Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Gomer Sermon

Sermon February 26, 2009
by Katie Mulligan

At Princeton Theological Seminary, students are invited to lead daily worship once during their senior year in Miller Chapel.  It was an opportunity to bring together what I had learned in 3 years, and also to contribute to the seminary community in gratitude.  Fair warning that it is a hard sermon, even for me to read, but I believe it offers hope to those who have suffered from intimate violence.  A few folks have asked me for it.

Love to you all!  Katie
(click below for the sermon)

First Scripture Reading: Psalm 139:1-12
Second Scripture Reading: Hosea 2:1-4, 10-16

Perhaps we might take a moment and sit with the scripture as is. Whatever or whoever this passage brings to your heart, hold those images tenderly and lift them in prayer.

Three years ago I was asked to read scripture in chapel; it was the only time I have led worship here at PTS, and the passage I was assigned was from Revelation 19, part of which reads: “Salvation and glory and power to our God, for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication...Hallelujah!” There were two of us students reading that day, and I asked the professor why he asked me to read the Revelation passage instead of the other student, and he replied, “I figured it would be better to have a woman read that passage.” This started me on a journey through scripture to find the places where women’s bodies had been badly used to further our faith. These passages haunt me because they are so contradictory to the love of God I have known in my life. If we are not to cut these parts out of the Bible, then what are we to do?

A survey of commentaries on the Book of Hosea is not terribly encouraging. My study Bible introduces Hosea by saying that it is “thoroughly unified by the dominant theme of divine compassion and the love that will not let Israel go. At the heart of Hosea’s preaching is a gospel of redeeming love.” Another author, Dwight Hervey Small, wrote an article suggesting that Hosea’s treatment of Gomer provided a viable alternative to divorcing her or killing her. He wrote, “It is our conclusion that Hosea did not divorce Gomer, but in faithful love used every means to effect her redemption and restoration. He subordinated pride and personal hurt to God’s leading...Christian divorce counselors are provided a model in Hosea.” While the entire book of Hosea includes several other metaphors and themes besides Hosea’s relationship with his wife Gomer, I find it difficult to reconcile the idea of divine compassion and redeeming love with Hosea’s treatment of Gomer.

Reneeta Weems and other authors have added helpful Biblical and theological critique to the discussion. Yet much of it is focused on the linguistic and semantic difficulties of the text. Was Gomer a harlot? Or was she an adultress? Who was the father of her children, and so on. While this is helpful to try and understand the dynamics of what is happening in the text, I have to ask, is it relevant to what has happened in the text? One need only turn on the television or read commentary at internet blog sites to know that we are still excusing domestic violence by blaming the victim for not being a good enough wife or partner. Isn’t it still abuse no matter if the woman is sexually chaste or promiscuous?

When I read this passage, all I get from it is pain--The pain of Hosea’s fury and jealousy, and the pain of Gomer’s mistreatment. So many of the commentators simply took for granted that Gomer’s sexual infidelity counted as unfaithfulness toward the marriage but that Hosea’s physical and verbal abuse of his wife was tender discipline. This becomes even more problematic when the metaphor is extended to equate Hosea with God and Gomer with God’s people. For those of us in the church who have experienced abuse as men, women, and children, this metaphor cannot hold. For many of us in this world the threats of public humiliation, physical violence, starvation, and sexual abuse are far too real, and we cry out to God for deliverance from such things. How can we believe in a God who sanctions abuse for any reason? These texts haunt me, and we must seek another way through them.

To that end I place my body between you and the text this morning, not as a stumbling block to understanding the text, but to remind you that we cannot read scripture without these fragile bodies of ours. I invite you to place here also the bodies of those who came into your hearts at the reading of this scripture. Gomer has already placed her body into our chapel this morning, and we owe her the chance to be heard.

Gomer is labeled a prostitute, married, bears three children, is accused of adultery, and threatened with public stripping and death by thirst, yet we hear little of her voice, and only that which Hosea repeats for us. Poets and storytellers have tried to fill in that space with creative imaginings of what Gomer might have said. A poem by Kris Lindbeck, called “Gomer’s Complaint,” goes partly like this:

Who is this man?
This fool?

He keeps me up, crying
down on his knees by the bed,
forehead battering the ground
retching out between sobs “Oh my Lord”
“God have mercy.”

Once I put my hand on his shoulder
to comfort him (truly I’d have pity on a dog in such a state)
and he jerked away, angry,
like I was poison.
I thought he’d beat me
then, but he didn’t.

What does he expect?
He never comes to me,
as a man comes to a woman..

Gomer was clearly a woman of considerable strength and fortitude, for nowhere in the text does she submit or conform to Hosea’s demands. This is not a sermon to promote prostitution or adultery. Yet it is clear from the text that Hosea’s punishment of Gomer did not effect the reconciliation he desired. After stripping her of clothing and dignity and other human company, Hosea lamented (or is it the Lord) that Gomer went after her lovers and forgot him. In Psalm 139, which was so beautifully cantored for us this morning, we heard these words:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If these words are true and God’s spirit will never leave us, no matter the pits of hell we descend to, then surely the God of Hosea must also have been the God of Gomer, even while she was dying of thirst, naked and unrepentant in the wilderness. I wonder what is the image of God to whom both Gomer and Hosea cry? Marcella Althaus-Reid, a woman theologian from Argentina, wrote a book called Indecent Theology. In her discussions of Mary and Jesus she wrote of a virgin-christ figure revered in Buenos Aires named Santa Librada. She looks like the Virgin Mary, but is crucified and hangs from a cross. Santa Librada is an ambiguous figure—some see her as a crucified Mary and others as Jesus dressed as Mary. Althaus-Reid writes that,
Librada’s worship has originated around legal and social transgression. An old traditional prayer asks her to deliver a person from the police because she is the protector of petty thieves and bandits, those who are understood in Argentinian society as thieves by necessity, not choice....The prayer to Santa Librada...simply says; ‘Santa Librada, librame de esta desparada’ (Santa Librada, liberate me from this flight (from the police))...Librada protects those who cross legal boundaries in acting to fulfil these necessities. That is the starting point for her worship; acts of legal transgression where Christ or Mary cannot be invoked for protection.
Surely, this God of Hosea must also be the God of Gomer to whom she cries out in her pain and suffering. If we cannot find God in a certain place in scripture, then we must keep looking from different perspectives until we can. For it must be true that God spends time also with sinners and prostitutes. In Santa Librada we find a metaphor for God as one who extends love and protection to those who have transgressed and cannot repent. Is there anyone in our society more reviled than those who transgress gender and sexual cultural norms?

The turning point in the text comes at verse 14 where Hosea (or is it the Lord) begins to speak tenderly to Gomer. This troubles me, for part of the cycle of domestic violence is a so-called “honeymoon period” which typically follows violent episodes. The spouse who abuses shows up with flowers and sweet words of apology, and all is fine again until the violence continues another time. Anyone who has ever counseled a woman or man caught in this cycle can recall the frustration of watching this cycle play out. Anyone who has been caught in the cycle themselves can recall how desperately they wished to believe in reconciliation. Yet here, for the first time, Hosea makes a move toward mutuality. He gives back to Gomer her garden, the Valley of Achor, and he claims it as a “door of hope.” He now envisions a future in which Gomer will no longer call him Baal, meaning master or owner, and will now call him simply “my husband” or “my man.”

It is here that I find God’s presence in this text. For as we roam through scripture we find many places where God and humans hurt one another badly. It seems to me that at this moment, as Hosea or God creates a door of hope, that both Hosea and God have shifted their demands for love to an invitation to a hopeful future. We do not hear from Gomer directly whether she chose to step through that door into the future with Hosea and God. Indeed, the book of Hosea ends on a plea for Israel’s return to God, not the certainty that she has. This leaves the future open to possibility and hope, for through Hosea, God has said no more to oppression and violent love. What has been taken from Gomer will be returned—her land, her dignity, her hope. This is the promise of God who has also sent to us Jesus to be a door of hope for the world.

This crazy God of Hosea and Gomer, who perhaps resembles more Santa Librada than our traditional images, has restored to us our dignity and hope. We are free to enter into a relationship of mutual love with God, and we are free to walk away from it. This God who will follow us to the depths of hell, is holding the door open and waiting for us to walk through. But there will be no more punishment, no more pain inflicted. If we learn to trust that, how might we open that door for others? If reparations and giving back what was taken are the keys to reconciliation, what repercussions does that have for all of us who are fractured by centuries of racial and gender oppression? If restoring dignity is the key to living with one another in peace, how does that inform us as we quarrel over the ordination of gay and lesbian candidates? I put forth to you this morning that this passage from Hosea suggests we must let go of our authority to discipline and punish and allow the Other to decide whether to love us or even to love God. This is not easy Good News for those of us called to preach the gospel.

A few years ago at my home church, we ended Lent with a Good Friday service. Two of the men in the group had committed for Lent to study the issue of patriarchy and the abuse of women and children. When it came time for the Good Friday service, they asked to speak. They told us that they had been deeply affected by what they had studied and learned, and that although they didn’t believe they had ever directly abused a woman, they recognized that in many small ways they had contributed to the structures of our society that allowed women to be abused. And then they said they were sorry for their actions and for the actions of their brothers.

Something shifted for me that day, and for many other women who witnessed the men’s testimony as well. We discovered that forgiveness and reconciliation can occur in strange and ambiguous ways. The story of Gomer and Hosea is the tale of two people isolated from any other players. Our lives are intertwined and more complex than that. We will have to do this as a community—the two men in my church had never abused me, but they restored my soul that day. When the topic of oppression and abuse comes up for discussion I hear often “I never owned slaves; I didn’t take native lands; I’ve never hurt a woman/a child/a man.” You will hear these words in the church, probably most of us have spoken them. My friends on Good Friday showed me another way—perhaps you see it too.
The message of Hosea 2 is indeed one of tender love, but not through the abuse of Gomer’s body. It is the message of tender love from a God who came to understand love as a gift freely given and not taken; a God who has restored our dignity and hope in Christ; a God who waits longingly for us to trust and return in love.

This Franciscan benediction I got from Cheni the other day on Facebook:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

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