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Stumbling Towards Hop. An adult engagement with Hosea

Stumbling towards Hope. An adult engagement with Hosea.

From the Rev. Charley Lerrigo, Epworth UMC, Berkeley 24 July 2016

This morning’s reading comes from the Prophecy of Hosea, as translated by Eugene Peterson, with a few adaptations, and merged with translations from the Good News Bible.(your pew bible) It is a conflation of several translations, but is hopefully true to an ancient text from thousands of years ago.

The first time God spoke to Hosea, God said:

Hosea, find a whore and marry her. Make this whore the mother of your children. And here’s why: This whole country has become a whorehouse, unfaithful to me, God.

Hosea did it. He picked a woman named Gomer. She got pregnant and gave him a son. And then God told him:

Name this son Jezreel. It won’t be long before I’ll make the people pay for the massacre which happened at Jezreel. I’m calling it quits on the kingdom of Israel. Payday is coming! I’m going to chop Israel’s bows and arrows into kindling in the valley of Jezreel.

Gomer got pregnant again. This time she had a daughter. God told Hosea:

Name this one No-Mercy! I’m fed up with Israel. I’ve run out of mercy. There’s not more forgiveness. Judah is another story. I’ll continue having mercy on them. I’ll save them. But it will be their God who saves them. Not their armaments and armies, not their horsepower and manpower.

Then, after Gomer had weaned “No-Mercy,” she got pregnant again and had a son. God said:

Name this son “Nobody.” No. Call him “Not-my-people,” because the people of Israel are not my people, and I am not their God.

Now you may think that we are making this up. But what we just read is the lectionary text for this Sunday. We have, in fact, stuck together two different translations of a very old prophecy. But we’ve not changed the words very much at all.

In a moment, we’re going to read some even from startling words from this prophecy. But before we hear a long-ago message, lets acknowledge that we’re living in a time when it’s increasingly hard to forgive. When we so easily tempted to righteously rage and unfriend ourselves from those who have very different ideas of what is needed to “make our country GREAT.”

Now we return to the prophecy of Hosea. If all you read is the official lectionary text, we’re left with a very ill-tempered God. Whose words are channeled through a prophet to whom I (at least) might suggest that he get a little marriage and family counseling before he tells his people what they should do.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the prophet’s decision to marry a prostitute, and revisit Hosea’s decision to give some very outrageous names to the children his wife has presented him.

Remember now what Hosea was instructed to call the first child of his prostitute? “Jezreel.” “Jezreel.” Why was that name “outrageous?” Because Jezreel was a valley where warring factions met and destroyed one another. If we understand how the people to whom Hosea spoke would have heard interpreted the name “Jezreel” you would realize he was calling his first son “Battlegound” Or “Punishment” or “bloodshed” Everybody would know what you meant by “Jezreel.”

The next kid, a daughter, is to be called “No Mercy.” Or (as the Good News Translation puts it) “Unloved.”

Imagine your kid telling the kindergarten teacher: “What’s my name? I’m, unloved.”

And if that’s not enough already, Hosea calls his third child “Nobody.” Or “not my People.”

This is the point at which you or I might want to call Child Protective Services to pay a visit to our prophet.

I think it’s also helpful to remember that Hosea prophesized was in the tiny “kingdom” of “Israel” At that point of time, Israel was in the reasonably prosperous northern portion of what was once a kingdom united under King David. Judah was the southern kingdom of that once united state. But unity had dissolved in differences over religious, political cultural issues.

Within the kingdom of Israel there was internal strife. Hosea didn’t much like the king of his time. But more importantly, he was angry that some Israelis followed the god of Baal, and were supporters of a pagan Queen named Jezebel. He railed against a variety of sins which will cause Israel to “stumble” and “fall.”

And, not too long after Hosea warned Israel to repent, the Assyrian empire smashed the little kingdom and sent its people and leaders into exile.

I share this background so we can see how much similarity there between the 8th century BC and 2016. What battle cries do we hear today? “Our country is in trouble. I’m afraid it’s going to fail. I may get hurt. What shall I do? I can’t fix a country. Is there anybody who can help?”

That’s the fear that Hosea tried to address. But God had more to say to the prophet. Having warned that Israel would have to fall, God says:

Down the road, the population of Israel is going to explode… And in the very place where they were once called “Not-my-people” they will be renamed “God’s Somebody.” You can call them “children of the living God.” And the people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited. They will choose for themselves a single leader, and once again they will grow and prosper. That will be a great day.

A “Great” day. You think Hosea is not contemporary? I propose, my friends, that we can hear in today’s political, religious and ethical combat a new “Jezreel.” A Battleground over the kind of God we worship and follow. And an understandable hunger for someone who can help us.

And suddenly a God who demands that children be given bad names sends a new prophetic instruction.

Rename your brothers (and your sisters). Call your fellow Israelites “God’s people. Call them “Loved by the Lord. Plead with your mother

“Your mother?” Hold on. The Biblical narrative gets a little slippery here. Gomer, the prostitute becomes a code word for “the one who takes care of you”

She now represents the nation. The nation who is loved by God… GOD continues

Though she is no longer a wife to me and I am longer her husband. Children. Children. Plead with your mother to stop her adultery and prostitution. Because if she doesn’t I will strip as naked as she was on the day she was born.

Ooops. For a moment it was sounding like a loving, compassionate God here. What is happening to the prophetic voice? Let’s listen to just a few of the several punishments that will come to Gomer’s wife?

I’ll expose her genitals to the public. All her fly-by-night lovers will be helpless to help her…I’m going to fence her in with thorn bushes and build a wall to block her way. I will put an end to all her festivities—all her religious meetings—take away all the silver and gold that she used in the worship of Baal…

We can hear this as a reference to an individual, and the way it refers to women lets us know it was written by a man. But what happens if we hear this threat not as the condemnation of a woman, but a judgment on a nation (a people) who have followed false gods.

The late Rabbi Abraham Heschel helps us get some perspective on this. Heschel was a prophet. He marched with Dr. King and others. But he also knew that prophecy makes us uncomfortable. Here’s what he wrote.

“Great orators…(frequently) manifest courage in publicly condemning the abuse of power by individuals. But the prophets challenge the whole country: kings, priests, false prophets…the entire nation…

“The prophets remind us of the moral state of a people. Few are guilty. But all are responsible.”

And what is God saying to the “people?” (That’s us, not just the Gomer of Hosea’s tale: Once again, God speaks:

I am going to take her into the desert again.

Back to the desert. The wilderness. Where if you don’t stay together, despite your differences, you don’t survive. Except that in this prophecy we don’t have a Moses, We have a Hosea, who loved – and was outraged by a nation that had gone astray. Yet when Hosea is ready to visit punishment upon the woman he married, God speaks again.

“You must love the woman you married, just as I still love the people of Israel, even though they turn to other gods.”

You and I can think about the way that some people protest the injustice in our society. It’s sometimes messy and gets out of hand. As Rabbi Heschel observes. “The breathless impatience prophets have with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited. To the prophets, even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.”

The question this morning is: Where is God in the story? How do we respond to this loud and obstreperous prophet. Must we all become noisy? What about those of us who stumble in our search for hope?

I want to end this sermon on a more personal note. When I was in high school and college, I lived in the state of Alabama. And it was the time of the beginning of the civil rights movement.

It was a time when there were violent responses to non-violent demonstrations. And as I would read the story of police riots and public klan meetings I reeled in confusion. I would literally throw the paper across the room. I didn’t know what to do.

I was white. Middle class. Safe. But not sane. There was too much going wrong. Angry. But not organized.

And even in my relative safety, my pastor was run out his church for his stand on civil rights. My father lost his job as a hospital administrator for his support of a black orderly’s innocent mistake. My father slept with a gun by his bed because of the phone calls he was getting when the sun went down.

We survived. My family had to find a new place to live. And I was able to find people and groups were more in line with what I think makes America great.

I love my country. Yet I want to scream when I see it go astray. When I see murder legalized, and our justice system becoming ever more unjust, and power centralized in the hands of a privileged few.

I’m not sure how to fix what’s going wrong when tens of millions of people are lined up in support of values I can’t support. Even tho I am white and male.

And here’s what I wind up with. Prophets don’t give us answers. They present us with questions. And those places touch places deep within us. Of times, maybe, when we stumbled, but got up again. And when we lost major battles, but didn’t quit trying. Within us. God is within us. And each of us gets to say…………… That’s our gift. The freedom to say a no and demand a yes. Demand. Demand.

It’s a journey we’ve been on for thousands of years.

I want to close with a poem by Ranier Maria Rilke:

“I circle around God, around the primordial tower. I’ve been circling for thousands of years. And I still don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?”

And your answer? The next line is yours.

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