With Cords of Kindness, with Bonds of Love

Hosea 11:1-11

Jeremy Richards        

When I was 4 or 5 years old, I broke my right arm – both the radius and the ulna. I was chasing my friend Matt along a sidewalk and a tripped over a flower pot. We had been with Matt’s mom, but somehow, almost instantly after it happened, my mom showed up. Matt’s mom drove us to the hospital and my mom sat in the back with me as I laid my head on her lap. Matt didn’t help matters by repeatedly telling me how his brother had broken his arm and had to get a screw in his arm and how he had heard is brother screaming in the next room over when this happened. I spent most of the drive to the hospital screaming myself, not out of pain but out of fear of getting a screw put in my arm.

I don’t remember getting to the hospital, checking in, or any of that. The next thing I remember after all these years was that my dad, not my mom, was with me in the hospital room with the doctor and the nurses. And because my arm was broken so badly, and I guess because I was so young, they decided to put me under. I still remember how concerned my dad was, and I remember, just before the anesthesia took over and my vision blurred then went dark, I looked up at my dad and said, “I never knew you loved me this much.”

I’m not sure why I said that, and I’m not sure if my dad was touched by my recognition of his love, or hurt by the fact that his love, in some sense, surprised me. I know that my dad was a loving father, he wasn’t mean or short-tempered, though he was more of the disciplinarian in our house. But I guess I had just taken his love for granted up until that point. I had taken for granted the many times he played Ninja Turtles with me, and the hours we spent building Legos together, and the times he sang me to sleep at night. Surely my dad loved me before I broke my arm, and surely he had shown me in many, many ways, but I didn’t realize it, at least not fully, until that day in what must have been the summer of 1990 or 1991.

The Israelites who Hosea speaks to in our reading this morning have not recognized God’s love in their lives either. In this passage God equates Godself to a loving parent – either a mother or a father – who has cared for Israel as “he” grew up. I know that for some of us, this image of God as a parent isn’t a helpful one. Some of us never knew our parents, or didn’t have good parents, and metaphors of God as a parent are counterproductive.

That’s the thing about metaphors – and God as a parent is a metaphor – they inevitably fall short, because they never say what something is, only what something is like. There’s a constant challenge throughout Scripture about how to speak of God, because God is beyond our comprehension, so the only way we can speak of God is to say that God is like something we know, but that thing never fully captures who God is. That’s why, in this short passage from Hosea, God is likened to a parent, a lion, and a home for birds to come and roost. Hosea, as a book, is full of metaphors for God all of them saying something about God and none of them saying everything about God.

All that being said, because God as a parent – a mother or a father – is the dominant metaphor in this passage, and because the image is one of such a loving parent, I’m going to stick with this metaphor of God as a parent, knowing full well that this metaphor, like all metaphors for God, may speak to you and may not. Hopefully, regardless of your personal relationship with your parent or parents, the love and compassion of God will come through this morning.

Personally, I was really struck by this passage. I’m sure it has something to do with my being a parent now, but the way God describes Godself is so beautifully tender, so touchingly compassionate.

Multiple times this past week, as I watched Esther while Brie was in Hawaii with her sisters, Esther would cry – because she hurt herself or because she was hungry or because she simply wanted me to hold her – and I would pick her up and she would bury her little head in the crook of my neck and hold on to me until she stopped crying. Can you imagine God holding you like that?

“…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms…I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

All week I knew that Amy and Tessa would be speaking today, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the women and men the Cupcake Girls serve. I couldn’t help wondering if they think of God in the way that Hosea describes God. I would guess not. I would guess most people in general don’t think of God that way. In fact, I wonder if many of us, if we’re honest, really think of God that way?

When I met with Amy and Alyssa from the Cupcake Girls for the first time a couple of weeks ago, Amy told me that many of the Cupcake Girls’ clients and the partners and providers who work with the Cupcake Girls have had horrible experiences with the church. This is no surprise to us. It seems like every week another church or even a whole denomination is in the news for pastors, priests, and other people in authority sexually abusing members of their church and then covering it up. The Church has hurt so many people, and we’re a part of the Church.

What do we do about that? How do we at Grant Park become a place of welcome and healing? How do we become a safe place where those who have been hurt by the church can meet a God who does “not come in wrath,” but who’s “compassion grows,” a God who stoops down and picks up the hurting, the broken, and the rejected, who bring them to the crook of their neck, like “one who lifts infants to their cheek”?

There is a line in this touching passage from Hosea that has stood out to me since the first time I read it: “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love” (v. 4). God is specifically speaking to how God has healed God’s people in the past, but they didn’t realize that God was the one who had healed them, because God worked through “cords of human kindness.”

A few weeks ago, we talked about how God so often works in secret, through little, unknown people while we are so often distracted by loud, provocative politicians, and people with millions of Twitter followers. Now God is saying again that God most often works in subtle ways, not in grand supernatural experiences, but in human actions. God works through unknown people like you and me. God heals through human kindness, and it’s so human that it’s easy to miss God in it all, and yet God is there.

There are people speaking and acting in the name of God all over the world. Some are saying and doing really good things. Many are not. I know that many of us, myself included, are so often filled with anger when we hear the way people twist the Gospel, and our first thought is not to respond in kindness but in wrath, to fight fire with fire. But as Tonia said a few weeks ago, we don’t fight fire with fire, we fight fire with water.

Anger is an appropriate reaction when people coopt the God of love to justify hatred, the Prince of Peace for agendas of violence, the Good News which is for all people to legitimize bigotry. But anger has its limitation. It’s like the starter in your car, it may provide the spark to get the whole thing running, but it can’t be the constant fuel that feeds the engine of healing.

Anger doesn’t heal.

Love heals, compassion heals, kindness heals.

How do we be the people of God today? With human kindness, with bonds of love.

There’s an image that sticks in my head from the Pride Parade. Before the parade began, a man was walking down the center of the street with a sign and a megaphone. I don’t need to tell you what he was saying. When Randy and Brie saw him, they grabbed our signs that said, “God loves u as u are,” and “God is gender-fluid” and ran out and walked – almost danced – alongside him in their new, bright teal Grant Park Church t-shirts. And the crowds on both sides of the street clapped and cheered.

They didn’t get in the guy’s face. They didn’t start a fight. They didn’t fight fire with fire, they fought fire with water. They just walked – almost danced – on either side of him and told a different story – a story of a God who does not come in wrath, but who’s compassion grows warm and tender, a God who leads with cords of human kindness and bands of love, I God who is like those who lift infants to their cheeks.

We can’t change what other people say and do in the name of God. There will, unfortunately, always be people who do great harm and great violence in the name of God. And we certainly can’t blame those who never enter our sanctuary or anyone else’s again because of the harm those people have done them. But we can do our part to tell a different story, we can open ourselves to God’s working our lives, so that God might heal others through our kindness.

Perhaps, in us, people will catch a glimpse of the God of Hosea, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and, like a 5-year-old Jeremy, they’ll find themselves saying, “I never knew God loved me this much!”