Sermons

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.

Hosea

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.

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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.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 2, 2013: Second Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 18:20-39  +  Psalm 96  +  Galatians 1:1-12  +  Luke 7:1-10

Have you ever wanted to call down fire?

I’m talking about God’s wrath.  God’s judgment.  Proof that God is God.  That the so-called way it is, is not the way it is supposed to be, and that there is a higher authority than any bureaucracy can produce, than any government can select, than any church can own.  That there is a God who cares about what happens to the world God created, and that we are going to be called to account for our management and mismanagement of God’s creation, our treatment and mistreatment of God’s people.

Have you ever looked at the world and wanted to call down fire?

I have, and recently at that.  Months and months of organizing for marriage equality in the State of Illinois, and in the end not even a vote?  Just silence from the Illinois House.  I wanted fire.  A fresh tally of victims to gun violence here in Chicago last Memorial Day weekend, six dead and eleven wounded, as nearby as Humboldt Park; and in response, the House breaks its silence to push forward a carry and conceal bill that would make it easier for people to walk the streets of our neighborhoods with deadly weapons?  I wanted fire.

And you have cried out for fire as well, I know.  You are battling bureaucracies that put children in harm’s way.  You are fighting for the rights of the weak, the poor, the hungry, the disabled.  You are watching as big business treats your co-workers and yourselves like cogs in a machine.  You are tending to the bodies and minds of the uninsured, and seeing the impacts of generational poverty on entire families.  You are calling for an end to war in a country obsessed with violence.  You are teaching in classrooms where children have gone without food, without support, without safety, and you are being told year after year to do more with less.

I can only imagine how badly and how often you must pray for God’s fire to come down and burn away the red tape, the apathy, the machine, the system, the guns, the drones, and all the wickedness of this world.

Today we begin a summer long series focusing on the prophets of Israel, and for this season we will be a School of the Prophets.  You may remember that two weeks ago it was Pentecost Sunday, and we heard these words from the book of Acts,

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

Then, last Sunday, as we celebrated the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we affirmed the Church’s faith that there is only one God, but who is known as and in community.  We heard from the gospel of John these words from Jesus,

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all the truth; for [the Spirit] will not speak on [its] own, but will speak whatever [it] hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come. [The Spirit] will glorify me, because [it] will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that [God, our Parent] has is mine.  For this reason I said that [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15)

In truth, ever since Easter we have been studying texts that make it clear to us that one of the meanings, one of the implications of Christ’s resurrection is that the Holy Spirit of God has been set free in the world; that the Spirit has a message for the world that needs a messenger; and that God’s messenger is the church, the baptized body of Christ in the world.  Jesus said, “the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15) and “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (John 14:12)

And then, like Elijah whom we meeting again for the first time this morning and who eventually is taken up into heaven in that chariot of fire, Jesus seems to withdraw from the story leaving its next chapter in our hands.  We are inheritors of a mission, a commission, and a message.  Living in the last days, in a Pentecostal epoch, we are now called to be prophets, and this is our school.

As we learn about our calling, our ministry as prophets, we can learn from the prophets of Israel, in whose tradition the Lord Jesus Christ stood, whose words and wisdom would have been his bread and butter as a young man in occupied Israel in the time of the Roman Empire.

Jesus obviously would have known the stories of Elijah, who lived in Israel during the reign of King Ahab, who ruled four generations after the reign of King Solomon.  King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, are remembered for bringing the worship of foreign gods back to Israel, in particular the god known as Baal.

It’s difficult to know what the actual religious beliefs and practices of the neighboring nations who worshipped Baal were, since most of the information we have comes from these biblical texts that aren’t concerned with religious pluralism and multiculturalism.  But I think we would be missing the point if we simply read this story as a warning about other religions.  What’s being contested here isn’t the number of followers each deity, Yahweh or Baal, can muster.  What is at stake is the worldview they represent within the story of Israel’s relationship with God.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,

There is no doubt that in the Bible, an especially in this cluster of narratives, Baalism is heavily caricatured in Yahwistic representation.  Indeed, we have only the caricature so that the narrative is not, and does not intend to be, an evenhanded exposition.  The caricature that dominates Israel’s imagination is that Baalism is a socioreligious system rooted in the capacity to secure life for self by the manipulation and control of the gifts of the creator, by self-centered management that inevitably leads to an antineighbor ethic.  Thus it must not be thought that the contest concerns mere religious symbols or slogans; it is rather a deep and costly conflict between two contrasting perspectives on reality that are deeply rooted theologically and highly visible in the life and social practice of the community. (Brueggemann, Walter.  Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 2000. p. 219)

In other words, the problem with the worship of Baal isn’t that God’s honor is tarnished, or that God’s feelings are hurt, because people are worshipping some other god.  It is instead that, what the worship of Baal represents — at least in these stories — is a turning away from the ethical and moral character of the God of Israel, an ethic of care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger; and ethic that took form in these stories in the person of a king who had first been a shepherd, who cared for God’s people by bringing them together to love and care for one another.

The worship of Baal represents a different kind of governance which leads to a different kind of community and a different kind of world, one in which power is used to secure wealth for the wealthy, and the lives of the workers and the weak are considered the cost of doing business.  It is the kind of world Jesus knew everything about, growing up under Roman rule.  It is the kind of world we know everything about today, living in the heart of a global empire.

Elijah’s first prophetic action is to declare a drought.  This is more than an agricultural crisis, this is a sign that the nation has set itself again God.  In these ancient times, the king was understood to be the rain-maker, the one who assured wealth and prosperity by guiding the nation in accordance with God’s will for the people.  The absence of rain is a sign that God’s favor is absent from Ahab’s rule.  Rather than repenting, Ahab and Jezebel scour the nation looking for the prophet Elijah whose words of judgment are undermining their power and authority.  Finally, after three years of drought, the conflict has come to a head in the story we read this morning.  Elijah faces Ahab and challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest.  They will set offerings on altars to each of their respective gods, and they will see which offering is consumed by divine fire.

The beginning of the match tells us something important about what God through Elijah is really trying to achieve.  In the face of royal power and a legion of enemy priests, Elijah turns and speaks to the people, who are the actual objects of God’s concern.  He asks them, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)

This simple question, buried at the beginning of a spectacle, is the heart of the matter.  The question always before God’s people is, in what god do you actually put your trust?  Is is the god of the paycheck or the inheritance that will really take care of you?  Is it the god of shrewd decisions and hard work that will provide for you and yours?  Is it the god of the right family or the right connections that will give you an advantage?  Is it the god of cynicism and low expectations that will protect you from the dangers of wanting more for your life?

Or is it the God known in community as community, who does not try to protect God’s own self from danger or harm, but is willing to endure every trial and humiliation to free the creation and its many peoples from patterns of life, systems of domination, that threaten to destroy us all?

Which god do you worship, and how?

Tellingly, the people do not say a word.  They are as silent as our lawmakers, waiting to see how the chips will fall.

Which gods do we worship?

Then the contests begin, and we begin to see the price paid for worshipping other gods.  As Elijah cracks jokes and taunts the priests of Baal (“Cry aloud!  Surely he is a god; either he is meditating or he is on a journey, or perhaps he must be awakened.”), they begin to mutilate themselves.  They injure themselves by cutting their flesh with swords and lances until they are covered in their own blood.

What price do we pay for chasing after the gods who cannot save us?  We pay with our own lives.  The paycheck ends. The inheritance is spent. Our decisions are exposed as dreams. Our bodies fail. Our families turn their backs on us. Our social networks are a mile wide and an inch deep. Our attempt to escape notice works, and we end up invisible in our own lives.  The gods we invent for ourselves can never save us, but we will spend our lives, we will pour out our lifeblood, chasing after them.

After Baal’s priests fail to summon their god, it’s Elijah’s turn.  Again, he gives his attention to the people, not the king, not the other priests.  He builds an altar for his sacrifice by placing twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel on top of one another.  He reminds them of their history, that out of many peoples they were made one.  That out of many nations, they were made one nation.  That their strength came from the ways that they leaned on each other, built on each other, rested on each other.  Elijah creates a symbol of the underlying reality, that we the people together are the altar where God’s holiness appears.

Then Elijah drenches that altar, that sign of God’s people, three times with water — a baptism for that which is being offered to God, and assurance that what will happen next is no accident, no random spark falling on dry wood.

Finally, Elijah prays not for himself, but for the people he has been trying to reach. “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:37).  And the Lord God answers the words of that prayer by sending down fire to consume the offering, the wood, the altar, the earth and even the water.

When I am angry at the world, as I have been these last few days, I want to call down God’s fire to burn up the heartless bureaucrats, the cowardly legislators, the violent warmongers, the absent parents.  But God’s fire does not consume offerings made to absentee deities.  Instead, God’s fire comes to rest on the altar of God’s own people and takes what we are willing to offer, transforming those offerings into signs that God’s Spirit is still at work in the world, moving toward us and through us and out into the world for the sake of healing, and liberation, and mercy, and justice.

Rain and Fire

God’s flames, the ones that fell on God’s altar, the ones that raised Elijah to heaven in his chariot, the ones that appeared above the apostles’ heads that Pentecost morning are signs of God’s prophetic word, given to God’s prophets.  We pray for that fire each time we gather, not to destroy the forces that oppose us, but to kindle in us a passion to tell God’s truth to a world burdened by false gods.

Oh, God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire.

Amen.

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