Notes for Ordinary Time's 7th Sunday

July 19th, 2022

Hosea 1:2-10. On the prophet Hosea, and his quixotic marriage to Gomer, watch this great conversation I had with Donna Claycomb Sokol of Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist a few weeks back. Parents of young children will not want you talking about God directing Hosea to marry a – what? All the words scholars use to translate get trapped in filters. If it’s that awful, that morally bankrupt, how did the word get through to Hosea himself?

Was she such a woman already, and Hosea married her? If so, was she a simple businesswoman selling herself? Or was she part of the cultic apparatus featured in the Ball worship industry? Or did Hosea marry her, and then she stumbled? The gender and womanist issues her make talking about it even thornier. How were women mistreated, abused, and used in those days? And today? If she is judged here, if her children are symbols of judgment, who’s being judged really? Her? The men? The society? And so if there’s mercy, does it let the men off?

All these questions intrigue, and aren’t finally answerable – and so the preacher might best simply raise them. Too many sermons feel some compulsion to answer questions and tie them up in a nice bow – but if Jesus was an example to us, then the raising of good questions is a fabulous sermon. Besides, in this case, Hans Walter Wolff is spot on in reminding us Wolff: “In Israel, the concern for divine oracles dominated any interest in the ‘biographical.’”

Hosea’s oracles are agonizing and offensive to bear. Is human infidelity to God really like crass adultery or selling one’s very body? The Bible tells me so. It’s bodily. It’s intimate. It’s your usually hidden self. And Hosea is thinking the people of God as a nation, a community, not just this or that random Israelite sinner. The indictment is stunning, and therefore the mercy is even more so.

Two final thoughts. Israel worshipped Yahweh alongside neighbors who were devoted to Baal. I feel pretty sure it unfolded as follows: Israelites, new to the land, were still picking up farming tips from their Canaanite neighbors, who advised them, plow, get the rocks out, plant seed, fertilize, weed. The Israelite farmer, laboring hard, after a few weeks asks, Hey, I’ve done all that but it’s not raining! The Canaanite says, Come on down to the Baal worship center and make sacrifice – and there are these women there… Israelite shudders and declares, I would never go there or do such things! But no rain. In desperation, one night he tiptoes off when no one is looking, pays a tribute to Baal, admires the dancing – and then next day a cloud rolls in with even a brief shower. He’s hooked. Do the deities of our culture not hook us in just this way?

And then: the children bearing those awful names, like those Isaiah gave his children, not names at all but words of judgment. Little Jezreel, Lo-Ruhamah and Lo-Ammi had to go to school to be bullied and mocked. Clergy are on good ground to ask, not in the sermon but when home alone, what is the carnage to my children for me being one daring to tell God’s truth in a broken world? I devoted a chapter to this in my Weak Enough to Lead.

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Psalm 85 is a profound and elegant text! Summertime is a great time to preach Psalms – the texts that some of our Hall of Fame preachers spent more time preaching than anything else (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon!); check out my book with Clint McCann, Preaching the Psalms. There’s much wisdom and profound theology in the first 9 verses. “You forgave the iniquity of your people” – not a long line of individuals, but the people as community. “Revive us again” – but why? “So your people may rejoice in you,” not “so they will feel better or get into heaven or lower their anxiety.” “Show us your hesed” – a Hebrew word well worth introducing. And “He will speak peace to his people,” which Jesus did after waking up in the boat and after materializing in the locked room once resurrected.

It’s verse 10 that you can linger on. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” The poet personifies hesedemetzedek and shalom as having one joyful reunion, a hugfest, conjuring up for me that climactic scene in Return of the King, the exuberant laughter when Frodo awakens in Rivendell to the arrivals of Pippin, Merry, Logolas, Gimli, Aragorn, Gandalf and Sam; Tolkien reported that as he wrote this scene, his own tears of joy splattered onto the page. Small, these virtues, winning after severe danger and only at the end of the day. There’s a kiss – so tender, the mouth that speaks and consumes and smiles touching another. 

Mark Helprin’s luminous lines (in Winter’s Tale) come to mind: “The world goes this way and that. Ideas are in fashion or not, and those who should prevail are often defeated. But it doesn’t matter. The virtues remain uncorrupted and uncorruptible. They are rewards in themselves, the bulwarks with which we can protect our vision of beauty, and strengths by which we may stand, unperturbed, in the storm that comes when seeking God.” This Psalmist, relishing what he’s inspired to write, presses on with more: “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground; righteousness will look down from the sky.”

Colossians 2:6-19. Usually I find lections in Colossians to be incandescent. Paul (or his diligent student writing in his name) is white hot inspired and eloquent. Here, Christ as “the fullness of deity,” not just a fair representation of God, “dwells in bodily form – and in him you too are brought to fullness.” Just saying these words to our people is powerful, opening massive doors into the open air and light of God’s presence. God isn’t the ineffable, omni- this or that far away; it’s intimate, personal. “God has chosen to provide us with a ‘dial tone,’ and it is not an ‘abracadabra’ but a name with a history of judgment and forbearance known within a specific relationship of trust and obedience and failure and forgiveness” (Christopher Seitz).

Paul is expansive about truth, but it isn’t just any old kinda true or truthy thing. There clearly are rival versions, fake truths, not mutually supportive or overlapping with the true Truth. The challenge in this text is deciphering what Paul is countering, what was going on in Colossae – but does it matter? “A modern historical-critical difficulty in recovering the religious world of Colossae reveals a kind of accidental benefit of wider appropriation” (Seitz). His readers and their neighbors do seem to suffer an intellectual idolatry, so smart, almost gnostic, knowing insider stuff others are too dim-witted to grasp. Christ is for the brilliant, but isn’t accessible through brilliance.

Luke 11:1-13. Let me commend another conversation I had, this time with Prof. Rebekah Eklund, on Jesus and… Prayer, especially this “Lord’s Prayer.” Primo stuff. Jesus’ model prayer undermines most praying by our people, although it’s hardly worth scolding them for it. Even the whole idea of praying “for.” There’s a bit of a “for” in Jesus’ prayer, but I think he’d invite us to pray. Period. Not for this or that.

The ask, “Teach us to pray,” implies we have lots to learn. Bonhoeffer says it’s not only what we want to pray that matters, but what God wants us to pray. The Psalms, and Jesus, are our tutors. Beginning with the Father/Abba. The “daddy” angle gets overdone, although it’s not wrong. I was moved deeply what I watched ZOE’s Reegan Kaberia preach on “our father” to a group of Kenyan orphans who had just entered his program; they were in tears as well. God as father to the fatherless. God as father to those with vacant fathers, or cruel fathers, or even stellar fathers. Martin Luther paraphrased this: “Although you could rightly be a severe judge over us, instead through your mercy implant in our hearts a comforting trust in your fatherly love, and let us experience the sweet savor of a childlike certainty that we may call you Father.” 

Rembrandt’s painting of Jesus’ best story sparked Henri Nouwen’s best ever book, The Return of the Prodigal, which clergy should read, not for sermon material, but for the healing of their own souls.

And I’m increasingly drawn to Karl Barth’s realization that in Jesus’s time, a son was apprenticed to his father. You learn the business, developing skills. I’m an apprentice in God the Father’s kingdom! Of course, Francis of Assisi was being apprenticed into his father Pietro’s lucrative cloth business when he gave it all up to enter the business of God, Jesus’ Father.

There’s so much preaching stuff tucked into this text. Who was it who first said “Thy kingdom come means My kingdom go”? “Thy will be done” is echoed in Gethsemane, and the “on earth as in heaven” carries me to Martin Luther King’s final sermon in Memphis: 

“It's all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis.”

Forgiveness? So much to unpack there – and I’m still chuckling over what Willie Jennings said to me in our “Jesus and… Race” conversation: 

When his father taught him to use various tools, he warned him to watch out, that he might hurt himself or something else if he didn’t learn how to use each one rightly – and isn’t it so with forgiveness? The temptation business must be tempered by “The Lord tempts no one” (James 1:13), noting a test is different from a temptation. Is Jesus really praying “Deliver us from the evil one”? The verb “deliver” gives the preacher a lot of fodder. What else gets delivered? The mail, yes, a package – and a baby!

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