The seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver BC

Click here to download an mp3 audio version of this sermon.

Moments ago we heard these words for our first reading:

When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, "Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD." So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

On and on the reading went, and after we waded through the remainder of those misogynistic words, the order of service prompted the reader to say, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church,” and us to respond, “Thanks be to God.”

So what is Holy Spirit saying? How are we to listen for her liberating words when the foreground, the words we just heard are so oppressively bleak?

I began the week feeling as though I should preach on this passage. And then, as the week wore on, I gave up on that thought, seeking an escape route, some way of shrugging off the prophet, and turning to something more…Pastoral? Uplifting? I found myself seeking to walk, run away from these words. This community and many of its members have been through a great deal these past weeks. It’s not just the aftermath of General Synod, but that’s still in the air too.

It’s left me wondering:

How do we live into the pain, the challenge, and the hope of any given moment, knowing that each of us, based on our own experience and perspective will enter into that moment in ways unique to our own story?

And so, I’ve been thinking about these words from the Prophet this week. And because of the words we read just moments ago, it’s also got me thinking about who gets to tell us what the Bible means. And I’ve been caught out, realising how privileged a choice it is to walk away from this text just because I’d rather not deal with the dominant interpretation and its blind acceptance of some of the assumptions of who Gomer is, and how we ought to relate to her.

But just because the Bible has been used in one way, a way that is insidiously violent, does not let me off the hook. Especially because I believe that the Bible contains within it all things necessary for salvation, and that at the heart of the prophetic call is one to turn weapons—including weaponized texts—into tools that cultivate new life.

The history of biblical interpretation has been controlled, largely, by people with privileged experiences of life who, as a result, can simply take the scripture’s metaphors at face value. It’s this kind of posture that would allow someone to say, “yeah, this idea of Israel as a whore, that’s a good place to start. It’s in the Bible, why would I question that?”

I’ve been thinking about the way in which century upon century of biblical interpretation has been done primarily by men who have not—in their day to day lives—experienced the pain, fear, shame, exposure, mutilation, and cyclical abuses that are witnessed to in this text. This is part of why I—to this day—struggle to hear the minority report in a text like this one. How do you learn to listen for something you’ve never had to listen for?

But this week, reflections from the Rev. Broderick Greer on his embodied experience as a gay, black, man from the American South, came to mind as I was reading this text:

“I do theology as a matter of survival,” he said.

The whole of Rev. Greer’s address is worth listening to and reflecting on. When it comes to listening to this—or any—passage of scripture, what does it mean to “do theology as a matter of survival?”

I can get up here and trot out the typical line about Israel’s unfaithfulness, and God’s patience with an unfaithful people, and how we are invited to faithfully participate in covenant relationship with God. And that’s fine so far as it goes. It’s still a theme of this text. But if we do this while glossing over the unfathomable violence of the god that appears in the first thirteen chapters of the book, are we not perpetuating that same violence?

I can get up here and remind us that we are called to faithfulness, to not worshiping the things that have been made of our own hands, to condemning idolatry of all kinds. I can, and perhaps I should. This is, after all, the dominant theme of Hosea, and the rest of the prophets up to and including Jesus.

And yet, if we gloss over the abusive meteoric deity that shows up in this text, we have done a great disservice to this community, to the text, to the one who Created all things in and for love, and to Gomer, who is, at the end of the day, the hero of the story.

The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, Womanist bible scholar and Episcopal priest writes of this passage:

The spittle-laced violence with which this word has been imposed on women and girls often accompanying or preceding physical violence, and the enduring emotional and spiritual violence it begets mean that I cannot remain silent on this text. Neither can I by any means leave its proclamation and interpretation solely to the lips of those who will never hear this epithet hurled towards them.

I read much from Dr. Gafney this week, and spent time wading through the murky waters of the book of Hosea. My own seminary formation was largely devoid of voices like hers. What I needed this week, was to be confronted with a different way into the story, to be cued on what I needed to unlearn. I needed to be shown where there might be cracks in the dominant interpretations of this passage, for light to sneak through the cracks in my inherited cultural and theological assumptions.

And so I’m grateful for Casper’s reminder in his email blast this week. I’m grateful for Casper quoting Marnie quoting St. Leonard of Montreal, who shows us that there’s a crack in everything (even biblical interpretation) and that that’s how the light gets in.

With that in mind, I think the best I can do tonight is to share a number of observations from Dr. Gafney’s work that might start us down the road of looking for light, and making meaning, even in the midst of a rather bleak passage of scripture:

1. As a matter of survival, it is important to talk back to problematic texts like this one. Dr. Gafney writes:

“I believe in wrestling the bruising words until I squeeze a blessing out of them, no matter how down and dirty it gets, or how out of joint I get.”

2. We need to remember the culture into which a particular text was written, but we also can’t excuse it, or perpetuate the abuse that is present there. Dr. Gafney writes:

[The vernacular of the time when this was written was] “androcentric with a mean misogynistic streak, and in a shame/honor society the worst thing you can call a man is a bad woman. But I know God is bigger than all of our images and idioms including biblical ones, and I know no one is disposable no matter how the text frames them. While some of you can roll with Hosea’s God, I needed a different vision of God, so I went looking for and to Gomer and her daughter…”

If no one is disposable, how are we going to listen for the minority report that reminds us that the world was created in and for love, and that all the characters in the story are somehow beloved of God?

3. In spite of what a text seems to be saying on the surface, there are often counterpoints buried just below the surface. Sometimes we go along with interpretations because we’ve been told that’s what a piece of scripture means. Sometimes (often!) it’s worth a second look. Dr. Gafney writes:

“Then we meet Gomer bat Diblaim. In spite of the way the deck of the text has been stacked against her, not even the text calls Gomer a whore. What it does call her is daughter of Diblaim. Whether Diblaim is her mother’s name, her father’s name, or her home town, she is somebody. She is somebody’s child. She comes from somewhere. She has a name. She has people. Whore is not her name. Her name is Gomer and unlike the vast majority of women in the Hebrew bible her name is among the nine percent of all names in the Hebrew bible that belong to a woman. Her name is Gomer. Whore is not her name.

Names are important, as we’ve just heard. But when we think about the name of Gomer’s daughter, Lo-Ruhamah, which means “she will not be pitied,” or “she will not be loed by her mother,” or, as Dr. Gafney suggests, “there will be no mercy, pity, or compassion for her,” we only have a little further to find the counter-narrative:

There is a note between the births of Gomer’s second and third child that was not present between the first two: the mention of Gomer weaning Lo-ruhamah…As a baby, as a toddler, the one who was named “devoid of mother love” has been nourished and loved all along at her mother’s breast.

This, for Dr. Gafney, is one place in which we can finally see God’s “promiscuously extravagant love” show up in the text. It’s not in the prophet’s words, or even in God’s, but:

“In Gomer holding to her breast that baby girl who had to go through the world with a label on her saying she would be bereft of maternal love, pity, or compassion the same way Gomer has had to go through the wold of the text and its interpreters with the label whore hanging over her head. Gomer persisted in loving that child no matter who said otherwise.”

If theology is a matter of survival, then it will always be a story of God’s people rising up from below to claim for themselves all that has been denied them. Their names. Their selfhood. Their places in community. Their belovedness. Their relatedness to one another as a part of God’s chosen family.

What I’m starting to glimpse, what light appears to be peeking through, and I have Dr. Gafney to thank for this, is this:

In her unabashed, no-holds-barred promiscuous love, Gomer models true fidelity. She gives her love freely away, even (perhaps especially) to those who have been called unlovable. Gomer models a love that extends to one and all, even, and perhaps especially to those who have been told that they don’t matter, and all too often in the name of God.

There is despair for me in this story, a lot of it. But there are also cracks, glimpses of hope where the light gets in. And that hope is not in the places we’re usually told to look. If we see Gomer as a model of God’s love, new possibility opens up.

Today I’m finding hope in the ones who embody God’s reckless promiscuous love in spite of what the gatekeepers say. I’m finding hope in a love that transcends my ability to love. I’m finding hope in a divine love that is unquenchable. A love that is scattered freely for those who have been told or believe they are unworthy. A love that knows no bounds. A love that can hold all people. All of creation.

I’m finding hope, and perhaps we all can too, in a love that wrestles for its own ability to survive, and having secured a blessing, extends that blessing, without reservation, to everyone it meets.