Sunday, July 28, 2019

Spiritual Unfaithfulness

PROPERS:         PROPER 12, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 HOSEA 1:2-10

ONE SENTENCE:        While the lesson itself may seem harsh, the tenderness                                         and mercy of God are emphasized in later verses.    

            The inclusion of the first lesson – from the prophet Hosea – may seem curious, just as did the inclusion of Psalm 52 last week.

            But, there is a reason, though it may not seem obvious with the verses we heard today.  There is, as Paul Harvey said, “the rest of the story.”

            The language and imagery of the lesson can seem shocking.  The Lord, speaking to Hosea, commands him to “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom.” Basically, he is being commanded to take a common woman, a prostitute, as his wife.

            His wife, Gomer, bears three children – though we are left to wonder whether they are really his, or the offspring of some illicit relationship. For the purposes of the narrative, we are to assume they are not his; they are born from Gomer’s unfaithfulness.

            Let me say three things about this lesson:

            First, we must understand that the Israel of this period was a very patriarchal culture.  Men were considered superior, dominant and powerful.  Women were subjugated to the men and were considered to be the morally-inferior gender.  It is from that understanding that this lesson comes – a morally superior man is to marry a common, immoral woman.

            That’s the first point I would emphasize about this lesson. Men had fewer moral demands placed on them.

            The second is the setting.  You must understand that after the time of David and Solomon as Kings, there was no more a united kingdom.  The nations were divided between Israel, to the north, and Judah, to the south. Hosea was prophesying to the northern kingdom, Israel.  The time in which this lesson was set, it was the 7thcentury B.C., and Israel’s existence was much more perilous than Judah’s.  Judah’s time in the barrelwould come 200 years later.

            That’s the second point for understanding this lesson. Israel is the northern nation, and Judah is the southern.

            The third point is the most important.  This passage, this story, is a metaphor.  That is, it points toward another, deeper truth.  It is the lesson that the prophet Hosea is trying to convey to the people of the northern kingdom, Israel.

            The wife, the prostitute, Gomer, represents the nation of Israel.  The people of Israel, Hosea is saying, have prostituted themselves by worshipping other Gods, such as the fertility God of Samaria, Ba’al.

            As a result of their spiritual prostitution, they are receiving God’s harsh judgement.  The three children which are born to Gomer are the fruits of that judgement:  The first child represents the breaking of the house of Israel; the second represents the fact that God will no longer have pity on Israel; and the third child represented the formal rejection by God of the people of Israel.

            The practical impact of all this, from Hosea’s view, is the fall of Samaria and Israel to the Assyrians in 732 B. C.  The northern portion of what had been considered the Promised Landhad come under the rule of pagan forces.  The prophecy of Hosea pointed toward that reality, that breach in the relationship between Israel and their previous God, YHWH.

            From Hosea’s perspective, that tragic separation came as the direct result of the unfaithfulness of the people – the spiritual prostitution to other gods.

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            The historical record verifies that Assyria conquered Israel.  The historical record also bears out the fact that Israel had fallen into chaos in the days before the conquest.  Four successive kings were assassinated.  The nation was off the tracks.

            Hosea gives us the theological reasoning behind that chaos, collapse, and conquest.  He tells us the why.

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            Likewise, many – if not all – of us can look in the rearview mirror of our lives and see where our lives have gone off the track.  We can see the ruin or breakage in relationships and circumstances which have resulted – largely, we see, because we have veered from the path we have been called to travel.

            Sometimes that has meant we have been guilty of placing ourselves firstin an unhealthy way.  Other times we may have given into a temptation that has lured us like a siren’s song.  Yet, at other times, we have been like the nation of Hosea’s Israel – becoming idolatrous of power, wealth, position, influence, superiority over other people, or other false gods.

            It would be awful if we had to live in the permanent judgement that Hosea proclaimed to the unfaithful people of Israel.  We would remain broken, alienated from God, and would likely not be here today.

            But, we do not hear the rest of the story in the passage from Hosea today.  Judgement is not the final word in the remainder of Hosea’s prophecy.

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            Hosea’s words of God’s wrath are not his final word.  I suspect those of us who have experienced the fall from grace can identify, too, with his later words.

            Hosea conveys the tenderness of God:

“Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness,
            and speak tenderly to her.
From there I will give her her vineyards,
            and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
            as at the time she came out of Egypt.
On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband,” and no longer call me my Baal… and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.  I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:14-16, 18b-20)

            The upshot of all this is that alienation from God – at least from God’s perspective – is never permanent.  A key attribute of God, we are told again and again, is the Hebrew word hesed, which means steadfast love.  We hear it in that passage.

            God is always saying, like the old hymn, “Come home, come home… ye who are weary come home.”  As Jesus tells us,“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

            I suspect that in your long dark night of the soul – when you have felt separated from God – you have had such a moment of healing – of reconciliation with God.  If not, I urge you to come to this altar.  And when you receive the bread and wine that is the symbolic Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, that your lay those burdens on the altar and be reconciled to the God of steadfast love.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

To Heal and Be Healed

PROPERS:         PROPER 9, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 2 KINGS 5:1-14

ONE SENTENCE:        Proximity and insight to God may come through the most                                     unlikely of places.        

            Leprosy was considered a debilitating, unclean illness in biblical days.  The Book of Leviticus speaks to how a leper should be treated.

            Those of you who have seen the movieBen Hurknow the ostracism and isolation of lepers in those days.

            The biblical Hebrew uses the word tzar-athto label the affliction.  It was a condition which could afflict skin, hair, beard, cloth and wool, and even walls of buildings.  It was different from what we know as leprosy these days – Hansen’s Disease.  Hansen’s Disease is a bacterial infection which can greatly disfigure someone afflicted with the disease.

            In the first lesson, Naaman, a Syrian general, has the biblical version of leprosy.  His prominent position and his affluence – not to mention the Syrian culture, different from the Hebrew society and Jewish law – prevent his alienation.

            But, it is an issue, nonetheless.  One of his household servant girls – captured on a raid into Israel – advises the general – a goyimor gentile.  “You should go see the prophet in Israel; he can cure you.”

            After messages are passed between kings and some weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, Naaman goes to see Elisha.  The prophet is in his humble home and does not even come out.  He simply sends a message for Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River.

            As you heard, Naaman was both angry and resistant.  But, ultimately, after some prodding, he did just that – and he was healed.  His skin was made fresh like a young boy’s.

            This was such a remarkable story that Jesus’ recounted it 1,000 years later. It is recorded in the Gospel according to Luke:

“There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

            The remarkable thing on which Jesus was commenting is that God’s healing power was sent not to the covenant community, a Jew, but to a foreigner.

            You never know from whom or to whom the gentle touch of God’s grace will be given.

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            Some 30-years ago, I was serving a congregation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. During my time there, I encountered a man about my age who was clearly a rising star in the community.  He was publishing a local magazine and was movie-star handsome.  He had a beautiful wife, one child, and another on the way.

            He had the world by the tail.


            In an effort to maintain his businesses and lifestyle, he began to kite checks.  It is a rather amateur and illegal way to keep the wolf away from the door – transferring non-existent funds from one account to another. It is also a federal crime.

            He was found out… arrested… and convicted by a federal court. The judge sentenced him to prison, and he was assigned to a federal facility in nearby Louisiana, on the banks of the Mississippi River, in Carville.

            This is where Neil White’s story gets interesting.  The facility was not only a federal prison, it was also the only Leper Colony in the United States.  Those afflicted with the modern version of leprosy – Hansen’s Disease – were kept there, away from society.

            Neil White, the rising young businessman from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, was now incarcerated in an institution set-aside for lepers – those cast-off by society.  His world had come crashing down upon him.

            Initially denying the reality and avoiding the patients, he slowly began to open himself to what was the truth in that situation.  Over his months of incarceration, he came to know the other convicts andthe lepers who lived there.  He fed them. He cared for them.  He talked with them.  He came to love them. He learned from them.

            His life began to be transformed.  He became lessof who had been, and moreof who he was called to be.

            The broken, the flawed, the wounded, the disfigured, the ostracized became the means by which he found new life.  Sadly, he lost his marriage during his imprisonment.  But he began a new journey, aware of God’s mercies, even from sources he and we might not anticipate.

            Neil is now married again, and living in Oxford, Mississippi.  His wife just completed a term as interim dean at the Ole Miss Law School.  He is a dedicated member of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church there, and participates in the diocesan camping program.

            He wrote an account of his journey.  It is a book named, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.  I highly recommend it.  Neil’s story is a remarkable one.

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            The story about the healing of Naaman and the account of Neil White’s journey tell us that we can never restrict – no matter our predilections – who God will touch or from whom God’s grace will flow.

            In Naaman’s case, he was a gentile.  He was not one under the law; not part of the chosen people.  In fact, he was an enemy of the Hebrew people. Yet, he was cleansed and healed in the Jordan River. The same could be true for those outside the church community.

            With the story of Neil White, we see the broken life of aspiring young man being touched in a way that changed his direction.  Those who touched his life – who opened the way of transformative change – were the shunned, the wounded, the disfigured, those who were not a part of respectable society.

            A point is this:  We need to be very careful about placing limits on God’s movement.  Indeed, God does not change.  What changes is God’s use of unusual times, places and people to transfor