The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 13 | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 31 July 2022 |Hosea 11:1-11 | Psalm 107:1-9, 43 | Colossians 3:1-11 | Luke 12:13-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, the Holy One in our midst.

Okay friends, we’re doing this—it’s time to talk about the prophet Hosea. You might remember that last week’s reading from Hosea featured the word “whoredom” repeated a very uncomfortable number of times.

And a lot of things about the book of Hosea are deeply uncomfortable. So we’re going to go carefully. But if we can work with our discomfort, we’ll get through to a good word here for us about ourselves and about who God is.

Last week we talked about naming God in prayer. In Hosea, we see both our glorious potential to imagine to God, and also the limits of our ability to say who really God is. And the really good news is that God is in our midst, always loving us, and God breaks through no matter how messy it gets.

And Hosea is really messy, folks. Hosea was a prophet in Israel in the 8th Century B.C.E. The setup of the book is that he and his family become a dramatization of God’s relationship with the people. We read this last week.

Hosea is supposed to marry a woman whom he knows will be unfaithful to him, and this is supposed to show how God’s people have been unfaithful to God by worshipping idols and disobeying the commandments.

Hosea has children with this woman, Gomer, and he gives the children names that tell the story of the rift between God and God’s people—names that literally mean “Not Loved” and “Not My People” in Hebrew. The narrative is a little messy too, but it seems Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea as expected, maybe more than once, but then they eventually reconcile. The children are renamed “Beloved” and “My People” to signify that God will claim God’s people again. That’s the first two chapters, and the rest is prophetic poetry where God’s voice and the prophet’s voice interweave.

The first chapter of that prophetic poetry is closely connected to the Hosea and Gomer story. It might be spoken by Hosea to his wife Gomer, or by God to Israel, or maybe both at the same time. And in that poetry, we find professions of love all mixed up with some really scary threats of punishment. The plot arc is that after a time of estrangement, God will forgive God’s people and reconcile with them, and their love will be deeper than ever before.  

I think there is a lot here in the story of Hosea and his family that’s truly disturbing. First off, the children definitely did not sign up to be in this play about divine forgiveness, and maybe Gomer didn’t either.

There are also a lot of really tricky things going on with gender and power in this drama. It’s a problem for women when a woman happens to play the role of unfaithfulness who needs to be gotten back into line, and a man happens to play the role of… an all-knowing God whose decisions are always justified.  

The structure of the drama in Hosea plays into social problems we already have—problems about gender and power and virtue, and who gets to make decisions, and who we consider good and trustworthy. Metaphors like this feed into a system that already makes it harder for women to be free in the world.

And what’s maybe even more troubling, the story of Gomer and Hosea and their children sounds a lot like real life stories we might know of abusive relationships and even domestic violence. Feminist and womanist scholars like Renita J. Weems have pointed out this connection.

God/Hosea threatens Israel/Gomer with violence, and he claims that the punishment is justified by her behavior. He deprives her of resources, he keeps her from leaving the house, and he even brings the children into the conflict. He has lots of different ways to control her behavior. She tries to escape, but he ultimately wins her back with a mix of gifts and threats and promises of even greater love.

If you’ve walked with a survivor of domestic abuse, or you are one, or you’ve heard someone’s story who has been through this, then chapters 2 and 3 of Hosea might seem horrifyingly familiar. And if hearing this story now is bringing up things you’d like to talk about, Holly and I are here for you. And if surviving abuse is part of your past or your present, we can help you find other resources.

Womanist and feminist Bible scholars have read these first few chapters of Hosea with survivors in mind, from Gomer’s perspective. They’ve unpacked the connections with real life patterns of abuse, and they’ve named the need for the church to be clear: we don’t believe that God is like this.

Even though this story is in scripture, the God we worship loves us unconditionally. The God we worship is not about control at all costs. The God we worship is not on the abuser’s side in situations of domestic violence. The God we worship stands with survivors, and the church does too. We can be clear about that.

Because the story in the beginning Hosea isn’t the whole picture of who God is; it’s one attempt to tell the story of God’s love. Depending on our view of scripture, we might handle the presence of this story differently.

If you are just learning that the Bible has stories that imagine God in this way, it is okay to be disturbed and confused and upset right now. Working through that kind of disturbance and confusion can lead toward growth and maturity in faith. And you also don’t have to work through it alone—we can talk and pray and study about these things together and see what makes sense to you.  

Some of us have a view of Biblical inspiration where everything in the Bible is perfectly good and true in itself (even if it can be interpreted badly). From that perspective, we might say that this story is ok because it’s one metaphor; it’s God and not an actual controlling husband. In this view, the story itself is good and revelatory, but maybe it has the potential to be misused, and so we need to be careful with it.

Some of us believe that there’s room for flaws in the inspiration of the Bible, that God reveals Godself truly and powerfully in the midst of our human mess, and not separate from it in the Bible. That’s where I am. And from this perspective, we can say that maybe the story at the beginning of Hosea is a flawed attempt to understand God’s love.

We can recognize that the prophet Hosea was telling the story of God’s love as best he could, with the resources that he had. We might cringe when we have to read about whoredom in church, and that’s fine. We might choose not to spend much or any time with this story if it stirs up hurts for us, and that’s fine too.

But maybe we can understand that in some ways, we’re right there with Hosea, doing our best to tell the story of God’s love with what we’ve got, making a lot of mistakes, but still keeping the conversation going. And there is faithfulness in keeping the conversation going, as messy as it is. There is holiness and beauty in the struggle to name God.

And today we’ve stuck with that struggle. We’ve been through a lot of rough stuff so far in our conversation with Hosea. Thank you for coming across this difficult terrain with me so far; it’s been hard work.

And now it’s time for some really good news. I am ready for some good news now.

The really good news is that even when we tell the story of God’s love in a flawed way, God breaks through with that love in all its glory and power anyway. The really good news is that when we keep the conversation going, even in a messy way, God is part of that conversation too, and God talks back. God names Godself in our midst.    

The really good news is here in today’s reading from Hosea chapter 11. It’s that God’s love can’t be shaken, no matter what we’ve done. It’s that God cares for us with tenderness and compassion. The really good news is that God is God, far beyond any metaphor we could use. And in Hosea 11, God comes right out and says so.

By this point in the book, the conversation has gone beyond the metaphor of a husband and a wife. God has shown up in many voices—not just as an aggrieved spouse but as a mourner, as a plaintiff in the courtroom, and even as a lion chasing its prey. And in chapter 11, we start a new voice for God with this parent-child metaphor. God cares for God’s people like a parent who can’t stop loving their child, and God turns away from wrath to endless compassion.

Some scholars read this as specifically a mother and child metaphor because women were usually the caretakers in early childhood, and because when it says “I bent down to them and fed them,” that sounds like God is scooping up a child to breastfeed. So Hosea likely imagines God as a mother here, caring for her child and choosing compassion.

In the early chapters of Hosea, God threatens to give God’s people up to punishment if they won’t change their ways. But here, God turns away from that judgment; God knows that she can’t abandon her children.

One metaphor—the contentious marriage—worked for the prophet Hosea (whether or not it works for us) to tell some truths about God’s relationship with God’s people. But even for Hosea, that one metaphor wasn’t enough. The image of the parent and child tells the story of God’s love in a different way. It’s a way of naming God that shifts things.

And then something even more stunning happens. The first part of the book was like a play where Hosea and Gomer act out the relationship between God and the people. But now it’s like God takes the stage and breaks the fourth wall. “I will not execute my fierce anger,” God says, “for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

The voice of God here says that mercy, and not destruction, will be the way forward. And what’s more, the reason for that mercy is that God is God. “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst.” The Holy One is in our midst, and unlike us mortals, the Holy One chooses mercy.

The reason that our human images are not enough to describe God truly is that God is always even more compassionate than even the best people we know, never less. And so here in Hosea, the voice of God pushes back against images that were not deep enough to hold the depth of God’s compassion for God’s people.

And if we look at the Hebrew text here, that pushback becomes even more direct. Our New Revised Standard translation says “I am God and no mortal.” And that’s because this translation tries to be gender-neutral when it can, which I usually appreciate.

But I think the specific word here makes a difference in this case. Because we have a Hebrew word for person in general, and we have a different word for man as in male person in particular, and Hosea uses that last one here. So how it reads in Hebrew is “I am God and not a man.” Or even “I am God and not a husband” (because husband is the same word).

It’s this same word that Hosea uses several times in the early chapters talking his relationship with Gomer and God’s relationship with God’s people when he says they’re husband and wife.

But now God says, “I am God, and not a man. I am God, and not a human husband.” Or maybe even “I’m not really that person we were talking about earlier. I’m better than that, because I am the Holy One and not a mortal.” The book of Hosea holds this tension. We have the dramatized metaphor of God as a man in a particular relationship having mercy in a limited way in the first chapters, and then here we have God saying God is not a man at all, God is beyond that, and God’s love is more than what we could imagine.

The book of Hosea itself questions its own central metaphor in this moment. I am grateful to 20th– and 21st-century feminist scholars for unpacking the complexity and violence of that metaphor so well.

But we didn’t actually have to wait for this movement of scholarship to arrive in order to question the metaphor of God as a punishing spouse. That questioning was already happening about the 8th Century B.C.E. That pushback is already here in the text in God’s voice in chapter 11.

And I believe that’s because God really was there with the prophet Hosea, breaking through the mess of it all to be God, in all of God’s glory and faithfulness and love. Because God has always been breaking through the mess to be God. And that is good news.

And God really is here with us too, in all of our messes, in all of our misunderstandings, in all of our best efforts and all of our epic failures. The Holy One is in our midst. God is God, and not a mortal, and God does not come in wrath. And that is such good news, friends.

And we carry that good news with us. We try to tell the story of God’s love as best we can. We keep on naming God in the dark. We use the images we have.

We use the best we know of human love to try to imagine God’s love. Sometimes we get it really wrong, and we cause harm, and we have to try again. Sometimes we find a new insight into who God is that changes everything for us.

We trust that God is present in the stories we tell about God, and we trust that God is beyond the stories we tell. While we take care with our stories and our naming because they matter, we also rejoice that it’s not up to us to get it right for God to be God. And that is such good news.

The Holy One is in our midst. And God is actively breaking free of any story that would make God less than God. And God is actively breaking us free of anything that would make us less than the holy people God made us to be.

So friends, let us walk in faith, believing that God is God, beyond the best that we could imagine. Let us walk in hope, expecting God’s holy revelations in our midst. And let us walk in love, holding fast to God’s boundless compassion for us and for all.


a medieval illustration of a man and a woman holding hands, inside an illuminated letter with geometric patterns
A Bible manuscript illumination of Gomer and Hosea from the 1340s (Public Domain, accessed through the Art Institute of Chicago).

11th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 14) | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 8 August 2021

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 | Psalm 130 | Ephesians 4:25-5:2 | John 6:35, 41-51

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who comes down from heaven to the depths. Please be seated.

Friends, someday I will get to preach to you on a day where we’re not reading about a gruesome death, but that is not today. Last time I preached here, we had the story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom, a holy death. And today we have a death that seems anything but holy. This is a hard story to spend time with, especially on a joyful day like today when we baptize a wonderful new life into Christ’s church. We baptized Karlee Jo at the 8:00 service, and our whole community is a witness to that joyous event. And so I thought about preaching something else today. But I think we need to spend time with this story because we find God in the depths.

When we tell the truth about what it’s like in the depths, we learn to lean on God’s love for us in new ways, and we learn to care for each other more fully. When we see how evil plays out, we learn to resist evil, as our baptismal covenant asks us to do. When we hear the painful cries of those whose dignity has suffered, we learn how to respect the dignity of every human being, as our baptismal covenant also calls us to do. So today we’ll tell the story, we’ll take a good look down in the depths together and see what we find there.

This story from Samuel is the climax of an epic tale of love, family, and revenge that has taken up the last few chapters. This part of the Bible reads a lot like a Shakespearean tragedy, or even Game of Thrones. There’s murder, intrigue, drama. A lot of guilty people get what’s coming to them, and a lot of innocent people get hurt in the process.

Absalom and David are both complicated men who have lost their way. David is a brave fighter, a brilliant strategist, a passionate worshipper of the Lord. And yet, he’s done something terrible, and amid the fallout from his crime, he allows destructive behavior to spiral out of control from within his own household. David’s son Absalom is a fiercely compassionate brother and an incredibly talented leader. And yet, his violence nearly destroys the kingdom.

The lectionary skips over some of the chapters in between last week’s reading and today’s because they’re really rough to read. The conflict between Absalom and David begins when another one of David’s sons abuses Absalom’s sister Tamar. King David does not protect his daughter Tamar and does not bring any accountability for the abuser. Absalom eventually takes justice into his own hands and murders the brother who hurt Tamar. From there, the harm and resentment continue to fester until Absalom starts a civil war, which ends with his death in today’s reading where we see him suspended between heaven and earth. It’s a compelling story in all its awfulness, as these complicated, powerful men almost find a way to reconcile but keep on raising the stakes.

And it’s also not the whole story. This conflict hurts a lot of people, and some of those people remain unseen. Our readings leave out the story of Absalom’s sister Tamar entirely. The text tells her part of the story and paints a moving picture of her grief, but our Sunday readings skip those parts because they’re so hard to hear. Bathsheba has been in our Sunday readings for the past couple of weeks, but in some ways she’s still unseen. We only hear one line in her voice even though she probably had a lot more to say. When the prophet Nathan confronts David with brilliant storytelling (which we read last week), he still pays more attention to Bathsheba’s husband Uriah as a wronged party than to Bathsheba—in his prophetic parable, she’s just a little sheep, not even a person. And I feel some anger about that. Bathsheba and Tamar may be the ones who suffer the most in this story and yet they’re not always seen in their full dignity as human beings.

And besides that, many of the people hurt by this conflict between David and Absalom aren’t even named, much less seen. We don’t know the names of the 20,000 soldiers who died and the many more who probably came back from the battle wounded. Most of the people fighting didn’t ask for any of this to happen, and yet they’re the ones carrying the scars if they make it out at all. David and Absalom don’t respect the value of these soldiers’ lives or their human dignity enough to settle their conflict some other way.

And there’s something that’s been on my heart to say since we started this section of the story a few weeks ago with David and Bathsheba. And that is that even though the story doesn’t always see the people who have been hurt the most, God sees them. If you are a survivor of violence, a survivor of abuse, if you’re someone who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, God sees you. If you are someone who carries a story of hidden hurt, God sees you. I see you.

We see you. This community may not know the details of your story, but we know that you’re with us. We know that you are us. As our Ephesians reading reminds us, we are a community called to tell the truth, to bear with one another, and to imitate God’s far-reaching love. And together we can make the church a place where grief like this doesn’t have to be carried alone.

Because we serve a God who will not be embarrassed or scared away or overwhelmed by our pain, no matter what our stories are, no matter what we’ve been through.

God sees the pain of the big loud main characters and the pain of the forgotten ones. In our story today there is deep anguish for a lot of people—for Absalom, for a host of women and men caught in the middle, and for David at the death of his son, that cry of anguish we heard at the end of the reading.

We read Psalm 130 with this story because it expresses that deep pain. Sometimes this Psalm has been read as a continuation David’s lament for Absalom. I wonder what it would be like to read this Psalm in the voice of Tamar, in the voice of Bathsheba, in the voices of the soldiers hurt in this war. These people cry out from the margins of the story, they cry out from the depths of their own sorrow, and God hears them.

This Psalm is for us to claim too, whatever we might have done wrong, whatever wrong might have been done to us, whether or not people have seen us, whether or not our pain has been heard before now. For those who have done harm, there is accountability that leads to growth and healing. There is always forgiveness with God. For those who have suffered harm, there is space for anger and grief and whatever else needs to be said. God hears every voice calling from the depths.

We can pray with this Psalm: “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for God; in God’s word is my hope. With God there is plenteous redemption.” These words are for us, this hope is for us, this redemption is for us.  

This “plenteous redemption” is not just for the visible tragic heroes of the story. God sees everyone’s sorrow here—Bathsheba’s and Tamar’s and the soldiers’ included. The redemption is more plenteous than even God’s prophets know at the time. The redemption is more plenteous than we know. It reaches to the people the story doesn’t always see. It reaches to the hidden parts of ourselves.

We do not know the full scope of this redemption. We don’t always even know what the best outcome would look like in situations of such complicated harm. But a part of the redemption, a part of the hope we can claim is this: that God hears our pain, that we can be honest with God. That we can speak a Psalm like this in faith that God is with us even in the depths.

And I think that our Gospel today is about that kind of redemption too. Jesus offers himself to us as the bread that comes down from heaven.

The bread from heaven does not stay in heaven for us to admire it and think about how nice and perfect it is. Jesus comes down into the mess with us. Jesus the bread from heaven does not stay safe from human pain—he faces indignity and death. The bread from heaven is broken. The bread from heaven is eaten. The bread from heaven is given for us, in the depths of our most painful reality. This bread of heaven is still offered for us no matter what we’re guilty of. This bread of heaven is still offered for us no matter what we’ve been through. Our redeemer hears us and feeds us even in the depths.

And that is good news. And that is the bread we will eat together today when we come to the table—bread from heaven given for us even in the depths. And that is the faith we baptized little baby Karlee Jo into today—a faith that can hold death and resurrection together in the same hand, a faith that is strong enough to face evil and resist it, a faith that respects the dignity of every human being, faith in a God who loves us and sees us and feeds us and gives us hope wherever our story has taken us so far.

So please join me in praying for Karlee Jo who was baptized today and for all of us. God, we pray that Karlee Jo has a life that’s as joyous and free of suffering as it can be. And we also pray that she learns that we hear her and that God hears her whenever she might be in pain. We pray that Karlee Jo may find whatever nourishment she needs as she grows. We pray that she may eat the bread of heaven both in the depths of sorrow and in those joyful times in her life when it will seem like she’s found heaven on earth. We pray that in her family and in the larger communities she’ll find as she grows, she may always know that she is valued and heard and loved and fed, and that she will become a person who sees others in their full human dignity. We ask the same blessings for those who care for her, and for all of us. We ask this in your holy name, O God of the depths, redeeming Bread from heaven, and Spirit of life. Amen.

Marc Chagall’s Fin d’Absalom (1958).