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Hosea 11:3 I, I taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
yet they did not know that I healed them.
4 I pulled them along with humane restraint,
with ties of love.
And I was to them
like those who lift babies to their cheeks,
I reached to them and fed them.
Let us pray: In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.
For the last few years I have been engaging in the work of public theology in social media. I do so because I am often frustrated with and disgusted by the misrepresentations of my God and my scriptures in the public square. I am an evangelical Episcopalian, like our Archbishop of Canterbury who is so evangelical he speaks in tongues; I want to share the love of God in and through the scriptures. I’m active on social media in part because I want people to know the loving faithful God of Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament – and all the books in between – and not just a few carefully curated verses reflecting Iron Age, flat-earth theology.
This morning’s First Lesson holds one of my favorite images of God, that I’d like to share with you and with the world, one whom I’m in desperate need of, a tender, loving, mothering God. I don’t know about you, but this has been a summer of sorrows, for me and for people about whom I care. It has been sorrowful for people in our neighborhoods, nation and around the world. It has been sorrowful for people who look like me and my little brother and my nephews. Sometimes random tragedies and natural disasters leave sorrow in their wake. But all too often sorrow is caused by human beings, intentionally inflicting great harm and pain on other people.
Hosea may seem like a strange place in which to find a tender loving mothering God, especially if you heard or read last week’s First Lesson option from Hosea chapter 1. Hosea claims God told him to marry a woman of prostitution. I say “claims” because, come on… We’re trained to hear these texts religiously which is not always a good thing. Imagine if your rector came back and said God told him to marry a porn star and his next sermon series will be based on their children so he needs to get busy making those babies and is doing all of this as a sermon example so you can see God in him and in his wife who’s going to go back to her porn-making ways and eventually he’s going to have to buy out her contract. I can’t say Hosea didn’t hear the voice of God. I can say the story provides us an opportunity to explore how we know what we are hearing, thinking or imagining is or is not the voice of God. But that was last week.
Now about this week… I’m guessing this is not the sermon you thought you were getting. Perhaps equally unexpected are the ways, plural, in which Hosea thought about and named God in what has become scripture for us. Whatever you make of the marry-and-impregnate-a-woman-who-sells-herself-and-will-return-to-selling-herself-so-you-will-have-to-buy-her-back-story of the beginning of the book, it paints a particular, familiar, traditional, image of God. God is Israel’s long-suffering, betrayed, jealous husband, who loves his – I said his – wife in spite of how she has treated him and will take her back. This image of God has its problems; God is often a violent, abusive husband in these Iron Age theological portraits, particularly in the prophets, which assume that jealous men beat their wives and have every right to do so, and worse.
We should be honest about the limitations and danger of that image and language. All of our language and imagery falls short when we speak of God, for human language is woefully inadequate for the task. Even our most familiar and beloved God-language can become an idol – that which is not God but which we treat as though it were. For some, masculine god-language is an idol; it is a limited, finite, incomplete articulation of who God is in and beyond the scriptures treated and worshipped as though it were God. God is not our language about God, even our most cherished and traditional language, father language, Trinitarian language, falls short of who God is. We need multiple images of God, more than one set of words, like Hosea. In most of Hosea God is Israel’s husband but in chapter 11 she is Israel’s mother.
God says: I, I taught Ephraim how to walk – using a double subject in Hebrew for emphasis. Imagine God holding out her fingers for her toddling child to grasp as he teeters and totters.
God says: I lifted them up in my arms. Imagine God holding her child in her arms, not just one, but all of them at the same time. No matter how many, no matter how wriggly, there is room in God’s lap for all of her children.
God says: I was to them like those who lift babies to their cheeks. The way I cared for them – the nation who is my child – was like when you hold a baby up to your face and rub his soft, plump little cheek against your own.
God says: I reached to them and fed them. I fed my babies as all mothers have from the founding of the world until some of you all figured out how to bottle milk. I nursed my babies at my own breast; I didn’t farm them out to a milk-nurse. The image of God as mother is older than Hosea and endures into the New Testament and earliest theology of the Church. Feminists didn’t start it; we are Janies-come-lately.
The Spirit who is always feminine in Hebrew and never male in any biblical text, was the mother hen of all creation in Genesis. In Exodus, at the founding of the nation, God gave birth to Israel becoming their mother. The Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, means “narrow place.” It is a metaphor for the womb from whose violent contractions Israel was delivered. The passage through the Sea is the passage through the birth canal, complete with blood and water. In Numbers 11 while arguing with God, Moses complains that he did not give birth to Israel and is unable to nurse them and tells her – Moses uses a feminine pronoun for God – Moses tells her to nurse her own babies because he doesn’t have the equipment to do so. He then quits as God’s nanny but they make up and he goes back to work. Then God whips up a batch of chicken and biscuits for her ungrateful children. (That’s the manna and quails for the literalists among you.)
Deuteronomy 32:18 charges the ancient Israelites, and us: The Rock who gave birth to you, you have neglected; and you have forgotten the God who writhed in labor with you. 1 Peter 2:2 urges new Christians to desire the milk of the gospel; the gospel is mother’s milk and God is our mother. Julian of Norwich, that great mystic of the Church wrote of the motherhood and fatherhood of God and repeatedly of “Christ our Mother” who feeds us in the Sacrament from his own body as a mother from her breast.
Hosea preached of the tender mothering love of God as he preached about a second Exodus, a do-over. Anybody else want to turn back the hands of time and start over? Israel was going to get one, but it wouldn’t be like they thought. God wasn’t going to wave a magic wand and erase all of their problems and the consequences of their decisions, choices, actions and inactions. But God would accompany them on their journey, through and beyond their sorrows, no matter where they led or how long it took.
Hosea 11 with its tender portrait of Mother God has a tragic, reverse Exodus:
Hosea 11:5 …return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to repent.
6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their divisions,
devouring because of their schemes…
Israel will go back to Egypt. Juxtaposed with the Assyrian invasion and defeat of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Monarchy, resulting in the decimation of nine and a half of the twelve tribes, God announces that Israel – meaning the North, not the whole – will return to Egypt. This is unimaginable, going back to the place of slavery.
Perhaps it is not so unimaginable. Violence rages in our cities too, violence from a time we thought long past all. The legal right to kill based on your feelings, even when those feelings are rooted in racism. Are we going back in time? Perhaps not going back to the days of slavery, but are we going back to pre-Civil Rights, pre-Voting Rights Amendment America? Are we going back to the time when my daddy wore the uniform of the United States Army and didn’t have the right to vote? We can’t go back! Surely God won’t send us back there.
Are we going back to a time when women didn’t have any control over our own bodies, medical or other decisions, couldn’t walk down the street without a male escort to avoid being seen as one of those women – the kind who can be taken off the street, used and abused and held for a decade? Well, maybe no one but the predators thinks that’s acceptable anymore but one in five women are raped and only three percent of rapes lead to convictions and rape victims and survivors still have to prove they were really raped. We’ve made so little progress here. We can’t go back! But it looks like we’re going anyway. For once we want Mama to say, “I will turn this car around…” But this time she won’t. Israel is going back to Egypt and we are backtracking too. But how far back are we going to go?
After four hundred years of bondage, it took the Israelites another forty years to reach Canaan, and everyone who started the journey with them did not make it. A whole generation died on the way, a whole generation of dreamers. American chattel slavery lasted four hundred sixty years. Its aftermath gave birth to generations of dreamers and their dreams; one dream marched on Washington fifty years ago this month. Will we let the fabric of their dreams be unraveled?
We have done so much since then, learned so much, built so much, changed so much. Are we going to lose it all? Civil Rights and women’s rights and the dignity of every human person, gay, straight, and crooked, cis, trans and in transition, able-bodied and varying abilities, documented and undocumented, wealthy, comfortable, struggling, working poor, deeply and desperately impoverished… I imagine Hosea’s congregation reflecting on their own history.
After leaving Egypt, the Israelites fought their way into Canaan, when they were not fighting the indigenous population who understandably objected to what they experienced as illegal immigration, they were fighting the land. We will continue to fight against the dreams of a new generation of dreamers? Are we willing to offer the stranger welcome to this nation built on bones and broken promises and the sad history of cutting off many of its First Nations from the same promises?
Now, the prophet says God will let the Assyrians invade them as they themselves invaded Canaan. Yet this is not an easy decision for God. God laments:
8 How can I give you away Ephraim? How can I hand you over Israel?
How can I make you like Admah, treat you like Zeboiim?[cities destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah]
My heart turns within me; kindling my tenderness and heart together.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath. No!
But you will go back to Egypt. God, we can’t go back there! We can’t go back in time here in America. But it looks like we too are going back to Egypt. And God promises us as God promised Israel, no matter what happens, no matter how bad it looks, no matter how bad it gets, not to destroy us, not to abandon us, to accompany us wherever we go and when necessary to bring us home, again and again.
But this time it will be different trip. We and Egypt have changed – and I’m not even talking about the most recent changes in Egypt. Those who go to Egypt as Hosea prophesies will not be enslaved; their former oppressors have become welcoming neighbors – for a while. Those who seek refuge in Egypt will be saved from Babylonian annihilation. More than one hundred and fifty years later, the prophet Jeremiah was forcibly taken to Egypt and he and an entire community of Jews escaped the Babylonian invasion. They built a thriving community in North Africa. They learned Greek and translated the scriptures. Many generations later that community welcomed the Holy Family into their midst when they too went back to Egypt in response to the dream of a new generation, giving new meaning to God’s words to Hosea: Out of Egypt have I called my son… And the gospel in which Hosea was quoted was written in Greek because of the influence of that community and their descendants.
Israel will be defeated by the Assyrians and deported to Egypt and to Assyria, but God will bring them home again, in a second Exodus.
Hosea 11:10 They shall follow the God Who Is Mother and Husband,
who roars like a lion; for when God roars–
God’s children shall come trembling from the west.
11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like a dove from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes,
says the Mothering God.
Sometimes we go back to go forward. And wherever we go, our Mothering God goes with us. That’s Iron Age theology that still works in the digital age. In the words of Ps 107:43, Let those who are wise give heed to these things…
May God the Mother and Father
of Avraham, Yitza’ak and Ya’acov,
Sarah, Hagar, Rivqah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,
Who took the tangled threads of their lives
And wove a tapestry of Redemption
In the Body and Blood of Miryam l’Natzeret
Continue to weave the strands of your life
In the Divine design. Amen.