of course, Jacob paid a price. His hip was out of joint. He would limp from that day onward. Maybe he would slow down enough to pay attention to what God was asking of him. Maybe to remind all of us that becoming who God created us to be can be a painful, life-changing journey that might leave us out of step with the rest of the world.
About 30 years ago I set out on a path that has required me to learn what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to feed the crowds. The exhaustion of gathering resources has sometimes been overwhelming. The many blessings I have spoken over bread, babies, boats, bikes, and people, so many people, have touched me in unexpected ways. It’s the breaking that’s been hard. Breaking my own foolish notions of what God wants me to do. Breaking my own sense of inadequacy. Breaking through to those so vulnerable and so terrified. Breaking my heart, God’s heart, and holding the broken pieces of countless hearts. Then, day after day, getting up and giving fragile hope to those in despair when, sometimes, it seemed giving up would be easier.
“You feed them,” Jesus said to his disciples when confronted with a hungry crowd. Jesus says the same to us now. And we’re still asking how such a thing is possible. How do we gather what we need? What blessings do we offer? How do we break what needs to be broken? How do we give in ways that meet the needs? Endless questions. Yet, somewhere between the story of Jacob wrestling through the night and Jesus feeding the gathered crowd, the answers wait.
Maybe the way to feed the hungry is to keep wresting with the questions through the nights, holding so tightly to God that blessing is given and we move differently into the day. Maybe the gathering, blessing, breaking, and giving becomes easier when we face the disasters of our past and embrace who God created us to be. Maybe it’s just a question of holding on until we hear the blessing meant only for our ears and feel the pain of an old identity falling away.
However it works out, I’m willing to wrestle with God through the disasters in my life and in the world. I’m willing to continue the journey no matter what is out of joint. I’ll do what I can and endure the exhaustion, the joys, the pain, and the endless needs because Jesus asks all of us to feed the hungry. And you know what? Some days I’m as hungry as the crowd and as selfish as Jacob. Yet, God still calls my name and whispers of a day when all will eat and be satisfied.
RCL – Year A – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 6, 20174
Genesis 32:22-31 with Psalm 17:1-7, 15 or
Isaiah 55:1-5 with Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21