Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 25, 2013: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Jeremiah 1:4-10  +  Psalm 71:1-6  +  Hebrews 12:18-29  +  Luke 13:10-17

Do you remember the last day of … whatever?  Summer camp.  High School.  A mission trip.  The last day after something intense and formative and life-changing.

For three years after seminary I worked on the staff of a summer program down in Atlanta at my alma mater, Emory University, we called YTI — the Youth Theological Initiative.  Some of you recognize the name of the program because, about four years ago, we sent Lynda Deacon down to Atlanta for a month to participate.

YTI takes young people, high school students going into their junior and senior years, and puts them in classrooms with graduate students in theology, scripture and ethics with the explicit goal of equipping these young people to become public theologians.  They take courses that study the relationship between Christian faith and non-violence, Christian faith and environmental crisis, Christian faith and religious pluralism.  YTI is not vacation bible school or the church camp in the woods with a craft cabin, like the one I grew up with in Iowa (and loved).  It is a school for prophets.  It is a place where young people get treated like the theological subjects, not objects, that they are.  Youth are expected to leave YTI as voices that will lead the church and society in confronting some of the most pressing challenges of our day.

hssp13-goodbye-01Which brings me back to the last day.  On the last day of YTI we, the staff, stand outside the dorms with our students, our summer scholars, who each arrived a little bit scared of what the coming month would bring, but now are a little bit scared of what the future may hold.  They’d come to YTI with their expectations that we would teach them something, but they were leaving with our expectations that they would do something with what they’d learned. So they waited in front of the dorms  with their suitcases packed for a parent to arrive, or a shuttle to take them to the airport, and when the last moment came they hugged each other, and they cried, and then they went back out into the world.

One of those scholars, Liz Theoharris from the summer of 1993, went on to found The Poverty Initiative a decade later, a program affiliated with Union Seminary in New York City.  Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “Freedom Church for the Poor,” the Poverty Initiative seeks to empower poor leaders and the organizations that support them.  The idea came from a gap Liz saw in her work as a Christian and an activist.  At protests and prayer vigils, religious people regularly came together for social justice, but with very little ability to speak theologically about why they were there.  “I found myself at Union Seminary,” she says, “realizing my call to do social justice was a religious one, and yet saw that most churches weren’t really equipped to do the kind of work that we were called to do as religious leaders.”

Laura McCandlish, from the summer of 1997, went on to become a journalist who covers the food justice movement from her home in Oregon.  At YTI’s recent 20th year reunion last month, Laura led a panel discussion on how communities of faith are vital contributors to the food justice movement, whether by planting community gardens or opening their kitchens for end-of-season processing, for cooking classes, or as commercial kitchens for local entrepreneurs or disenfranchised neighbors.  Her reporting has focused on the intersection of immigration, labor and food, like one recent article on an effort to help migrant workers establish their own berry farm, and an ecumenical program to turn leftover berries gleaned from the harvest into low-sugar jellies for local food pantries.

Jamaya Powell went to YTI last summer, in 2012, expecting “a boring Jesus camp.”  Instead her life was changed, as she writes in a recent issue of VOX, a publication written by and for Atlanta-area teenagers.  She spent her month at YTI in a course that explored hip-hop music and culture as theological dialogue and visited local agencies fighting poverty, homelessness and sex trafficking.  She left wondering what she as a young person and a Christian could do to help remedy the situation.

All of these young people, young adults, some of whom are even approaching middle age now, came to the school for prophets at YTI in Atlanta unsure of their place in the church and in the world, unsure of their voice.  Like the prophet Jeremiah they were ready to say, “Ah Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  But God answered them just as God answered Jeremiah, and each of us,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jer. 1:7-8)

This morning I taught our children the next line of the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We played follow the leader up and down the central aisle and all around the edges of the sanctuary.  I tried to help them understand that the only way God can lead us into, or out of, temptation is if we are already following.  The question that raises, the one that’s a bit too abstract for them but not for us, is — does God actually lead us into trouble?  In the prayer Jesus taught us we are instructed to ask God to lead us not into temptation, but to deliver us from evil.

“Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’” (Jer. 1:9-10)

That is a terrifying message for anyone to deliver, much less a young person like Jeremiah.  Yet, how often young people lead the way.  From the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Civil Right Movement to the Young Lions of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.  From the youth who powered the Arab Spring to the students at Kelvyn Park High School’s social justice academy here in Logan Square.  How often it has been the case that young people carry forward God’s commission to speak truth to power, following God’s call both into and out of danger.

But it is not just the young whom God calls to bear God’s fiery word.  Over and over, time and time again God uses what is small, what is weak, what is unlikely, what is overlooked to challenge what is too big to fail, to strong to fall.  God uses the young and the old, the poor and the ridiculed.

Surely God can use us.

All summer long we have been at our summer school for prophets.  Now the seasons are changing.  Children go back to school tomorrow.  Classes start up at the university, at the seminary.  Summer sports leagues are over and the new rhythms of fall are upon us.  But we have learned something this summer that will stay with us.  We have been students at the feet of the prophets, and now we are being sent out into a world in need of reformation as much as any world has ever been.

As you wait with your bags packed for the future to come and get you, as you look back on all you have seen and heard, how have you been changed?  As you think about the expectations you bring to worship each week — that you will be comforted, that you will be challenged, that you will be fed — what expectations do you sense God has for you as you leave this place?  As you stand at the threshold of a new season, of a new world, what are the words God has put into your mouth?

Do not be afraid of them.

Amen.

 

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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.

prostitution11

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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