KNOCK AND THE WAY WILL OPEN
Rev. Naomi King
This week’s lectionary asks and answers three major theological questions: how do we make sense of grievous times? How do we accept responsibility for our failures and reenter covenant with God? How do we know God still loves us when we’re in the midst of grievous times? Here we are, knocking around the school of hard knocks, desperately seeking answers, reassurance, hope, and God’s great love. Each of our readings this week opens a way, even as each differs in explaining the way back to that mercy. Since what route makes sense will vary from time to time and person to person, part of the mercy of God and of the library system called the Bible is that we have a variety of approaches. Hosea and Paul show us practices of restoring covenant and recommitment to promises, the Psalms to liturgies that hold us in the perishing times, Genesis to the practice of arguing with God, and Luke to a prayer and story that are gentle rain in the fire.
Hosea 1:2-10 If the Scriptures were like encyclopedias, Proverbs 16:8 (Pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction) would be illustrated with a picture of King Uzziah. Our posterboy is usually depicted after tzaraat (disfigurement, sometimes translated as leprosy) has struck him. But King Uzziah also oversaw a time of great prosperity, having the great trouble of also overseeing the consequences of wealth extraction and political intrigue. Judah’s high hopes were raised, enjoyed, and then dramatically dashed. Uzziah becomes a symbol, then, of the meaning taken from this catastrophic experience, and his reign is covered in a number of books: 2 Kings, 2 Chroncicles, Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea. That many mentions shows us this fall is a truly grievous era for Judah. A lot of people are trying to make sense of a change in political and economic fortunes that was devastating on a widespread scale. Think about the American Dustbowl experience and magnify that. Unsurprisingly, someone has to take the blame, and the golden boy Uzziah becomes the blighted one. Especially bad for Uzziah was the devastating earthquake that struck Judah around 755 BCE, reportedly just as Uzziah was entering the temple to burn incense and try to reconcile with God. We shouldn’t be surprised that tradition interprets this as God rejecting Uzziah, although I suspect Job might have a few choice words for such interpretations. The commentators assume that pride, pure and simple, in contesting the will of God, means Uzziah and Judah, who followed him, needed to be humbled. Worms and ashes! Ashes and worms! Two questions knock on our own heart: how do we take responsibility for catastrophe? And, then there’s Hosea’s question: how do we return to our covenant with God?
Our prophet picks up his unhappy holy message in the midst of this devastation, with a set of symbolic acts and words for all of Judah. Firstly, Hosea is instructed to marry a symbol of falsehood and lust, Gomer – variously called a prostitute, an adulterous wife, or a loose woman. This is the sign that God’s love for those who have gone astray is so great, that no one can be so far removed from God to be finally rejected, if that one freely reenters covenant with the Beloved. Gomer cannot be forced to marry Hosea and Hosea cannot be forced to marry Gomer particularly. He’s just told to marry one of those people viewed as impure and unfaithful. Hosea had to find Gomer, who agreed to honor the marital covenant. This process will play out on a larger scale with the people of Judah and Hosea, but the importance of Hosea and Gomer’s voluntary fidelity is enormous. In a world where everyone’s breaking their promises, here’s a couple insisting on living into those promises, just as God will live with those who wish to adhere to our greater covenant. The promises of the Song of Songs remain real. Consider how much societies justify exploitation and other forms of bad behavior with the phrase, “everyone’s doing it!” How difficult is it to be someone living to the higher standards when the people rather enjoy living in the lesser ones – at least temporarily. Now, Judah doesn’t rush back into covenant with God; those standards don’t feel particularly joyful, as the old standards of success still tantalize. Hosea and Gomer recognize the suffering that will endure as folks resist the better way and kick the addictions that are destroying the people. That’s why they name their children after the mournful time, sad for their neighbors and kin who are stuck in a terrible cycle they can’t find their way out of back to God. At the same time, Hosea repeats God’s loving promises, calling the people back to right relationship, showing there is another way.
The psalms are our devotional practices for living in the midst of the school of hard knocks. This week, we have two complementary, if different, approaches to how we can worship in seeking reconnection and our own recommitment to God’s deep and abiding love. Psalm 85 is sung from the midst of the not knowing in grievous times, acknowledging our failures in keeping the covenant, appealing to God’s previous acts of grace and promises of unfailing love, and seeking reassurance in remembering these deeds. The psalm has 4 parts: opening the appeal to God (verses 1-3), fearing and mourning (4-7), remembering God’s promises (8-9), words of praise or assurance (10-13). You can break the psalm into each of these sections, and model your worship on them, for they offer an emotional journey from distance and despair to recommitment and connection. Psalm 85 also provides ways to express key sentiments. In contrast, Psalm 138 is a psalm recounting and praising God’s loving faithfulness, but ends with the somewhat plaintive, “do not abandon the works of your hands”. Knowing David’s story, we can imagine this might be the kind of song sung after he, like Uzziah, receives his comeuppance (if you follow the conventional telling). For us, the song is a reminder than when we are distressed, one of the ways we can calm and reassure ourselves is to reenter a place of gratitude. How does one move from suffering to gratitude? David recounts the ways for us, and then enters his plea for God’s enduring love. It is a way for many of us in the midst of suffering we do not know will end, to stay centered in God’s love and grace without losing hope and heart. Both psalms equip us for the journey through the valley of the shadow.
If Uzziah is our posterboy for the sin of pride, then our story from Genesis 18:20-32begins the tale illustrating of the evil in the hearts of men: Sodom and Gomorrah. Contrary to popular belief, the sin of Sodom isn’t what we call sodomy; it comes down to something that covers both hospitality and neighborliness, but that’s later than today’s reading. I mention that, because this is one of the more difficult texts from our spiritual library, one still in common use to hurt and destroy people. But today’s lection is a powerful antidote to the poisonous use of the second part of the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, as it demonstrates the way of the just: to work to preserve life. Today, we retell one of the foundation stones to the human rights theme: justice cannot be separated from mercy.
Your Honor, may it please to court, advocating for mercy and justice being one and the same today, taking the part of the Sodom and Gomorrah, we have your friend and our sage, Abraham. This is not the Abraham leading his own son to slaughter. This is an Abraham who has learned a thing or two, including what will take place in this reading. Abraham argues with God. Now maybe Abraham can argue with God because he and God are such old buddies, or maybe he does so from a place of despair, or maybe he and God are outlining here a new judicial standard, or maybe…go ahead and posit a reason or six. One way to check in on valid readings of this passage is to reread it in different voices for Abraham: begging, despondent, angry, debating, cajoling, lovingly, fearfully, hopefully. At different times in my life, I come to this passage with different voices; that’s one of the hallmarks for me of great spiritual literature: it speaks differently in a variety of contexts. Once this passage helped me reclaim my own voice, because Abraham’s argument and God’s changing judgment suggested to me that one of our holy obligations is actually to argue against the order of the world when it violates our sense of justice, mercy, and love. How many are too few to try and save? What holy obligations do you draw from Abraham’s actions?
Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 2:6-19 has a similar answer to that of the Psalms 85 and 138, at least in form and function, but it is, when written, a contemporary retelling of Hosea and Gomer. How do we hold on? What are God’s great promises and signs of God’s enduring love? They’re nailed to the cross in Christ crucified, Paul says, contrary to what the world will tell you (for the world will tell you to despair, despair, despair). Return to your baptism, to the Passion, to the life you have in Christ. Then Paul addresses the specific troubles the Colossians have endured: being put down and dismissed and told they’re unworthy and unclean (verses 17-19). Hold yourself together, for worse will come from the world; hold onto your life in Christ. These are words of great meaning for those in the midst of scourging, of suffering and being told we’re unsuccessful and missing the mark by worldly standards. Your chosen symbol of God’s continuing love might be reentering the covenant of marriage (Hosea and Gomer) or the land give a great harvest (Psalm 85) or baptism or cross (Colossians), or it might be something else. But symbols matter, helping us hold onto God’s love when we’re being knocked about.
Our Gospel lection selection, Luke 11:1-13, has two segments, a prayer and a story, feeding two ways of learning. The prayer, along with Matthew 6:9, is at the heart of many Christian ways of worship, teaching us humility, stewardship, gratitude, forgiveness, reconciliation, and commending us to right action. So much goodness in such a small package! No wonder it joined the 23 rd Psalm as among the most recognized prayers in the Bible! And yet, there are a number of ways to pray that prayer – the many newer inclusive renderings, the two reflected in our library, and the variations that have come into being over time and with use. Which version of the Lord’s Prayer works best for you? Why?
The story is one of seeking what is necessary and the consolations God will give us. There’s a famous story of Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou that reflects his lived reaction to Luke 11:1-13. (The Universalist Heritage Society shared this story at the “Love Saves” workshop at the 2010 UUA General Assembly) A father of a young man struggling with drink approaches Ballou one day and asks him to preach some Hell at the boy so he’ll quit drinking. Ballou tells the father they can build a bonfire right outside the pub and when the boy stumbles out, throw him right onto it, so he gets the message. The father thinks this is a bit harsh and says no. Ballou responds with Luke 11:13: “If you then, though you sin, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Let’s end this reflection with the words of assurance Jesus offers in Luke 11:9-10: So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door with be opened for you. For everyone who asks, receives. The one who seeks finds. The one who knocks sees the door open.
When bad things happen, how do you interpret the reasons for those bad things? How do you assign blame and responsibility? What are your answers for making things better?
How do you show your faithfulness to your covenant with God? How would your neighbors know that you’re living faithfully?
How do you practice God’s unending love through accepting and recovenanting with those who have fallen away from the covenant? What’s your experience of fall and reacceptance?
What practices sustain you when you feel lost?
Which psalm spoke to you most keenly? Why?
What songs do you know (from any era) that reflect the key themes and emotional movement in the psalm that spoke most vividly to you? Share these songs with each other in group Bible study, speaking for two minutes about why this song/psalm connection works for you.
When have you argued with God? Why? How’d it go?
Why would our spiritual library include texts questioning God’s justice?
How do you define justice? Mercy?
What holy obligations do you draw from Abraham’s actions?
What symbols of God’s unending love do you hold onto when times are tough?
Which version of the Lord’s Prayer works best for you? Why?
When have you encountered the story in Luke 11:5-13? How have you lived it?
Beloved, you do not forget us even when we forget you. You do not forsake us even when we hop off after shiny distractions. Your love and mercy abide, awaiting us like the mossy bank and the cool clear water after a long day’s journey through the stony desert of despair and anger. When we would punish others in your name, you recall us to our humility and our own frailty. You teach our faltering tongues to hold onto our voices and our sense of justice and compassion in the image of your unfailing love. When we suffer, you suffer with us. When we do well, you rejoice. So you have shown us, over and over, in Gomer and Hosea, in David and in the choir of Korah, in our advocate Abraham and our consoler Paul, and in your wondrous son, Jesus. So you continue to show us, day by day, as we ask and seek and knock, as we fall and as we are welcomed home again, that you alone abide. We give thanks! We sing your praises! Amen