Wednesday, July 24, 2013

God's Compassion Reigns -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10C

Hosea 1:2-10

Colossians 2:6-15

Luke 11:1-13

God’s Compassion Reigns

            Our hope lies in God’s compassion and mercy.  The biblical story begins with a message that God has created all things, and because of this, all things have a sense of goodness instilled in them.  The story, of course, continues, and we hear that decisions are made that change the way in which creation exists.  Things get out of kilter.  The crown of creation, the human species, finds itself alienated from both creation and its Creator.  Sometimes God seems rather frustrated, ready to walk away.  You see that in the Noah story – except God leaves a little room for a restart.  You also see it texts like Hosea.  But there’s another word – where God doesn’t seem to give up.  This is a story that continues on past Genesis 3, one of compassion, mercy, reconciliation, and redemption – even if we’re not completely worthy of this blessing.

For some more progressive Christians the story of the fall is difficult to receive.  There is goodness in the world, and yet there is also evil present.  There are things we can’t explain that don’t seem to make sense – especially disasters that seem to take the innocent without regard for the potential in life, and so may wonder where God is in all of this.  None of this is easy.  We hear the call to prayer, and offer them up – but is God hearing them?  And if God hears them, is God able to act on them?  So as we listen to texts like these, what do we hear from God?

The Hosea passage is a difficult one to deal with.  God tells Hosea to go and marry a prostitute.  People marry for many reasons, and in this case it’s not for love – or so it seems.  No, Hosea marries Hosea as a sort of parable.  Hosea represents the righteous God, his wife unfaithful Israel.  As you read Hosea, it seems rather clear that Gomer is Hosea’s property – it’s not the sort of marriage arrangement we generally affirm in this day and age (just a reminder that all “biblical” marriages aren’t alike!).  I was reminded of the problematic nature of this prophetic book by a post written by Carol Howard Merritt.  Carol wrote that she wished Hosea wasn’t in the lectionary.  It’s hard to appreciate the message of a book in which a woman is bought and sold.  But, as Carol reminds us – we seem to miss the problematic nature of this text, but then perhaps we’re not listening to Gomer.

People don’t sit down and listen to Gomer enough. We don’t ask ourselves how she must have felt being a prophet’s sermon illustration. We don’t ask why she returned to sex work. And when we preach this text without wrestling with it, we uphold the notion that a person (or a God) is loving when he buys another human(Male pronoun for the divine is intentional here.)

Gomer, Hosea’s wife, bears three children – according to the passage, two of whom, a daughter and a son, receive rather horrific names – courtesy of God.  We wonder sometimes about the names celebrities give their children, but none are quite as off-putting as “No Compassion” and “Not My People.”  These aren’t the kinds of names we give our children, and yet they stand as a witness to God’s frustration.  But is this the last word?  No, in verse 10 we receive this word – that the people of Israel will continue on, being like the sand of the sea, which can’t be numbered.  And “Not My People” will then be called “Children of the Living God” (CEB).  God can be frustrated by our actions, as is true of any parent regarding behavior of their children, but in the end love wins.

In the Colossian letter there is a call to faithful living and a warning to stay away from “philosophy and foolish deception.”  As to what the Colossians are to avoid, the letter is unclear.  It really doesn’t matter for us, what the challenge was, but rather to be aware of those ideologies and theologies that draw us away from God’s purposes revealed in Jesus.  In this letter we receive a description of Jesus – the one in whom God dwells fully, thus we can know that when we follow in his footsteps, we follow in the ways of God.  Our identity is transformed by our baptisms, in which we die and resurrect with him – as a form of circumcision that removes from our bodies the stain of sin.  Our debt, we’re told is canceled through the act of the cross, and raised in victory, Jesus leads the defeated in a triumphal parade.  You can see in this imagery the triumphal entries made by victorious Roman generals, leading their defeated enemies into Rome.  Jesus does the same in heaven.  For us, reading this passage, we receive word that despite efforts to enslave us, Christ makes a way to enjoy the blessings of God’s compassion.

The Gospel reading from Luke speaks of prayer, but does so in the context of parental relationship.  We read here Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer – offered in answer to the question posed by the Disciples – will you teach us to pray.  And in simple and yet powerful ways, he offers a model that we have (especially in its Matthean version) repeated regularly down through the ages.  The prayer is in many ways a pledge of ultimate allegiance to God.  But the passage not only includes the prayer, it includes further teaching on prayer.  Luke seeks to affirm the relational nature of our prayer.  In two parables, Jesus contrasts God’s responsiveness to human responsiveness. 

In the first parable, Jesus asks us to imagine a person going to a friend in the middle of the night and asking for bread because another friend had arrived at his house, and he has nothing to offer.  The neighbor will surely tell the person to go away and stop bothering him.  But the neighbor will get up and provide the bread if the person asking is brash enough and persistent enough to keep knocking – like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory.  So, with prayer be persistent in your knocking, seeking, asking.  Jesus offers a promise – to those who seek, will find, knock have the door opened, ask will receive.  Of course this passage raises important questions about unanswered prayers.  For those of us who have been in faith communities that seemed to offer promises that if you have enough faith everything you ask for will be given, a passage like this raises questions.  Experience suggests that things don’t always work out this way.  In any case, the parables speak of persistence – keep seeking, keep knocking, keep asking.  Don’t give up, for God hears the prayers.  John Koenig writes:
The message is clear:  no matter how hard it is, no matter how fruitless it seems, we must keep up our contact with the heavenly Abba.  [Rediscovering New Testament Prayer: Boldness and Blessing in the Name of Jesus(Harper Collins, 1992, reprint Wipf & Stock, 2004), p. 23].   
            The message is reinforced in the second parable, which reminds us that if our earthly parents will respond compassionately and appropriately to our requests – a fish not a snake, egg not a scorpion – then surely God will act appropriately and compassionately.  It is an invitation to come to God and entrust one’s life to God’s care.  The reference to the reader being evil might set well, but the point is the contrast – if human beings, who are tainted, can do what is right, then certainly God will do what is right.   If earthly parents provide good gifts, the God will provide the Holy Spirit to those who ask.  Luke exchanges Matthews “good things” for the Holy Spirit, as a reminder that for Luke, “the Spirit is an agent who continues to empower the community to witness to the divine realm in the world, even after the ascension.  Even in the midst of adversity, the Spirit is present in the community” [Ron Allen and Clark Williamson, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentaryp. 225].   

            As we come this week to hear the Word of God, we hear a word that the God revealed in Jesus, in whom we are invited to live our lives, is a God of compassion and grace.  Even when we frustrate God, in the end God will pour out upon us the Spirit as an endowment of power to bear witness to the good things of God.  

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