Notes for a sermon at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, St. Albert AB, July 28, 2019. Texts: Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19); Luke 11:1-13
When your Rector invited me here, he asked for three weeks. I was glad to accept the invitation, but had to decline the third Sunday, August 11, because of a major event happening in our life that day. My wife Joanne & I are coming up to our 50th wedding anniversary and had already arranged to renew our marriage vows that day at Holy Trinity, Strathcona.
Milestone anniversaries should be occasions to celebrate, of course, but also to reflect on what went into all those years. No relationship, marriage or otherwise, is ever totally golden throughout its course. When clergy prepare couples for marriage in the church, we are required to ensure that they have had appropriate preparation. The Marriage Canon (lately in the news for other reasons) contains a list of the topics that should be addressed. Most of them deal with matters about which couple can and do have conflicts. The most important IMO is the matter of the importance of communication. If you can’t communicate, agreement will always be difficult.
There’s a huge amount of material available today in various media on building good relationships. In this social network age, when people are supposedly more connected, relationship problems sometimes seem to be getting worse, not better. It may be that interpersonal communications have tended to become text-driven and superficial—but I’m not here to slag Facebook and Instagram! Rather, I am here to suggest that our readings today have something to say about relationships, both interpersonal and between people and God.
Let’s start with Hosea, the most difficult one. Did it seem to be written in code? That’s because we miss the vivid wordplay in the original Hebrew. Hosea has given names to his children which point to the decline in the relationship between Israel and YHWH. The first part of the book is structured around an image some may find offensive, likening Israel’s behaviour to that of a prostitute.
In response to a word from God, Hosea married a woman on the fringes of society, and fathered children who would immediately also be marginalized. His marriage and children became a living metaphor for his people’s broken relationship with their God. They have gone off after false Gods. The children’s names, especially the latter two, express a divine reaction to the people’s unfaithfulness: they will not be pitied; they will no longer be YHWH’s people.
If we ended our reading at verse 9, things would look very bleak, but verse 10 turns things around: “it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’” The reversal of fortune here, echoed so beautifully in the Psalm, is a theme that will be repeated again in the book: “[the] fact that we Christians must never forget but too often do: our faith is in the God who never gives up on us.”
In human relationships, as most of us well know, people do give up on each other. People’s willingness to keep promises is at times not matched by their ability to do so. Not so with God: the message is that our God not only will not give up on us but CAN not give up. It is God’s nature to be faithful and loving. As God self-described to Moses
The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin… (Exodus 34:6f)
The heart of the divine-human relationship is “steadfast love,” the usual translation of the Hebrew word “hesed.” It is the love that can not let go, not blindly, but out of deep compassion for the other. It is conscious. It is active. Above all, it is persistent. It stands as the model for all human relationships. If we fail to live up to this ideal, it is because we are human. The wonder is that God forgives, and will forgive, every time we turn and re-turn to God.
Continuing in our own relationship with God through Christ is not always easy. There are many occasions when we can stray from our life in Christ. Some of them may be obvious temptations. Others are not so clear, as in the issue Paul addresses in Colossians: people criticizing the church for not attending to some particulars of religious practice that they consider essential. How many of us have experienced the judgment of others in whose eyes our own faith walks don’t quite seem to measure up?
Paul will have none of this. He tells his readers to “live your lives in him,” as the NRSV puts it. Other translations give a more dynamic idea: the King James Version says “walk ye in him.” The Contemporary English Version has:
You have accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord.
Now keep on following him.
The point of the life of discipleship, a life lived in relationship to God, is thus not to believe we’ve arrived, or that we have it all figured out, but to keep on. Live in Christ. Walk in Christ. Keep on following Christ.
And how do we do that? One important part of that answer is to do just what we’re doing here today. We gather as God’s people, in relationship with each other and with God, seeking always to deepen our bonds of holy love. The life of discipleship doesn’t just mean gathering on Sunday, but in walking with Christ and being in relationship with him every day of the week.
The essential tool of building that relationship is the subject of today’s Gospel: prayer. The passage ties the Lord’s Prayer to teachings about the need to persist in prayer.
For many people, prayer mostly means asking God for something. We may and do take our desires and wishes to God, but that’s only the last and least part of it. Prayer is the conscious cultivation of our relationship with God—and that requires communication.
Remember those things we clergy are supposed talk to couples about, and how I suggested communication is the most important of them? Same thing with God. Prayer is keeping the lines of communication open, which means that listening is of prime importance. I believe that prayer is not so much about getting God to agree with us, as about getting us to agree with God.
It takes work.
It takes persistence.
And all of it comes through the gift of the Holy Spirit, freely poured out upon all who seek and all who ask.
God won’t give up on us.
Let us never give up on God.