Fighting the Good Fight

1 Timothy 6:6-19

6Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 11But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

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The Peace of the Prayerful Life

1 Timothy 2:1-8

2First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 3This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time. 7For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. 8I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument;

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A Great Fall Ahead

Dear CCOV Family,

After a wonderful summer of a more intimate and interactive worship experience in Hayden Hall, we have moved back into the sanctuary and look forward to a blessed and full fall ahead of us!  Choir practice starts up again on October 13, and the choir will strive to present a well-known anthem on that same Sunday.  Our members slowly start their trickle back from cooler climes, and we rejoice in their return!  

Pastor Dick and I have three fall sermon series planned.  First up is Pastor Sandi’s two-week sermon series from 1 Timothy.  On Sunday, September 22 you will hear all about prayer, specifically why the church is urged to pray for kings and those who are in high positions as we delve into 1 Timothy 2:1-8.  On Sunday, September 29, you will hear all about the problem with the love of money as we examine 1 Timothy 6:6-19.  In October, Pastor Dick presents a three-week series entitled, “Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. “  Following that, Pastors Sandi and Dick will alternate through a five-week preaching series on the Book of Ephesians called, “In the Fullness of Time.”  Clint and I will have just come back from an October tour of Turkey including Ephesus and Cappadocia (among other biblical locales) and should have some great insights to share from the “Holy Land of the North.”  Expect your Biblical knowledge to EXPLODE this fall!   

I look forward to being with you in church this Sunday!

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Sandi

Call Stories

Jeremiah 1:4-19

4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Sermon: Call Stories, preached August 23, 2019 by Rev. Sandi

A few weeks ago, I was checking out an internet rumor or claim on Snopes and got sidetracked by another claim’s headline on the same page.  Snopes, you know is one of the first online fact-checking websites that helps us sort out myths, rumors, and urban legends.  The headline that caught my attention was that the hosts of one network’s morning show described children’s TV host Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, you know, the Presbyterian minister, as an “evil, evil man.”  Now I’ve used Snopes a lot and have found that it is just as ready to debunk crazy liberal rumors and claims as it is conservative ones, so please don’t see this illustration as a slight against any one network.  All news channels employ sensationalistic headlines to draw us in, stoke their bases, and drum up ratings.  Now, I was pretty sure that no one could possibly say anything negative about the late Mr. Rogers, let alone call him an “evil, evil man,” so I read on, expecting this to be debunked.  I mean, I was very grateful to this man for convincing my daughter, who used to watch his TV show, not to be afraid of a flushing toilet.  He got down low, showed the children that no one’s body could actually fit down that hole.  It helped dispel a lot of angst in our household, especially when using airplane toilets.

It turns out that Snopes verified the claim about the morning show segment and listed it as true.  Indeed, this network’s morning show had referred to Mr. Rogers as an “evil, evil man.”  I was shocked, so, I went on to read the whole context.  The segment aired using titles such as, “Blame Mr, Rogers,” and “Was Mr. Roger’s Wrong?” and “Was Mr. Rogers Ruining Kids?”  The morning program’s hosts took Mr. Rogers to task for supposedly encouraging generations of children to grow up with a sense of self-entitlement.  Remember how Mr. Rogers used to say or sing, “You’re special because you’re you?” 

Snopes reported that “the show’s moderators cited unnamed ‘experts’ and a professor at Louisiana State University.”  It turns out that the professor was not a psychologist or sociologist or a theologian; instead, the professor was a finance professor with a few anecdotal speculations after the usual run at the end of the semester of students wanting extra credit to save their grades.  The professor said, “They felt so entitled.  And then it just hit me.  We can blame Mr. Rogers.”  [And I’m not surprised, we live increasingly in a culture of blame.]  The professor saw Rogers as representative of a culture of excessive doting, but later he contacted the network to clarify the substance of his comments.  In doing so he said that he had made a casual observation—not a study—regarding entitlement in our society, and his reference to Rogers was just a metaphor.  The professor, in fact, went on to say that Rogers was not the problem itself, and certainly not evil as the morning show had portrayed him.  The professor added that he actually watched the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood with his young children, but he wanted his children to know that people become special by the choices they make, not by who they are—and for his children to know that the world owes them nothing.  Others weighed in in the program’s aftermath, because there was a good bit of criticism in reaction to this particular morning show.  Those who were familiar with Rogers’ work said that his emphasis on personal value was much more nuanced and balanced that the anecdotal input of the cited LSU professor… These voices, including one who had written a book about Mr. Rogers, said Roger’s message also involved keeping others in mind and repudiated egoism.”  For example, “When community members in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood fell prey to self-centeredness, they would soon be corrected by the rest of the community in a calm and loving fashion.”

The bottom line is that there was never really any record of Rogers’ telling children that they were infallible or as talented as everyone else at everything.”  Roger’s purest message, which the show sensationally and some claimed, maliciously distorted, was that each child has value, and that value was not related to a child’s particular successes or failures…[and that Rogers] explicitly acknowledged that some of their peers would be better at certain things than they were, explaining that having our own strengths and interest is part of what make each of us special” (taken liberally from https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/fox-fred-rogers-evil/).  Roger’s message was theologically sound even without invoking the language of God or referencing the Bible.  If he had done so, he may have alienated his non-religious viewers.  The problem is, most people don’t like to dig deeper than the sound bites and sensationalistic headlines in this culture of instant information.  But we have to, for nuance and truth often lie just beneath.

I think Mr. Roger’s true message—in its undistorted form—is a beautiful one.  It’s a theological message right in line with what we can glean from God’s call of the prophet Jeremiah in our passage today.  And God’s call of Jeremiah applies to all of us, in all of its glorious nuance.  In short, this is one of the great call stories in the Bible.  Jeremiah said that the word of the Lord came to him saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” You see, God had a particular purpose for Jeremiah.  Jeremiah was special, like children were in Mr. Rogers’ view, because Jeremiah was created by God, as we all are—for particular and varied purposes in our spheres of influence and for our particular setting and points in time.  We all have calls upon our lives.   We are all special because we are children of God; we are special because of who we are in God. 

Now the LSU professor had a point in his follow-up and clarifying comments to the news network.  He wanted his children to know that “people become special by the choices they make, not by who they are,” but I would respectfully disagree.  We are special because of who God makes us and calls us to be.  Our specialness comes from God, not from our choices.  Our choices are merely our response, or lack of response, to what God requires of us. We are, in fact, “not masters of our own fate who have to make our own way in the world; we are messengers on a mission from the eternal God” (https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-16c-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary).  Thinking we are masters of our own fate is pure ego.  Rather, we are souls put on earth with a mission.  And the thing is, we really struggle with our missional response to God sometimes, as Jeremiah did.  As Adam and Eve did.  As Moses did.  As Israel did.  As Peter did.  As Paul did.  As Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We argue, we sometimes flee, we avoid, we distract ourselves; but we can also obey, as Jesus did, as Mary did, as Jeremiah did.  Again, and again we read how God’s voice is persistent.  Maybe we’ve experienced that voice ourselves; I have.  I knew I had a particular call on my life and God’s call did not let up until I chose to act on it—until the time was right for me to go to seminary and jump through all the hoops of ordination required for the chaplaincy, which was my original call.  I had to trot out my call story in front of this committee and that examining board.  I had to write my personal credo, what I believed, and subject it to professors and bishops and conference personnel and hear their critiques.  And even though that part is over, God still deals with me, calling me to new pursuits, convicting me, challenging me to speak my truth and be authentic, calling me out of comfort zones—which is my biggest struggle.  God, I have found, is never content to let us wallow and drift aimlessly, without mission and purpose.  God has created all of you on purpose for a purpose, gifted us in certain ways with particular attributes and temperaments. 

Because, here’s the thing: God has more invested in your ministry than you do.  You have ministries out there in the world, which I would bet by and large, have largely to do with service, serving others in particular ways.  Now, please don’t think of your ministry as anything to do with having to be ordained—a few are called to equip the body of Christ as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, but all of us are called to serve.  You are all ministers of our Lord Jesus Christ with callings upon your lives.  And your areas of focus and gifting will not all be the same.  Some of you are passionate about the Lost Boys.  Some about UMOM.  Some about the health and function and campus of this church—so much so that you have served faithfully year after year after year.  Some want to reach people through music.  Mr. Rogers could tell you all that: our interests and strengths and various ways of perceiving the world are what make us special.  What Mr. Rogers couldn’t say on a secular TV program was that God gives us those interests and strengths that make us special and fit us for particular missions in life, for the common good.  Remember what Paul says in I Corinthians 12 about the varieties of spiritual gifts: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. And then he goes on to list wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues and interpretation of tongues.  Paul says all of these gifts are the work of the same Spirit, and God distributes them to each one, just as God determines. I don’t believe Paul’s list here is in any way exhaustive.  What are your gifts?  Listening, cooking, visiting, hospitality, prayer, encouragement, medicine, nurture, sewing?  It goes on and on. 

Now it would appear that God formed Jeremiah in a certain way for a certain purpose in mind.  It wasn’t going to be easy though, what God was requiring of Jeremiah.  God appointed Jeremiah, even before he was formed in the womb, to be a prophet to the nations.  Just a brief aside here: I have always found this a curious part of the verse—before he was formed in the womb.  Mormon missionaries once informed me that this was a proof-text for our pre-existence—that we are all souls who come to this earth and conveniently forget our eternal existence.  I’m not sure what to do with that, but I’ll tell you, I kind of like it.  But I can’t prove it, nor is it Christian orthodoxy.  But it makes me go, like hmmm.

Jeremiah’s purpose, verse 5 tells us, was to be a prophet to the nations!  “Jeremiah was called to confront a corrupt political system and an immoral society that really didn’t want to hear what he had to say, and he would pay dearly for his willingness to speak the truth” (from the Truett Pulpit, www.blogs.baylor.edu).   It’s tough to be a prophet, you know.  You run afoul of people politically and theologically.  You’ve got to call them on some inconvenient truths.  Then they shoot the messenger!  God was charging Jeremiah with having to do some uprooting and destroying and some overthrowing before he could plant and build.  Jeremiah, even as a teenager knew this, and the predictable struggle ensues with God.  “Ah, Lord God!”  Jeremiah says.  “I, I, I, I don’t know how to speak, for I am only a boy!”  Excuses, excuses.  It’s like when Moses complained about being slow of speech and tongue and then God gives him Aaron to help—rather than letting him off the hook.  What God says to Jeremiah is that God will be with him and to not be afraid.  God touches his mouth and says that now the words will be in Jeremiah’s mouth.  God, in other words, empowers Jeremiah.

And so, what exactly happens then in the OT book of Jeremiah?  Let me give you some background on the book because the lectionary keeps us in Jeremiah next week as well.  God charges him to speak to a community in the unsettling place of exile—of not being where they belong.  Jerusalem has been completely devastated in the Babylonian invasion of 587 BC, and Israel has been scattered from its homeland, living as a conquered people in Babylonian captivity.  One of the chief tragedies of the Babylonian Exile was the end of the Davidic dynasty. For nearly four hundred years, descendants of David had occupied the throne of Judah, and God in 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 had promised that it would always be so. But the Babylonians destroyed David’s city, burned Solomon’s temple, and took David’s heirs into exile. The promises of God seemed to have come to an end.  So, Israel’s way of life had been completely overturned; they had no security, and they had no idea if they would live to see their homes again.  They were crying out the big questions as we all do when we go through life’s trials: “Where is God in the midst of this?  Why did such devastation happen?  Is God present in exile?  Will God allow us to return home again? What happened to the covenant with David?  Is the grace of the covenant promises made long ago still operative for this generation and for our children? 

Jeremiah pronounces oracles against Judah, the kingdom in the south where Jerusalem is.  They were worshipping gods other than the Lord with all the accompanying evils.  Jeremiah called the people to return to God.  He told them that judgement would come.  But it is also Jeremiah who utters the most pivotal passage in salvation history.  He tells us that a new and more enduring relationship was coming.  And that is Jeremiah 31:31, which says that God will make a new covenant with the people, the covenant we Christians understand as coming through the person of Jesus. 

Jeremiah’s mission wasn’t easy for him.  In fact, he is often called the weeping prophet because of all the difficulties he encountered: He was beaten, thrown in a well, imprisoned, and confronted.  It’s not easy to prophesy to your people that Jerusalem will be destroyed by invaders from the north.  No one wants to deal in such harsh realities.   Jeremiah utters a series of laments starting in chapter 11:18, which indicate his spiritual struggle with God over the enormity of his mission.  And I think of the prophetic task all of us as Christians share.  We think of our calling to proclaim Jesus to individuals, but this text also speaks to us about calling out larger, corporate and political structures on their abuses.  We know what they are today. Remember, Jeremiah’s appointment was to be a prophet to the nations—to the big structures.

So, what’s the best news for us in this passage today?  God says the same thing to Jeremiah that Jesus said to his disciples when he commanded them to go into all the world to make disciples of all nations: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  One little girl, when asked in Sunday school who her favorite Bible character was, answered “Lo.”  Her Sunday school teacher said, “Well, I’ve never heard of Lo.”  The little girl insisted there was indeed a Lo—the very one that God was talking to when God said Lo, I am with you always.   God would be with Jeremiah through it all: the uprooting and tearing down, the destruction and the overthrowing.  The other part of the best news here is that God never leaves Jeremiah or us without a word of hope:  The end of our passage today says that Jeremiah ultimately will build and plant.  Something new is coming.  The last word is not death but life, and we Christians call that resurrection.

All of us are formed in our mothers’ wombs in a particular way for a purpose in a particular time.  We have all been created with Divine intention.  We are made to follow Jesus and empowered to do so, even when it costs us something, and it will.  God knew, long before we did, the kind of mess the world would be in when we got to this point in time.  I invite all of you to reflect and meditate on this week on how God has formed you, the gifts and temperament God has given you, and how God has seen to your formative experiences in life.  There is a Divine purpose for all of it, as it says in the book of Esther, “for such a time as this.”  You are invited to discern what God is calling you to do right now in service, for the common good.  Afterall, as Mr. Rogers, who was anything but evil, used to simply say, “You’re special because you’re you.”  Amen.

Christian Stewardship of Planet Earth

Dear CCOV Family,

God gave humans stewardship of this beautiful world.  I know that many of us, as God’s stewards, are concerned with environmental headlines in the news today.  The Amazon, which produces 20% of the earth’s oxygen, burns; the Arctic burns; and looking out the window as I type, I can see smoke from Prescott-area fires. Glaciers melt, bees continue to decline, temperatures soar, and the oceans are full of microplastics.  Sometimes we feel overwhelmed because the news seems to be so bleak all of the time.  Take heart though: There is good news, when people make a concerted effort to make a change.  For example, The World Economic Forum reports that in Europe forests are again blanketing the continent as a result of increased protection and better land management.  Trees now cover almost a third of France—even more forests cover Sweden, Finland and Spain.  We know that trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help fight climate change as well as produce oxygen, which we need to breathe.  Additionally, forests safeguard biodiversity. 

Responding to issues of environmental justice, our denomination is running a campaign called Three Great Loves: love of children, love of neighbor, and love of creation.  The three loves, of course, are all interrelated.  When we safeguard creation, we help to safeguard our children and our neighbor.   Below are some simple things we all can do, that when done broadly enough, will have impact.

  1. Demand climate solutions from our elected officials: vote, educate others, call our representatives, get politically active…
  2. Reduce energy needs in our homes: unplug computers, buy energy-efficient lightbulbs and energy-star label appliances, wash in warm or cold water, program your thermostat…
  3. Push for renewable energy: solar, wind, divest from fossil fuels…
  4. Eat differently: try “meatless Mondays,” buy organic and local, buy shade-grown coffee, grow your own…
  5. Explore alternative transportation: use public transit, ride a bike, carpool, buy electric or hybrid vehicles, fly less…
  6. Consume less: “pre-cycle” when shopping, avoiding over-packaged products, recycle, compost, buy biodegradables over plastics…

Let us all do what we can to steward wisely our God’s great creation.  See you in church!

Peace,

Pastor Sandi            

Great Expectations

Isaiah 5:1-7

5Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? 5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Sermon:  Great Expectations , preached by Rev. Sandi Anthony, Sunday, August 18, 2019

Wine has always been one of my hobbies and interests.  Clint and I enjoy visiting wineries in our travels and learning about the varieties of grapes, types of soil, methods of production.  I love tasting wines and finding good ones that are a bargain.  I’m a big fan of organic farming as well and try to buy all things organic as much as possible—it’s better for us and it is better for the planet.  I learned about a technique at a winery called Montinore Estate up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley that takes organic farming to the next level.  This next level is called “bio-dynamics.”  What that means is that the winery uses sustainable growing practices that ensure that the ecosystem functions as a whole; compost is, of course, used.  The idea is to leave the land in even better shape for future generations.   One practice often employed is burying cow horns stuffed with manure by the vines to slowly leach out fertilizer and promote a balanced ecosystem.  Vintners often use the lunar cycle for the optimal time to plant and harvest.  In short, bio-dynamics is an agricultural “philosophy and methodology that views a farm as a self-sustaining ecosystem entirely responsible for creating and maintaining its individual health and vitality without any external and unnatural additions [including pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, sulfites].  It is one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture, creating healthier food…and a healthier planet” (www.montinore.com).  And the technique is applied to more than just wine—these practices can and should become the norm if we care for our children and their children’s future on planet earth.

So, let’s move into today’s passage from Isaiah.  You will see that even in Isaiah’s time, around 742-701 BC, wine was also enjoyed.  In fact, our passage today is widely titled, “The Song of the Vineyard.”  The “Song of the Vineyard” begins as a love song.  Isaiah sings about God’s love for God’s vineyard.  Vineyards, you know, are often written about in our Bibles because people lived closer to the land and understood agricultural images.  Think about our well-known gospel stories about vines and vineyards.  Jesus is the vine; we are the branches.  Remember the parable of the Vineyard Owner in Mark 12?  This is when the vineyard owner builds a similarly wonderful vineyard and then leases it to tenants and goes away.  Those tenants took the vineyard for themselves and beat up the slaves the owner sends—and even beat up the owner’s son who the owner finally sends to collect some of the fruit.  We can see the Jesus story through that parable.  Fruit, remember, in the Bible, is usually metaphorical for our good works, our seeking justice for the oppressed—that parable particularly harkens back to this Isaiah passage, and I’m sure Jesus had today’s passage in mind when he told it.  And then remember the parable about another vineyard in Matthew 20 when all the laborers get paid the same amount of money even though they worked varying hours?  That’s a parable about God’s unmerited grace.  And there are more vineyard references throughout our Bible. 

Anyway, the vineyard of Isaiah 5 is a metaphor for Israel—Judah in particular, since Isaiah at that time is prophesying to Judah.  In a sense, the Song of the Vineyard also harkens back to the Garden of Eden and may even function as a metaphor for creation itself.  God creates things to be good and then we make them bad—we get things woefully out of balance.  Even though Isaiah’s beloved (God) took great care to plant a vineyard on a very fertile hill by digging it and clearing it of stones, planting it with choice vines, building a watchtower in its middle, putting a hedge around it to keep out any animals that would eat the vine’s leaves and branches, and hewing out the wine vat in the vineyard’s center, God had great expectations, great intentions for that vineyard. Unfortunately, it yielded sour, wild grapes—not the good fruit that God was expecting, the kind that would make for good wine.  Any good winemaker will tell you that it takes good fruit to make good wine.  We know from our study of the prophets this summer that wild grapes are really a metaphor for the lack of justice in Judah’s society, when God had carefully created Judah—all of the Israelites—precisely to be God’s light to the world.  God had greatly expected Israel to be Godlike—just and caring preferentially for the “least of these.”  But Israel went wild and did not live into God’s careful cultivation, like our society often does not.  God’s intention all along was always to bless God’s people.  And through those people [and we too can think of ourselves God’s people], God’s intention was always to bless the world—and that is roughly the take-home message today.  

And so, our passage today takes a harsh turn.  Because the vineyard grew wild grapes, God through Isaiah said that the vineyard would be devoured.  God would break down the hedge; the vineyard will become a waste.  There would be no further pruning or hoeing, and it would be overgrown with briers and thorns. There would be no rain upon it.  Isaiah interprets his own song at the end of the passage and says, “For the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planning; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed.  God expected righteousness, but heard a cry!

We’ve talked this summer about God’s judgement being something like karma.  When the people don’t live in right relationship with God, with one another, and with the earth, God will leave us to our own devices.  Then we suffer the consequences of our sin, which eventually, hopefully prompt us to act, once we can’t stand the pain anymore.  Eventually the tipping point comes.  And hopefully that point of unbearable pain marking the tipping point won’t be too late.

As I worked with this passage this week, I kept thinking about the dire condition our planet it is—the planet God created to be good like Isaiah’s vineyard, the planet that God gave us stewardship of. 

This past week had a lot of distressing news regarding our country’s care of creation.  You may have heard how the US Department of the Interior announced sweeping reductions to the Endangered Species Act.  We know that God created a delicate balance of interrelatedness among all species on the earth—and we were supposed to be the stewards.  Instead, our country has abdicated its God-given responsibility.  The EPA won’t ban Chlorpyrifos, a pesticide tied to children’s health problems.  Additionally, the EPA is allowing the use of pesticides beekeepers say decimate beneficial insects, the very insects we depend upon to pollinate our crops.  Moreover, the current USDA has suspended the honeybee survey.  What we do know is that the population of bees, which help pollinate a third of food crops, has been in decline since 2006.  July was the hottest month in history—since records began to be kept anyway.  There is record ice melt in Greenland.  Fox and CNN aren’t even reporting on the unprecedented, 100+ intense and long-lived wildfires raging in Siberia and in Alaska north of the Arctic Circle.  These fires have been responsible for the release of over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  The current administration has eased restrictions on coal-burning power plants, which are heavily polluting and major producers of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that trap sunlight and contribute to the warming the planet.  Fortunately, a coalition of 29 states and cities are suing to block this measure and keep the Clean Power Plan restrictions.  The Clean Power Plan had required states to implement plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2022 and generate electricity using natural gas or renewable energy.

As someone who lived in Europe, I know that there are better ways to preserve our planet for our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  I got to see how European countries do things.  Here are some of the things I learned when living in Germany that we can all practice here—little things that can help make a dent anyway.  All trash that could be composted, was.  All trash that could be recycled went into the big bins in our village.  And then, the county issued a trashcan for everything else based upon a given family’s size.  Since there were only three of us in our home, we could only generate a couple gallons of unrecyclable trash every two weeks.  We were issued a trashcan with about this much space in it.  So that forced us to “pre-cycle” when we shopped.  We had to calculate while we shopped if the containers could be recycled or composted because we only had so much space for any other waste.  By and large, grocery stores didn’t give us plastic bags.  I learned to do what the German fraus did: march down to the local bakery and butcher shop with a sturdy basket under my arm.  Last summer, when we went back to our German village, we noticed windmills dotting all the hills in the distance that weren’t there when we lived there before.  Germany, and especially Scandinavia, are some of the most progressive in the world in terms of environmental success and sustainability.  They are moving forward with clean energy while the US is going backwards.  Yes, we may be making a quick buck now, but without caring for God’s creation and the succeeding generations who will inherit our mess, we may not make it very far into the future.

The United Church of Christ, whose current motto is a very biblical “A Just World for All,” continually talks about three great loves: Love of Children, Love of Neighbor, and Love of Creation.  And I think of how we at CCOV endeavor to promote God’s justice that prophets like Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea are talking about.  We show love of children with our healthy packs and back-to-school projects.  We show love of neighbor with UMOM and our Christmas collections.  To show love of creation, we have attempted to incorporate more sustainable practices at fellowship time here and not use Styrofoam or as much plastic and paper products.  We recycle.  It’s great when small systems like ours adopt these practices—and I am sure we could brainstorm together so much more to actualize God’s great expectations for a just world.  There is so much God wants to do through us.  For the most impact, though, we need to advocate for change in the way our country as a whole is heading—it’s going down a dangerous and unsustainable road. 

So, you might be saying, how did Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard, which is really about that same old thing I’ve been preaching on: you know,  Judah’s lack of justice and lack of righteousness; how did this turn into an Earth Day message?  Well here’s the thing, our denomination is very concerned with what is known as environmental racism.  You can read all about it on the UCC website—you will also find a detailed list of how we can involve ourselves in achieving environmental justice. In short, the problem is that “hazardous waste sites, landfills, incinerators, and polluting industries are often positioned in communities inhabited mainly by African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, farm workers, and the working poor.  These groups were, and still are, particularly vulnerable because they are perceived as weak and passive citizens who will not fight back against the poisoning of their neighborhoods in fear that it may jeopardize jobs and economic survival” (https://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries_environmental-racism.)  Additionally, “Climate change and global warming bring an additional peril to communities of color or poor communities all over the world. Many who live near the coasts or in lower-lying areas will be the first to feel the effects of rising temperatures and oceans. They will not have the resources to make choices that others can make and may lose their homes and their livelihoods and will be displaced as environmental refugees. Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf coast in 2005 was one of the most dramatic examples of what may occur in the future, as those who had no transportation or means of escaping the rising waters became refugees” (https://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries_environmental-racism).  We need to care about the worsening of the environment because of the impact first and foremost on the earth’s most vulnerable, the ones God keeps calling to us about through the prophets—the ones who don’t have second homes up north to escape the heat. 

We need to call our government officials.  We need to sign petitions offered by the Sierra Club and support organizations like the Nature Conservancy, which protects the land and water.  We can adopt green practices at home.  When it’s time for a new car, consider a hybrid or plug-in, or both.  Compost.  Recycle.  Pre-cycle.  If it’s yellow, let it mellow.  If it’s brown, flush it down.  Buy organic.  Better yet, buy bio-dynamic.  If you are a wine drinker, try Montinore’s wines or other bio-dynamically produced wines.

Friends, God took great care to prepare a wonderful vineyard for us.  God expects great grapes to grow in that vineyard, grapes that would yield sublime wine.  But again and again, all God got was wild grapes.  Israel, Judah, we—all of us often cycle back into unrighteousness, in other words, out of right relationship with God—which is really shown through our relationship with one another and with the earth.  But our New Testament even more so teaches us that God is never content to leave us wallow.  There is abundant forgiveness and grace.  God wants transformed hearts and for us to be in right relationship.  We can do this, through grace, and through the New Covenant.  That’s why God sent Jesus, so we can best know God’s heart, so we have the best example to follow of how to be in right relationship with God by being in right relationship with one another.  Justice and love flow out of that relationship, the kind of justice and love that wants the best for our neighbors, the best for our children and their children’s children, and for all of creation.  We can indeed have relationships characterized by the love God shows us.  Our God is always wooing us back to the garden, back to the good vineyard, because it has always been God’s intention and great expectation for us to be a blessed people cultivated to bless.  Amen. 

Preaching on the Same Old Thing

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

1The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

10Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. 18Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Sermon: Preaching on the Same Old Thing

You may not realize it, but you have a best friend sitting in this room, especially concerning my preaching, and his name is Clint.  He gives me honest feedback in the car on the way back up to Prescott:  The sermon was too long, (never too short), the sermon rambled, was unfocused, needed a good story or joke, got too political, but most frequently I hear that it’s always about the same thing: taking care of the poor and or sometimes that God loves you.  He’s a really bright guy and I take him seriously and trust him completely.  He’s right, it does seem that I am always preaching on the same old thing or things, and I own that.  And today will be no different, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. 

Now I had an especially formative pastor who once told me that every good preacher has only one recurrent message, one recurrent theme in his or her preaching.  He told me his wife once told him what his was (this, by the way, is what ministry spouses are for):  His recurrent message was that God is in the mundane—God reveals Godself to us in the mundane.  All this pastor’s sermons somehow underscored how God comes to us in our mundane, day-to-day living and shares our common lot with us, and this is how we can know God best. 

I know that my messages are often centering on justice and peace, on caring for the marginalized and poor, which is good for our souls—and also that God loves us more than we can know.  But here’s the thing, every time I open my Bible, roll up my sleeves, and start reading, interpreting, and researching, I see that the Bible’s pages, whether they be Old Testament Prophets or the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament, communicate the primacy of caring for the marginalized an poor again and again.

And so, I’ve chosen this summer to preach out of the lectionary, but just the weekly Old Testament passages, which thus far have covered significant passages from minor prophets Amos and Hosea—and you have heard about these justice prophets and what their messages were.  Today and next week the lectionary has us explore two passages from one of the major prophets called Isaiah.  And guess what!  Isaiah is saying nearly the same thing to the people as were Amos and Hosea!   And this tells me something.  In fact, it recalls one of voices of my seminary professors who used to say that there were over 2000 passages in our Bibles about how, if you really don’t want to get God mad at you, you really ought not oppress the poor, the marginalized, the alien, widow or the orphan.  Over 2000 passages!  Conversely, there are only about five passages that may even allude to what we call homosexuality, but we’ve certainly spent a disproportionate time on that in our culture.  Oh, for the day when the widely-heard TV preacher spends time defending the immigrant and disadvantaged in this world…And so your best friend here might say that I’m rambling, so I better get this focused pronto.   

But I kid you not.  Do you hear the echoes in Isaiah today of what we’ve been talking about in Amos and Hosea?  And by the way, our sermons are now posted on our church website: www.myccov.com, under the tab, “About Us.”  So, you can go back and revisit Amos and Hosea if you wish. 

Our passage today is from the first chapter of Isaiah.  In the first verse, we learn that Isaiah has a vision.  Not only that, but we learn the historical period of that vision: These were the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, the kings of Judah.  This dates this part of Isaiah to 742 to 701 BC.  In the first verse, we also learn whom Isaiah’s oracles will be against.  This time it is not the Northern Kingdom of Israel, as were the oracles of Amos and Hosea directed.  No, this time the oracles are against Judah, the Kingdom of Israel in the south where Jerusalem was and is.  Then the lectionary has us skip over to verse ten, where Isaiah begins to cut to the chase.  At issue in our passage is that Israel’s sacrifice system and worship were superficial in God’s eyes.  Similar to what God said to Amos about temple worship in the Northern Kingdom (remember when God got mad about the people sitting there in the temple daydreaming about how they would make more money fraudulently off the backs of the poor?).  Here, God through Isaiah is communicating about the same thing to the Southern Kingdom, Judah.  God wants the people to hear that God strongly rejects the religious practices of Judah, even though God once required these practices, which were important; indeed, a lot of the OT functions to describe the requirements of Israel’s right worship in detail.  So, what’s the problem?  It appeared that Judah was following the prescribed sacrifices and burnt offerings okay.  Judah was observing its prescribed feast days, new moons, and appointed festivals.  But God says that these things are essentially meaningless now. The wording in verse 10 is thus, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?   I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats…In verse 15 God through Isaiah goes on to say, “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen: your hands are full of blood.”  In short, God is unimpressed by their worship.  At this point in time, God wants something else, something absolutely crucial, that’s missing in the people: And I think that is integration of worship and service.

And why is God so unimpressed with their worship?  Because it is superficial; it is not changing hearts and lives; it is not translating to right living and right relationship among the people, especially for society’s most oppressed.  There is no integration; no sense of oneness, unity, and connection among all strata of society.  So, what is the aim of the passage?  Yes, I’m preaching on the same old thing again:  We find out what God really wants of the people in verses 16-17: Verse 16 says, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes: cease to do evil, learn to do good.”  And what is it to cease to do evil and learn to do good per this passage in Isaiah and in about 2000 other passages in our Bibles?  Well, we will keep reading in verse 17: “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  See, it’s not just me and my repetitive preaching about justice and the oppressed and the orphan and the widow.  Sometimes I wish more sermon topics were being suggested by the biblical texts.  But see, it’s right there; and it’s everywhere else in the Bible. 

Please know that good preaching, biblical preaching anyway, never begins as an idea in the pastor’s head.  He or she is not supposed to jump around in the Bible proof-texting this idea or that self-generated idea.  Preaching must start with a text and the topic suggested by the text.  And then you should hear what that text meant then, and next you should hear if and how it translates into our time: what it can mean now.  And we also have to see how the rest of the biblical canon backs up the point.  And by the way, the point today is heartily backed up—over 2000 times!  Then we ask, how do we churchgoers in 2019, in an era when children and families of another skin color are locked in cages and shooters go on horrific rampages, and American individualism and arrogance are undermining what once was a more civil society, how do we apply that text to our lives today?  How is it relevant now?  That part gets to what we call the application.   Oh, and darn, that can get political.  So, we pastors talk about how we have to speak out prophetically, but ultimately, we play it safe and don’t typically name names.  We don’t tell you how to vote.  That’s how our clergy retreat discussions go, anyway.

So, how does this text apply today?  We Protestant Christians don’t have an elaborate sacrifice system as part of our worship as did the Israelites in our text today.  We have our feast days, our holidays, our worship though, to be sure.  We go to our churches as Judah went to its temple, we, like them, take up a collection and sing praise songs and observe rituals—though most of the rituals were and are different for us (we don’t sacrifice animals here).  And God is saying to us through Isaiah that it’s not going to Temple and going through the motions that makes God happy.  It’s not going to church and going through the motions that will in any way save us or please God.  It’s not that you shouldn’t go, mind you, but you go to those places to learn how to be on the outside of worship; you worship to see the grand drama of salvation enacted again and again.  You go to worship to integrate your life, to be hearers then doers of the word.  Sometimes we say in the benediction, “the worship is over, but now the service begins.”  You go to your places of worship to remember that all of humanity are souls created by God, because how we can forget this through all of life’s distractions.  How quickly we forget our interconnectedness.  Worship must inform our lives; what we glean from worship must be integrated in our service, our practice.  There must be no disconnect between our worship and our living.  Isaiah tells us that Israel’s worship of God was not informing their lives.  And the litmus test is the same old thing: Israel, at the time of Isaiah, was not seeking justice rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow.  And I wonder if we are doing much better.

So, let me tell you about a little skit that I watched introduce a Ted Talk about taking the bible literally verses taking it seriously—lest your best friend here tell me that there was no good illustrative story in my sermon today.  A man dies and is welcomed by God into heaven.  The man says, “Wow, I’ve finally made it to heaven.  I’ve worked every day of my life making sure I would make it here!”  God says, “Welcome to heaven!  Just a few questions to make sure you really belong here.”  The man interrupts, “I’ve been a perfect Christian all of my life!’  God says, “Okay, then.  Let’s see about that!”   “So first off,” God says, “I need you to categorically assure me that you have rejected any scientific teaching that contradicts even one word of the Bible.”  The man replies, “Absolutely, absolutely!”  God says, “Great!” and then continues.  “So, do you, based on the authority of scripture, accept that there are talking snakes,” to which the man replies, “I do, I do; they’re in Genesis 2.”  “What about talking donkeys,” to which he replies, “Numbers 22.”  God asks, “Unicorns?” and he replies, “Psalm 29.”  God goes on to ask, “And what about hoards of suicidal, demon-possessed, cliff-jumping pigs,” and the man replies, “The Gospel of Mark, the fifth chapter.”  God compliments the man and says, “Very good; I’m impressed.”  God continues, “One final question then before I let you in.  Did you do as I told you and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor?”  And the man hems and haws and finally stutters, “What?  Were you serious about that?” And God replies, “Very serious.  So serious that I said it twice.”  And the now-humbled man says, “Ooooo.”

And so, what is the point?  The point is that we become really disconnected from what God wants.  We get mired in insignificant details (that really don’t cost us much) like believing in talking snakes and unicorns only to reject the big picture of sacrificial living, because we deeply fear the most significant things God requires of us: To treat the outsiders well; to care preferentially for the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, the alien, the migrant, the one who does not hold the privileged places that we do.  We deeply fear that there are not enough resources to go around in order to maintain our own positions.  We deflect our energies elsewhere by getting all hung up on going through the motions and mindlessly and heartlessly perform the rituals, thinking that they will somehow save us, as we cling to and get huffy about ridiculous details (things like insisting on saying Merry Christmas rather than happy holidays) instead of doing what God tells us over 2000 times.

It’s like a Methodist minister I know who did something edgy: During his sermon, he posted a picture on the big screen above the sanctuary of a small child in Africa, so thin you could see his hip sockets, obviously starving to death.  Then he began to preach, and at one point in the sermon let loose a string of shocking obscenities.  The congregation gasped, horribly offended.  Yet, this was precisely his object lesson.  “How is it that my language so offended you, but you didn’t blink when I put up this picture?  What should offend you is how much that little boy and his village desperately need us right now.  How much “offense” energy are you putting into getting a program going at this church to help end this famine?”  See, this is Amos’ message.  It’s Hosea’s message.  It’s Isaiah’s message; it’s Jesus’ message, and I guess it’s why I keep preaching on the same old thing.  Because ancient Israel’s society and our society keep failing at safeguarding the oppressed.

But the prophets never leave us without hope for change.  The end of our passage today communicates a soaring hope.  Isaiah, speaking for God says, “Come now, let us argue it out.  Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good on the land; but if your refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.”  Because we know that things often unfold like karma.  If we neglect the least of these, if we are unfair, there can be bloody revolution.  In these hope-filled verses at the end of today’s scripture, the Christian may even see Christ forecasted.  Sins that were once as scarlet become like snow.  But our works are still required, because the text uses that little, conditional word “if.”  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat good on the land, God says through Isaiah.

I remember when my daughter in early toddlerhood refused to eat at her high chair, turning her head away from the oncoming spoon.  We tried playing airplane.  We tried reverse psychology: don’t you eat that now!  And we’d close our eyes and hear a giggle.  “Here God speaks to us as a stubborn child.  Come then, let us reason together[; or as the NRSV says, let us argue it out].  I have something wonderful for you.  But as long as your head is turned away and your mouth is sealed tight, you can’t eat it” (Stan Mast, https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-14c-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary.)    

May our worship never become ironic, unintegrated with our lives.  May we never be unclean.  Serving God often means changing our ways.  We can only wash and purify ourselves by doing good, helping others, bringing about justice.  This is what God saves us for; this is always the response to our salvation.  That’s what brings about the kingdom come.  A Taizé service on this passage puts it this way, “Those who get off track politically and socially and violate the weak and the excluded have distanced themselves from God. As the true ruler, however, God invites them to return…” (http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2007-09-01).  May we never even stray.  Amen. 

Gun Violence

Dear CCOV Family,On Sunday morning we gathered with heavy hearts in the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings that left 29 people dead and scores injured.  When tragedy strikes and we are grieving, many of us turn to our churches.  We want solace, understanding, guidance, inspiration, and prayer.  Increasing waves of domestic terrorism cause us to feel insecure and fearful for our own families, friends, and selves, because we realize that no school, workplace, house of worship, or shopping center is truly safe.  We prayed together on Sunday, to be sure.  But we’ve prayed after other tragedies, and the violence keeps coming.  While our prayers don’t magically fix anything, they do go to work on our own hearts and convince us of the need to make changes and take action, which we can do.  Below you will find a link to a statement our UCC denominational leaders, including Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, have published in the wake of these tragedies.  Per the article, besides prayer, our denominational leadership is urging all UCC members “to call on the Senate to act immediately on pending gun violence legislation.”  Click here to go to UCC website
Additionally, they want us “to attend town halls and candidate appearances and ask the candidates what they plan to do to end gun violence.”  I have already called my senator and asked her to pass Background Checks and a strong Red Flag Law.  Please join me in taking concrete action.  With Caring,Pastor Sandi

Parenthood

Hosea 11:1-11

11When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. 5They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.

8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. 10They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. 11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

Sermon: Parenthood    by Rev. Sandi Anthony                     

Last week we talked about the opening chapter of the Book of Hosea.  Hosea the minor prophet who was commanded by God to marry a prostitute.  The symbolism is rich here. So last week our image of God was that of a husband—a husband of a prostitute.  This great drama is enacted by Hosea, who is commanded by God to marry a wayward prostitute so that he can restore her.  Symbolically the prostitute was Israel and can be, by extension, us when we leave our first love, God.  Sometimes we, like Israel, go off and sacrifice to other gods for material or short-term gain.  This week we will delve into the eleventh chapter of Hosea, which gives us another symbolic and relational image of God.  This time our image of God is not the husband of the whore, but the parent of a wayward child.  In this chapter God is the brokenhearted parent of Israel—also referred to as Ephraim (one of the lost tribes) in this passage.  And by extension, God is the brokenhearted parent of us, when we are wayward.  Know that when we go awry, we break God’s heart, who feels acutely what parents do when our own children stray into dangerous waters.

Now parenthood is messy; I know.  I had one child, for good reason—it was tough; she was not easy, though it was totally worth it, especially now that she is 25 and her frontal lobes are approaching full development.  But I’m telling you that I had a terrible time especially with the teenage years—some of you were my greatest support during those years before I was a pastor here, and you listened to me whine all the way through it.  And you were right—it got better.  Now our daughter has a nice boyfriend, a good job, and with our help, just bought her own house and she is genuinely a good person!  But let’s talk more about Parenthood—this time about the 1989 movie starring one of my favorites, Steve Martin who played Gil Buckman, the husband of Karen Buckman, who was played by Mary Steenburgen.

Their kids were a mess in that movie—and so were their nieces and nephews—the storyline, you see, encompasses the whole extended family with its black sheep, personality disorders, the whole gamut.  Gil is a perfectionist who works as a sales executive under significant work pressures.  Their oldest child, Kevin has emotional problems that Gil thinks he can remedy through coaching Kevin’s little league team.  Kevin often misses the ball and loses the game for his team, adding to his emotional angst.  He loses his retainer and frequently has emotional outbursts.  A bully steals his money; he wails and cries.  Gil and Karen’s two younger children also have deficiencies.  Their middle child, Taylor, kisses all the boys at school, and she also projectile vomits.  The youngest son, Justin, likes to “butt things with his head.”  The movie hilariously and poignantly follows the whole extended family.  One of the most interesting storylines, at least to me, is when Gil and Karen’s niece, Julie, played by Martha Plimpton, scores high on her SAT’s and her mother, played by Diane Wiest, has high hopes for her to go off to a good college, yet Julie gets sidetracked by her feral boyfriend, Todd, played by Keanu Reeves.  Julie, instead of going to college, runs off with Todd, ends up pregnant and at one point is even caught panhandling.  Yep, I really identified at one point with Julie’s mother in the movie with that brokenhearted feeling—that her teenage daughter is squandering her intellect and future for a boyfriend with no apparent ambition or future.

And so, perhaps, I glimpsed an inkling of what God must have felt when dealing with a wayward Israel in the middle of the eight century BC.  Just to recap the historical milieu, Hosea prophesied for at least 38 years during a time when Israel was suffering from a war with Assyria and in virtual anarchy.  Four Israelite kings had been assassinated within fourteen years after the death of Jeroboam II.  Remember him?  He was king when Amos was prophesying.  Jeroboam II’s reign was marked by peace and prosperity (at least for the elite, who gained their prosperity on the backs of the poor).  Remember that Amos and Hosea were roughly contemporaries—Hosea prophesying just after Amos.  Hosea’s time was marked by Israel’s worship of the Canaanite fertility deity Baal.  There was a conflict simmering during that time in Israel over who they believe made the land fertile.  Was is Yahweh or Baal?  Moreover, Israel was struggling with if it were possible to give allegiance to more than one deity.  The prophets, of course, answered a resounding NO—including Hosea.  By attributing prosperity or fertility of any kind to Baal, the people were committing great whoredom.  God, in fact, was brokenhearted over this, in the manor of a parent who sees a daughter go off with a feral boyfriend young rather than get a good education and wait until she meets the right young man.

Now who was this Baal and how does Baal worship translate into the 21st Century?  As I mentioned, Baal was a deity worshipped by pagan cultures around the Mediterranean world at that time.  His symbol was often the bull.  People sacrificed to him for rain to water their crops and  so that women would produce children.  Sacrifices to this deity were based on “sensuality and involved ritualistic prostitution in the temples.  At times, appeasing Baal required human sacrifice, usually the firstborn of the one making the sacrifice.  The priests of Baal appealed to their god in rites of wild abandon which included loud, ecstatic cries and self-inflicted injury” (www.google.com/amp/swww.gotquestions.org/amp/who-Baal.html).  In the seventeenth century AD Christian belief, Baal begins to be seen as a high-ranking demon with legions under his command.

Today we use Baal as a metaphor for things that compete with us for right relationship with God—things like greed and selfishness, dishonesty, lack of compassion, unfaithfulness, addictions, judgmentalism, adultery and fornication, pornography and all kinds of immaturity, spiritual and otherwise.  These things can ruin our lives, of course.  And when they infect us, God grieves—because they hurt the sinner and those in relationship with him or her.  Those of us who have had children, when we see them straying into dark paths, we grieve; we are alarmed.  Sometimes we don’t know what to do.  Spend time coaching their little league games?  Try to get them into therapy?  Tough love?  Cut them off?   Sometimes all of the above, but the sleepless nights always come, nights when soliloquys like the one God utters in our passage today play over and over again in our own heads.  We crank similarly: 

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.  Yet it was I who taught Ephraim (another word for Israel) to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them…”  By verse 5, God talks about the calamities that will befall his children because they have turned away: “They shall return to the land of Egypt and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests and devours because of their schemes…”

And I think of all those sleepless nights, checking for the green dot on Facebook to let me know my teenage daughter was alright and on line, even when I didn’t know where she was.  God continues, “How can I give you up, Ephraim?”

In our passage today it sounds a bit like God is expressing doubts, questioning decisions, having change of heart, and ultimately deciding not to act on the basis of legitimate anger.  Overwhelmingly, compassion wins out.  Verse nine is the heart of this soliloquy and the center of Hosea’s thought: “I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”  Bible commentator Gene Tucker explains, “Hosea takes human metaphors for God’s love as far as they will go and then stresses that the difference between God and human beings involves [God’s] capacity for radical, forgiving love” (Gene M. Tucker, Harper Collins Bible Commentary, James M. Mays, ed., HarperOne, 642). 

It is always God’s image that we are called to emulate.  Who in your life needs your constancy and your compassion, and radical, forgiving love even when that person may have strayed?  Even when that person disappointed you, hurt you or pushed you to your limits.  Are there relationship breakdowns and failures that haunt you in this life?  Are there steps you can take toward reconciliation, which mind you, can indeed cost you something?  Granted, you may not be met in kind, but as a Christ follower, we need to at least take the initiative. 

Let’s go back and examine another scene toward then end of the movie Parenthood.  Julie’s feral boyfriend is now her husband (and is also the father of the baby she is now carrying.  Todd gets into car racing.  Julie is panicked at a race.  Her mother, even though she does not approve of Todd or their teenage marriage, comes to be with Julie at the race.  Todd indeed crashes his car.  Julie’s mom rushes to the side of Todd’s wrecked car; Julie can’t—Julie is too overwrought.  In the crash’s aftermath, Julie’s mom tells Todd he is important and valued, because he is going to be the father of her grandchild.  Later Julie’s younger brother, who had taken a liking to Todd, admires his mom for her devotion to Julie and Todd.  She replies simply to her young son, “Julie wants Todd.  Whatever you guys want, I want to get that for you.  That’s the best I can do.”  We see this mom err on the side of compassion for both her daughter and for Todd.  Julie and Todd, while far from perfect, are children of God, after all.  Julie did not pursue the course that her mother had dreamed for her—going to a great college because of her high SAT scores and making the most of her young intellect, yet her mother came to be with her even in the trouble that ensued.  Julie’s judgement would most likely be forthcoming in life, in something like karma; her mom did not need to enact any kind of punishment or cut her off.  Without an education or viable plans for the future and a baby on the way, Julie and Todd would likely struggle and scrape—the odds weren’t in their favor.  Was Julie’s mom hurt and worried, disappointed and upset?  You bet!  It’s one thing when your children go off and make you proud in life.  It’s another to accept them as they are; stand with them in their mistakes, and love them unconditionally.

Hosea gives us two great relational images of God’s unconditional love for God’s people in this Old Testament book.  Hosea (whose name means salvation) at God’s command marries the whore Gomer, who symbolizes the people of Israel.  God so loves the people that God uses the metaphor of wedding them—even when they are errant.  Later, Hosea uses the parent metaphor to show how God feels about God’s children.  God feels hurt and worry and anger when God’s children become involved in the Baals of this life.  Because there is temptation and great danger there.  Ultimately, we learn, in fact, that the difference between God and most human beings is God’s capacity for radical, forgiving love.  What does it take to save us from ourselves?  Radical and forgiving love.  Because the alternative is a lifetime of brokenness, angst, heartburn, obsession, and ultimately isolation.

That’s what Jesus teaches us—Jesus who tightly focuses God’s nature into a human being so that we can best understand.  Jesus, who during his life and ministry told the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is a story more about the nature of the father rather than about the prodigal.  Like Julie in the movie and so many humans are apt to do, the son squandered his inheritance.  That inheritance can be money, other resources, or natural gifts and talents.  The brokenhearted father of the prodigal waits for karma to set in, for the consequences of squandering the inheritance, until the child is in so much pain that the child will return home, ready to make changes.  And Jesus tells us, when the prodigal is still far off, that the father is filled with compassion.  And I think of how Julie’s mother in the movie is so filled with compassion that she goes to stand beside the car wreck, even when Julie and Todd were similarly a “long way off” of where she would have them be.

Our God comes into the car wrecks of our lives and wants so much more for us.  Does God want right living?  You bet.  Does God grieve when we go off and metaphorically sacrifice to the Baals of this life.  You bet!  Is forgiveness and a fresh start still available?  Yep, 70 times 7.  Hosea’s OT book demonstrates all of these things; but the life, death, and resurrection of Christ communicates all of this even more deeply.  Jesus is how God so loved the world.  May we grasp the incredible implications of God becoming vulnerable like we are, then pouring out sacrificial love on the cross, so we might live into wholeness.  Amen.

And yet…

Hosea 1:1-11

1The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri, in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel.  2When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, 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.” 3So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. 4And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.” 6She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the Lord said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. 7But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”

8When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. 9Then the Lord said, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.” 10Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”

Sermon:  And yet… When the Divine interacts with humanity, it often does so in stories and symbols.  Think about the burning bush, Ezekiel’s wheel, the forbidden fruit, the tree of temptation and the tree of life, the stake that when gazed upon, healed; the cross, where humanity and divinity intersect.  I could go on for a long time, and I’m sure you could think of profound symbols of great meaning from our Bibles alone, not to mention symbols from other religious traditions, recording other people’s perceptions of interactions with that which is Mystery and Other.  God communicates deep truths to us out of images and events that beg to be interpreted and decodified.  Interpretation, you see, requires our engagement.  God goes to great lengths to engage us in a kind of theater, mesmerizing us with story, stories we tell and reenact again and again, Sunday after Sunday ever since Pentecost—remembering, until the narratives and the images become real to us and shape our thought, lives, and communities.  We are meant to be entranced, hypnotized and psychically shaped by the power of the stories we read in our Bible.  Jesus knew this; that is why he often communicated deep truths through telling his parables.  Now these were offensive stories to some, especially the Pharisees and rulers, because they disrupted the natural course of the human mind with an unexpected twist—a twist that pointed to God’s favor of the poor, the ordinary worker, the migrant, the refugee, the mixed-blood Samaritan, and the sinner.  So, know it is not unusual for God to ask prophets to do something, even as strange as marrying a prostitute, to produce an image, a visual lesson.  This is how the Divine communicates with us. And so, with that background, we will now approach today’s passage about the prophet Hosea.  The story of Hosea is an offensive, shocking story, at least to our modern ears.  Sometimes women in particular have a tough time with this story, as the bad person here is the prostitute wife.  It’s not a good tale for a feminist—and if you read it in full, you might see why.  But I would say, stick with the story, because allegorically, it has a lot to reveal about God’s nature.  Remember that there are many virtuous tales of women in the Bible as well, and men are often bad guys in the Bible too.  I’m glad we have no children here today, because Hosea is about a prostitute—but there’s the thing, we can all be like the  prostitute Gomer, men and women alike.  Now with all of that said, I should tell you that some modern-day theologians even go as far as to say that this is the second greatest story in the Bible—next to the Jesus story of course, because if we stick with Hosea’s story,  you will see that God is communicating something profound to us through it: God does not leave us even when we leave God—that is your take-home message in a nutshell.  God is always actively at work, going to great lengths, and we find this good news simmering just below the surface in the story.  Hosea communicates to us God’s very nature, a nature always working for our redemption and restoration.  God is the ever-pursuer, even when Israel breaks its covenant, again and again.  And it is our calling as Christians to always imitate God in life—not the prostitute Gomer.  We too must be the ever-pursuers when it comes to loving and matters of justice.  Now, the covenant God made with Abraham was conditional in that God would guide and protect Israel if Israel would obey God.  That little word “if” is a clue that it was a conditional covenant.  Even though Israel did not uphold its side of the covenant, and the covenant was broken again and again, God’s love was never, ever conditional.  It was steadfast, even when the people committed, as the Book of Hosea roughly calls it, “great whoredom.”

So, let’s dive into the first chapter of Hosea with a little historical background: Hosea, who prophesied for at least 38 years, lived during a time when Israel was suffering from a war with Assyria and in virtual anarchy.  Four Israelite kings had been assassinated within fourteen years after the death of Jeroboam II.  Remember him?  He was king when Amos was prophesying—Jeroboam the Second’s reign was marked by peace and prosperity (at least for the elite).  And by the way, Amos and Hosea were roughly contemporaries—Hosea prophesying just after Amos.  Hosea’s time was in the middle of the eighth century BC.  Both Amos and Hosea were calling out Israel for its offenses against God—oppressing the poor and worshipping other gods for material gain.  During this historical period, God commanded Hosea, a native to his own people, to take a wife of whoredom; in other words, God tells this prophet to marry a prostitute and have her children, which Hosea does, expediently and obediently; Hosea marries the local prostitute Gomer.  Now I’m not sure this was pronounced “Gomer” (as in Gober Pile) or “Go’mer,” pronounced with more of a French accent!  No doubt this great drama, this theater is to exemplify in a symbolic way that Israel has committed great whoredom by forsaking God—because Israel was worshipping other gods, Baal in particular.  They were worshipping for water and bread, wool and flax, grain and wine, all those material things.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel, you see, had delved into pagan practices, believing that there was favor and reward to be gained.  The whole Hosea drama is an analogy; Hosea (who symbolizes God), will deal with Gomer.  Gomer is a symbol for Israel, or by extension, even us.  As the book of Hosea unfolds, the prophet’s personal life becomes an embodiment of God’s redeeming love and amazing grace.  You will also see the Christ motif.

Now the symbolism I was talking about earlier runs deep.  Hosea’s Hebrew name means “salvation” or “deliverance.”  Imagine that!  Not surprising if Hosea represents God in this story; Hosea, in fact, is an early Christ figure.  Now, Gomer’s name means “completion,” in the sense that she was the complete measure of idolatry, or ripeness of consummate wickedness. Her name symbolized the complete adultery and idolatry of the very kingdom she represented. “As ‘a wife of whoredoms,’ this woman of the Northern Kingdom, regarded as an idolatress, became a symbol of her people” (All the Women of the Bible, Zondervan, 1988, https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/all-women-bible/Gomer).  In fact, Gomer likely was one of the Temple prostitutes, hanging out near the front door of the temple.  Ironic and kind of funny, since Hosea, as a prophet, had probably been condemning such prostitutes all of his life—and then God commands him to marry a prostitute! 

Soon after they were married, Gomer begins to bear children, whose names also have prophetically symbolic meanings.  And I should tell you that the children were not Hosea’s; these children were born out of Gomer’s continuing unfaithfulness—we learn this if we keep reading through chapter 2.  Even during marriage, Gomer continued prostituting herself.  She bears three children.  The first is a boy, Jezreel, which means “God Scatters.”  The second is a girl, Lo-Ruhamah, which means “not pittied.”  And the third, another boy was named Lo-Ammi, which means “not my people.”  Our passage today tells us that Gomer was the daughter of Diblaim, whose name is also interesting.  Diblaim means “double layers of grape cake,” double layers of cake being something sensual and indulgent.  The prostitute, symbolically at least, came from a father, whose name represented sensuality and indulgence, which were prime temptations for Israel.  But as you will recall from last week, God’s wrath often ends up being something like karma—cause and effect from the lack of right living—from lack of caring for the poor and from worshipping other Gods, which in this day and age may look like worshipping the God of money at the expense of the poor or the earth—when the legacy of such will be revisited upon us with long-reaching social ills or environmental calamities.

We see God’s utter exasperation with Israel in Chapter 1.  God says things like “I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel.  You are not my people and I am not your God.  And yet…juxtaposed with that exasperation, God goes to say, “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered, and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’  The people of Judah and the people of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head; and they shall take possession of the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel’.’”  So, you see, Israel’s punishment it not final; there is hope for the future—a hope that Christians see actualized in the coming of Jesus.  Something else is coming—a new and final covenant.  There is another place in the Old Testament that is absolutely pivotal regarding salvation history, and that’s Jeremiah 31:31-34, which reads, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,’ says the Lord.  ‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ says the Lord: ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ says the Lord; ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.’”    These verses, like the Book of Hosea point forward to the coming of Jesus, the embodiment of God with us, God joined like a husband to the church, the bride of Christ.  Hosea tells us that God will be steadfast even with a sinful humanity, even when his wife, Israel and us by extension, have courted other lovers.

I want to provide a little sermon illustration that sums up the point of Hosea’s unconventional marriage with a prostitute.  “A couple married for 15 years began having more than usual disagreements.  They wanted to make their marriage work and agreed on an idea the wife had.  For one month they planned to drop a slip in a “fault” box.  The boxes would provide a place to let the other know about daily irritations.  The wife was diligent in her efforts and approach: ‘leaving the jelly top off the jar,’ ‘wet towels on the shower floor,’ ‘dirty socks not in hamper,’ on and on until the end of the month.  After dinner, at the end of the month, they exchanged boxes.  The husband reflected on what he had done wrong.  Then the wife opened her box and began reading, They were all the same, the message on each slip was, ‘I love you’” (www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/marriage.html. The husband here is so much like God, who rather than harping on his wife’s faults, just wants to love her into reconciliation.  And so, how can the first chapter of Hosea be good news for us?  How is your relationship with God?  Do you see God as one continually wielding a big stick, out to get you?  Or do you see God as the ever-pursuer, even when we fall away.  

I was kind of brought up to see God wielding a big stick, someone always out to get you.  I remember an awful episode from my childhood right after my father died, when I was 12.  We had a big estate to keep up—four acres of lawn to mow.  My younger brother was out on the riding mower and my little sister had jumped onto the hitch in back of the mover and held on to my brother, bumping along for a joyride.  My mother caught a glimpse of this out the window and went into a bit of a frenzy as she ran out the door to intervene, bawling at me: “The dear Lord is going to take her next because of the way you mistreat her!” Fortunately, I was in confirmation class at the time, and our good UCC pastor was able to disabuse me of any notion of God exacting any kind of retribution for sibling rivalry and meanness by having my sister get run over by a lawnmower.   

Do you see God as the one who writes the message, over and over again on the pages of your Bible, “I love you?”  Fierce judgments are proclaimed on the pages of the prophets, to be sure, but we need to stay close to the text and keep reading.  Fierce judgments, that play out something like karma, and yet…Something else is coming:  Hope, steadfastness, demonstrations of sacrificial love…A love that woos us, calling us to respond, actively at work to buy us back.  A love calling us all the while to forsake the Baal’s of this life, to forsake all that is cheap and all the easy money at the expense of the poor and the earth and our relationships.  Because we are wedded to the Divine and often forget this—but deep signs abound everywhere, reminding us that we are joined to God.  That is what going to church and taking communion are all about—a weekly reminder that there is so much more than this material universe and all of its distractions.  This is why we are surrounded by symbols and drama and entrancing stories.  We need to be entranced and called back—regularly.  Jesus said to the church at Ephesus through John in Rev. 2:4, “You have forsaken your first love.”  What are the Baal’s in our lives?  What makes us spiritual adulterers who forsake our first love?  For some, addictions.  For some, neglecting our relationship with God and others.  Only you know what stands between you and God, you and your spouse, you and your family, you and your co-workers, you and your friends.  Know this, there is cause and effect; judgments do come when we forsake God and God’s ways…And yet, the best news is that God is always at work in all of our lives, supplying power, working for our redemption, wooing us back.  We do not have to be Gomer; God has shown us a better way.  Let us live into the image of God, revealed best in the person of Jesus, and shown also to us today in the Old Testament exemplar Hosea.  May it be so, Amen.