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The Rev. John Thomas The Rev. John Thomas

The Rev. John Thomas is president and general minister of the United Church of Christ, headquartered in Cleveland, OH.

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United Church of Christ, Cleveland, OH

When God Won't Stop Loving, We Shouldn't Either

Luke 12:13-21

9th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13)

August 01, 2004

Most of us, even those who have experienced a profound grief in life, will be ready to concede that the poet may have been right when he wrote that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. We're not, however, quite so ready to agree with the statement that it is better to have been betrayed by love than never to have loved at all. To be betrayed by our beloved, whether it be a spouse, a child, a friend, is to endure a particular kind of anguish, a special kind of pain that cuts near the heart not only of our self-esteem but also of our ability to hope. Betrayal evokes the worst of our human emotions from self-loathing to bitter rage to a desire for revenge and retribution.

Perhaps it's our acquaintance with this singular kind of suffering that makes Jesus' most famous parable, the parable of the Prodigal Son, so poignant. The betrayal of the father by the son is agonizingly familiar to many of us, which makes the longing of the waiting father-day after day searching the horizon for the betrayer, waiting to welcome him back with love-so striking. We're tempted to the same self-righteous outrage as the elder brother. Yet to have lived through the pain and anguish of this kind of parental love, Jesus seems to be saying, is to know something of the pathos and the pain of God's enduring and faithful love for a world of faithless betrayers. In this parable, we who conjure various appropriate punishments are reminded again that my ways are not your ways, for we're confronted by the mystery of a just God who won't stop loving.

Eight-hundred years before Jesus exposed the inner life of God through his parables, the prophet Hosea enacted his own kind of sympathy with the divine anguish. Asked by God to take for a wife an adulterous woman whose children would bear the names of awful judgment and then to take her back again after further betrayal, Hosea is forced to live out the agony of God who watches Israel's idolatry during the years of political turmoil ending in conquest by the empire of Assyria to the east. The Book of Hosea is love poetry, but it is love poetry of the most profoundly difficult kind. There's nothing sweet and superficial here, no easy, sentimental love couched in flowery poetry suitable for a Valentine's Day card. No, here we are confronted by the cry of those who endure betrayal but refuse retribution and in the process make themselves vulnerable again in order to lure back the beloved. Hosea puts to rest the notion that the Old Testament is only about law and the quid pro quo legality of an eye for an eye, as if God only learned the full range of love's emotions after the birth of Jesus. No legalistic contract but rather a deeply personal covenant exists between God and humanity throughout the Scriptures, and prior to that covenant is a love that is deeply personal and often very painful to God. To live in faith is not to agree to certain rules in return for divine favor, nor is it to live in fear of falling short and thus provoking divine retribution. It is to enter into the profoundly personal community of God and God's people where the struggle to love is acted out and the struggle to forgive is taken on. As the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel put it, "Biblical religion is not what we do with our solitariness, but rather what we do with God's concern for us." How do we deal with a God who won't stop loving?

None of this is easy for us, but Hosea reminds us that this kind of love evokes pathos and tension within God as well. Tenderness and anger, affection and disappointment, love and rage mingle together. "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son?. I taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms? 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've been down to them and fed them." But to this daring portrayal of God as a parent made almost blind by love, Hosea adds the sharp voice of one betrayed, who can think only of revenge. "They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king?. The sword rages in their cities. It consumes their oracle priests and devours because of their schemes." God is not immune to the white-hot rage provoked by betrayal. Yet, out of this inner tension emerges a deeper fidelity to the beloved: "How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? My heart recoils. My compassion grows warm and tender."

There will be judgment to be sure. Evil and injustice cannot be ignored. Violence against the weak cannot be tolerated, but punishment will not mean destruction, and judgment will not be the last word for, ultimately, the beloved shall come home shaking like "trembling children from the west," shaken and trembling "like birds from Egypt and like doves from the land of Assyria."

After the end of apartheid in South Africa, following the triumphant return of Nelson Mandela from years of imprisonment on Robbins Island to claim the leadership of his country, there must have been many in South Africa who trembled in their guilt for what they had done to people of color over many generations. How astonishing, then, that instead of vengeance and retribution, we watched the remarkable proceedings of the truth and reconciliation commission under the direction of Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu. One by one the victims of state-sponsored terror came forward to tell their gruesome stories of suffering and loss, confronting those who had caused their suffering with the pain they had endured. One by one the perpetrators of violence came forward to confess their complicity in apartheid's horror. These were proceedings fraught with tension and pain for victim and victimizer alike. How much easier it would have been to keep silent or to succumb to rage. How much easier it would have been to try to forget or to seek retribution. Truth could have been served in South Africa by trials and by verdicts and sentences that the world would have accepted as justified. But truth alone was not the goal. Reconciliation and new community was the larger goal which requires truth to be sure, but also a readiness to love even amid betrayals of the most horrific kind. To watch Bishop Tutu presiding over those painful sessions with tears streaming down his face, tears of anguish and of rage, was to glimpse something of the pathos of one who will not stop loving because God has not stopped loving.

What are we to make of this kind of God who trades raw power for painful love? A God so unlike any mortal, the holy one Hosea tells us, who will not come in wrath to consume or destroy. What must have shocked Hosea's contemporaries who watched God's passion lived out in the scandalous marriage of the prophet and his adulterous wife continues to be a scandal for those of us who are witnesses to God's vulnerability on the cross. Perhaps we ought instead to ask what this portrait of God says to us. If God won't stop loving, should we ever stop loving? What would God say of our propensity to respond to every real or perceived slight or injury with some version of road rage that seeks to give at least as much we think we got? What of our apparent love for slogans like "Don't get mad, get even," what of so-called tough love for our children that often demonstrates more toughness than love? What of the strange hold capital punishment has on us, a brutality justified not as deterring violence against the innocent but as a kind of closure, which is to say retribution? What of our eagerness to bring lawsuits rather than seeking mediation? What of our nation's response to terrorists' attacks with massive military retaliation and preemptive strikes without any real self-examination or much sensitivity to those who are truly vulnerable in this world? What of our lust for imperial power rather than our readiness to bear the vulnerability of the cross? Hosea's poetry, particularly when read through the lens of the life and death of Jesus, ought to do more than assure us of God's enduring love for the covenant community. It ought to challenge those of us in that community to aspire to a similar love, even-or perhaps most of all-when it is betrayed. When God won't stop loving, neither should we.

Let us pray.

With the prophet, O God, help us to live the mystery of love even when betrayed, to put aside vengeance even when it renders us vulnerable to suffering or makes us appear foolish in the eyes of the world. Help us to learn that getting even is not your way, rather it is giving love without the assurance of love in return. Thus may we pattern our lives more and more after the Christ whose journey to the cross revealed a love that yearns for faithful response yet without coercive demands, a Christ who is both holy one and mortal and will not come in wrath. Amen.

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