Saturday, July 24, 2010

Hosea and the Lord's Prayer

At first reading, the prophet Hosea and the Lord's Prayer have absolutely nothing in common.  But I think we might be able to at least find that they make sense together.

At the time that the Lord began to prophesy to Israel through his servant Hosea, Israel was at war with Assyria.  The inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom, were we able to ask them, would tell us that they were Jews, followers of Adonai, the one God.  I am sure that the Shema - Hear O Israel:  the Lord is our God, the Lord is one - was uttered daily by all of these people.  Not only did they proclaim God as Lord, they also kept all the feasts and sacrifices as prescribed by Moses.

The problem wasn't that they now considered themselves children of Baal or Astarte, it was that they were very comfortable being Jews.  They had it in the back of their heads that the Lord was their God and the Lord would always be there for them, would always rescue Israel.  This made them so comfortable that they promptly forgot everything else they knew about God and how they had been told that children of God behave.  They used questionable ethics to get ahead - in business, in society, in government and foreign affairs.  They believed in God but they trusted that they knew what was best for Israel and God was behind the times.

So God has Hosea act out his prophecy.  "Go marry a prostitute, Hosea.  For my people are prostituting themselves by forsaking me," says the Lord.  "You will have children but they will be the product of prostitution, Hosea, because the children will be like their mother, selling themselves to the highest bidder to get what they think is happiness and security.

"Your first child will be a boy named Jezreel, named after the place where King Jehu slaughtered so many people, ostensibly in my name but in truth to avenge his ancestor Naboth.  Your daughter will be named Lo ruhamah because Israel will get no pity from me this time.  And the third child, another boy, will be named Lo-ammi.  By this Israel will know that they are not my people and I am not their God.

"But in the days far ahead, the children of Israel will be more in number than the grains of sand on the seashore and in this very same place, I will call Not My People the Sons of the Living God."

It couldn't have been easy for Hosea to marry a prostitute.  Gomer was probably a temple prostitute, one who was part of the fertility rites of the local gods.  Everyone knew who and what she was.  Having her in his house, walking down the street with her, raising her ill-gotten children would have been an awful embarrassment, bringing shame on Hosea and his extended family.  But he obeyed the Lord and married this most unsuitable woman, letting everyone know that Gomer is a symbol of how they treat the Lord.

The United States has always considered itself to be a Christian nation, one nation under God.  Europe is the cradle of Western Christianity and yet the consensus today is that Christianity is dead in Europe.  That is certainly a generalization; however, consider this story.  My sister Beverly was in Sweden for Easter one year.  At a dinner on Easter Eve, someone asked her what she was going to do the next day.  Bev said she was going to go to church.  "Why?" her companion asked.

Nor can we honestly say that the United States is a Christian nation.  Besides the fact that we have become a haven for many faith traditions - a very good thing and one that is part of our charge from God to welcome the stranger - we seem to be Christian like Hosea's Israel was Jewish.  We believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit but can't seem to translate that into daily living.  We would rather trust ourselves or those we have chosen to lead us.

And so we come to the Lord's Prayer, probably one of the first things we ever memorized, somewhere around the tender age of three.  It is as much a part of us as the Shema was a part of Hosea's Israel.  We can all say it at the drop of a hat and with just about that much thought.  Hear again Luke's version:

Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.   Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.   And do not bring us to the time of trial.

If we stop and listen to what we are praying, we may well be brought up short.  This is not something to be rattled off.  It is a prayer we say boldly, with the conviction that God hears us.

Father, hallowed be your name.  There is no one or no thing greater than you, Lord.  You are the beginning and end and in you we live and move and have our being.  I trust you.

Your kingdom come.  I will not spend my life raising up my own kingdom, God.  I will look to you for guidance and direction so that your kingdom may thrive and that I may live there.

Give us each day our daily bread.  I'm not asking for more than I need or deserve.  I trust that you will help me find what I need and what my family need.  I will not be greedy.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  I know, Lord, that I have sinned against you either by what I have done or what I have not done.  Others have sinned against me and they are indebted to me for forgiveness.  Some have even asked me to forgive them and I know that I need to do that.  Maybe if I remember that I am indebted to you for forgiveness, I will remember to forgive them.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.  Please, Lord, do not try my faith.  For I know I will be found lacking even though I strive to be righteous.

This is but one interpretation of the Lord's Prayer.  It isn't perfect or the only way to interpret what Jesus told us to pray.  The key is to go beyond these few short sentences, this small collection of words, and pray it as if all of life hinged on God's answer.

Because it does.If we continue to pay lip service rather than taking God as the center of our lives from whom everything flows, we will end up like Israel did.  Defeated, killed, removed from the land.

We are here because we know this to be true.  We understand that the Lord  expects us to be serious about being faithful children of God, that the Lord desires nothing more than to be in loving communion with us.  And so we pray boldly not just for ourselves but to call upon the Lord to be present with us even when we are afraid, full of sin and anger and greed.  We turn to the Lord because there is simply no one, no where else to turn.  We live in God and with God and act through God. 

Because the Lord did not abandon the people of Israel.  God allowed their decisions to form their destruction but when they saw how wrong they were, God restored them and called them Sons of the Living God.  We are the inheritors, through Christ, of the land, called Children of God forever.  The Lord is our God, the Lord is one and to the Lord be all the power and the glory.  Amen.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Samaritans and plumb lines

It is a good thing that tomorrow's lectionary pairs the parable of the Good Samaritan with the reading from Amos about God setting a plumb line in the midst of Israel.  Here's why I think this is so.

First, the plumb line is a symbol of God's judgment on Israel.  I tend to think of a plumb line as something I fashion to help me hang wallpaper straight.  The theory is that getting the first strip of paper on the wall straight will cause all of the others to go on straight, too.  The last time I put up wallpaper, I got out a plumb line, chalked the string, found the line and hung the first strip along the chalked line.  By the time I finished the job - well, actually, about eight strips of paper into the job - I was just a shade off.  Since this job was for my pleasure in my house and the unaligned strips met in an obscure part of the wall, my philosophy was, "it's close enough for government work."  (Who came up with that line anyway??)  So I left it.

But if you are building a structure - or a nation - you can't stray from plumb ever.  There are no obscure parts of the wall.  There are no places in the government that can be left even a little askew or the whole system will rot.

It seems the Israel hadn't been checking the walls of the nation often enough to make sure than they were still plumb, that there were no places where internal pressure had caused the wall to bow out, no corners where the ground had settled and taken a part of the foundation down with it.  Furthermore, they didn't seem the least bit concerned about it.  Perhaps they believed that God would continue to make everything okay or maybe they felt they had outgrown God and could take care of everything themselves without heavenly "interference."

So the Lord gives Amos a vision (literally makes him see) of the plumb line being set against a wall this is no longer straight.  Amos' job is to tell the high priest Amaziah and King Jereboam that the nation is damaged beyond repair and the Lord intends to tear it down.  This does not mean that the Lord no longer loves Israel or has turned from the promise made to them to be God's people forever.  It does mean that God is not content to go with business as usual.  And apparently a quick fix is not possible.  The nation is too far out of line.  The walls are bulging precariously.

So why does this vision complement the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Well, the summary of the Law can easily be seen as a plumb line for life.  It was not new with Jesus but had been a part of the teachings of the nation of Israel back even before the time of Amos.  The lawyer demonstrates that he knows it well and we might even surmise that he has tried his best to live by it.  But he is not content to let it stand as it was written and taught.  He wants Jesus to qualify it, to modify the design.

So Jesus tells him a story that is both reasonable - there were good reasons for the priest and Levite to pass the injured man by - and so horrible that the lawyer has to couch his answer in different words than the ones Jesus used.  He couldn't bring himself to say "Samaritan."  The lawyer can only answer Jesus' question about true neighborliness by saying, "the one who showed him mercy."

The Samaritan had the same summary of the Law in his heritage.  The difference between him and the priest and Levite is that it is so ingrained in his being that he cannot possible pass the man in the ditch by.  It is not possible for him to leave him there.  He simply has to do something.

There is a bumper sticker that says, "Practice random acts of kindness."  The Samaritan - and Jesus and Amos - would tell us that there is nothing random about acts of kindness.  Mercy and kindness ought to be as much a part of every day as breathing in and out.  They are not uniquely Christian in nature.  Most all faiths profess mercy and kindness to others as well as to self.   We have no exclusive claim on them, although that hasn't stopped us from thinking we do.  I remember someone talking about another person who did not belong to a church and saying, "He's such a good person, almost as if he were Christian!"

At a time in the life of the world when we are bombarded daily with stories of destruction and unkindness, of violence rather than mercy, it would be very easy to read these two lessons and here only doom, destruction and vindictive judgment (vengeance is mine, says the Lord, after all).  In fact, that is where I have been with the readings all week.  Then today, I read a reflection by Jennifer Lord, a professor of homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  She sees the crux of the lesson here in the lawyer's answer, "the one who showed him mercy."  Jesus tells him to go and do the same.

Mercy is so much more than goodness or even kindness.  Lord says, "it means something more than forgiving a debt or an offense.  [Mercy] suggests blessing and unwarranted compassion as well as lenience.  It is about pardon, kindness, strength and even rescue and generosity."  (CC, June 29, 2010:19) 

Mercy is part of love.  We show mercy to those we love - blessing, compassion, kindness.  We are generous with those we love and we are - usually - quick to pardon their offenses.  Jesus tells us quite simply in this passage that the love and mercy, kindness and goodness we have for our intimate loved ones is to extend to our neighbors.  And Jesus does not put any limits on the neighborhood.

So rewrite the parable of the merciful Samaritan for yourself.  Where in our neighborhoods would the crime occur?  Would the story be different for you if a child or a woman were attacked and left for dead?  Who would pass the injured one by and what good reasons would they have?  A doctor's wife once told me that her husband no longer stopped when he saw an accident for fear of being sued for malpractice.  Is that a good enough reason to keep going?

Who is the Samaritan for you?  Who would be the hardest person for you to cast in the starring role?  That is who Jesus would use if he were telling you this parable.  It would not be a close friend or someone who sees the world through the same lenses you do.

Finally, ask yourself what role you play in the story.  Whatever the answer is, the theme of the parable is mercy.  Jesus offers mercy to the lawyer when he tells him to go and do likewise.  He does not hold up before him all his previous failed attempts to do so.  He does not condemn him.  Jesus uses the parable to tear down a bulging wall in the lawyer's faith and then he rebuilds it by showing him, through the parable, how to get back in plumb, how to straighten out and up.