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Sermon 8/13/2017

Posted 4:53 PM by
Sermon, Proper 14A                                                                      Jeffrey B. MacKnight
13 August 2017                                                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

A lady went to the doctor and said, “Doctor! Doctor! Help me — I'm shrinking! I'm shrinking!” The doctor replied, “Madam, you'll just have to be a little patient.” 

Well, that’s not far off our story of Jesus, Peter, and walking on water – only it’s Peter crying, “Lord! Lord!  – I’m sinking!  I’m sinking!”  

Be a little patient, Peter!  Peter is so eager to show off in front of Jesus and everybody.  None of the other disciples thought it was their place to try to imitate Jesus’ water-walking abilities.  But Peter was proud, and probably insecure in his relationship with Jesus.  Maybe he wanted to show that he was the #1 disciple – the best, compared to all the others.  

My wise mother-in-law Nan often says, “Comparisons are odious.”  She’s so right.  When it comes to comparing people, or comparing ourselves to others, it usually leads to unhappiness, disappointment (as in Peter’s case)…and sometimes even violence and destruction.  

In the continuing saga of Jacob and his family, we meet his children this Sunday – 12 sons and one daughter (Dinah).  Jacob had two wives, Leah and Rachel.  Now, Leah was fertile and bore children.  Rachel was not, so she gave her handmaid to Jacob as a surrogate to bear children who would be Rachel’s to raise.   (This is the story that is the basis for the current dystopic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  The U.S. is suffering from depopulation, so men dub themselves “Sons of Jacob” and enslave and rape women as “handmaids” to bear their children. Lovely.)

Jacob’s family story is filled with comparisons, jealousies, and rivalries. Rachel envies her sister’s fecundity, and seeks a child through her handmaid.  (You may recall that the same thing happened with Abraham and Sarah, Jacob’s grandparents.  After Sarah’s handmaid gave birth to Ishmael, Sarah treated her abominably.)  

Later, jealousy, rivalry, and hatred arise among Jacob’s twelve sons. Finally, Rachel gave birth! She had a son Joseph, whom Jacob loved above all his other sons, and the others knew it.  Their jealousy of Joseph (and his arrogant remarks to them) filled them with such rage that they decided to kill Joseph.  In the end, they relented and sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt instead.  (Is this really what we mean by “biblical family values”?)  

Comparison and competition don’t serve these folks very well – they bring untold anger, heartache, and breakdown of relationships.  Joseph is nearly killed; his brothers are shamed by their behavior; Jacob is deprived of his beloved son.  Still, this is the great saga of the Hebrew partriarchs, so all is made to serve the grand plot of the story, that is, to move the Hebrew people to Egypt, where they would eventually become enslaved, and finally liberated under Moses.  

So, why do we devote so much energy in life to comparisons?  Why talk ourselves up and run other people down?  What does this say about us?  I believe it’s all rooted in our insecurity about who we are, our value, and our place in the world.  And that’s a spiritual problem.  If we really believe we are made in God’s image, and loved unconditionally, we don’t have to prop ourselves up with worldly accolades.  We don’t have to run others down to look good.  We can rest peacefully in the love of God, as a baby rests peacefully in the arms of an adoring mother or father, never doubting that she is loved more than anything.  

At this point in the sermon, I had a low-key, soft illustration of how we compare ourselves to each other.  But instead, I must say something about the horrible events in Charlottesville yesterday.  What a scene: vile signs, police in riot gear, yet uncontrolled violence as opposing groups beat each other. Armed militia groups in full camo were in the middle of the crowds.  White supremacists, including KKK members, were marching supposedly in opposition to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a proponent of slavery.  Fourteen people were injured in the fighting, with one woman killed and 19 hurt by a murderous driver in a car.  One man marching was quoted, “They are pulling up southern culture, white culture, Christian culture by the roots….” As a Christian, I must stand up and say this is not Christian culture – this is not Christian culture! - this is its opposite. God doesn’t have favorite races, or skin colors, or nationalities. God doesn’t romanticize the enslavement of millions in the Old South. In addition to pure hatred and bigotry, this is a deep case of the odiousness of comparison, of envy, of jealousy.  Whenever men and women attack and tear down others in order to build up their own group, they are straying far away from the teachings of Jesus.  As a white person, I must raise my voice against this, lest anyone think that, by my silence, I agree.  

Whenever we tolerate bigotry by our silence – in a neighbor’s trash-talk across the fence, a politician’s rhetoric, or even that cranky old uncle at the family dinner table – we are part of the problem.  America is now on notice that racism and prejudice are alive and well and living among us.  The LGBTQ community is now under attack in the military.  Immigrants have been vilified, as if we are not all immigrants!  Only our clear, vocal proclamation that God loves every human being, that the dignity and equality of every human being must be upheld and protected, can bring our country back toward its highest self, its highest calling as a nation that welcomes diversity.  If that’s not what the church stands for, then we stand for nothing.  We have a long way to go.  

The disciple Peter was insecure in his identity as God’s beloved, so he tried to prove himself and act like Jesus.  Jacob’s sons were insecure in their father’s love, and tried to eliminate their competition from little brother Joseph.  Many Americans seem to feel so insecure in their identity and their worth that they lash out against the nearest target.  But if we can find our rest in God, in God’s declaration that we are created good, we are loved beyond measure, even with our faults and our failures, then we won’t need to compare and compete.  We won’t need to run others down to try to build ourselves up. Why can’t we be content with who we are, as finite, imperfect, but treasured human beings, made lovingly in the image of God?  Why can’t we look for God in each other – in black and brown faces, in gay and trans faces, in young and old faces?  Why can’t we walk in love, as Christ loves us?  


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Sermon: 08/06/2017

Posted 4:49 PM by
Sermon, Proper 13A                                                                      Jeffrey B. MacKnight
6 August 2017                                                                            St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

“When it was evening…”  That’s a little detail often overlooked in the story of the feeding of the five thousand.  The day was over; Jesus had been preaching.  The people were captivated! Now, night was falling. Where would they all find something for supper?  Strange things can happen in the nighttime.  All the people sat down on the green grass, and something unexpected happened – a little became a lot, with the blessing of Jesus.  Hungry people were satisfied.  Weak people were strengthened.  Hmm.  

Almost two millennia earlier, we see Jacob.  He is beside himself with fear of his brother Esau, whom Jacob cheated out of his father’s blessing – his birthright - as a young man.  Haven’t we all cheated somebody out of something?  In a sense, Jacob has been running from that ever since.  Now Esau has caught up with him, and Jacob is terrified.  

Jacob tries to protect his household from Esau’s approaching army of men.  Jacob has two wives (we heard about Leah and Rachel last week), two maids, eleven children, plus flocks and herds and possessions.  He is not a poor man.  He sends them all across the Jabbok River hoping they’ll be safe – not a lot of protection, but then, what else can he do?  Then, “Jacob was left alone,” the scripture says.  Alone.  Jacob is finally stripped bare, without defenses, to face his life: his past transgressions, his present danger, his uncertain future.  

Nighttime is when we often feel the most alone – with our thoughts, our anxieties, our old well-worn worries ….  Sometime sleep won’t come, so we take pills to help.  When we get to sleep, we may be afflicted by what I call “tumultuous dreams” – not exactly nightmares, but unsettling dreams nonetheless.  When we wake from these, we may feel more exhausted than rested, like we’ve been working – or wrestling – all night.  

Jacob was alone: it was night; he fell asleep…or did he?  Was it all a dream?  We don’t know….  The story only tells us he wrestled a man until daybreak.  Who was this man?  It doesn’t say, but it seems pretty clear this man was from God – and that makes him an angel.  (Most angels don’t have gauzy gowns and fluffy wings. This one must have been pretty strong.)  

Jacob is persistent; he won’t stop wrestling.  Finally, the angel has had enough.  “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”  Jacob responds with impressive strength: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  

“What is your name?” asks the man/angel.


“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  

Fast-forward again to Jesus and his disciples – 

It is evening after a long day.  The disciples struggle with the problem of a very hungry crowd of people; they want to escape, avoid the situation.  They are still learning about this man Jesus.  “Send the crowds away, Lord….”    Jesus forces them to face their fears and anxieties: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  But they wrestle with him: “But Jesus, we don’t have what it takes…there are only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish!”  

There are times – often nighttimes – when we have to face the situation: our anxieties about our own capacities, our fears of external forces.   God does not allow us to turn and run any longer.  And so we wrestle.  And it’s in the wrestling that we can experience God’s presence in a new way.  It may be a mixed experience – God is not a granter of wishes and dispenser of chocolate kisses!  Life is often hard, challenging, difficult.  God is not a rescuer, but a sustainer, a companion.  

We may end up with a limp, a scar….but also a blessing….  Maybe even the abundance of a great feast, enough to share with a hungry world around us.  

I just read a little book by Kent HarufOur Souls at Night.

A sweet novella about an old woman, a widow, who makes a strange proposition to an old man, a widower, who lives around the corner: that he come and spend nights in her bed – just to talk.  (Really.)  She was lonely.  She was tired of sleeping alone.  So he comes over, every evening.  

Soon, wonderful conversations are happening in the nighttime, and both people are happier….  Much happier.  There is no pretense.  They talk about their lives, their spouses, their children, their jobs, all the things that weren’t right, the disappointments as well as the happy times.  And together, acknowledging the scars and limps they carried, they find a blessing.  They find a new happiness in the moment, in the day that is given.  

I wonder if we might be able to find more joy in our lives if we took a few chances -  took some chances to get closer to people, to be honest with people, to share our lives more deeply…maybe even talk far into the night…wrestle a bit, even.  Who knows what might happen.  Maybe if we could acknowledge how hunger we are for connection, for honesty, we might find the food that satisfies.  We might find that others – our friends, our spouses -  are hungry for that real connection too.  We might find, in retrospect,  that we’ve encountered a bit of God during the dark hours.  We might find that our scars are acknowledged, that our limp is not so bad. That in fact others are limping too – we all are.  We might find a certain blessing to be had.  

So this evening, when darkness falls, and it is eventide, acknowledge your deep hunger, and ask God to feed you, to fill you.  Open up, and see what might happen to your soul at night.  Be ready to wrestle with a God who will not let you go.  Be prepared to come away with a bit of a limp, but also a blessing on your life – your one, real, imperfect, human life.  AMEN.  


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