Sunday, November 11, 2000

Location - Bath
Attribute - Leadership
Bible Verses - Hosea 11:1-9
Matthew 11:1-12

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, who took them in my arms; I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks. Yet though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer.

Hosea 11:3-4

We’re all familiar with the adventure story in which things go from bad to worse until the last chapter, when Superman or Wonder Woman triumphs in some unexpected way. We’re pretty sure that the story is going to have a happy ending, so through all those chapters where evil seems invincible, we read with the minds of people who know better. We know that good is faithful and true, that it will not give up; and we know that it will ultimately find some weakness in evil that will lead to its downfall. Dorothy had no idea that the Wicked Witch of the West was vulnerable to water.

Our theology urges us to read the Bible in a similar spirit. It is a book full of quite ugly stories, and the ugliness is of a peculiar, perhaps unique, kind. It is not a case of a noble Israel valiantly striving to fulfill her destiny against the forces of evil. Through most of the story, Israel is distinctly non-heroic. Of all the characters in the story, only Joseph and perhaps Elisha never take a false step or resist their call. All the rest are at some point reluctant at best and rebellious at worst.

The problem goes even deeper. Some of the most appalling things Israel does, she does at the explicit command of her God. It is this that has turned countless people away from the Bible—or perhaps more precisely, this has been a factor in that turning. I suspect that if Christians had consistently behaved in Christlike fashion, this would at least have suggested that the message of Scripture was not one of indiscriminate slaughter. I suspect that the bloody episodes have been taken as normative in large part because Christians have taken them to be so. Christians have gone forth and slaughtered the heathen and have claimed biblical authorization for doing it.

At this point, our theology offers us a principle that is almost self-evident, and quite simple. It is that revelation always comes to us in forms adapted to our minds. To put it negatively, the Lord cannot tell us what we cannot hear. So, to put it in doctrinal terms, the Bible is full of "appearances of truth." To put the same assertion in less abstract terms, the Bible records not what God said but what we were able to hear; and sometimes our hearing has been poor indeed. The Lord has been constantly reaching down with love, and we have misread it as favoritism. It is expressed almost literally in our text: "Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer." The Lord was bending down to feed us, and all we could take in was nourishment for our egos.

Once we take this principle with full seriousness, the message of Scripture becomes quite extraordinary. This is our story, a story that portrays us as we all to often are—all wrapped up in our own importance, determined to have things our own way, and with little or no patience for anything or anyone who stands in that way. It is the story of a Lord who is so loving and so constant that there is never even for a moment a lull in the effort to reach us. An early Greek translation captures what I think is the clear intent of Hosea’s opening statement. "When Ephraim was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me" (NIV).

"I drew them with human cords, with bands of love." What are some of those "human cords"? We have only to look at the story to find them. They are promises and threats, rewards and punishments, victories and defeats, speech and silence, hope and fear, clarity and confusion. They are all the messages from within and without, all the visions and dreams, all the words of the prophets, all the allies and enemies, the rivers that part and the mountains that erupt, the rains and the droughts, the plagues and the healings, the births and the deaths. All such things are the human side of the Lord’s dealings with us.

All of them are earthly, human, and all of them are "bands of love." No matter what our experience is, there is never wrath behind the Lord’s dealings with us. If there were, we would simply cease to exist. There is always a love that sees us with perfect clarity and acts with exquisite wisdom to lead us toward the best and protect us from the worst. We may feel that we have been harshly treated by circumstance, but if we could see what the alternatives were, we would find ourselves overflowing with gratitude. It is a little like running into a brick wall and then discovering that if it had not been for that collision, we would have plunged off the edge of a precipice.

It is hard, sometimes, to keep both the human and the divine sides of providence together. It is hard to realize that there can be such a thing as divine "tough love," largely, I suspect, because it is so hard for us to exercise it in our own lives. It is hard for us to treat someone severely when we are feeling particularly tender; and I suspect that to a greater extent than we would like to admit we call on the darker side of our own nature when we resort to punishment

The first sentence of our third lesson, though, leaves little room for evasion. "Charity is behaving heedfully in order that something good may result." Every situation, in a sense, asks us the same question. "What can I do that is likely to make things better?" Here is a store clerk who is obviously testy. Now, of course I am a customer, and I am entitled to prompt and courteous service. If that is all that fills my mind, though, I am likely to miss the point. Is there anything I can do or say, any way I can respond, that will actually make things better?

There is obviously no "one size fits all" answer. What does seem clear, though, is that my best chance of finding a truly constructive response depends on my attentiveness to the clerk. If I do not care about him, that in itself may be all it takes to make things worse. If I do care, I probably cannot help communicating that to some extent. I may back off slightly from signs of anger or show appreciation of an effort toward courtesy by relaxing a little, for example.

It is still quite true, I would suggest, that part of the "good that may result" would be effective and courteous service. We are not talking about permissiveness, about pretending that nothing is wrong. We are talking about recognizing that something is wrong and trying to respond to it intelligently. All too many of our knee-jerk reactions tend to make things worse. We become the kind of customer who makes the life of a clerk miserable. In fact, one of the reasons we are finding this clerk testy might well be the behavior of the last customer he had to wait on. Imagine for a moment that his last three hours had seen a steady succession of fussy, self-centered customers, of people whose fundamental assumption was that nothing was good enough for them. We have all met such people, and we know that it can be hard to recover from them.

What our faith calls us to remember is that even as we stand there, the Lord is stooping to feed this child. That individual, like everyone we have ever met or will ever meet, is a living, breathing history of the Lord’s providence. We do not know how the Lord is trying to nourish this soul, but we know that the effort is there, that it is loving, and that it is wise. Maybe, just maybe, if we listen for it we may hear it. We certainly will not hear it if our own voice is drowning out everything else.

Again, the means may differ. John the Baptist looked at the Pharisees and Sadducees and called them a "brood of vipers." Can we hear the voice of love in such harsh words? It is there—perhaps not from John’s own heart, but from the heart of the Lord who was inspiring him. Can we hear the voice of love when the Lord withdraws from the crowds, when he presents the disciples with questions rather than answers, when he sends them out into a hostile world with the demand that they be both wise as serpents and harmless as doves?

Surely that voice sounds loud and clear in this last instance. Our heedfulness is imaged by the wisdom of serpents, and our loving intent by the harmlessness of doves. This in fact takes the advice of our third reading one step further. It intimates that there may be times when the best we can manage is not do any further harm, not make things worse than they already are, and sometimes that does demand the all the wisdom we can find.

"I drew them with human cords, with bands of love." The biblical era was in many respects a brutal one. War and slavery were taken completely for granted. There was nothing particularly strange about portraying the gods as warring with each other. The Covenant Code in Exodus calls for the death penalty for murder, but if the victim was a slave, the punishment was simply a fine. The familiar texts about beating swords into ploughshares are paralleled by Joel’s call to beat ploughshares into swords; and both reflect the omnipresence of war. In the spring, once the crops were sown and the roads were passable, the able-bodied males converted their farm tools to weapons and either went out to conquer someone or prepared to resist someone who was coming to conquer them. This seemed no more strange or immoral than economic competition seems to most people in our own times. Walmart has the economic might to put little stores out of business, and as long as certain rules are observed, economic might makes economic right. Substitute swords for dollars, and you have the world of the Bible.

No matter, the Lord is still as loving and patient as ever, still calling no matter how badly misunderstood. If we follow the story, we find the message beginning to be heard. We find the prophets beginning to glimpse the peaceable kingdom, the vision of the law written on the heart. We find Isaiah in particular impassioned by the vision of a truly transcendent God, a God far above tribal rivalries, far above the wars of empires, and yet close at hand. "Thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy" `I dwell in the high and holy place, with whoever is of a contrite and humble spirit’" (Isaiah 57:15). The height and holiness are the bands of love, the contrition and humility are the human cords.

That offers us just a hint of the immense spread covered by the familiar phrase, "the divine human." It is the marriage of absolute transcendence with perfect intimacy. It is the presence of infinite love in the midst of unspeakable cruelty. It is so little that is asked of us. We are not called to save the world, only to be heedful, and try to make things better.


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