Sermon - 3rd August 2014
Faith and reason
Scripture - Genesis 32:22-31; Matthew 14:13-21
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
"Faith and reason are the shoes on your feet. You can travel further with both than you can with just one.”
That quotation from the science-fiction writer John-Michael Stracyznski sums up the position in which we find ourselves in respect of these two Bible passages. The first, from Genesis, sparks doubt within us. Did these people really exist? Is it more than a story? Can we quieten our 21st century minds of reason by telling ourselves that it is just an allegory: that is, a story which teaches us something?
Similar could be said of the Gospel reading. Even though this is the only miracle which is recorded in all four of the canonical Gospels, our rational, reasoning minds might tell us that these stories of miracles could not possibly have happened, and again they are just allegories. Perhaps we might feel more comfortable with Jesus’ parables, which teach us to do rational and reasonable things, like to feed the poor or to fight against injustice.
Nevertheless, the books within the Bible contain a mixture of stories – some historical, some mythical, some allegorical - accounts of miracles, letters of advice, poetry and the downright mysterious. With mixtures in mind, I would like us to reflect on cake; yes, cake!
What is the usual ratio in cake-baking? 1 parts flour, 1 part fat, 1 part sugar, plus egg, milk or water. Have you ever wondered what would happen if those ratios were changed, or an ingredient were left out?
What is my point in all this? It is that the Bible contains a mixture, and each of those parts of the mixture in its proportion is an integral part of a good cake. Distorting the importance of one type of text in the Bible, for example the teaching on social justice, or even to exclude another type of text, for example the miraculous, is just like baking a cake with incorrect proportions.
Similarly, just as we cannot ‘fix’ the cake once it has been baked, we cannot fix the Bible - which brings me back to the quotation at the start of my sermon regarding faith and reason. Our logical, reasoning minds tell us that bad cakes will taste bad, and for this reason, some of you refused to taste; however, others will have engaged in faith, open to the idea that it might be OK, even good! We are stuck with the Bible as it is, so we must employ our reason and our faith in equal measure to make sense of it.
To conclude this part of the sermon, I have a challenge needing two volunteers to have a little race: one to walk up the aisle, the other to hop.
Last week, my best friend had an operation on his foot. For a while, as his foot heals, he will not be able walk properly, and his mobility will be limited and slow, just as it was for our hopper in the race we just had. He has been limping for years, and even once his foot has healed, he will have to learn to walk normally again.
I find it odd that in our age, most people prefer to hop along with one shoe, the shoe of reason, and only use the other shoe – of faith – in times of pain, so that, at best, they only limp along in life. This brings us back to: “Faith and reason are the shoes on your feet. You can travel further with both than you can with just one.”
Having reflected on how we can approach the texts read to us, we cannot just reason our way through them: some of it requires our reason and our intellect; other parts will need us to take a chance and to have faith.
Here is a little background on Jacob in whose life there was considerable deception. Indeed, the name Jacob stems from the Hebrew word to mean “supplanter” or “deceiver”.
Jacob is Isaac’s son, Abraham’s grandson. Jacob was a twin; his brother, Esau, was born first. As is not uncommon, there was rivalry between the two brothers. Jacob deceived his aged, blind father, Isaac, into giving him the paternal blessing, which, when discovered, infuriated Esau and broke their father’s heart. In fear of his brother, he fled to his uncle, Laban, where he fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. In return for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Laban made Jacob work for him for seven years. When the day of marriage came, Laban deceived Jacob who ended up married to the elder daughter, Leah. In return for another seven years’ labour, Jacob did finally end up with Rachel as a second wife.
After estrangement from his family, followed by 14 years’ patient waiting for his beloved, Jacob was ready to leave his uncle’s employ and seek reconciliation with his brother, Esau. Life as a family man had also been difficult for Jacob: his first wife Leah was very fertile, bearing him six sons and one daughter. Two concubines provided four more sons, but his beloved Rachel, remained barren for a long time, bearing sons years apart, one of whom was Joseph, made famous in our time in the Lloyd-Webber musical “Joseph”. Even that story is a further example of Jacob’s poor choice-making in showing clear favouritism to Joseph to the detriment of his other 11 sons.
So on the eve of reconciliation with his brother, Jacob sends his family over the river crossing, giving himself time alone, perhaps to reflect, to consider what he might say to his estranged brother whom he cheated out of his birthright, and maybe even to pray. Rather than spending time alone, we heard in our reading, that he spent the night wrestling with another.
Who was this other? The first part of the reading mentions “a man”, but a later verse says “you struggled with God”. And for the first time in the Bible, the word “Israel” is used. The “-el” suffix means “God”. Jacob’s 12 sons became the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob is father of the nation people of Israel. The word “Israel” in Hebrew means “he struggles with God”.
Getting blessed was clearly important in those times, important enough for Jacob to deceive his aged, blind father into blessing him instead of Esau; and here in today’s reading, Jacob will not let go of the stranger (whether it be a man or God) until the stranger blesses him. Jacob recognised that the stranger was one capable of giving him a blessing.
It could be viewed either way as to whether Isaac’s stolen blessing by Jacob had benefitted him: having to leave one’s family and wait 14 years to marry his beloved may not have felt like blessing; however, with time and patience, he did get what he wanted and had a large family which gave birth to a whole new nation.
Some other commentators have different views of the story. Queer theologians point out the homoerotic nature of two men wrestling the whole night through! Others see Jacob’s encounter as a panic attack, or even a psychotic episode. Yet others have speculated that the stranger is Jacob’s estranged brother, Esau.
Here is another strange thing: the text says that the stranger was not winning the struggle. If the stranger was God, that is almighty God, how can this be? Maybe God allows Himself to become weak, and so bring us to a point where we can be changed, just as Jacob was changed: ready to be reconciled with his brother, and ready to become the father of a new nation.
Names and the meaning of names are clearly important in this story. Jacob - a man whose name means “deceiver”, and who had become synonymous with deception in his actions - through this struggle with God is told his name is changed, and he becomes “Israel”. The injury Jacob received to his hip, causing him to limp, will have been a reminder of his struggle with God, every time he took a step. This night changed Jacob or Israel’s life forever.
What does this mean for us? I am sure all of us have at some time taken time out deliberately to be alone and wrestle with our thoughts and feelings. For some, doing so is easier than for others. And as a result of that time alone, we become changed.
When I was 13, living in a mining area in Stoke-on-Trent, the school organised a trip to a local mining museum, which involved a trip underground – well before the days of Health and Safety excesses. During the tour, lit only by the lamps on our safety helmets, the guide told us to turn off the lamps. Normally, our eyes get used to the darkness and see something, but underground, with no other light source, it is totally dark. After 2-3 minutes, it became very disorienting and balance became more difficult.
For Jacob, in ancient times, away from his family’s camp fire, it would have been very dark. The man with whom he wrestled would have been nothing more than a shadow. Nevertheless, the tiny amount of light gave Jacob enough to say “I have seen God face-to-face, and I am still alive.” In our own personal darkness, in times of despair, our rational minds and our reason will often leave us. We will be hopping along with just one shoe, and the one shoe we have left is faith.
Historical facts span 5000 plus years of Jewish and Christian history, the roots of which are contained within these stories from Genesis. 2000 years ago, the four Gospel writers added to the stories of faith. Today’s Gospel reading has many parallels with Jacob’s story. Like Jacob, Jesus, too, withdrew from others to be alone.
God did not allow Jacob to be alone: He intervened and the struggled ensued. Jesus was followed by the crowds, and through God’s blessing of the five loaves and two fish, the largest-scale miracle is recorded in the Gospels, bringing, in one event, mass-appeal to Jesus’ ministry.
Jacob’s story is difficult for the mind relying solely on reason. The Feeding of the 5000 men, not counting the women and children, also contains something which goes beyond our reason and appeals to our faith.
In the ancient world, making food was a chore, a daily chore, whether it was catching, gutting and cooking the fish; killing and preparing the animal; farming the wheat or other crops; grinding the wheat to make flour etc. For these people, it may have been the first meal they ever had which required no effort on their part, except to have faith in Jesus.
Our readings today also show us that God will use us as He finds us and He will use what little we have: Jacob, who consistently made poor choices, became the father of Israel; the Disciples who had just five loaves and two fish fed a great multitude.
Today, I have offered you different ways of looking at these two texts, both through reason and through faith. It is not so easy in the face of strange ancient stories, and even more difficult in the face of miracles and mysterious happenings, when the shoe of reason is uncomfortably tight.
Nevertheless, we have a Bible and a faith which is a mix of faith and reason. It is like a good cake, not like the ones I made for you to try.