Sunday, March 19, 2017

Learning from Eleanor - a sermon for Cathedral Evensong, Lent 3 Hosea 11

When Israel was a child, I loved him,and 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 to walk,
I took them up in my* arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I 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.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
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.*

Our readings this evening take us straight into the complex simplicity of humanity’s relationship with God…
Bear with me if that phrase, “complex simplicity” sounds like utter nonsense to you: I want to explore the thought that actually this central relationship, the thing for which we’re made, is ALOT less unfathomable than we seem to make it – and I’m thankful for the way God spoke through Hosea so many centuries ago in a way that makes perfect sense to me today.
You see, I’ve spent the past week really getting to know my tiny grand-daughter Eleanor, as I’ve been with her morning, noon and frequently night, as she has settled down into life in this world. I was short of grandparents myself – two having died many many years before my birth, and the remaining pair following them quite early in my childhood – so I was completely unprepared for the way Ellie has taken over my life by storm. In the same way that, 30 years ago, the arrival of my firstborn changed the landscape of my life forever, Eleanor has refashioned it all over again, so that my priorities have changed, my horizons shifted all because of that tiny scrap of humanity.
My rational brain knows that this is a common experience but my emotions are reeling, as I’m drenched with a tide of love that might well sweep me off my feet and land me, who knows where?

So what? This whole “revelling in grand-
parenthood” thing is becoming both self-indulgent and rather dull, I’m sure...(and for that I do apologise) – but the reason that I’m returning to it again and again in preaching right now is because it is helping me to understand a tiny bit of what it means for God to have the stake that God does in humanity.
Our Old Testament reading chronicles centuries of God’s love and humanity’s indifference...but while the idea that God cares isn’t exactly news, the idea of God as a perfect parent can cause a few problems for us, as struggling human beings. Most of us have at some point been a lot LESS than perfect in our behaviour to other people – whether as parents, children, colleagues, siblings, friends.
So the well-worn metaphor of God as loving father can be really uncomfortable, even painful, for those whose own experiences of the parent/child relationship have involved less love, more pain.
We’re so very very good, we humans, at messing up relationships, at causing hurt to people who just don’t deserve it...goodness, even JESUS seems to have done this as part of his adolescent spreading of wings. Even as Mary and Joseph heard the words that confirmed they hadn’t dreamed the extraordinary events of their son’s birth, those same words must have cut them to the quick.
“Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house, about my father’s business.”
What price the family home in Nazareth, they must have wondered.
Whatever his special relationship with God, couldn’t Jesus be a little kinder, a tad more considerate to us?
We’ve been so worried – and now we have him back, but it seems that we are already losing him to a life that is beyond anything we might have dreamed of or imagined for that precious baby boy who once snuggled in our arms.
But – wasn’t that just a bit cruel, a little thoughtless?
In his focus on the divine, did he forget that he was human too?

And of course, the irony is that it will, surely, have been the human, proto-teenager in Jesus who shaped that conversation – not the God who knows all the secrets of our hearts, and all the wounds that we so carelessly inflict on one another, and on Godself too.

That’s the thing, you see.
By choosing to be involved in creation God makes God vulnerable to all the hurt that fallen humanity can perpetrate...and you can feel that hurt in every line of our reading from Hosea, just as you can feel the tenderness of God’s love in caring for the unthinking toddler nation, Israel.
“When Israel was a child I loved him….I took them up in my arms...I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.”

That love is offered to us, too, although we are still very bad at recognising it, don’t realise that God is caring for us, even while she holds us in her arms.
Often people in some horrible situation will say to me “God doesn’t care, or can’t be real, because God has left me all alone to face this” - not seeing, amid their fear or sadness how often God arranges for God’s love and care to come through other people.
“They did not know that I healed them”

But our lack of response or recognition makes no difference.
God simply carries on loving us, because we are God’s children and the God who IS love can do no other.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.

There really is no option.
God loves us because she loves us, because she loves us, because she loves us….
There is nothing we can possibly do to make her love us more.
There is nothing we can possibly do to make her love us less.
Each of us is Ioved, completely and fully, as if we were a precious only child, made for love and held in love at each moment of our lives.

At the beginning, though, I spoke of complex simplicity.

Being loved, of course, is what makes us able to love in return…but we are apt to find the staggering truth of God’s love too much for us to absorb or accept...and so we’ve hedged it round with rules and practices, with worthy doctrinal attempts to make sense of a mystery we are invited to enter into and live within…
That’s not wrong – of course it’s not. Our intellects are gifts from God to be used to make sense of our place in the world and the ways in which we might make real God’s desire that we would do justice, love mercy and walk humbly...and where there is much to be done, we can do better together, so the institutional complexities of the Church make sense too.
It’s not wrong – but sometimes it can cloud the issue and, worse still, deter others from daring to believe that God is interested in a relationship with them.
But at the core there’s something very very different.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks”
Says God to Israel.
I want my people to be that that we can become all the world to one another, bound up for all time in a relationship of love that has no fear and no hurt in it whatsoever.

In a perfect world, with a perfect lectionary, we would have heard this evening not Psalm 132 but its immediate predecessor, psalm 131...and that’s where I would like to leave you – resting on the God who demands nothing from us but that we should accept God’s love, and rest in it all our days, as simply and trustingly as Eleanor slept last week nestling on my shoulder

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.[

like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
[a]O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

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