Sunday, July 25, 2010

Looked Good on Paper, eh God?

Sermon July 25, 2010
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings:
Luke 11:1-13, Hosea 1:2-10, 2:1-3, 14-16

A few folks have asked me to speak about prayer. Different kinds of prayers, how one might go about praying, what is the effectiveness of prayer—there have been a number of requests in different ways, and so I thought today that I might talk about angry, desperate prayer.  Prayers that go out in the midst of harsh circumstances.  Prayers for mercy, for deliverance, for revenge. I thought, perhaps, I might start here, with anger and desperation, because so often we find ourselves in hard times, and then we find ourselves unable to pray.  We wonder, if there is a place in the church for such rage as overtakes our soul.  We imagine that Jesus would have handled our life with more grace, and that therefore we ought to as well. We question whether God is capable of handling the level of our rage and grief—and if She can, whether She will tolerate our sass past the first few words that tumble from our hearts.  We are taught, after all, to offer up songs of praise and gratitude, regardless of the circumstances. The songs of lament and prayers of imprecation dry up, and so do our souls. What good is a God who can hear only the happy endings—if this is what we are offered, I want my money back. Or whatever goat or dove I laid down on the offering table.  No, I insist upon a God who can take it all and who will abide with me through all of the twists and turns of my life, through the moments when I have caused grievous pain, and the moments when others have committed atrocities upon my person. I hope we will all gather round to hear each other’s stories, and insist that the Almighty be present and accounted for in each and every life.

This text of Gomer and Hosea is heavily loaded with symbols and layers and personal baggage. I have preached on Hosea, chapters 1-3 before, and quite frankly it is some of the ugliest scripture in the Bible, which is saying something because the Hebrew scriptures are full of the violence of life and war, slavery, misogyny, betrayal, and murder. There is also much life and beauty in these old scriptures, and there we find hope. But these three chapters always startle me with their ugly. And yet I am driven to understand, to tease out meaning from the text, to demand from the scriptures what they have to say—these three chapters are ugly, yet compelling.

This book is the story of Hosea ben Beeri, a prophet of Israel who lived and worked sometime in the 8th century BCE.  A tiny state surrounded by superpowers, Israel frequently lost confidence in God to provide security and resorted to alliances with the superpowers to keep itself alive and as independent as possible. Yet these alliances with Syria and Assyria and others as needed resulted in compromised loyalties and economic schemes. Hosea was essentially accusing this tiny sovereign state of selling itself out and therefore being unfaithful to the Lord, in the same way a person might be unfaithful to their spouse by offering sexual favors to others outside the marriage.

To prove his point, Hosea claimed that the Lord told him to go marry a prostitute and have children with her; those children then would be of questionable parentage, and he would give them names to represent the chosen people’s failings and punishment. Jezreel, the firstborn, represented the shed blood which resulted from unholy political alliances. Lo-Ruhama, whose name means “No Mercy”, was the second born; the Lord had turned away from Israel and would not be moved by pleas and cries for help. And lastly, Lo-Ammi, whose name means “Not My People”, and reverses the Lord’s promise that the Israelites would remain his people through thick and thin. (And as an aside, it would appear from these last two children’s names that God herself was contemplating a breach of the covenant between her and Israel.)

What troubles me most about this text is not that the Lord was angry with the people—this is a commonplace occurrence in scripture, and I’m sure in our everyday modern life as well.  What troubles me is that Hosea and apparently the Lord decided to take out their anger on the body of a woman with intimate, violent, dreadful precision. I did not read most of chapter 2, but I encourage you to take the time to do so, and to reflect on the horror you find there. It is a confusing text, full of ambiguity. Is it Hosea or is it the Lord speaking? Is it Israel being punished or is it Gomer herself and her fragile body, stripped, starved , and shamed before her lovers? Did this really happen or was this a prophecy or dream sequence?  Was Gomer really a harlot or did Hosea simply hook on to an idea that would captivate his audience?  It is hard to say, but what I can say with certainty is that Hosea’s rage has been worked over in the bodies of women (and sometimes men) the world over for more than the 29 centuries since this scripture was written, and that despite our best efforts intimate violence will continue to be part of our lives. There are many who find the book of Hosea to be instructive about marriage counseling or dealing with infidelity. One of my study Bibles claims that this is a tale of tender love—of a husband who despite provocation tenderly disciplined his wife. Go read chapter 2, and I believe that between the shudders that run down your spine, you will question such a characterization. This is a very troubling text, and should not be held up as a model to anyone for how to act in situations of family conflict.

But what draws me to this particular scripture again and again is Gomer herself. She does not ever speak—not in defense of herself nor to confront Hosea directly. She is a mute actress whose body is used to prove a point. But it is interesting that the point she proves in the end is that not even God can force love, and that reparations must be made in order to find hope in a mutual future. For nowhere in Hosea 1-3 do we find any record of Gomer’s submission to Hosea’s demands of faithfulness or love.  In fact, Hosea’s actions speak of an ever-increasing desperation, spurred on by Gomer’s refusal to change her behavior. One wonders if her silence in the text is precisely because her choice words in real life would fair spit off the page, betraying Hosea’s lack of control over the situation. To the end Gomer retained her autonomy until Hosea, apparently realizing that all his punishments were getting him nowhere, changes tactics. He releases Gomer. He offers back the garden he took from her, and he calls it a doorway of hope. He has a vision of a possible future, that the reparations he offers makes possible a mutually loving future. In the final verses I read this morning, Hosea says “You shall call me ‘my husband (or my man)’ and no longer will you call me ‘my ba’al (or my master).” There is an acknowledgment of Gomer’s personhood at last, and the possibility is left open. Gomer is free to love Hosea if she wishes, and free to walk away with her garden. The entire book of Hosea comes to this point in the end: we are free to love the Lord and free to walk away. It seems that both Hosea and the Lord have learned their lesson about forcing love.

What does this have to do with prayer? I think it is this. We hear all through the text of Hosea of the prophets prayers that Gomer/Israel be faithful. He is in extreme crisis, raging over his inability to control another person. But Gomer, silenced though she may be in the text, fairly screams out her own prayers for justice, for freedom, for the right to choose where her body lays and with whom.
We are none of us immune to unfaithfulness or intimate violence. If I took an anonymous survey of our tiny church, I would be hard pressed to find anyone who wasn’t touched closely by emotional, sexual or physical violence from a partner or other close family member. Some of us will or have perpetrated such violence toward loved ones. An anonymous survey would find that many of our lives have been touched by unfaithfulness, either in a current relationship or a past one. This is not to excuse such violence or unfaithfulness, it is simply that what the book of Hosea tells us is that such sorrow exists in our lives, the grief and anger and scars it leaves are real, and that there is hope for reconciliation and healing.

Our lives are a mess, that is for sure. And in the midst of our desperation and grief and anger, we must not forget to pray. But I do not mean timid prayers of praise for non-existent joy that we do not really feel. No, I mean fists raised in the air, screaming “Why is this happening to me?” and a demand that God or somebody do something to relieve the suffering. We must not forget to cry out against the injustice of life, for we are crying out for others as well. Gomer, in her suffering and Hosea, in his rage, are crying out for all of us, impotently seeking after a path of reconciliation that even the Lord has difficulty effecting. But the hope and the promise are there.

I’d like to close by reading you part of a story by Ana Castillo, a book called So Far From God. It is perhaps my favorite novel (although I am fairly promiscuous with books). It is a novel of absurdity and beauty, grief and laughter. But just a small taste will have to suffice this morning—a short piece about Sofi, the mother in the novel. The novel opens just as her youngest daughter dies, and here is the scene from the funeral...
It was 118 degrees the day of Sofi's baby daughter's funeral and the two palbearers, upon the instruction of Father Jerome, placed the small casket on the ground just in front of the church. No one was quite certain what Father Jerome had planned when he paused there in the hot sun. Maybe some last minute prayers or instructions for the mourners before entering the House of God. He wiped his brow with his handkerchief.

In fact, he was a little concerned about the grieving mother, who at that point was showing signs of losing it, trembling and nearly collapsing between two others. Father Jerome thought it perhaps a good idea to advise them all on funeral decorum. "As devoted followers of Christ," he began, "we must not show our lack of faith in Him at these times and in His, our Father's fair judgment, Who alone knows why we are here on this earth and why He chooses to call us back home when He does."

Why? Why? That's exactly what Sofi wanted to know at that moment--when al she had ever done was accept God's will. As if it hadn't been punishment enough to be abandoned by her husband, then--for no apparent reason and without warning, save the horrible commotion of the animals that night--her baby was taken away! Oh, why? Why? That's all she wanted to know. "Ayyyy!"
Suddenly the baby rises out of the coffin, returning from the dead and surprising Sofi, Father Jerome, and the mourners all around. The girl flew to the church roof.
"¡Hija, hija!" Father Jerome called up to her, hands clenched in the air. "Is this an act of God or of Satan that brings you back to us that hs flown you up to the roof like a bird? Are you the devil's messenger or a winged angel?"

At that point Sofi, despite her shock, rose from the ground, unable to tolerate the mere suggestion by Father Jerome that her daughter, her blessed, sweet baby could by any other means be the devil'sown. "Don't you dare!" she screamed at Father Jerome, charging at him and beathing him with her fists. 'don't you dare start this about my baby. If you dare start this backward thinking against her; the devil doesn't produce miracels! And this is a miracle, an answer to the prayers of a brokenhearted mother, ¡hombre necio pendejo...!"
I leave it to you to translate the Spanish, but it's not a nice thing Sofi said to the priest. Despite her loss, and the insistence by the priest and others that she must accept God's apparent will in the death of her child, Sofi refuses to be silent. Her questions ring out clearly in her head "Why, why??" And she has the strength and courage to push back against the priest who would label her baby as Satanic.  If you do not curse in your prayers to God, I encourage you to at least try it. Write out the words, if you cannot bring yourself to speak them. But do not skimp on your prayers of grief and rage.

May we all cry out in our grief, honestly and determinedly. And may God figure out what the heck She is doing sometime soon. Amen.


  1. Thank you for posting this one Kate!

  2. I really enjoyed reading the posts on your blog. I would like to invite you to come on over to my blog and check it out. God's blessings too you. Lloyd

  3. Finally got around to reading this one (it's been a busy week).

    This is one of your best. I heard a similar sermon from Jeff last year sometime (though not about Gomer) and it was what I needed to hear when I needed to hear it. May this have been the same for someone else.