Sermon delivered at University Church, July 31, 2016
I am thankful that I was given the opportunity to preach today, because it forced me to engage with Scripture this week. It’s a practice that I’ve struggled to maintain since leaving seminary. And in reading the text, I could hear God; but not they way thought I would. In times of trouble we turn to the Bible for comfort, but sometimes there is no comfort to be had. Sometimes, we open Scripture not to our own laments, but to God’s. Sometimes we don’t get the still, small voice; we get a roar.
So let’s turn to Hosea, chapter 11, verses 1-11. Listen for the word of God.
When Israel was a child, I loved them. And out of Egypt I called my child. The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.
They will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume their oracle-priests, and devour because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, YHWH will not raise them up.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Adma? How can I treat you like Zeboim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst. I won’t come in wrath. They will walk after YHWH, who roars like a lion. Where YHWH roars, YHWH’s children will come trembling from the West. They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says YHWH.
2016 is shaping up to be a year to remember. And not in a good way. Our country is a mess. Tensions between law enforcement and communities of color are worse than maybe they’ve ever been. We can’t go a week without a mass shooting. Mosques, Black churches, Sikh gurudwaras are being attacked and vandalized regularly. Women’s health clinics are being systematically closed down and our right to control our own bodies is being wrenched from us. And this election cycle is marked by terrifying and unchallenged hatred. If there was ever a time to lament, it is now.
And that’s what we hear in this text, a lament. But not our lament, YHWH’s lament. The chapter begins with YHWH remembering when Israel was a child, when YHWH led the people out of Egypt by the hand. YHWH remembers guiding the people, nurturing the people, bringing up the people. And being abandoned by the people. Having that love and faith thrown back, discarded, for the temptation of idols.
|Democracy is good, but it's not GOOD|
Idolatry. That persistent threat that has tempted us ever since we entered with God into the Covenant. Our nasty habit of elevating beliefs, systems, and persons to the status of the ultimate. And we are an idolatrous people, with good intentions. We often confound something that has the potential for doing good into something that is capital-G Good. National security. Wealth. Law enforcement. The free market. None of these things is inherently evil; we make them so by orienting our lives and our theologies towards them instead of God. They can never fulfill God’s role in our lives; they cannot be the guiding stars for our moral compasses. They were constructed by human logic, and are therefore fallible. And the more we raise them up, the further we turn from God.
Because I know y’all, I’m going to assume that most of you were captivated by the Democratic National Convention this week. It was a really good show, wasn’t it? Every speaker was on fire. And when Hillary Clinton walked out on that stage as the first woman nominee of a major party, I teared up. After her speech on Thursday, I was ready to GO. Give me the clipboard and the buttons, I’ll start knocking on doors NOW. 2016 is a make-or-break year. On November 9, we’re either going to be on the road to redemption or the highway to hell. That’s the story, anyway. That’s what our idols are telling us.
Our idol is our political system, our democratic republic. We put such faith in this system and its ideals that we are unable to recognize its limitations or imagine an alternative. Let me reiterate, “democracy” is not inherently evil. Conservatism, Liberalism, Progressivism, are not inherently evil. But when taken to their logical conclusions, these systems and ideals become instruments of our destruction. In the name of keeping our “citizens” safe, we allow our government to round up “undesirables” and deport them. And so people like Jose Juan are separated from their families. Because we want our own children to have the best future possible, we invest only in our own neighborhoods, and abandon underfunded communities. And a whole generation is relegated to poverty. We hold the right to protect ourselves and our families so dear, that we refuse to regulate firearms. And we find ourselves 8 months into 2016 with over 2,300 shootings in Chicago. Because we believe so strongly that the way to make change is through political debate and the long legislative process, we ignore the immediate demands of underserved communities. And we are surprised when police officers get off scot free for murder.
We have prioritized the stability and familiarity of our political system over and above mercy, compassion, and justice. We have oriented ourselves to the laws and logic of the earth instead of to the laws and logic of God. As Pastor Julian has said from this pulpit, as Malcolm X said 50 years ago, this is the inevitable consequence of our choices. The chickens are coming home to roost. And this was predicted thousands of years ago when the book of Hosea was written; we see it in the text. Because Israel has turned away from YHWH, they will once again be captive to a foreign power. Because the people have chosen to align themselves with Baals, and to orient their theologies towards earthly things, they will suffer violence and destruction. And because we have put all of our faith and hope for change into political ideologies instead of in the Law of the Covenant, inequality, intolerance, and hostility will continue to fester.
And this is YHWH’s lament, the cry of anger and grief at the future God’s people have chosen.
“They will return to the land of Egypt and Assyria will be their king because they have refused to return to me. The sword will strike wildly in their cities…will devour because of their schemes.”
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?...My heart winces within me. My compassion grows warm and tender”
|Pretty sure the author meant "roars like a lioness"|
God’s cry isn’t just one of anger, but one of anguish. We are suffering, and so is God. As a partner in the Covenant, God is bound up with us with cords of love. And because God is bound up with us, God will suffer because of us.
Our idolatry, our willful disobedience to the Covenant, actively hurts God. And idolatry is a way of life; it manifests itself in obvious and subtle injustices. So God isn’t just hurt when a kid is shot in Englewood. God is hurt every time a straw purchaser crosses the state line from Indiana to Illinois. God wasn’t just hurt when the community of Saqja’ was displaced by paramilitary forces; God was hurt every time we bought a Del Monte banana. God wasn’t just hurt when Philando Castile was shot, God was hurt every time Philando was pulled over. God isn’t just hurt when ICE breaks up families, God is hurt every time we shake our heads and resign ourselves to incremental progress like DACA. If we keep this singular focus on electoral politics, the People, and God, will continue to suffer. And though we should recoil at the idea of violence against other people, the knowledge that we are doing violence to God should stop us in our tracks.
What is God to do? Struggling between wrath and compassion, pained by the Chosen People, what is God to do? The logical choice would be to leave us to our own devices, to abandon us just as we have abandoned God. Or maybe to smack us down with righteous anger.
But God is God, and no mortal.
“I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim…I will not come in wrath.” No, instead, God will “roar like a lion; when God roars, God’s children shall come trembling from the West…and I will return them to their homes.”
To be God in this crisis to not to abandon, not to punish, but to liberate. God roars, and calls God’s people home. This won’t be easy. Grace will come, but it won’t be cheap. Restoration is inevitable, but it will be a fierce deliverance. And it will not resemble our idolatry in any way. The good news is that misogyny, xenophobia, racism, and economic inequality will not have the last word. The difficult news is that we are going to have to abandon the familiar and find the courage to follow God into the unknown.
Now I like and admire Hillary Clinton, I do. But Hillary Clinton is not going to save us. And to be clear, Bernie Sanders wasn’t going to save us either. I am a vocal progressive and a proud Democrat. But the Democratic Party is not going to save us. In the next 99 days, I will knock on doors, I’ll vote early, and I’ll watch the election results roll in on November 8. But this election is not going to save us. We have to recognize our political system for what it is, a human construction, created with some good intentions, but limited in its ability to do capital-G Good. We have made it into an idol; we have put all of our trust and faith into the democratic ideals it represents, even after it repeatedly disenfranchises our brother and sisters. It will never save us.
So where will our salvation come from? From whom will we hear that liberating call back to our Creator? The answer is obvious, really. The saving Spirit of God is where it has always been: among marginalized people daring to imagine something different. For months, every time I’ve read Scripture I hear the same thing. Every time I come to church, I hear it in the sermon. Every time I open up my Twitter or Facebook newsfeed, I see it. Black Lives Matter. Not One More Deportation. These movements and leaders have challenged our conceptions of what is inevitable and what is possible. They are calling out our idolatry. In their organizing, I hear the promise in Hosea: a fearsome deliverance to a restored and fundamentally altered community.
Here at University Church, we’ve already seen the amazing transformation that can take place when we heed the Roar of God. We dared to join forces with a group of young people taking on the University of Chicago. If there was ever an idol in this neighborhood, it is the University of Chicago. And guess what—a trauma center is coming to Hyde Park. We dared to open our doors to Jose Juan and his family, refusing to allow his deportation. In doing so we joined forces with young leaders who are challenging the Department of Homeland security. And guess what—Jose Juan is still here in his home country, with his family. We have dared to hear and heed the Roar of God, and our community—University Church—has been reenergized.
|Is the Roar of God calling us to the Voting Booth, or Freedom Square?|
Should we be surprised at this? That our transformation has come from aligning ourselves with communities whose anguish God shares? These young leaders are intimately familiar with the evils of our political idolatry are also the ones with the power to break its hold on us. Here in Hosea, God shows us that a lament leads to liberation, that the cry of the oppressed is also a call to justice. We have to listen for the roars that challenge our idolatry, that make us question our faith in Earthly logic. Do we really need the police? Are deportations ever really necessary? Can we really not afford reparations? Do we really have to wait for the right candidate, the right bill, or the right Supreme Court case?
In 2016 salvation will not be found in the Senate, but in the streets. Justice will not be brought about by politicians, but by protestors. 2016 doesn’t have to be the worst year ever; it can be the year we abandon the idolatry of a political system that only divides and distracts us from the liberation promised by God’s love. This can be the year we step out on faith and dare to heed the Roar of God.
In this moment of silence and reflection, I invite you to think about where you have put your faith, and whether or not that faith has been earned. Ask yourself, where do you hear God’s roar, and are you willing to follow it?