Choral Evensong 10th February 2019
From self-serving violence to self-giving love
Colossians 3. 1 – 22
The first chapter of the book of the prophet Hosea is brutal. It’s meant to be. Its imagery of sexual exploitation is not, ever, to be used as justification for patriarchy or abusing women. Sadly, it has been. Paul’s letter to the Colossians has been too: wives, obey your husbands; children, obey your parents; slaves, obey your masters. Read on the surface, it can look like carte blanche for vulnerable people to be crushed in the name of God. That happens every day. It’s not difficult to see how these words have been weaponised, uncoupled from the rest of what Paul has to say here: husbands, love your wives; God is the only Authority and there is equality for all; fathers, be tender with your children. And the context around Paul’s statement is crucial too. He wants the community to honour and love each other. That’s the goal. If a reader, hungry for power, keen to assert superiority, decides that ‘wives, obey your husbands’ is a more important part of this text than ‘clothe yourselves with love’, then perhaps that tells us more about that reader’s sexism than it does about the reality of following Jesus.
As for Hosea, the image of repeated pregnancy only to give birth to children named after the worst aspects of darkness and injustice is hard to hear, hard to read, hard to consider. Hosea, like Amos, is an 8th-century BC prophet who labours to get his people to stop worshipping Baal, put away their idols, and return to God, the source of life, the great I AM of Abraham, Moses, Noah, and the promises of flourishing and redemption that these narratives bring. There is also an economic problem, in that agricultural offerings were brought to Baal’s temple of fertility, the temple priests got rich, the poor suffered, and the worship system made the poor poorer, and the rich richer. Amos the prophet has strong words for this situation too, as he rages against those who ‘grind the poor.’ Hosea’s people, hard-hearted and most likely ignoring him and indeed ignoring God, require strong imagery, Hosea asserted, to make them stop and think. Stop and pray. Stop and listen.
Without Hebrew and deep knowledge of Hosea’s time it’s difficult to capture the shock of the names of these innocent babies produced in abhorrent circumstances. The daughter is named Lo-Ruhamah – translated in the NRSV as ‘without pity’. That’s a very soft way of translating this name. ‘Unloved’, ‘unwanted’ or ‘neglected’ might be more accurate. The next baby, a son, is named Lo-ammi, which is a heartbreaking inversion too. The promise that God makes to Abraham and to Moses is to be with his people forever, to be their God, to dwell with them. Lo-ammi means, ‘you are not my people and I am not your God’. The imagery is horrendous and a total reversal of what God has said to his people from the beginning. It’s very far away, for example, from the tenderness of God in Isaiah: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.’ (Is 43:1) Hosea’s imagery of rejection is designed, surely, to make his hearers stop. Think. Listen. Question themselves: what are we doing? How did it come to this? Are we going in the right direction?
It’s akin to acres of dead, grey, coral where a thriving tropical reef once housed millions of colourful creatures. It’s akin to the image of Matthew Sheppard, a young gay man tied to a fence and left for dead, the victim of homophobic violence. It’s akin to teenagers dying from stab wounds in north London’s gang wars. These are events that must make us pause and question whether the path we take, collectively and individually, is leading into God’s embrace or into a deeper wilderness of suffering.
The theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon write, Christianity ‘recognises that we are violent, fearful, frightened creatures who cannot reason or will our way out of mortality. So the gospel begins, not with the assertion that we are violent, fearful, frightened creatures but with the pledge that, if we offer ourselves to a truthful story and the community formed by listening to and enacting that story in the Church, we will be transformed into people more significant that we could ever have been on our own.’ In other words, by learning about God’s way of truth, peace, and justice through sharing the story of Jesus’ self-giving love, and by identifying with Jesus as the source of life, we can resist oppression and violence more effectively than we ever could as mere individuals. Though we are many, we are one body in Christ.
When we engage with scripture that might not seem to be relevant, or helpful, or might be repulsive, we can test its meaning in relation to the truth of what we see in the God we follow. We see mercy. Justice. Love. Grace. Forgiveness. And that’s the lens through which we read tonight’s scripture. The more we learn about the way these texts have been shaped and interpreted, and the more we engage with that interpretation, the more we learn about ourselves and our shared traditions. So far so positive, but what can the first chapter of Hosea possibly have to share that could be anything but anguish and violence?
In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he tells them to ‘pray without ceasing’, ‘not to repay evil for evil’ but always to mutually respect and honour each other, and to – crucially for us tonight – ‘not quench the Spirit, and to not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.’ (1 Thess 5:17-22) ‘Do not despise the words of the prophets,’ Paul says. That means we must wrestle with them. Even when they turn our stomach, even when they give false but powerful ammunition to those who would do violence in the name of our God of mercy and compassion, even when they don’t seem to make sense. The bottom line of our scripture from Paul’s letter to the Colossians is, foundationally, very similar to the viscerally cruel imagery of Hosea. Paul says to his audience: are you greedy? Stop and think. Do you gossip and encourage people to hate each other? Stop and think. Are you using your body to control others or harm yourself? Stop and think. Because, Paul tells us, it is time to ‘clothe ourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’
These bonds of love, between people who trust and care about each other, between God and each human being created in God’s own image, are unique. The love of these relationships casts out the horrors of abuse and injustice of every kind. Hosea, in his way, in his time, begs his people: please, stop the violence and remember that God loves you. Love each other. Rebuild. Paul, in his way, in his time, begs his people: please, stop the violence and remember that God loves you. Love each other. Rebuild. Even if the cost is huge. Because love, and love alone, resists every form of fear, darkness, and rejection. It is only through love that violence will end. And it must. Amen.
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