“God Never Gives Up”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 3, 2016
University Baptist Church
It’s the Sunday after Easter. The Flowers are still out. The tomb is still empty. And we carry on through Easter’s cresting wave. We sing familiar songs. We gather up our pledge cards and our commitments. And then we are saddled with this odd scripture from an obscure prophet. Hosea is a book we don’t look at too often. It hardly ever comes up in the lectionary and it doesn’t have too many memorable lines. It does talk about God’s relationship with Israel in family terms. And that can creep some of us out a bit. Hosea fell in love with a woman named Gomer, but when their marriage fell apart, Hosea blamed everything on her and then used that as a metaphor for everything that was wrong with the world he saw. Israel was just like his unfaithful wife and he, by extension was just like God. Of course, neither were true. But they made for a good speech to rile up the people.
A little background is important here:
Remember that Hosea was writing to the Israelite people when they were in utter chaos. You might remember that for about two hundred years, there was a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom of the Hebrew people. They had different capitals, different challenges, even different kings. The northern kingdom was Israel and had its capital in Samaria. The southern kingdom was Judah and had Jerusalem as its capital. Hosea wrote to the northern kingdom, Israel in the last few decades of its life as a nation-state. They were about to be conquered by Assyria. Like Amos before him, Hosea condemned the people for their idolatry. He said they were worshipping the wrong god. Baal was the Canaanite god and was said to bring fertility to the land. You remember Elijah, Jezebel, Ahab and the battle with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel?
In Hosea’s reckless imagery, God is said to be emotionally caught in a relationship with us. We, who could care less, who have other lovers. And although God knows better and knows of our faithlessness, God can’t give up on us. More on that in a few minutes…
Plenty of us have been in relationships that have gone awry. We have done things we wished we didn’t do. We have uttered words that hurt and that meant to hurt.
I think of our city, in a broken covenant with its people. The lack of indictment of two white officers for killing a young unarmed black man is at one time predictable and heart breaking. The officers might not have been indicted, but our city has, and so has our culture. And we need to pay attention to what this indictment, or lack thereof, has revealed. I like what my colleague Brad Froslee, pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church said in the Star Tribune this past week:
It is important that I listen and truly hear the voice of Mike Freeman in his role as county attorney. But more important, it is vital that I listen and hear the voices that are not just hurting because of the events surrounding Jamar Clark, but because of every young black man who has ended up dead on the street or hanging from a noose.
Because of every young black girl who is told that she’s not smart enough and should take the “basic” classes.
Because of every black family that has been told that they should buy a house in “their part of town.”
Because of every black child who is made to feel less than others.
Because of every grandmother who has to sit down and have “the talk” with her grandson (about keeping your hands in your pockets when you walk through a store, but out of your pockets when you are on the street; about looking at the ground so as not to offend a passing lady or police officer, but needing to look people directly in the eye when trying to apply for a job that you likely won’t get; about not wearing a hoodie at night on the street; about not sagging your pants; about being OK with asking a girl to a dance and her saying yes, and then changing her mind after her parents talk to her).
I need to again wrestle with the privileges that I have as a white middle-class man living in the United States. I need to hear and dwell in the “Good Friday” of despair that is so well known to many in our community.
Yes, this is about Jamar Clark. Yes, this is about the city of Minneapolis and its police department. But if we only hear those two sides and get stuck debating DNA on a gun, or handcuffs on … or off … or on one hand, or bad pixelation on videos, or being right and wrong, then we will miss the far greater opportunity to change the narrative of our city, state and nation.
I need to proclaim that black lives matter, and it’s not because of or in spite of Jamar Clark. It is for the 17-year-old black youth who showed up at the church because he wanted a pastor to pray with him and help him turn his life around; it’s for the black almost-teenager who is balancing sports and good grades; for the young girl with the biggest smile who sings out in church and is getting straight A’s; for the 50-year-old man who may have to go to prison for a dumb mistake (and terrible sentencing guidelines) which he has owned and which has challenged him to turn his life around; it is for the faithful black women who pull themselves up over and over again for the sake of family, friends, and work, and are never given a real pat on the back; it is for the black gay man who has broken barrier after barrier to succeed and become a successful actor and singer.
In the Christian church, we are dwelling in the season of Easter. It is a season that proclaims new life in the face of death. It is a time that shouts to the world that God is at work in and through the mess and will do a new thing. It is the narrative of resurrection — for God’s people and creation.
The narrative of resurrection is for all people, yet we cannot proclaim “all” when segments of the population are dismissed or diminished. That is the sad but very real reality.
Black lives matter to God — to me — precisely because God continues to speak a word of hope and resurrection to those who, at any time, are most marginalized or held down. When that changes, I will sing a new song, but for today the work of resurrection takes on greater specificity. Today, I will pray for Jamar’s memory and his family; I will pray for the officers and their families. Today I will say that black lives matter and strive to do one thing that will proclaim a little resurrection here and now. http://www.startribune.com/jamar-clark-case-a-shooting-justified-a-life-still-gone/374206241/
Hosea’s heart broke for the broken relationship that he had and when you are heartbroken, you do and say things in the heat of passion that you later regret. Today’s scripture reading is Hosea wanting to make amends. He finally sees the light and wants to make it right. He has played a part in Gomer’s disappearance. He has not heard her, not respected her, not understood her. Hosea is finally willing to make it right.
And so does God. Listen to how God wails about the people of Israel: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt, I called Israel my child.” (v.1). You can hear the longing of a parent, the wonder of looking at your offspring, the commitment to raise your child well.
But then the child gets a mind of its own. And it starts doing things that the parents don’t like or can’t understand. “The more I called them, the more they went away from me; they kept giving sacrifices to idols.” (v.2) There are all sorts of idols we sacrifice to: money, fame, popularity, attractiveness. Their pull is so strong that we can’t help ourselves. We make peace through violence. We think guns make us safe. And a parent telling us to do the right thing can just push us farther down the other path. Bob Dylan wrote, “come mothers and fathers throughout the land and don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly fading. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand for the times they are a changing.” And we wonder if it’s changing for the better or for the worse.
So the parent looks back and mourns: “But I taught Ephraim how to walk.” God uses a pet name for Israel. “I took them up in my arms, nursing their bruises even when they didn’t know I was doing it. I tried to be kind with them, lifting them like infants and holding them to my cheeks.” (vv. 3&4) A parent is always connected with their child, even when we don’t know how to be. And when the going gets too tough, we think back to easier times, when they were completely dependent on us. When they trusted us. How some of us would love to go back to those times. Maybe so we could do things better this time. Maybe so we could redeem those places where our own selfishness got in the way.
If I had only done this, then maybe there would have been another outcome for my child…
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” You can hear the longing from God. You can hear the repentance of God for executing wrath on disobedient children. And then God says the most truly wonderful and redemptive thing in the entire book. In a moment of self reflection God remembers who God is. “I am God and no mortal, the Holy one in your midst. I will not come in wrath.” I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal”(11:9). I will not react as a fallible parent would react. I will be above it. I will point the way toward love and hope. And no matter what you do, I will not give up. No matter what you do, I will not give up.
We get into trouble when we project human emotions and reactions onto God. This is the whole problem with atonement theology. It’s the idea that God needed blood sacrifice to appease divine wrath. That sounds more human than divine. God is not a fallible mortal with a vendetta against a sinful world. God is the force of love and compassion that seeks to put an end to violence, the Wisdom to take another path. God is above our messy rage and does not give up on us, even when we have given up. And that, my friends, is Good News.
So what does this have to do with Commitment Sunday? Just this, the reality that God does not give up is what we live out here in the church. For 166 years, this church has stood up for what is right, hopeful and beautiful. Founded by abolitionists before Minnesota became a state, we grew alongside this city. We stood up against voices of intolerance, whether it was about evolution or war or women’s rights or LGBT inclusion, or Black Lives Matter, UBC was there.
You can go away for years and years, but the church will still be here. We are the anchor of the community. We are the place where we can hear the predictable things: that love conquers hate, that compassion is more important than fear, that we as a people can get better. And most importantly, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We don’t act in a vacuum, but are supported by the prayer, work and witness of generations of faithful people devoted to God.
Martin Luther King challenged the church. In eloquent prose, gave us a timeless challenge, and it’s based on the notion that while we stray, God never gives up on us. He writes in his letter from the Birmingham Jail:
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed in. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”. But they went on with the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven,” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought to an end such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.
We, my friends, are called to be the thermostats. We are not to give up, because God never gives up.
The name Hosea means salvation. It also means deliverance. When we take this meal and bring forward our gifts of time talent and treasure, we are proclaiming a hope that we can be better than we were. We can have our own little do-over. We can try to reclaim a sense of what can be from what is. That’s why we come to church. That’s what church is for. And that’s what we are for.
So do your part to repair broken relationships. Do your part to not play God in a relationship. And remember that God will be there to rejoice in your successes and help pick up the pieces of your shattered life when you betray or are betrayed. And that together we can imagine and build a city worthy of God’s people. Because, my friends, God is not mortal. God never gives up. May we never give up on doing what is right.