Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:
During the past two weeks we heard starkly different versions of what will make our country safe. The Republican Convention affirmed that we are more secure when people around the world are afraid of what we might do to them if they terrorize us or support those who do. The Democratic Convention emphasized that we’re more secure when people around the world respect us for the values we live out.
As people of faith, we need to ask ourselves which version corresponds to what we believe in our hearts about God and about the world. Many people who have lived through dramatic situations of insecurity have discovered a deeper security at a spiritual level. We heard some of them last week. They inspire me. They inspire others as well; but some of them confuse spirituality with religion: they look for security in the clear answers to life’s questions that certain religious groups offer – whether those are comforting or scary. Some find security in an emotional experience that helps them feel God’s presence. Still others find it in belonging to a community that they believe will care for them when they’re experiencing crisis.
Today’s sermon is entitled, Beloved in the hands of a Compassionate God. It is a conscious contrast to a famous sermon Jonathan Edwards preached on July 8, 1741 entitled, Sinners in the hands of an angry God. In an attempt to get folks to believe in God, he scared people by showing there was no security outside of faith in his God. “Men are held in the hand of God over the pit of hell; they deserve the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; God is dreadfully provoked, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment; the devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out: there are no means within reach that can be any security to them… they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of; all that preserves them is the arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God.”
That is one way to view God; some people still respond positively to that view, though it’s usually expressed in less fiery language. Those images may seem harsh to the point of being ludicrous; but if we’re honest, we often view God and ourselves in ways that don’t offer any more security than that. And our view of God impacts how we view things like the security of our nation and our relationships with others.
The truth is that we go back and forth between different ways of looking at it. One theory of behavior suggests that people move back and forth between active and reactive modes of being. When my needs for security feel met, and I feel loved, successful, supported and capable, I live in my active mode. In that mode I’m confident, generous, outgoing and kind. I see God like that, and treat others like that. When my needs aren’t met, I go into my reactive mode. Then I’m insecure, sarcastic, withdrawn and short tempered with myself and others, and I project that same image onto God. God still loves me; but when I fail to live up to God’s expectations, I see God as an exasperated parent. Even though I recoil at Jonathan Edwards’ image of God, in my own reactive mode there is not much difference. I don’t feel secure when I have that image of God. I feel vulnerable and unsafe, so I withdraw.
This makes it challenging for us to really know each other. It leads us to make all kinds of assumptions about each other. Last Monday night Michelle Obama spoke about our nation and its politics in terms of the impact on our children. To a world full of people who believe it would be cool to live in the White House, she described the first day of school for her two young daughters, getting into black SUVs, surrounded by secret service agents, with their faces plastered to the windows looking back at her. And she said that she woke up every day knowing she was in a house built by slaves. It didn’t feel at all like most of us thought it would.
One reason I preach about God’s grace so often is that it reminds me that something makes me choose which God I will trust. Not that God is actually subject to my whim of deciding who God is at any given moment. God is God. But how I perceive God is related to how I perceive myself. Psalm 107 and Hosea 11 offer two perspectives on the same God. The Psalmist writes from human experience. Hosea writes from the heart of God.
What is God really like? And, what am I really like? God’s core identity is love, and my core identity is beloved; and the two are deeply connected. Hosea writes of God as parent to reveal God’s heart. Those who have given birth to a child will resonate with Hosea’s words when he writes, “I taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms… I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
Those of you who are raising or have raised teenagers will understand another part of Hosea’s story: How can I give you up, Ephraim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger. Yes, there is exasperation in those words. God does get angry. It would be impossible for God to care about justice without getting angry. The problem is that for many the angry God is the dominant image, not the God who cares about justice for the orphan, widow, and poor.
Like the Obama’s experience of living in the White House, God’s exasperation is not as I imagine it. It’s more like the father who told me through tears how he had said to his teenaged daughter that if she continued to pursue the path she was following, he could no longer consider her his daughter. But as he sat with me, he told me how much he loved her, how he could not stand the alienation, and how he was beside himself with grief. His daughter had a view of her father from the side of human experience; he looked pretty scary to her. I believe I was seeing the heart of the father. Both views were part of the picture. But which was closer to his core identity? I believe that the one he showed me was his active behavior, and the one he showed his daughter was his reactive behavior. Active behavior shows our core identity.
It’s easy to forget this distinction. When we catch ourselves treating people with reactive behaviors it’s tempting to think that’s my core identity, and that maybe God would be right to dangle me over the fires of hell and say, “repent or burn.” How do we snap out of that? Maybe a friend reminds me who I really am. Sometimes we might be reminded when our children, or others we care about, are feeling insecure. Then we remember that we are still capable of feeling tenderness.
I believe that picture shows us our own core identity even as it reflects the picture Hosea paints of God’s core identity. Reading Jonathan Edwards’ sermon with 21st century eyes, it looks like anger is God’s core identity, and repentance is the only thing that will save us from it. When I read Hosea I get the sense that God’s core identity is compassion. After showing God’s legitimate anger, Hosea says that it is the core identity of God as compassionate that saves us; not our repentance. God will not come in wrath because God cannot come ultimately in wrath.
It is essential for our security in this world that we start living more out of our core identity and place our trust in the core identity of God. God has invited us to be instruments of justice and peace in the world. For some of us our world is pretty focused on those around us – our family, friends, and coworkers. For others our world also needs to include those who suffer injustice systematically.
How different it would be if we believed that our core identity and God’s core identity is compassion. It wouldn’t mean we would cease all reactive behavior. It would mean we would not spiral downward into the pit of despond. The spiral begins when we judge ourselves as if those behaviors represented our core identity. Then we start to believe in a god who will reject us because we are like that. Then we withdraw into ourselves and feel even worse about whom we are- & on it goes. When we’re living on that spiral we become unavailable to be God’s agents of peace and justice.
Whether it comes through meditating on the image of God as a compassionate parent who cannot reject us, or through looking honestly into our own hearts to discover the core of compassion and beauty that dwells there, it is essential that we do the work of growing up into empowering images of ourselves. Then we will be available to work compassion into the very fibers of this world.