A reflection on Proper 14 Year A RCL: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 and Matthew 14:22-33 by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt
Is it age? Or is it me? I seem to be tripping up, falling down, spraining ankles, hurting limbs, getting stung by bees … more lately? Is it age? Or just my own all too human frailties?
I write this from the Adirondack Mountains, where we have vacationed for many years. Some years ago, on a camping vacation, I turned my ankle badly, and broke the tip of the fibula in my left leg, and spent two weeks camping with a purple cast up half my leg. I then begged the doctor to change it to a little air thing, thinking I could return to my preferred outdoor activities, hiking and canoeing. Eager to test my freedom, I ventured out in the canoe with a friend, safely paddling across a small pond to explore the stream which is the outlet to the pond. “I’m not getting my feet wet!” I said, since this little air cast requires socks and shoes. At one point in the journey, the stream goes under a road, requiring getting out of the canoe and carrying it. You can imagine what happened: me, slightly disabled, trying to get from the canoe to rocks on the shore, no place to beach the canoe, my friend trying to stabilize the boat with the paddle, me, with one leg on the rocks, one in the canoe ... splash.
I certainly sympathized with Peter, from the Gospel lesson. Perhaps when I slipped out of the canoe I thought I could walk on water. Perhaps Peter, like Elijah, was stunned and thrilled by the mighty wind, the divine power, the overwhelming force of God. What do we make of what Jesus says, when Peter begins to sink, “You of little faith.” Is Jesus some sort of magician, some Zen master, some Jedi knight? Is Jesus like Obi-Wan when he says to Luke, “Use the force! It flows strong within you!” I heard a mountain climber talk about what it felt like to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, to stand on the peak at the edge of the world. “It’s like you could step off the side and just be there,” he said; then, ever practical, he added, “Of course, I didn’t.”
As I look at the lessons for this week – both tracks from the Hebrew scriptures – I am stunned by the contrast between two ways of talking about the interaction of the divine and the human. On the one hand, we read of God pulling out the big guns: earthquake, wind, fire, miraculous journeys across water, voice in the silence, hand over the waves. Humans are the small, trembling recipients of God’s grace, mercy, omnipotence.
And on the other hand, if you have been reading Track One as I have during this season after Pentecost, divine activity takes place on the all too human scale of the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs. God is letting the oddest things happen among these people, from the humorous and playful (elderly Sarah conceiving and giving birth to Isaac) to the near-horrific (God’s request to Abraham to offer this precious Isaac as a blood sacrifice). How astounding it is to think that Jacob, the patriarch with the most mixed of motives, Jacob the petty, conniving, underhanded and dishonest, Jacob the twin who has since his birth seen life as something to be struggled for – it is this Jacob who gets the biggest blessing of all from God. Jacob is renamed Israel. Jacob the scoundrel is Founding Father par excellence. As his opponent says at the end of their mysterious midnight wrestling match at the ford of the Jabbok, “You have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Think of what that says: Jacob has prevailed even with God. Jacob fights for a blessing with such ferocity that not even God can conquer him. He comes out of the struggle damaged, with a limp, yes, but he prevails.
This week’s installment of Genesis shows us Jacob again causing trouble, by favoring his youngest son over all the rest. These brothers wrestle with duty over jealousy, but jealousy finally wins, and the dear child of Jacob’s old age is sold into slavery in Egypt. Psalm 105 makes the cruelty of slavery clear, and then hints at the next reversal of fortune in this divinely inspired family which lurches across the desert one generation after another.
How does God act in individual lives and in human history? The contrast put forth in the lessons of this week could not be more stark. I can identify with the all too human Jacob, especially the middle-aged and elderly Jacob with the limp, for I sprained my other ankle again early this summer. Limping around the yard now, I’ll have to forswear summer hikes for kayaking the lakes. Life can be a struggle, to be human is to be frail, and petty and jealous, and getting any kind of benefit out of any kind of institution, religious or secular, is a life-long wrestling match.
Yet do we not yearn for the God who beckons us to walk on water, the God of dramatic wind-power-and-light shows, the God who leads us to a better way?
If I were preaching this Sunday, which I am not, I would feel compelled to come up with an answer, probably leaning toward the confident Jesus of the Gospel more than the haphazard desert patriarch. But since this is just a blog among friends, I will confess that if I had to choose, I am really not sure which way I would go.