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, July 21, 2013: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:   Amos 8:1-12  +  Psalm 52  +  Colossians 1:15-28  +  Luke 10:38-42

Here’s a topic you’ve not heard me spend much time on: God’s wrath.

So, let’s go there.  It doesn’t take an especially close reading of the bible to uncover the fact that God is quite frequently represented as angry.  And when God is angry, it’s at humanity.  Whatever relationship God has to sharks and redwoods and geological fault lines is really beyond our knowing, but our scriptures are not silent on the point of God’s feelings toward humanity.  God loves us.  God pleads with us.  God forgives us.  And God is angry with us.

It’s hard for me to say that.  Even as I wrote this sermon, I had to stop myself from softening those words.  I wanted to say, “And, sometimes, God is angry with us” or “God is angry with some of us.”  But those are both dodges.  Those both imply that either we are, for the most part, doing the right thing — doing well — and only occasionally breaking God’s heart with our disregard for and neglect of the weakest and most needy, the despised and neglected among us; or that most of us are doing right by one another from the point of view of God, and that the real problems of this world can be laid at the feet of a few wicked evildoers.

These are the sorts of dodges that people make all the time as we deal with our relationships with one another out here in the “real” world: anger can be minimized because we imagine that we are “good” most of the time, or that most of us are good.

These rationalizations, while they may serve to shield us from our own fear of accusation, our discomfort with anger, and our resentment of any authority that asserts itself over us, raise two basic theological conundrums.

The first, our urge to assert that we are each basically good, is so difficult to challenge.  Particularly from a pulpit.  While it may not be the case across the spectrum of Christianities practiced throughout the world, and certainly is not the case for Christianity across time, it is the case that in the global north and west, in the mainline Protestant tradition to which we as Lutherans in the United States belong, there is a great reluctance to speak of God’s judgment.  We don’t want to be affiliated with those other kinds of Christians.  The kind who preach hellfire and brimstone.  The kind who divide the world into us and them, clean and unclean, pure and impure.

So, instead, we join the broader culture in a kind of psychological Christianity, or therapeutic Christianity, that begins with the affirmation that God created the world, looked upon it and called it good; and that ends with the affirmation that God “so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son” without giving much attention to the reality of sin that necessitated a divine intervention in the life of the world in the first place.

When we make that first move, to say that we are mostly good, in a sense we are saying that we mostly didn’t need God’s intervention in Christ.  That we mostly had this under control ourselves, and that we’re mostly able to clean up our own messes.

This kind of logic reminds me of my senior year of college.  I was mostly done with my coursework.  I’d lived abroad in Costa Rica for a summer.  I’d completed a 3-month internship in adolescent mental health.  I was finally living off campus in a grown up apartment.  I was living life on my own terms, taking care of myself.  Except near the end of the semester, when I hadn’t quite budgeted to make my students loans and the paychecks from my part-time job stretch, and I needed to call my folks and see if they could help me just a little bit until the beginning of the month.

We’re mostly good, most of the time, and isn’t that enough — or so we wonder in a question that mostly misses the point.  Because when we aren’t “good,” when we can’t pull ourselves up, when we come up short, when we find ourselves insufficient to the crisis at hand, the question isn’t whether or not we’ll  somehow become better than we’ve ever been before.  It’s whether or not there is a power and a presence beyond our own that can sustain us through the crisis.  It is not, fundamentally, our goodness — our sufficiency — that counts, but God’s.

If, when faced with God’s anger or wrath, our first dodge is to assert that we’re good most of the time, the second is to claim that most of us are good.  That it’s just a few really rotten apples that spoil the bunch.  Week to week our minds turn to different names to populate that list.  We have our favorite politicians to blame.  Then there are the easy targets, the perpetrators of heinous crimes, the public figures whose private scandals come to light.  The constant parade of big news stories in the papers, on the news, across the internet, conspire to make it possible for us to believe that somehow all the responsibility for the world’s brokenness can be laid at the feet of a few mutually agreed upon failures.

This is not how the prophet Amos sees the world.

“The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by… shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again … The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:2b,8,11)

For the prophet Amos, the nation of Israel is not a community of mostly good people who do good most of the time.  It is a community of people who cannot separate themselves one from another.  It is not the king or the people, but the whole nation together that must give an account for the treatment of the needy and the poor among them.  The faithfulness of Israel is not counted by the prophet as a private affair, but as a public witness to a public relationship between God and God’s people.

To the prophet Amos’ way of seeing, the ongoing and persistent presence of poverty in Israel testifies to an economy that values profit over people, such that business owners are trying to squeeze more labor out of the workers, asking “when will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?” (Amos 8:5a)  It is an economy that offers less and less of value for more and more of people’s savings, “we will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances.” (Amos 8:5b)

Amos accuses the entire nation of “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”  The prophet suggests that the greed of Israel’s economy has grown so great that creditors are foreclosing on those who cannot pay their debts for even minor purchases, not just home mortgages but even the sandals on their feet.  The economy has grown so greedy that the ancient tradition of leaving the gleanings of the field for the hungry has been forgotten, and even the most basic of necessities, food, cannot be counted upon.

Amos’ anger is not directed against one leader, or a handful of elites.  Amos brings a word from the Lord to Israel to say that this nation as a whole has forgotten who they are before God.  In response, God’s wrath will take the form of a famine — not of food or water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.

Again, in my own efforts to understand divine anger and divine punishment, I draw on my experiences of having been a child, and the ways my parents tried to offer me correction.  After many patient explanations, after plenty of warnings, there did come a time, especially as I grew older, when my parents decided that the way I would learn best was to suffer the natural consequences for my decisions and actions.  If I stayed up too late reading under the covers, dawn still came at the same time and I would have to go to school exhausted.  If I spent my money on junk food and diversions, there would be no new clothes for the new school year.  Actions had consequences.

That’s how I hear Amos’ forecasted famine.  If the nation continues to ignore the terms of God’s covenant; if the people continue to enjoy the privileges they reap off the backs of the poor, the needy and the neglected; then they will suffer the natural consequences of a society that has gone bad from the inside out.  Like a bowl of overripe fruit, what had been given them for nourishment will go bad and spoil.  If the people refuse to listen to God’s word, then they will be unable to access the abundant life it brings.  Natural consequences.

My friend Anne Howard, Executive Director of The Beatitudes Society, an ecumenical leadership development program that identifies and nurtures an emerging generation of Progressive church leaders for the sake of the common good, has taken to signing off on all her emails with the phrase, “we’re all in this together.”  It’s the perfect closing for correspondence from an organization that takes its name from Jesus’ most famous sermon, the one in which he said, “blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and “blessed are those who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”

Jesus, whose own prophetic ministry drew on the legacy and authority of the prophets of Israel, shared their concern for the poor and the hungry, the grieving and the reviled.  Like the prophets of old, his ministry was an earthy, embodied, political ministry.  He, too, talked about the needs of the sick, the poor, the outcast, the stranger.  In fact, when he spoke of heaven, it was almost always to say that it had drawn near, that it was breaking into this world, and not breaking us out.

In her classic essay on feminist Christian ethics, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Bev Harrison writes,

“Otherworldliness” in religion has two very different sources in our social world of knowledge.  One sort of otherworldly religion appears among the poor and downtrodden, reflecting a double dynamic in their experience: It reflects a hopelessness about this world that is engendered by living daily with the evil of oppression, but it also fuels and encourages an ongoing struggle against the present order by conjuring a better time and a better place, beyond the oppressive here and now.

However, an entirely different form of otherworldliness appears amongst those of us who have never been marginalized, who have lived well above the daily struggle to survive, when our privileges are threatened. This form of otherworldliness is merely escapist, and its political consequences are entirely reactionary. Its result is to encourage denial of responsibility for the limited power that we do have, and it always results in reinforcing the status quo.”

Harrison connects this observation about our tendency to privatize religion and assign it to some other world with her insights on anger when she writes,

It is my thesis that we Christians have come very close to killing love precisely because we have understood anger to be a deadly sin.  Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to other and it is always a vivid form of caring. To put the point another way: anger is — and it always is — a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed.

God’s anger, God’s wrath, is not a sign of God’s abandonment.  It is a vivid form of caring that signals God’s resistance to our human desire to pull away from God (“I’m mostly good”) and to pull away from each other (“most of us are good”).

Let me try and wrap this up with an anecdote from my own life over the past week that may illustrate what I’ve been trying to say here.

trayvon-martinThe thing that send me searching my bookshelves for Bev Harrison’s essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” in the first place was my abiding anger over the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.  I was in Atlanta with friends, Black and White, when the verdict was made public, friends I’ve known for over a decade and with whom I’ve engaged in some of the most intense political, ethical and theological conversations in my life. As we shared the news with one another, we barely spoke.  The pain of the wound of racism that is at the heart of the public furor over this verdict is overwhelming.

As the following week wore on, as Kerry and I sat at our dining room table, as you and your families sat at your dining room tables, my anger has only grown.  My anger is so deep on this point that it is difficult to speak.  And I wondered, “is there anything redemptive about this anger?  Can anything good come from these feelings that surface and are submerged over and over again?  Is there any value to this wrath?”

Bev Harrison’s answer is: yes.  The power of anger in the work of love is to give us the visceral evidence we need that the fabric of our relationships is torn, and that action is required.  The power of anger in the work of love is the voice of the prophet Amos, delivering a message from an angry, loving God that the creation, which God looked at and called good, for which God sent God’s only begotten Son, is aching under so much political, economic, and environmental abuse.

The power of anger in the work of love is the sound of the organizer knocking at your door, or the call from the program director looking for volunteers, or the letter that comes to your mailbox asking for a donation.

The power of anger in the work of love is the energy required to pull ourselves out of the hopelessness that is always trying to own us, to convince us that the world as it is is the world as it will always be.

The power of anger in the work of love is that voice that rises up inside each one of us, that voice that comes first from God, that says, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”  It is the voice inside us that has always known that we are all of us in this together and that refuses to be silenced.

The power of anger in the work of love is the end of the famine of hearing the words of the Lord, and when we understand the power of anger in the work of love in this way, then God’s wrath is not to be feared but to be longed for.  For it is God’s anger, spoken through God’s prophets, like Amos and you and me, that sets the spark that starts a revolution.

Amen.

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