Never Giving Up -- Sermon for Pentecost 11C
Children will try the patience of their parents. It’s simply inevitable. Even Jesus caused his parents a few headaches – that is if Luke’s account of the family visit to Jerusalem can be believed. I know that some people think their children are perfect, but this idea must be a figment of the imagination. We might wish for the perfect child, but to this point no such child has emerged.
Because I’m both parent and child, I’ve had the opportunity to see the parent/child relationship from both sides. I’ve tried the patience of my parents, and had my patience tried by my son.
If you were to ask my mother, she would tell you that I was a wonderful child growing up. But she would also be lying, because I wasn’t always a wonderful child. Yes, if she were honest, she could tell you that I tried her patience on many an occasion.
In a scene reminiscent of Luke’s story of Jesus getting left behind in Jerusalem, I was accidently left me behind in the toy section of the J.C. Penney’s at Lloyd’s Center in Portland. You need to understand that at the time, Lloyd Center was one of the largest shopping centers in the country, and we were visiting from our small hometown. Getting “lost” during the Christmas season at Lloyd Center wasn’t a wise thing to do. I don’t know why my parents didn’t assume I was in the toy section, doing my own business, but they were none too happy when we finally met up. Needless to say – I suffered the consequences of my actions – going to bed that night rather hungry!
I won’t tell you any stories on Brett, because he will turn off the mic if I do! But, if he’s honest, he’ll tell you that he’s tried his parents’ patience a time or two. It’s just the way things are.
One of the most powerful biblical stories about parent-child relationships is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A son goes to his father and demands his share of the inheritance so he could strike out on his own. The father agrees to the demand and off goes the son. Well, you know how the story goes. This younger son has a good time, spends his inheritance, and ends up feeding the pigs. He suffers the consequences of his actions, but then the story ends with the son reconciled with the father. Although the father welcomes him back with open arms, I wonder if at first the father was a bit miffed at the way his son acted toward him. But in the end, when the son is restored to him, he’s overjoyed. Isn’t that the way it is when parents and children become estranged and then are reconciled?
There is another parent-child story in this reading from the Prophet Hosea. This time it appears to be a mother-son relationship, and this passage has great beauty and great power, reminding us of God’s unconditional love.
This is a powerful word, but there are aspects of the book of Hosea that should trouble us. Carol Howard Merritt recently wrote an essay reminding us that in this book God commands Hosea to marry a prostitute as parable of Israel’s unfaithfulness. And Hosea gives their children horrific names that are intended to o symbolize God’s disgust with Israel’s bad behavior. The idea that God is involved in the buying and selling of women should trouble us, so I’m glad Carol brought this to my attention. And yet there is a powerful word of grace present in this prophetic book.
In the eleventh chapter, the relationship of the abandoned husband and unfaithful wife gives way to that of a caring mother and her not always faithful son. Perhaps, Gomer takes on a different role in this chapter, moving from being an unfaithful wife to faithful parent, and in doing so comes to represent God’s relationship with God’s people. That is, of course, nothing more than speculation.
The chapter opens with these words: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” When Israel was a child, I loved him. That is the voice of a parent, but so is the voice that follows. This is a voice of frustration. In spite of the love poured out on the beloved child, the child spurns the mother’s embrace.
There is frustration, but the mother remembers how she taught her child to walk, and how she picked him up in her arms and healed his wounds. Yes, she has led Israel with love and kindness. She picks up an often ungrateful child as if she were bringing an infant child up to her cheek or bending down to feed her child.
Isn’t this a beautiful picture? Those of you who are relatively new parents, especially the mothers amongst us, can probably identify with this voice. But as a father – I can say that fathers also feel this tenderness toward their children.
Before you get too comfortable, the voice again changes. The voice of frustration returns, because the child has pursued unwise ventures – including military alliances that will lead to the nation’s undoing.
We know that Hosea was written some time near the end of Israel’s life as a nation. It appears that this passage was written after the nation’s exile had begun. As Hosea shares this word, the people cry out to God, but they receive word that God won’t raise them up. God isn’t going to intervene. They’re on their own. They’ve made their bed, and now they have to sleep in it. If you’re a parent – have you ever felt that way about your children?
Of course, this internal divine conversation hasn’t come to an end. God looks down at this beleaguered people, and while acknowledging their disobedience, God simply can’t let them fall away completely. God says to God’s self: “How can I give you up?” After all, “my heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”
Historically speaking the nation of Israel is destroyed, never to appear again. So, maybe God didn’t follow through. Maybe God did give up. I can’t say for sure why this nation disappeared. Maybe Hosea wrote this in the hope that his nation would be restored.
Despite the history behind the story, do you hear a word for today in this story? What does it say to you about God? What does it say about God’s love? God’s commitment to you and to this world we live in?
Turning to the practical: what message does this passage offer parents? Does it resonate? What does it say to us about the way we live out our relationships as families? And as you think about family remember that family can take on a variety of forms. Indeed, the church, the body of Christ, is a family. It’s not defined by biology, but it’s still family. Remember what Jesus said when his family came looking for him, wanting to take him home because he was embarrassing them. Jesus said that those who follow him are his mother and his brothers and his sisters (Luke 8:20-21).
As a parent, I can identify with God’s desire to protect God’s children. There’s something within me that wants to protect my child, even if he’s all grown up! It’s not always easy to know when to step in and solve the problem and when to sit back and let your child go it alone. And if your child doesn’t live up to your expectations – what happens then? These are the dilemmas parents face!
We all know stories of parents who for whatever reason can’t accept the imperfections of their children. There are parents who cut their children off, if, for instance, they come out of the closet to reveal that they’re gay or lesbian. There are parents who will accept nothing less from their children than an A and berate them if they fail to come up to par! But is that the way it is with God?
God can get frustrated with us. And yet, I believe God stays true to the relationship. We may break covenant, but God remains ever faithful. Isn’t that good news?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
August 4, 2013
11th Sunday after Pentecost