Monday, August 02, 2010
Your Mother's Touch: Sermon on Hosea 11:1-11
During the winter of my fifth grade year, I came down with the flu. My memory is fuzzy, but I know that it started in the middle of the night, and instantly upon hearing the noises coming from my room, my mother was at my side. I remember the light being switched on, and my mom bringing a basin of water and a washcloth to freshen me up and cool me down. I remember her gentle touch on my feverish forehead. I was out of school for a long time, one of the perqs of which was the fact that I got to see the debut week of “All My Children” on TV. I was still sick on Ash Wednesday, and, a religious nerd even then, I was so distressed at not being able to leave the house that my mom managed to persuade the priest into giving her a little envelope of ashes, which she applied to my forehead with that same cool, comforting touch.
I have another memory, which is an exact counterpoint to my memory of being sick in the fifth grade. In the spring of her fourth year, Petra came down with the stomach flu. It got out of hand, and she became very dehydrated. I remember staying up with her one long, scary night, setting a timer to give her a tablespoon of water every fifteen minutes, as instructed by our pediatrician, which her body rejected each and every time. She was on the couch, and I was in a chair or on the floor beside her, reading a novel while I waited for the alarm to go off. In the morning, I realized I couldn’t wake her up, and carried her to the car, for the high-speed trip to the doctor’s office, and then to the hospital. As you have probably guessed, she was fine—she is fine. An overnight stay and an IV drip made her right as rain. But my memory of what it feels like to be the mother of a sick child—even briefly sick, with a minor easily-remedied illness—is a strong one. I know I will never forget what it felt like to worry over her, to try to make it better, to be afraid for her.
One of the ways we understand our relationship with God is through the lens of our human relationships. It makes sense, of course. According to psychologists, one of the predictors (though, of course, not the only one) of our ability to grow into mature, well-adjusted adults is whether or not we had what they call a “good-enough mother.” From the ordinary loving parent we learn about care and dependability and protectiveness. We learn what it is to be held. We learn what it is to have someone ready to catch us when we fall, literally, when we are learning to walk or ride a bike, or metaphorically, when we face disappointment or heartbreak. We learn what it is to be loved.
And all these things—whether by their presence or by their absence—are hints for us about the nature of God. If the ordinary exhausted, scared mother keeps vigil by her sick child, how much more does the eternal, inexhaustible love of God keep vigil by us, wounded, wandering and willful children that we are? If the touch of my mother’s hand on my forehead can be so soothing that I remember it these forty years later, how much more does the touch of the source of the universe have the power to heal our woes and hurts?
Our passage from Hosea speaks in a remarkable, extended metaphor of the motherly love of God for Israel, God’s child. “When Israel was a child, I loved him,” God says, “and out of Egypt I called my son.” God speaks of calling to the child, begging the child to come home, but the child resisting, going away. “Yet,” God says,
… it was I who taught [my child] 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… ~ Hosea 11:3-4
In this day and age, when a father is just as easily likely to be the primary caregiver for a young child, these words don't have the same impact on us. But for Hosea's original hearers, make no mistake: these were the actions of a mother. Verse after verse, line after line, the motherly love of God is related. Finally, in response to what sounds like a suggestion that this loving mother simply give up on her recalcitrant child, God replies, “How can I give you up…? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender…” [Hosea 11:8].
A word about those words, “heart” and “compassion.” In English we have turned the word “heart” into a sort of a Valentine—we have made it sentimental, soft, something that indicates the part of us that is a pushover. In Hebrew the word translated “heart” contains layer and layers of meaning, including the “inner person,” the “mind,” the “will.” This word indicates something fundamental about personality… the truth of who one is, the heart of the matter. The truth of who God is does not will punishment or suffering on God’s children. Let me say that again. God does not will punishment or suffering on God’s children. “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath,” says the Lord. In English the word “compassion” stems from the idea of “suffering with”—that one is able to imaginatively suffer with the one who is suffering. In Hebrew, though, compassion translates a word whose root means “womb.” The Hebrew idea of compassion means something like “womb-love.” The compassion of God springs from God’s very life-giving center. Taken together, these words tell us the core of who God is, God’s personality. And that core is forgiveness, tender care, and the desire to restore, not to destroy or punish.
One of the ways we understand our relationship with God is through the lens of our human relationships. It makes sense. One of the ways we can understand our relationship with God is in looking at the relationship of mother and child. Every metaphor has its limits, and this one is no exception. There are wonderful mothers who cannot save their children from unendurable pain, and there are dreadful mothers whose children overcome and thrive. But to embrace the metaphor as far as we can today: It is God who brings us to birth, who knits us together in our mother’s womb. It is God who holds us, who nurtures and nourishes us. It is God who leads us with cords of human kindness, teaching us the basics of what we need to know. It is God who heals us, holding us in the divine embrace.
We come to the table, perhaps, with many memories of dinners prepared by our mother—or maybe our father. And God is the host at this table, God is the provider of this meal, God is the founder of the feast. God has prepared this refreshment for us, this life-giving bread and saving cup, because God loves us. There is nothing we can do to earn that love. And there is nothing we can do that will cause us to lose that love. We are loved, completely, perfectly, passionately, by God, who is no mere “good-enough” parent, but the source and definition of love. And so we come to the table for the meal given to bring us life and strength, and we can trust that this motherly love of God will continue to touch us and heal us and make us whole. Thanks be to God. Amen.