Proper 12 Sunday – 7/28/2019 – St. Paul’s
Most of us, at some stage, probably at school, maybe since, have had the experience of reading a poem, and finding ourselves perplexed. When a poem tells a story, you can relax. You may not have the names, location, or era of the main characters, but you can start to walk in tune with where it’s headed. And when the story’s obscure or absent, when the lines of verse feel like random brush-strokes on an abstract canvas, when the pressure to understand crowds in like a teacher lurking behind the door of sweaty classroom, it can feel like poetry’s an exercise in mystification, and humiliation.
So how do you read a poem, when it’s not giving you a lot of help? How do you begin to make headway with it, like an old tennis pro starting to read an opponent’s serve after losing the first set? When I first began at St. Paul’s, I went to our resident poetry expert, Ken Whitely and talked with him about this question and how he reads and writes poetry. You dwell on particular words. You try to unself, letting the poem set the agenda, rather than imposing your shape upon it. You let it teach you and lead you, on a route you’ve never traversed before; it might be taking you to a particular place – but it might equally be teasing or provoking you to question why you’re in such a hurry to get somewhere.
Finding the patience to hear a poem is very much like learning to listen to a friend, colleague or stranger as they try to make sense of the state their life is in. When I know a person is in a state of total confusion or disarray, I often begin by saying, So, where does the story begin? It’s designed to give permission to my conversation partner to go a long way back, maybe much further than they’d previously realized, to find a thread that runs all the way through. But sometimes it’s a bewildering question, because what they’re presenting is a series of facts or events that don’t constitute a story and don’t seem to make any sense at all. What they’re speaking out loud is more like a poem. Not the poems you’re used to at primary school, where all the words are in stanzas and all the lines rhyme and all’s well with the world – but a jagged poem that starts and stops and has small letters where you’d expect capitals and where the sentences don’t fit with the lines, like a rugged coastline that’s been worn down for millennia by the waves but is still rocky and uneven and unpredictable.
The Bible is a poem. We want to rush ahead and make it a story, a story that starts with Adam and Eve and goes right through to the new Jerusalem. And it’s true, it is a story. But we aren’t really listening to the Bible unless we hear the ways in which it’s a poem, a jaggedy coastline with no tidy National Park path and a lot of bits we have to say over and over and sit with and ponder and allow to dwell with us without making a lot of obvious meaning.
One of those parts is the first chapter of the prophet Hosea from this mornings Old Testament lesson. Hosea lived in the Northern Kingdom that split from Judah around 900BC. When we read his prophecy, we know two things – first, that he’s passionate about Israel being restored to covenant relationship with God, and second, that around 25 years after he died the Northern Kingdom was extinguished by the Assyrians, leaving only the two Southern tribes of Judah to uphold God’s covenant ever after.
Hosea chapter 1 is a story of a man who makes a reckless marriage, whose wife, as expected, is serially unfaithful to him, and who has three children. Those children have some pretty foreboding names. The first is Jezreel, which means, promisingly, God plants, but which refers to a valley where in Israel’s history kings did terrible things. The second child is called Lo-ruhamah, which means Not Pitied. The third is called Lo-ammi, which means Not My People. Put the three together and you have a not-so-happy family called You’ll be without a leader; You’ll be without God’s loving-kindness; You’ll be without God. The chapter isn’t all bad news. It ends on a note of hope. It looks forward to a day when The number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea,’ their name will be changed from Not My People to Children of the living God, they will regain the land, and the Northern and Southern kingdoms will be united under one king.
But we know that most of that didn’t happen. So we say, What’s it doing in the Bible if it’s not true? That’s what I mean about the Bible being a poem. If it was simply saying God’s in charge, we messed up but don’t worry, God’ll sort it out and we’re set forever, we wouldn’t need 66 books and three- quarters of a million words.
The book of Hosea’s not a simple story; it’s a mighty challenging poem which leaves us asking three questions. One, why does God exercise such savage judgement on a people that were formed and crafted with such love? Two, what do we do with promises God seems to make that God doesn’t seem to have kept? Three, what do we do with promises that maybe still can be kept? As with the most tantalizing poems, there aren’t simple answers to such questions. Instead we have to stay tuned, live with the ambiguity, and explore the depth of each question.
But to say it’s a poem, and to say it exasperates and challenges and unsettles and sometimes bewilders, is not to say we can simply treat it as armchair theatre, or abstract speculation. As it’s inscribed into the fabric of Israel, and as it becomes part of the texture of Christianity, certain patterns of interpretation emerge. One mysterious part is whether Hosea’s wayward wife is a real person, and whether God orchestrated the marriage in order to teach Israel a lesson, or whether the whole story is a parable, a larger-than-life extended fable to which God’s people repeatedly return for wisdom, insight, and truth. And this is a crucial transition, because it helps us see that the obvious questions, like Did it happen? and Is it true? are important, but they’re not the only questions. Did Hosea really give this prophecy? and Was he really married to a wayward wife at the time? are interesting questions, but perhaps more rewarding are questions like, Was Hosea realizing that his whole life was like a parable of his people’s history? And, Is the whole story of Israel in the Old Testament a parable of what it means for humanity to stand before the ultimate forces and challenges in existence, and find it’s come face to face with a personal being whose whole life is shaped to be in reciprocal relationship with us?
Let’s go back for a moment to the experience of sitting down with somebody and being alongside them as they piece together from the shattered or scattered elements of their life some meaning and purpose and coherent thread. What you’re doing together is taking what we could call a really impenetrable poem, and staying with it, peering into it, listening to it, until some kind of form emerges, some kind of narrative takes shape. And what maybe you’d like is that it becomes smooth and comprehensible and straightforward. But that almost never happens.
Joining someone looking into the confusion of their life isn’t about fixing a problem – it’s about entering a mystery. So what emerges is less like a story and more like a parable. And to discover your life is a parable can be extraordinarily inspiring and invigorating. I once sat with a man as he gradually realized that his own story precisely mirrored the story of his community: his unemployment matched the decline of the neighborhood; his sadness at not becoming a father matched the community’s difficulty in finding any agency to recognize and partner with its abundant gifts. From feeling isolated and adrift, he began to see he had a pivotal role to play amongst his people: his compassion was no ordinary compassion; his transformation could be the beginning of a change in everyone’s fortunes.
But that’s not the end of the journey. Looking at Hosea’s words of judgement, we’ve seen how the Bible can feel like an opaque poem, with loose ends, jarring edges and unanswered questions. But, staying with those mysteries over time, what may emerge is something more like a parable. And that’s not just true of the Bible, it’s true of our lives, full as they are of so many anomalies and inconsistencies, but at the same time brimming with potential for learning, discovery and wisdom, the truth that emerges from a parable.
But ultimately the Bible is more than a poem or even a parable. It’s a love song written by human hands captivated, compelled and given light and life by the Holy Spirit. But it’s a love song full of yearning, searching, and longing. And the word we have for such a ballad is prayer. The Bible is one enormous prayer, which gives voice and texture and content and urgency to our own prayers. Hosea chapter 1 is just such a prayer, which starts with our experience of feeling abandoned, naked, forsaken and alone, giving substance to our worst fears and deepest dread. But it’s a prayer we return to, when penitent and conscious of judgement, or when hopeful and looking for restoration.
And as with the Bible, so with our lives. Our lives are jumbled poems, jolting parables, but ultimately fervent prayers. If our lives are full of tragedy, so is the Bible; if drenched in folly, so is the Bible; if spiced with hope, so is the Bible; if incoherent without faith, so is the Bible. Open a random page in the Bible, and you won’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going. So with our lives. But the Bible is ultimately a gift to God’s people to demonstrate the truth of God’s heart. And so are we.
we gather together to remember Your presence.
We come with our failings, knowing we are welcome.
We come with our gifts, offering them for Your purpose.
We come with our dreams, hoping You will make them new.
Here, in this place of meeting,
We take time together with friend and stranger
For when paths cross and pilgrims gather,
There is much to share and celebrate.
CALL FOR THE OFFERING
We have been taught to pray to Creator God
and to join in the coming of the Kin-dom.
The persistence of the work requires our generous gifts.
God’s humble workers for compassion and justice on earth,
Let us offer our and gifts at this time.
In the hallowed name of God,
let us go out with prayer and a sweet thanksgiving.
God calls us out into a world that is sorely in need of both.
Daily let us offer to the earth and its people
the fullness of God’s joy, justice and peace which we have in Christ. Through the blessing of God Almighty,
Creator, Redeemer and Giver of life…..