“Merciful”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 25, 2013

Scriptures:  Hosea 11:1-11; Matthew 9:10-13

 

She hears the car door slam outside, and then feet crunch on the gravel path, and then that squeaky back door hinge swings open and he comes into the kitchen.  She smiles at him, and gets up to hug him, and says, “Hi, honey, how was your night?”  But he doesn’t even look at her.  He just grunts, and brushes past her open arms, and tromps off upstairs to his bedroom.  She listens to his footsteps on the stairs, and then she hears the door close behind him, and she sighs and sits back down.  She remembers when he was a little boy, just learning to walk, how she would hold out her hands and coax him to her—“Come on, sweetie, you can do it!  Just a few more steps!”—and then she would scoop him up and swing him around like an airplane, and the two of them would laugh and laugh and laugh.

But tonight she’s not laughing.  Tonight she puts her face in her hands and feels hot tears between her fingers, because it’s not like that anymore.  He seems to want nothing at all to do with her.  She can’t figure out how to get through to him—she tries and tries, but he just turns away every time.  The more she calls, the further he runs.  She thinks about going upstairs to talk to him, but the anger and the hurt are bubbling up inside her and she’s not sure whether she would cry or laugh or scream at him.  So she just sits there at the kitchen table with her face in her hands.

*          *          *

He’s sitting by the hospital bed, listening to the beeps and whirs of all this strange machinery, trying not to look at all the tubes and bandages and the blips on the monitors.  It was just a few hours ago that he was sleeping, and he was startled awake by the sound of the telephone.  The voice on the other end of the line said, “This is the State Police.  There’s been an accident, and your daughter is seriously injured.  It seems she lost control and went over an embankment and hit a tree.  We had to cut the roof off the car, but we got her out alive.  She’s in surgery now; you can meet us at the hospital.  Oh… and I’m sorry to inform you that we did find empty beer cans in the car.”

He looks at her, unconscious in the bed, and in his mind’s eye he sees her as she was that afternoon, getting dressed for the prom with her friends.  He remembers their laughter as they painted their nails, and did each other’s hair, and zipped each other into their dresses.  He remembers how he reminded them to be careful, and how they promised that they would.  He thinks, “How could you be so stupid?  After all I tried to teach you… after all the times I told you that I would come get you anywhere, anytime, no questions asked…  How could you do this to me?  Don’t you know how much I love you?  Don’t you understand how precious you are?  What if I can never talk to you, or play with you, or hug you again?”  And the fear and the anger well up inside until the dam breaks and he is sobbing silently, sitting there shaking with his face in his hands.

*          *          *

The prophet Hosea says that God is like this.  This mother whose heart breaks as her son turns away from her hugs, ignores her loving gestures, shuts her out of his life.  This terrified father whose daughter made a bad decision, and whether it was pride or foolishness or just an honest mistake, she may pay for it with her life.  Hosea says that God is like this, that God’s heart fills up with anguish and bewilderment and frustration every time we turn away from God’s love.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of people talk about God’s anger, God’s judgment, God’s punishment, God’s wrath.  In our Congregational tradition, we trace our history back to preachers like Jonathan Edwards, who preached a famous sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where he describes us humans held in the hand of fierce and furious God, who dangles us over the pit of hell and is about to drop us in at any moment.

Or, in our modern time, we’ve heard the claims of the likes of Pat Robertson, or the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who claim that the deaths of soldiers overseas and natural disasters here at home are evidence that God is punishing America for our sinful ways.

Or we’ve seen the sandwich boards and placards of street-corner evangelists, warning us of the coming judgment.  I once was handed a pamphlet while standing on a subway platform in Boston.  The cover said, “What do you miss my reading the Bible?”  And when you opened it up, there was a huge red bulls-eye with giant black bold-face print that said, in all caps, HELL!

Much of the book of Hosea sits squarely in this tradition.  The prophet issues scathing critiques of the sins of the day—the wealthy building up their own power while ignoring the needs of the poor, the leaders pouring lives and resources into warfare and sucking the nation dry, the religious figures failing to pass on God’s teachings of love and justice.  In most of his oracles, Hosea warns of terrible sufferings to come because the people of Israel have turned away from God’s teachings.

But today’s reading is different.  In today’s reading, God’s response to our turning-away bends not toward anger, but toward anguish.  In today’s reading, Hosea tells us that God suffers pain and grief when we separate ourselves from God.  God misses us… God mourns our absence… God hopes for our return.

 

When we brush past God’s embrace and tromp up the stairs and slam the door, when we turn in on ourselves, when we think we can’t have enough or do enough or be enough, God sits there at the kitchen table with her face in her hands and wishes she could just coax us to her—“Come on, sweetie, just a couple more steps, you can do it!”

When we lie in the bed in critical condition, when we are wounded by warfare, when our earth is poisoned by pollution, when are separated from our sisters and brothers by racism, or sexism, or homophobia, God sits beside us, sobbing silently, and thinks, “Don’t you know how much I love you?  Don’t you understand how precious you are?  How could you do this?”

 

Being human, we are finite and imperfect—or I am, at least.  And being finite and imperfect, we will sometimes make mistakes.  We will sometimes go astray.  We will sometimes do things that cause pain—to people we love, to people we don’t know, to our planet, to ourselves, to our God.  And whether, for God, our mistakes and imperfections lead to anguish or anger or a combination of the two, we might expect them to lead to retribution in the end.  After all, we know the ways of justice.  We know the laws of physics.  Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  Let the punishment fit the crime.

 

But here’s what Hosea says that God says next:

 

How could I give you up?

How could I hand you over?

My heart recoils within me at the very thought;

my compassion grows warm and tender.

I will not respond to pain with more pain.

I will not take my suffering out on you.

For I am God and no mortal,

the Holy One in your midst,

and I will not come in wrath.

When I roar like a lion to call my children home,

They will come from the east and the west,

And I will return them to their homes.

 

Where our human understanding might call for punishment, God’s way is the way of mercy.  Where our human capacity for compassion might eventually reach its limit, God’s wells are infinitely deep.  Where our human tenacity might yield, where we might come to a point where we throw in the towel, God can’t even think of giving up on us.  “My heart recoils within me at the very thought,” God says.  “I will not act on my anger, for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

 

So if you think you’ve gone too far past God’s embrace, if you think you’ve turned away one too many times, if you’ve tromped up the stairs and closed the door and shut God out of your life and you think there’s no going back—Hosea says you’re wrong.

If you’ve made some bad decisions, if you’ve put yourself or someone else in that hospital bed, if you think you’ve screwed up too many times and God will never forgive you—Hosea says you’re wrong.

And Hosea’s not the only one.  If you don’t believe him, look at Jesus.

The rules of the day said that tax collectors were out.  They were in league with the Roman Empire, the oppressive, imperial, occupying force that trampled all over the Jewish people of first-century Palestine.  They were traitors to their nation.  They were traitors to their faith.  They were corrupt; they were ruthless; they were greedy; they were sinful.

They were the ones Jesus invited to dinner.

The rules of the day said to stay away from them—so Jesus drew near.  The rules of the day said to condemn them—so Jesus fed them.  The rules of the day said that they were outside of God’s love—and Jesus said, “Not so!”

 

To the tax collectors and sinners, to the ones who turn away…

To the screw-ups and the failures, to the ones who wall up their hearts so no one else can hurt them…

To the ones who need to be forgiven…  To the ones who find it hard to forgive…

To the broken places inside every one of us, to the mistakes we all have made…

Here’s what the God of Hosea, the God we know in Jesus, says:

 

I will never, ever give up on you.

I will never, ever throw up my hands and turn away.

When I am afraid and hurt and angry,

these things only fuel my compassion,

for I am God and no mortal.

I will come to you as many times as it takes,

I will reach out and reach out and reach out,

until one day you let me take your hand and lead you home to me.