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Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Hosea 1:2-10 and Psalm 85:1-13, Genesis 18:20-32 and Psalm 138:1-8, Colossians 2:6-19, Luke 11:1-13

Let’s talk about persistence this week—God’s and ours.

Human words, thoughts, descriptions, can’t encompass God. Our every attempt is a metaphor. This week we might do well to remember the image from The Hound of Heaven, a poem by Francis Thompson, a startling metaphor depicting the persistence of God. Here’s what one commentator writes about the image from that poem: “As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and imperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit.”

This week we have a couple stories about human persistence, even negotiation, in the presence of God. In the first, the fate of Sodom is at stake. In the story Abraham negotiates to save Sodom. “If there are fifty righteous people left, will you forgive what has happened in the city?” (Genesis 18:20-25) God relents. (vs. 26) Abraham keeps pushing (vss. 27-31) until he finally gets God to say, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”

I’m not entirely pleased with the final outcome because not even ten can be found. Notice, though, that Abraham’s plea is rooted in his understanding that this destruction is contrary to God’s nature. (vs. 25) The God we see here is not one who wants to vengefully destroy. This God does not draw a rigid immovable line in the sand. This is a God who wants to go as far as possible with us. In this story it is perhaps not as far as we would wish, nor as far as we find in some other images, but it is comforting to think of God as one who has a little give. (And if you have trouble with such human images of God, try applying them in some way to the very universe, cosmos, reality, in which we live and move and have our being. Reality itself has a little give in it. Life is not just rigidly deterministic.)

The Gospel lesson includes a story (or parable) about going to a friend at midnight and asking for some bread. The friend tells him to go away, but the one who knocked persists until the friend gives him what is needed. (Luke 11:5-8) If the friend is understood to be God, I have a little trouble again. Much of my experience and understanding has been shaped in a way that has God graciously and abundantly giving, without holding back. One has to move on to the images of a child asking for food (a fish or an egg). What person would respond to the request by giving a snake or a scorpion? (vss. 11-12) The punch line here is not that God has to be persuaded, but that if even we know to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

There’s a lot more to unpack in there. In verse 13, why are the people described as “evil”? Why is it suddenly “the Holy Spirit” that the heavenly Father gives? Lots to think and meditate upon. Whatever the outcome of our meditation, we are again given an image of a God—a universe?—who is responsive to our needs—perhaps even keeping us connected to the very “Spirit” of reality.

That seems to be the tack of the epistle lesson from Colossians. The all-encompassing image of Christ presented in this epistle continues this week. We are to live our lives “in him,” “rooted and built up in him.” (Colossians 2:6-7) “The whole fullness” of God dwells in him.” He is the head of every ruler and authority.” (vss. 9-10, see also vs. 15) It seems a bit grandiose when one considers the “practical” issue being addressed. Some were trying to make the new converts to the way of Jesus follow every ritual law about food and drink and worship. They were being presented again with a rigid, unbending, God.

Paul reminds them that God is bigger than that, working in the fact that God’s love is a forgiving love, that forgiveness is already at work in them. (vss. 11-14) “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths . . . Do not let anyone disqualify you . . . puffed up by a human way of thinking.” (vss. 16 & 18) In the final verse (vs. 19), we see that God’s all-encompassing Love (in this case embodied in Jesus) is what we most need to know about God and reality. It is from him that “the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”

In the Hebrew scriptures, Israel’s (and our) relationship with God is, on occasion, depicted as one of marriage. In Hosea (as well as in other passages) Israel (and we) are described as “whores” who have gone after other gods. Hosea’s own marriage, whether literal or depicted in a parable, is used as an illustration of the truth that God’s love persists, chases down even the “whore,” remains faithful to the commitments of love made in marriage even when Israel (or we) don’t. (See Hosea 1:2-3. Read all of chapter 1-3 if you wish.)

I’ll be the preacher Sunday and will be developing this image, as well as the story of Hosea’s relationship with Gomer, further. It is sufficient here to point out that two different words are used in the Hebrew scriptures to describe God’s love for us. One is the gracious unconditional outpouring of God’s very nature. God loves us just because that is who God is. The other love that comes from God is that which persists because of a commitment made, sometimes called “steadfast love.” (See Psalm 85:7 & 10 and Psalm 138:2 & 8, in this week’s lectionary readings.) It’s like love which is faithful to marriage vows. We may fall in love under the influence of the first kind of love, as God fell in love with us, but it is the second kind of love that keeps things going, persists. In our biblical tradition the “marriage vows” are described as a “covenant,” and the love which persists and is faithful to that covenant is sometimes called “covenant-love.” Such love is a theme illuminated by Hosea. God and we are in a committed relationship. God persists in faithfulness to that commitment and will never let go. Reality, whose nature I believe to be ultimately good and loving, will surround us and stay with us and follow us. That’s what the “Hound of Heaven” does.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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