St. Philip Lutheran Church
24 July 2022 + Lect. 17c (Pentecost 7)
Rev. Josh Evans
“What I love about Nicole,” the letter begins. “She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things. She really listens when someone is talking… She always knows the right thing to do when it comes to difficult family [stuff]… She is a mother who plays – really plays – she never steps off playing or says it’s too much… She’s a great dancer… She’s brave… My crazy ideas are her favorite things to figure out how to execute… She’s my favorite actress.”
“What I love about Charlie… Charlie is undaunted. He never lets other people’s opinions or any set-backs keep him from what he wants to do. Charlie eats like he’s trying to get it over with and like there won’t be enough food for everyone… But he’s incredibly neat and I rely on him to keep things in order… He is very self-sufficient… He loves being a dad, he loves all the things you’re supposed to hate, like the tantrums, the waking up at night. It’s almost annoying how much he likes it, but then it’s mostly nice… He’s brilliant at creating family out of whoever is around…”
Cut to the opening scene in the mediator’s office, where Charlie and Nicole are now seated, attempting to settle their divorce amicably and without the hassle and expense of lawyers.
Marriage Story is a film that tells the story of a marriage that is falling apart. When Nicole decides she’s not going to read her letter of things she loves about Charlie out loud after all, and then abruptly storms out of the office, one thing is clear: Relationships are complicated and messy.
In similar ways, the book of Hosea is its own “marriage story,” best known for its drawn-out marriage metaphor, which we read today.
First, as a tangential but important aside: This is a marriage metaphor that is fraught with pitfalls and red flags in our 21st century context, where marriage and divorce are painful realities for many people. It is also only a small sliver of a much longer book, and it is impossible for any preacher to do justice to this book in one short sermon.
More than that, interpreted wrongly, Hosea’s marriage metaphor runs the risk of upholding patriarchal systems of dominance, inequality, and even abuse, as divinely sanctioned norms.
And the words used to describe Gomer and her children, as well as the land and its inhabitants – translated in our reading as “prostitution,” but perhaps more accurately meaning “adultery,” “promiscuity,” or “unfaithfulness” – also run the risk of perpetuating social stigmas and inflicting shame, particularly on women, in the vein of The Scarlet Letter.
It’s important to name these pitfalls upfront because: (1) Church history tells us that the Bible has been and continues to be interpreted in harmful ways in which it was never meant to be interpreted, and (2) I don’t believe that’s what’s going on in Hosea.
Instead, Hosea uses this metaphor of marriage and family principally to describe the special (covenant) relationship between God and God’s people – and how that relationship has been ruptured and is now falling apart.
In no uncertain terms, Hosea declares that the land and the people living in it have committed “great prostititution.” Something has gone awry in their special relationship with God. The people have been unfaithful – both in religious practice and in social welfare. Practices which are, of course, intimately connected in God’s law – and what Jesus would later distill as the two greatest commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor.
The people have been unfaithful. They have turned away from God’s law. Their relationship is in peril and unraveling quickly.
Hosea and Gomer’s marriage illustrates in a small way what God is doing in a big way. (Gale Yee, First Reading Podcast) Their children – or more specifically, their names – underscore just how seriously God is taking this broken relationship.
First, Jezreel calls to mind the bloody and deadly political ambitions and history of Israel’s monarchy, bringing the people face-to-face with the ways they have forsaken God’s covenant.
Then, Lo-ruhamah – “not pitied” – implies that God will no longer have pity or compassion for what the people have done to themselves.
And perhaps most dramatically of all, Lo-ammi – “not my people” – emphatically reverses the covenant God once made with them: “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
In no uncertain terms, this relationship is in trouble.
Yet, even broken relationships are not beyond redemption.
A year later, after their divorce is settled, Charlie, Nicole, and their son Henry are back together for Halloween in Los Angeles, where Nicole and Henry are now living with Nicole’s new boyfriend, and where Charlie has taken a new job, relocating from New York for at least a little while.
Just before the family gets ready to go trick-or-treating together, Charlie finds Henry in his room, sitting on his bed, and reading a letter he found – Nicole’s letter – out loud to himself. Charlie sits down next to Henry, who asks him to help him read. Only then do we get to hear the end of Nicole’s letter from the opening scene, as Charlie, holding back tears, reads, with Nicole now looking over his shoulder:
“I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him and I’ll never stop loving him… even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.”
It’s a poignant conclusion for a film that is honest about the pain of divorce. And it is so much more: Even as the film tells the story of a marriage breaking up, it also tells the story of a family staying together.
As unsettling as it is to hear Hosea’s prophetic words about his own marriage story – a marriage that stands in for God’s ruptured relationship with God’s people – this is only the beginning of the book, and the marriage metaphor is only a small part.
And yet, even in this small sliver of the first chapter, there is still promise: “The number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered, and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’”
Hosea is brutally honest about the state of this special relationship between God and God’s people. But Hosea is also quick to point out that God is, ultimately, a God who never stops caring and who never stops loving.
Hosea’s marriage story reveals “God’s passionate attachment to God’s chosen people, how this attachment makes God vulnerable to the agony of their unfaithfulness, and that God’s love for them will nevertheless endure.” (Pamela Scalise, Working Preacher)
Human relationships are complicated and messy. There is no denying the hurt and harm experienced by those who have gone through or been affected by divorce. And of course, not every divorce ends and gives way to a new kind of family relationship, like it does for Charlie and Nicole and Henry.
But therein lies a crucial distinction:
Charlie and Nicole’s marriage is a relationship between two humans. Even with moments of loving tenderness, humans are flawed, complicated, and messy.
Hosea and Gomer’s marriage is a metaphor for the relationship between humans and God. We are flawed, complicated, and messy. We repeatedly fail to uphold our end of the relationship, no matter how many times we try.
God’s love is different.
God’s love will not and cannot be bound to a covenant and whether or not God’s people live up to it. God’s love is so much bigger than that.
Where stereotypically romantic comedies or Hallmark movies often portray a wildly unrealistic, fairytale scenario of two people falling in love, Marriage Story tells the much more relatable experience of the messiness of our relationships – romantic or otherwise. They’re complicated and messy because we’re complicated and messy.
Even on the cusp of divorce, Nicole realizes that she’ll never stop loving Charlie, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.
Relationships are tricky. So is love.
Love is also resilient.
Even on the cusp of exile, under Hosea’s prophetic judgment, God never stops loving God’s people.
The prophets don’t sugarcoat God’s judgment, but they also don’t water down God’s love.
May we, too, remember this ancient and timeless truth:
God will never stop loving us, even if it doesn’t make any sense.