Is that REALLY you, God? It’s me, Margaret*

Hosea 1: 2—10; Luke 11: 1-13; Colossians 2:6-19

First Baptist Church, Worcester, MA

July 28, 2013

Her name was Yafna Garcia, but known on the streets as Millie. In a heartbreaking blog post, the photographer Chris Arnade describes Millie, a prostitute that he came to know as he photographed her and others in Hunts Point, in the Bronx, in New York City. Millie died on January 6 of this year, a few days after collapsing on a bench at the Tub and Tumble laundromat. She was 41 years old.

Arnade tells us that no one claimed her body from the morgue. Not her mother, nor the man who may have been her father. Not any of her 13 siblings. Not her street husband, nor any one of her 4 children. None of her friends. No one who knew her from Hunts Point.

According to the medical examiner’s report, Millie died of bacterial endocarditis of the tricuspid valve, the result of intravenous drug abuse. In other words, some bacterial infection entered her body via a heroin injection that she gave herself, likely using a dirty needle. It migrated to her heart and killed her.

Credit: Bryan Costin, used with permission

Credit: Bryan Costin, used with permission

Several months later, her body, still unclaimed, was sent from the morgue to City Cemetery on Hart Island. As Arnade writes, “Inmates from Rikers Island placed her body in a wooden box made by other inmates. She was placed in a massive trench (70’ x 20’ x 6’) joining roughly one million others that lay beneath an empty field on a small island two miles from the shores of the Bronx.”

It seemed that no one even knew that Millie had died and so Arnade took it upon himself to share the news with those who maybe – just maybe – might want to know. He recounts the fears expressed by others who live as Millie lived. “Pepsi cried, not just for the death, but because, ‘they buried her like a stray dog. I hope to God and pray that I don’t get treated that way.” Michael cried, too. “Honestly? I know she is in a much better place than we are.”

During a visit last summer, Millie, after some prodding, told Arnade her dreams. She wanted her kids back, because in order for that to happen, it would mean that she would be free of the heroin that had such a grasp of her. “I am tired of this life,” she told him. “Tired. You can only do this so long. We say it doesn’t hurt. It does.”

Millie’s is the story of whoredom. The real one, not the one so metaphorically and/or glossily given to us in what is supposedly the word of God to 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.” (Hosea 2:1)

Some man from the street took Millie as a wife. Some man did the same of her mother. Between the two of them, they bore 18 children. Eighteen children of whoredom. Twenty-odd people trapped in a horrid world of drugs and prostitution; a world where your dead body goes unclaimed by a single soul; a life that surely – when it finally ends – finds some mercy, even if that mercy is nothing more than the end of that life.

Now I don’t know about you, but me, I find it virtually impossible to believe that God could or would ever utter such words to anyone, regardless of the bigger message that’s perhaps being conveyed. Biblical scholars tell us that the story of Hosea’s marriage to the prostitute Gomer, her subsequent infidelity, his discipline against her and her children (some his, some fathered by other men), well this is all supposed to show us how God deals with Israel when Israel turns to harlots – whores – in other words, other gods. The vengeance that follows, the bloodbaths described, is reminiscent of the worst kind of blockbuster zombie movie or worse, of the very real godforsaken existence that Millie and others on the streets of so many streets all over this world live.

God forsaken.

These are the passages of scripture, the records of our faiths, and the history of our Judeo-Christian background that surely make it pretty darned easy to claim that religion has to be one of the most pathological institutions that humanity has ever dreamed up.  These stories are the kinds that any loving parent would never let his or her children read, let alone believe in. This vengeful, wrathful, callous, and despicable God is hardly anything we would ever wish to worship.

Fortunately, of course, we Christians can always opt for that easy jump over to the New Testament, where we can wrap our theology around that loving god, the one who sent us Jesus as a demonstration of love for us; Jesus to be executed on a cross on our behalf, but as a sign of redemption and grace and … well … love. The sacrifices of love.

The problem, of course, is that our jump isn’t really all that easy. There supposedly aren’t two gods, but just one. Jesus doesn’t even exist as Jesus without the connections to the story of the God of Israel. They’re all tied together, folks. And what… what are we to ever do with that?

It’s a conundrum, a quagmire the likes of which General Petraeus could probably never even imagine. There is no one answer and there is no right answer. And there is hardly any sweet sounding, sound bite theology that can be spouted by anyone standing behind any pulpit, be he a bestselling preacher/author speaking from a televised megachurch pulpit or be she me, a one-time ordained minister turned librarian, speaking from behind this simple lectern in this warm fellowship hall this morning.

When I shared this passage from Hosea on my Facebook page the other day, accompanied by a few editorial comments, I received some pretty funny replies regarding the challenge of making a sermon out of it. Landy reminded me that I was not bound to preach on the lectionary reading. Tom did the same when I joked with him that he purposefully opted out of preaching this week, just to avoid this text. But to me, there’s something to be said for the lectionary – there’s something to be said for working your way through the entire Bible over several years. And when you’re called upon to preach, there’s something to be said for stepping up to the challenge of finding a message of God in one of the most godless passages.

And so I did. You may or may not agree with me, but here’s the message I find in this Scripture:

It is not the word of God.

Not even metaphorically. It is a story made up by some men, some long time ago, to explain both the history they were a part of, as well as to solidify a code of beliefs that they held.

Now before you run me off as a blasphemous heretic, let me share a bit more. PLUS, remember that I came upon my theological education and my ordination in a tradition and a time when women were not exactly welcomed with open arms by the overwhelming majority of church folks. I was raised and educated and ordained a Southern Baptist minister. In other words, I’ve been called those names, and worse, before. So give me a few more minutes and then … well, you can take what I say for whatever you think it’s worth.

Let’s do a jump over to the New Testament now, not so much to talk about the loving god versus the vengeful one, but rather to listen to the words of Paul to a young church in the town of Colossae:

“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2: 16-17)

The substance belongs to Christ.

Paul’s letter was a warning against false teachings. The church at that time, much like every other time in its history, sat squarely in the midst of countless traditions, beliefs, philosophies, and understandings of earth and heaven, life and death, and what it meant to be a person of faith. Paul the human, just like we humans, just like the humans that made up this church in Colossae, was trying to reconcile all of these differences and what I hear him saying is this, “The substance belongs to Christ.”

At the heart of Jesus’ teachings, we all agree, is that when we act out of love, real love, then we become really the best that we can ever be. We become our best and most true selves. And most importantly, we demonstrate the truth of God.

If you subscribe to the belief that Jesus represented – or represents – God’s message to humanity, then you surely believe that God is, first and foremost, love. Personally, I believe that God is only love. Nothing else. Well, perhaps Love with a capital “L”.

I hope that you don’t hear me proclaiming a simplified message, one that reduces our faith to a pop song or a Coca Cola commercial. What I’m saying couldn’t be further from that. We often hear that we live in a world of information overload and when it comes to religious belief and faith, well, there is no exception. When it comes to faith, when it comes to church, we are at no shortage whatsoever for rules and tenets, doctrines and dogmas, opinions and attitudes, and people of every walk of life to tell us which of these are real and true and most important to believe and follow. Heck, I’m standing here right now doing that very thing!

But in the midst of all of that noise, let us at least hear that one sentence that Paul wrote to the Colossians: The substance belongs to Christ. Argue if you must over which festivals to celebrate and how to celebrate them. Argue over which rituals are most important. Argue over which music is best. Argue over how to spend – or not spend – an endowment. Claim whatever you wish along these lines, but despite whatever we claim, the substance of our faith belongs to Christ.

Our church is currently going through a period of purposeful transition. We have people committed and teams in place to help us figure out who we are now and who we want to be in the days ahead. We’ve got opinions aplenty. We’ve got people in lots of different camps. We’ve got people who feel that our decisions are absolutely critical to our continued existence and we’ve got people who couldn’t give a wit about what happens next. And for all of us, for each of us, what matters most? Bottom line? The message of Jesus. The substance belongs to Christ and the message of Jesus, the heart of our Christian faith, is love. Nothing else.

In his book, “What’s Right With the Church?” written some 25+ years ago now (back in my seminary days), William Willimon writes:

The church is simply one more example of God’s extravagant, creative involvement in this world. … For reasons we can’t explain, God wants the church. … From time to time we get the erroneous impression that God wants us to be builders of the church rather than custodians of what God builds. (But) in our better moments we know better. (p. 44)

So I ask you, and myself, what would God build? What is at the very essence? What is the very substance of the thing? Paul says it is Christ. I say that it is love. Maybe we’re saying the same thing.

How does this tie back to the passage in Hosea? For me, such passages are reminders of the times, those not so better moments, when we forget what is better. They represent our miserable and failing attempts to explain our own behavior by ascribing it to God. We do it all of the time. We can see examples of it every day; from the psychotic ramblings of a serial killer who murders because god told him to do so, to a nation’s organized bombing of another country because it believes to be on the side of right. From flag-waving Christianity to Israel’s unwavering claim to a God-given piece of land, we’re together in this behavior. And I dare say that it is not our best behavior. Not by a long shot.

Neither is our society’s turned-back towards failing schools and hungry children, homeless people on our streets, money made on the backs of others, and health care that is available to some, but not all. A nice house, a good job, a bank account and investments for retirement; filled pews, large buildings, busy church staffs and committees with waiting lists of people wanting to join them; none of these are signs, in and of themselves, that we live with Christ as the substance of our lives.

So what is?

Kate Braestrup is a chaplain with the Warden Service in Maine. You may have read her memoir, “Here If You Need Me.” It’s a difficult book to read, not just because it presents cases of death and murder in the woods of Maine, but because it doesn’t tip-toe around or gloss over the very difficult question of “Where is God?” in the moments of our lives when it seems love is nowhere to be found. The story of Millie that I shared earlier is tragic because she died without love. None. Where there is no love, there is no God.

Since Braestrup is a chaplain, you might assume that she brings God’s presence into the haunting stories of parents being told that their lost child was found, but sadly too late; to the wife of a man who simply went fishing being told that he won’t be coming home; or even to the miraculous stories of children found sleeping in the woods, awakened by the cold nose of the four-legged half of a trained K-9 unit, and brought safely back to the loving arms of parents who had almost lost hope.

She does see her role for victims, families, and the wardens themselves as significant – and it is – but she also humbly steps aside when recounting how much more often it is the members of the Warden Service, of the other arms of law enforcement she crosses paths, who bring true compassion to the scene. They are the ones, in their actions, who exemplify the truth of God. Love.

In one particularly moving account, she tells the story of a young female college student who was abducted, raped and murdered by another young man from the area. She writes:

For me, Christina’s restoration did not come in the arrest or in what happened in the courts to the man who committed this crime, however important and even grimly satisfying those things were in themselves. Instead, it was in the image of those dear and decent men – Rob, for example, with his quiet walk, his quiet way – moving with swift and loving purpose toward her body where it lay between the trees, bearing with them parenthood and friendship, grief and anger, order and care, and bearing beneath their badges their undefended hearts.

‘We are Legion,’ the demon sneers.

No. We are legion. (p. 180)

In this story, I’m reminded that justice is found in courtrooms. Love is found in the field. I don’t imply that we discount the need for justice, or even suggest that it isn’t sometimes also in our courts, but I do believe it’s important that we remember it is in the stories of love that we find God. The substance of all that we seek and all that we do in God’s name must be love, or else whatever stories we choose to share, preserve, sanctify, and pass down for thousands of years are stories of something else. They are not of God.

And so that is how I consider the Hosea passage. It is also how I consider any and all stories that I hear or read or believe in, when I’m trying to understand if, when, how, or where God is in them. If at all. God gets credit for an awful lot of things that, I’m quite sure, God would just as soon be left out of. In the same way, countless acts of love go unseen as the acts of truth that they are. The truth of the message of Jesus, the substance that belongs to Christ, and the very presence of God in our lives, is Love. May we always strive to act in ways that bring God into this world.

Amen

*The title for this sermon was inspired by the book, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” a classic of young adult fiction by one of the best authors of the genre we have ever had, Judy Blume.

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