A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 24 July 2022 [Proper 12/Year C]:
Hosea 1:2-10; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13
Here’s a question: What do you think it’s like being God? In today’s scriptures, if you listen carefully, we get more than a glimpse.
In the first lesson, God calls the prophet Hosea and directs this poor truth-speaker to get married; but not to just any eligible women. No, God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute, Gomer by name. More than that, God tells Hosea to have children with this waywardly public female; and in due time Gomer conceived three children as a result of this union. To each child God instructs Hosea to name them with prophetically significant (albeit, strange) names. For instance, Hosea’s first-born, a son ,is called “Jezreel” – which is the name of the town where the toxically unfaithful reign of Jezebel and her wimpy husband Ahab came to a rude and bloody end [cf., 1 Kings 19:15-17; 2 Kings chapters 9-10]. Next, a daughter was born and named “No Pity”, followed by another son, “Not My People”.
What all this melodrama and intrigue are meant to convey is God’s heartbreaking experience of being “married” to Israel, who has forsaken the covenanted connection with the Holy One and whored around with other more convenient “gods”. So it is that God commands that Hosea publicly embody what it is like to be the God of Israel. To use Shakespeare’s 16th century language, Israel has made the Maker of heaven and earth a cuckhold, that is, the husband of an adulterous wife. Heartbroken and with every legal and moral right to divorce, God nonetheless steadfastly endures Israel’s self-centered, abusive behavior and all for the sake of God’s love and commitment to his people. That is what it is like to be God.
A second insight comes from today’s gospel lesson from Luke. It starts with the account of Jesus going off by himself to a quiet place to pray. When he finished, he rejoined the company of the Twelve, whereupon they immediately beset him with what sounds like an intense request. “Lord, teach us to pray…” Undoubtedly, a good deal of the request’s genesis stemmed from Jesus’ own example of the priority of praying; but I can’t help but think there might be something less enlightened going on as well. “Lord, teach us to pray -- as John taught his disciples.” What is this about?
Are we sensing the reverberations of some discipleship competition here? Are the Twelve asking for a “team” prayer like the Baptizer’s inner circle have? In any event Jesus takes their entreaty to heart; and in his prayerful instruction, Jesus also reveals a lot about what it’s like to be God.
I would love the opportunity to come together with you to discuss the “Lord’s Prayer”, its content and meaning, where it comes from, how we use it. It is too important a resource merely to memorize and use when in terms of prayer nothing else comes to mind. But for now everything that needs to be said about the “Lord’s Prayer” can be summarized by the first phrase that Jesus lays out.
In our English language and western culture, referring to God as “Father” -- “our Father” – often misses the mark that Jesus is making and misses a key insight into what it is like to be God -- our God. Moreover, given that not everyone’s experience of “father” is necessarily helpful, it is easy to disregard not only how Jesus’ prayer begins but also what it indicates. In fact, this opening phrase, “Our Father”, got Jesus into a good deal of trouble. A case can be made that this teaching about praying to God was one major aspect for putting Jesus to death. I say this because Jesus teaches his followers – then and now – to address God, to approach the Maker of heaven and earth not just as “Father” but with the stunning intimacy of “Daddy”.
In his time and place, Jesus spoke Aramaic. It was the common language of the people. The term that Jesus used to begin his prayer with God as “Father” is Abba. As many of you know, this is the same Aramaic term that a child would tenderly use to refer to her male parent. The point being that Jesus instructed his followers – then and now – to approach the Holy One intimately, directly, personally, tenderly.
“Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me…”. This is the way the bedtime prayer begins that my Mother taught me and my brothers. It is the same prayer and the same avenue of intimate, “tender” access to God that all my grandchildren employ each night before they go to sleep. Abba. “Our Father”, “Daddy”, “Tender and Mighty One”. “My God”. The Maker of all that is grants us to know him as the intimate and vulnerable parent and guardian. That’s also what it is like to be God.
Let me follow this up with a quick comment about how Jesus (in his rabbinic way) illustrates what it is like to be God – our God. Jesus tells a parable – again.
“Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him…’”. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see the sleeping friend in this story as God. All of Jesus’ parables are essentially about God and being with God. The message of this one is that God is like a neighbor and a friend. But what of the response that this “neighbor/friend” makes? Is this what we expect of “Our Father in heaven”? It helps to remember the setting.
I remember my Father writing a letter to me when I was twelve. He had taken a new job, and my Mom and I and my three brothers would have to move to a new state, a new town, a new everything. It was a hard, emotional move for us all. It left an indelible mark on me to this day: I don’t like to move. None of us were happy about the prospect of this much change in our lives, which is the reason that my Dad wrote to me.
In the interim, Dad worked in the new city, while Mom tended the homefront on her own. My father wrote to me to assuage my fear of moving into the unknown, and one of the things he said was that when we moved, I (as the firstborn) would have my own room. To that point I slept with two of my brothers, but I was becoming too sophisticated to live in that context for too much longer!
My point is that in the setting of Jesus’ story about the midnight neighbor, the fact is that in that culture and time everyone in the family slept on the floor – and did so together. There were no separate rooms, just one big (perhaps happy but certainly warm) family. When the neighbor comes knocking on the door for help at midnight, it’s not simply an unexpected inconvenience; it’s also a matter of not waking up the kids! With no sound machines to soothe the possible intrusions, the father would of necessity have to crawl over little bodies to open the door. And exhausted parents of young children need their sleep too. So, by all means, “don’t wake the kids. Come back in the morning! What’s wrong with you? This better be good!”
But another aspect of this setting is also both biblical and cultural. Unlike our society where we prize the ability to be separate and private, where our homes all have a figurative moat surrounding our property, in Jesus’ time and in most of the world today neighbors are vital for survival and security. People quite literally need each other. – for help and for life itself. So, the midnight knock at the door was not just a surprise, not just an inconvenience but what neighbors do with and for one another. It is the law of hospitality, the law of safety and security; and it was and, in some places, still is taken very seriously.
Hemmingway wrote the unfiltered truth: “No man is an island…” St. Paul offered a more vivid version of the Truth: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” [Romans 12:5] Hospitality is the second biblical virtue: Fidelity being the first. Sometimes, persistence is required to break through the reality of the midnight hour; but in that persistence the father of the household recognizes the legitimate need of his neighbor and gives him what he needs. It ain’t easy being God, but this midnight knocking is also what it is like to be God.
And here’s the point about us living the God-life. As God’s people, to what extent are we the answers to the prayers we offer to God? Who is it you can ask for help in the midnight hour? Who can you come to when you are in need? Who do you trust enough to knock at the door at midnight and seek a last-minute bailing out? Generally, we are not so good at asking for help, much less at midnight. Yet, if we are God’s people and Christ’s Body, how else should we show our fidelity to God than with our hospitality, our readiness to be there for our neighbor, for one another?
This is a big part of what it is like to be God. It is also a big part of what it is like to be the church. How are we doing? Our answer speaks a great deal to the question of what it is like to be God. Amen.