hosea + renewing covenant

The following sermon is based off Hosea 11:1-11 and was given on July 31, 2016 at Tibbetts United Methodist Church in Seattle. 

Good morning! First of all, I am honored to be here today, preaching in Pastor Joanne’s pulpit. I have know Pastor Joanne since I was in high school, she was my camp counselor my final years of camp. I remember having conversations with her about inclusive language and talking about my call to ministry. Fast forward 10 years, I found myself at Seattle University’s School of Theology & Ministry enrolling in United Methodist History, then United Methodist Doctrine, and last, History of the North American Church all taught by Pastor Joanne. Joanne has greatly influenced my theology in many ways and as I sat to write this sermon, I came to the following realization. Joanne has taught me to look historically at scripture and its context, but at the same time incorporating Wesleyan values and theology. She encouraged me to use my voice prophetically and not shy away from the tough areas of scripture, and to never back down from being Wesleyan.

That said, Hosea is an interesting book in the Bible and I would hazard to say, one that isn’t too often read in the church as on the whole. Hosea uses some racy language and is pretty harsh, but Hosea 11:1-11 is much tamer than the other chapters and is a little too relevant today.

The prophet Hosea lived in a time of just before the exile of Israel. By that time the nation united under David had been split in two for almost two centuries. Long gone were the days of living together as God’s chosen people. The promise of God had not been voided, but the people were not upholding their end of the covenant. The relationship was strained and the Israelites were floundering. It seemed to some like their God had abandoned them and many started looking elsewhere for their spiritual guidance.

When we hear this piece of Hosea, we hear of a God who is a parent. Now, if we toss away the gendered language, we find a parent who loves their child, Israel (interchangeable with Ephraim). But as children do, Israel grows up, matures and embraces the freedom, the free will, given to them by their parent.

The scripture says: “The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols.” They are experimenting with other gods because that’s what we do as we differentiate from our parents, but yet Hosea reminds us that God does not give up on us.

“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.” Like a good parent, God is there for the small things, the things we don’t remember from our childhoods. I don’t remember learning how to walk, falling and being helped by up by my parents.

We have all frustrated our parents, or those who have played a similar role in our lives. Ask mine, I still do it as an adult. Try as I might to annoy or anger my parents, I don’t think it compares to the “Divine Frustration” in Hosea.

For a hot second, it seems like God is ready to give up on the Chosen People and then cooler heads prevail. God pivots back to the deep love: “I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment.”

God and Israel are precariously navigating a changing, evolving relationship. They have a covenant, but the context has changed. Instead of hope and promise, they are living in discord with the fear of upheaval.

Traditionally, our lectionary doesn’t give us the whole scope of the Book of Hosea. We are just treated to this more loving piece instead of the anger and struggle that is expressed in the other chapters through Hosea’s prophecy. By focusing on a more loving piece of Hosea, we are missing the point of Hosea.

God calls Hosea to be God’s voice in this context and like most prophets, he’s a little harsh, but gets the attention of the Israelites around him. The truth is hard to swallow, the world isn’t black and white, and God has not left the building. Hosea is challenging the system and reminding them that they are loved and that God has not broken the covenant.

Our tradition has focused on the parent aspect of Hosea, but I think that’s one way of looking at it, but I want us to challenge that and pull out the theme of covenant. Covenant that remains the same, but the world doesn’t.

An orthodox view of Hosea may lead us to think that God is vengeful, or a ruler, instead of someone actively seeking a relationship. Sometimes when I read Hosea and other prophets, I think about someone that has been forgotten, jumping up and down, waving their hands to get attention, to be heard, because in the hustle and bustle of life, it’s easy to forget the people, or the God, we take for granted.

Covenants are hard work. They are sacred relationships, promises that we willing make. It is more than just a legal transaction; it is rooted in a deep and abiding love. I believe that prophets remind us of our covenant with God. Prophets may deliver words of encouragement and fortitude, but most of the time, a prophet makes us feel uncomfortable and we have the choice to answer the call to covenant again with God.

Covenant is not stagnate, it evolves and shifts and because of those movements, we have ended up in a United Methodist Church this morning. God is not stagnate and finds new ways to live into the radical love and grace given to humanity. The thing is, we often look at the various covenants in our life in terms of black and white. Sometimes they seem like more than transactions, if I do this thing, I’ll get that. If I make this concession in my relationship, I’ll get fill-in-the-blank.

If we circle back to the parent metaphor, I think we have a case and point. The relationship I have with my parents is very different now, than when I was an infant, a toddler, a little girl, middle school, high school, during college, my early 20s, during seminary, and now. I am sure it will evolve and shift as time goes by. The covenant continually renews and is being renewed. I’m almost willing to bet, but can’t because we are Methodists, that many of you have had the same experience.

Now, my covenant with God is similar to the trajectory to my relationship/covenant with my parents. In my personal experience, my covenant with God makes me cringe, throws me through a loop, and makes me uncomfortable on a daily basis because the other side of my covenant is hard, living the Gospel, the love of God modeled after Jesus, continually seeking justice and working towards the Kin-dom of God here and now. This covenant changes over time as I continue this crazy journey of faith. Like many of us today, I live into this covenant by participating in The United Methodist Church.

Our church is a reflection of the covenant God made with the Israelites, it informs how we interact as Christians with each other, other faiths, other denominations, and most importantly with God. From the very beginning, the church has evolved and shifted because just like humanity, the church has changed in the past two centuries.

How does a renewing covenant work with what we believe as the people called Methodists? In the 1700s, John Wesley created a renewal movement within the Church of England, to discover new and rediscover old ways of being in relationship with each other and with God. Wesley believed that there was room for the Church of England to grow and shift, to renew the relationship, the covenant between the church, the people, and the Divine.

What came out of this renewal movement was the Methodist Church, it’s the tradition that we claim and live today, right now in this sanctuary. Our faith is based on a renewing covenant that John Wesley stumbled upon, strangely warming his heart. In fact, our Wesleyan theology of grace is one of renewal as well.

We have three stages of grace: prevenient, justifying, sanctifying. Prevenient is the grace that we have been given as a sign of God’s love that we don’t ask for. Justifying is when we accept God’s love and love God back; it is the beginning of our covenant. We journey towards sanctification as we seek to live like Jesus did. Renewal was the start of the Methodist Church and it is the core of our theology.

This renewing covenant, this renewing faith works with what is true about our church and our world. Contextually we change, we grow-up, we move forward, sometimes move backwards, or take sidesteps, and our lives are fluid not static.

We have to live in a renewing covenant because just like us, the world is changing and so is our country, our state, and even The United Methodist Church and our faithful witness of grace is needed. God’s covenant to us, to creation, remains the same but looks different. God is at work in the world through us as we renew, as we journey through grace, as we transform the world.

So how do we take Hosea and integrate it into our faith and lives today? Because of our renewing covenant with God, God doesn’t give up on us. God is invested in us and having us live into the radical love and hospitality that Jesus called us to through seeking justice. God doesn’t give up on us, just as God did not give up on the Israelites in separation and exile. God works in mysterious ways, even through the harsh words of Hosea. Sending Hosea was another step in God’s evolving covenant with Israel, so where the countless other prophets.

As United Methodists and Christians, our covenant with the Creator was Jesus. It changed and shifted, it did not remain stagnant. It keeps moving. Jesus was the Hosea of his time, but he was different, he changed the game. He fought to renew the institute and changed it. Who else do we know of that fought to renew the institution and changed it? John Wesley. Renewing covenant is in our DNA.

Renewing our institutions is a part of renewing our covenants. As a people called United Methodists we know that right now, our institution is in desperate need of renewal. For the past few months, it’s hard to see how our larger church is living God’s good news.

Institutionally, instead of renewing covenant at our church’s global meeting, General Conference last May, we either punted going backwards or sidestepped. I find myself debating myself on if it was going backward or sidestepping! In many ways, there were a lot of people using harsh Hosea language and yelling different views of covenant, it was hard to feel the Holy Spirit working through us and I’m honestly not sure it was. Instead of changing with the world, renewing our covenant to be relevant with the context of our ministry, we removed ourselves from advocacy. We removed ourselves for advocacy for women by leaving the table at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (the RCRC) and losing the resolution for Responsible Parenthood that gave a holistic view of the major decision of becoming a parent. We decided to not divest from fossil fuels and fight climate change by putting our money where our faith is. Our church structure that desperately needs renewal was put on pause because we cannot all agree that we should be an inclusive church.

Luckily, our annual conference let the Spirit work and renew by joining the RCRC, passing a timeline to divest from fossil fuels, and passing non-conformity to our polity book, our church law, the Book of Discipline. Saying that we will not follow the discriminatory parts of our polity that harm our LGBTQIA+ brothers, sisters, and siblings. We renewed our covenant with God.

Even bigger, at the Western Jurisdiction conference a few weeks ago, the Spirit renewed in ways many of us never thought possible. We banded together in unity to make the church a better place by elected a bishop. The most qualified bishop and she just happens to be the first openly out bishop is the history of The United Methodist Church. I believe that we have renewed our covenant by electing Bishop Karen Oliveto. We are moving forward as a church together, regardless to the inaction of General Conference.

Churches like Tibbetts are living this renewing covenant and one day, the larger church institution may live into it as well. Until then, we need more Hoseas, more Jesus figures, more John Wesley’s, more prophetic voices like your pastor, Joanne, and more leaders like Bishop Karen Oliveto. Most of all, we need to remember our own baptismal covenant with God, that we are truly beloved and a delight in the eyes of God. We need move forward together because we need to be prophetic to change the world, to be united, and most of us, usher in the Kin-dom of God so all of creation can see the promise of God and live in renewed covenant.