I have heard from several of you, that as much as you appreciated Br. James Dennis’ fine homily on prayer last week, you were disappointed not to hear more about the rather juicy Old Testament lesson.
In case you had forgotten, the Prophet Hosea’s scandalous marriage to Gomer the Harlot is one of the more (let’s say) provocative images of God’s faithfulness. The Book of Hosea opens with these intriguing lines: “When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to him, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’” Yeah, I doubt Hosea saw that one coming. This is clearly not your grandma’s bedtime bible story!
In what must have been rather awkward birth announcements, Hosea and Gomer are told by God to name their children Jezre-el, Lo-ruhamah, and Lo-ammi. I somehow doubt that these were terribly popular baby names in the 8th century B.C. Why? Well, they mean “God scatters,” “no mercy,” and “not a people.” Poor kids.
Yet even given these symbolically horrid names, God goes on to console Hosea: “Even so, the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ (Lo-ammi) it shall be said to them, ‘(they are) Children of the living God.’”
Despite this promise, things go from bad to worse for poor Hosea. Leaving him the single dad of three rather oddly named children, Gomer hits the road and shacks up with other lovers. She sacrifices to the Baal demigods and offers incense to them as idols. Through it all, however, it is said that Hosea continued to provide for her out of his means. When Gomer is eventually abandoned by her lovers and put up for sale as a slave, God instructs Hosea to go and buy her back, and to love her “just as the Lord loves the people of Israel.”
It’s a stunning story, really. It’s a story of the absurd faithfulness of God, despite the un-faithfulness of his children. According to theologian H. D. Beeby, having arrived at Hosea (chapter) 11, “we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere in the Old Testament.” In a word, what the prophet finds in God’s innermost mind and heart is mercy.
Mercifully does God speak these words: “When Israel was a child I loved him…the more I called, the more they went from me…Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms…like those who lift infants to their cheeks…I bent down to them and fed them.”
In this heart wrenching passage we see that God’s heart recoils…God cannot and will not destroy his children despite their disobedience. Rather, God’s compassion grows warm and tender. “I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim, for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
A strict, vengeful God this is not. In the prophets we see plainly how God suffers because of our faithlessness. We can see how God’s anger is provoked, his passion stirred on our behalf. “In short, God is moved by compassion to pursue justice by forgiving, not punishing,” writes J. Clinton McCann. (Let me repeat that, for this is significant: God is moved by compassion to pursue justice by forgiving, not punishing.) “Indeed, such sheer grace defines what it means to be ‘God and no mortal.’ And such grace necessitates a fundamental re-definition of holiness. No longer can holiness mean separation from the sinner. God is ‘the Holy One in your midst,’ bearing the burden of the people’s sin.” As theologian Karl Plank concludes, “To be motivated absolutely by concern for the other — this is what it means to be God, not human. . . . Holiness is the turning of God.”
In these past weeks of political conventions, and as the general election heats up, I think that this is a word that the world needs to hear. It is a word for us to hear as well: Rarely does anyone change their mind by way of argument or insult. No die hard Democrat or Republican is going to come around by shouts and accusations. Posting political commentary is easy; changing ourselves is hard. How could we ever hope to change others when we can hardly even change our own selves? Minds are changed and lives are transformed not by rhetoric, but by Love, Mercy, and Grace.
Though Jesus does, indeed, tell us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind – I’m not sure we’re ever really able to think our way into conversion. And I somehow doubt we can fully reason our way into love. Rather, we must be wooed by a God who would buy back a prostitute, and love her none the less. We must find ourselves immersed in God’s grace and cease fighting against the current. Despite our best efforts to impress God, God has already impressed his image upon us.
I will tell you, this reality – this surrender to God – is one of the most agonizing aspects of the spiritual life to me. I want so badly to figure it all out, to understand what God’s up to, convince myself and others that I’m somehow special because of something special I have accomplished (not unlike the rich fool in the gospel reading today). But as Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, all of that is rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. All of that is a distraction and distortion of what really gets us God’s love. What really gets us God’s love is God. Plain and simple and baffling as that can be. God loves us because God is love.
My friends, there is a wideness in God’s mercy that is, as composer Frederick William Farber wrote, “broader than the measure of the mind.” My favorite stanza, however, failed to make the cut in the hymn as we now sing it. The original text of the hymn reads:
I don’t know what we’ve done to craft God into our own belittling images. I don’t know why we still imagine God is out to nail us. But the image of God handed down by the prophets is this: God is just, and God is merciful. With God, the two need not be opposed.
And so, in the ancient words of the psalmist:
Whoever is wise will ponder these things, *
and consider well the mercies of the Lord.
The Rev. Brad Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Proper 13c (2016)