For this week’s Events and Happenings at Reservoir, click “Download PDF.”
This week’s spiritual practice which opens our recording of the service, was led by Vernee Wilkerson.
Along with my friend Ivy, I’m part of a class this year that certifies us in a spiritual direction: listening well and paying attention to how God is with us. Last weekend we had a longer session than normal that included a several hours long silent retreat. This being the year it is, we didn’t go anywhere, but I shut myself in a room for a few hours to be alone with my thoughts about my life.
And I found myself drawing a little box on a page in my journal. And that box was me, so I put my name in it. And I thought about the forces I’ve been feeling inside me and around me all year. And there were four forces that came to mine that push on my mind and my heart and make this year heavy. And I wrote words for those four forces. And those words were sadness, anger, fear, and pressure.
Sadness, anger, fear, and pressure – I’ve felt a lot of all of those this year. Have you felt any or all of those? I wonder what else have you been feeling.
As I looked at this picture and prayed, I asked God where God fit into the picture. Because I believe God is always with us, that God accompanies us in all things, I asked God: how are you with me?
And because I follow Jesus, I believe that what is most true of God is that God is love. And so I asked God: if this is my life today, what does it mean that you love me? Where is your love? What does love feel like?
One of the only times in the Bible where someone tries to describe God in a word is when the author of a little letter called I John writes: God is love. God is love. Full stop. That’s where we start, and that’s where we end, when we talk about God.
This is that writer reflecting on the life and teaching of Jesus, that so centered love in his life and teaching. And this is that writer taking a daring stab at summing up the whole of the Bible’s teaching on God as well, which so often talks about God’s love.
But when we dig into the details of our own experience, asking what does it mean when we say God is love, we aren’t always sure. And when we dig into the details of the Bible’s teaching and stories about love, it can also get complicated, since the Bible is a big collection of writings, by many people, all from very different times and places than we are from.
So what do we mean when we say God is love?
I want to talk about that today from one of the beautiful and troubling and messy and passionate biblical writers about God’s love, the prophet Hosea, who is the second prophet in our series this Lent: What is Most Important.
Hosea was a favorite of Jesus. Jesus liked to quote an important line from Hosea that we’ll come back to when I preach next in two weeks. That line Jesus liked to quote is: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. Or I desire faithful love and not sacrifice. Jesus had a lot to say about this line and we will too.
But today, I want to talk about the basic set-up for the book of Hosea and what it is saying about God’s love – because depending on how you read it, it’s either beautiful and stirring, or creepy and misogynist, or a little bit of both at once.
The book of Hosea begins with a brief little story about Hosea’s life and his unusual marriage. It goes like this:
Hosea 1:2-11 (CEB)
2 When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to him,“Go, marry a prostitute and have children of prostitution, for the people of the land commit great prostitution by deserting the Lord.” 3 So Hosea went and took Gomer, Diblaim’s daughter, and she became pregnant and bore him a son. 4 The Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will destroy the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5 On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Jezreel Valley.” 6 Gomer became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Name her No Compassion, because I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel or forgive them. 7 But I will have compassion on the house of Judah. I, the Lord their God, will save them; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.” 8 When Gomer finished nursing No Compassion, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. 9 Then the Lord said, “Name him Not My People because you are not my people, and I am not your God.”
10 Yet the number of the people of Israel will 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,” it will be said to them, “Children of the living God.” 11 The people of Judah and the people of Israel will be gathered together, and they will choose one head. They will become fruitful in the land. The day will be a wonderful one for Jezreel.
Where does one start?
There’s a lot here to unpack, isn’t there?
This chapter is trying to convey this beautiful message of God’s love. That no matter what God’s children do with our lives, God will continue to delight in us. God will always seek relationship with us, will always offer us God’s presence and God’s best possibilities for our next steps. God will never stop loving us, whether or not we reciprocate that love.
That is good news.
And yet, the story of God’s love as told through Hosea is complicated.
Imagine being Hosea. You’re a young adult living your life best as you can, praying as you do, since you love God, and you become convinced God wants your love life to mirror God’s, by loving someone who doesn’t know how to love you faithfully, or doesn’t want to love you faithfully. I would not advise this.
Or imagine being Gomer, with problems of your own, but your life as a sex worker is used as a symbol for a whole culture’s failings. And the poor kids, with these awful names – No Compassion, and Not my People. Even Jezreel – that’s the site of a shameful episode in Israel’s mythic early history, like naming your kid Benedict Arnold, or naming your child after some infamous mass gravesite of old.
These poor people. Now it’s easy enough to resolve this discomfort. Because after all, we don’t know if this story is historical. For the sake of everyone involved, I hope not. It may well be a parable, a fictional story with a message.
But even the message.
Hosea thinks God is cursing people, punishing them for a lack of devotion. And somehow the restoration of future generations is supposed to make up for this generation’s pain. For the ancients, to believe God was punishing you but that things would eventually go well for your descendants may have been comforting, but it’s hard to see any of us finding peace in this.
The beginning of Hosea also uses female prostitution or sexual unfaithfulness as a metaphor for human waywardness, for our tendency to stop listening to the wisdom of God and instead mess up our lives, harm our neighbor, and hurt the earth. Many of us, myself included, find the misogyny in this really problematic, like why pick on the woman? We find this to be a cultural relic we’re more than ready to set aside, not the part of the Bible that speaks to us of God.
So with all this mess in the story of Hosea, is it even possible to still hear this as a love story?
One set of artists in our time thought: yes. We need to repackage and repurpose this story a bit to place it in our times, but we think we can. And they were the team who made the contemporary film, also called Hosea. Which you can rent and watch on youtube and amazon prime, maybe other places.
The film Hosea imagines a woman’s path into sexual trafficking, where through neglect and abuse, poor luck and poor choices, and a fair bit of exploitation by bad men, a woman’s life could end up in a terribly difficult mess. The film doesn’t belittle the character that is our version of Gomer, but simply invites us to imagine her tragic story. And then it imagines what love might look like for her, and what love might look like for the one who’s loved her since childhood and loves her still, even when it hurts.
The film is full of adult content, as you can imagine, but I’ve got a 2-minute preview which I think is appropriate for church. I’d like you to see it. Here it is:
On the negative side, Hosea tells us that love is pain.
I was praying with a friend of mine about our kids and about the pain we feel at any loss one of our kids has. And my friend prayed that we’d know something of the life and love of God through this. And that just broke me open. Loving parents give up a piece of our hearts that forever lives inside our kids. Their joys, triumphs, and satisfaction are our delight. And their losses, heartbreaks, and trials are in some part, ours to hold and feel as well.
This is what it means for God to be invested in God’s creation. God’s decided God isn’t going to be God without us. And God’s a good parent too. The delights and joys and discoveries and loves of humanity enrich the life of God. And the losses, pains, and disappointments of humanity hurt the heart of God. This is uniquely true when we participate in our own hurt or when we turn our powers against one another and participate in the unravelling of God’s good creation. God feels all of this in God as well.
Love is pain.
Positively, though, love is relentless. And love isn’t higher or lower. Love seeks real relationship with the beloved.
The prophets try to give us a window into the emotional life of God. Which is a new thing for some of us, to imagine that God would have all these emotions.
Given the prophets’ views of God, in their time, when God is angry over the mess we make of our lives and one another and this good world, they communicate God’s anger through threats of punishment. Some of you all know parents like that, threatening to do this or that to their kids, if they don’t stop whatever-ing. Real talk, here, some of you all are parents like that.
But we shouldn’t take all this talk of punishment too literally. Because after all, Hosea shows the tradition wrestling with itself. Again and again, you’ll read this week in the Lenten guide, Hosea says God can’t help Godself from compassion. When God is fed up with the violence and injustice and fickle faithlessness of us and God feels the very understandable sadness and anger of all that, God still can’t help but love us.
And when love doesn’t work, when we don’t turn to God and turn to the good in response to God’s love, God keeps trying.
Hosea begins to hint at a radical posture of God that is intensified in the story and witness of Jesus, that if it is hard for us to listen to and love an unseen God, God will take responsibility for that gap. And God will do everything possible to close it.
In the film Hosea, the character of Gomer says if this is going to work between us, I can’t always come up to your standards, beloved. I can’t always fear your judgement. I need you to come down to me. And that’s just what the character of Hosea does.
When we don’t know how to love God, the God of Hosea, and especially the God known to us through the teaching and life of Jesus Christ isn’t one who waits for us at a distance. Isn’t one who gives up on us. Isn’t one who sees our pains and problems with sympathy – like, aw, I’m so sorry for what you all are going through. God takes our pains and hurts into God’s own experience.
It reminds me of the difference Brene Brown talks about between sympathy and empathy. Say you fall into a dark hole. Sympathy looks down and says – wow, sorry you’re stuck in that whole. Want a sandwich? It’s well meant, maybe, but it doesn’t connect us.
Empathy, though, remembers one’s own experience of pain and so climbs into the hole with us, says, “I know what it’s like down here. You’re not alone.”
I’ll post a great little animated video in the chat about this after the sermon.
Love is empathy. Love will be with the beloved, no matter what they’re going through. I want to be with you in that. This is what love feels like. Someone who wants to be with you in all you are and everything you going through.
And this is the love of God for us all. Not sympathy, not even just empathy, but union. Every part of our experience is part of the life of God – isn’t just seen by God, but known and felt by God.
Here’s one way that’s speaking to me right now. When I look at my life, and it feels like I’m in this box, with sadness, anger, fear, and pressure pushing in. One, I know God knows the way through this. I’ve been talking to God about my way out of this moment, what I’m going to do, what help I’m longing for to see me through what’s been a long year.
More importantly to me, though, God’s love means I’m not in that box alone. God sees what I see. God knows what I know. God feels what I feel.
God is glad to be with me in this, and God is strong enough to help. And that’s speaking to me and meaning the world to me right now.
Friends, no matter what you are experiencing today, whatever mix of good and bad, joy and pain this year has brought you, you are not in it alone. A loving God feels with you all you feel. And a living, life-giving God walks with you offering the next creative possibility for you to respond to as well.