There’s a time in life when we delight in the nursery rhyme:
Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can.
Pat it and roll it and mark it with a B,
And put it in the oven for baby and me.
When Israel was a child, I loved her,
I brought her out of Egypt, and I called her my daughter.
I taught her how to walk,
And in my arms, I comforted her.
I was to her like one who lifts an infant to her cheek.
I bent down and fed her.
But then…the more I called her, the less she wanted to come.
She turned away and covered her ears.
I tried so hard to protect her, and now she has gone another way.
“Nothing good happens after midnight,” I always said,
but long into the night, her bed stands empty.
She refuses to come home when I call. There are sirens in the night….
Oh how I long for:
Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can….
Of all the human relationships, the ones that have the potential to bring the greatest joy and the greatest pain are the most intimate relationships. The closest relationships are likely between a parent and child or between two spouses. Even on our best days, those relationships are not easy. Sometimes we have to fight hard to stay in them.
Years ago when my kids were in middle school, I went to a presentation by psychologist Erin Walsh who said, “Your job as a parent is not to be your child’s friend but to be the one who keeps minding the boundaries, the one who keeps saying ‘no,’ or ‘this is how we do it.’ It will be many years,” she said, “many years before you might reap the benefit of being a friend to your child.”
We are in the midst of a sermon series called, “God Is(n’t),” and again today we’re looking at what the Bible reveals about God. Far from a one-dimensional view, the Bible shows a God who is multifaceted like a diamond, whose fullness we can never comprehend, but whose brilliance draws us in and whose value is beyond our means. The Bible is full of images of God, images that are distinct from one another, sometimes contrary to one another, but each one revealing something useful, something that’s part of a larger picture. So we ping from one to another, sometimes discovering a glimpse of what God is and other times discerning what God is not. Today we see that “God is not always angry.” From the perspective of a rebellious adolescent, that may come as a surprise.
And for some of us who have spent a little time in the Old Testament, it might also come as a surprise. A few years ago, Bethlehem participated in a study on biblical fluency with Luther Seminary, and one of the major findings of the study was that people are uncomfortable with the Old Testament; we’re not sure what to do with it. We might even wonder how the God of the Old Testament can be the God we know in Jesus. And yet the God who is made known in today’s reading is pure grace.
Hosea is a prophet from the eighth century BCE. 500 years after God formed a covenant with Israel, 500 years after God led the people through the waters to freedom, Hosea comes and delivers a poem that depicts God as the parent of a rebellious child.
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt, I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept turning to other gods,
looking for protection in violence, in power that denies the needs of others.
I called to them, but they did not listen.
I continued to show love, but they didn’t even see me.
They were bent on turning away from me.
They were so far away from me.
Like the Israelites long ago, God reaches out to form a relationship with us and nurtures us like a parent – like a parent who is at their best, that is. God comes to us in mercy and compassion.
But we turn away and reject God. We are drawn to the things we know or the things that we perceive to be best, even if they don’t quite match the ideals of grace and love and mercy. There’s so much happening in our world these days that causes anxiety: fighting in Syria and Iraq, a tumultuous election cycle, race relations in our own city, and so much more. Human beings are capable of great cruelty, and even if we are not personally initiating harm to another, our own interests are wrapped up in systems that oppress others and hold them down. We don’t know how to extricate ourselves from the systems; they’re so complicated.
The idols for which we’re willing to sacrifice are security and comfort – not bad things on their own, but not the ultimate values to which we owe our allegiance.
Hosea is a prophet whose task it is to tell a truth about our world. I think there are a lot of prophets out there today attempting, to tell the truth about our world. All is not well, and we know it. We’re hungry to find voices that speak boldly to the reality in which we live, a voice that points the way forward to a future in which all people and all of creation might thrive, the future of which God has imagined. We’re not there yet.
It breaks God’s heart, and yes, it makes God angry. God has had it. When all seems lost, when the relationship is severed, God does a new thing. In a dramatic but silent move, God searches deep within and comes to Godself. “I am God and not human,” God says. “I will not come in wrath. Anger will not have the final word.”
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
…My heart shudders; my compassion grows warm and tender.
I won’t respond in anger. I won’t let rage have the final word.
I am God, not human, the Holy One in your midst.
The very nature of God is one who is simultaneously deeply loving, deeply hurt, deeply angry, but yet unwilling to fall into cycles of violence. This text is a rare glimpse into God’s interior life. It is one that reveals pure grace, undeserved love, and mercy.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann asks, “”What would it mean to be made in the image of this God? What would it require (for us) to imitate this God in our own life?” We live in a society in which we have nearly constant connection. Not only face to face or via phone or email, but through social media, we’re communicating all the time, and with electronic communication, it’s easy to emote freely, often without knowing the people on the other end of the communication. We lose nuance and move toward ideological absolutism.
We come to regard the other as wrong or the enemy. “The dominant world in which we live is a public that is largely lacking in those who have ‘come to themselves.’ Too much religion, moreover, features a God who never comes to God’s self.”
My hunch is that God knew that about us long before we had the invention of social media. God knew that we get caught up in ourselves and create silos of separation. So God calls us to Sabbath. Six times in the Book of Exodus, God says, “In six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest so you’ll be refreshed.” This is, of course, one of the Ten Commandments, but the full list of commandments doesn’t appear six times in Exodus; just this one. It must be important. “On the seventh day, you shall rest, in order to be refreshed.” To come to yourself.
I’m a late bloomer when it comes to poetry. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve come to appreciate the brimming phrases found in poetic musings. I’m usually too rushed in self-important tasks to slow down and mine the words for treasure, but lately, I’m finding pearls in poems by the likes of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry.
Wendell Berry is a writer and farmer who lives in Kentucky. Over the years, he’s made it a habit of going for a solitary walk around his farm on Sundays, ambling between riverfront and meadow, grass field and woodlot. Although he is not far from his work, he leaves his work behind and makes a point of being present to the things around him. Sometimes poetry flows out of this time apart. One of my favorites is called, “I go among trees.” It’s an invitation to slow down and be still.
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.
Is it possible that in silence, in rest from the noise of our daily lives, we might find our truest selves, that we might find our song and sing it? Is it possible that it’s God’s song that is buried in our hearts waiting to be released?
Our God is One who loves us tenderly like a child, whose heart breaks when we turn our backs on the relationship that’s meant to fuel and undergird our lives; we do that regularly. But God’s heart is at its core unconditional love: pure, undeserved gift of grace.
May you know that grace, and may you find the way to pattern your own life after the One who is gracious so that you might reflect God’s light and grace to a world that so longs for a word of hope and life. Amen.
Berry, Wendell, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, Counterpoint Publishing, 2014.