Sermon: Sunday, August 30, 2015: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9  +  Psalm 15  +  James 1:17-27  +  Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-30

I have to confess something.  I messed with the lectionary this morning. I didn’t like where the dividing line fell in the gospel reading, so I decided to read on. Let me explain.

As the shortest of the four gospels, Mark moves quickly and efficiently through its recounting of Jesus’ ministry. Wasting no time with legends of his birth, Mark launches immediately into his baptism by John and his ministry in Galilee with stories of his miraculous healings and radical teachings. Early on we get hints that he is redefining what it means to keep faith with the God of Israel, as when his family comes to claim him as he is teaching and he replies by looking around at the crowd surrounding him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35)

As his ministry grows he encounters opposition from those who’ve known him the longest and is rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, where he declares, “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” (Mark 6:4) Shortly thereafter John the Baptist is killed and Jesus and his companions retreat to a deserted place so that they can rest and recover from this news. The crowds recognize him however, and follow him out to the countryside, hungry for a word. Out of compassion Jesus begins to teach them, and this moment becomes the occasion for one of the most memorable of his miracles, the feeding of the five thousand.

Again, because Mark’s gospel moves so quickly, this scene is sparsely narrated — explaining why for five weeks we left Mark and reflected on the Gospel of John’s much longer, much wordier, narration of Jesus’ teaching after the feeding of the thousands known as the “bread of life discourse.” But now that we’re back in Mark we have to bring all our questions and all our imagination to his provocative story, because Mark will not explain everything for us.

So we find ourselves at the beginning of the seventh chapter of Mark with Jesus in the countryside of northern Galilee, where Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem have come to observe his teaching and healing. As they watch him at work, what they notice is that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands. The scriptures say that all throughout the region people were bringing the sick to Jesus on mats and that “wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” (6:56) But rather than comment on that, what the elders noticed was that some of his followers were eating with unclean hands, so this is what they choose to comment upon when they engage with Jesus.

That’s why I get it when Jesus snaps at them, calling them hypocrites, and quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” (Isa. 29:13) Christians have a bad history of reading this passage as an indictment of Judaism, which is really just ridiculous since Jesus is citing one of Israel’s greatest prophets to reprimand the establishment authorities in the presence of the very people, Jewish people, whom they’d failed to serve. As usual, if anyone is being indicted here it is those who hold power, institutional power, whether that be the power of the state that killed John or the power of the temple that left the hungry poor suffering in the countryside as it allied itself with Rome.

Jesus goes on to give an impromptu sermon on purity that is absolutely righteous.  Mark says,

“Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’” (Mark 7:14-15)

This is just beautiful to me, not just for what Jesus says, but how and to whom he speaks. Jesus is surrounded by the poor and the sick, the very people those with power and authority have disregarded. These sick, aching people have seen the elders from Jerusalem confront Jesus about their eating habits, the way they reach for the bread that will fill their empty bellies without stopping first to wash their hands. They have been shamed in public by people of rank and wealth. They are used to it. It happens all the time.

But then Jesus speaks to them, turning his attention away from those who notice their hands but not their lives, Jesus looks them in the eye and sees them and says, “Pay them no mind. It’s not what’s on your hands, but what’s in your heart, that concerns me.” Then, in a private follow-up with the disciples he explains himself, saying “it is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…” then providing an exhaustive list of vices.

And that’s where I was supposed to draw the line and stop reading, with Jesus having stood up to the hypocrisy of the authorities and championing the cause of the poor and the weak. That’s where the lectionary wanted this object lesson to end. But I kept reading, and what follows puts Jesus in such a different light that I couldn’t help but wonder how these stories were intended to fit together.

You see after healing the sick and scolding the self-righteous, Jesus sets out with his disciples to go even further north to Tyre, a region among the Gentiles in modern day Lebanon. Mark says, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there” (7:4b) and I’m reminded that he still hasn’t had the retreat he was craving before the feeding of the five thousand following the death of John the Baptist. So perhaps now he has left Israel and headed north into Gentile territory precisely so that he can get some time and space to clear his head and grieve his loss and regroup from so many public encounters with the authorities.

But even in Tyre Jesus can get no rest, and soon a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician, hears of his power and comes to beg for the life of her demon-possessed daughter. And how does Jesus, who has said that his mother and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God; how does Jesus, who has said that it is not what goes into the mouth but what comes out of the heart that determines our purity, respond to this women? He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (7:27)

It’s horrible, what comes out of his mouth. Jesus responds to a mother in need, a mother not unlike those in Galilee who’d brought their children to him on mats, but not with the kind of generous and ennobling spirit that he’d used back in Israel. Instead he speaks to this desperate woman using exactly the kind of language we might have expected from the authorities, focused on ethnic purity instead of real need and honest faith.

At this point preachers and teachers can get tied into knots trying to make two thousand years of theologizing about Jesus match up with Mark’s gospel. How can Jesus, the eternal Word of God made flesh, at once both God and man, have said such a blatantly cruel, racist, nationalist thing to a despairing woman in need? Surely it is a test, or a provocation, or an intentional elevation of the tension so as to underscore the importance of the point. Surely Jesus did not just say such a thing!

But Mark is the earliest of the Gospels, unaware of the theologizing about Jesus to come, and in some ways making the most modest claims about this extraordinary figure. So if we simply let Mark tell the story Mark wants to tell about Jesus, one conclusion we might draw from this episode is that sometimes even the most radical and the most revolutionary of prophets, sometimes the most righteous and the most respected teachers and leaders, get it wrong. We are all products of our context and our history. Jesus can quote Isaiah in condemning the leaders of Israel, and in the very next instant be caught with words that stink to high heaven falling from his mouth.

But that doesn’t seem to be Mark’s point either, or at least not the fullest point this story makes. Because notice what happens after Jesus puts his foot in his mouth. The Syrophoenician woman speaks up and talks back, fighting for her child’s life, saying “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” and what Jesus does not do is argue with her, or try to clean up and explain away what he’d already said. He doesn’t tell her, “well, yes, #SyrophoenicianLivesMatter … but really, #AllLivesMatter.” He doesn’t say, “look, I’ve been healing the sick and confronting the powers since before you were born.” He doesn’t say, “I think you and I got off to a really bad start, let me explain what I meant.” He doesn’t say, “some of my best friends are Syrophoenician.” He just shuts up and listens, and after this woman shames him, shames Jesus, with the truth of her remarks he simply says, “For saying that you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” He cleans up his mess by doing what the woman asks, by providing what she needs, without taking credit, without superimposing his agenda on her.

This is a turning point in the Gospel of Mark, in the Jesus story. After this encounter it becomes much clearer that the Jesus movement is not simply going to be a return to a misremembered, purer past. It is going to be an expansive, boundary-breaking, ethnically-inclusive, anti-nationalist movement. Or at least the potential is there, however wrongly history unfolded thereafter. But this story remains to remind us that we are not called to be perfect, rather we are called to listen when voices pushed to the margins of society speak up and talk back to remind us that we are all heirs to the promise of abundant life, here and now, not just hereafter.

I didn’t like where the dividing line fell in this morning’s reading, because sometimes I am on one side of the line, speaking truth to power and other times I am on the other side of the line, parroting the worst of what our culture has taught me. I think these stories are meant to be told together, to remind us that all our dividing lines are false and dangerous, and that we cannot simply wrap them up in religious rationales and be satisfied with the ways things are. That real religion, pure religion, cares for all who are in distress and amends itself when we notice that it is we ourselves who have caused harm.



Sermon: Sunday, July 28, 2013: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Hosea 1:2-10  +  Psalm 85  +  Colossians 2:6-15  +  Luke 11:1-13

Preaching last week on God’s wrath, I named a couple of ways that most of us dodge the discomfort of dealing with divine anger — by defending ourselves as mostly good, or by declaring that most of us (though not all) are good.  My assertion was that both of these dodges keep us from recognizing the power of anger in the work of love.


Icon of the Prophet Hosea

Well, I have to confess to you, my sisters and brothers, that I’ve been trying to dodge all week long as I prepared for this week’s installment of the “School for Prophets.”  All summer long we’ve been reading and studying the oft-neglected prophetic books from Hebrew scripture, the books that form the backbone of Jewish and Christian ethical reflection on the world, and in their call for personal righteousness and political reform we have heard a good word for our day. But today we move into two weeks with the prophet Hosea, and his language and imagery are so difficult to read, much less to preach on, that I really wanted to dodge the bullet and go back to preaching on the gospels.

This week the gospel of Luke presents Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer.  While the spirituality of that prayer is certainly radical in its call for simplicity, forgiveness of debts, and reliance on God; the language is so familiar that it barely registers with us anymore as anything other than a word formula to be recited from memory.

The language of Hosea, on the other hand, is shocking.  So shocking that, in the end, after looking at about five different translations, I ended up softening the language of the text we heard Bob read a few minutes ago out of fear that we’d lose half the room after the first two verses.

The actual, commonly accepted, translation of these verses begins,

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord. (Hosea 1:2, NRSV)

You can see why I might be tempted to just focus on the Lord’s Prayer.

This ends up being, really, the dominant motif of the prophet Hosea, that Israel has prostituted itself out to foreign nations and other gods.  That Israel has broken the covenant between itself and Yahweh by placing its trust in other powers to give and sustain life.  And as I tried to think about how to preach the prophet Hosea with integrity, the real temptation (other than to simply not preach Hosea) was to excuse the prophet’s misogyny and explain away the rhetoric of violence against women that follows the verses we read this morning.  I wanted to mount a biblical “It Gets Better” campaign by skipping ahead to the brief, rare verses in Hosea that promise reconciliation with God and a new future for the people of Israel.

But to do that, to read these verses out loud in the sanctuary and let the words “whoredom” and “prostitute” ring off the walls of the church, and then skip ahead to some other passage in order to escape the ugliness and cruelty of those words is another kind of dodge that, in the end, does not produce faith but instead sows doubt — doubt that these scriptures are actually trustworthy after all, doubt that we can read and wrestle with difficult texts and come out the other side stronger for having done so.

In her groundbreaking book, “Texts of Terror: Literary – Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives,” biblical scholar Phyllis Trible explores the problem of violence in scripture, particularly the all-too-common violence against women found in scripture.  She names the dodges we too often take in our approach to the problem of violence like this:

From the start, certain theological positions constitute pitfalls.  They center in Christian chauvinism.  First, to account for these stories as relics of a distant, primitive, and inferior past is invalid.  Resoundingly, the evidence of history refutes all claims to the superiority of a Christian era.

Trible already catches me, red-handed, in the act of trying to dodge the problem of the prophet Hosea by explaining his use of misogynistic language like “whoredom” and “prostitute” as if those words are somehow a relic of the past that I would need to explain to you in the context of biblical history; as if they aren’t thrown at women (and men) everyday as insults and forms of social control; as if prostitution isn’t a global industry that creates wealth for men at deep and devastating cost to women.  No, we can’t escape the problem of the prophet Hosea by pretending as if his rhetorical violence is a relic of a biblical past, when we know that it is an all-too-common fact of the present as well.


Trible continues,

Second, to contrast an Old Testament God of wrath with a New Testament God of love is fallacious.  The God of Israel is the God of Jesus, and in both testaments resides tension between divine wrath and divine love.

This is also a move we Christians too often make, to the detriment of our own faith and at the expense of our Jewish sisters and brothers as well.  There is a subtle anti-Judaism that creeps into Christian language when we contrast what we call the Old Testament, which is Hebrew scripture, with the New Testament, as if Christians really only need the later, not the former.  As if the Jesus we meet in the second testament, and the authors who are presenting him, are not quoting frequently and directly from the first testament.

We must learn to say plainly that it simply is not true that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.  God acts again and again in Hebrew scripture, moved by love, to create, save and restore God’s people and God’s creation.  Likewise, the New Testament is filled with language — in the gospels, in Paul’s letters, and elsewhere — that affirms the power of anger in the work of love.  So, no, we cannot dismiss Hosea’s angry, violent language toward his wife and children as “typical” of Hebrew scripture.  If it is typical, it is of something far more universal and encompassing than any one religious tradition.

If we cannot pretend that the issue of violence against women is limited to the ancient past, and we cannot dismiss these verses as diminished Old Testament precursors to a new-and-improved Christian Testament, then how are we to read these passages?  How are we to read the bible as a whole?

Phyllis Trible makes this suggestion:

Offsetting these pitfalls are guides for telling and hearing the tales.  To perceive the Bible as a mirror is one such sign.  If art imitates life, scripture likewise reflects it in both holiness and horror.  Reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance. In other words, sad stories may yield new beginnings.

Honesty and integrity demand that we not gloss over the violence of Hosea’s rhetoric.  We can neither read his message to the nation of Israel, “for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord,” as a relic of the past, nor can we gloss over it and pretend it is not a feature of our own present-day society.

Instead, let’s do this.  Let’s affirm that the women and children, both female and male, used in prostitution are entirely human, equally created in the image of God, deserving of love and compassion,  and worthy of respect.  Let’s not pretend that prostitution is something that only happens to people we don’t know, or is engaged in by people we don’t know.  Given how prevalent it is in our own city, that is simply too unlikely to be true.

What that means in very practical terms is this: in this house, in this church, you are always welcome.  This does not stop being true if you have been prostituted.  This does not stop being true if you are currently engaged in prostitution.  Those are facts that cannot define a person.  Our deepest reality is that we are, each of us, created in the image of a loving God who unrelentingly searches us out so that we can be healed and restored to right relationship with God and with one another.

So I think one of the gifts that can be wrangled out of these explosive verses from Hosea is this: they force us to say words we’ve been taught not to say in polite company.  They hold a mirror up to our society, and they demand that we be clear that the good news of God’s justice-making love is intended for everyone, and by putting us on the record they also insist that we act in ways that make this affirmation true.  I know that, this past Christmas, our social justice committee hosted a holiday shopping party at which all the items being sold supported the work of a Christian ministry advocating for an end to human sex-trafficking.  I’ve been encouraged to see that the Evangelical church in particular has been active in working to shed light on this problem, and to support women and children who are able to leave prostitution and build new futures for themselves and their families.

There is another fact, however, that faces us in the mirror that scripture holds up to us in the words of the prophet Hosea.  I’ve struggled with how to say this, and I’m not entirely sure I’m going to get it right, so I just want to ask for your patience with me as I try to say something I see in these scriptures in the best way I know how, entirely aware that I likely won’t get this right.

As horribly intimate as Hosea is with his imagery — a wife used in prostitution, three children who he names “Jezreel” as a sign of punishment, “Lo-ruhamah” meaning “No Pity,” and “Lo-Ammi” meaning “Not My People” — he is trying to communicate something to the entire nation about their conduct as a people.  He uses his own marriage to a wife who has been prostituted to describe the state of affairs in the relationship between God and Israel, and to his way of thinking God is like a faithful spouse who endures humiliation after humiliation at the hands of a faithless partner.  I’m stripping the genders away from the metaphor, which I understand is a problem since the symbol is so rooted in patriarchy and power, but I’m trying, very imperfectly, to get at what I think Hosea was trying to get at, very imperfectly; and that is that when we talk about politics in church, we’re not talking about some impersonal set of ideas or laws or trade practices — we’re talking about ways of structuring our life together as a community that have deep and profound impact on all of us, as individuals and families, as neighborhoods and nations.

As you read through the entire fourteen chapters of Hosea you discover that what he’s really angry about is the way that Israel has misplaced their trust in the very powers that have previously enslaved them.  He writes, “they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria,” (Hos. 7:11b) and goes on to say,

You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies.  Because you have trusted in your power and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed. (Hos. 10:13-14)

Hosea accuses Israel of being faithless, of abandoning their covenant with God, of seeking power and pleasure from the hands of the very people and places that have always been the source of their oppression.  He indicts them of placing their trust in their military, of using war as a method for getting what they want at the expense of others.

Doesn’t this all sound a little bit too familiar?  Don’t we sense that sometimes our own culture, our own society, keeps turning again and again to powers that we know are broken, systems that we know are hurting us, but which we have decided are “too big to fail.”  Can we imagine that as these systems rob us of our homes and our jobs, as these forces commit us to war after war so that we can maintain control over resources that rightly belong to all God’s people, that God’s wrath — which is God’s anger directed toward the work of love — might be kindled?

The image that Hosea reaches for, the symbol he uses to try and help Israel understand that talking about politics in church is actually talking about the very things that affect us in our homes on a day to day basis, is a symbol of domestic violence.  He uses language that demeans and denigrates his wife and his children, and he goes on to describe the ways they will be punished for their faithlessness that would, and should, get him arrested if he tried them today.

I am not excusing that, but I am trying to understand the message he is trying to deliver as he speaks in such graphic terms on behalf of God to the nation of Israel.  Here is my best attempt to boil that message down to something that does not harm or objectify women and children:

Oh my people, when will you learn that the personal is political and the political is personal?  When will you understand that your chasing after dreams and illusions of pleasure and privilege always come at the expense of someone else, the expense of the very land we rely upon for life?  When will you start living as if the promises we made to one another in baptism mean something to you, and not just to me?  When will you finally treat me, and one another, with the love I have always given to you?

Hosea uses the language of marriage and infidelity, I think, because it is some of the most powerful language we have available to us.  If you have ever had to talk with your lover, your partner, your spouse about infidelity, then you know how scary and painful and explosive those conversations can be.  Hosea draws on those emotions, and our almost universal experience with those emotions, to try and help us understand on a visceral level what is at stake in our relationship with God, not just at home in our private religious lives, but out in the world, in public, in our collective lives.

In many ways, he fails.  His inability to really even see the violence he perpetrates against his wife and children as he tries to make his point to the nation of Israel is a reminder to us all that we must guard against self-righteousness.  Still, I’m glad that our tradition has kept Hosea in the Bible.  His personal failures teach us something about the frailty of our own best efforts, while still demanding that we all be honest about our collective failures before God.