God’s Passionate Love

God's Passionate Love

Hosea 11:1-11

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 June 2018

 

 

    Imagine that over a few years a foreign power invaded Nebraska numerous times killing tens of thousands of our citizens, devastating our crops, and forcing us to swear allegiance to them and pay a heavy tax. What would be the traumatizing effects upon our psyches? How would we make sense of the world?

    Just such a situation did face the people of the nation of Israel in the eighth century before the Common Era. And one of the people who responded to the catastrophe and tried to help the people was the prophet Hosea.

    Hear now these words of the ancient prophet of Israel:

 

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

 

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human 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.

 

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

 

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my 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.

 

They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion;
when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

 

 

For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.

 

 

One of my college textbooks introduced Hosea this way:

 

Hosea . . . was raised in a period of opulence, prosperity, opportunism, and scheming during which the rich and powerful availed themselves of all opportunities to live luxuriously. Hosea was God's messenger to a complacent, self-indulgent, and apostate people.

 

    After the death of Solomon the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah was split in two, with the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital in Jerusalem and the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria. Over the next couple of centuries the situations of both kingdoms waxed and waned as a variety of rulers, some good but many bad, governed the countries who sometimes warred with each other and sometimes joined together in warring on other nations.

    In the childhood of Hosea, the northern kingdom of Israel went through its greatest period of peace and prosperity under a relatively stable royal dynasty, but all of that changed dramatically when the great Assyrian Empire began to spread into the territories of southwest Asia. One of the histories of Assyria informs us that "no sovereigns were ever more despotic, more covetous, more vindictive, more pitiless, more proud of their crimes." And that their armies "set forth the most terrible expeditions which have ever flooded the world with blood."

    So, charming people.

    At the time the Assyrians began to threaten Israel, the nation also went through a period of internal instability with a series of weak kings who were often murdered by their associates.

    So, the good times came crashing to a halt. After a series of invasions the nation was eventually defeated and its people carried away into exile where they were assimilated with other populations and forever disappeared into the sands of history, for these are the famed "Lost Tribes of Israel."

    As this catastrophe was unfolding, Hosea appeared as the messenger of God and tried to respond to the trauma in innovative ways to give the people some sense of how to understand and respond to what was happening.

    Hosea had gone through his own personal difficulties. He married Gomer, feeling that God had instructed him to. They had children and gave those children symbolic names, as prophets sometimes did. Then Hosea discovered that Gomer was unfaithful, and he separated from her. She seems to have then descended into poverty and out of desperation became a prostitute. Hosea then received a word from God telling him to take Gomer back, and Hosea did.

    Hosea interpreted his own life experience as revelatory about the character of God and God's relationship with the people. God loved the people with a passionate love and entered into a covenant with them. Yet, the people eventually were unfaithful and became promiscuous, giving their worship to false gods and idols. Despite being angry, God still loves the people and will take them back again, restoring the passionate, covenant relationship between them.

    Hosea appears to be the first person in the history of our tradition to view the relationship between God and the people in this way—as a covenant like marriage. And to view his own subjective experience as revelatory for what Rabbi Heschel called "the inner life of God."

    

    But if you only read Hosea 11, you miss the terrifying aspects of this text. First, Hosea, and by implication God, are very angry. And their anger is repugnant to us. For example, in chapter 2 the prophet demands that the children plead with their mother to "put away her whoring" or

 

I will strip her naked

and expose her as in the day she was born,

and make her like a wilderness,

and turn her into a parched land,

and kill her with thirst.

 

Very different from the compassionate love of chapter 11. And terrifying. The Bible is filled with texts of terror, and we must be careful how we use it.

    Biblical scholar David M. Carr asks, "How . . . can one imagine [God] as such an angry, jealous, violent, out-of-control husband?" Carr also points out that "Hosea's image of redemption—[God] promising to take her back—can look like the cycle of abuse sometimes seen in human relationships." In this story Israel could be God's battered wife.

And so the book of Hosea presents us with both terrifying texts of anger and violence and beautiful words of compassion. What are we to make of it?

 

    David M. Carr is professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and his recent book Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins will help to guide our summer sermon series. Carr contends that much of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures were written in response to trauma—think for example of the New Testament texts as attempts by those writers to grapple with the crucifixion of Jesus.

    The writers of scripture were themselves traumatized and were trying to respond to their personal traumas and the collective traumas of the people. Carr believes this is why the scriptures of the biblical tradition survived when the scriptures of many other ancient cultures did not. Triumphal stories of kings and creation narratives abound in the scriptures of ancient cultures, but those stories don't help later humans grapple with the suffering of their own lives. The Bible survived because it did grapple with suffering in complex and authentic ways, and so humans have continued to turn to the Bible over thousands of years in order to respond to the traumas we experience.

    Carr argues that Hosea wants to provide the people with some sense of control over their lives. If they understand all the evil that is befalling them as a people as their own fault, then that gives them a chance to fix the situation by changing their behavior.

    Recent trauma studies inform us that this is a common way for traumatized people to think, but it can also continue the damage.

    Carr believes that the Book of Hosea does, despite its flaws, reveal a difficult truth. He writes, "people often go through life with inaccurately positive pictures of the world and their role in it. . . . But life can show the limits of a worldview and/or theology that is relentlessly upbeat."

    Historian Simon Schama writes that the Hebrew Scriptures are "not a rehearsal for grief but a struggle against its inevitability."

    This summer our worship will focus on how we develop resilience to respond to vulnerability, suffering, and trauma. We'll look at stories from the Hebrew Scriptures to see how our ancient predecessors developed resilience. And what we will discover are both good and bad options.

    The anger and abuse and self-blame of Hosea are common in traumatized people, but they aren't healthy responses. But compassion does build resilience. Compassion is a form of vulnerability to others that creates possibilities for healing.     

    Walter Brueggemann wrote that "Compassion . . . announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness."

    And part of why the Book of Hosea is so important in guiding us to a God of love, is that in this very passage God rejects anger and violence and chooses instead to treat the people with an unconditional grace. If we have rejected a notion of a wrathful God and have instead embraced a notion of a deeply loving God, it is because that change in theology has been driven by the text of scripture itself and by our experience of Jesus.

    

    The last few months Sara has often told me how much Kamaal has been overwhelmed by love for Kate. So, this week I asked Liz if she had any good stories of Kamaal's parental love.

    She told me that before Kate was born, Kamaal prepared a list of colleges she might attend and was ranking them according to various criteria. At the top of the list were various out-of-state schools, because he thought she'd want to move away from Omaha and have an experience of the wider world.

    Then, after Kate was born, Kamaal edited the list, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha suddenly was at the top of the list. Kamaal even suggested that he could build Kate a tiny house in the backyard for her to live in when she attends college at UNO.    

 

    When we are in trouble, what we require is faithfulness and unconditional love. The kind of love that protects us, comforts us, helps to strengthen us and hold us together. It's the kind of passionate love a parent has for a child. That's the kind of love that will save us.


Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma

Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of TraumaResurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma by Shelly Rambo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story of Doubting Thomas from the Gospel of John is the standard gospel lectionary text for the Second Sunday of Easter, and we usually approach it as a text about knowledge, doubt, and faith. Shelly Rambo invites a different reading focusing instead on the wounded body of the resurrected Jesus. What does it mean to carry wounds into the resurrection? Why does Jesus expose the wounds to the disciples and invite Thomas to touch? Why has theology failed (with few exceptions) to explore the wounds in this scene?

These fascinating questions are dealt with in this vivid exploration of the Gospel story. Along the way we encounter a contemporary French television show about ghosts, John Calvin's attempts to ignore the carnal aspects of the story, the healing scar of Macrina and her brother Gregory of Nyssa's struggle to understand it, W. E. B. DuBois in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, Delores Williams's concept of wilderness, a smudging ritual in a care group of combat veterans, and Caravaggio's brilliant painting of the Gospel story. Among others.

This is a rich theological account of how we can continue living beyond trauma. We must surface our wounds and engage them safely in community where healing touch helps us integrate the wounds into new life.

Note: This was an interesting read just after De la Torre's Embracing Hopelessness, for I don't think this book succumbed to his critiques.

View all my reviews

Great Plains Bison

Great Plains BisonGreat Plains Bison by Dan O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What have we done? This well-written book is about one of the great ecological catastrophes in human history--how human beings have in the last few centuries ruined the thousands years old ecosystem of the Great Plains. Not only did we slaughter the bison to near extinction and commit genocide against the nations of the Plains, we ruined the entire habitat with our plowing, irrigation, pesticides, GMO crops, etc. If you thought the sad part of this story ended a hundred years ago, and we began improving things after the Dust Bowl, O'Brien's book will surprise, for the catastrophe continues apace.

But he is a good writer, with a beautiful imagination, so this is not a depressing read. Hopefully it is a call to action for those of us who love the Plains.

View all my reviews

Embracing Hopelessness

Embracing HopelessnessEmbracing Hopelessness by Miguel A. de la Torre
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book challenges some of the core elements of my own theology and ministerial practice. Jurgen Moltmann's theology of hope helped me out of my deepest depression and gave shape to my ministry, particularly when I pastored the Cathedral of Hope, a predominately LGBT congregation. De La Torre considers the theology of hope a theology of the privileged that lulls people away from facing how awful reality actually is and the revolutionary praxis necessary to work for justice.

The methodology of the book is interesting. Each chapter explores a traumatic episode from history, with De La Torre traveling to a location--Sand Creek, Dachau, Charlottesville, the Border, etc.--with another theologian to explore a range of theological questions that these moments of injustice and violence expose.

At first I didn't care much for his style. I felt he wasn't engaging Moltmann in genuine argument. And that he was tilting at straw men, spending lots of time criticizing Hegel's philosophy of history, which I can't imagine many people believe anymore.

But near the end the book improved. The best chapter is entitled "F*ck It."

I am not fully persuaded by De La Torre to abandon my core beliefs and practices, but I am now compelled to hear these criticisms and revise accordingly. The book lacks any discussion of resurrection, which is the key Christian idea in response to catastrophe, which left me confused about De La Torre's overall approach.

Also, he makes much of turning traditional systematic theology on its head with this third volume of a trilogy addressing the issues that normally would be addressed first, whereas he dealt with ethics and praxis first. But this isn't new. Plenty of theologians have written this way in the last generation or two. James McClendon, for instance, in his three volume theology began with ethics.

Finally, I thought he could benefit from an exploration of William James's pragmatic eschatology, meliorism, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic and was itself worked out in the crucible of the Civil War.

Here is a good summary paragraph from near the end of the book:

"When I consider the hellish conditions under which brown bodies are forced to live, I simply lack the luxury or privilege to hopefully wait with Motlmann for God's future promise to materialize. Too many dead and broken bodies obscure my view of the eschaton. Instead, I call for storming the very gates of Hell not at some future time, but now. Motlmann's theology of hope is in effect a theology of optimism based on a God of process derived from trust in a certain biblical interpretation rooted in linear progressive thinking issuing from the Eurocentric modernity project. And while such a hope may be comforting for middle-class Euroamerican Christians, it falls short and sounds hollow for the disenfranchised."

View all my reviews

Criticizing Religion

Ari Ezra Waldman makes an important critical point about this week's Masterpiece Cake Shop ruling:

Third, the opinion includes troubling conclusions. As we discussed yesterday, the Court found that statements from Commissioners sitting on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission evidenced so much anti-religious bias that they denied the Christian baker a fair, impartial hearing. But those statements don’t really evidence bias. Here was the most offending statement:

I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.

In reaction to this, the Court said, “To describe a man’s faith as ‘one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use’ is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical—something insubstantial and even insincere.”

But that is not at all what the Commissioner did. His comment called out using religion as a pretext for discrimination. And besides, the Commissioner is one hundred percent correct. Christianity justified the HolocaustReligion was used to justify slavery. Religion was used to justify Jim Crow, apartheid, and laws against interracial marriage.

This raises an important question. If saying something true, yet critical about religion as an institution is an example of expressing hostility toward religion, then is every comment critical of religion evidence of bias? Are we never allowed to say anything negative about the harms that can be wrought by fundamentalism? It’s now hard to imagine the forces of equality getting a fair hearing if no one can say anything negative about the forces of bigotry when they use religion to justify their hatred.

Granted, Masterpiece Cakeshop is neither a huge triumph for bigotry nor a devastating loss for equality. But it is not harmless. It allowed bigotry to win today and may have several dangerous effects.

It is actually a sign of taking an argument or idea seriously to engage it in critical public discourse.  Religion is not and should not be immune from criticism.  That is how religions improve and advance like anything else.


Church as Polis

In the second chapter of Awaiting the King, James K. A. Smith discusses the political nature of Christian worship, which he describes as "a public ritual centered on--yea, led by--an ascended King."  As a corollary to this, "Implicit in the practices of Christian worship is an economics, a sociology, a politics."

One of the most puzzling things for many of us clergy is how we are deeply trained to understand church and worship this way--these are not new or radical ideas in theology or liturgics--but how so many congregants seem completely unformed to understand church and worship in this way.  How did this disconnect arise?

Smith is also making the point that politics (and many other aspects of our culture) are also religious--they are rituals trying to form us in certain ways.  So if the church cedes the political terrain, it is actually allowing forces outside the church to shape people according to narratives that are not the churches.

I like this quote from Richard Bauckham, "Worship . . . is the source of resistance to the idolatries of the public world."

What was frustrating about this (and some subsequent chapters) is that he spent much of the time simply reviewing the analysis and arguments of someone else, here Oliver O'Donovan.  

A key theme of the chapter is that "The politics of worship is tied to the renewal of moral agency of the people of God, who are formed to be sent."  Unlike some thinkers who focus on the church as polis, Smith reminds us that we aren't separate from the world, we are in fact sent into it to make our mark and try to influence politics and culture for God.

Smith is mainly writing to other NeoCalvinists (Reformed Evangelicals).  Some of his arguments were broadly embraced by Liberal Protestants in the 19th century.  For instance, there is this sentence, also a quote from O'Donovan, which sounded a lot to me like the Congregationalists of the 19th century who were abolitionists, temperance campaigners, suffragists, etc.--"Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God's saving power; you leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin--their own sin and others."

The chapter includes a surprising analysis of Cormac McCarthy's magnificent apocalyptic novel The Road.  Smith asks, "Where did these characters [the father and son who are main characters] come from who shine like lights in this brutal darkness?"  He doesn't read McCarthy as claiming they have a natural goodness--rather, they were formed in some way.  What liturgy then shaped them?  Smith cites numerous examples of sacramentality referenced in the novel.

In a side bar on the liturgical calendar he points out "The Christian year is a political rite that invites us to reinhabit the life of our King and learn what it might look like to imitate the strange politics of his kingdom here in the meantime."

He rightly points out near the end of the chapter that worship is not directed against any specific regime but against the entire notion that politics is ultimate for us as human beings.


Theological features of the self

I really liked this analysis in Serene Jones's Theology and Grace:

I propose five theological features of the self [that] are crucial to our creativity:  1) agency: our God-given capacity to act and hence to be creative; 2) time: our God-created capacity to imagine the future and to remember the past and--within the space of these--to compose our lives; 3) voice: our created ability to articulate and embrace our particularity, our call to be individuals with unique gifts to offer in the context of community; 4) permission: God's divine gift of forgiveness that allows us not to be perfect but to live nonetheless in grace as we creatively act and express our particularity; and 5) call: the gift of Christian vocation, the reality that we are each called to live in faithful relation to God and others in this graceful dance of creation and creativity.