Sermon, July 31

God loves you. You’ve heard it before. It’s the summary of every Sunday school lesson, the gist of every progressive Christian bumper sticker, and many of the conservative ones, too. God loves you. But… how does God love us, exactly? How can we understand the love of God? Is the love of an infinite, all-powerful, eternal divine being even recognizable to little squishy short-lived hormonal bags of water like us?

Enter the prophet Hosea.

Hosea lived a little later than the prophet Amos, whom we met a couple of weeks ago. Like Amos, Hosea preached to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. But in Hosea’s time, the late 8th century before Jesus, the temporary peace had crumbled. The Assyrian Empire, remembered for its voracious cruelty and military might, had become an immediate threat. Israel had gone through several short-lived kings, and the king when Hosea began to prophesy was a vassal king for Assyria, under their thumb, committed to sending them the wealth of Israel as tribute. Ultimately, after a decade of instability, Israel was fully conquered by Assyria, and many of its people were killed or taken into exile. More on that next week, when we introduce Tobit!

Hosea, more than any other prophet, gives us a glimpse of the inner life of God. He speaks for God in a way that reveals God’s heart, the nature of God’s love for God’s people. The God we know through Hosea is not a detached and judgmental Ruler, but a Partner, a Parent, full of anger, grief, and tender, fearful love.

The Lectionary offered us a reading from Hosea last Sunday. But that text was pretty difficult to turn into a children’s homily! God speaks to Hosea for the first time, and this is God’s command: Marry a promiscuous woman, and have children by her, for the land of Israel has become promiscuous, and forsaken God. So Hosea married a woman named Gomer, who, indeed, is unfaithful to him. The text turns almost immediately from Hosea’s marriage to God’s relationship with Israel. God describes Israel as a faithless, shameless wife, who has run after her lovers, heedless of her marriage covenant. God promises to punish her, taking back all the gifts of grain, wine, and oil, of wool and flax; threatening to lay waste to her fields and vineyards, and make her festival days into times of mourning. Abraham Heschel, the great commentator on the Prophets, writes that through his marriage with Gomer, “Hosea became aware of the fact … that his sorrow echoed the sorrow of God… Only by living through in his own life what the divine [Husband] of Israel experienced, was the prophet able to attain sympathy for the divine situation.”

Gomer’s infidelity was presumably of the usual sort; the Book of Hosea doesn’t give us details. But it has a lot to say about the nature of Israel’s infidelity to God. The idea that Israel’s covenant relationship with God is like a marriage in its intimacy and seriousness is found throughout the Hebrew Bible. Adultery in that sense usually means worship of other gods. And that’s part of what’s going on in Hosea’s time – in chapter 4 God says through Hosea, “My people consult a piece of wood, and their divining-rod gives them oracles. For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have played the whore, forsaking their God. They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains, and make offerings upon the hills.” (4:12-13)

But Israel’s adultery in Hosea isn’t just religious; it’s also political. The Israelite kingship, established by God, has become purely a matter of human politics, and Israel looks for security not from her God, but from other nations, like Egypt and Assyria. Hosea says of Israel, which he calls Ephraim in this passage: “Ephraim has become like a dove, silly and without sense;    they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria… Woe to them, for they have strayed from me! … For they have gone up to Assyria, a wild ass wandering alone;    Ephraim has bargained for lovers.” (7:8-9, 11, 13; 8:9)

Israel, covenanted to God for many generations, has been unfaithful – shamelessly so – in both religion and politics. The marriage metaphor insists that faithfulness to God is as fundamental as marital fidelity, and that violating that faithfulness is just as disgusting and distressing to God as a wife’s adultery is to her husband.

Yes, this is sexist, and prudish, and old-fashioned. Yes, it rests on ideas of women’s sexuality as dirty and dangerous. But the purpose of this metaphor, which poor Hosea – and poor Gomer! – are called to embody in their marriage and household, is to help humans understand just how much our faithful love matters to God.

God loves God’s people like a man utterly in love with his wife. So in love that when she strays, it just guts him. So in love that he wants her back. Now, this is important. You don’t have to look far today to find stories of reconciliation after infidelity, in fiction or real life. But that was not how things worked in ancient Israel. In Jewish law and custom, a husband whose wife has been unfaithful CAN’T take her back. She is permanently defiled. But God as Israel’s husband, in Hosea, doesn’t care. God passionately wants Israel back. Those threats of punishment in Chapter 2 only last five verses! – before turning towards affection and yearning. God says, “I will persuade her, and speak tenderly to her; and she shall respond, as in the days of her youth… On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, My husband!… I will abolish… war from the land, and make you like down in safety; and I will take you as my wife forever, I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy; I will take you for my wife in faithfulness.” (Hosea 2:14-19, excerpts) And God likewise calls Hosea to take back Gomer, his wife, despite her infidelity – a fact which has scandalized and perplexed many commentators over the millennia. Heschel writes: “A husband publicly betrayed by his wife is prevented by law and emotion from renewing his marital life with her. But God’s love is greater than law and emotion.” (63)

God loves us – how? Like a spouse who, no matter how badly you treat them, wants another chance at love. Who still hopes to get back the sweetness of what you once had. The first chapters of Hosea invite us to see God as the singer in every sad “I still want you back” song on iTunes.

And then there’s this week’s portion of Hosea, which gives us another metaphor drawn from human families for how God loves us. Listen again: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. I taught Ephraim to walk, and took them up in my arms; I led them with cords of kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them…. Now the sword rages in their cities, and devours them because of their schemes. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me at the thought; my womb grows warm and tender.”

Now, the text in your bulletin says, “My compassion grows warm and tender.” The oldest versions of the Hebrew text use a word there that can be translated as either “compassion” or “womb,” “uterus.” For Biblical Hebrew, compassion is womb-feeling – the deep anxious care of a mother for a child she has borne. Our translators chose to translate the word as “compassion” here, but frankly I think that’s nonsense. Here we have two parallel phrases, a common form in Hebrew poetry, and they’re both about body parts, describing the physical sensations of anguished love – My heart recoils within me, my womb grows warm and tender. And once you make that more plain-sense reading, it becomes obvious that this whole passage is describing God as a mother. Cuddling and feeding a young child, leading him toddler with what must have been the ancient equivalent of those leashes parents use in airports.

God says to Israel, You have messed up, badly, and the consequences are looming; but even though you have turned away from me, and rejected everything I taught you, I can’t stop caring about you. I can’t stop wanting better for you. I still love you, and long for you.

Let me cast just a passing glance at today’s Gospel – which I think shows us a glimpse of that same loving divine frustration with the things humans choose to worry ourselves about. This is the “You can’t take it with you” Gospel. One of the nicer memes that goes around Facebook shows a crowd sharing a meal at table, and says, “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.” That’s this parable in a nutshell. What especially reminds me of God’s voice in Hosea is the moment when this young man comes to Jesus, the wise rabbi, so confident that Jesus will address this inheritance dispute he has with his brother. It’s a matter of justice, right? And Jesus is all about justice, right?

Except Jesus, God among us, really, really does not share our preoccupation with stuff. Instead of settling the dispute, Jesus addresses the crowd and says, You know, y’all, life is not about what you own. The fellow with the inheritance issue must have been mortified. But can’t you hear God the Parent in Jesus’ voice there? Saying, Honey. I know you’re upset, but it’s just not that big a deal. It really isn’t.

God loves us – how? Like a parent who, no matter what lousy choices her child makes, still and always loves and hopes and yearns. Who watches the road, and keeps the lamps lit, and prays every night for that reckless irresponsible good for nothing child whom she loves, with her whole heart, in the depths of her guts.

God loves you. You’ve heard it before. It’s the summary of every Sunday school lesson, the gist of every Christian bumper sticker. God loves you. But… how does God love us, exactly? How do we understand the love of God?

I have a hunch that for a lot of Christians, our sense of God’s love is either as something so warm and squishy and nonspecific that there’s really no there there; or else as something so conditional and judgmental that it feels like love in name only.

Hosea offers us some real, human, emotionally resonant metaphors for divine love. These metaphors are painful, for some of us. For those scarred by infidelity, their partner’s or their own. For those who carry the grief and regret of seeing a beloved child walk away from them – or of being that child. I hope you understand that neither Hosea nor I offer these images lightly. Hosea’s intention is precisely that, by evoking the very real pain of real human relationships, he might give us a glimpse into the heart of God.

Even those who haven’t borne those particular hurts know what it feels like to love someone so much, heart and mind and spirit and guts, and to come to a moment where you can’t help them. Can’t fix it for them. Maybe can’t even reach them. Francis Spufford describes the love of God as “thwarted tenderness.” I know what that feels like, thwarted tenderness. I think most of us do, one way or another.

In our 21st century wisdom, we might offer God some advice. We might tell God that God has to draw some boundaries and practice some tough love with that child who keeps taking advantage of God’s motherly love. We might tell God that God could be a healthier individual if God could let go of this relationship with a partner who can never give God the kind of faithful love God longs for. But that’s not the point. The point is to help us imagine and even feel, in a sympathetic resonance deep in our guts, God’s love and longing for us. For you. For me.

Hosea spoke these words to the people Israel to give them some sense of God’s abiding care for them in a time when their nation was literally crumbling around them. However brutal the 2016 election cycle, that is NOT actually our situation. Yet. It’s good to know we have the words and witness of the Prophets for the seasons when we need them, in our corporate life.

But in the meantime I believe Hosea’s insight into the heart of God can bless us as individuals. For Israel, belonging to God was primarily a matter of their collective chosenness and observance of God’s laws. For us, belonging to God is primarily a matter of our individual choices to become part of a community of faith and walk the path of discipleship. And our capacity for discipleship, which is living in response to the love of God, grows as we know and feel and trust the love of God. As the words “God loves me” become more than just words, but a thing we experience, and believe.

We need Hosea’s witness, Hosea’s window into the thwarted tenderness of the heart of God. We need images that help us understand, in our hearts and our guts, the love of God, beyond squishy meaningless warmth and beyond the harsh father figure who only loves you IF. We need to hear and imagine and know God as One who loves us – who loves YOU – with the hopeless devotion and adoration of a smitten spouse, with the fierce unshakable tenderness of a parent.

We need to know God as One who weeps when we weep, takes pride in our accomplishments, waits for us when we wander, misses us when we’re out of touch and treasures our time together, grieves when we hurt ourselves, hopes for our future, and always, always, always, welcomes us home.