Beloved God, I pray that you would take these words of mine and make them into a word of yours. May your love shine through them and your hope for us be illuminated by them. Where these words are only mine and fall short of your truth, I pray that no harm would be done. May we all be touched by your grace in these next few moments. Amen.
How tender are these words we just read? “Yet it was I who taught [my people] to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” God’s love for us is so powerful! So tender! So nurturing!
In these passages we just read, God is portrayed by the prophet to be a tenderly loving parent yearning for their children and reminding them of this powerful, historic love. Have you ever experienced the incredible love of God? Really felt it? Perhaps it was during a time of pain or grieving in your life.
Or maybe at a time when you needed real grace and forgiveness. Or maybe you experience this love in one way or another every day! Two weeks ago we talked about how important it is to set aside some time in our lives to sit in stillness and be with God. The more often we do so the more opportunities we have to feel that real presence.
Well, in Hosea we see this powerful love through the oracles of a prophet. Now, first things first, how we understand and read the prophets is important to this story and, in fact, our entire biblical understanding. Prophets were not psychics predicting a future event decades, centuries, or millennia beyond their lifetimes. When the writer of Matthew’s gospel quotes the first verse of our reading, “out of Egypt I called my son” he was not suggesting that Hosea predicted Jesus, but rather he was using a literary style of that time period that embedded his story into the history of his tradition. For far too long in the Christian tradition we have subjected much of the Hebrew scriptures to a reading for the purpose of validating Jesus of Nazareth instead of understanding how those very scriptures undergirded Jesus’s teachings and passion for God’s message.
So if the prophets aren't predicting the future, what are they? The prophets were people who had powerful God experiences and were called by God to speak God’s truth to the powers, in their time period, who were oppressing others. Time and time and time again we read the Hebrew prophets lambasting the rich and powerful for ignoring, misleading, and exploiting the rest of God’s people.
Hosea is writing in a time when Israel had, once again, forgotten its egalitarian way, where justice and compassion for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in the land was divinely ordained, and was instead a place where extreme poverty lived around the corner from audacious wealth. The powerful had, once again, turned to the worship of Baal - essentially the God of the marketplace - and they were far more interested in protecting their own interests than they were in their neighbor’s well-being. At least one commentator on these passages refers to the moment as one where the powerful had reversed the work of God in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and instead established Egypt, metaphorically speaking, in Israel!
Into this time, the prophet speaks of God’s powerful love and the yearning for the people to return to God. We see in these 11 short verses the past, the present, and the future - all wrapped in God’s love.
In the past, God has called their people out of Egypt, taught them to walk, held them in loving arms, and fed them as a mother does her infant. Powerful love.
In the present, a rebellious teen who, like the prodigal son, insults their parent and turns away - flying in the face of the parent’s teachings - and hurting everyone in the process… yet God’s love is so powerful that they cannot reject their child even in the midst of it all. “My heart recoils within me;” says, God, “[yet] my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger.” The love is still there, still constant, still hoping for a reunion. Anyone here raise teenagers? Ever wait with your heart in your throat for them to come home after a particularly nasty fight or, worse, a long estrangement? Did you love them even one iota less in the midst of it all? (Stinking kids.)
And then there is the expected future, when the people will once again hear God’s call (“like a lion” but not a tame one...) and return to God from exile (“trembling from the west”) whereupon God will “return them to their homes.”
How reassuring that, even when we fall so far away from God’s hopes for us, God loves us still, calls us still, and welcomes us back home with the love of a parent! How great it is to be so loved! We can screw up royally and still be loved. (Thank goodness!)
Last month we talked a great deal about John Wesley, the founder and primary theologian of Methodism. Wesley was quite like a prophet in his own day. Like the prophets, he was rejected by many, irritated the rich and powerful, and spoke out on behalf of the powerless because of his profound experiences of God. An Episcopalian throughout his entire life and a priest for most of it, Wesley bucked the church’s system of being bound to one parish (which often essentially meant that you were employed by a particular aristocratic family) and instead claimed, “I look upon all the world as my parish.” He spent most of his ministry preaching to gathered crowds, mostly tired and hungry workers and their families, but he also was invited to preach in churches around England… He was often never invited back. Several churches outright banned him.
John Wesley was also an abolitionist from early in his ministry. Witnessing first hand the deplorable conditions of slavery in the southern colonies, where he traveled as a missionary, he was so strongly against it that it was in early editions of the Discipline that Methodist preachers absolutely could not own slaves. Wesley wrote: "Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary action. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion. Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do with every one as you would he should do unto you."
Not surprisingly, this stand for justice was the source of the conflict that then led up to the split in the United States between the Methodist Episcopal Church North and South in the 1840’s. Taking a stand for love caused a split so wide in our church that we decided that we simply couldn’t live together any longer. But God loves us powerfully even when we turn away from one another and turn away from Love. (Thank goodness!)
North and South reunited in 1939 (with some unfortunate compromises on the backs of sisters and brothers of color as well as women hoping to be ordained as preachers.)
In 1968, a union with the Evangelical United Brethren created the United Methodist Church and women were finally accepted into full connection as pastors. Groups of people and churches have joined and separated from various Methodist denominations for various reasons throughout our entire history. Factions have come and gone. Today there are over 40 denominations in addition to the largest one of which we are a part. We in the United Methodist Church are in a global denomination with lots of differing viewpoints and we are about to experience another schism.
In 1972, only 4 years after we became the United Methodist Church, the stage was set for our current conflict. For the first time in the Methodist movement, language was put into the discipline to condemn same gender relationships and claim that queer people were “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The debate was fierce from the get go and hasn’t abated since. It is probably safe to say that there are irreconcilable differences. Divorce is imminent.
For those of you who have followed the recent happenings in the United Methodist Church you know that last February we had a Special General Conference.
“The purpose,” according to the website, “was to act on a report from the Commission on a Way Forward, authorized to examine paragraphs in The Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and to explore options to strengthen church unity.” The Commission’s conclusion and the Council of Bishop’s unity supporting resolution called The One Church Plan was denied by a very slim margin. Out of 822 votes the difference was only by 54 votes in support of the Traditionalist Plan: 438 to 384.
Many wept. I wept. My daughters and my beloved spouse held me as I wept. You see, for our family, this is intensely personal. It is not the speculation of some abstract theological nuance. It is not an issue that we can feel bad about but then move on with our lives. This is a part of who we are. If you don’t think lives are at stake then you might not be paying attention.
Three years ago, one week before the 2016 New England Annual Conference, a mass shooting happened at Pulse, a gay night club, in Orlando Florida. 49 people were killed and 53 wounded. That weekend Anya had been staying with a friend in Pennsylvania so she called me to talk about it because the news shook her to the core. One of the first things I heard my darling daughter say was, “Mamma, are we safe?” How does a parent respond to that?
I know that queer kids are twice as likely to be bullied at school and are twice as likely to stay home from school because of safety concerns. I know the attempted suicide rates of LGBT kids is five times that of their straight counterparts. I know that 40% of homeless youth are queer. I know that the life expectancy of a transgender woman of color is 35 years old. I know that my denomination doesn’t think that our very lives are compatible with scripture. How can I not weep?
“Yet it was I,” says God, “who taught [my people] to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
No matter what the world says, says or thinks about you, you are a child, you are a child of God. No matter what the church says, says or thinks about you, you are a child, you are a child of God.
God has been working through the Methodist movement, alongside the Methodist movement, and without the Methodist movement for more than millennia - and friends, God will continue to do so long after we are gone. (Thank goodness!)
Our denomination may cease to be what it currently is in the coming months, but I want to assure you that God is still at work in us and will be no matter what the institutional church looks like. That’s powerful love.
Yes, it’s personal, but it is also biblical, theological, spirit filled, and timely. Two weeks ago, as I was leaving the church after helping at the Food Shelf, a man who I had just met there approached me and, after tentatively coming out to me, asked if he would be safe coming to church here. I answered honestly that I wasn’t sure yet. I was still kind of feeling it out. But, that he was welcome anywhere I am a pastor.
I don’t want to have to hesitate with my answer. I don’t want to wonder if you’ll still love my little queer family. So I will ask you as my daughter asked me, “Hedding Family, are we safe?”
I want to end by quoting our bishop, my bishop whom I love dearly. During our ordination service in June he preached a powerful and affirming sermon. Here are his closing words:
“People of God, the church is in exile! The church, like the people of Israel, is in exile in order to be made new! It is God’s doing! And we, laity and clergy alike, are called for such a time as this, not simply to serve, but to be redeemed. God, the Creator, who makes a path through mighty waters and fire; God, the Redeemer, who blots out our transgressions; God, the Holy One of Israel; is doing a new thing! God is redeeming us! God is changing us! God is showing us a new way of being the Church.
Just as the butterfly goes through stages of transition before it spreads its wings, so God works in and through us to birth a beautiful creation. God is making all things new. It is springing forth! Do you not perceive it? The Lord has spoken and will bring it to pass.”