The story begins with Jesus withdrawing from the crowds for a time of retreat. Matthew alone places the motivation for Jesus’ initial withdrawal in his grief and dismay regarding the news he has just received of the death of his cousin and friend John the Baptist; murdered — beheaded, in fact, at the hands of Herod and his dysfunctional family, the outcome of Herod’s bizarre, drunken birthday party.
In Mark and Luke’s version of this story, although the death of John is recorded in the passage immediately preceding, the connection between the two stories is not drawn. They portray Jesus as acting on behalf of his disciples, motivated by concern for them and their need for rest.
Not so in Matthew’s account. Here Jesus comes across all-the-more human, vulnerable, seemingly incapable at the moment of giving much thought to what his disciples might need, because his own needs overwhelms him.
And so Jesus goes away by himself, drifting quietly in a boat along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, lost in his thoughts. In Matthew’s version, the crowd that follows along on the shore apparently includes his disciples, and when, far from the villages, Jesus finally notices the crowd, he comes ashore moved by compassion and begins tenderly touching people, healing the sick among them.
One other detail that is altered in Matthew’s accounting: here Jesus does not teach. Apparently he doesn’t feel much like talking. Words, at such a time as this, feel hollow and empty. And yet there is in the scene a profound sense of tender intimacy, of compassion, and in this bittersweet, silent communion, healing takes place.
Matthew’s version led me to think about a similar experience everyone of us here today shared in nearly seven years ago, and that is the common grief we felt on that terrible day in which the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania. It was a horrible day, full of sadness and much fear, and yet there was something holy about the day as well.
Life suddenly slowed down in those days immediately following the news. So much that had seemed so important was suddenly discovered to be not so important at all. Perfect strangers we’d encounter on the streets were revealed to be not strangers at all, but rather sisters and brothers connected to us by common grief, our common humanity and fragility. Our hearts were suddenly wide open.
This sense of communion extended beyond our borders as well: we soon began hearing of candlelight vigils being held in every corner of the world, including places we might not have expected to hear of vigils; in Iran, for instance. For a time, we weren’t seen as the invincible nation, the richest and most powerful of nations; we were seen as a nation of people weeping for lost fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, murdered by the same sort of evil that took the life of John the Baptist long ago. We were the recipients of compassion, an unusual place for us self-reliant Americans to find ourselves in.
And so as horrible as such times are, they also provide an opportunity to experience a deep communion of the spirit. As Matthew tells the story, this is part of what Jesus recognized that day, and what his disciples seemed to miss.
As the day grew late, the disciples’ considerations turn practical: the crowds of people should be sent away so that they can find food and shelter for themselves. Jesus, in contrast, seems to realize that at this tender time where hearts are wide open, the usual practical considerations don’t apply. It is good to be together — perhaps not to speak much, but to touch one another and cry with one another and perhaps even to laugh with one another. Along the way the practical stuff gets taken care of — everybody gets enough to eat. More importantly, a sense of holy communion is shared that the people present would never forget, and which the Christian community remembers every time we share the Lord’s Supper.
The other story we heard this morning from Genesis has a striking similarity to the way Matthew told his story. In this case, it is Jacob who finds himself compelled to be alone, spending a night camped out by himself on the shore of the Jabbok. He has sent his two wives and his children and all his possessions ahead of him, and so it is just him, all alone.
In this instance, Jacob has not received word of a loved one’s death, but nonetheless, it is grief of a sort that he grapples with in his solitude that night.
With the exception of another night spent alone long ago in which Jacob was blessed by a vision of angels ascending and descending a stairway to heaven, he has been largely disconnected from the interior life of his soul. A man of action, Jacob’s focus has been on making his mark in the external world.
Twenty years earlier Jacob abruptly left his home: leaving behind his dying father, his mother, and his twin brother Esau with whom he once shared their mother‘s womb. Jacob’s departure had involved a particularly cruel betrayal of his brother, deceiving him and his father out of the old man’s blessing. But in the years since, Jacob has been preoccupied with acquiring wealth, leaving himself little time or space to confront the grief and guilt buried inside him.
Now, however, he can put it off no longer. He has heard the call to come home, and tomorrow he will be reunited with his brother. He remembers how he treated Esau, and he suspects his brother will meet him full of rage and the desire for revenge. And so Jacob is afraid.
What happened that night on the shore of the Jobbok is full of mystery. Jacob wrestles through the night with an adversary variously described as a man, an angel, and the Lord himself. Jacob is doggedly determined, and though he has no hope of overpowering his opponent, he refuses to give up. In the course of the night, his adversary asks him his name,
“Who are you?”
It is a question asked of each of us in those long nights we too find ourselves alone, wrestling with God. Beyond our possessions and all the roles we play, who are we really?
Through the course of the long night, Jacob asks to be told the name of his divine adversary, but receives no answer, for to possess the name would represent gaining control, solving the mystery of God and this cannot be. Jacob does, however, receive a blessing.
At daybreak, he comes forth a changed man, with a new name. Now he will be called “Israel,” which means, “One who strives with God.” He is no longer afraid, though he is distinctly humbled. For the rest of his life he will walk with a limp, a reminder of the enormous power at the disposal to the night time adversary, demonstrated by the ease with which he put Jacob’s hip out of joint.
In this tender-hearted state, similar I think to the one Jesus found himself in alone with his grief and discouragement, Jacob’s reunion with Esau turns out to be full of grace, and he declares to his long lost brother that seeing his face “is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor.”
As we go through life, grief is unavoidable, and guilt, too. These powerful emotions frighten us, and there is much to be done on a practical level to engage the external world, and so instead of allowing ourselves the time and space to feel their power, we harden ourselves, deceiving ourselves into believing we are stronger than we are. At times we are confronted with a choice we may not even be conscious of — a choice between experiencing our grief or lashing out in anger, and we choose the latter, preferring the momentary sense of power the anger provides. The wounds remain buried in our souls, and our grief simply compounded.
And so it is important to consider the model set by both Jesus and by Jacob, of taking time to feel our grief, and to find the tender gifts that come as a reward for such courage — the remarkable sense of communion that is ours with all living creatures.
In a certain sense, life is about learning how to die; which means learning the art of letting go. Buried grief and guilt keep us in bondage. Jesus sitting alone in that boat with his great grief, and Jacob alone by the River Jabbok facing his grief and guilt, were both doing the work necessary to be able to die peacefully, with nothing but love present.
It is striking that this sacrament that we will celebrate once more this morning, the Lord’s Supper, also known as “Holy Communion,” is at once an invitation to grieve — to remember, after all, Jesus’ last supper and his death — as well as an assurance of God’s extraordinary grace and willingness to provide for God’s children, calling to mind a remarkable miracle performed long ago when poor, fragile, vulnerable people came together in mutual compassion, discovering themselves to be mysteriously One.
The miracle is re-experienced, every time we dare to trust God with a fragile hearts.