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My Heart Recoils

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (August 4, 2019)

Hosea 11:1-11 

When Israel was a child, I loved him,

    and out of Egypt I called my son.

The more I called them,

    the more they went from me;

they kept sacrificing to the Baals,

    and offering incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,

    I took them up in my arms;

    but they did not know that I healed them.

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 bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt,

    and Assyria shall be their king,

    because they have refused to return to me.

The sword rages in their cities,

    it consumes their oracle-priests,

    and devours because of their schemes.

My people are bent on turning away from me.

    To the Most High they call,

    but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?

    How can I hand you over, O Israel?

How can I make you like Admah?

    How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

My heart recoils within me;

    my compassion grows warm and tender.

I will not execute my fierce anger;

    I will not again destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and no mortal,

    the Holy One in your midst,

    and I will not come in wrath.

They shall go after the Lord,

    who roars like a lion;

when he roars,

    his children shall come trembling from the west.

They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,

    and like doves from the land of Assyria;

    and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

“The sword rages in their cities… My heart recoils within me.”

I had another draft prepared for this sermon as of late yesterday morning. The title was “Images of God” and we were going to explore just that–Hosea’s images of God, our images of God–and other parts of the service were going to match with that theme. But then I read the news…

And again this morning I thought of going ahead with what I had prepared, but then I read the news… 

El Paso, Texas.

Dayton, Ohio. 

Add those cities to the long, ever-growing list of cities marred by gun violence. In the words of Hosea: “The sword rages in their cities.” In El Paso, a white man with a gun murdered 20 people and wounded at least 26 others at a Walmart in a crowded shopping center on a Saturday. Less than 24 hours after that, a yet-to-be-identified gunman, killed nine people and injured at least 16 in a bar district in Dayton. And all of this happened one week after a similar incident at a garlic festival in Gilroy, California. Prior to their rampages, the shooters in El Paso and Gilroy openly expressed ideologies of white supremacy

The New York Times reported: “This year, there have been at least 32 fatal shootings with three or more victims in the United States.” 

“My heart recoils within me,” words that Hosea places into God’s mouth, words that are apt for us this morning, words that are groaned from people throughout this country, daily. 

Back in October, after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was at home in Georgia. It happened on a Saturday. I was driving my nieces to the park and my Dad called me to tell me about it. “What’s wrong? the 11-year-old asked. My mind was racing with what to tell her: “How do I explain something so awful to such an innocent child?”

“Something very bad happened…” I started to say.

She cut me off: “Must have been another shooting,” she said, cynically. 

“My heart recoils within me.”

The bloodshed is awful enough. I can’t begin to imagine what the victims, those who love them, those who rushed to the scene (especially the first responders), and other people in those communities are going through–the pain, the trauma, the shock. What makes it even worse though, is how accustomed we’ve become to incidents like these, almost calloused, or at least desensitized because we hear about them with such frequency. I struggle with what to say each and every time. Sandy Hook was the same year I graduated seminary and started at my first church. I remember walking up into the pulpit wondering with a gulp in my throat, “What the heck do I say?” 

I’ll confess that I struggle with not only what to say, but whether or not to bring it up in the first place… and that goes with so much of the horrible things that happen lately. Do I give you a break and talk about something else, or do I address it (whatever the crisis of the moment is) head on? Yet St. Mark’s seems that it’s always been a place that wants to hear what the gospel, the good news, is in the face of the issues of the day. You’re unflinching in that regard. But I also know you’re weary, as am I.

“The sword rages in their cities… My heart recoils within me.” 

We have a gun problem in this country. I won’t data dump, but the statistics are clear. Average deaths per year by guns: over 36,000. Average injuries per year by guns: over 100,000. This is a public health crisis. Shame on our political leaders for not doing more about it! And shame on the voters for not putting more pressure on them to say “no” to the influence of the NRA! 

We have a white supremacy problem in this country. We have a toxic masculinity problem. We have leaders who fan the flames of hatred and fear with what they say and do. To quote the clergy at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, in their statement “Have We No Decency?” earlier in the week:

When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human “infestation” in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions.

We have deeper problems than these. There are spiritual undercurrents to all this madness—despair, loneliness, anxiety,  pervasive frustration with the way things are. People react to these forces in violent ways. 

And lest all I do is point fingers, and that this turn into a self-satisfied echo chamber, our Presbyterian tradition of confession and repentance leads me to reflect on the ways that I have been complicit in these ills and acknowledge “things done and left undone” in my own life. I have a role in adding to the “pollution” of this “climate,” too, in small ways. We all do. 

So what does the prophet Hosea have to say to all of this? 

We read from him last week and explored how prophets proclaimed God’s living word to the social situations of their day. Hosea didn’t hold back from expressing God’s white-hot, seething anger at the evil and violence in the northern Kingdom of Israel (also called Ephraim) in the 8th Century BCE. He did so in troubling ways, but the message was clear: God. Is. Furious. And God is furious because God cares passionately about what God’s people do. God is so invested in human life, so intimately invested, that God reacts out of anger and heartache. And as rebellious and wayward and foolish as the people can be, God can’t and won’t give up on the relationship, the covenant. We heard it in this text today, God, in a parental voice saying:

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,

    I took them up in my arms;

  but they did not know that I healed them.

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 bent down to them and fed them…

 How can I give you up, Ephraim?

    How can I hand you over, O Israel?

My heart recoils within me;

    my compassion grows warm and tender.

God just won’t give up on God’s people. God’s own heart recoils and responds with compassion and tenderness. 

So it should be with us. 

No matter how inured to these tragedies we start to become because of oversaturation in the media, no matter how high the numbers of deaths and injuries climb, no matter the inaction of our public officials, we won’t give up. 

We won’t give up on recoiling from these senseless deaths. We don’t give up on having compassion for those affected by this violence. That Hebrew word translated as “compassion,” by the way, isn’t a passive sympathy (“thoughts and prayers kind of stuff), but an active feeling, a strong movement at the suffering of others emanating from the core of oneself. We can’t lose that. Ever. We have to hold onto the “recoiling of the heart” because that’s part of our humanity. 

God won’t give up on God’s people. The relentless Holy One is at work through peacemakers and healers and people of courage–not just heroes, but ordinary people–to do something about this in the face of staunch opposition and a wider culture of death. Out of limitless compassion, the God of life and love is still speaking in our time. 

May God speak through us, as well.