Prophetic Enactment

If I were to ask you, “What is the strangest, most confusing book of the Bible?” I suspect that, without hesitation, most with any scriptural knowledge would respond, “Revelation.”  True, Revelation is bizarre, with its opaque symbolism, its blood and destruction, and its ambiguity about whether it is referring to something long past or still yet to come.  Even so, I contend that Revelation is not the Bible’s weirdest book.  If we gauge oddity by how diligently preachers avoid preaching on a text, the clear winner is the Old Testament book from which we read this morning: Hosea.

When I was in college, my advisor in the philosophy and religion department, Dr. John Farthing, became the global expert on the obscure Reformation theologian Jerome Zanchi by analyzing Zanchi’s commentary on Hosea.  Yes, that’s right: After almost three thousand years, Hosea is still so weird and off-putting that if you want to make a name for yourself in the academy, there’s plenty of scholarship yet to be done!  My advisor entitled his essay “Holy Harlotry.”  “Harlot” isn’t a word you hear very often.  The article was dense, but the title so intrigued me that I read it in full.  That was my own introduction to Hosea, but in nineteen years of ordained ministry, this is the first time I’ve had the nerve to preach it.

No one wants to preach on Hosea.  The poor prophet gets assiduously ignored.  Why is that?  What’s so strange about the book?  The clue is in the title of Dr. Farthing’s essay.  As we just heard from the lectern, Hosea begins his prophecy by declaring—at first, irritatingly in the third person—“The Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’ So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.”

Hosea and Gomer, depicted in a 13th century illuminated manuscript

Yes, that’s right.  God tells Hosea to seek out and marry a prostitute.  Hosea obeys.  And this is no scene from Pretty Woman.  This isn’t a tender RomCom about redemptive love.  God tells Hosea to marry Gomer as an example to the people of Israel, to set in front of the nation’s face an example of its own—as the prophet himself says it—whoring ways.

So, let’s dig in.  Historically, what’s going on here?  Hosea prophesies in the late 700s B.C., a pivotal moment in Israel’s history.  In fact, though its citizens don’t yet grasp it, Israel—that’s the ancient northern kingdom that does not include Jerusalem—is about to cease to exist.  Within a few short years it will be overrun and swallowed up by the much larger Assyrian Empire to the north and east.  A threat the Israelites cannot see, Hosea does, and as God’s prophet it falls to him to sound a clarion call for the people.

God says to Hosea that the reason for Israel’s impending destruction is that the chosen people of God have failed in their singular calling, which is to be wed in a covenant relationship with God.  Beginning with Abraham and renewed through Moses, Israel is to focus its commitment, loyalty, and love only and all to God.  And the purpose of this whole-hearted relationship is to provide a witness to the whole world that such a covenant with the Creator of heaven and earth is the foundation of all blessing.

Instead, Israel has set its heart on other things: gods, idols, wealth, status, bravado, intrigue, anything and everything but the God who is both the deep center of the soul and the fabric of the cosmos.  Hosea alone recognizes that it is this infidelity that is leading to Israel’s doom.  He wants to startle and shock the Israelites, to awaken them to their error and what needs to be done in order to set things right before it’s too late.  Words won’t be enough.  And so, Hosea physically enacts the crucial message he wants to convey.  So that the Israelites cannot miss his point about their philandering, infidelity, their cheating on God, he himself marries a prostitute. 

Yes, to us this is extreme and bizarre.  But Hosea is actually drawing upon a tactic at least as old as King David: prophetic enactment.  When all else fails, the ancient prophets dramatize, act out, embody their message as a stark and unmissable way to force their audience to take notice.  This is actually more familiar to us than we may at first realize: When an environmentalist literally becomes a tree hugger by chaining herself to an endangered redwood, or, to a greater extreme even than Hosea, when several decades ago Vietnamese Buddhist monks set themselves aflame as a prophetic symbol of the way in which the government was abusing Buddhists.

Prophetic enactment is more familiar to us than we at first realize. This tree-sitter is from near my former home of Roanoke, Virginia.

Prophetic enactment is always eye-catching and often powerful.  The problem is that, if the prophet misunderstands the message he is supposed to convey, prophetic enactment itself can quickly change from something holy to something perverse.  It is an open question whether Hosea got it right.  Undoubtedly, Israel’s infidelity to the God of grace and wandering into the arms of destructive idols was their undoing.  No doubt about that.  But whether that same God of grace would truly encourage Hosea to use Gomer, to capitalize on the circumstances that had forced her to sell her body to survive, to exploit her beyond what she had already suffered…Well, I don’t recognize that God. 

That’s a debate for biblical commentators, but what it begs of us in our own day are the questions, asked in faith and also with caution, “What is our prophetic voice?  What is God calling us to proclaim?  And what are the potent and powerful enactments that embody God’s message and make it real?”

In today’s Gospel we are given the answers to these questions, from the mouth of God Incarnate.  Today Jesus teaches us what we call, for good reason, the Lord’s Prayer, the God-given scaffolding for all our prayers.  It is as sure as any words God ever put on the lips of a prophet.  The words on our lips are to be the hope for bread for all people, that none of God’s children should suffer deprivation or want.  The words on our lips are to be for the strength from God to resist the temptation of idolatry that plagues us as much as it did the ancient Israelites, to resist the allure of bravado, intrigue, status, the self, all of which supplant God as our center and our ground.  And finally, in the words with which the Lord’s Prayer begins, we are to speak the hope that God’s kingdom will be realized on this earth as it is in heaven.

And not only speak.  This last—or, in the Lord’s Prayer, first—is what I contend God calls us to enact, to dramatize, to live publicly and as boldly as Hosea married Gomer: As Christian people, we are called to live in the world as if the kingdom has already come.  We are to enact the kingdom.  We are to interact, we are to respond, we are to engage as citizens of the kingdom.  And that means no matter how the world acts toward us, we respond in love.  When the world is brutal, we respond in love by defending the brutalized.  When the world is callous, we respond in love by extending care to the forgotten.  When the world tells us that things other than the God of grace are central, we respond in love by claiming God instead of idols.  When the world falls asleep, we jolt it awake with our fierce and relentless love.     

In this era in which words are misused and truth is upended, such prophetic enactment is so much more powerful than words alone.  Words can be twisted, but courageous acts of love are unmistakable and un-ignorable.  When we enact the kingdom, by God’s grace our very souls are redeemed.  When we embody the kingdom in our persons and in our actions, we become witnesses to God’s love, and as witness begets witness, the very kingdom we enact is birthed into reality.  This is, by God’s grace, the way we and the good world are saved.  As in Hosea’s own age, time is short and may be running out.  God is calling, and the message is clear.  The prophetic enactment of love is the hope of the world.  Thy kingdom come, and we are God’s prophets. 

Who is my neighbor?

“In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints…Just as [the Gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among you from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.”

These are the words with which Saint Paul[i] begins the letter to the Christians in Colossae.  Across two thousand years of time and a world of space, they could just as easily have been written about you, the saints of Christ Church Cathedral in the city of Houston.  Since the day I arrived among you in February 2013, I have been amazed by your love.  In a world too often starved of love—a world that stingily seems to believe love is a zero-sum resource—you love extravagantly.  Why is that?  How is that?  I’ll come back to that question.

Today we also read the best-known parable in the Gospels.  We call it “The Good Samaritan,” and it is so well-known that in 1998 it even featured prominently in the series finale of the sitcom Seinfeld.  Like all familiar stories, the Good Samaritan can be a gauzy comfort, but for that same reason we can also miss its impact.

The passage begins with a lawyer—a schooled and trained expert on Jewish religious law, a keeper of doctrine, someone who already knows all the answers—asking Jesus a metaphysical question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This is, on its surface, an academic debate.  Jesus lobs the ball back to the lawyer, asking, “What is written in the law [you know so well]?  What do you read there?”  The lawyer responds accurately, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.  And love your neighbor as yourself.”  And so, Jesus compliments and commends the lawyer for speaking truthfully and well.

This could have been the end of it.  But instead, that’s when we, the reader, see what this exchange is really all about.  It is on the surface an academic debate, but that’s not what’s actually going on.  There are people around, watching, and this theologically and legally trained lawyer wants to put the scraggly, backwoods, rough-and-tumble Nazarene in his place.  The lawyer wants to best Jesus, to belittle him, and somehow, in an exchange of just three sentences, Jesus has instead affirmed the lawyer.  Rather than receiving that affirmation as a gift, we can imagine the heat rising on the back of the lawyer’s neck, his cheeks getting red, his eyes beginning to water and blaze.  The lawyer cannot receive this gift from Jesus, whom the lawyer sees as so much beneath him.  He rebels against it. 

And so we see that this conversation was never about metaphysics.  The lawyer isn’t interested in eternal life, for himself or anyone else.  That’s a smokescreen, a red herring.  This conversation is really about, as Luke himself tells us in verse 29, the lawyer “justifying himself.”  The lawyer needs, internally for himself and externally to the crowd, to confirm who he is and to expose who he believes Jesus to be.  He’s interested in winning the point, in shoring up his self-image, in preserving the thin veneer of his constructed persona so he doesn’t actually have to confront deeper and serious questions about who he is in the world.  He wants to justify himself.  And he views Jesus and Jesus’ message as a threat to him, to his sense of self, and to his place in the world.  Can you imagine that?  Seeing the Gospel of Jesus as a threat?

Feeling exposed, the lawyer presses the point.  He pushes back, “And who is my neighbor?”  And then Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  Our common interpretation of the story is that our neighbor is anyone in need.  That is true, but that’s actually not what the story is about or what it tells us.  Because, read carefully, in this story the lawyer who questions Jesus—and we, the readers—is supposed to see himself as the man beaten up and left in the ditch.  Catch that: We are not to see ourselves as the passers-by who fail to help, nor as the Samaritan who finally stops.  In the construction of the story, we are the one beaten up, manhandled, injured, and left for dead.

And the man in the ditch is willing to receive aid from—indeed, have his very life saved by—the Samaritan, who in his culture is the enemy, the threat, the dirty, the disdained.  This is the key to the parable: The man in the ditch opens himself to grace from wherever it may come.  When he does, the least expected, least fathomable person becomes his neighbor

Jesus turns the lawyer’s question on its head.  Who is my neighbor?  Our neighbor is anyone from whom we are willing to receive help.  And if we are unwilling to receive help—if we are unwilling first to be vulnerable—we, in turn, cannot be a neighbor.  This is the lesson of The Good Samaritan, and it’s a much harder lesson to learn and embrace than simply offering aid. 

How do we walk through the world?  Do we, like the lawyer, reenforce the veneer we’ve created (one that others can almost assuredly see through anyway)?  Do we close ourselves off as if we have no need and cling to a sense of self that is dependent upon defining the other as base, less than, the object of our disdain or disregard?  Such a persona can neither have nor be a neighbor.

 Or do we, like the man thrown in the ditch, open ourselves to grace from wherever it may come?  Can we be vulnerable to learning from, growing with, receiving love from the people we least expect, whoever they may be?

This brings me back to where I began.  For almost ten years, I’ve been amazed by your ability to love, to be a neighbor.  You feed the hungry, house the homeless, embrace all of God’s children in the fullness of their being, care about justice and peace.  When I arrived almost a decade ago, I saw that immediately.  It took me longer to understand how you do it.  You are able to be neighborly—to extend love—because you also know how to receive it.  You are a most remarkable congregation, one of vulnerability and a willingness to be met and ministered to by one another.  You receive grace as what it is: a gift, and from any quarter.  There is never a stranger among you, because you welcome the stranger as neighbor and friend.  You do not see the Gospel as a threat to your sense of self, but as Good News that can and will change you, heal you, make you whole.

It has been a sanctifying gift to walk with such a people for this decade.  You have been neighbors to me, and I am grateful.  In a few weeks I will go home, to Arkansas and to another remarkable parish that asks and answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?” with vulnerability and grace.  But when I go, I will take with me the love you have given.  We will always be neighbors. And like Saint Paul, in my prayers for you I will always thank God for the love that you have for all the saints.  You truly comprehended the grace of God.

[i] It is much-debated whether Colossians is a genuine Pauline letter.  It may have been written by a disciple of Paul and attributed to him.