That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Hosea

Not Getting It Right: Sermon for Advent 3A (December 15, 2019)

When I was a kid growing up first in southern Nevada and then in southern California, the weeks leading up to Christmas (we weren’t church members so we didn’t call them “Advent”) were always the same. They followed a pattern set by my mother. We bought a tree and decorated it; we set up a model electric train around it. We bought and wrapped packages and put them under the tree, making tunnels for that toy train. We went to the Christmas light shows in nearby parks and drove through the neighborhoods that went all out for cooperative, or sometimes competitive, outdoor displays. My mother would make several batches of bourbon balls (those confections made of crushed vanilla wafers and booze) and give them to friends and co-workers. Christmas Eve we would watch one or more Christmas movies on TV, and early Christmas morning we would open our packages . . .  carefully so that my mother could save the wrapping paper. Then all day would be spent cooking and watching TV and playing bridge. After the big Christmas dinner, my step-father and I would do the clean up, my brother and my uncle would watch TV . . . and my mother would sneak off to her room and cry. You see . . . no matter how carefully we prepared, no matter how strictly we adhered to Mom’s pattern, something always went wrong. We never got it right; Christmas never turned out the way my mother wanted it to be.

Some years later, I read the work of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and I understood what our family problem was.

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Guardians of Praise – Sermon Pentecost 20, Proper 22B, October 7, 2018

Our gradual this morning asks a question of God about human existence:

What is man that you should be mindful of him?
the son of man that you should seek him out?[1]

Whenever I read this psalm, my mind immediately skips to lines from William Shakespeare, to words spoken by the prince of Denmark in the play Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals![2]

I have always been certain that Shakespeare was riffing on Psalm 8.

The prayer book version of the Psalm uses the word “man” in the generic sense asking the question about all of humankind, then literally translates the Hebrew ben adam as “son of man” recalling to us a term Jesus often applied to himself. While that may make a certain amount of liturgical sense, it distorts the importance of the Psalm. As translated in the New Revised Version of scripture, Psalm 8 asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” This is a little closer to the initial meaning of the verse, but the original Hebrew is not pluralized. This translation loses the awe and wonder of a singular individual gazing up at the night sky and overwhelmed by the presence of divinity.

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Leaving Us with a Question: Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A — September 21, 2014

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On the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 21, 2014, this sermon was offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, RCL Proper 20A, Track 2, were Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, and Matthew 20:1-16. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Jonah and the Gord VineLet’s talk about Jonah. When I say something like “Let’s talk about Jonah,” I have to be more specific. I have to tell you whether I mean “Let’s talk about the Book of Jonah” or “Let’s talk about the character of Jonah portrayed in the book” or “Let’s talk about the Prophet Jonah.” In this case, I mean all three: let’s talk about the book, character, and the prophet — although, to be honest, the prophet’s name really isn’t Jonah; we don’t know the prophet’s name — and that, I hope, will be clearer in a moment.

So, first, the book. The Book of Jonah tells a story from about the end of the 8th Century BCE, but it was written 300 or so years later in the late-5th or early-4th Century BCE. It is addressed to the people who have just returned from the Babylonian exile, who have come back to Jerusalem under the leadership of the priest Ezra and the governor Nehemia. Under Ezra’s and Nehemia’s oversight they are rebuilding the Temple, reestablishing Jewish worship, and (very likely) canonizing the Torah (the five books of Moses).

This is the social milieu within which the book is written. The story in the book, however, is set about 350 years before, around the year 700 BCE. Back then, Judea and its capital had been a vassal state under the Assyrian empire. It was under Assyrian rule that the “ten lost tribes of Israel” were lost. Under a particularly ruthless and brutal king named Sennacherib, the Assyrians became rather unhappy with the Judeans, and laid siege to and sacked Jerusalem in 701 BCE.

We know a lot about the Assyrians because they kept really good records. In the 1800s archeologists discovered the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh (that name should ring a bell!) consisting of more than 30,000 cuneiform tablets recording Assyrian history. In addition, the Assyrians were fond of illustrating their history, particularly their military victories, with sculpted and brightly painted bas relief murals. In one of the royal dining rooms of Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, for instance, there still exists such a sculpture depicting the siege of Lachish, another Judean city captured and destroyed at the same time as the siege of Jerusalem. We know from this mural and from other records that Lachish fared much worse than Jerusalem; its leaders were tortured to death and the town was leveled. That mural in Sennacherib’s dining room shows (in rather graphic detail) the Jewish leadership of Lachish being flayed alive by Assyrian soldiers.

So that is the setting of the story: it was written shortly after the end of the Babylonian exile and set at the time of the brutal Assyrian siege of Jerusalem and Lachish. However, the story of Jonah is not history. It is set in historically verifiable places — Israel, the Mediterranean Sea, and the city of Nineveh — at an historically verifiable time — about the high point of what is called the “Neo-Assyrian Empire,” but it is not itself history. It is, in fact, a work of fiction.

How do we know that? Well, there are several indicators, but let’s just look at a few glaring examples. First, not in the part we read today but in the first chapter, Jonah tries to escape his commission from God by fleeing to Tarshish (about which more in a moment). Instead of traveling northeast to Nineveh, he books passage on a ship heading west, and what happens? You know the story: a big storm kicks up, the sailors become frightened and convinced that some god is trying to kill them, they determine that it’s Jonah’s God, and they throw him overboard. The storm comes to an end and Jonah is swallowed by a “big fish” in whose belly he survives for three days. That ought to be the first clue that we are dealing with a fanciful tale: there are no fish (or other animals) native to the Mediterranean Sea big enough to swallow a human being and, if there were, it would be physically impossible to live three days inside one. (Certainly, I’m not suggesting that God could not have provided a miraculously big fish equipped as a mini-sub; I am suggesting that it’s unlikely.)

The second hint is the description of Nineveh. We read in Chapter 3 that “Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.” (v. 3) But we know from archeology that that’s just not the case! The city of Nineveh was not quite 1900 acres, which is a little less than 3 square miles. It was, maybe, 1-3/4 miles across. You can walk that in under 40 minutes.

The third clue to the fictionality of this story is in the meat of the story itself. Just before the portion we heard today, the king of Nineveh, ruthless and brutal Sennacherib, in response to Jonah’s prophetic proclamation that the city would be destroyed in forty days, rises from his throne and issues this decree:

By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish. (3:7-9)

If there had ever been such a decree or such a nationwide fast in Assyria, it would have been mentioned somewhere in those 30,000-plus tablets in the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal. But it’s not. There’s not the slightest bit of evidence that such a thing ever happened.

So, there you have it, a little bit of fiction, a short, satirical story (and it is short — only four brief chapters) plunked down in the middle of the Bible’s records of prophecy. But that’s OK; through the medium of this short satire a theological truth, a prophetic message is nonetheless conveyed. The prophetic import of the Book of Jonah, however, is not to be found in the words of its principal character, as is the case in most of the prophetic record. The prophetic message of the Book of Jonah is in its principal character himself, not in what he says, but in what he does and in what he represents. The Book of Jonah is prophecy the same way that Hosea’s marrying a prostitute was prophecy, the same way Micah’s wandering the streets of Jerusalem naked was prophecy, the same way Jeremiah’s failure to mourn his wife was prophecy. The people of Israel and Judea saw their one unfaithfulness reflected in Hosea’s spouse, their own shame in Micah’s nakedness, their own bereavement in Jeremiah’s loss. And the people of 4th Century Jerusalem recently returned from the Babylonian exile, would have recognized themselves in the character of Jonah.

In his book And God Created Laughter (Westminster John Knox: 1988), Presbyterian pastor and Professor of Religion Conrad Hyers, wrote this about this character:

Certain details of the comic caricature of Jonah, for instance, are more apparent in the Hebrew. No doubt these allusions were clearer to the people who first heard or read the story.

The opening words of the book of Jonah are a case in point. “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai.” Innocent as these words may seem, in Hebrew they contain two important allusions that are central to the comedy that is to follow. Jonah means “dove,” a metaphor sometimes used for the people of Israel, as in Psalm 74:19. Now the image of the dove brings with it a trail of associations that — as the story indicates — are the opposite of what Jonah (Israel) really is.

The dove is associated with hope, as in Noah’s sending out a dove to find land after the flood. Yet this dove (Jonah) behaves in a most contrary manner: sent out to warn of impending destruction, he refuses lest the judgment be averted. The dove is also associated with the theme of escape from troubles and evils, as in Psalm 55:6, “O that I had wings like a dove.” Yet this dove (Jonah) tries to escape from his mission in the hope that Nineveh cannot possibly escape from doom. The dove is further associated with love, as in the Song of Solomon, in which the beloved is dovelike: “My love, my fair one . . . my dove” (2:13,14). Yet this dove (Jonah) has not only no love for the Ninevites but not a penny’s worth of sympathy or pity. Jonah is no dove at all; he is a hawk. Perhaps the only Hebraic association that is directly applicable to Jonah is that he is “like a dove, silly and without sense” (Hos. 7:11). Certainly, flightiness and silliness aptly describe Jonah’s behavior throughout the story.

The other ironic allusion in the opening words is contained in the phrase “son of Amittai.” Amittai means “faithfulness.” A second contradiction with which the story is to deal is announced at the start. This “son of faithfulness” is completely disobedient. His response to the divine command is totally contrary to it. “Dove son of Faithfulness” flies off in the opposite direction lest he become the bearer of the least olive leaf of hope, love, and salvation. (pp. 99-100)

Prof. Hyers mentions Psalm 74 as one instance in which the dove is a symbol for Israel; others are found in the Prophets Hosea (7:11) and Jeremiah (48:28). Surely, this short story’s first readers would have recognized this.

They would also have recognized Israel in Jonah’s tendency to do the opposite of what God had commanded and would have seen allusions to their own worship and liturgy. Prof. Hyers mentions two examples from the sacred poetry of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. Another is found in Psalm 139:

Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast. (vv 6-9, BCP Translation)

In the story, as I mentioned earlier, Jonah is told to travel to the northeast to Nineveh. Nineveh still exists: today it is called Mosul, a city in Iraq with which we have all become familiar because of current events and recent news coverage. To get there from Jerusalem, Jonah should have traveled north to Damascus, then east to Baghdad, then north again to Nineveh, a journey of about 865 miles. Instead, Jonah tried to go west about 3,000 miles to Tarshish. Tarshish is the Hebrew variant of the Greek city name Tartessos, a city in Spain. Today, it is called Cadiz. Located on the Atlantic coast of Spain, to the west of the strait of Gibraltar, it was as far to the west as someone in the ancient Middle East could imagine going! Once one sailed past the Pillars of Hercules, there was nowhere to go, except to drop off the edge of the world. It was truly, in the words of the Psalm, “the uttermost parts of the sea.” And yet, even by going there Jonah could not flee from the presence of the Lord, even there God’s “right hand held him fast.”

So . . . we know now that the Book of Jonah is a short story, perhaps a satirical or humorous one, relaying through the medium of fiction a theological truth. We know that the people of post-Exile Jerusalem would have recognized themselves in its principal character, Jonah. Jonah is called a prophet but, in truth, he’s more like a missionary. Prophets were usually commissioned to speak to God’s own people, whereas Jonah was commissioned to convey the message of God’s justice to a foreign people. When prophets were commanded to speak to foreigners, it was usually to those living in the territory of Israel or Judeah; Jonah is commanded to travel almost 900 miles to the foreigners’ own country to convey God’s message. Try as he might not to do so, he ends up having no choice and eventually preaches to the Ninevites as God requires. And, unlike most prophets, he is actually listened to! The Ninevite king issues that decree that all the people and animals will fast, and they do so.

And what happens? God relents. Instead of destroying the city as the wicked and sinful Ninevites deserve, God pardons them and Jonah gets righteously angry, and this is where we entered the story in today’s lesson, at the very end. Jonah says to God, “See? I knew this would happen!” In the words of the text, “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah is so angry that he just wants to die. “Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” This is when God does the thing with the bush which grows up overnight, provides Jonah with shade the next day, then dies leaving Jonah on the following day to withstand the desert sun and heat. This just makes Jonah madder, so he repeats his death wish, “It is better for me to die than to live.” God, using the plant as a teaching tool, replies, “You are concerned about the bush . . . should I not be concerned about Nineveh . . . ?”

And, guess what? That’s the end of the story! God, in good rabbinic fashion using what we call “the Socratic method,” teaches Jonah — who is really the people of Israel — by leaving him — and them and us — with a question.

Jonah and the Israelites want God to be fair. These Ninevites, these Assyrians, are terrible, brutal, despicable people; they attacked and conquered God’s Chosen People; they flayed human beings alive; they decorated their dining rooms with color pictures of this being done. If God were fair, God would wipe them out; that’s what Jonah (and Israel) want. Instead God says, “Shouldn’t I rather be compassionate and merciful?” And leaves them — and us — to contemplate that question.

Whoever the nameless prophet who wrote this little story was, he was brilliant, because there is only one answer to that question just as there is only one answer to the question Jesus poses in gospel parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Hired at different times of the day, some at first light, others throughout the day, and the last just an hour before quitting time, they are all nonetheless paid the same wage. When those who worked all day complain, when they want the owner of the vineyard to be fair, the owner (God!) replies, “Shouldn’t I rather be generous?” And Jesus leaves his disciples — us — to contemplate the question.

Of course, we don’t want God to be fair! If God is going to be fair to “them” (the Assyrians, the later workers, whomever), God is going to be fair to us, too. Is that what we want? Wouldn’t we rather that God be compassionate and merciful and generous?

The good news is that that is what God is. Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

God Our Mother — Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13C) — August 4, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 4, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 11 (Proper 13, Year C): Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11; and Luke 12:13-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Drawing of Mother Holding Baby, Artist UnknownThis passage is one of my favorites in the book of the prophet Hosea. Hosea’s major metaphor for the relationship of God with Israel, as we learned last week, is that of marriage. Hosea portrayed God as Israel’s “husband” and condemned the nation because of the “adulterous” relationship it had had with other gods. As a “prophetic act” Hosea married a prostitute named Gomer, with whom his relationship parallels that of God with Israel. He tells of Gomer running away from him and having sex with another man, but he loves her and forgives her. Similarly, even though the people of Israel worshiped other gods, Hosea prophesied that Yahweh continues to love his people and does not abandon God’s covenant with them. This passage, however, departs from that metaphor and presents, instead, an image of God as Divine Parent, an image which is surprisingly feminine and maternal.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
* * *
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.

In these verses God is portrayed as an adoptive parent. God’s lovingly brought Israel out of Egypt, cared for Israel, taught, comforted, healed, and nurtured Israel. The Divine Adoptive Parent nurtured this child, taught the child to walk, held this child in times of suffering and anguish, offered healing when he was injured. But just as Hosea’s earlier metaphor likened God to a cuckolded husband, God is now an abandoned parent.

Israel’s disobedient and defiant nature becomes clear as God offers a general indictment against Israel’s idolatry.

The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

The Baals are competitor gods to Yahweh. They were local gods, represented by fertile fields, jars of olive oil, the smell of baking bread, the aroma of roasting meat. They appealed to the senses and to one’s immediate sense of satisfaction and well-being. In the Spring, the followers of the Baals would cry “Baal is alive” through the villages, and the worshipers of Yahweh would joined; they were hedging their bets hoping to ensure a bounteous crop and a satisfied family. The cult of Yahweh demanded worship in sometimes far-away sacred places. Sacrificial worship hadn’t yet been centralized at Jerusalem, but there were only a few places where it cold be offered. The Baals were more immediate so many Israelites would take out a little insurance and serenade Baal along with the neighbors. After all, where was YHWH anyway and what has he done for you recently?

These Baals of satisfaction and well-being are precisely the “gods” which got the attention of the rich man in the Gospel parable Jesus tells today.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

And so it was with the people of ancient Israel:

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.

It was not the Baals who accomplished those things that many believed they had done; it was not they who were nurturing Israel; it was Yahweh! And like a spurned husband, like a rejected parent, Yahweh was angry! God, rejected and spurned, is furious and, frankly, vindictive. God will throw Israel out of the promised land. God will send them back to Egypt or turn them over to the invading Assyrians. God will allow war to consume the people and their lying priests. God is disgusted by their schemes. They think they have ample goods laid up for many years, so that they can relax, eat, drink, and be merry. God will show them what fools they are! God feels the indignation and rage that any parent might toward a disrespectful child.

Bu then, God rises above this anguish and anger; we are privileged to witness Yahweh’s churning emotional conflict commitment, the turmoil deep within God’s heart:

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
* * *
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.

At the heart of this passage are two Hebrew words, one of which is translated as “heart”; the other, as “compassion”. The first is leb and in Judaic understanding it refers not merely to the body’s physical heart, but to the innermost being of the human person. It refers to the center of personal life, to a human being’s psychic and spiritual energies upon which the whole moral and religious condition of a person completely depends. Here, it is God who has this sort of inner core of being, and the center of God’s Being is inextricably linked in Hosea’s prophecy with God’s compassion, not with Yahweh’s righteous anger and wrath . . . God’s essential Being is eternally and indelibly characterized by love and compassion.

Our English word compassion derives from the Latin for “suffering together”; compassion is the ability to share in the suffering of another, to be empathetic. There are two Hebrew words translated as “compassion;” Hosea uses them both. Although in this passage he uses is nichuwm, which has its root in the concept of regret or sorrow, elsewhere he describes God’s compassion using the synonym rechemet, which comes from the Hebrew root rechem which literally means “womb”. The Hebrew understanding of compassion is deeply maternal, rooted in a profound metaphor of birthing and motherhood; compassion in Hebrew thought might best be conceived not as “shared suffering”, but as “womb love”.

This word applied to God conjurs a beautiful image of God as our mother doing all the amazing and miraculous things a life-giving, nurturing mother does. She protects her child; she nourishes, cradles, and prepares her child. Whether she gives birth to the child or adopts the child, how can she give up or forget her child? “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” asks God in book of the prophet Isaiah, “Even these may forget, yet I will never forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)

The 14th Century mystic and saint, Dame Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), wrote of God our Mother with these words:

It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good.

Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him ­ and this is where His Maternity starts ­ And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never ceases to surround us.

Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.

And He showed me this truth in all things, but especially in those sweet words when He says: “It is I”.

As if to say, I am the power and the Goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity, I am the supreme Goodness of all kind of things, I am the One who makes you love, I am the One who makes you desire, I am the never-ending fulfillment of all true desires. (…)

Our highest Father, God Almighty, who is ‘Being’, has always known us and loved us: because of this knowledge, through his marvelous and deep charity and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity, He wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Savior.

It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. Our Father desires, our Mother operates and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms; we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being, to thank him reverently and to praise him for having created us and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Ghost, to obtain help and grace. (From “Revelations of Divine Love”, LIX, LXXXVI).

We may, like the ancient Israelites or like the man in Christ’s gospel parable this morning, be tempted away from God by those things which seem to satisfy our immediate needs, by fertile fields, jars of olive oil, the smell of baking bread, the aroma of roasting meat; we may believe that we have ample goods laid up for many years, and so be tempted to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. But let us never forget the source of all those things. As the Psalm today recalls to us, it is God who puts our feet on a straight path; it is the Lord who does wonders for his children; it is God who satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. Hosea reminds us that we are God’s children and that at the center of God’s Being is the womb-love of a mother for her child, for us.

Whoever is wise will ponder these things,
and consider well the mercies of the Lord.

Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

God’s Faithfulness Prevails — Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12C) — July 28, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 28, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 10 (Proper 12, Year C): Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-19; and Luke 11:1-13. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Baptism“Name this child.” That’s what I say to parents of infant baptismal candidates as I take their children from them. The words are not actually written in the baptismal service of The Book of Common Prayer as they are in some other traditions’ liturgies, but there is a rubric on page 307 that says, “Each candidate is presented by name to the Celebrant . . . .” so asking for the child’s name is a practical way of seeing that done. It’s practical, but it’s also a theological statement.

There is a common religious belief found in nearly all cultures that knowing the name of a thing or a person gives one power over that thing or person. One finds this belief among African and North American indigenous tribes, as well as in ancient Egyptian, Vedic, and Hindu traditions; it is also present in all three of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The naming we do at baptism echoes the naming that takes place in Jesus’ tradition as a faithful Jew. In Judaism, when a male infant is circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, the mohel who performs the brit milah prays, “Our God and God of our fathers, preserve this child for his father and mother, and his name in Israel shall be called ________” and the prayer continues that, by his naming, the infant will be enrolled in the covenant of God with Israel. The same thing is done when a girl is named in the ceremony called zeved habat, or “presentation of the daughter” at the first formal reading of the Torah following her birth. In baptism, we do the same; the church says to its newest member, “This is who you are: washed in the waters of baptism, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever,” a brother or sister in the church, a fellow member of the household of God.

To give a name to anything, especially to another human being, is a powerful thing! In the first verses of Genesis we are told, “God said ‘Let there be Light’ and there was light.” (Gen. 1:3) God named the light before it was created; this process continues through the rest of the story. God says, “Let there be” and names the thing which will come into existence; the naming seems a necessary first step in creation. There is a sense in which the name given shapes the future of the thing, or of the person, named.

So this morning I will ask that question of Danny and Nikki ___________ (parents) and of Peter ___________ (Godfather) who will name Ryan George __________ (infant) as a child of God, and of Mary __________ (sponsor) who will name Jacqueline Ann ____________ (adult) as a child of God, and through baptism we all will welcome Ryan and Jackie into the household of faith, into a covenant relationship with Almighty God and with each of us.

In today’s lesson from the Prophet Hosea, we find God instructing the prophet to give strange and bewildering names to his children as powerful, prophetic signs of Israel’s broken relationship with God. Hosea’s firstborn son is to be named Jezreel, which refers to the location of a particularly brutal and bloody massacre of Israelite royalty; his daughter is to be called, Lo-ruhamah, which means “no pity,” as a sign that God will have no compassion for his people who have gone astray; and a second son is to be named, Lo-ammi, which means “no people,” to let the Israelites know they are no longer God’s people.

Preachers often use their children as sermon illustrations, but what God demands of Hosea seems a little extreme. These poor kids aren’t going to have to live merely with the embarrassment of a single sermon, they are going to live with these names, these prophetic, judgmental names for their entire lives! But as bad as that is, giving these awful names to his children is not the hardest thing God demands of Hosea. No, the hardest thing is marrying their mother, Gomer.

Hosea is ordered by God to (in the words of our NRSV translation) “take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom.” He is to marry a prostitute who will continue in her scandalous and adulterous behavior, even though Hosea will be faithful to her throughout the marriage. Why? Because it is a prophetic sign, a prophetic action symbolizing the way in which Israel has dealt with God: because “the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” God loves Israel with all the passion and loyalty of a faithful husband, but Israel, like a promiscuous wife, has been unfaithful to God.

It is an unfortunate prophetic metaphor, for it is misogynistic to the core! Portraying God as a faithful (but dominant) husband and Israel as a supposed-to-be obedient (and submissive) wife perpetuates a patriarchalism that is inappropriate to our society. As a metaphor it may have communicated clearly to its ancient Israelite audience, but it doesn’t communicate quite so clearly to us, clouded as it is with its ancient cultural bias. So as we read and seek to understand Hosea’s message in our day and age, we must extract the meaning from the metaphor and then, perhaps, cast the metaphor aside, separating the kernel of truth from the chaff of historical baggage.

In the modern world, marriage is not the patriarchal, male-dominated institution it was in Hosea’s time, but the metaphor can still work for us. In our Prayer Book, the meaning of marriage is summarized in the introductory comments with which the presiding minister begins the ceremony. We are told that it is a bond and covenant established by God in creation and that the union of the parties “in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy [and] for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity.” (BCP 1979, page 423)

Later in the service, just before the Nuptial Blessing is given, we pray for the couple that “each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy,” and that “their life together [may be] a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” (Page 429) In such a relationship neither party dominates the other, neither is submissive; it is a mutual and interdependent bond of covenant obligations, one to the other.

When Hosea’s prophetic metaphor is understood in these terms, it emphasizes that God is angry with God’s people for abandoning the covenant obligations they had to God, even as God remained faithful. What Hosea’s marriage metaphor communicates to us, as it did to his ancient audience, is that it is divine fidelity, not human inconstancy, that will ultimately save the relationship. It is God’s faithfulness, not our own, which prevails and redeems our relationship with God.

This is also the message of the author of the Letter to the Colossians, an epistle traditionally said to have been written by St. Paul, but which is now no longer believed to be of his authorship. The reason for that is in the very part of the text on which I want to focus our attention, the sentence where the author writes: “When you were buried with [Christ] in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” The author seems to echo Paul’s understanding of baptism in the Letter to the Romans, particularly a section we read every year on Easter Sunday. Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? . . . . If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (6:3,5) The theology is similar, but note the significant shift: in Romans, Paul writes that we will be raised with Christ, whereas the author of Colossians asserts that our resurrection with Christ has already happened by reason of baptism. These two passages reflect the wonderful here-but-not-quite-here mysterious paradox of Christianity; we both celebrate the present reality of and anticipate the future consummation of our salvation in Christ. The victory has already been won, but not yet.

Now, what I really want to focus on is why our resurrection, our salvation, whether it is a present reality or something yet to occur, should happen at all! In Romans, Paul says that it happens “by the glory of the Father.” (v. 4) The author of Colossians asserts that it is “through faith in the power of God” according to our translation; that would seem to imply that our faith is somehow responsible for our salvation, that the means for our resurrection is our fidelity. But there is a growing body of scholarship which suggests that this is a misunderstanding of the original Greek of the text. The Greek is dia te pisteo te energeia tou theou . . . literally: “through the faith the working of God.” Traditional English translations add the preposition “in” into the interpretation which would imply that this powerful, operative faith is ours, but the Greek can also be understood to mean not “faith in” but rather “faith of” – in other words, it is God’s faith!

The 18th Century Lutheran translator Johann Albrecht Bengel suggested exactly this in his Annotations on the New Testament when he translated this text to say that our salvation, our resurrection comes about through faith which is a work of God. This text, he says, is “a remarkable expression: faith is of Divine operation.” (Gnomon of the New Testament, A. Fausset, tr., Clark:Edinburgh 1858, page 171, emphasis in original) Our resurrection with Christ is not brought about because of our faith; it is not because of us, or anything we do or believe! We are saved through the faithfulness of God who, by his glory and power, raised Christ from the dead.

It is also God’s faithfulness to which Jesus alludes in the parental metaphor which he uses in his instruction about prayer: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” God is the faithful parent who always responds when we ask, who is always there to be found when we search, who always opens the door when we knock. It is God’s faithfulness, not our own, which prevails and redeems our relationship with God.

On this we can rely; in this faithful God, we can have faith.

So let’s go back to Hosea’s marriage metaphor. The Lutheran Book of Worship, used by our brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with whom we enjoy a relationship of full communion, says this about marriage: “The Lord God in his goodness created us . . . and by the gift of marriage founded human community in a joy that begins now and is brought to perfection in the life to come. Because of sin, our age-old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast, and the gift of the family can become a burden. But because God, who established marriage, continues still to bless it with his abundant and ever-present support, we can be sustained in our weariness and have our joy restored.” (LBW 1978, page 203)

It is into the household of God, the community of joy restored, the covenant of mutual help and comfort sustained by the faithfulness of God, that we welcome Ryan George and Jacqueline Ann this morning. They (and we together with them) will make the statements of belief and the promises of action set out in the Baptismal Covenant (BCP 1979, pages 304-04), and they (and we) will try faithfully to keep them. Fortunately, however, it is God’s faithfulness, not theirs (nor ours), which will prevail and redeem them (and us), and their (and our) relationship with God.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, by our baptism into the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, you turn us from the old life of sin: Grant that we, being reborn to new life in him, may live in righteousness and holiness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 1979, page 254)

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

An Angry Jesus – From the Daily Office – December 1, 2012

From Luke’s Gospel:

As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, “It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 19:41-48 (NRSV) – December 1, 2012)
 
Detail from "Christ Cleansing the Temple" by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1875When I was eight years old, my grandparents gave me an illustrated copy of the King James Version of the Holy Bible. More than 50 years later, I still have it. It is rather small, a little bigger than a standard paper-back novel, and has a zippered leather cover. There are perhaps thirty glossy color plates with (one must admit) mediocre depictions of various biblical events. My favorite has always been the depiction of Jesus cleansing the Temple.

In that picture (not the picture I’ve appended to this post, I’m sorry to say), Jesus stands like some comic-book superhero, eyes blazing with righteous fury, his hair and the skirts of his robe flaring out as if he were some rapidly pirouetting dancer, arms outstretched, cat-o-nine-tails whipping about his head. Tables are crashing to the ground, animals are scattering, and the money changers and merchants are fleeing in terror. You can almost hear the panicked cries of the animals and the men.

Throughout the years, as I would go to Sunday School (not very often) or take confirmation instruction (required at my parochial high school) or attend college classes on “the bible as literature”, I would use that bible and look at those pictures, especially that one. I couldn’t really relate to the wise and gentle Jesus sitting on a hillside rock preaching the Beatitudes, nor to the suffering victim hanging on the cross under a stormy and darkling sky. But I could relate to the superhero furiously chasing the bad guys out of the Temple.

Many years later, I was practicing law as a trial lawyer and serving as the chancellor of my diocese. An older priest of the church during some council or committee meeting, or perhaps during the annual diocesan convention, in support of some position or other on some important issue of the day made the assertion that, “of course, Jesus never lost his temper.” What? thought I. You’ve got to be kidding! I’d grown up with a picture of a very angry Jesus kicking butt in Jerusalem!

But . . . as the years have passed, I have seen his point. Jesus was angry, but Jesus didn’t lose his temper. To be angry, even demonstrably angry is one thing; to lose one’s temper, however, suggests something more. Consider the synonymous descriptions we use: blow a fuse, fly into a rage, hit the roof, hit the ceiling, have a cow, have a fit, go ballistic, fly off the handle, flip one’s wig, flip one’s lid, blow one’s stack, throw a fit, blow up. They all describe a loss of control.

That’s the point, I believe, my older, more seasoned colleague was making. Jesus was angry, but Jesus was not out of control. Luke does not elaborate in his description of the cleansing of the Temple, nor do Mark or Matthew other than to add that he overturned the merchants’ tables. John, however, has a more interesting description:

In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:14-16)

Jesus was angry, but he was not out of control. He did not “lose his temper”. What he did was deliberate and determined. This was an incident of symbolic prophetic action, like Jeremiah breaking a clay pot, Isaiah walking naked through the city, or Hosea marrying a prostitute. This is Jesus very carefully and very consciously acting out the last verse of the prophecy of Zechariah: “There shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” (Zech. 14:21)

So, after all these years, even though that superhero picture in my illustrated bible remains my favorite, I think the artist was wrong in his or her depiction of Jesus. If I were going to paint that scene now, everything might be the same except for Jesus’ eyes. I would not paint them flashing with terrible, uncontrolled rage; I would show in them the same kind of disappointed, almost sad, displeasure I sometimes saw in my parents’ eyes. That’s the only sort of anger I can imagine Jesus expressing . . . controlled, deliberate, and so very, very disappointed.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

The Womb-Love of Mother God – From the Daily Office – October 6, 2012

From the Prophet Hosea:

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.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hosea 11:8 – October 6, 2012)

Mother and Child DrawingThis passage is one of my favorites in the book of the prophet Hosea. (I’m a fan of that prophet for a number of reasons and this little-remarked verse is one them.) Hosea’s major metaphor for the relationship of God with Israel is that of marriage. Hosea portrayed God as Israel’s “husband” and condemend the nation because of the “adulterous” relationship it had had with other gods. As a “prophetic act” Hosea married a prostitute named Gomer, with whom his relationship parallels that of God with Israel. He tells of Gomer running away from him and having sex with another man, but he loves her and forgives her. Similarly, even though the people of Israel worshiped other gods, Hosea prophesied that Yahweh continues to love his people and does not abandon the covenant with them. This verse, however, departs from that metaphor and presents, instead, a maternal and feminine image of God.

At the heart of this verse are two Hebrew words, one of which is translated as “heart”; the other, as “compassion”. The first is leb and in Judaic understanding it refers not merely to the body’s physical heart, but to the innermost being of the human person. It refers to the center of personal life, to a human being’s psychic and spiritual energies upon which the whole moral and religious condition of a person completely depends. Here, it is God who has this sort of inner core of being, and the center of God’s Being is inextricably linked in this verse with God’s compassion.

Our English word compassion derives from the Latin for “suffering together”; compassion is the ability to share in the suffering of another, to be empathetic. The Hebrew word translated as “compassion” is rechemet, which comes from the Hebrew root rechem which literally means “womb”. The Hebrew understanding of compassion is deeply maternal, rooted in a profound metaphor of birthing and motherhood; compassion in Hebrew thought might best be conceived not as “shared suffering”, but as “womb love”. This word applied to God conjurs a beautiful image of God as our mother doing all the amazing and miraculous things a life-giving, birthing mother does. She protects her unborn child; she nourishes, cradles, and prepares her child. She gives birth to her child and after delivering her child, how can she give up or forget her child? “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” asks God in Isaiah, “Even these may forget, yet I will never forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)

My father died when I was five years old and, though my mother remarried when I was ten, for five important formative years of my childhood my mother was the only parent I knew; so this maternal metaphor for God speaks loudly to me. I do not have a problem with patriarchal imagery and what hymnist Brian Wren called “kingafap language” (King-God-Almighty-Father-Protector) for God, but I know that many do. For them, Hosea’s and Isaiah’s maternal images may be even more powerful.

We must always remember that every word we speak, every image we conceive, every verse of Scripture we read about God is a metaphor and every metaphor is limited. Still, this often-overlooked verse from the prophet Hosea reminds us that we are God’s children and that at the center of God’s Being is the womb-love of a mother for her child, for us.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.