Sunday, August 1, 2010

With Bands of Love

Well, we didn't get a blog up this week due to the fact that I was in the deep mountains of West Virginia beyond even the reach of the World Wide Web, and the sermon did not get recorded this week due to the fact that I completely neglected to push the record button. Let's just say this has not been a good week for me and technology (though it was an amazing week of serving alongside of some exceptional people in West Virginia)!

So, in lieu of these things, here is today's sermon in print form. No matter how far my human words fall short of the beauty of God's words within this passage, Hosea's poetry is too beautiful not to put something out there about it.

So happy reading to those who were not with us in worship today, and may you go forth into this week surrounded by the remarkable love of God...when I truly think about it, it's a love that never fails to baffle my mind. May the images of this passage baffle your mind as well, and turn your heart towards the One who is always turned towards you.


With Bands of Love
August 1, 2010
Hosea 11:1-11 (with Luke 12:13-21, Colossians 3:1-11)

One of the more amazing aspects of our West Virginia mission trip this past week was the fact that it was truly intergenerational. Now, I’ve been on a lot of mission trips before, but it’s always been with teenagers and a few chaperones, or a group of all college students, or a team made up solely of adults. West Virginia, however, was one of those rare experiences where people from age 2 to well into their 70s were working and living side by side. There were whole generations of families: a grandfather brought his two elementary-aged grandsons, sets of adult siblings with young children enjoying cousins from different parts of the country, parents embracing a rare week with college students. The intergenerational beauty went beyond biological ties, too: An older member of the group looked up a child in the community she’d taught the summer he was in third grade, only to learn upon this trip that he’d enlisted in the army. A child brought along a toy frog from a story Jolly told last summer that had stuck with him all year, running up to Jolly to show it to him the first night.

We live in a society where we are often compartmentalized by age or life stage—even much church programming is age-based. It’s hard to be intergenerational nowadays, and I’m grateful to pastor a church that is intentional about making relationships across age groups a priority. Yet this trip went beyond intergenerational programming to provide an opportunity for generations to share life, not just for an hour but over an extended stretch. A byproduct of this was that, by being in community with the different generations, I got to witness moments, particularly between parents and children, that I would not have been privy to otherwise. I got the holy and…well…prayerful privilege of being in the backseat while a learners permit-holding teenager had the new experience of interstate driving, the parent offering steady guidance to prepare the child for the day when they would not be riding shot gun to talk them through it. I sat between two parents at breakfast reflecting on shifting relationships young adult children charting their independence from the family household. Every word they spoke of their children, both of concern and of pride, was spoken with resonating love, and to be part of moments like these resonated with the holy. After all, how often do we get a real, unfiltered glimpse of someone else’s heart in relation to those they care about most? How often do we get to listen in and observe parents working out their love for their children, seeking ways to strengthen the relationship that are compassionate, authentic, and form their children in the right ways?

The eleventh chapter of Hosea grants us a rare opportunity to glimpse the heart of a parent renegotiating relationship with a growing child. It may not seem all that rare to us to catch a glimpse of God as Parent. After all, the teachings of Jesus have made God as Parent a common image or metaphor. Each week we use such language in corporate prayer and personal relationship with God. Yet the hearers of Hosea’s day didn’t have this privilege. Imagery of God as Mother or Father is used barely a dozen times in the Old Testament--it was far too intimate a distinction for a God defined as holy and set-apart. Old Testament depictions of God rarely get up close and personal; we don’t get many unplugged looks into God’s heart. Yet in this section of Hosea, we get a look at the heart of God that is more direct and raw than any encountered before.

Hosea gives us this rare picture of God’s soul by taking a trip through the family photo album, so to speak. Yet the scrapbook pictures Hosea lays out for us are odd—this is not the scrapbook one would usually show the company. It’s a collection of the most personal and private moments of the family life. Beyond this, the album is odd in another way: it’s not full of pictures of the children growing up, but full of pictures of the parent. This scrapbook is not all about Israel; it is about God. We sit with God in this passage flipping through the scrapbook because God, somehow, needs to take this journey to remember.

We open the cover to the first page, and there’s a shot of God’s face, beaming, the proudest new parent you’ll ever see. You can’t quite make out the squirmy bundle filling God’s arms in this picture, but you can tell it is the thing God has most longed after. God had yearned for a child to share God’s life with, and the day had finally come to make the long journey to Egypt to complete the adoption of the child God loved and had chosen—a child trapped in a horrible life of slavery. With uncontainable love, God had made a very intentional choice to bring home this vulnerable baby to share fully in God’s life and all that God has. A friend once told me the story of the day she brought her adopted daughter home from Central America. It had taken years of saving money, applications, prayerfully discerning the child she felt called to mother, and hoping against hope for this a child to be granted to her. As she stepped off a plane with her new five-month-old in her arms, she said, “My eyes sparkled as if I had pulled off this great thing I thought I would never achieve, that was almost too wonderful to believe—even though I was a single mom, I had a child of my own, and I could not wait to share my life with her.” That look—that’s the one sparkling in God’s eyes here.

Turn the page from this first beautiful moment, and there’s a picture of God intensely focused on the child, calling it over and over by the name God carefully selected—Israel—until at last the child recognizes its name for the first time, responding to the Parent’s voice. Turn another page, and there’s God laughing and shaking God’s head while spooning food into the baby’s mouth, undeterred by the sweet potatoes and rice cereal being sprayed back across God’s face. There’s a soft shot of the baby’s delicate cheek pressed against God’s more weathered one, both faces indescribably content. Flip another page, and now you see God’s index fingers, stretched inwards towards each other with tiny fists wrapped around them, a child nearly ready to walk wobbling unsteadily between the hands it trusted.

Hosea gives us all these beautiful pictures of God—a family scrapbook of tenderness, a side of God’s private, most intimate life rarely seen. But then comes a slew pictures most of us would choose to leave out of our family albums. There’s one of God’s hands cupped around God’s mouth—screaming, trying in vain to get Israel to listen to God’s voice above the many other voices now falsely calling their name, gasping with hoarseness as Israel wanders farther and farther out of earshot. Then one of God standing alone in the grass where God had first taught Israel to walk, squinting toward the horizon seeking the child who used its new skill not to walk with God, but to wander back towards the place God had gone to all that trouble to rescue them from in the first place. You’re almost afraid to flip the page, because the next picture shows a devastating look of resignation on God’s face. This shot captures the moment where God sees the writing on the wall, what the unavoidable consequences of Israel’s choices are going to be.

At last we come to a blank page in the scrapbook: what is God going to do next? In a way, our passage brings us to the moment where God sits, album in lap as God is jostled from the once-beautiful past back to the difficult present. God has to decide what the next page is going to be. Now, God was not born yesterday. God has seen this story unfold before. God has even written books on how this—God is a renowned, published parenting expert! The next step was laid out pretty clearly in Deuteronomy 21: If a parent has a stubborn and rebellious child, who will not obey the voice of her father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise the child, will not give heed to them, then the father and mother shall take hold of the child and bring him or her out to the elders of the city at the gate of the place where they live, and they shall say to the elders of the city, "This our child is stubborn and rebellious and will not obey our voice.” Then all the men of the city shall stone the child to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear. Israel’s fate has already been determined: they should be destroyed. All the pieces are in place for this to happen: Assyria is ready to trample Israel, poised with soldiers’ weapons trained on the child’s heart. There’s even precedent in place for allowing such destruction to happen: Israel will meet the fate of Admah and Zeboiim, two of the places decimated along with Sodom and Gomorrah.

But then, just before completing the script that already seems to have been written for God and God’s child, God has a moment. God experiences a gut check of sorts—God remembers…that God is God. God remembers who God is at God’s core, before the rules, beyond the ways we humans can conceive of God or expect God to behave. God remembers the part of God that God cannot deny—that core of passionate, insane, never-letting-go love that caused a God who could have had anything to go looking for a child to call God’s own in the first place. God remembers the love that set this whole story into motion and realizes the thing that is truest about God’s self, that God really needs God’s children to know.

So God pulls out a pen and begins to spell out for God’s beloved what most needs to be understood, crafting the most unexpected of love letters: “How could I ever give you up,” God writes painstakingly, “you who I’ve chosen and loved? How could I ever let you go? I cannot—just the thought of it turns me inside out, ties my heart in knots, churns my stomach within me. If I did such a thing, I would cease to be who I am—and I’m not like anyone who has ever loved before. I will not let you go—I cannot! So this story isn’t going to end the way you thought it would—it’s not going to end the way I thought, once, that it might—in fact, this story is not going to end at all. You’re not going to grow up and leave the nest, we’re not going to grow apart, you’re not going to become independent and move away from me. I can’t hold you like I did when you’re a baby anymore—we can’t go back to that—and I can’t take away the consequences of your bad choices—you’re going to suffer a lot. But we can go forward together, and in fact we must; and a day is coming, very soon, where we will. My love will pursue you like a lion, my persistent presence will startle you like a roar. It will be enough to call you back to me not just for a moment, but in a way that will last—it will bring us home to one another, to the place we most deeply belong.”

It can be odd to think of God in this deeply personal way; it can feel almost wrong, in some senses, because God, as God pointed out, is so much more than a human—so much bigger than our imaginations. But through this prophetic word, God chooses to be surprisingly different than we’d have a right to expect. Rather than leading by the letter of the law, by actions that are practical, or by well-tested standards, God leads God’s children with cords of kindness and bands of love. God chooses to continue the story, to continue the relationship, to refuse to let it ever end. Sometimes the story will be continued difficult ways: like in the parable we read from Luke this morning, where God addresses God’s misguided child with a lion’s roar--the only parable in the New Testament where God directly speaks, another rare glimpse of God’s heart calling out to the beloved who is wandering and misled. God goes to the uncomfortable length of sending God’s only begotten child, the very love of God’s heart, just to show again that God is among us, refusing to let us go. After all of this, God clothes God’s fallen children with new selves, with chances for life and love beyond beyond the worst mistakes. God shows, time and time again, that God cannot give us up, will not give us up, will go to any length—through discipline and through grace, which often end up being the same thing—to show God’s love to God’s children, and to give them the chance to return.

There is no volume of pictures and no collection of stories that can help us understand the fierceness of such a love; but thanks be to God for being such a passionate Parent. Thanks be to God for never losing sight of God’s heart, one filled with love for us that pursues and leads us every day. Thanks be to God for a love that surpasses even our human bonds of love for one another, that teaches us anew the lengths to which love will and must go. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift—the gift of a love and a heart that never ends.

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