Friday, July 30, 2010

Letting Go

A sermon preached at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Dupont Circle, Washington, DC, on Sunday, July 25, 2010, on the occasion of the leaving of The Rev. John Dwyer

Hosea 2:1-11

I am greatly honored to be here today at Nancy Lee’s invitation to preach. It is a bittersweet occasion for me as well as for St. Thomas’s Parish. There is a part of me that does not want to see John Dwyer leave here. Partly that is because I know how much he means to you and how much you mean to him. Partly that is because I have a hard time saying goodbye to anything and anybody. Even after many years of trying to learn how to let go, I feel something in me instinctively stirring to grab and clutch when a familiar part of my world breaks off and begins to float freely away.

For the last couple of years I have had the privilege of serving on a three-person team supporting and mentoring John on the first leg of his journey as an ordained person. Along with Dean Martha Horne, recently retired from Virginia Seminary, and Bishop Michael Creighton, retired from the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, I have come to know John as a colleague in ministry. And precisely because I have seen John grow at close range, another part of me understands, approves, even cheers his leaving, because I know that growth demands it. But true as all of that is, it does not sweeten the experience of parting, does it?

Getting going with the unfamiliar seems to be the theme of life. We can make an argument that most organisms in fact flourish in familiar surroundings where the work of adaptation can go on somewhat smoothly. And yet significant leaps in evolutionary progress come about when organisms are tested by unfamiliar challenges to which they must adapt, not by a trouble-free environment which spares them the challenge of adapting. You may know, as I do, people who find a niche, get comfortable in it, and stay there all of their lives. A friend of mine lives in a community where I once lived too. We used to hang out a lot together. Every now and again I would suggest that we go to a restaurant that was out in the country, but couldn’t have been more than seven miles from his house. “Why do I want to go all the way out there?” he would say to me. “It’s outside the city limits.”

Sometimes in order to get a new compass reading of exactly who and where we are, somebody has to venture beyond the limits. Do something strange. Experiment. Stretch. Hosea, one of the prophets in ancient Israel, heard a very strange voice one day urging him to get a move on. “Go take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom,” said the voice. That, even by biblical standards, is odd. “The land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” Oh, so that’s it. This is one of those parables that is acted out. It is as if God is saying, “Do you want to know what it is like to be the God of Israel? Well, I’ll show you. Go marry a whore.” I feel a little embarrassed about that. It sounds crude, don’t you think? It also sounds sexist and politically incorrect and maybe even misogynistic. And imagine—if you have to imagine—what you would be experiencing if you were all a congregation of people, say, in a half-way house or a jail where a good slice of the population were or had been prostitutes. But shake that off, for the moment at least, and hear what Hosea is trying to tell us.

Hosea, of course, does what he is told. That is how he got into the Bible. He goes and marries Gomer. Immediately she has a son, then a daughter, then another son. Hosea names them the symbolic names that he hears in his head the Lord telling him to name them. And they are god-awful names. “Jezreel.” “Not-pitied.” “Not-my-people.” Little wonder with that kind of family dynamic that Gomer quickly has about all she can take of this weird man Hosea. She misses her trade. She leaves Hosea with the dishes and the children and promptly takes up, as my grandmother would say, with somebody else. From all of this Hosea is learning. This is what it is like to be God? This is what it must be like to be Yahweh, God of Israel, in a relationship with a people who have forsaken the Covenant with Yahweh and adulterated it with Canaanite Baal worship.

Then the plot thickens. “Go, woo her back,” says the Voice. Get a taste of it, Hosea. See what that’s like! So Hosea goes looking for Gomer and gets the message that this is what God is doing for Israel. God goes hunting for the lover that has swapped the true God for false gods and who has an appetite for their ritual raisin cakes. Fifteen shekels of silver pays Hosea for Gomer, together with a homer of barley and a cask of wine. In other words, Gomer is not cheap.

He brings Gomer home with him. They put their marriage back together. And that is the way Israel will do, Hosea sees. They will return and seek the Lord their God. They shall come in awe to the Lord. And God will have pity on her who was not pitied, and to the poor child who was called “Not my people,” God will say, “You are my people.”

Before dismissing this as just a bizarre biblical tour de force, think of what a reality show this is: a high-risk marriage, an untamable partner addicted to tricking, a persistent husband with a serious case of religion, a quixotic journey to locate and entice out of active prostitution someone who is probably bringing in quite a bit of income to her pimp, an unlikely bargain that buys Gomer’s freedom, a rehabilitation conducted by Hosea that includes sexual abstinence, the rebirth of a marriage against all odds. When you get past the barley and some of the other details, this all sounds fairly contemporary to my ears.

What is different about this is not plot but theology. Hosea’s learning through all of this is that his experience mirrors God’s experience. In the process he does a couple of interesting things. First, he gives us a theology of marriage. For it is here, like nowhere else in scripture, that we find the notion that marriage is a covenant. But Hosea does something even more radical. He adopts the idea from Baalism that a god has a spouse and thus gives a unique twist to Israel’s theology by seeing that God is married to Israel. They had had a wedding on Mount Sinai, when the covenant was sealed. These two ideas ultimately come to mean that marriage is a primary metaphor which captures the nature of the relationship between God and humanity: God is in love with God’s people. And nothing will stop God from pursuing every avenue to win Israel back!

All of this, of course, is about faithfulness, and that is the whole point of Hosea’s biographical essay. Faithfulness is a quality of God. We might be unfaithful, turning to this or that idol or to some god-substitute. But God is faithful in pursuing us. God is true to the God-nature, and we can carry that to the bank. But what of our faithfulness? It is not about what we believe. (We’re wrong about what we believe about half the time anyway, if not more so.) Faithfulness is about whom we give our hearts to. And whom we give our hearts to we become like. We follow. We emulate. We begin to mirror. (That is true no matter who you are or whether you are the least bit religious.) So if we, like our forefathers and foremothers of ancient Israel, give our hearts to false gods, listen to the voices that whisper promises of security or success or painlessness or unmitigated pleasure in exchange for our souls, we will begin to look and act like the gods we bow down to. If, on the other hand, like Gomer, we find ourselves bought out of slavery and we come home with the one who loves us ravishingly, we begin to take on the characteristics of the Great Lover who sets us free.

Ironically, this movement in following God continues to bring us to places where we find ourselves shedding things that keep weighing us down. For Gomer, it was a life of prostitution. For others of us it might be addiction or destructive behavior or drivenness to achieve or the desire to play it safe and not run any risks. And always it comes down to some decision, such as John’s: to search, to grow, to live; and like yours, to let go, to trust. William Blake put it in a memorable quatrain:

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

We never can tell where the Journey will take us, and that is not the point anyway. What we do know is that the Journey is led by a faithful God who never stops searching for paths and ways to bring us home. And we know that the more we follow, the more we come to embody the faithfulness of the selfsame God who loves us far too much ever to give us up.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

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