“Say What” – July 28, 2013
Say What? Sermon July 28th, 2013
“Let the words of my mouth . . . “
According to the papers, it was not hard to catch ski-mask wearing Floyd Brown while he robbed a Holiday Inn in Anchorage, Alaska. Forty police officers were in the lobby of the hotel attending a law-enforcement training conference, which ironically, was advertised on the huge neon sign out front.
Closer to my hometown of Richmond Virginia, a young man was arrested after he was found screaming in a car that did not belong to him. Apparently his hand had gotten stuck in the dashboard when he tried to steal the stereo, and he was forced to cry for help through the pain of three broken fingers.
Both of these unfortunate individuals are in the running for the “not so prestigious” Darwin Awards. Named in honor of Charles Darwin who developed the theory of natural selection, the Darwin Awards commemorate those people who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it, usually doing so in an extraordinarily stupid manner.
And though I never won this award, I must admit that I too have done a couple things in my lifetime that would have at least qualified me for honorable mention. One of my most embarrassing came when I was a senior in high school working on my neighbor’s farm. I was working by myself in a barn building a stand for a tank that would then be mounted on a trailer to use for spraying. I was using an acetylene torch to cut a piece of metal that was going to be used for the frame. Lost in my work I began to notice a burning smell. I turned around and realized that a piece of hot, cut metal had caught some loose hay on fire and was starting to burn. I quickly put this out and was pleased that a larger incident was averted. Feeling confident with my luck and with my piece of metal cleanly cut, I now needed to bend it upwards so that it could hold the tank. Not wanting to wait for help, I decided that I would just use a hammer to bend the heated metal. One hit . . . two hits . . . I think you might be able to see where this is going . . . three hits . . . and then BAM . . . the hammer clanked off the metal bar and hit me right in the head. Just like a scene from the 3 Stooges. Needless to say, I waited for help before finishing the job while deciding that “what happens in the barn can just stay in the barn”! Well, another potential candidate for the Darwin Awards comes to us this morning from our scripture passage.
Had CNBC or FoxNews existed in 8th century BCE Israel, you can almost hear the headlines . . . “Crisis in Religion . . . Hosea, a prophet to the nation of Israel, has been ordered by God to marry a prostitute . . . is this the end of Religion as we know it!” Pretty dramatic stuff. And yet we have to wonder, what was God and or Hosea thinking? At a time in history when the purpose of marriage was for the production of legitimate children to carry on the family name, why in the world would Hosea marry a prostitute? Is he becoming a candidate for a Darwin Award or is something else at work here?
The 1st chapter of Hosea which we read this morning is not a biography, but is rather an interpretative retelling of Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and the birth and naming of their three children. The traditional take on Hosea is that he was an 8th century prophet who was calling Israel to repentance and reform in the religious sphere . . . a turning away from the worship of Baal. But was it just the religious sphere that Hosea was concerned about or was it more than this?
One of my favorite radio programs used to be the late Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story”. On this program, Harvey, with that wonderful distinct voice of his, would skillfully weave a narrative that would connect something that you were familiar with in the present to an event in the past. When he was finished you would have this connection that would make you go “wow . . . so that is how that came to be.” In our story this week, a voice that is missing that might be helpful in providing us some insight into the life of Hosea is from his wife, Gomer. If you all will allow me some literary license, I would like to share a letter that, if she were alive today Gomer might have written to us as a reflection on her life.
Dear friends of St Croix Reformed Church. It is with both joy and pain that I share with you from the story of my life. As you probably know, Hosea and I lived in a very tumultuous time. Our country of Israel was going though Kings just as fast as we could produce them. One would take power and then would quickly die in some dramatic fashion . . . usually by assassination. Eventually our country was overtaken by the Assyrians and we had to flee with our family to the South. Fortunately, we were able to resettle and I do have joyful memories of my children marrying but as many of you may know, it is always sad to leave one’s place of birth. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
First, to set the record straight, I was not always a prostitute. In fact, the translation in your Bible might be more accurate if it read, “one who is prone to be promiscuous”. Maybe it would be better to say that “it was in my nature”, but that was not who I was. Hosea and I were married when I was just 16. I was still living at home with my father, mother, and 3 siblings. Hosea was working in the city as an established baker. He would get grain from area farmers and would provide bread for the village and the royal court. I think that this was where he first began to see problems with our country. But again, I am getting ahead of myself.
You must remember that marriage in our day was much different than marriage today. While we might fall in love, we did not marry for love. Marriages were about extending the family unit by providing heirs for the transfer of property. Hosea approached my father; a deal was struck; a dowry delivered; and we were married. It all happened so quickly, I can barely remember it. But I do remember our wedding night because having never been with a man I was both nervous and excited about starting our family. And it did not take long. Within our 1st year of marriage, our 1st son was born. This is when life for me with Hosea began to change.
Generally, when naming a child, a positive name is given. As far as I know, it is a tradition that goes back forever. In fact, you all do similar things today. Noah means “Rest or Peace”; Benjamin is “son of my right hand”. But when it came time to name our son, what does Hosea say . . . “Jezreel”! While it sounds pleasing enough and means “he sows” it is a name with a bloody history for it refers to a location in the Israeli countryside where an extremely bloody battle for power took place. It would be like naming a child born immediately after your Civil War “Gettysburg” . . . everyone would know what this meant. “Why”, I asked, and Hosea said that those currently in power took it through a bloody coup. Now, they were not being faithful to the covenant that the God of Israel had established. They were taking the money earned by the farmers and laborers and filling their own coffers. They were neglecting the poor, the widow and the orphan. Hosea said that when they heard the name Jezreel, they would realize that they needed to change their ways. Unfortunately, they did not listen.
When our second child was born, I was so excited to have a daughter. I know that sons are important, but I had such a good relationship with my mother that I was excited to share the same with my very own daughter. I would teach her to cook, and to weave, and would share with her all of the stories from our tradition. But when it came time to give her a name, Hosea cried out, “her name is Lo-Ruhamah”. My heart sank. In your language, Lo-Ruhamah is often called “No Pity”, but it is probably better translated “Not Motherly Loved” or “Neglected”. Hosea said that God was no longer going to have pity on Israel for what they had done. I said that I did not care what God thought or what the King and his royal court had done, how can I call my daughter “Not Motherly Loved”: a daughter that I loved more than life itself? I was screaming and crying . . . but Hosea was silent. For months I cried myself to sleep. I cried until the tears stopped coming and I just felt numb. All of the dreams that I had for my daughter were dashed again and again every time I said her name.
When our third child was born, the excitement from the previous births was over. Hosea said that this boy would be named Lo-Ammi which in your language means “Not My People”. Hosea said that the covenant with God was over. After the Exodus, when Moses spoke to God in the burning bush he asked God, “what shall I tell the people your name is”? God replied “I am”. Now, whenever anyone uttered the name of our son, it would remind them that “you are no longer my people” or “not, I am to you”. It was over. It was over with God and Israel, and it was over with me and Hosea. I was mad. I was mad at the God of Israel, mad at Hosea, and mad at the King. So, as soon as Lo-Ammi was weaned, I took matters into my own hands and I left.
Where did I go? I left for the temple of Baal. In the preceding year, an extremely long drought had overtaken the land and grain was scarce. Because of the Royal policies that Hosea had been complaining about, those in power were taking it all and there was not enough grain available for the farmers and the working class. As a result, people were starving. It was an awful time. Baal was the storm God who controlled the rain. Our annual ceremonies were performed in the temple so that Baal would return and bring the rain. If I could worship as a temple prostitute, could participate in the rituals of old, then maybe, just maybe, we would get the rain that we so desperately needed so that grain would be available to feed the starving. Additionally, it would help me forget. Forget the names; forget the pain; forget Hosea; forget it all.
I will spare you all the details, but the rain did not come and I could not forget. Because I was now an adulterer, by law I was chastised and eventually taken to be sold at auction as a slave or servant. When the day of the auction came, it started off like any other day for the past 12 months . . . hot, dry, and dirty. It was just as I felt. Dirty for what I had done and dirty for what I was becoming. When it was my turn to stand on the auction block, clouds started rolling across the horizon. At one point, I thought I heard thunder but knew it was probably in my imagination. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw him . . . Hosea. He was here! And not only was he present, he was bidding for me! When it was over, he was the one who paid the price for my freedom. He had taken the meager money that we had saved and bought me back. I was both happy and ashamed. After he paid the money he came to me. My clothes were tattered and I was scared. What would he say? He put his arms around me and simply said “I love you”. It was too much for me and I just broke down and cried. And as we stood there in our embrace, weeping tears of joy, it started to rain.
That is my story. Hosea’s prediction came true and our country eventually fell. We fled to Judah to raise our family and as you know, Judah eventually fell as well. But though it all, God has stayed true to the covenant. During the Babylonian captivity; though the return and rebuilding of the temple; and through Jesus his son and beyond. Thank you for listening to my letter. Gomer.
P.S. Remember those awful names? As a sign of God staying true to the covenant with Israel and Judah, Hosea changed them. Jezreel really is “God Sows” for God’s people are everywhere; Lo-Ruhamah is now just “Ruhamah” for God will show pity and compassion on the World; and Lo-Ammi is just plain Ammi, for we all are God’s People!
“And now you know the rest of the story”. But in reality, this story continues. As I struggled with this passage this week I truly wondered, “Why would God command Hosea to marry a prostitute? What would be the purpose in that?” Then I realized that Gomer was just like the rest of us . . . prone to sin. She reacted to her situation in a way that showed her humanity. When challenged with a difficult situation, she attempted to take matters into her own hands to solve it. She did not look to God, but rather to other outside sources. As a result, she fell into sin. But, it was Hosea’s response to Gomers infidelity that allowed this story to become a metaphor. A metaphor to show God’s perfect love for humanity.
Under the rules for marriage in the 8th century, regardless of the reasons involved, Hosea was under no obligation once Gomer committed adultery. But he bought her back. Within that culture, this was unheard of and it spoke volumes, especially in a male driven, patriarchal system. In our Gospel stories, Jesus also challenges us to behave or act beyond what are considered “normal” expectations. For example, when asked how many times we should forgive, the disciples said that the law requires 7. While Jesus response was to forgive not 7 but 70 times 7.
One caveat to remember . . . stories or metaphors in the Bible are designed to illustrate divine truths and are not to be used as literal interpretations. Therefore, this story is not meant to provide license to sin or commit adultery. Neither, does it necessarily condone a patriarchal view of God.
While in this story, it was in fact Hosea who forgave Gomers sin, Gomer represents all of humanity, male and female, with all its weaknesses and shortcomings . We are all represented in Gomer. We are all prone to sin. We all have a tendency to stray from our covenant responsibilities which are, “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God”.
Hosea went past all cultural expectations to forgive Gomer for her sin; God continually forgave Israel for falling away; and God forgives us for our imperfections. And Jesus models for us to do the same . . . “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
The good news is that in our shortcomings; our failures; our sins; God is right there with us; not abusing us or punishing us, not leaving us to fend for ourselves; but as Hosea did with Gomer on the day of the auction; God is their hugging us; holding us; and whispering to us those 3 little words . . . I Love You.
Thanks Be to God!