postmodern preaching

Proper 13 Year A

  • Genesis 32: 22-31

Jacob is en route to try to reconcile with his brother, Esau, from whom he cheated his birthright as the firstborn.  Jacob sends his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and the whole household to the other side of the stream called Jabbok, (which means crooked or twisted), while he spends the night alone.

In the middle of the night, “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”  When “the man” realized Jacob would not surrender, “he struck him on the hip socket and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint….”  Still, Jacob would not relent.  “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” Jacob declares.  “The man” asks Jacob his name.  After Jacob tells him, “the man” declares: “You shall no longer be called Jacob [which, like the nearby stream means ‘crooked’] but Israel [which means ‘God is reliable’] for you have striven with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.”  Jacob/Israel asks “the man” his name, but instead of an answer, “the man” blesses him.  To mark this momentous name change, Jacob names the place where all this took place Pleniel, (which means ‘appearance’ or ‘face of God’):  “For I have striven with with God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  Jacob/Israel left this place, “limping because of his hip.”

  • Psalm 17: 1-7

The psalmist describes her prayer/song for justice as “guileless.”  She acknowledges sleepless nights when the Lord “probed” her heart and “found no wrong in me.”  She attests to her loyalty and asks for the Lord’s “mercies.”  By the last verse of the psalm, she is wide awake and beholds the Lord’s “face” and “image.”


  • Isaiah 55: 1-5

The Isaiac prophecy exults in God’s abundance.  It was a promise fulfilled in the past through David, but it is about to be experienced  again!  It is abundance beyond any human capacity to be bought or secured with money.  The poet/prophet invites his readers/hearers to imagine and to seek and to “eat” that which is  “good.”  The source of this unimaginable abundance that will come to you is still unknown to you.  It is an extension of the Lord’s “everlasting covenant,” which was initiated and is continued for one reason and one reason only– God’s “steadfast and sure love….”  Given Israel’s contemporary status as a captured people in the Babylonian capital and Jerusalem still in ruins, the poet/prophet makes a bold promise that highlights the certainty and power of God’s promise: natio that [currently] do not know you will run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel….”

  • Psalm 145 8-9, 15-22

Verse 8 is a direct quote from Exodus 34: 5 that describes the ways God is knowable: gracious/merciful/slow to anger/great in kindness.  These attributes extend to “all creatures.”  Therefore, all creatures look to the Lord for “hope” and generosity each season.  This is a reasonable hope, because the Lord is always “just” and “faithful.”

  • Romans 9: 1-5

Paul celebrates God’s blessings on God’s own people, the Israelites, including the patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets, the Law, the liturgies and the promises/covenant.  But Paul anguishes that they do not recognize the Messiah.

  • Matthew 14: 13-21

In Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has just completed a long series of teachings about seeking God’s kingdom as a life-long quest charged with daily urgency when he gets the horrific news of the macabre beheading of John the Baptizer.  Matthew’s sequence of events now describes an experience that hints at unimaginable abundance and the future role of his followers.  His followers, Jesus says after feeding countless thousands from just one person’s lunch, will also participate and enable such abundance.  This excerpt begins with Jesus needing to get away from the growing, aggressive crowds.  But when he saw them, “he had compassion for them….”  Seeking what they thought  was best for Jesus, the disciples  advised Jesus to send the crowds back to their own homes and villages so they can “buy food for themselves.”  But Jesus tells the disciples: “you give them something to eat.”  They report that they located one lunch of five loaves and two fish.”  Jesus took what they had, “looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke it” and gave it to the disciples for distribution among the crowds, “and all ate and were filled,” with enough leftovers to fill “twelve baskets.”  The total count for this massive crowd was “five thousand men;” only Matthew adds, in addition to “women and children.”

Roland Barthes (1971) provided a “textual analysis” of the Genesis story of Jacob’s night-time wrestling match, insisting that biblical texts must be read on their own terms.  He concluded:

“…what most interests me in this famous passage is not the ‘folkloric’ model but the frictions, the breaks, the discontinuities of readability, the juxtapositions of narrative entities which manage to escape logical articulation…”  “…the problem, at least as I raise it for myself, is in effect not to reduce the Text to a signified, what ever it may be (historical, economic, folkloric, or kerygamatic), but to keep its signifying power open.”    (quoted in The Postmodern God, p. 94)

Taking this stance, we read biblical texts not as settled documents, but as still welcoming/requiring even more interpretation and instigating more commentary, interpretation and conversation.  Their potential to provide meaning vital to the present moment is not over.  These texts continue to provide/feed/nourish/ enable life/new life.  That is, the very style and nature of the text “keeps its signifying power open.”  These texts are  another way God provides the abundance necessary for life/new life.

Abundance is the great, constant undercurrent that runs throughout biblical texts.  It is reiterated in Jesus feeding  five thousand,/ten thousand/untold thousands from one person’s lunch.  Although Paul gives thanks for God’s past generosity to God’s own people, he is disappointed that they do not recognize God’s extravagant gift in Jesus.  Jacob wrestles with “the man” all night and the next morning his heinous deception of his bother, which was conveyed in his name, meaning “crooked,” is undeservedly “blessed” and given a new name, “face of God.”  That is a staggering display of a special  form of God’s abundance– unmerited forgiveness.  The text of Isaiah cannot describe adequately God’s abundance of “steadfast and sure love.” 

Jean-Luc Marion is exploring the nature of biblical abundance and the responses we make to it.  He is saying that we look at the world and our experience of living in it and make a decision: either it can all be trivialized and manipulated to merely satisfy the basic instincts of each individual or it can be accepted as extravagant gift, received and shared among individuals and communities for the common-weal.  He says that once we make a decision about this fundamental stance, we are primed for a “revelation,” a sudden change of perspective and vulnerable to a certain kind of “seduction.”  In his famous essay, “Sketches of a Phenomenological Concept of Gift,” (found in his collection of essays, The Visible and the Invisible), Marion observes that many gifts, including “the receiving of life, death, forgiveness, confidence, love or friendship of another” occur totally outside any monetary valuation or any “terms of property.”  Furthermore, the gift is only realized or made actual when the one who accepts it makes an “act of acceptance,” (emphasis added).   These are the realities of life that surround, support, sustain any individual life.  (Although such realities are most obvious when we are an infant, they sustain all individual and corporate human life.)  We participate in such abundance if we make some intentional “act” of accepting these givens as gift.  After Jesus offers a prayer of thanksgiving, all see/taste/share the “abundance” that was already there.  It now becomes the responsibility/privilege of the followers to reveal God’s abundance, which is waiting for us, if we “act” to accept it.  Keep in mind the crucial detail; Jesus told his followers that they are now the ones to go feed the hungry, expectant crowds.












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