Worthiness and Shame
A Homily from Hosea 1:1-10
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
July 29, 2001 (17th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
At some point, I need to have a talk with Tim about how he conveniently schedules his vacations during the time when the weirdest texts of the church year come around. To be fair to him, I think the compilers of the lectionary put the bizarre and discomforting texts at the time of year when church attendance is generally at its lowest and when visiting clergy are usually in the pulpits. Consequently, for my three most recent times in the pulpit we’ve gotten to deal with God allowing righteous people to be killed and the murderers getting off easy, we’ve heard God prompting someone to lie so that others will be killed, and we’ve wrestled with Jesus telling us to do strange things that we didn’t want to do. Now we have the story of Gomer. If this trend continues, the next time Tim goes out of town the text will be the Song of Solomon.
As with the past couple of weeks, the lectionary provides an easy way out: a text that even a novice could write a twenty page sermon on. Again, as with the past couple of weeks, you almost got a sermon on the easy text. The problem with doing that, though, is that we read all of the texts in worship. Now I realize that many of us consider that grocery list time, but still the words are hanging in the air. When a particularly odd passage is read, especially one with sex in it, the words and images are going to continue to rattle around in our heads. The sermon could be a stunning treatment of the theme of persistence in Luke, and most of us would still be thinking, “what was that bit about whoredom in Hosea.”
So we find ourselves in Samaria about seven hundred years before the birth of Christ. For several hundred years, God’s people have lived under two separate kings. The smaller kingdom to the south, Judah, was ruled by the descendants of David. The much larger and more powerful kingdom was called Israel, and at the time of our reading for today Israel’s days are numbered.
Counting down those days is a major thread in the Hebrew Bible. The whole of those writings can essentially be distilled into two themes: the holiness of God and the failure of humanity. The biblical writers, and particularly the prophets, go out of the way to make it clear that God’s chosen people, our ancestors in the faith, had constantly, willfully, and knowingly violated every aspect of their agreements with God; time and time again. They always get caught, apologize, are forgiven, and the first chance they get they’re back to doing whatever it is got them in trouble in the first place. Anyone who has been around a small child is familiar with this concept. Likewise, any of us with a little bit of honesty and self-knowledge knows it all to well.
Like a movie where everyone knows the bad guy is going to get it in the end, Bible readers know that eventually the nation of Israel is going to have to pay the piper - and over a period of about forty years they will. Their lives will be torn apart by civil war as their nation is systematically conquered and dismantled.
Hosea is one of the people who sees all of this coming. A prophet in a time when prophets were none too popular, he calls us to repent, to center our lives around God’s priorities rather than our own. The alternative, he warns, is destruction.
So far pretty normal stuff for this section of the Bible. The book of Hosea is essentially one long sermon on honoring our obligations to our Creator even when doing so means doing things we do not like. Of course, any preacher will tell you that a good sermon needs a good illustration to be truly great. Hosea has a dandy one, and it’s in that illustration that much of the complexity of this text lies.
Hosea’s illustration is his marriage – which, any way you slice it, is going to create problems. This one, however, is a real doozy. God tells Hosea to go and find an unfaithful woman and marry her. Unsurprisingly we can’t go any further in the story without a little clarification. Some translations say go and find a “whore.” Others say an “adulteress.” Still others say “a woman who is unfaithful.”
All of these translations represent more of a contextualization than a literal translation. Some scholars have theorized (with good evidence) that Gomer, the woman Hosea chose, was a temple prostitute dedicated to a local god – a woman for whom sex was a sacred calling. Before you ask, no I do not know where you have to apply to get a job like that.
Other scholars believe that Hosea’s wife was proven to have committed adultery after having married him, and that Hosea turned her unfaithfulness into a useful metaphor. Kinda like a politician taking a bad news story and putting a positive spin on it to advance their own agenda. It’s really tempting to insert a joke here, but I think all the applicable ones are self explanatory.
What the actual Hebrew text says, though, is perhaps most revealing. God tells Hosea, “Go and marry a woman who is sexually promiscuous.” This is particularly troubling since, when it comes right down to it, there’s only one thing that you are expected to do with only your spouse and that’s have sex. You can be best friends with someone else, you can play sports with someone else, you can eat your meals with someone else. The one thing you aren’t allowed to do is have sex with someone else.
To fully address sexual ethics and their role in committed relationships would take a whole series of sermons; so I would like to make the following disclaimer: the focus of this sermon is not the role of sex in our culture or in relationships. We simply do not have time to do it justice here Suffice it to say that acts of physical intimacy are intended to represent a unique relationship. Symbolic of emotional sharing, closeness, and acceptance; physical intimacy is a way of reinforcing and under girding the exclusivity and joy of a specific covenant between two people.
Hosea is told, go and find someone who thinks all that is a load of unrealistic crap. Find someone who is cynical enough to believe that there are no special relationships and that nothing matters. Find someone who does not value covenant or their word. Find someone who will not take marriage seriously, even for a second, and then marry them.
We’ve all seen couples like this. God help me I’ve done some of their weddings. You see them standing in front of the altar and you realize that one or both of them aren’t taking a word of this seriously. You could throw in a vow to wash the dishes every night or to wear live animals for hats and they’d just nod their heads and say, “I do.”
God says go and find someone like that and marry them, because…that’s exactly what God has done in marrying us. Ouch!
But double ouch for Gomer. Untold gallons of ink has been spilled trying to understand why Gomer was unfaithful or a prostitute or however the author wishes to characterize her. Some of those explorations are interesting and worthy treatments of the story, but I am going to take the approach that is least sympathetic to Gomer since Hosea makes it very clear that her shame is our shame as well.
For whatever reason, however justifiable, the person that God recommends for a spouse is someone who does not take commitment or intimacy seriously or exclusively – and everyone knows it. The consequences for being that kind of person meant that they had no social standing, political power, or financial stability. They were a nonentity, with absolutely no security.
Yet Gomer, who by definition is someone who will not live up to the resulting obligations, is offered all the benefits of marriage. Legal rights and security, property ownership through her husband, and social status that – no matter how embarrassing it might be to be married to a preacher – is still better than what she had. All the privileges and none of the responsibilities; because everyone knows she won’t live up to them.
Realizing that is what got me thinking about the concept of shame. What was it like for Gomer to stand before Hosea knowing what everyone was thinking; and worse, knowing that they were right. In a moment like that her shame must have been so physically powerful that it bore her down like a slave’s iron collar.
And Hosea reminds us that we too have that collar around our necks. It would be a little embarrassing if God said, “I had high hopes for you people, and you let me down.” But it’s even worse, much worse. God says to us, “I knew when I did it, when I took you in, that you wouldn’t live up to your end of the bargain. You never do.” We are Hosea’s whores, and God knew it from the beginning.
In case anyone misses the point, when Hosea’s children are born they become further illustrations in the sermon. The first is named Jezreel, after a place where a slaughter had been performed by the king’s ancestors. The interesting thing is that in 2 Kings [9:1-10:11] we learn that Elisha actually condoned this massacre in the name of God. Apparently, regardless of the context, violence and anger are things that come back to haunt us. Jezreel is a reminder for God’s people that whatever compels us to violence taints the world around us, and that taint stays with us.
All things considered, Jezreel got the best deal in the name department. Hosea and Gomer’s second child is named “Not Pitied” – not something likely to make anyone’s book of “Best Loved Baby Names.” “Not Pitied” is really an awful name for a child, because sympathy is what allows children to live into adulthood. If someone didn’t pipe up once in a while remind parents that, “children will be children” or “you can’t expect a toddler to act like an adult,” most kids would exhaust their parents’ indulgence by the age of three.
Likewise, sympathy and pity go along way toward allowing people to live with each other’s faults without becoming homicidal. Yet God says to us, we have no right to expect pity from God. Any way we want to look at it, we’ve been given tremendous blessings without even trying to return the favor. Shamed and unworthy of pity.
And, as the name of Hosea and Gomer’s third child reminds us, “Not My People.” At this point, you can tell God is really ticked off. There is not subtlety in this statement. The agreement of old was, “You shall be my people and I shall be your God.” Well, apparently somewhere along the way we crossed the line one to many times and that’s over now. Shamed, unworthy of pity, and forsaken. That’s us.
That’s the church and that’s our community. A community of the shamed. To be honest, if a church is anything else than it’s lying to somebody. As Christians, we give a lot of publicity to the idea that we recognize that we are all sinners and that no one is better than anyone else.
Of course, there’s always a little smugness there, because we are the sinners who are in church. Special sinners, you might say. I think that’s one of the reasons the word “sinner” has lost it’s potency. Don’t ask me how, but as Christians we’ve managed to turn “sinner” into a compliment – a badge of honor –when we talk about ourselves. We basically give the word two definitions: people who are in church (that’s the good kind of sinner) and people who aren’t (the bad kind.)
“Shamed” is a different story. Not “ashamed.” That means you’re guilty and you know it. “Shamed” means you’re guilty and everyone else knows it. A church is a gathering of the shamed, and Hosea goes to great lengths to remind us of that. We come together because we believe that there is something to be found here that we cannot find in ourselves. Something greater than us, something we are not worthy of.
Sadly, too often church becomes something entirely different. They become places where we glorify the things we already have instead of allow ourselves to be reminded of what we lack.
Of course, why should we bother, if we really are forsaken?
Because of verse 10, if you’ve been following the numbers. God says to us, “Look at you…you don’t deserve to be here…But…” God says to us, “There’s no point in making you my people, there is no way you’ll even understand what that means…But..”
God has no choice. No matter how hard we try, we cannot live up to the slightest obligation that comes from being the people of God. God has no choice…But…to make us the children of God. “In the place where it was said to [us] ‘You are not my people’ it shall be said to [us] ‘Children of the living God.’
This whole partnership thing just doesn’t work. On any front: the environment, poverty, violence, greed, friendship, marriage – to our shame we just can’t seem to handle the long haul. If faithfulness were a business we’d all be fired without pay.
So God changes the rules. If partnership won’t work, then family will. That’s why we come to this place. It’s an adoption ceremony, acted out week by week. We show up, the shamed and pitiless people of God. We hear the word of God that we can never hope to fully obey. And then we are adopted into one family, because as family the same rules do not apply to us.
Here we are able to be honest about the way the world really works. We can be honest that financial success is hollow. We are honest about death, and its constant presence among us. We are honest about our own failure. We can be who we really are, so that we can become who we were meant to be: the Children of God.
What does it mean to come into the presence of God shamed? It means being who we are, whether we like it or not. It means being as unworthy as any other person we can name. And it means, against all reason, being adopted into a family for no good reason other than that God loves us enough to never stop finding new ways to draw us closer and make us whole.
In the name of God who shaped us, God who has restored us, and God who lifts us up…Amen.