Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Love Story

Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85:8-13

        Nothing is more powerful than a good love story. I am not talking about Ali McGraw batting her eyes at Ryan O’Neal and saying the most ridiculous line written in the ego-centric 1970’s, “Love means never having to say your sorry.” I am talking about a real love story like Romeo or Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, or Heloise and Abelard. I am thinking of a story in which love and tragedy are intermingled leaving us both fulfilled and empty. I am thinking of desperate measures creating life changing consequences such as Grace Kelly, a life long pacifist shooting a member of the Miller gang in order to save Gary Cooper. In a classic love story, the need for transformation and grace are central to the plot.
        How many of you are familiar with the love story of Hosea and Gomer? You might be surprised to know the Old Testament is filled with love stories. There is Abraham and Sarah; Jacob and Rachel; David and Bathsheba; Solomon and every woman he ever met. And then there is this gem located deep in the Minor Prophets. It begins with less than appealing first line, “Hosea, go take for yourself a whore, and have children with this whore, for Israel has become a whore by forsaking the Lord.”
        We much prefer the more familiar, “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean and a pair of star-crossed lovers take their lives”, (Romeo and Juliet, Act 1 scene 1). I entreat you consider another tale of woe in which, “righteousness and peace kiss as faithfulness springs from the ground” (Psalm 85:10).
        The book of Hosea, written in the last days of Israel, begins by telling a tragic story between a man and his adulterous wife. It is a metaphor depicting the unfaithfulness of Israel and the eternal steadfast love of God. It is a story for any generation.   
        Hosea seeks a wife. This is not the teenage Romeo seeking out the youthful and chaste Juliet. This is an older man seeking out a woman who has a history. Can you imagine what the neighbors said when Hosea announced the wedding?
        “Poor Hosea, why did he choose her?  There were so many other women/nations that would have been a better choice. Why go with Gomer/Israel when Syria, or Lebanon or even Babylon would have made a better bride? She has been unfaithful in the past; she will be unfaithful in the future. She will not change.”
        Despite all of the warnings, Hosea vowed his love to Gomer. Soon Gomer was pregnant with their first child. Keeping with the cultural tradition, the naming of the child was very important. Names like David or Abraham honored their storied past. Hosea chose Jezreel a name which means “God plants”.  That sounds great except we are told that the name also predicts Israel will be destroyed in the valley of Jezreel. Speaking of postpartum depression, the naming of the child probably depressed the whole community.
A year later Gomer gave birth to a daughter. Her name was Lo-ruhamah which means “not loved” or “not pitied”.  What a marvelous name for one already suffering from low self esteem.
But Hosea wasn’t finished. A second son was born and was given the name Lo-ammi which means, “Not my people.” Imagine about dinner time in their little community, all the children are playing together when Gomer goes to the back porch and hollers, “Jezreel, Not pitied, Not my people, come home to dinner.”  I suspect word got out that the Hosea backyard was off limits.
Eventually Gomer had enough. There was no fourth child. She left Hosea and the children. Gomer returned to her former occupation, wanting to get as far away Hosea as possible. If it wasn’t a love story, this is where our tale would end. But if it stopped here, the story would not be worth telling.
Hosea had been humiliated. The neighbors laughed at Hosea and ask what he really expected would happen when he married a whore. Hosea even questioned God, thinking the Almighty was also responsible for his humiliation. But God did not have time for Hosea’s embarrassment. God spoke to the distraught prophet and said, “Buy her back. You love her, you promised to protect her, you made a covenant with her. Go downtown to her owners and buy her back.”
This would be a wonderful time to do a psychological profile on Gomer or make some disparaging remarks about the overt sexism of both Hosea and God but let’s refrain from both. Ignoring the obvious flaws that are present in the story let’s continue to move forward. Hosea sought Gomer out. At first she was not to be found. She was no longer young and desirable. She no longer demanded top dollar. Truth is Gomer was hardly wanted at all and those that do buy her further abused both her body and soul. Hosea found her in the back of a deserted room, more dead than alive. She was beaten so badly that he hardly recognized her. But Hosea still went to the men who owned her and asked, “How much?”
They respond, “For an hour or the night?”
Hosea replied, “For a life time.” Homer met all their demands. He gathered Gomer up, took her home and washed her wounds and her loved her forever.
I know some of you are shaking your heads. What kind of love story is this? Is Gomer going to be any happier with Hosea the second time around? You might even be thinking this is really a tragedy. At least in Pretty Woman the prostitute is the one who controls the final word. In Hosea, it seems as if Gomer is the victim and will continue to play second fiddle to the desires of both Hosea and God.
Perhaps that is the problem with any metaphor. First metaphors are intentionally over the top. Second, a story told 2700 years ago about the relationship between God and Israel, today becomes a character study on a bad marriage.  We look at Gomer as the victim. We want to not only care for her but release her from her history of male domination. It is only logical that we might feel this way. The problem is, by concentrating on Gomer, by lifting her to status of heroine, we risk missing the actual message of this story.
Let’s get one thing straight. Israel was not innocent. The people had embraced a covenant relationship with Yahweh. They had built a place of worship at Bethel. But the demands of the covenant i.e. that they worship only one God, that they live as one with all their neighbors, that they regard lying, coveting and stealing as sinful weighed heavy on the heart of a people who were being courted by a different lifestyle. The worship of Baal demanded little and expected less. By following Baal the people of Israel chose the desires of their personal appetites rather than those things that make for a healthy community. They abandoned the Torah and wrapped themselves in the joys of personal delights. Within a generation, the concept of community was lost, the gap between rich and poor broadened, and all civic pride was lost. Despite this, God still loved Israel.
This vivid, striking, even offensive metaphor, reveals the heart of a God who passionately loves, seeks, forgives, waits, pleads and finally saves. William Willimon writes, “This is the story of a God who just does not sit and wait for us to come to our senses but rather it is the eternal story of a long suffering spouse who is willing to be in pain for us. God actively pursues us until we turn, return, repent, relinquish, and come back.”
Love stories turn on choices made. Romeo kills himself when he thinks Juliet is dead. Guinevere became a nun.  Abelard became a monk. The choice in the story of Gomer and Hosea was and still is that God will not give up on us. For those of us who claim Christ, there is a direct line between God’s grace toward Israel and God’s grace poured out on Calvary.
When I think of grace my mind quickly turns to another love story, Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, in which early choices are made because of love, or duty or obligation. Years past and those choices were second guessed and even grieved. But in the midst of the unexpected feast General Loewenhielm comments, “Man is frail and foolish. We have been told that grace is   to be found in the universe but in our foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble.  We tremble before making choices and then we tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened and we see and realize grace is infinite. Grace demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace makes no conditions and singles none of us out. Grace takes us in its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and truth have kissed one another.”
My friends never forget this. God loved us in the beginning. God has loved us through out the history of humankind. And God will love us tomorrow.
To God be the glory.  Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Seeking the Word of the Lord

Amos 8:1-3,12; Luke 10:38-42

“They shall run to and fro seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.” Amos 8:12

        My last congregation yearly set aside a week-end in October in which a distinguished scholar was invited to spend time with us in an educational and worship setting. One of our visitors was Roger Nishioka, a good friend and professor of Christian Education at Columbia Seminary in Atlanta. Folks loved his ability to weave the most wonderful stories into his presentation. Things were going marvelously. The word got out and the crowds increased with each presentation. But Roger made an enormous mistake.  In taking on the Mary and Martha story Roger said, “Sometimes we have to pull ourselves from the chores in the kitchen and sit at the Master’s feet.” The crowd grew very quiet and then whispers, especially the whispers of women, could be heard. The disruption was so noticeable that Roger stopped his presentation and asked if there were questions. He was quickly given an earful on what those “chores in the kitchen” entailed, and how no church could properly function unless Martha was faithfully at work behind closed doors. To this day, when our paths cross, Roger still reminds me of the time when he was accosted by a group of angry women, “waving spatulas and knives demanding my head on a platter.”
        Therefore, it is with fear and trepidation that I dare come to this text.  This congregation has a well deserved reputation of working in the kitchen, and the garden, and in the wood pile, and at the food pantry, and even in the justice system. I will not suggest that the role of Martha is less than crucial in the life of a church. Furthermore, our text last week implored us to take seriously the role of neighbor as we work hard to bring about the kingdom of God. And yet, our “doing the word” always needs to be directed by our “hearing the word”. Sometimes we need to stop and be seekers in order that we might truly find the word God has placed before us.
        God has no monopoly on the Gospel. There is “good news” all around us. Economic indicators suggest that we are a lot better off than we were four years ago. That’s good news. Thanks to all the rain this summer, the water table is almost back to normal. That’s good news. As of this morning we haven’t declared war on Syria, Pakistan, or North Korea. That’s good news. As the popular tee-shirt proudly proclaims, “Life is Good.” The kitchen is running smoothly. Why bring up Mary? Why worry about “the word of the Lord” especially as spoken by Amos? Things are good. Why mess with something that is working?
        Of course we might remember the folks in Israel thought everything was going great. They were not at war with anyone. The economy was good, at least for those who were wealthy. Nobody was complaining loud enough for anyone to hear except that ornery prophet Amos. I got a wonderful e-mail from Brian Koster this week which read, “Imagine, a foreign sheep farmer telling folks they are not doing things acceptable to God, despite what they think and their priest are telling them. In the last year more than 2500 books have been published on how to be popular. I don’t think Amos signed up for that lecture when it was given in his neck of the woods. But then God doesn’t ask us to be popular.”     I should have asked Brian to preach.
        Sometimes we work so hard at being popular, at keeping things “nice and neat” or “the way it has always been” that it becomes hard for us to distinguish between justice and injustice. And when there is no distinction between justice and injustice, the word of the Lord has been lost.
        Don’t get me wrong; what Martha is doing is valuable. She is offering her talents for the good of the whole. She has taken the role of servant in order that others might be made comfortable. She is using her hands to help, to soothe, and to make the road easier. She is giving her time and talents in a most beneficial role. She is to be commended.
        For the past two months a handful of us have been playing Martha by taking trips down to Amherst to build a room onto an existing house. There was a need and the recipients will be children most of you will never meet. Arlie Saunders as crew chief and Sue Nichols as financial operator have found ways to somehow rescue what we all thought would be a simple task. But nothing is simple when it involves baking from scratch. Every board, every piece of plywood, every section of drywall had to be cut and measured exactly in order that the end results could give three children a second chance at life. That is what Martha does. She goes into the kitchen and turns a disaster into a meal. But Martha can only take care of one meal in the midst of a community that is starving. You see, as wonderful as our project in Amherst is, we miss the point if we don’t hear the words of folks who are saying child abuse and child desertion are reaching epidemic proportions in Amherst and Nelson County. We will be no better than the folks in Bethel if we say, “We’ve done our part”, and return to our isolated homes where the cries of children will not fall on our ears.  That is not an easy thing to hear but when one dares to venture into the world of Amos, we open ourselves to painful language.
         Amos’s rhetoric exposes difficult theological issues. His creative hyperbole illustrates how life within an unjust culture can make it nearly impossible to hear the word of God. Our acts of goodness can actually distract us from hearing God call us to greater acts of justice. Our band-aid, while much needed to heal a wound, keeps us from venturing into the real problem.  The reason for this is understandable. Social evil overwhelms us, suffocating us to the point we are willing to embrace a project but would rather not hear the truth.
Willis Jenkins, professor of Social Ethics at Yale states, “Amos leaves today’s reader with a theological questions that are immensely problematic: What does prophetic witness require today in order to get the poor on the political agenda of an indifferent governing class?  How does one say in a complex market society that the way to God’s heart is through the uninsured, the homeless and the excluded? It is not enough to preach on oppression or denounce an unjust system. The prophet must find ways to silence the languages of a people’s gods and goods long enough to let the words of justice be heard. She must expose the wrongness of society as the very vehicle by which that culture will eventually collapse.”
That is a difficult and debatable statement. But it is spoken like a prophet, intentionally over the top, causing us to at least stop and ponder its significance. Is injustice the primary cause for the dysfunction and ruin of empires?  Is justice high on God’s agenda? Should this even be a concern of the church? What does the word of God actually say?
The horrible truth is most folks sitting in the pews seldom venture into this book we claim to love. Perhaps that is why Jesus, while certainly grateful that Martha was willing to still his hunger remarked, “Martha, you are so worried and distracted by many things. Mary is willing to listen to one thing. She has chosen the better part.”
We are all good at doing, but how willing are we to listen? What on earth might happen if we are willing to listen to the word of the Lord?
Eugene Peterson tells a great story about a thirty five year old truck driver who grew up in a Greek home and went to a Catholic school but none of it rubbed off. He married a woman who was Presbyterian. She felt it was important for her husband to go to church so he did. Anthony had never read a book in his life but decided if he was going to join a church he had better read the Bible. He read it cover to cover more than once.  Mary was a product of Sunday School and was comfortable with a religion of definitions and explanations but had never really read the Bible. One day Anthony was trying to explain one of the parables to his wife but she wasn’t getting it.  He finally said, “Mary, you have to devour these words. You’ll never figure them out from the outside. You have got to get inside them and let them get inside you.”  
The Word got inside of Amos. The Word left him with more questions than answers and would not let him sit still.
It got inside of Mary. In the mystery over who Jesus might be she was captured by a taste for the divine and wanted more.
And the word will get inside of you. Trust me, the Bible does not tell you what you want to hear but rather what you need to hear. The Bible will leave you hungering for more. It is the most comforting and discomforting book you will ever read. It can be as sweet as honey and still leave a bitter aftertaste in your stomach.  If you dare to read it you will enter a strange world in which God is revealed. Don’t read the Bible to discover who you are. Read the Bible to discover who you might become and in turn what this world might become. This book makes us participants in the world of God’s being and action. We don’t participate on our own terms, we don’t get to make up the plot, and we don’t end up the same. Problems will become opportunities and opportunities will become problems because you will see with a frightfully new and improved vision.
You will probably not become the new Amos. But every church could use a lot more Mary’s.  I encourage you to read the Word, embrace the Word, and live the Word. Dare to witness this world through the eyes of God.   YOU WILL BE STUNNED!          

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Plumb Line

Amos 7:7-17; Luke 10:25-37

        One of my summer jobs in college I was working for a brick mason.  It is delightful work if you have a strong back, no fear of heights and enjoy tittering on the brink of heat exhaustion.  There were no skills associated with what I was asked to do.  My job was to build the scaffold, haul the bricks up the scaffold, mix the mortar and haul the mortar up the scaffold.  I never laid the first brick.  But I did learn the importance of a plumb line.  Perhaps brick layers today have a more sophisticated way of accomplishing their task.  But forty years ago, the guys I worked with used the same method that has been used for 3,000 years. A plumb line is no more than a string attached to a weight.  The cord is fastened or held above the wall.  The weight falls toward the ground and allows the mason to make sure that his wall is vertically 90 degrees.  The slightest inaccuracy causes an imperfection that threatens the integrity of the structure.   When the prophet Amos preached that God was setting a plumb line in the midst of the Hebrew people, this was a pretty serious examination of 8th century Israel.  Trust me, Amos wasn’t talking about examining cracks in the walls of the Temple. He was calling for a full scale assessment of the way the people of Israel conducted their lives.  He was saying, “God created you to stand straight, but this whole nation is so bent over I could screw you into the ground.”  Ironically the folks in charge thought things had never been better. Accordingly, they took Amos’ warnings to be the rants of one who was out of touch with the times.
        It might be helpful to take a moment and give you a glimpse of life in Israel under King Jeroboam II.  He was King for 40 years.  Under the reign of Jeroboam the northern and southern borders were secured.  Syria had been crippled by Assyria and was not seen as a military threat.  Assyria was occupied with rebellions on its eastern borders and had neither the time nor resources to look west toward Israel.  Economically the country was moving from an agrarian society to one dominated by shop keepers and trade.  Towns were becoming larger.  This evolution in the economy corresponded to both the financial surge and the newly developing division between social classes.  Isolated sections of the towns were dominated by spacious homes.  The rest of the town was filled with small shacks.   The results were a stark disparity between the luxury of the rich and the misery of the poor.  This was also a time in which religion flourished.  Festivals abounded and the community leaders regularly gave credit to Yahweh for their prosperity, their peace and their nation.  So when Amos arrived on the scene to preach his fiery sermon about God putting a plumb line on Israel, this sheep herder from the hill country was considered a nut case.  When he stood in the Temple of Bethel and began to speak a whole lot of folks got very upset.  When Amos finished, no one suggested he be invited back for homecoming.  I have read this book a number of times and I can guarantee you a preacher today wouldn’t last long if all he preached from was the Book of Amos.  And yet this little gem remains securely imbedded between the books of Joel and Obadiah.  Why?  Because none of us remember the name Jeroboam II but most of us are familiar with these words from the sermon of Amos, “Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
What was it that Amos said that really upset the local population?  Basically it came down to one question, “Who is your neighbor?” Any one who studies scripture knows that simple question is universal to the entire biblical message. 
Remember the story of Cain and Abel.  In rage one brother takes the life of his sibling.  God approached the guilty survivor and asked, “Where is your brother?”  You remember his answer.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  In other words, “Am I responsible for my actions as they impact the life of another?”  God response was rather direct, “Yes you are.”
Remember Sarah and Hagar.  Sarah was the wife of Abraham. Hagar was the mother of Abraham’s only child.  This arrangement was fine until Sarah became pregnant.  Then she demanded Hagar and her child be thrown into the desert.  After all, she was only a slave.  Was Abraham responsible for the fate of Hagar and Ishmael?  Evidently he was.  God rescued Hagar and made her a privileged daughter.
Remember Jacob and Esau.  Jacob was the chosen one but Esau owned the birthright.  But through a series of deceptions and lies Jacob was awarded both the birthright and his father’s blessings.  Does the text celebrate the cunning nature of Jacob? Is Esau no longer a child of God? Is Jacob responsible for his brother?  When Jacob moved back home, was Esau his neighbor?  In the eyes of God, there was never a doubt.
Remember Joseph, the son of Jacob.  He was the one with the fancy coat and the ability to interpret dreams.  He was also the one who angered his brothers with his arrogance.  Remember how the brothers dealt with their younger brother?  Remember them selling him into slavery?  Remember later in the story when the same brothers came to Egypt asking Joseph, the second most powerful person in the land for food?    What kind of justice would be appropriate? That is the wrong question. What kind of justice does God expect? Joseph picked the correct question and welcome welcomed them as brothers.
Once we leave the Book of Genesis the neighborhood expands.  Remember David and Bathsheba.  Even a King has to face the music when he impregnates the wife of another man.  Remember the shepherd king’s words to his General Joab, “Put Urriah on the front lines that he might die.”  Remember how God held David responsible for his actions? David should have known God’s response.  After all this is the psalmist who wrote, “Give justice to the weak and maintain the rights of the lowly.”
The critical question that is raised over and over again as we read the Old Testament always centers on the how we respond toward our family members, the neighbor next door and even the guy down the street that we don’t particularly like all that much.  Why is this so important in the religious and ethical standards of the Hebrew people? The answer always goes back to the Exodus.  The Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt.  They were a people with no land, no life and no future.  There very existence began when this nation of nobodies cried out to the Lord and God heard them.  God lifted them out of slavery, God led them through the Sea of Reeds, God protected them in the wilderness, and gave them a new home. In words we can all understand, God took people who had nothing and gave them life, liberty and the opportunity to pursue happiness. The way that is always accomplished is by following two basic rules.  Number One - You shall love the Lord with all your heart soul and mind.  Number Two – You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Unfortunately, the Old Testament, for the most part, is the story of Israel’s refusal to respond to God’s instructions.  Amos was not the first or the last prophet who reminded the chosen people that God didn’t just choose a select few.  Amos followed in the footsteps of Moses, Samuel, Nathan and others who talked about the real meaning of community and the expanded understanding of caring for your neighbor.  The problem was the people of Bethel were pretty happy with the way things were.  Amos finished his sermon and they pretty much finished him.  You might say their response wasn’t all that neighborly.
I wonder what those folks sitting with Jesus thought the young preacher was going to say when asked, “Who is my neighbor?” I wonder what they must have been thinking when he began his story with the words, “A man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.”   They knew that was a winding road filled with more than its share of danger.  I doubt they were surprised when the lone traveler was beaten up and robbed.  I wonder what they thought when the priest and then the lawyer passed the injured man by.  If common folks were the audience they probably whispered about the number of times the local authorities had ignored their plight.  If Pharisees or Sadducees were the audience they probably winced a little.  Then Jesus came to the really interesting part of the story. “Finally a Samaritan wandered by and helped the man.”  Regardless of who was the crowd, I can tell you exactly what the response to this incredible twist in the story would have been.      
“A SAMARITAN!!!  NO WAY!  Not A Samaritan!  Anyone but a Samaritan!”  A modern day perspective it would be like:
A Palestinian helping a Jew, or vice versa.
A Shite helping a Sunni, or vice versa.
Eric Cantor helping Nancy Pelosi, or vice versa. 
You get the picture.  Samaritans were not liked or tolerated.  They were outsiders, outcast, and out of luck should one be caught anywhere near the area Jesus was telling his story.  And yet Jesus made the Samaritan the hero of the story.  Furthermore, just as they are about to recover from this literary bombshell, Jesus asked, “Who acted like a neighbor?”  In other words, he dropped the plumb line. 
The young lawyer who asked the original question, responded, “The Samaritan”.   Can you imagine how hard that must have been for him to have said that word?  Five hundred years of hate, of fighting, of bigotry, of total and absolute disgust was packed into that answer.  And once the man responded, Jesus didn’t preach him a sermon, Jesus didn’t chastise him, and Jesus didn’t even pat him on the head for delivering the correct answer.  Jesus just said, “Go and do likewise.”
What a powerful message!  We are our brother’s keeper; we are accountable for our actions; we are beyond excuses; but most important of all, when our great God measures us, and finds us crooked, God straightens us up, forgives us and then says, “Go and act neighborly toward each other.”
When my children were quite young, one of their favorite moments was to daily enter that magical world of fantasy created by Mr. Rogers.  He would change his shoes, put on that old sweater and engage children everywhere in simple stories that didn’t quite have the zing of “The Electric Company” or “Sesame Street”.  But that Presbyterian minister from Pittsburg had something else going for him.  Mr. Rogers knew the Bible.  Without ever making a huge deal of his theological linage, Mr. Robert’s invited the children of the world to his neighborhood.   He would tell his stories of justice, righteousness, and what it really meant to be neighborly.  And then he would encourage his audience to go and do likewise.
Some of us respond to the in your face antics of justice rolling down like a mighty stream.  Some of us respond to the surprise that even the Samaritan is one of God’s children.  And some of us prefer to be persuaded by the soft voice of a graying man playing with puppets.  Regardless your taste or preference, the question and the response always remain the same. 
“Who is your neighbor?”
“Go and do likewise”.
Let us give thanks to our God who not only measures us, but straightens us out in order that we might become the neighbor God intended us to be.                                   Amen.