Religious Post

It Was I Who Taught Ephraim to Walk

Rev. David J. Fekete, Ph.D.

August 4, 2019

Hosea 11:1-11                                                 Luke 12:13-21                                     Psalm 107

Hosea prophesies in a time when Israel is under threat of attack.  Assyria is about to sweep down over Israel and destroy the Kingdom.  Hosea prophesies about this, and blames the imminent destruction of Israel on their worship of Baal and other gods of Canaan.  Yahweh was the God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt.  And Yahweh was the God who held their whole society together.

Our passage from Hosea 11 is interesting.  It shows a very loving, caring God.  Some passages, maybe many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures depict God as vengeful and punishing.  This reading from Hosea is different.  It depicts God as a nurturing parent.

God tells the Israelites, “To them I was like one who lifts/a little child to the cheek” (Hosea 11:4).  This is a tender, nurturing image of God.  Every parent knows what Hosea is talking about.  Every parent has lifted up a baby and kissed him or her on the cheek.  Or maybe held the baby up over their head.  This is a God who cuddled the Israelites as a parent cuddles their children.

God tells the Israelites that it was God who taught them to walk.  I remember when my brother was learning to walk.  How we held his little arms to steady him while he staggered in his infant steps.  This is what God did for the Israelites, “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,/taking them by the arms” (Hosea 11:3).

In a very real way, God taught the Israelites to walk.  Worshipping Yahweh meant following all Yahweh’s laws.  The Israelites didn’t just believe in Yahweh as they would any other God.  Believing in Yahweh meant accepting Yahweh’s ways, following Yahweh’s laws, obeying Yahweh’s commands.

When the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt, they were essentially a mob.  There were Israelites and other races all fleeing slavery.  But they were not in a city.  They had no king.  They had no social structure.  They were simply a mob fleeing slavery.  So the challenge of Moses, of God, was to organize this mob, wandering in the desert, into a society.  So we think of Moses as the Lawgiver.  Moses ascended Mount Sinai and heard God speak.  God told Moses the laws that would become the basis of Israelite society.

Turning away from God meant turning away from God’s laws.  As Israelite society became wealthy and as corruption set in, they found it more convenient to worship the gods of the neighboring tribes.  So Hosea accuses the Israelites of worshipping Baal, the storm god of the Canaanites, and other Canaanite gods and goddesses.  The Israelites thought that if they sacrificed to these gods, they would be protected by the god or goddess’ powers.  Then they wouldn’t have to follow Yahweh’s laws of justice, love, and compassion.  The Israelites could enjoy their wealth, exploit the poor and weak, and sin if Yahweh wasn’t their God any more.

And that’s what Hosea accuses them of doing.

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites,
because the Lord has a charge to bring
against you who live in the land:
“There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed (Hosea 4:1-2).

Notice how Hosea’s accusation follows the 10 Commandments.  False witness, murder, stealing, adultery, and although Hosea doesn’t say it here, making graven images and having other gods before Yahweh.  Hosea points out that worshipping Baal is tied up with breaking God’s laws.

The same is true for us.  Believing in God isn’t the end of religion.  It’s just the start.  If there is a God, then all God’s laws matter in our lives.  We can’t just believe in God and then do whatever we want.  Jesus says, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”  What does Jesus say for us to do?  Hosea, the Hebrew prophet tells us in words that Jesus echoes in the New Testament.  In our Hosea reading, we are told to be faithful, to love, to acknowledge God.  Then he points us to the 10 Commandments: No other Gods, truth telling, no murder, no stealing, faithfulness to our partners.  That is what Jesus tells us to do,

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” . . . If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”   “Which ones?” he inquired.  Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 19:16-19).

Following those laws will lead to eternal life.  And they will also lead to a good life here on earth.

This brings in the New Testament story we heard this morning.  A man exerts a lot of energy building big barns to store his abundant crops.  He plans to store his produce so he can live a life of ease in retirement, eat drink and be merry.  However, when the barns are done, he dies and never gets a chance to live his retirement dream.

We look forward to eternal happiness in heaven.  We can think sometimes that because we belong to this church, we are among the chosen.  Yet these ideas can work against us.  Looking forward to eternal life and priding ourselves on our religion takes our minds off the present.  The man in the New Testament story was expending all his energy building barns with his mind on the future.  But his future never came.

That story tells us to attend to our present.  Our eternity isn’t in the future.  It’s the way we are living now.  Are we living a live of peace?  Are we living a caring life?  Are we loving toward others?

If we are, we will be living a present life that is holy and blessed.  We will be in our eternal peace and joy.  We can be distracted by worries, by anxieties, by trivial pastimes.  That line in T. S. Eliot, “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”  Rather than anticipating our eternal joy, I suggest we attend to our present.  How are we filling time?  Is it blessed?  Is it peaceful?  Is it joyful?  If not, we need to ask ourselves if we are getting in the way of our own peace of mind.  It is true that in the next life, our feelings of spiritual joy will be more manifest than they are now.  But our life here and now can still approach the peace and tranquility of eternity.  How are we living in the present is the question that Luke asks us to consider.

At Paulhaven, a teen asked me, “What if religion is a scam?”  She was asking, not asserting that it was.  And she hadn’t thought it through very thoroughly.  But she didn’t want to be duped and wondered if this was all just a scam.  I replied that even if religion is a scam, what better way is there to live.  Isn’t a life of love, being true, honest, caring, humble, and peaceful—isn’t that a good way to go through life?

We will feel the results of our spirituality.  If we remove our blocks, our sins, and seek peace we will find it.  That will be a good way to live, even if religion is a scam.  But religion isn’t a scam.  There is a God.  And if we love God and follow God’s laws we will be blessed now, and forever.

 

 

 

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Other Things that Take Effort

When you work hard, you’re tired.  Sometimes all you can do is vege in front of the tube, maybe pass out, and go to bed.  But you’re not always that worn out.  Often, we stay up for a while and wile away the time.  How we wile away time matters.

One day-off I was sitting in an easy chair, feeling lazy.  I hadn’t worked that day and had, basically, the whole day ahead of me.  I felt too lazy to listen to Beethoven on my iPod, or jazz, and settled for classic rock.  I don’t mean to disparage classic rock at all.  It’s good.  But it doesn’t require much effort to listen to.  It doesn’t sound right, but Beethoven or Bach seem to require listener effort.  At least concentration, which takes effort.  Even Beethoven’s 6th required more effort than I had in me that day.

But I criticize myself for my laziness.  Vegeing in front of  TV, or letting classic rock pass time is a cheat of the soul.  Now we can’t and shouldn’t only listen to Beethoven or read Shakespeare or David Hume.  But I need to rise to Beethoven’s intonation in some moments.  My life is blessed when I do listen to him.  Or when I am able to read Shakespeare.  Hume isn’t hard, he just requires a lot of time.  And the point is, I need to make time for them all.

Erik Erikson writes about a late stage of development called “Generativity versus Stagnation.”  It’s a stage in life when we are concerned with passing on wisdom to the next generation.  It seems to be hitting me.  Symphony halls can’t make a go of classics, so they are playing “pops” and other light music to keep their doors open.  In my hometown, it’s hard to find concerts that I want to go to, meaning Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, Copeland, et. al.  I talked with a biology student who was forced to read Shakespeare.  She complained to me why they wouldn’t let her read something more contemporary.  Jazz venues are closing.  Two undergraduate girls at a prestigious university couldn’t tell me who came first, Moses or Jesus.  While my personal problem is getting my lazy butt up to giving Beethoven the listening he deserves, my fear for society is that all these things are being sloughed off by indifference, apathy, ignorance.

I’m not just complaining about passing on my generation’s likes to the next.  I believe that the individuals I mention, and others of a like kind, have a precious gift to humanity.  Losing them is like losing a part of the human soul.  But then again, contemporary philosophy teaches that there isn’t a soul, never was one.  I’m not at the point of despair yet.  Maybe closer to alarm.  And that includes alarm at myself, too.  I hate to think I’m sinking into a laziness that doesn’t have the energy to put on a Beethoven symphony.  Even the death march in his his 3rd.

Perpetual Spring

As I age, the world ages with me

As it always has

Things I treasure go out of style

Live music, blues, jazz, the symphony

Peace and love

Mozart went out of style

And nobody knows where he is buried

Who performed for princes, kings, queens

High art, technique, form fail

Churches dwindle, consolidate, close

Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus shrugged off

They follow Zeus, Apollo, Heracles

 

There is no perpetual spring

There follows summer, autumn, winter, and spring again

As I autumn, I can’t see spring again

No, I don’t see spring

I will be leaving this world

And I look toward another

And as my world dies, perhaps it is well that I also with it

I think less of my legacy than I do my potential

In my autumn I see perpetual springtime

The Trouble with Social Action

Eco-justice is a movement that is growing in popularity and importance.  And there are other justice issues that have already become nearly established.  Some of them would be homelessness, bullying, hunger, domestic violence, LGBT issues, and others.  Social justice organizations have been created to address these issues.  There are homeless shelters, soup kitchens, shelters for abused women, and bullying is a matter of consciousness raising.  Religions as far back as the ’60’s became active in social issues.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one prominent theologian who championed social justice as a religious issue.  Another was Reinhold Niebuhr.  Niebuhr once said that theology should be done with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

But there are problems with religion understood as social justice.  In its history, religion has also been concerned with character development.  Moses, Jesus, Paul, and Mohammed have all taught that a person needs to be moral and good.  For instance, Moses gave us the 10 Commandments, which are all moral rules.  And Jesus and Paul both teach a religion of love.  These teachings are about character virtues, or becoming a good person.

The trouble, then, with religion as social justice is that becoming a morally good person can be forgotten in social action.  One doesn’t need to be loving to be an advocate for ecology.  The worst case view of eco-justice is that a person can be concerned with ecology for selfish reasons.  We save ourselves when we save the environment.  Or we save our children or grand children when we save the environment.  We certainly do need to take dramatic action to save nature, but does doing so make a person loving, and good?  The same can be said for other social programs.  I know many self-righteous Christians who are all in favour of homeless shelters–as long as they aren’t  built in their own neighbourhoods.

A morally good person, a loving person, will care about his or her neighbour.  Such a person will want impoverished and homeless persons to have warm, safe homes and enough to eat.  Such a person will care about God’s created order–Nature.  But social issues will be one action flowing forth from a good-natured heart.  Just as honesty, sincerity, and friendliness will inform their relationships with others.  But the converse may not necessarily be the case.  I’m not sure that social consciousness will render a person loving and morally good.