Drowning out the Noise

Sermon on Hosea 1:2-10 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Casablanca, Michael Curtiz’ 1942 film about war and romance, may be the most quotable of all time. Every scene seems to contain at least one memorable line, from “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris.” In a film full of incredible scenes, one scene in particular stands out for what it expresses with almost no dialogue at all. During the scene in question, Victor Laszlo, an idealistic freedom fighter played by Paul Henreid, and Rick Blaine, a cynical expatriate played by Humphrey Bogart, are discussing the merits of resisting the forces of tyranny. Their conversation is interrupted by Nazi officers singing a German patriotic anthem. Laszlo indignantly strides over to the house orchestra and instructs the bandleader to play “La Marseillaise.” The band obliges, and everyone in the cafe stands and sings. Before too long, the singing of the German officers is drowned out by the triumphant strains of the French national anthem. It’s a stirring scene, and it’s especially powerful when you consider the fact that Casablanca was released in 1942, long before Allied victory in the Second World War was assured. This scene held out hope that the chaos and darkness of the world could be overcome, that we could raise our voices in song and drown out the noise of tyranny and oppression.

Yet that is not the most powerful part of this scene. Just before the orchestra begins playing the French national anthem, the bandleader looks to Rick for approval. Until this moment in the film, Rick has been the ultimate pragmatist; earlier in the movie, he excuses himself from a political conversation by saying, “Your business is politics, mine is running a saloon.” But, when the bandleader looks to Rick for guidance, Rick nods ever so slightly. If you aren’t paying attention, you’d almost miss it. Yet, that almost imperceptible nod signals a fundamental change in Rick’s character. It is the turning point in the story, the moment Rick’s perspective shifts from that of a pragmatist to that of an idealist, from self-interested cynic to altruistic hero.

A similar shift in perspective colors our reading from the prophet Hosea this morning. Hosea’s words are initially striking for their anger. In some ways, we expect this from prophets. All the Hebrew prophets have moments when they rail against the faithlessness and sinfulness of their people. Hosea’s anger, however, is unique for its uninhibited, no holds barred ferocity. The first verses of the book contain a withering indictment of Israel’s faithlessness. The prophet writes with a pointed rage that dispenses with social niceties: “The land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” Hosea goes on to insist that God’s wrath will be complete and merciless: God will “put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” and “will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them.” Hosea goes so far as to claim that Israel has abdicated its role as God’s chosen people, that God’s people have nullified their covenant with God. His rant concludes with a devastating proclamation from the LORD: “You are not my people, and I am not your God.”

Though this language is uncomfortable, it is consistent with Hosea’s vocation. While “prophet” tends to be synonymous with “seer” in our language, the primary role of the Hebrew prophets was not to predict the future. It was, instead, to tell God’s people that continuing their current trajectory would yield exactly the results they would expect. In other words, the vocation of the Hebrew prophets was to tell people they would have to lie in the bed they had made for themselves. The people of Israel had made quite a bed for themselves: they refused to follow God’s commandments, they failed to act with righteousness toward the marginalized, and they persisted in worshiping idols instead of the one true God. The punishments that Hosea describes are simply the just requirements prescribed by the Law. The collapse of Israelite society is evidence of God’s righteous judgment. As far as Hosea is concerned, his people are getting exactly what they deserve for violating their covenant with God. Israel had repeatedly failed to hold up its end of the bargain, and God was finally fed up.

And yet, that is not where Hosea concludes. This chapter ends with a surprising and subtle shift. In fact, if you weren’t paying attention, you might even miss it. After a blistering litany of condemnations, the prophet writes, “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.’” Though this rhetorical turn is almost imperceptible, it is of enormous consequence. Hosea effectively nullifies the condemnation he pronounced in the preceding verses. Hosea insists that God’s love cannot be erased by the failures of God’s people. This is not an isolated moment. Several chapters later, the prophet offers these words from God: “How can I give you up?…O Israel?…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger…for I am God and no mortal.” Even the noise of Israel’s persistent disobedience is drowned out by the urgent song of God’s grace and love. In the face of Israel’s inevitable and well-deserved condemnation, God offers a categorical “yet.”

One could say that “yet” is the biggest little word in the Bible. It is the word that promises hope when all hope seems lost. It is the word that affirms that God’s covenant with us cannot be nullified by our unfaithfulness. It is the word that raised Jesus Christ from the dead and defeated the powers of sin and death. It is a word that signals a fundamental change in the way we understand our relationship with God. God’s love is not contingent on our ability to follow God’s commandments; in fact, God’s love is not contingent on anything. Instead, God’s love is rooted in the fact that God is God and no mortal, that God will be who God will be. Hosea’s “yet” signals that even the deepest human frailty can be quenched by the even deeper well of God’s grace.

Though we understand the centrality of grace in theory, it is hard for us to put this knowledge into practice. This is especially true when we bear witness to the calamities that have been afflicting the world over the past several months. We tend to feel that we need an answer to all of the problems that plague us before we bother with the question of grace. What we fail to understand is that grace is an answer to these challenges. Grace is an antidote to the chaos and darkness of the world, because it empowers us to shift our perspective. Grace enables us to claim joy in every circumstance, at all times and in all places (always and everywhere). While this shift may be subtle, even imperceptible, it makes all the difference in the world. In the face of the deepest human frailty, we are called offer Hosea’s “yet,” and proclaim the unfathomable depth of God’s grace and love. We are called to sing of God’s faithfulness, trusting that our song can drown out the noise.

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God’s Economy

Sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Despite its rich cultural heritage, the city of Boston has very few iconic songs. Cities like New York can claim an enviable discography that includes the likes of Billy Joel, Frank Sinatra, and Jay-Z. Meanwhile, many of the songs about Boston are written by a punk rock band called The Dropkick Murphys, and they feature lots of screaming. Perhaps the best-loved Boston anthem was recorded by a group called the Standells in 1966. Even though the group was from California, this song has become the quintessential Boston song: it’s played at the end of winning Red Sox and Bruins games and has been honored by the Massachusetts legislature. You would probably expect this beloved song to pay homage to some honorable figure or moment from Boston’s storied past, like Paul Revere or the Boston Tea Party. But the song is actually called “Dirty Water,” a reference to the less than clean Charles River.

It's actually not so dirty anymore...
It’s actually not so dirty anymore…

The song describes some of the frustrations with living in Boston (especially if you were a rock star in the 1960s) but always returns to this cheerful refrain: “I love that Dirty Water; Boston you’re my home.” Yes, Boston’s favorite song, the song that most embodies the Bostonian spirit is an ode to a river so polluted that Harper’s Magazine once described it as “foul and noisome, polluted by offal and industrious wastes, scummy with oil, unlikely to be mistaken for water.” Nevertheless, Bostonians really do love that dirty water. Even though it is disgusting to outsiders, the Charles River is an emblem of Boston’s collective identity: its gritty tenacity, its stubborn refusal to be bullied, and its awesome capacity to survive. Even though they probably wouldn’t swim in it and certainly wouldn’t drink out of it, Bostonians love that dirty water because it helps them understand who they are.

Though the Jordan River is not nearly as dirty as the Charles, it must have looked similarly unimpressive to Naaman the Syrian. Naaman is one of the more relatable characters in the Hebrew Bible. We all come to a point when we realize that our ability to control our own lives extends only so far. Namaan, who had control over so many aspects of his life (he was wealthy, commanded an army, had political clout) had no control whatsoever over leprosy, this debilitating and alienating skin disease. We can understand his enthusiasm when someone tells him about Elisha: “Finally! Here is someone I can pay to regain control over my life.” When Naaman heads south to Samaria, he carries all the trappings of someone who is prepared to do anything to get what he wants: sacks of gold and silver and truckloads of expensive garments to barter with. He is ready to pay dearly for Elisha’s help. But when he arrives at the prophet’s door with his retinue, Elisha does not greet him as a foreign dignitary, but sends out a servant, who tells Namaan to follow the laws set out in Leviticus and to bathe seven times in the dirty waters of the Jordan River. Now the rivers in Namaan’s homeland are much more impressive and support the livelihoods of many more people than the Jordan; the name of one of the rivers, the Abana, can actually be translated “golden stream.” It’s no real surprise, in other words, that Namaan says “aren’t the rivers of my homeland better than all the waters of this Podunk country?” As we know, the Jordan, like the Charles in Boston, was much more than just a waterway for the people of Israel, it was a symbol of God’s power. God could use even the dirty waters of the Jordan to redeem God’s people. In a very real way, the Jordan reminded the people of Israel of their collective identity as a people who belonged to God. Naaman, however, was incapable of seeing this. Instead of welcoming the elegant simplicity of Elisha’s solution, Naaman balks. This was a man who was used to getting what he asks for when he asks for it, and as far as he is concerned, Elisha has told him to jump in a river.

Naaman was told that he had to do something very simple to achieve his aims, and yet he could not make sense of this. He thought that it couldn’t possibly be that simple. This world is a complicated place; people appreciate effort and authority and credentials and wealth. How could the power of God be given to those who simply wash themselves in a dirty river? How is it that Naaman, who was prepared to pay good money for his cure, was given the same solution he would have been given if he were a poor beggar who had nothing to offer?

We should avoid emulating Hannibal Lecter for more than just his economy of exchange.
We should avoid emulating Hannibal Lecter for more than just his economy of exchange.

What Naaman failed to understand is the crucial difference between the economy of God and that of the world. Naaman assumed that he would have to barter with Elisha, that his relationship with the God of Israel would be a quid pro quo kind of interaction. But God does not operate within this economy of exchange. God’s is an economy of grace, an economy of gift, an economy of abundant love that overshadows the wealth and influence of this world. Naaman was focused on what he could do; Elisha reminded him to focus instead on what God can do and what God has done.

Over the past several months, a variety of media outlets have published some version of the same article. The thesis is pretty straightforward: we should stop saying “sorry” when we mean “thank you.” If I am late for a lunch appointment, for instance, I shouldn’t say, “Sorry I’m late,” but rather, “Thank you for waiting.” For the most part, the articles have counseled that this helps us to become less anxious and generally kinder people. This subtle shift, however, does more than reduce our anxiety; indeed, it changes the way we experience the world. When we say “sorry,” we, like Namaan, assume an economy of exchange. We assume that when someone does something for us, we are in their debt. This leads us to keep track of every gesture of goodwill and every insult in order to ensure that our ledger is balanced. Ultimately, this worldview results in either shame or entitlement: shame when we get more than we deserve, entitlement when we get less. Saying “thank you,” however, dispenses with this economy of exchange. Gratitude assumes an economy of grace because it recognizes that everything is a gift. If everything is a gift, nothing is actually deserved. Gratitude precludes both entitlement and shame. This is what Paul was getting at when he referred to “new creation” in the climactic verses of Galatians. The new creation is where the economy of grace is operative. The new creation is where we dispense with the economy of exchange and shift our focus from what we can do to what God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Gratitude is how we inhabit this new creation. Gratitude allows us to experience life as a gift from God and helps us understand who we truly are: a people who belong to God.