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When the Lectionary attacks…

I’m back! Now that my second week of camp, plus a week of intensive community organizer training, (possibly more on that later) plus a week of East Coast friend seeing, has ended, I’m back in the coolness of the AZ mountains.

And fittingly, today, I preached at the Friendly Local ELCA parish. Where the RCL decided to attack me. This will make more sense if you read the sermon, but I start out by saying slightly unflattering things about the lectionary’s habit of taking scripture out of context. Evidently, there was some sort of karma attached to this, because when. I got to church this morning, I discovered that this parish wasn’t reading the Genesis reading– they were reading the alternately scheduled Isaiah one.
I had written a sermon half on an unread reading.
Curses, lectionary! Foiled again!
It turned out okay. I worked in my error and told the congregation that they were getting a special, bonus reading, “like Ginsu knives!”

And here’s what I said.

July 31, 2011
Proper 13, Year A, Ordinary Time
Genesis 32:22-31, Matthew 14:13-21

The lectionary– the schedule of what from the bible we are supposed to read every Sunday, along with most other mainline Christians– has some really good points.

It forces us to read almost all of the Bible over a three year cycle, it forces preachers to preach on stuff that most of us would rather avoid, rather than our two or three (or one) favorite topic, over and over. And it keeps us on the same track as Catholics, the orthodox, Methodists, us Episcopalians, you Lutherans, some baptists even, almost everyone! Which is nice, nowadays.

But unfortunately, occasionally the lectionary pulls something like it does this week.
(and I’m telling you right now, one of the things the lectionary pulled this week was that I prepared part of this sermon on the alternate OT reading, rather than the one we actually read. So when you hear me talking about Jacob wrestling with the angel, that’s what’s happening. Think of it as a bonus story, like Ginsu knives!)
Observe the gospel: “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 town.”. Then follows the argument with the disciples about who will feed all these hungry people, and everything else, but it starts with Something Happening.
Something that the lectionary skips over.
Which is really unfortunate, because this Something is very important, because, if you have read back in ch 14, then you know that what’s just happened is the execution of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod.
Jesus hears the news, and has to go grieve in private. The crowd to whom he’s been preaching, immediately find him so that he can comfort them. And he has pity on them.

And knowing that, how different the whole story sounds now. The moments of conflict, of questioning struggle, of tension, inform everything else. They are important, and can’t be glossed over.

It’s true in the Jacob story as well.

Now, if you’ve been reading along on the Genesis track these past few weeks, then you know that despite having a rather big role to play in the relationship between God and the Israelites, Jacob was not a fine, upstanding character. He steals his older brother’s birthright, he tricks his father-in-law, he robs him as well, and occasionally, has the grace to feel slight regret about it. He’s not the person you’d necessarily want your kid to look up to, morality wise, but he survives.

When we meet him this time, he is alone, beside a river.
Again, what comes before is important. He is beside this river alone because he is preparing to reunite with his estranged brother Esau. He’s sent all his wives, children, and flocks on ahead, because he’s pretty sure his brother is going to kill him, on account of that whole stealing-the-birthright-and-leaving-him-penniless thing. So Jacob has gone ahead alone to meet him, and contain the damage.
He’s not in a happy confident place, and it’s in this context that he wrestles with the stranger.
He struggles. Despite a conviction that he will lose all he has, and despite a sort of sneaking suspicion that he might deserve that, Jacob still wrestles with God.

It’s the struggle, the tension that’s important.

The struggle is what leads him to God, it’s what leads us to God. Not skipping over it. Not wishing it away or cutting it out. That struggle, that wrestling, that is what we call faith.

Because faith isn’t figuring out the answers one day in a blinding flash of light, then never questioning them again. Faith is wrestling with God. Faith is withdrawing by yourself in a sulk so that God has to come find you. Faith is being a holy pest. Faith is a messy, messy process of asking and answering and asking over and over and over again.

And yet….often times, we try to forget that part. We try to forget about the messiness. We try to get away without having to struggle. Today, the lectionary presented these stories as context-free, sort of glossing over everything messy that was lurking underneath, behind and around them.
Jesus didn’t just wander up to a cheerful crowd and decide to feed them. This crowd was grieving the execution of their leader at the hands of a tyrant, and Jesus was moved to pity for them. So he argued with his disciples in favor of feeding them. “Don’t send them away–YOU give them something to eat.”.

Jacob didn’t just lay down for a good night’s sleep of the contented and satisfied and see God, he was guilt ridden and troubled about where he had ended up in his life. And with good reason. But his panic and his guilt cause him to grab hold of the stranger and refuse to let go until he has a blessing.

We’ve seen in these past weeks some of the very real dangers of clinging to easy answers. Clinging to hard and fast answers that never change through time or circumstance, that don’t see the image of God imprinted on each human face. that divide people into fixed categories of good and evil, worthy, and unworthy, worthy of life, and worthy of death.
The events on Norway have shown us once again how dangerous this is, because the man who killed all those people, claims to have done it for the sake of the faith we profess.

Now we who sit here know full well that only a total perversion of Christianity could even come close to allowing such violence and hatred. Mass murder has no relation, no justification in the gospel of love Jesus came to proclaim.

But it becomes ever easier to shape the gospel in our own image when we decide that true faith can involve none of the messiness of revision or diversity. When we decide that our certainty has the final word, and not the Spirit who leads us slowly into a greater truth.

Because, truly, it is the Spirit of God who wrestles with us, in our questioning, and our struggles. And though at times it seems exhausting and fruitless, it is through wrestling that Jacob receives his blessing, and it is through arguing that Jesus feeds the crowd.

Not easy certainty. Certainty doesn’t need a living God; A wrestling faith does.

Faith is messy, and exhausting, and a lot of work. But a living God, a living Spirit demands a live response from us and it never gives up.


Oh and one more thing. I promise, PROMISE! To finish the Rob Bell series. I have finished the book, and I just need to write up the final post(s). They should be up later this week, or early next week.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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