This is the message I presented at the Walker Valley United Methodist Church in Walker Valley, NY, for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 1, 1999. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 32: 22 – 31, Romans 9: 1 – 5, and Matthew 14: 13 – 21. The significance of this message is that this was the Sunday that I began serving this church. I would lead this church until 2002. It started off a little rough but I think that it was a good three years.
When he first viewed the Great Salt Lake and the surrounding valley, Brigham Young was supposed to have said, “This is the place.” By this he meant the place where the Mormons could be safe from the persecution that had driven them from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.
There will always be places that we hold dear in our hearts; the place or places we grew up, the place where we got married, the place we wish to return to time and again. Perhaps privately we even give names to these places, much like the early Israelites gave names to the places where they encountered God. That is why Jacob named the place where he wrestled with God Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
The Old Testament reading today is about a place, a place where Jacob struggled with who he was and what he was to be. I think there are times when we are a lot like Jacob, struggling to know God in our life and struggling to find out what we are to be. The thing that we know is that such struggles, no matter how much we may think they are ours alone, are common to the history of the church.
As much as places are important in our lives, so are times in which we live. While reading The Making of a President, 1960, I came across a statement from the Talmud
"In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader." (The Talmud)
Such a time and place was some one hundred years before the Mormons saw the Great Salt Lake when John Wesley and the Bishop of Bristol had the following conversation regarding where he, Wesley, would begin his ministry.
Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”
Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay.“ (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal)
There are a number of times and places that I will always cherish. The dates June 7, 1973 and July 7, 1976 are special because they are the birthdates of my daughters, Melanie and Meara. And July 17th is a special date for me as it is my wedding anniversary. I will always remember the summer of 1995 when I served as the chief supply pastor for the Parsons District of the Kansas East conference. It was that summer that I began to feel that I could be a preacher. And I will remember today, August 1st, 1999, as the day I began my ministry at Walker Valley.
Just as Jacob struggled with who he was, it may be said that Paul struggled with the idea of being the apostle to the Gentiles. It is possible that had he been given the choice, Paul would have chosen to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar.
In the Epistle for today, Paul is expressing the frustration in his soul that he would rather be cursed and cut off from Christ if it would save others. The notes for this passage say that the Greek word for cursed is anathema, which means delivered over to the wrath of God for eternal destruction. To the commentator, this was an indication of Paul’s love for his fellow Jews.
I don’t see this as a condemnation of the Jews or any other group of people, but an expression of the frustration that he must have felt. While he, Paul, was to preach to the Gentiles, there were others whom he could not reach. That is why Wesley’s statement was so profound and powerful. He was supposed to be somewhere else but Bristol was where God wanted him to be.
As I was working on this particular passage, I could not help but remember a pastor with whom I served who didn’t want to be a pastor like his father and grandfather before him. Rather he chose to be a lawyer. Yet when he was done with law school and had begun a successful career as a prosecuting attorney, he still found that life would not be complete until he answered the call of God.
Prior to the time of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus had heard the news that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been executed. As was his custom, he wanted to withdraw from the people for a few moments of private mediation and privacy. But this time, the people followed him. And while he may have wanted to be alone in his grief, as the scripture said, “he had compassion on them and healed the sick.”
And so it was that it got late in the day. Like a lot of us might today, the disciples saw only a remote place far away from food and drink. So it should not be surprising that the disciples inclination was to send the people away. But the opportunity to meet God is never a planned moment in time or place. Nor is it determined by convenience or by us being in the right place at the right time.
Jesus told his disciples to give the people something to eat. I think we can all imagine how the disciples must have felt when they heard their teacher telling them to do this. And you have to realize that the crowd Jesus was telling the disciple to feed was closer to 15,000 people than the 5,000 that only represented the men presented.
We may look around at where we are and wonder if this is the time or place for us. Too often, we struggle like Jacob, trying to understand what our life is to be. Many times we are like Paul, frustrated and afraid that the task before us is too great and impossible for us to complete.
Many times we, like the disciples, insist that there is nothing we can do and that we are in the wrong place. But all that changes when we give our lives over to Christ, when we let Christ be our guide.
Before John Wesley came to Bristol, he had come to America with his brother Charles to be missionaries in Georgia. Their experiences there were such that when they returned to England in 1738, they were convinced that their lives were failures. Prepared as they were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither man felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley could say that they trusted the Lord. But at the place known as Aldersgate, John Wesley came to know Christ as his own personal Savior.
When Wesley accepted Christ, he began to understand the direction his life would take. When Wesley accepted Christ as his Savior, he gained the confidence and courage that he would need to insure the success of the Methodist revival. For Jacob, the blessing God gave him after they wrestled enabled him to become Israel, the father of a mighty nation. In trusting Jesus, the disciples were able to feed the multitude. And such was their trust in Jesus that there were enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets.
When we come to trust Christ as our own personal Savior, when we accept Him in our hearts, we come to know the blessing that God has given us, to see beyond the frustrations of the day and know that we can accomplish great things.
And on this day, in this place, you are invited to come to Christ’s Table, to join in the celebration of Christ’s victory of death, of our being a part of Christ’s Holy Church.