Monday, December 14, 2015

A Scandalous Love

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Zephaniah 3:14-20:

Scandalous is defined as causing scandal or shocking.  Most of us could probably tell a story of a scandalous love, of a love that wasn’t supposed to be, or wasn’t allowed to be.  We might start with the ill-fated Romeo and Juliet, perhaps of King Edward the VIII who abdicated the English throne to marry the American Wallis Simpson, or perhaps its Richard Loving, a white man, who married Mildred Jeter, a black woman, whose arrest for getting married made it to the Supreme Court which struck down anti-miscegenation laws.  Or maybe Elizabeth Taylor and all of her husbands.  Or maybe it’s Tinni, a domesticated dog, and Sniffer, wild fox, who are the best of friends.  It’s Disney’s Fox and the Hound being played out in real life.  Even with centuries of breeding working against them, Tinni and sniffer are now inseparable when they are in the woods together.  A truly scandalous love.
Of course scripture too is full of scandalous loves.  There is David and Bathsheba, an affair which gets Bathsheba’s husband killed.  There is Ruth and Boaz, a marriage between an Israelite and Canaanite, something that just isn’t supposed to happen.  Then there is the story, probably not as well-known of Hosea and Gomer.  Hosea is one of the twelve Minor Prophets, minor in this case having nothing to do with importance but instead about the length of the collections of their prophecies.  Hosea is seeking to be faithful to God, and God tells him to go and marry Gomer, who is a prostitute.  In fact, God says to Hosea “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress.”  There is something more than just scandalous about the relationship of Hosea and Gomer, because Gomer is the excluded one, the one people like down upon, the one no one wants to know, and certainly not the person people talk about in polite company, definitely not in church.

But why does God tell Hosea to marry that woman?  Because Gomer, Hosea’s unfaithful wife, represents the Israelites who are unfaithful to the things they are called to do, and yet in spite of all of that God loves them and wants to be in relationship with them.  Hosea is God in the relationship, faithful and true, and Gomer represents the Israelites, always being unfaithful and straying from the relationship.  Hosea says “the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.”  I don’t really understand that last part, but I think it’s about liking fruit cake.  God is faithful, but the people stray.  A scandalous love.

The prophet Zephaniah tells a similar story.  If only some of you know who Hosea is, or at least have heard of Hosea, I’m sure the number who know of Zephaniah is even smaller.  I’ll be honest and say that when this passage came up on the lectionary for this Sunday, and I decided that I was going to use it for the preaching text, I had to go back and do a lot more study on who Zephaniah was.  I’m sure we covered him while I was in seminary, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything about who he was, when his career took place, or what his oracles, or prophecies, were about.  And other than today you are unlikely to hear about Zephaniah, because his writings only appear twice in the lectionary cycle, which is a three year cycle of recommended readings.  The first is as part of the readings for the Easter Vigil, which is a worship service traditionally held around midnight on the night before Easter morning, which we don’t do, and on the third Sunday in Advent in year C, which is today.  So congratulations, you get to know more about Zephaniah, and I promise I’ll get to why all this is important.

We hear about who Zephaniah is in the first lines of the book, where we are told that he is prophesying during the reign of King Josiah, who was king of the southern kingdom after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians.  Josiah is a great reformer and is seen in the books of Chronicles and Kings as second only to King David as the greatest king in history.  It is under Josiah that the Deuteronomic reforms are put into place, after either they find the book of Deuteronomy in a renovation of the Temple, or the book of Deuteronomy is written down during this time and put into place.  One of the reasons for the reforms is because they are seeking to explain why the northern kingdom was destroyed and why they are having so many problems, but what they are hearing from the prophets, including Zephaniah, who is the first prophetic voice to be raised up against those in the Southern Kingdom since Isaiah, is that what is happening to them is because they are not being faithful to God, most especially the leaders of the nation and the priests.  It’s always the priests fault isn’t it?

Now there is one other interesting piece we are told about Zephaniah, and that is his lineage.  The normal pattern is to give one or two generations, such as saying “the word of the Lord came to Joe, the son of Schmoe, son of Moe, in the eighth year of King Mufasa.”  That wasn’t too sacrilegious was it?  But with Zephaniah, we are given four generations, and in the fourth generation is King Hezekiah, which is unusual in itself, but Hezekiah was the last great reformer before Josiah.  But more importantly, is that Zephaniah clearly has an understanding of the leadership of the country and the religious leaders, it appears that those are the circles in which he surrounds himself.  But, at the same time, it’s also possible that he is an outsider, or at least perceived as an outsider, and that is because he is described as the son of Cushi.  Now it’s possible that his father’s name was Cushi, but in Hebrew the word Cushi means African.  So the greater likelihood is that Zephaniah is African, which means he is an outsider, one of “them” or “those people.”  Even though he is apparently a part of the ruling class, he is also perpetually not one of them at the same time.  He is always the outsider, and perhaps also someone who is not ever truly trusted because of his background and who he is.

There is a lot of debate taking place in our country currently about who belongs and who doesn’t belong, who is “us” and who is “them”.  And most if not all of that is driven by fear.  Fear of the other, fear of the outsider, fear of them, and fear of people who are not like us.  The largest domestic terrorist attack in the country is still Oklahoma City, in which 168 people were killed.  But we did not seek to ban Christians, or right wingers or military veterans.  Why? Because McVey, for the most part, looked like us, and we’re pretty good about making distinctions in groups of people who look like us.  But we lump people not like us and see them all the same and give them all the same motives and beliefs.

Fear is a powerful thing, which is why politicians on both sides use it so much.  It’s fear of immigrants, fear of terrorists, fear of the non-religious, fear of the too religious, fear of the government, fear of those who fear the government, fear of gun owners, fear of those who don’t own guns, fear of Muslims, fear of Christians, fear of capitalists, fear of socialists, fear of Yankee fans because we are so great, and on and on it goes.  Since the new Star Wars comes out this week I think I can get away with quoting from one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Yoda, who said, “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.” Overall crime is at a 40 year low and you are 12 times more likely to accidently suffocate yourself in your own bed then to die in a terrorist attack, and yet the President has to come out an address the fear that people feel, and the fear that is being stirred up into a mob mentality in which we scapegoat entire groups of people.

And notice what Zephaniah has to say to the people about fear.  He has just told them about their unfaithfulness and coming destruction, but then says “you shall fear disaster no more,” and “do not fear, O Zion.”  That’s not language we often associate with the Hebrew Scriptures, and especially with the prophets.  Instead when do we hear it?  As part of the Christmas story when the angels tell Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and the Shepherds not to be afraid, because, as the angels say to the shepherds, “Behold, I am bringing you good news of great joy that shall be for” whom? For all the people.  Not for a limited few.  Not just for those who look like us and act like us and think like us.  But for everyone.

We like to have a gated community, not just to live in, but to think in and to put God in.  It’s our God, not your God, and you can’t have him.  But that’s not the love of God we see witnessed to in scripture, and certainly not the love we see in the person of Jesus Christ.  Instead God’s love is a scandalous love, a love that reaches out to the least and the lost, to those who are excluded, to those who are told they don’t belong.  And Zephaniah says it to.  He says fear not because God is in your midst.  And this is one of my favorite lines; he says God “will renew you in His love.”  God will renew you in his love.  But not just you or me, but everyone, for God will “save the lame and gather the outcast” and “will change their shame,” shame not brought on themselves, but that is given to them by others, “will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.”  That is a scandalous love.  A love not limited to those who belong, but which is given freely to everyone, and that is part of Zephaniah’s note of hope.

Like most of the prophets, Zephaniah’s prophecies deal mostly with the unfaithfulness of the people, how they have done wrong, and the potential destruction that will follow if they don’t change their ways, and then there is a note of hope offered, which is what we heard in today’s passage.  But the note of hope doesn’t make sense without understanding or hearing the darker side which has come before.  Or it might make some sense, but it doesn’t have the same impact.  It’s like offering hope to someone for whom everything is going well.  It’s nice to hear, but not really necessary.  But instead we need that note of hope when we are fearful, when we don’t know what’s going on, when darkness has surrounded us.  We need to know in that moment that God is with us and that God loves us and that God will renew us in His love.

Because what God knows and what God continually tries to show us, but we never quite seem to get it, is that the most powerful force in the world is not hate and it’s not evil.  The most powerful force is love.  Darth Vader does not save Luke or the galaxy because of hate, it’s because of his love.  Hate has driven him to the Dark Side, but when he sees Luke suffering, his love overcomes the hate and he saves Luke, redeems himself and destroys the empire.  We cannot overcome hate with more hate, and we cannot overcome evil with more evil, we cannot overcome violence with more violence, because those things only build on each other and desire and devour more and more.  But what can overcome them is more love, even as imperfect as our love is, but even more as perfectly as God’s love is, especially when it’s poured out to everyone, even those who don’t think they are worthy and those who are told they are not worthy and to those who are suffering or in fear.

Christmas is about love poured out for the world.  It is about God giving us Jesus, and it is about Jesus giving of himself sacrificially for us.  Jesus came because God so loved the world.  Not just some of it, not just a portion of humanity, God loved all of it.  God does not choose to love only the people we would like God to love; God loves everyone, even those who cause a scandal.  And here’s the hard part, we are called to love scandalously too.  To love our neighbor as ourself, with that defined as broadly as possible, and even to love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you.

Loving people you like is easy.  Loving people you don’t, that’s where it’s hard, and that’s where discipleship truly begins because we have to step outside of our comfort zones, to put aside our prejudices and preferences and learn to love like God loves.  I was recently at a meeting and we had to give a brief faith journey and how we came to the Methodist church.  Most in the room were not raised Methodist but came later because of the love and grace they found not only talked about but lived out in the church.  One woman said the denomination she grew up in, which will remain anonymous, had lots of churches named Grace, but they didn’t seem to understand what the word meant.  Hosea loves Gomer just like God loves us, even though Gomer is unfaithful, even though Gomer cannot live up to the vows she has pledged, just like us, Hosea loves her anyway.  That’s what God’s love is like for us.  And God chooses Zephaniah, and outsider to deliver God’s message to the people, a scandal.

God loves us, we don’t have to earn it, we don’t even have to understand it, all we have to do is accept it, and also accept that God loves everyone else too, not in spite of their flaws, but as who they are remembering we too fall short.  In the words of pardon after the prayer of confession for communion, quoting from Paul, we say “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners” all of us, “that proves God’s love for us.”  Love is a powerful thing.  Indeed I think it is the most powerful force in the world, because love can change the world, love has already changed the world because love came down at Christmas, and what Christmas reminds us is that God’s ways are not our ways.  The incarnation is the revelation of God’s scandalous love affair with humanity and it is because of the scandalous love of God that God loves each and every one of us, and wants to be in relationship with each and every one of us, and who wants us to return that love, by having us offer a scandalous love the world.  The question that must then be answered is what are we going to do about that?  How are we going to stop leaving fearfully and instead to start loving scandalously?

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