Hi! Welcome to “Focus on the Spirit” Please feel free to comment on my reflections, to ask questions or generally enter into dialogue. I do not have all the answers, I am not always right but I am trying to figure out how to live a faithful life using Scripture, sacraments and community. I hope this is a journey we travel on together. Gayle
Genesis 32:22-31 (GNT)
22 That same night Jacob got up, took his two wives, his two concubines, and his eleven children, and crossed the Jabbok River.
23 After he had sent them across, he also sent across all that he owned,
24 but he stayed behind, alone.
Then a man came and wrestled with him until just before daybreak.
25 When the man saw that he was not winning the struggle, he hit Jacob on the hip, and it was thrown out of joint.
26 The man said, “Let me go; daylight is coming.”
“I won't, unless you bless me,” Jacob answered.
27 “What is your name?” the man asked.
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 The man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob. You have struggled with God and with men, and you have won; so your name will be Israel.”
29 Jacob said, “Now tell me your name.”
But he answered, “Why do you want to know my name?” Then he blessed Jacob.
30 Jacob said, “I have seen God face-to-face, and I am still alive”; so he named the place Peniel.
31 The sun rose as Jacob was leaving Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.
The scripture reading today is just a part of a longer story so basically we have missed Jacob being born clutching onto the heel of his older brother, Esau (by minutes), his getting Esau to trade him his birthright for a bowl of stew (Esau was really hungry) and stealing his father’s blessing by pretending to be Esau (his father was blind and Esau was really hairy) after which Esau was really mad and Jacob runs away gets married (twice- long story)) has concubines and lots of children as well as goats, sheep, cows and camels. You get the gist of it – now he finds himself (he has father-in-law troubles) on the way home (God told him to go). He hears that Esau is coming with four hundred men so is a little worried about the greeting he will get (who wouldn’t be)!
So he prays to God, and all his fear for his family in face of his brother’s wrath and army and all his doubt about whether God really wanted him to return home, rise up as he reminds God what God has promised.
We are almost caught up here: Jacob decides that Esau might be a little more welcoming if he (Jacob) gives Esau some of his flocks and herds, sort of a pre-homecoming present so he sends off - 200 female goats and 20 males, 200 female sheep and 20 males, 30 milk camels with their young, 40 cows and 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys and 10 males. He divided them into herds and put one of his servants in charge of each herd. These are big presents.
Jacob then breaks up his remaining herds into smaller groups in hopes that some might survive the wrath of Esau. If you are getting the idea that Jacob is more than a little afraid of meeting his brother, I think you are right. And now night is falling so Jacob takes his family and the servants and all their belongings across the river where they make camp and then he returns to spend the night alone.
Now that’s a place many of us have been – we know that feeling of not just being by ourselves but feeling alone – like the weight of the world is on our shoulders and we don’t know if we have the strength to hold it up. How did we get to this place and will we get out of it. I don’t know what Jacob was thinking that night on his way to bring his family across the river, saying goodbye to them and going back alone. But when he gets to his camp he isn’t alone, the scripture describes a man or an angel as being there and he and Jacob wrestle that whole night. As morning comes and Jacob seems to be winning the man/angel strikes Jacob on the hip managing to disable him. So you have Jacob wrestling, and while maybe not winning, certainly surviving albeit with a limp.
Then, you have a conversation between the man/angel/God and Jacob in which Jacob is given the name Israel (meaning God struggles or struggles with God) and when Jacob demands to know the name of God, he receives God’s blessing. Finally, Jacob/Israel makes the announcement “I have seen God face to face and I am still alive”. And he names the place Peniel (Face of God) and limps away into the sunrise.
The story ends well as Esau does welcome his brother with open arms, says he doesn’t need Jacob’s gifts and Jacob buys some land and settles down- home at last.
As I try to make sense of the story I find this last segment to be the hard part. Yes, we all or many of us know what it is like to feel alone - but wrestling with God! God giving us a name? Seeing God face to face! Yikes!
And yet this story does tell us something. Jacob went back to his camp expecting to be alone, maybe to continue his praying as he had the night before, maybe to endure a restless night as he contemplated the decisions and actions that led him to this very place in time. But he was wrong – God was there – with him.
So maybe those times when we feel most alone, times when we wonder if things could have been different if we had just done something differently, said something differently, been less harsh or rash. Times when we don’t know what the next day will bring. There is God, in that place, with us just like God was with Jacob.
The other thing that strikes me as important about this passage is that Jacob is not the same when he leaves, his name change may tell us who he will become but his limp is a part of him for the rest of his life, reminding him of this encounter every time he moves. Our encounters with God may not be as dramatic as Jacob’s but still they mark us in indelible ways. We cannot encounter God and walk away the same person. We may not expect it, we may not invite it but struggling with God can be part and parcel of believing in God. Thanks be to God.
Holy One, God of Mystery
We read scripture and think
But those stories are long ago
And far away.
They aren’t about us.
They aren’t about me.
And then your vision of the Kingdom of God breaks through
And we get a glimpse of a changed world
Jacob gets to go home and be reconciled with his brother
We too ask for reconciliation and want to live in peace
with one another, seeking the best
for our many and diverse communities.
We get a glimpse of a changed people.
If you could be with Jacob wrestling through the night
You could be with all who feel alone
You could be with all who fear the future
You could be with all who face a past they regret
You could be with us and this we pray
In the name of Jesus the Christ
Matthew 13:44-46 (NIV)
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a
field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in
his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant
looking for fine pearls.
46 When he found one of great value, he went away
and sold everything he had and bought it.
The Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God is like this:
It’s like you are out and you find a coin – we’ve all done it! Remember when they had pennies and seeing one on the sidewalk where someone who dropped it couldn’t be bothered to bend down and pick it up – what joy – we even called them lucky pennies. Can you remember how many pennies, dimes, quarters have you picked up in your life?
Now imagine you are in a field and there’s a coin poking it way through, oh and over there a shiny bit of silver and what’s that …a tip of a candlestick and maybe a ruby over that way! Wow, this is a treasure field and we are stumbling across this stuff and what shall we do now. – why buy the field of course. So what if this field is really filled with glimpses of God – that every shiny bit and every dulled jewel showed us a piece of God’s kingdom. What could we call those treasures that litter those fields of our lives? How would we name them? And more importantly would we recognize them when we saw them?
I mean how many others walked through the same field and nothing stood out. How many times have we walked by and never even noticed the field never mind what just lay beneath the surface.
How many times have I read this passage and said to myself “crazy guy – maybe there are no more coins hidden, maybe that jewel was the only one buried there, and even though candlesticks sometimes come in pairs there is no guarantee there are more in this field.”
The Kingdom of God is like a field of treasure just waiting for us to walk through and notice that this is a piece of the Kingdom and who knows what or when you will find something buried there. So you can pick up the coin and well, stick it in your pocket - it’s your lucky day or you can put it back and and buy the field! This field is like the Kingdom of God - it is full of treasures – sell all you have, in other words: put your whole self into it. Recognize the coin in your hand as the tip of the iceberg.
Remember the story of Jesus and the rich young man, the one who goes sadly away because he cannot do what Jesus says he must in order to have eternal life- to be with God : sell all he has and follow Jesus. Jesus was asking him to put his whole self into it and giving him a way to get what he said he wanted. He was seeking something. I mean really trying but he knows he’s missing the mark or he wouldn’t have bothered with asking Jesus anything. And then when what he is seeking is within his grasp- “Just do this – sell all you have and give it to the poor and come and follow me” Jesus says. He can’t do it.
Perhaps he was more like the merchant looking for fine pearls, sure the merchant had pearls, had probably seen many fine pearls but he knew there was one out there; one that was the most lustrous maybe even a perfect pearl. And one day there it is, the finest he has ever seen- he recognizes it as being the finest he has ever seen, perhaps will ever see and chooses to sell everything to have that pearl. He does what the rich young man cannot. He commits himself, his whole self, to the purchase the pearl.
The Kingdom of God is like a merchant who recognizes a fine pearl and gives all he has for the pearl. The Kingdom of God is like treasure buried in a field and the person who picks up, puts it back and sells all he has to buy the field.
They are not the rich young man who goes sadly away from Jesus, away from his dreams, away from the Kingdom of God and mostly away from Joy. Because that is the impression I get from the two parables we looked at; the people in the parable they are happy – overjoyed – they are quick to recognize what they have stumbled upon or sought – there is no hesitation, here it is – right now – within their grasp and they are going to take the chance that this is what their lives are about.
The Kingdom of God can be like that, it can take you (perhaps overtake you) if you let it. You have found a treasure, you have purchased a pearl and now what are you going to do?
How many fields have we stumbled across
without once recognizing they are filled with treasures?
How many pearls have we held so tightly that we missed
even looking for the greatest pearl of all?
Help us to see the treasures and pearls scattered in our lives.
Let us see that even a glimpse of the Kingdom
Is reason enough to be filled with joy.
And we ask that our joy be contagious, that it fill our lives
and the lives of all we know.
We ask that this may be so.
Psalm 139:1-18 (NRSV)
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
I love this psalm – it contains one of the greatest gifts we can be given – to be fully known and fully accepted. God knows us and accepts us just as we are. Not our projected self – you know the self that we want other people to believe we are; not even the self that others see and we are blissfully unaware of but the person we are: with all our complexity and with all our changing over time.
This psalm sets us naked before God and God just goes – “Yes, I know you….and I love you…you are mine!” And once you are God’s you are bound by that love. You can run, you can hide, you can even die (and be in Sheol: the place of the dead) God is there with you.
You are not forgotten, you are not forsaken, you are not alone. The God who knows you before you are born knows you through and through.
It is almost an unimaginable freedom to be both known and accepted because if anyone knows our failures and sadness and hardness of heart it’s us. We know when we haven’t measured up to even our own standards never mind those imposed by society, the church, the media, schools, work, our families...all those people and institutions that tell us who we are and who we should be. The mystery that is God dismisses it all and says “I know you, I have always known you and I will always know you”.
The gift of that knowing is the freedom to be who we are and the freedom to change. Recent events including the deaths of George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet and Chantal Moore at the hand of people we trust to protect us have led me to reflect on my own views on racism. I always thought I knew enough about the lives of people, about Liberation Theology, about racism that I could just go along with my now set (in stone?) ideas and perceptions but I can’t - I realize there was and is something I wasn’t getting, something in me that was and is dismissive of the systemic and individual racism in our society. I don’t know where it will lead me but I am going to at least begin to educate myself (for me that means participating in a Black Theology Reading group focused on the writings of James Cone and others over a two month period). My hope and prayer is that indeed I will change, that I will grow more into the person God has “known” I will become. Well, maybe it doesn’t quite work that way but in the psalm we are reminded (verses 11-12) that there is no hiding from God:
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day for darkness is
as light to you.”
It seems to me that this “knowing” is a real blessing for us because there is no out, there are no excuses, there is just opportunity. With God we are accepted for who we are right now. With God there are no explanations needed. With God our joys and our hurts and our sorrows are known. With God all our longings and shortcoming and gifts don’t have to be expressed. With God there is breathing room and space and time for us to grow in our faith, and into our true selves. The hymn below is one of my favourites and it expresses in a different way the uniqueness of our relationship with God. God has given us a name and with that name we are known to God, in all that we are and all that we may become, we are loved and accepted by God.
I Have Called You By Your Name (More Voices #161)
I have called you by your name, you are mine;
I have gifted you and ask you now to shine.
I will not abandon you; all my promises are true.
You are gifted, called, and chosen; you are mine.
Holy God, how wondrous is your creation;
That you would hold us so tenderly
in the palm of your hand.
That you would know us
And still be willing to stay with us through it all,
Whatever that “all” is – you are with us.
We are not alone.
Help us to celebrate with joy
your presence in our lives
and in the lives of others.
May we be blessed to be a blessing to others.
Matthew 13:1-9 (GNT)
That same day Jesus left the house and went to the lakeside, where he sat down to teach.
2 The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it, while the crowd stood on the shore.
3 He used parables to tell them many things.
“Once there was a man who went out to sow grain. 4 As he scattered the seed in the field, some of it fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some of it fell on rocky ground, where there was little soil. The seeds soon sprouted, because the soil wasn't deep.
6 But when the sun came up, it burned the young plants; and because the roots had not grown deep enough, the plants soon dried up.
7 Some of the seed fell among thorn bushes, which grew up and choked the plants.
8 But some seeds fell in good soil, and the plants bore grain: some had one hundred grains, others sixty, and others thirty.”
9 And Jesus concluded, “Listen, then, if you have ears!”
So you have this gardener, who just throws the seed out there- up into the air – out there so that it scatters all over the place! What a joyous picture I imagine – like a package of wildflower seed and out it goes and willy-nilly it settles everywhere- a great billowing cloud – and the sower just waits and sees what happens!
What a different type of gardening that is compared to carefully preparing the soil, starting the plant indoors – under lights- with a heat mat- carefully transplanting to increasingly larger pots and setting it outdoors on successive days and nights until you finally plant it in the carefully prepared soil.
Nope let’s throw it out there – and see where it sticks – see what blooms and….what?
Now, if you are like me, the sower has always been about where the seed landed and imagining myself to be, well …wanting to be, the best soil possible and having well at least the middle (60%) yield.
But today I read it and thought what if this is really, really about the sower, about Jesus and the disciples, they were the ones scattering the seed just like we continue to do to this day. Is this a story for us?
Are we supposed to be focused on the ground or the seed or the sower? It’s a little confusing especially when the story ends with “Listen then if you have ears” or in some translations “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” or in paraphrase “Are you listening to this? Really listening!”.
If Jesus is the sower then we can suppose it is really good seed but then why would you fling it when you could carefully plant it, and if you do scatter it then why would you blame the ground for being what it is: a beaten path feeds the birds – works out for the birds.
The rocky path is a little more difficult no one knows why the stones are there. There is the spark of growth, but not enough soil for growth to be sustained. Then there is the thorny ground, where the invasive weeds leave little room for the good stuff to grow- now that I’m familiar with; my gardens being invaded by periwinkle, morning glory and creeping buttercups and let’s not even mention the grasses. So the flowers of the invasives quickly overgrow whatever was planted in the space. They are pretty so you might not even notice that they are pushing out some of the good stuff.
These two analogies remind me of the story of the rich young man, who comes to Jesus, wanting to be …better, to be one with God, to have eternal life, and goes away unable to do the one thing that separates him from his wish. (Matthew 19:16-22) His ground is a little too shallow in spite of his wish for a deeper relationship with God, the lure of the beauty of the invasive flowers too great to allow him to pluck them and throw them away in order to make room and nourish what may lie beneath them.
Of course there is the good soil where the seed lands and is fed and grows. The yield of such soil is varied but there is a harvest. Isn’t that kind of what we expected when we started the whole process?
When you pick up seed you want something to grow! You want magnificent things to grow. You want your work to yield something!
I think, this passage is one that gives Jesus’ audience something to think about. Which kind of ground are they and consequently, which kind of ground are we?
We hear the Word and what do we do with it? Tell ourselves that: really it’s fine for other people to believe this stuff but it’s not for me, or maybe you find that it holds a spark of something but you don’t have time for it right now, or maybe there’s something that really takes hold and wow – that’s a really special time because then your life changes or gains an extra dimension or you develop a passion that takes you places you couldn’t imagine.
But maybe we don’t know what kind of ground we are, maybe it doesn’t matter what we determine about that ground, maybe what matters is that once that seed is thrown we stand somewhere under it’s shower.
So then, when I look at the parable again I see Jesus and the disciples, and they are just scattering that seed, flinging it out there: in the stories they tell, the prayers they say, the meals they eat together and their presence with one another and the communities they visit. Jesus is encouraging them in their faithfulness to their mission of sowing the seed and leaving the harvest to God. This parable is encouraging us to just throw that seed out there - fling out Hope , Love, Compassion, Kindness, and Joy
today don’t worry about the ground it land it lands on, the seeds are for everyone. Don’t worry about the harvest just get those seeds out there and see what blooms. You and I might be surprised!
In whom we live and move and have our being
Bless us today with words of wisdom
Shower us with seeds of faith and truth
Bring us closer to you.
And in all that we do
May we be a blessing to everyone we meet
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