Sermon by the Rev. Stacy Alan at Rockefeller Chapel, July 31, 2016

Proper 13C – July 31, 2016
Rockefeller Chapel

Scripture Text: Hosea 11:1-11

To be human is to have your heart broken. To be human is to long for things that I cannot attain, and to lose things that I’ve become attached to. Most of us spend our conscious lives trying to avoid that heartbreak. Those of us who are parents spend much of our time trying to save our children from that heartbreak.

What do we do to avoid having our hearts broken? We live half-heartedly, we spend our years revealing only part of ourselves, or offering what we think others want. We build strongholds around us—hard work, competence, independence, control, distraction, keeping the rules, being “good,” being “safe,” having enough (whatever that is)—hoping that those will be enough to be in relationship with the people around us, with ourselves, with our God.

The poet and philosopher David Whyte, in an interview with Krista Tippett says this:

And if you have a really fierce loss, the loss of someone who’s close to you, the loss of a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a friend, God forbid a child — then human beings have every right to say, “Listen, God. If this is how you play the game, I’m not playing the game. I’m not playing by your rules. I’m going to manufacture my own little game, and I’m not going to come out of it. I’m going to make my own little bubble. And I’m going to draw up the rules. And I’m not coming out to this frontier again. I don’t want to. I want to create insulation. I want to create distance.”

This is what lies behind the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel: the rich man builds more storehouses to avoid having his heart broken, building insulating walls to keep out want and fear and loss, only to find that they do him no good.

And yet, our hearts will always break. At some point someone will die, I will be betrayed, someone will change, something is lost. I will die, I will betray someone, I will change, I will be the loss. The suffering of the world will have made its way under the surface, like ice in a Chicago street, and with first storm, the tiny cracks in our heart will open into a giant pothole, and I will fear falling in and being lost forever.

This is why the text we heard today from Hosea haunts me. I struggle with the book of Hosea. It begins with a difficult, problematic story of Hosea acting out Israel’s faithlessness in his family life that is distressingly similar to the dynamic of an abusive relationship. It’s hard and harsh and troubling, particularly as a description of how God works with us.

Then we get this text, which has its issues, but which offers a vision of God that I find both challenging and comforting. Here we are given the image of God as the parent of a small child, with touchingly intimate details any parent would recognize: teaching a child to walk, carrying her, offering healing, the lifting of a baby to bury one’s nose in his neck, savoring that baby smell, bending down to offer a tasty morsel, anticipating the delight in the child’s eyes.

The language of God as father is familiar, perhaps too familiar in the Christian tradition. Many prayers begin with “Heavenly Father” and “Almighty Father,” or include “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus himself offered that language to us when he taught his disciples to pray. But we often attend to the authority and power of the father, acknowledging the love, yes, but it’s a dispassionate love, a distant love, a love that exists in the abstract.

We leave out the fact that parenting is hard and is guaranteed to break your heart. Even with the happiest of childhoods, the most functional of dynamics, the healthiest of bodies, your heart will break. David Whyte says this in the same interview:

[Y]ou think about the path of parenting, there’s never been a mother or father since the beginning of time who hasn’t had their heart broken by their children. And nothing traumatic has to happen. All they have to do is grow up.

This is, stunningly, the cry of God in Hosea: “The more I called them, the more they went away from me.” God, the author of all that is, the one whom philosophers and theologians have called omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, the Unmoved Mover, unchanging, this God calls after a wayward people, her voice echoing in the hills and they run recklessly away. How can I give you up? God cries. How can I hand you over? Anyone who has struggled with a recalcitrant teenager, or the reactive “no” of a toddler, or the pain of one’s adult child making her own way in the world (different from mine) will recognize that cry.

Whyte, in another place, writes this:

Parental love can be bewildering because the love that is returned does not necessarily have anything at all to do with the overwhelming forces we might feel for a child when they are but one day old; the delight we have when they celebrate their third birthday or the sudden distance at thirteen, fourteen or fifteen. The child’s affection for us, even at times, seems to submerge and disappear in that fog of war called adolescence, becoming at times, a beautifully constructed repulsion that still includes us in a strange backward form of connection.

In the unrequited love of parenthood, the parent often feels stranded by the way a child has moved on, taken by the tide of an unstoppable maturation. files/Readers_Circle/Unrequited.pdf

This is not a dispassionate, all-powerful God. This is a God whose heart breaks over and over again, who cannot do other than love this wayward and stubborn people.

What a terrifying gift Hosea has offered us! If God has his heart broken, then what of us? This is, actually, the most profound invitation God makes. This is what Jesus came, in part, to teach us through his life and death: it is only through our broken hearts that we can come to new life, to new birth, to wholeness and holiness.

Again, David Whyte:

Alternatively, in a generous giving away, the parent can let their love for their child find a different form inside themselves, a lifting and a letting go that grants the father or mother a new emancipation of their own. The giving away of the child is the giving away of being a certain kind of parent which becomes the invitation to be parented ourselves, by the unknown; by a future we have to get to know again. We emancipate to be emancipated ourselves. files/Readers_Circle/Unrequited.pdf

God models for us that path to life: the allowing our hearts to be broken, the living and loving in such a way as to risk loss and betrayal and death, the inevitable stuff of our lives. If God loves in this way, then not only are we called to imitate that love, we will find God most profoundly in that love.

Amarelis and Lawrence, I was aware that there would be a baptism today, and I wondered whether it would be a good idea to center my sermon on the heartbreak of parenthood. I didn’t want to frighten or discourage you unduly. But I suspect you already know all of this. One of the reasons we baptize our children is to remind ourselves that our children are ours and simultaneously that we must let go of them, to prepare ourselves for heartbreak—AND to do that reminding in the context of a community that promises to support and aid us in that process.

I’m also aware that not all of you are parents, perhaps by choice, perhaps by circumstance, and this may be a source of pain or of freedom—or both. All of us have had parents, and there, too, the relationship may have been life-giving or destructive, strengthening or hobbling—and likely some of both. Whether or not you are a parent, whether or not your own parents were able to offer you what you needed, what we are offered here in Hosea’s poignant language for God is an invitation to a surrender like that of holy parenthood, of being willing to experience the irrational giving of oneself to a new life that will challenge you, and delight you, frustrate you, and yes, in all of the best ways, break your heart.

I’ll end with a Hasidic story and a little bit of Leonard Cohen:

A young man asked his rabbi why in Deuteronomy it says that the words of God were to be written “on” the heart and not “in” the heart.

“Because we are not ready for them to be written in our hearts,” the rabbi replied.  “But if they are placed carefully on the heart, then when it breaks, they will fall in.”  (Source unknown.)

And Cohen:

We asked for signs
The signs were sent:
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah, the widowhood of every government
Signs for all to see.

. . . .

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
(Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”)


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