Lord, we are grateful, that you know our name better than we know it ourself
Father, we are amazed that our name never leaves your mind.
God, you know the names Aubrey Dameron, Ida Beard, Emily Morgan, Selena Not Afraid, Aubrey Dameron, Savanna Greywind, Angela McConnell, and the countless of other native American women and girls who remain missing or have been murdered. Father, while our system has dismissed, or forgotten, far more of these names than it has remembered, we know that you do not forget, nor will you ever forget these names.
Lord, long before we ever heard, or paid attention to, these, you already knew the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Bettie Jones, Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Dominique White. We fail your call to us as we forget our fellow humans beings created by you, these who have died because of color – senselessly and unjustly killed. After our outrage, or sympathy, dissipates and our entitled excuses do their job of removing our guilt and refocusing the blame on these victims, we forget these names. You, O God, never forget these you lovingly created; these you know by name, and even more by heart. You share in the tears of those that loved them and, are now, facing an earthly eternity of grief in their absence.
Father, we ignore the daily barrage of numbers, each representing other loved humans created by you. We hear numbers like the 43,000 persons locked up in across the State of Oklahoma; or the numbers, 1,310 out of every 100,000, numbers statisically bypassing the names that you know of those in our state locked up and imprisoned, numbers surpass the numbers in all other states as well as the numbers in all other NATO nations. We seldom know these names, or remember these numbers.
God, you know the names of each of the 16,289 students in the Norman Public Schools, as well as the names of each of the 1,962 employees that make or public school system. You know the name of each of the 22,152 University of Oklahoma students that have recently returned to our city.
Lord, you know the names of each of the 34 deaths in our city in the past six months due to the Covid 19 illness, you know the name of everyone of the 149 currently active Covid cases in our city, you know the name of every one of the 1,522 city residents the have fully recovered from covid. God, you know the names of those scientists currently working feverishly on a vaccine for the virus, you also know the names of those who have sought to speak false information and outright lies into the minds of our fellow American citizens.
God, we are thankful that you knew the names of every inhabitant in Ninevah crying out for any kind of deliverance, and you knew the name of Noah, Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, of the sons of Jacob, including Joseph, and of Shiphrah, Puah, Jochebed, Miriam, and of Bithiah.
God we are thankful that you have told us your name. Father, we are thankful that you know our name.
Things were different, you couldn’t really name it, but there was a change in the overall atmosphere, it was indescribable. For starters, they were going in a different direction, a very intentional direction. You only had to look were the sun was in the morning to recognize that they were heading south. Jerusalem was south, the paranoid politicians were in the Jerusalem, the south, the power of the religious leaders was in Jerusalem, in the south. It wasn’t a good direction to be heading.
None of the of disciples had said anything, even though they knew that Jesus was purposely going to Jerusalem. Still, no one said anything to Jesus, and there was no need to say anything to each other. They were all thinking the same thing, ‘don’t go to Jerusalem, don’t go to Jerusalem’ – everyday, at the break of dawn they would, once again, find themself heading south, towards Jerusalem.
A lot had happened in a very brief amount of time, it was unusual, and it was the same. Jesus was acting the same towards the crowds, he still had an overriding passion – healing the sick, curing disease, and you couldn’t not see his continual focus on how oppressed they were. There was always a crowd, and Jesus was always healing and curing, and all of the disciples were beginning to feel the weight of this oppression as everything seemed to be resting on how they were being abused by the politicians and the religious leader.
The crowd of 5-10 thousand at Bethsaida, up north near the Sea of Galilee, had also been physically hungry, stomach growling hungry. The disciples were the first to verbally address the hunger, suggesting that it was time they send the people home. It really wasn’t a heartless plan, this enormous crowd had all been there all day, the line of people needing Jesus’ healing touch seemed to growing rather than shrinking, and, what was most concerning was that Jesus was visibly fatigued, he needed some rest. Jesus didn’t even entertain the idea of sending the people home, there were too many of them, too many that were sick, and, all of them were suffering, too many that were dying under the oppression.
Oppression. The political leaders needed to keep the people in line and quiet, in order to could keep their positions of power. The religious leaders needed to keep the people in line and quiet, to keep the local political leaders happy. The political and religious leaders hated each other, but now, they were pretty chummy, it was a tense yet helpful relationship for both sides. If the religious leaders kept the people in line, the political leaders were more much more cooperative. Politicians set up a temple tax which primarily went into the pockets of the religious leaders. The religious leaders knew the arrangement was expedient to their agenda, and that it permitted the religious institution to have an influence in the appointment of powerful persons. It was a win for everyone, except for the average Hebrew, the Jews. They had to periodically go to the temple to make their offerings and sacrifices. This was expensive, they had the travel, the lodging, the food, they had to take off work, once they got to the temple they had to pay the temple tax, then, they had to pay for the sacrificial animal. The people were oppressed, and their faith leaders, and institution, were responsible for the suffering.
There was a lot of hurting, and Jesus, was incapable of not noticing and addressing hurting, pain, and oppression. The hunger of the people had not escaped Jesus notice, his response to the disciples suggestion of sending the people home was to say, ‘you feed them.’ All twelve of the men were dumbfounded at this demand,
‘With what?’ They asked with a hint of indignation.
Jesus didn’t seem offended by the tone of their questions, he didn’t even really seem to notice the blatant sarcasm, he just asked, ‘What do we have?’
‘We, what do WE, have….’ They were all thinking, however, again, no one said it, ‘WE don’t have anything, WE didn’t bring anything!’
Instead of speaking, all the men just stared expressionless, sometimes no expression communicates more than any form of expression. Eventually, Jesus said, ‘Are you sure that we don’t have anything to feed them?’
It was Andrew who finally spoke up about a boy who had offered his five loaves and two fish his mom had packed for him. It was a sweet offer on part of the little boy, it would be a touching sentimental story to tell folks back home, but really , five loaves and two fish for this crowd? That was probably not even enough to keep the little boy going for the rest of the day.
It was one of those moments when you expected Jesus to say, ‘That’s nice, now, seriously, what else do we have?’
But Jesus didn’t said that, he didn’t dismiss the sacrifice of the little boy, he didn’t even hint that Andrew was wasting everyone’s time. Jesus thanked the boy, took the food, and sure enough, he fed the crowd. But, even after their stomachs were full, they the crowd stuck around, it was getting late. The people still needed Jesus to heal them and they needed his peace to survive the oppression they lived under. So, that was then Jesus sent the disciples ahead while he stayed with the crowds until all went home.
That was typical Jesus. Everyone mattered, everyone had a name, everyone deserved health, freedom, respect, – everyone deserved to be known by their name. Jesus knew all their name, he knew every person because every person deserved to be known.
Later, Jesus asked the disciples what names the people were giving to him, his disciples were quick to answer, ‘John the Baptizer’, ‘Elijah’, ‘Jeremiah’, were all offered as answers. Jesus listened to these and all the other names the they had heard. With every answer Jesus would nod, a signal that he had heard the answer, he didn’t seem disturbed or bothered by any of the answers, afterall, it hadn’t been very long since the religious leader had called him ‘Satan’. Once you are given that name, no name is going to be more offensive. Jesus looked down at the ground, he was thinking, it was obvious that this discussion was not over. After a short time of silence, he rose his head up again, he had a look of love and embrace on his face and in his posture, which was now accompanied by a something much deeper yet unhurried, there seemed to be a new urgency in his tone. Jesus looked around, locking eyes with each of the men, still communicating love and respect, then after connecting with all twelve men, then he looked back down at the ground.
‘Who do YOU say that I am?’ He asked as his head moved up to the point where, once again, he was looking each of the men in the eye. The question was met with silence. This was a dangerous question to answer, it was dangerous for the disciples, and all answers would be dangerous for Jesus. There were always curious ears; there were always profiteering eavesdroppers. Some of those present were not sure that they thought, some would still be doubters and unsure all the way to the ascension. Many had a good idea of what they believed, they were hesitant to put it into words however. Everyone knew certain words, words like ‘God’ and ‘Messiah’ would be the final straw for the religious leaders – A rabbi convincing his disciples that he was the Messiah, or worse, that he was God would be an undeniable call to action, very bad actions.
So, the awkward silence persisted, Jesus continued to look at them. His look didn’t seem to be condescending, but, instead, concerned. His expression completely changed when Peter couldn’t keep quiet any long, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ This seemed to be a huge relief to Jesus, his expression changed from concern to hope. Peter, standing on this truth of understanding of who Jesus is, that he was going to be able to grab hold of the faith God gave to him, was the affirmation that Jesus needed..
Jesus even changed Peter’s name to ‘Rock’.
This made the next name Jesus gave to Peter all the more shocking. Jesus called Peter ‘Satan’. Peter had finally spoken out, saying to Jesus what everyone had been thinking.
‘You can’t go to Jerusalem, we have to turn back towards Galillee! You can’t let this death happen to you!’ This all came after Jesus had told the men about his death and resurrection.
Peter was now called ‘Satan’ by Jesus. The name you never want to be called, the most horrid name that Peter could ever hear. ‘Satan.’
Peter didn’t want Jesus to die, none of the men did – however, they would understand later, Jesus had to die – in order to be resurrected, he had to first die.
Peter despised this ‘dying’ plan, it was painful, for Peter , for the others, and especially for Jesus. Peter may have been sincere, he may have thought he had pure motive, but, he was trying to get Jesus to step onto a different path.
Early on, when Satan tried to finish Jesus off early but was met with failure, he had vowed to return to Jesus, he had promised to show up at another ‘opportune’ time to tempt Jesus again, an ‘opportune’ time had arrived. This time, however, he used Peter. Peter, with good intentions, was trying to protect his friend Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. Now, even the best intentions were not enough to keep Peter’s name from being changed to ‘Satan.’
Names are wonderful and names can be a nightmare. Just ask Peter. Just ask Moses.
1,500 years earlier, another man dealt with a troublesome name, this man was Moses. Mosheh, in the hebrew, or Moishe, in yiddish, or Moses (or Mes) to the Egyptians. The Etymology of these three forms of the same name are still a struggle for linguists today. For the man named Moses, during the time of the Hebrew slavery in Egypt, it was a unavoidable metaphor for the personal struggle of his own life. A struggle he was never able to escape. Moses, a Hebrew child who was placed in a basket into the Nile River, by his mother and sister in order to save him from the edict of the brutal Pharoah to kill the Hebrew children in the Nile river, was rescued by the daughter of Pharoah, and then raised in the Pharoah’s palace as an Egyptian male, a family member in the family of Pharoah, raised as a man of great privilege and authority.
Here is the problem with this name Moses carried. Pharoah’s daughter, Bithiah, basically created the name Moses, by putting two word roots together, the first was ‘son of…’ and the second part was ‘I drew out of the water.’ Basically, she intended the name to say, ‘this is my son, and, I drew him out of the water,’ However, she made a grammar error, basically in spelling and the ‘I drew him out of water’ basically became ‘he will draw them out.’ The Hebrew, or Yiddish understanding of the name is similar, a one word explanation is our word ‘deliver’, with the added meaning of the word ‘water’. The meaning of the name was also, in Hebrew traditions, ‘those who are saved.’
This Hebrew and Egyptian name etymology tells the story of the battle that went on in Moses himself. He was considered a son of an Egyptian, living in the home of the very ruler that wanted him to be put to death as a child, and, was rejected by his own people, the Hebrews. Add to this, his attempt to deliver another Hebrew, further alienated him from the Egyptians and the Hebrews. He was a slave and a master, an oppressed person as well as an oppressor, a protector and a murderer, he was a man on the outside of everything, a man now accepted by no one, a man who no longer belonged, a man who could no longer go home, a man who was known but who’s greatest desire was to not be known. He was a man on the run.
Soon, he found out that not only was he known, but, that he was know by God, who knew his name.
‘Moses, Moses.’ God called out, ‘Take your shoes off, you are on holy ground.’
God then introduced himself to Moses. It seems ironic that an iconic religious deliverer like Moses had to be introduced to God, but he did. As the discussion continues, we realize that even the Hebrews needed an introduction to God. It has been four hundred years since Joseph, 400 years since the talk of, and dependence on, the God of Joseph. This God, the God of Joesph, the God of Jacob, the God of Isaac, the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the God of the Hebrews, the God who knew Moses name, the God who knew each of the names of the Hebrews, the God who had not forgotten them. The God who had heard their cries, cries sent out into the unknown and to the unknown – God was now sending a deliverer. That God was sending a deliverer who’s name was Moses.
‘They are going to ask who your are,’ a surprised, hesitant, and fearful, Moses said, ‘What is your name, how do I identify you to them?’
‘I am God,’ God responded in the same way any one responds when their title is their name, s name that is truly, and only, owned by no other being, ‘tell them my name is ‘I AM’.
So, God, was sending Moses to the place he never wanted to return to, in the same manner, God was sending Jesus to the very place that his disciples knew he should never, ever, go near. Both men were given the same mission, a mission to deliver the oppressed.
The oppressed, it is a very strange word. If you have not ever been truly oppressed, which is probably true for everyone hearing this message, then you cannot identify, you can not sympathize, and you definitely are incapable of empathizing – seldom do even even acknowledge a need to understand the impact of oppression on another. For the Hebrews who were now slaves in Egypt, the path to becoming oppressed had been so gradual that they didn’t even recognize it until it was too late, until they could do nothing except send a cry out into the universe.
For the Jews that held the attention and compassion of Christ, oppression had come at the hands of their rulers in cooperation with their religious leaders, the authorities had paved the road to this state of their lives, the people had accepted this because they had blindly trusted, and accepted, the lies of their leaders.
Oppressors are good, they know how to manipulate and divide, they know how to make those they are going to oppress nameless, they call them liberals, radicals, thugs, rapists, drug dealers, murderers, killers, worthless, anything that is quickly interpreted as ‘bad’ even though the intentional meaning is never questioned, and their attacks are seldom critiqued. Oppressors that are good have eliminating those that will questions their lies, it is all part of a well oiled campaign to subtly accelerate the oppressive process.
The one most effective way to counter oppression is to know the names of those being attacked and oppressed. The Egyptians did not know the Hebrews names, they accepted the labels expressed by Pharoah, the Politicians did not know Jesus, they accepted the labels of the religious leaders. Fear mongering, lies, conspiracies, slander, are all proven techniques of effective oppressors. Keeping people from knowing each other’s name is usually the most effective path.
This was the final straw that pushed the Chinese Communist party leaders to take forceful action in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. They were fine waiting the student protestors out, however, when all the other groups began to enter the square, groups the leaders had worked diligently to keep divided though the use lies and hateful labels. As these previously divided groups of people began to interact, as they began to know each other’s name, as they began to reject the hateful labels they had received from their leaders, the party officials realized their power was threatened. They took action.
When Peter was given the name ‘Satan’ a truth about himself was revealed, he realized that he was putting himself above all else, he recognized how he was allowing the true Satan to use him at an opportune moment. This horrible name opened his eyes.
A name, tells us a lot about ourselves and tells us a truth about others.
Ever since they constructed the new road connecting West Lindsey and 36th Avenue, I have seen, almost daily, large damaged areas of the fence. Sometimes it was obvious that a car had done the damage but most of the time I struggled to understand. One day I walking the path and I witnessed a man taking the slats out of the fence. I recognized the man, I realized I knew his name, this was ‘Ray’. I knew Ray, I knew his name, I had met Ray while I volunteered at Food and Shelter. Ray was one of the many clients we served that lived at the river. Ray and I had many discussions, during which he freely shared that he had been given, and chosen, the names ‘unhoused’, ‘homeless’, ‘unemployed’, ‘unemployable’, and sometimes the name ‘bum’ because he ‘didn’t follow rules very well, or at all’, and that, sometimes he had a ‘temper’ which was why every six months he would be fired from the University’s landscaping crews. As I approached Ray, he immediately recognized me, he even knew my name.
‘Rick! Can you give me a hand with this?’ He shouted.
He needed my help taking the fence apart. I had always thought of these ‘fence destroyers’ in less than pleasant terms, now I was one of them. As I joined Ray in the legions of being a ‘Felon’, which is what I assumed would be the name posted in the Norman Transcript below my mug shot, I asked him why we were destroying the fence.
Ray explained that, although he considered most of the folks at the river, to be friends, he still didn’t trust them. ‘No one trusts each other down here,’ he explained. ‘So, everyday we have to take all of our important stuff with us on our bikes.’ All this important stuff made it impossible to get the bikes through, or over, the fence, so they had to disassemble it to get to their day.
‘I’ve wondered why it is always like this,’ I said.
‘Yes, it is us,’ he shrugged.
The the eyesore of a fence was now, to me, a sign that a people, a people with names not just labels, had not been considered when the fence was originally placed designed. Whereas, before I assumed the worst about the broken fence. I would regularly see the city workers fixing the fence, I would imagine the hateful things they had to be saying about the fence destoryers. Now, I knew, it was Ray. Now I didn’t hate, it was Ray. Actually, now it was Ray and me.
A couple of months ago, as I was driving by, I saw a city vehicle with a city worker standing and looking at the fence. He was walking along the fence and you could tell he was studying the fence. As I returned, I saw this same man on the other side of the fence, walking down into the woods toward the river.
The next time I drove by, a city crew out working on the fence yet again. This time was different, this time, instead of just reconstructing the fence, they were building an opening. Now, I seldom see Ray, or his community breaking the fence, now, for the most part, they are going to the opening. I think the man I saw earlier, the city worker studying the fence, eventually went down to the river to learn the names of the people previously known only by the level of ‘fence destroyer,’ he find the most used path, and the best place for an opening.
I think this city worker met Ray, who introduced him to the others, including one lady who had the name JoAnn. JoAnn always, somehow, had an extra pound of ground beef or an array of chicken parts, which, on most good days, she would share with all the others who also had names. Now, these people ceased to be known by hostile labels and now had names. Now, that they had names, is was much easier to address their need, now, they were a little less oppressed.
Jesus was insistent that his disciples understood the oppression that the Jews were living under. Jesus sent his disciples out to these oppressed people because that was the calling that the Father gave Jesus, ‘a calling to give them a full life,’ Jesus sent them out so that they could know their names.
Knowing names is what always brings us to accept God’s call, it always leads us trust the God who calls.
God said to Moses, ’I know you by name.’ God said to the Hebrews, through Moses, ‘I know you by name,’ God says to us ‘I know you by name.’
It took five women to change the course of history. These five women did what had never been done. Five women who, as far as we know, did not receive direct instruction from God, still, followed God in the midst of their day to day survival. Five women took extreme personal risks that they didn’t really have to take. Five women risked their lives, and, along the way, unknowingly changed the world. Five women did what their gut told them to do even if it was dangerous, not just for them, but dangerous for those closest to them. Five woman saved the Israelites. Five women saved a group of humans, humans that were a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, a promise of a people, a people we, today, know as the Jews.
These five women did this extraordinary feat without any fanfare, without any substantial assistance, without any visible concern for their own safety, without support from, or even knowledge by, their community. Five women who simply stepped out and did what needed to be done. Five women who acted in historic ways, doing so merely out of their daily existence, their daily survival. Five women who were the sounding pistol declaring that the deliverance of the Israelites had begun. Five women who saved the lineage of Jesus.
Five women in a story that begins with two men. The first, was a newly enthroned ruler, Pharaoh.
This new Pharaoh was on the throne, a ruler who had an Israelite problem, there were simply too many of them, they were like wild animals in the street, and they were multiplying like feral dogs. This Pharaoh was brutal and had no appreciation for the Israelites. His ignorance of the history of his own people was staggering, his focus was himself, he was his own god – this was the god that instructed him how to secure his power, how to eliminate threats to his power, how to eliminate ‘problems’ immediately. His paranoid ‘god syndrome’ fueled existence mandated that he have all the answers needing no assistance, no one could be trusted, no one – anyone could be fired, eliminated, at the drop of a hat, at the hint of unloyalty, at the need of a scapgoat, the only characteristic of a worthy employee was blind acceptance of Pharaoh as ‘god’. His unwillingness to grasp even the most basic aspects of the history of his people led him to act with blatant disregard and reckless abandon. In a turn from wiser and the more stable rulers before him, he had no appreciation for, or even knowledge of, the Hebrew deliverer Joseph, nor did he have any respect for the God of Joesph and his people the Hebrews, the Israelites. He had no fear of this God who had shown himself in such a mighty way in the history of his people – his fear was of men, not God, a fear of what men could take from him.
The other male, a three month old Hebrew infant, was named Moses.
But, it was five women who were the heroes of this story, they were the first to be called by God, they were the first to take the deliberate and risky actions, they were the first, in this story, and the case could be made that they were the first in all of the Bible stories up to this point, to step out based on a faith conviction that this was actually not really a choice at all – it was life guided by faith. It was their daily life.
Let’s meet these heroes.
We begin with Shiphrah and Puah, two Israelite women, midwives who served their own people, the Hebrews. They were summoned out of their day to day existence to appear before this Hebrew hating ruler. Being summoned is seldom a positive for an oppressed person, it is devastating when it come from a brutal powerful ruler. Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill all of the male children born of Hebrew women. These two women who had dedicated themselves to God’s calling to bring life into the world, now were given the order to take that life instead. However, these women were dedicated to their calling, to life, and more than that, they feared God. They disobeyed, and when summoned again, Pharaoh asked why he is still seeing Hebrew newborn boys. These two women in the work of life were now facing their own death, still, they stood their ground, standing on their faith, blaming the quick labor of the Hebrew women, as the reason for their inability to stop these forbidden births.
Two more Hebrew women, Jochebed, and her daughter Miriam, are the next audacious heroes of this story. Jochebed had nursed and hidden her son, Moses, for three months after hearing of Pharoah’s edict to put to these Hebrew boys to death by being thrown into the vicious Nile river. Ironically, the newborn female infants were allowed to live, they were not a threat – Pharaoh had no clue of the threat of his own misogynistic ingrained prejudices were to his power. Jochebed and Miriam hatched a bizarre plan that would only work if God was a part of the action. Jochebed and Miriam, as ordered by Pharaoh, ‘threw’ their beloved Moses, into the Nile River – however, before ‘throwing’ him into the river, they placed him inside a basket that had been retrofitted to float. They prepared the basket, they put the infant Moses into the basket, and they let go of it into the river, releasing their control, surrendering it into the hands of a God they didn’t really know a lot about.
Our fifth heroic woman now enters the picture, a woman named Bithiah – an Egyptian, non Israelite, non Hebrew woman who was also the daughter of the brutal and paranoid Pharoah. She was bathing in the river when she saw a basket floating in the water. Ordering one of her attendants to retrieve the basket she was surprised to find a child neatly tucked into the basket. Bithiah immediately recognized that this was a child of a Hebrew woman, and, presumed that this child had been released into the unpredictable waters of the Nile in order to save the life of this little boy.
It boggles the brain to think of the journey of this outrageous faith engineered plan which called for a mother to save her son by placing him into a basket, then placing the basket into the very river where he was ordered to die, a plan which ended with the child being rescued by the daughter of the very man who ordered the death of this infant, and, ultimately having this child raised in the very palace where this same brutal ruler lived, his own home…..and, all of this, is still decades before this same child, raised in the home of the ruler who sought his death, would deliver the Israelites from the brutally of the following Pharaoh.
We cannot leave this story of these five heroic women without looking at one final act of bravery. Jochebed, and her daughter Miriam, allowed themselves to be noticed – again, it is best to go under the radar, unnoticed, when you are an oppressed person. It would be nearly impossible to consider the possibility that Bithiah naively accepted the appearance of Miriam as serendipitous. In doing this, both of these Hebrews put their own lives, as well as their families and the life of this beloved infant, in jeopardy. They had allowed themselves to be noticed – this plan of faith required not only risk and release, it required that they place themselves in the crosshairs of a powerful, brutal, and paranoid, ruler.
Five women against a powerful man who was was dismissive and assuredly misogynistic. Five women who were considered powerless and weak by a ruler that set out to destroy an entire people. Five women who began a movement that resulted in the deliverance of that people. Five women who were guided by faith, five women given the faith to answer the call, five women empowered with the grace to act on the call, five women who changed the world.
Five women whose faith that set the bar for a grown Moses, who, on ten specific occasions would be called upon by God to speak on behalf of God, to confront a man who consider himself to be a god.
So, what is faith? How do we obtain faith?
We had a family living next to us who had a daughter with a disability from birth. She was, confined to a wheel chair and, every two years would have to enter the hospital for an extended stay during which she would go through a harrowing physical treatment to attempt to restore her health, as much as possible. A treatment much like the worst chemotherapy experience that you can imagine. It was traumatizing for her and her family just to go through this. She, along with her family, attended a church, where the pastor would often speak of our level of faith being our responsibility, ie. ‘If you are poor it is because you do not have enough faith, if your marriage is failing it is because you do not have enough faith, if your house is too small or you hate your job or your kids are a mess it is because you do not have enough faith,’ and frequently, he would preach in the direct eyesight of this little girl, ‘If you are sick it is because you do not have enough faith’. One Sunday as he began going down the path of this heretical teaching about faith, the siblings of this girl stood up from their seats, and non apologetically moved to the center aisle, turned their sister’s chair around, and pushed her to the exit door. At the point, the parents, as they shared later, finally realized that they should have done this years before.
When this little girl completed the fifth grade, approaching the summer when it was time for another hospital extended treatment, she explained to her parents that she was ‘done’. She had made the decision to do no more treatments. When I say ‘ready’ this little girl had a clearer understanding of life and death, of eternity, than probably most adults. She was truly ‘ready’. The family grieved but understood and honored her decision. By the start of the next school year she had passed away.
This was knowing God enough in life that she was able to trust God in death. This was having enough faith.
Five problematic words made this statement difficult for us to fully grasp in our English language state of mind, and our own tendency toward a selfish theology when interpreting scripture:
Assurance, Things, Hoped, Conviction, Received Approval
While a greek word study of these two verses written to the early Christians who had a Jewish background would give us a clearer understanding of the meaning of this passage – Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, does a superb job of explaining these words through his translation:
“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”
Take a moment to look at, and consider, these words again.
It was this firm foundation that allowed the five women to save the life of Moses. It was the fundamental trust they had in the known but unseen God (actually for one of the women, God was unseen and unknown) that permitted them to accept the risk of saving this life.
It was this fundamental faith that had consistently allowed this little girl to trust God with her life, now leading her to trust God with her death.
As the apostle Paul is teaching the believers in Rome how to be ready to live like the five women who saved Moses, and, how to be community at the same time, he says,
This brings us to the issue of ‘Enoughness’.
We are not the master, or developers, of our faith. We do not grow our faith, we do not strengthen our faith, we do not own our faith, we do not determine our faith.
Faith is what permits us to answer ‘yes’ to God’s call – whether it is to respond with disobedience to a brutal Pharaoh with a god complex, or to let go of a basket into the Nile River in order to save the life of your child, or to painfully accept your Father’s plan to save the world.
When God calls, or leads, or intentionally places us on the path where he needs us to be, then it is not a question of ‘Enoughness’, it is not ‘do we have enough faith to answer, or to follow, or to trust’ – it is a question of ‘do we trust the God that we know, to give us the exact needed measure of faith to do what he calls us to do?’.
We end up at Jesus question that Jesus poses to his disciples – ‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’
Jesus was not asking this as a test to see if his disciples had been paying attention in class, nor was it reprimand them for their ‘lack of faith.’ He was asking because he was now heading to Jerusalem, he was at a fork in the road where the direction of his physical journey was lining up with his journey to the cross. While this would ultimately be a solitarily journey that Jesus would have to travel alone, he was fully aware, though, that on the way, his disciples would be at his side. They would be going as far as they were able to go. To travel with him the distance they were equipped to travel, they would have to be ready to grab ahold of the measure of faith that God was giving them. To face the pain and struggles ahead, this faith was going to be essential.
To grasp this faith, they needed to be standing on an unshakable foundation, a foundation of truly knowing God.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus smiled the smile of the Father, knowing that Peter was ready to face the horror that lie ahead, he would make mistakes, but in the end he would realize that he was standing on a Rock. Jesus proclaims to Peter, “God has revealed this to you! The father has given you enough faith.”
Our question today is – “Who do you say that Jesus is?”
Have you ever been around someone that you never have to guess what they were thinking or feeling? What they were thinking, their thoughts, dreams, hopes, excitement, emotions, always on display? It is a character trait that is both annoying and endearing? You can bask in who they are, or you dismiss them and try to avoid them. I think Joseph was one of those people.
Joseph is one of the most illuminating figures of the bible. We are given not only the historical accounts of his life, which are horrifying, but we also get to see the emotions, the fears, the disappointments, and the joy.
Joesph has multiple meetings with his brothers, were did the unthinkable to him, and are oblivious to his identity. Joesph comes to a point where he cannot hide his joy and excitement anymore. He has all this joy and happiness inside of him that he can only keep pushed down for so long until he pops.
For Joseph, faith was faith, and faith was life. He didn’t have to force it. His faith was what came forth from his life. The first time we see God even referenced by Joseph is in jail when he explains to other prisoners that dream interpretations come from God then, a second God reference is of the same substance, but for Pharaoh. While there is not much dialogue from Joesph proclaiming God, his life serves as a megaphone abut God. God comes forth in the life of Joseph.
‘God coming forth’, is exactly what Jesus is talking about in the first part of our gospel reading Jesus says.…
As I mentioned in our passage primer this week, there are several aspects of Matthew 15 with which I struggle. This statement from Jesus, ‘to eat with unwashed hands does not defile,’ is one of them, especially during our current pandemic. However, what is seen and/or heard immediately from this statement is not what Jesus is saying. He is not mounting an anti-hygiene protest, nor is he revealing that he has bought into an extremest conspiracy theory.
The earliest findings of any types of hygiene guidelines and laws date back to the Exodus when God, through Moses, gave the Israelites instructions on everything from washing their hands, to the disposal of human waste. These hygienic practices were a religious responsibility. About half a century later, under King David, these practices were expanded from being religious to being a societal practice.
More than any other people, personal hygiene was a founding principle of the Israelites, and Jesus was not contradicting this. Jesus was talking about something much deeper, he was addressing what we allow to exist inside of us, that which influences and changes what we put into ourselves.
A couple of weeks ago, I referenced our experience a decade ago with our daughter Grace spending 11 days in the hospital with Steven Johnson’s Syndrome, a severe, often fatal, reaction to medication. What I did not mention was that she, along with our son Caleb, had been taking the same medicine for the same sickness, for the same amount of time. Caleb had no problem with the medication and within a very short time was feeling better and back to normal. However, something in Grace’s system influenced the otherwise ‘okay’ medicine rending it toxic.
This is what Jesus is saying. Everything in our life is influenced by what is already at our core, what is inside of us. We put relationships into our life – they can mix with our insides and come out as a healthy lasting relationship, or they can come out as adultery and fornication. We put communication in, it mixes with our inside, comes out of our mouth as unifying and encouraging words, or it comes out as false witness, gossip, and slander. Our heart, our core, takes the non defiling things we put into our life and determines if they come out beneficial or harmful.
It all depends on what we allow to be inside of us.
Jesus is challenging the standard religious thought, especially as established by the institutional leaders. He is telling them that transformation does not take place by our practices alone, or anything that we think we must, or must not, do to be right with God. It is much deeper, it is that which comes forth from us that identifies that our heart, our core, what is our center.
Let’s get into this a bit deeper by looking at one word, the word that provides the true challenge of Jesus’ message – the word ‘DEFILE.’ The greek, in this context is κοινοῖwhich means ‘to defile’. The root word, which gives us clarity of the meaning of ‘defile’ is koinoó , which, in certain context can mean ‘to make unclean, pollute, desecrate’. Now, if we go deeper to the literal meaning of the root word, the word from which these all use in their particular context, ‘to make common.’
As we have witnessed in Matthew’s gospel, when it moves to another story or teaching, as we ‘move on’, ‘moving on’ is never ‘moving away’.
Jesus now travels to the major Roman port cities of Tyre and Sidon, home to countless pagan temples, populated largely by gentiles but sizable Israelite population resides there as well.
Remember, there is an intentionality of the chronological order in Matthew’s gospel, teaching moments are often followed by an experiential lesson as well.
As Jesus, and his disciples, enter the area, they are immediately confronted by a Canaanite woman who is shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ Jesus’ response is odd, it is very suspect, it is very ‘un-Jesus’ like. He dismissively ignores the woman, then, as she continues to make a spectacle of herself by screaming, the disciples join in suggesting that Jesus send ‘that shouting woman’ away. Jesus responds to the suggestion by pointing out that ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ She then gets in front of Jesus, kneels, and begs, ‘Lord, help me.’ Jesus responds with the seemingly racist and callous response of ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ The woman replies to Jesus with, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Now, she has Jesus attention as indicated by his response, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ After this, we are informed that, at that moment, her daughter was healed instantly.
The change in Jesus posture with the woman, as well as a positive and affirming response, signals that something significant has just taken place. I wouldn’t be surprised if the disciples share a look of confusion with each other.
This interaction just seems to increase in the odd and bizarre factor as this conversation progresses.
Let’s dive in and break this engagement down.
We begin by looking at Jesus’ initial response to the woman – he ignores and dismisses her, while the disciples, thinking they have picked up on a subtle cue meant for them, join in by urging him to get rid of her. This opening action, or inaction, on the part of Jesus was intentional, it was targeted, it is was a signal that this is going to be a teaching moment aimed at, not the woman, but the followers of Christ. He is using the moment to teach his followers, particularly his disciples, what he had just verbally taught about in the earlier verses. As the woman shouted, what was inside of the disciples, and probably inside the crowd as well, began to take hold, they thought the gate had been open to let their own attitudes come forward, it could no longer be held back, it all came pouring out out of their mouths, ‘Just send her away, Jesus!’
In these brief four words, the disciples revealed a bigotry and a prejudice against the woman, as ‘all her kind.’ They, unconsciously formed a hostile attitude toward the woman because of her nationality, her color, her ancestors, basically ‘who she was.’ In the most blunt of terms, they were revealed that they were racists. We know that because her requests, and methods, were nothing new, thousands had come to Jesus doing the same thing for the same reason, probably, many who were also shouting – the disciples didn’t suggest sending them home, well except for when there were too hungry, when they became a burden. This time was different, this time it was a pushy Canannite, woman, a gentile. Sure, the gentile centurion had come to Jesus on behalf of his servant for healing, maybe, the servant was even a gentile. The difference, though, in that gentile situation and this gentile situation was all about presentation (or so they would have claimed), that man, the Centurion, knew how to act, he was respectful, he knew the words to say, it knew how to act right. He was following the unspoken rules that you follow as a gential and addresses a Israelite. This Canannite gentile Woman either didn’t know how to act correctly, normally, or she did but just refused to do so.
So, Jesus echoed the mind and heart bigotry of his disciples and followers, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ While this was true, the promise to Abraham and passed down to Jacob, did declar that all people would be blessed by the Israelites, Jesus coming to heal the Israelites would, conceptually, enable them, the Jews to go to the gentiles. While accurate, it was not true to ‘who’ Jesus was, and they should have known this by now. Sometimes, it is impossible to even realize what we have allowed to be hidden in the dark places of our heart and mind – especially racism and bigotry.
The disciples did not, and at this point could not, empathize with the woman, something in them did not want to. So they hated and despised her – Jesus let them see this as he opened the gate for these things to come forth from out of their lives. He echoed their thoughts, he mirrored their darkness.
While the disciples only saw a non-Jew, a non-Israelite, and a non-male; what they did not see was that this oppressed and desperate woman was a Canannite, she, like Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth, all shared ancestral connections with Jesus.
Next, we see the woman quickly move ahead of the still walking Jesus, and kneel in front of him, probably in deference bowing her head to the ground, blocking his way so that he has to stop. The response of Jesus to the woman’s repeated cry for help is to say, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ These words too, are not the mean spirited words they sound to be. The gentiles held a much different attitude towards animals. While the Israelites may have had animals around as a necessity, the gentiles endeared the animals they had as beloved family pets. So, the phrase ‘dogs’ would not have been taken as the insult it sounds to us – it was a description of the immense difference in the faith and religion of the Israelites and the scattered and dysfunction of the faith practices of the gentiles.
Her response is an unveiling of her unbridled faith, as well as of the expansiveness of God’s love and Jesus’ ministry. In saying, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,’ the woman exposed her understanding of God, God’s love, and of her own belovedness by God.
She was saying, ‘yes, I know you came for the Israelites, but, I also know that you are enough, and have enough grace, for me and all peoples.’
Jesus is blown away by the heart and core of this woman as he sees what comes forth from her, as evidenced by his response to her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ He sees a faith that empowered by what is inside this woman.
This woman, who didn’t look like one that Jesus had come for, she didn’t wash her hands as part of a religious ritual, she didn’t observe the dietary laws or think certain foods were unclean, she didn’t have the right ‘pure’ bloodline, her nationality did not hold the power her oppressors held, she may have not been the acceptable color, she didn’t live in Jerusalem nor was she allowed in the temple, in all honesty, there are countless ways that she did not fit the proper mold of a faithful follower of Jesus…..unless you were able to see her heart, or if you were to be there, like Jesus was, when what was inside came forth.
Let’s look at this in a practical way, from a historical event, to see how what is inside comes out, and what comes out positively or negatively impacts all that are in a part of our journey.
On November 14, 1960, a US Marshall’s vehicle pulled up in front of the New Orleans home of Abon and Lucille Bridges to escort their 6 year old daughter to William Franz Elementary School. Little Ruby was wearing new dresses, socks, and shoes and ready for her first day of school.
As Ruby, and the Marshalls, arrived at the school, they were met by an angry mob. John Steinbeck, who was there to witness the moment, later wrote about what he had observed, specifically, he wrote about a group of women at the protest whose picture had been seen nation wide, –
Ruby was one of three children that integrated the public school system in New Orleans in 1960, however, Ruby was by herself at William Franz Elementary School. She spent the year traveling to and from school in the vehicle with the Marshalls, who in between would go back to her street to protect her house and parents. Lucille and Abon, her parents, suffered that year as he lost his job as a gas station attendant because of Ruby; their grocery store would no longer her family shop there; her sharecropper grandparents in Mississippi were turned off their land. Most parents removed their children from the school the day that Ruby arrived. Ruby, walked in through the screaming mob every morning and every afternoon. In between, she was alone in a classroom, just her and Barbara Henry, her teacher, brought in from Boston.
Now, as an adult 60 years later, Ruby shares life lessons she learned from that year, and her subsequent life, how those who didn’t join the hateful mobs made a huge difference in her life, ‘many others in the community, both black and white, showed support in a variety of ways. Some white families continued to send their children to Frantz Elementary despite the protests and danger, a neighbor provided her father with a new job, and local people babysat, watched the house as protectors, and walked behind the federal marshals’ car on the trips to school.’ It was not until Bridges was an adult that she learned that the immaculate clothing she wore to school were donated to her family by a white relative of Dr. Coles, her volunteer psychiatrist.
They should have known better, almost half of them were fishermen, for heaven’s sake. They should have been able to glance at the sky and realize that it was not going to be safe, especially since it was going to be dark soon. When the winds began to pick up it was like everyone had never seen a storm, everyone was yelling out instructions, most had a white knuckle grip on the sides of the boat, it was terrifying. The waves were pounding the side of the boat, rain was hitting the disciples’ faces for the entire night.
In their defense, it is possible that the weather could have radically changed after they pushed the boat out into the deeper waters. I asked our resident weather and climate expert this week if it was possible for a storm to come out of no where, a storm that even seasoned fishermen would not be anticipating. Renee told me about the KAT-a-bat-ic winds that come down off the colder high mountains to the smaller mountains where the temperatures are warming and then to the shallow waters of the Sea of Galilee – stirring up the waves and wind with great veracity.
So the scared men were mad and frustrated with each other and then at the same time ashamed of themselves. Truth was, they were mostly aggravated that they had jumped into the boat in the first place. A carpenter telling a group of grown men, many who were at home on the water, a carpenter telling this group to jump in the boat, at dusk, and go on ahead. The entire situation was ludicrous!
Some would say this storm was all part of God’s plan to bring the men to a fuller recognition of who Jesus is; an orchestrated weather disaster. However, bad stuff happens –
– when people have a free choice that impacts other people and the creation –
– bad stuff is going to happen. Stuff, that often in the end, we can see how we have grown, and possibly even benefitted from the reality of bad stuff.
That is not our reality though. Ten years ago this month we sat in a hospital room for 11 nights with our daughter Grace who had a potentially fatal reaction to a common antibiotic, even in bringing her home we knew we weren’t out of the woods. A couple of years later, we sat in the surgery waiting rooms four times, and then in doctor’s offices for over six procedures until the professionals were able to figure out the medical solution to a medical issue our son Isaiah had.
We lose spouses, we watch loved ones slip away, relationships unravel, automobile accidents happen and auto parts break, brother and sister human beings are abused and oppressed, pandemics leave us living in limbo, and plumbing problems cause kitchen sinks to overflow.
I say that because that was my struggle this week – not that it is in anyway is in the same level as the struggles mentioned before, but it is on the level of most of our struggles. Our plumber was booked for four days. I tried again to work the few plumbing miracles I had up my sleeve. That is when I met Kris Reece. Kris has a 13 minute Youtube tutorial on how to fix plumbing problems that cause sinks to overflow. Kris’s plumbing problem was a result of putting cooked pasta in the garbage disposal, I realized that I had put cooked pasta in my garbage disposal. – it was like Kris and I were brothers. Later, I was reprimanded by my daughter Hannah who reminded me that Duffy Musgrove had told us the dangers of pasta and disposals. So, I watched Kris, for 13 minutes unclog his disposal, making sure that I would not get half way and realize this was out of my league. It wasn’t, I unclogged the sink, well, with Kris’s help. Now, I know how to unclog the kitchen sink, and I know that you don’t put cooked pasta in the disposal. Two lessons from one problem. I was pretty proud of myself the rest of the day, consider getting a tool belt. Plus, I learned how to use the plumber’s snake my plumber’s had insisted I purchase years before – Kris taught me how to use that as well.
Good came out of bad.
I’m not sure Paul was thinking about plumbing problems when he said,
‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’
…but it is the same dynamic.
So the disciples had strong winds, a shallow sea, scary waves, pelting wind, and were consumed with fear – it was a rough night. Interestingly, the experience prior to the storm had been positively amazing, the kind of day you talk about for the rest of your life. They had just fed around 10,000 hurting and hungry people, with almost nothing to work with. One moment the men thought it was time to send the crowd home and the next moment they were collecting baskets of leftovers!
Jesus was exhausted, and still helping the people that delayed leaving, the disciples were on an adrenaline rush, so hopping into a boat was not as outlandish as it sounds. But still, everyone was disappointed in themselves and each other.
It must be said though, the men were a little frustrated with Jesus – although no one was going to say that. One moment he is conquering hunger and disease, oppression and misery, the next minute he abandoned the disciples sending them to their death in the middle of the sea.
Then, in the punishing storm, just as the fear, anger and frustration were about to hit a boiling point, the disciples were distracted by something even more startling than the storm. Between the flashes of lightening and the crushing waves, something, or someone, could be seen in the distance – on the water. Every time the waves would crash the unidentified object or person was visible. So, as the scared men continued to hold on to the tattered sails and the sides of the water logged boat, screaming in fear, they heard the voice.
Peter was audacious and, most often, annoyingly eager, however, he was the only one thought about walking out to Jesus. The storm was so loud you could only faintly hear Jesus’ response,
We all heard that word, ‘Come’, everyone looked at Peter, he swallowed hard and stepped out of the boat. From the rocking boat the men watched as Peter navigated the waves. He was knocked down a couple of times, but he would just get up. After about three knock downs, he began to look out over the never ending waves often blocking his view of Jesus – his determination and confidence was visibly waning. He was looking back at the boat and ahead at Jesus trying to decide which would be the most rational direction to go. No way could he swim in this turbulence. Jesus picked up his pace to get to Peter, pulling him up out to the water. Jesus grabbed Peter’s hand and pulled him up just as Peter’s head was going under. As the two men made it to the boat, the waves and wind remained unforgiving – the disciples struggled to pull them in.
Jesus and Peter crashed onto the floor of the boat, Peter looking wet, scared, and humiliated. Jesus looked wet and strangely peaceful. A few seconds later, the rain stopped, the wind calmed, and the waves disappeared. It was quiet, eerily silent. The men all looked at each other, they looked at Peter, then all eyes turned to Jesus. No one said anything – there was really nothing to say, but you could tell that everyone was thinking the same thing, you could see it in their eyes. Everyone released their grip and fell to their knees. No one spoke because there were no words to describe this moment. In the silence, they all began to understand that this was not an ordinary human; it didn’t make sense but Jesus was holy. They were in the presence of God.
That was how the men knew that the boat had become a holy place, God was there, God was present. How odd that it came in silence. Everywhere Jesus went there had been thousands of loud voices screaming for his attention and now, in the boat, on the calm seas and the peaceful sky, there was silence – that is where the disciples saw God. In the middle of the chaos and fear, in the middle of dire circumstances, there was Jesus, first walking on the deadly waves in the brutal wind, then, in the boat, in the silence, there was peace. God was there.
No one expected silence to be the place where they would see God but this silence had pierced the deafening waves and the unforgiving wind.
It is interesting – the different places that people see God. For Jacob it was in a multiple overtimes wrestling match, for Moses it was in a burning bush, for Isaiah it was at a funeral, for John, the Baptizer, it happened while he was still in the womb, for the centurion it was at the feet of the bloody cross, for Stephen it was as he was looking up, while being brutally stoned, for Paul it was in blindness on a public highway, for the disciples it was in a boat…and, for the prophet Elijah it was on the side of a mountain just outside the cave where he was scared and in hiding.
Nine hundred years earlier, Elijah was walking on eggshells rather than water, he, too, had seen a miracle in an awe inspiring act of proving God to be God, but now, he had a Jezebel problem. A Jezebel problem was pretty much the worst problem you could face. It was the seal of death to anyone that angered Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. Jezebel’s anger had no mercy, her power had no boundaries, the fear of Jezebel was the one shared fear in the hearts and minds of everyone, including her husband, the King.
Elijah received the threatening message from Jezebel and could imagine the veins popping out on her face, he only needed to hear her name to know that she was livid. Elijah had humiliated her false prophets, he had negated the power of her false gods, and to make matters worse, he had the audacity to do it in such a public way, – it was humiliating, Jezebel didn’t do humility or fear, instead, she was the source of everyone’s fear and humility.
Elijah had run away, he was now hiding in the back of a dark damp cave.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah, in no uncertain terms, outlined his complaints to God. He was disappointed in the people, he was frustrated at the failures of his mission, he was alone and isolated, he was in danger, he was angry at God.
“Go stand outside the cave, I am going to come by.”
God said in a tone that expressed love for, and frustration with, his prophet Elijah.
Elijah was still standing with his arms crossed, and his brow squinted tight, his disappointment and aggravation were on full display. He stood up defiantly, like a child who is angrily and resentifully obeying his parents, positioned half way to the entrance of the cave and not a step closer, Elijah stood his ground.
A strong wind
began to blow outside of the cave, it even whipped around inside the cave, Elijah took a few small steps back as he began to hear and feel the force of the wind that was actually moving and cracking the mountain. God was not in the wind.
Then the ground began to shake,
the walls of the cave began to vibrate, the sound of the earth moving beneath his feet was deafening. Elijah didn’t know if he should retreat further into the cave or if it would be wiser to run outside. God was not in the earthquake.
Then, Elijah recognized a burning smell,
the heat began to be unbearable, the flames began to approach the entrance of the cave. God was not in the fire.
Here, on the mountain where God had appeared in a burning bush to Moses – God, on this day, was not in the fire, the earthquake, or even the wind. Now, however, there was a new phenomena, there was silence.
Not just silence but a ‘sheer silence.’
The kind of silence that demands your attention much like the still silence on the calmed waters of the sea, a silence that drowns out the sound of the water slapping against the sides of the boat, a silence that you actually hear.
There was God, in the silence, it was deafening.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Again, Elijah outlined his complaints. He was disappointed in the people, he was frustrated at the failures of his mission, he was alone and isolated, he was in danger, he was angry at God.
God didn’t reprimand, he didn’t correct, he didn’t try to comfort or encourage, he didn’t walk away, he didn’t forget that he had been the one that called Elijah to be a prophet, he just remained there, in the sheer silence.
God was present, he was there.
Elijah went outside of the cave and stood in the silence, he stood before God. Elijah remembered God’s calling, he was reminded of God’s mission, he returned to God’s leading, he rested in God’s loud silent presence.
The silence was all that Elijah could hear. The silence cleared up Elijah’s vision and strengthened his hearing.
Then, God began to speak. In a very ‘matter of fact’ manner God returned to Elijah’s calling. God never wavered from the selection of Elijah, he never turned from his confidence in Elijah the prophet. As Elijah stood in God’s presence, he was ready to return to God’s mission.
As God began to speak, Elijah realized that his previous Jezebel problem was nothing compared to the Jezebel problem he was about to have. Even here, enveloped in God’s presence, he could see reality, and it was frightening.
Now, however, he remembered that he wasn’t alone, in fact God reminded him of those who had not turned from God, those he was to continue to encourage and lead.
Oh, bad stuff was bound to happen, Jezebel was going to be angry, she had no idea how audacious Elijah could be. God told Elijah to anoint new Kings and to begin training his own replacement. Elijah could already see the bulging veins popping on Jezebel’s face, she was going to be livid. There would be no silence in the palace.
Metaphorically, Elijah was now in the boat with Jesus. He, along with the disciples, would all face other frightening storms, there was sure to be other Jezebels, but now there was peace, there was calm, there was silence.
Are you gripping the sides of the boat holding on, sure that you will not survive, are you cowering at the thought of a livid Jezebel? Or, do you realize that Jesus is in the boat, God is outside your hiding place? What is your focus? How are you listening?
It is all about our vision – what are we looking at? It’s all about hearing – what are we listening for. Are you looking at the rocking boat and the crashing waves? Are you looking at a furious Jezebel? Or, are you listening for the reminders that Jesus sat in the boat earlier, when he calmed the waters? Are you focused on Jesus’ pulling you up out of the rough waters?
Our hope is an eternal hope – the ways it takes action in the midst of an unpredictable reality are not always what we image or expect. Hope is the catalyst of faith, it is the affirmation of assurance, it is our power in our struggles, it is the tie that binds, it is Jesus in the boat, it is God outside the cave.
In seventh grade there was the group of boys who have already become ‘men’ – puberty for them was a thing of the past. Then there was the other half, like me and most of my friends, who were still a decade or two away from puberty. Then, there was Matt, Matt experienced puberty prior to learning to walk.
No where was this categorization more obvious than in Physical Education class. Everyday, class would begin the same, when seemingly a 1,000 seventh grade boys would cram into the small locker room to change into our required gym clothes. Not only was this a challenge because of space, but also, because the past puberty seventh grade men would just walk up and rip the lock off their locker, while the pre pubescent seventh grade boys would be in a panic, scrambling to remember their combination – at the end of class, we would all crowd back into the same locker room to take the required shower all together in the no privacy group shower room. It was terrifying. Coaches would stand at the exit door to make sure everyone had wet hair before leaving. In between the beginning and the end of class, there was the actual class. Small, beanpole, frightened boys playing games such as Dodge Ball against huge and hairy men.
While the Friday Seventh Grade Dodge Ball games were enough to send shivers down the spine of a 7th grade boy….we were unaware of the true evil coming our way – until we did, it all began on a late fall Monday, in third hour.
The Wrestling unit.
The coach had quickly educated us on the first move, this was holding down your opponent or freeing yourself from your opponent. Followed by coach pairing us up with our opponent for the entire wrestling unit. His method of choosing partners is best described as ‘sadistic’. From the beginning pair up, his strategy was painfully obvious – man against boy. The most terrifying of all pairings came at the moment when coach, sporting an evil smirk, yelled, ‘Anthony’, then taking a long pause to build the suspense, his evil smirk gradually widened as we turned and looked at all men waiting to be chosen. There was only one man left, I had been keeping track. He looked at me, and the fear in my eyes, and then turned to Matt and said ‘Matt, you will be Anthony’s partner.’
Coach was now in his happy place.
As Matt and I were called to the wrestling mat, instead of walking to the center of the mat, Matt walked directly to me. He bent his head down to my ear, remember that Matt was a giant, whispering, ‘I will be in thee floor position.’ At this point it was all semantics for me, on the floor or kneeling, the outcome would be the same. I had resigned myself to a death on a Monday in late fall on the mat in the wrestling room during third hour.
As we took our positions, I unsuccessfully attempted to hide my fear, coach blew the whistle. Matt quickly rolled out of my grasp – exactly the way Coach had instructed, his next move, however, was a bit more unorthodox. He rolled to his back, pressed his shoulders to the wrestling mat and yelled, ’Anthony pinned me!’
Coach still had the whistle hanging between his teeth, but now his evil smirk had change to a look of pure confusion. His joy was gone, his sadistic anticipation of a bloody match, had evaporated in an instant.
Matt stood up, looked at coach, and said, ‘I don’t do wrestling.” He then walked away from the center returning to his seat on the edges of the mat.
It was a surreal moment as coach raised my hand in the air and instructed me to return to my seat. The next day we coach announced that we had completed the wrestling unit and would be moving on to the second part of the basketball unit.
Matt was now a hero for all the seventh grade prepubescent boys.
Wrestling is probably the world’s oldest sport, dating back to 3,000 BC. It was introduced into the ancient olympics in the year 708 BC. My, career in wrestling, began, and ended, on a mat in the wrestling room of West Junior High School of Norman, OK, in the year 1973 AD, during third hour on a late fall morning.
The grandson of Abraham, the son of Isaac, the father of Joseph, was a hard and successful worker, but not really a fighter, or a wrestler, he was more of a runner (as in run away), he was a natural manipulator, an even better deceiver, but, he was not a fighter. However, he was about to face the most epic of all wrestling matches.
Jacob was on his way home, it had been 20 years since he had run away from a fight at home, a fight, with his brother which he was sure to lose. During that 20 years he had married 2 sisters, had children by both wives and servants, had amassed a fortune, and realized that he was a good business man. He had also, for the first time, met his match in Laban, his deceptive and manipulative father-in-law….who had warriors to fight for him.
Jacob had weighed the odds of facing his scheming father-in-law, or, facing his brother Esau, who had surely been nursing a very justified grudge for the past 20 years.
As he secretly snuck out of Laban’s house with his wives, children, servants and possessions, he headed home, on the way, Jacob attempted to soften the anger of Esau by sending daily gifts. As he approached the ultimate face to face confrontation, Jacob delayed the inevitable for one more night. Continually calculating the potential risks, Jacob split up his family, people, and possessions and hid them safely to minimize his losses. Then, after enlisting the use of all of his strategies of manipulations, Jacob went back to the overnight camp and prepared for a night alone.
Even with all of his selfish faults, Jacob was a very determined man. His very name meant ‘one who holds onto his brother’s heel’ – which is what he was doing at his own birth. Even in the womb he was determined to get, and be, the most of every category.
Back at camp, as Jacob was alone, there was a man who gave Jacob no option but to engage in the epic wrestling match of a lifetime. It was dark so Jacob could not see who he was against, but the possibilities were endless. It could have been the ghost of his father, Isaac, who Jacob has deceived, or his bother Esau, who Jacob had deceived, or his father-in-law, Labah, who Jacob had deceived. That was just the top three most obvious choices. He did not realize it but he was actually about to engage in an all night wrestling match with God. If the fight had been during the daylight, Jacob would have never engaged, he would have recognized the odds were definitely not in his favor, Jacob would have employed his most successful maneuver, he would have run away. It was dark though, and Jacob unknowingly, engaged in an epic struggle.
God, being a father, fought like a father. He withheld his own power to match that of his child Jacob. This was not just a struggle of Jacob with God, it was also a struggle for God against Jacob. In many aspects, Jacob had been in this wrestling match his entire life. Battling the powers within himself that were constantly at war with what he knew was right. Choosing to mistreat and mislead loved ones, leaving them with no choice but to compete with each other for his love and attention; the very ones who should have been able to rest in his love and acceptance, his wives and his own children. Then there were those who love for Jacob was betrayed by his determination to ‘get more’ – his father and his brother. This was not Jacob’s first wrestling match, but it was his first honest interaction that mattered, this struggle was pivotal and essential in the life of Jacob.
There is something very different in a wrestling struggle and a mere street fight. In a fight your goal is to destroy your opponent, to a the point that he cannot even rise up as the fight is over – in a wrestling match, your goal is to prevail, to take inventory of all of all your resources, your strengths and your mind, and then use those resources to out maneuver, to out wit, and to out discern your opponent. In the dark, when you do not know who your opponent is, reading the situation and the powers against you is much more difficult – all you have is your own resources doing all you can to prevail.
As a sliver of daylight became visible on the horizon and the two men were still struggling, God, released his power through a gentle touch. A touch that displaced Jacob’s hip – a touch that broke Jacob, a touch that reveled to Jacob that this was no ordinary opponent.
‘Let go of me,’ God said to Jacob.
‘I will not until you bless me,’ Jacob replied.
Jacob was beginning to recognize the fullness of this situation. While getting a blessing had been the goal of his life, he was fearful yet interested in the possibilities of this moment. This was a transformative moment for Jacob, his struggle now turned inward, no longer being about prevailing but, instead, it now was about coming to terms with himself. Understanding that his life was meant to be more than just about Jacob, but, quite possibly his life was about something larger.
The Jewish understanding of the concept of ‘blessing’ was not the self-centered, fortune cookie vision, that we have now. A blessing was given so that the blessed would bless others. God was going to bless Jacob so that, in order with the promise that had passed from his grandfather, to his father, and now to him.
Understanding the full meaning a blessing, and understanding the cultural and religious understanding of the day, is essential for us to understand the transformation taking place in Jacob. A truly selfless spirit had to exist to receive such a blessing, and, until this struggle with God, Jacob did not have such a spirit. This struggle was the nudge, or push, that connected the dots for Jacob, he had an epiphany as the sun rose that morning. He was finally ready and willing to receive the blessing that he had been seeking his entire life.
Jacob used his greatest power, the power that he had been endowed with in the womb, the power to hold on. As the night-long exhausting wrestling match depleted Jacob’s strength and power, he held on to this opponent. To which his opponent said,
‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’
God to Jacob
It was all very fuzzy but Jacob thought he heard the words ‘striven’, ‘God’, ‘humans’ and ‘prevailed.’ Jacob had no problem with the word ‘striven’ that had been the storyline of his life, a constant struggle with someone, but the words ‘God’ and ‘Prevailed?”
‘Have I just wrestled with God all night? and, did I win?’
Jacob to himself
As Jacob considered the implications of his opponent’s statement, an opponent who had now withdrawn himself, Jacob began to have, as he allowed, an experience of transformation. He could see beyond himself, he realized his role in the course of the world, he was humbled and depleted, he was broken, he was being rebuilt. He now walked with a limp, but there was also a change in his countenance, no longer was he dependent on his own wits to survive, life was much bigger now. He was not perfect, there would still be a lot of rough edges but this was at least a partial metamorphosed Jacob. As can be seen in the name he gives to this place, ‘Peniel’, meaning ‘I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ It was a transformation that his life was no longer about prevailing, he wasn’t a prevailer, he was a runner – he had not prevailed, all he had done was to hold onto God, and in the struggle, he had been preserved.
He was now ready to face life, all the unknown, with no guarantees, no assurance of victories or personal gain, no recognition of importance or worth, but now, he was facing life with hope, sustainability, mercy and humility, all grounded on love.
In in order to understand the pertinence of Jacob’s wrestling match with God, to our own lives, let’s jump forward a couple of thousand years. We end up at a wilderness place with thousands of hungry humans along with an exhausted Jesus and his weary disciples. Jesus has been denied even the shortest of breaks as he has, once again, has seen the oppression, the suffering, and the misery of the people. His compassion and mercy compelled him to address their needs. His passion makes it impossible to ignore. His, was a gut response to the needs, it pushed him to release, to heal, to free. There was an everlasting line of needs, one after the other. Jesus lived in the Kingdom of Heaven, even while on earth, a dwelling place that he calls all believers to live in, a place where the physical needs of others are of priority to address, when the earthly reality is that the Roman Imperial system, as well as the existing religious system, did not see physical needs such as health, hunger, disease, poverty, shelter, abuse, and education as issues of priority.
So, when the disciples suggested that it was getting dark and that it would be best to send the crowds home, Jesus was perplexed. There were still needs to be met, plus, now the people were hungry.
‘You feed them,’
Jesus to Disciples
‘We do not have anything to give them,’ the confused followers said, ‘we didn’t plan on feeding anyone, let alone a crowd this size. We don’t have anything! What good can 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread for all these people?’
While what they didn’t have was the earthly focus of the disciples, the kingdom focus of Jesus was on what they did have. They had a starting point. Jesus took that bread and the fish, and broke it all apart and distributed the small, tiny pieces into the baskets to be passed among the people.
The disciples had to be horrified at the thought of passing these basically empty baskets among the hungry crowd, to a crowd expecting something great to happen. The disciples had to be frustrated. Jesus needed to rest, the crowds were hungry, the line for help was endless, they were in the middle of no where, it was time to go home. The disciples were upset, they were struggling, they were in an epic wrestling match. It was daylight, they could see their opponent, it was the whiny and complaining crowds with all their needs, their suffering, their oppression, their ancestral passing down of this oppression based largely on pigmentation, their nationality, their societal placement, the color of their skin, their enslavement, their poverty, and now their hunger. They were not prepared and now it was on Jesus, and the disciples to provide.
‘When would this end?’ They questioned.
The more their frustration simmered the more they realized that the crowds were not their opponent, much like Jacob, they were wresting against Jesus, they were wresting against God.
Jesus was the problem, God was the source of this ridiculous situation. If Jesus did not have to stop every time a hurting person appeared this would not have gotten so out of hand. If only God were to instruct Jesus to dismiss the needs sometimes, if only he would moderate the passionate compassion of Jesus. Afterall, there were more important and pressing things to get to.
As with all of Jesus miracles, the miracle of creation to this moment of needs and hunger, we do not know the technical details of the abundance of food that filled every person in attendance that day, but we do know that the day ended with an abundance. It could have been a magical moment when the tiny broken pieces strangely multiplied, or it could have been an even more miraculous transformational moment as the people put themselves aside realizing they didn’t have to take more than they needed, or possibly seeing the contribution of the fish and loaves spurred them to realize they also could contribute. Regardless of the how, the reality is that there was not only enough food there was actually an abundance.
The disciples then realized that their struggle was not with the crowds, nor was it with Jesus, it was with themselves. It was about a struggle with trust that came with living outside of the Kingdom of heaven where earthly things are allowed to hinder us from answering the call of God. Keeping us from addressing issues of injustice, oppression, deep inherited baggage that is more than humans can bear, hunger, sickness, racism, hatred, dismissal, disregard, poverty, and all suffering. All the things that tangle our roots and restrict our sight.
A wrestling match can bring us to transformation if we hold on. A struggle can show us what we have instead of what we do not have. What is your struggle, what is God bringing into your vision?
With an attitude of willingness to be a part of God’s answer to our prayer, let us pray.