Thursday, July 28, 2016


homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Thursday, July 28, 2016, 10:00 a.m.

"Father knows best" ... not.
In the past week I’ve been inundated with surprising pastoral care situations. I won’t go into the details except to say that there was a common thread: strangers seeing my collar and then expecting me to be able to tell them exactly what God wants them to do.

I’ve been a priest for two years now, and I still find this a little surprising. It puts me in mind of what Karl Marx said about religion being “the opiate of the masses.” It shouldn’t be, but it can be. Wherever Christian leaders have taught people not to think for themselves, but to rely on others to do their thinking for them, trouble lies close at hand. This nurturing of dependence on other human beings is not true to anything that Jesus teaches us.

For Jesus taught us freedom—freedom that grows from love. How did he teach us? Through words, yes, but not with an instruction book, but with stories. Parables. Our education in the faith is actually best done in an abstract way, because each of us must live our own life and make our own decisions.

All of this plays into people’s various misunderstandings of what education is supposed to be in the first place. For instance, people who haven’t made much of an effort to read the Bible might feel as if they are not qualified to be helpful to others in matters of faith—guilt-laden, they’ll confess that they just don’t have the knowledge. This assumes that book knowledge is what makes one an expert. Book knowledge is helpful, but it’s not the only kind. By itself, it downplays the wisdom of our actual lived experiences of God. Book knowledge is a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom.

By the same token, our actual lived experiences of God usually need interpretation through the lenses of others to set them into a larger context. Book knowledge can help with this process—knowledge of various strands of Christian theology and how they might fit in with our individual situation. Wisdom comes through openness to all sorts of knowledge.

Is this how we become followers of Jesus? Didn't think so.
But in our culture today, book knowledge is the kind of education we usually think of first. Many people’s understanding of education is what I jokingly call, “open head, insert facts.” This works pretty well with math. But as a result, for instance, some parents choose not to let their children take communion yet because they don’t think the children have enough facts in their heads. Meanwhile, the most important knowledge of communion is experiential: Here is the path your baptism set you on. Here is community. Here is invitation and inclusion. Here is sustenance for your Christian journey. Here you are touching the holy. Here is love. The youngest children understand at least some of these things instinctively. Book knowledge will come later, but it will be inspired and informed by first-hand knowledge of the thing itself. We are not merely being educated, but formed.

From the font directly to the table
to begin experiencing Holy Communion.
(Source: Wikimedia)
I think our entire faith lives are like this. We don’t truly learn about things before we experience them. Rather, we experience things and reflect on them theologically. The task of Christian “educators”—and yes, I put that in quotes on purpose—is not to “open head, insert facts,” but to help people learn to draw close to the mystery of God. In Godly Play, that can be as simple as beginning a sentence with “I wonder …”

One of my favorite authors, Robert Farrar Capon, put it best:

Christian education is not the communication of correct views about what the various works and words of Jesus might mean; rather it is the stocking of the imagination with the icons of those works and words themselves. It is most successfully accomplished, therefore, not by catechisms that purport to produce understanding, but by stories that hang the icons, understood or not, on the walls of the mind.[1]

And this is why, at St. Paul’s, we refer not to “education,” but “formation.” My new title is Associate Priest for Adult Formation. My job is to help form faithful adults. I’m not the potter, but I invite people into the potter’s house for the sake of being formed under the potter’s hands. I can’t tell people what God wants them to do or become, but I hope I might inspire them to draw nearer to God and to discover holy freedom. Freedom in Christ means freedom to be fully human, with all the choices and responsibilities that entails, and with all the love that demands. How did the Mother Abbess put it in The Sound of Music? “A dream that will need all the love you can give/ Every day of your life, for as long as you live.” This is the Christian life.

And because this is the Christian life, and not just the life of a priest, this is your work, too: to nurture in other people freedom in Christ. True freedom doesn’t just mean we get to do whatever we feel like. True freedom comes with an awareness of our responsibilities to each other.

An image of God
(Source: Pixabay)
Our potter works with very willful clay. God will keep working to form us into something beautiful, even if we must shatter first and be thrown back into the furnace. As individuals, we are broken and re-formed into something new. But note that Jeremiah was not writing to individuals, but to the house of Israel. In the same way, the whole church is continually being broken and re-formed.

I believe that we are living in a time of the church being broken—not destroyed forever, but broken into pieces so that it can be cast into the furnace and re-formed into something more useful to a new situation. This doesn’t mean that everything we love about the church we grew up with must disappear. But it does mean that new things will spring up alongside the old. “Therefore,” says Jesus, “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Jesus’ parable of the net catching fish, which goes alongside this saying, is a parable of judgment. When God looks at what the church has become, God goes through and sorts the good from the bad—not necessarily good and bad people, but good and bad aspects of our souls and our systems. The church is being invited, every single day of our Christian  lives, to leave behind that which destroys and to embrace that which leads to a deeper love. In this way, we and the potter work to shape our clay. But if we willful clay jars sabotage the potter’s hand, the potter can still start over with us.

None of us is ever lost. None of us is abandoned. God does not disown God’s children. Rather, God has created us to live in freedom—freedom to make our own decisions, our own mistakes, our own triumphs. God’s hand is always guiding the wheel, and no destruction is permanent. Today I pray that we will remember this throughout our lives, and live and act from the reassurance and joy that comes with drawing ever closer to God, the potter. Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace

Monday, July 18, 2016

Let the Story Read You

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate for Adult Formation
The Seventh Sunday after Pentectost: Year C, Proper 11, July 17, 2016

source: Wikimedia Commons (artist unknown, c.1000)
Three visitors appear from out of the desert, and Abraham drops everything and runs to meet them. Bear with me for a minute while I pose a few questions. Abraham’s effusive welcome is a little surprising. I wonder if his knack for hospitality is one reason God has chosen him? When have I welcomed strangers into my home and fed them well?

Meanwhile, Sarah is in the kitchen dutifully cooking a lot of food for these strangers. Does she question the necessity of this feast? Is it common practice for the husband to stand while his guests sit and eat? As a guest, that would make me nervous. Is it typical for the wife to wait in the tent until the guests have eaten? Are the guests angels? Why are there three? In the original Hebrew, there are all sorts of confusions about singular and plural here, and our English translations sometimes fudge the distinction in order to preserve the narrative. Could the three be God, the Holy Trinity, perceived in some way many centuries early? Or am I reading too much Christianity back into Judaism?

How does Sarah feel to be addressed by name as she listens at the tent flap? In a moment she will laugh at the thought that she could get pregnant at her age. But she is also afraid. I would be too!

This stream of questions is the way I usually begin writing a sermon. I’m not just reading the Bible. I’m letting the Bible read me, letting the story draw questions out of me, putting myself into the story in some way. Do you ever do the same? It doesn’t matter whether the questions have answers. When we approach the Bible, we must engage our imaginations.

Erasmus Quellinus II & Adriaen van Utrecht,
Jesus in the House of Martha and Mary (17th c.)
source: Wikimedia Commons
In today’s gospel, Mary is sitting, not standing, listening to her house guest Jesus. My first thought is that the meal is over, and Martha is in the kitchen, but she isn’t listening at the door. She’s up to her elbows in soap suds, fuming that her lazy sister isn’t helping her do the dishes. Have you ever been Martha?

Meanwhile, Mary is listening with rapt attention to Jesus, her teacher. But I don’t imagine her to be silent. I think she’s listening, incorporating what she hears into her own experience, and then asking questions and giving her own perspective on things. The dirty dishes are the last thing on her mind. This is far more important, and she’ll be happy to do some scrubbing later, even tomorrow morning. No, of course the text doesn’t say this—it’s coming from my imagination. Have you left the dishes until morning because you’d rather chat with your friends? Of course you have. So have I.

You know what, though? This makes Mary too sympathetic a character. I think Martha isn’t washing dishes—she’s preparing the meal. Nobody has eaten yet. A living room full of people has shown up unannounced, and somebody has to feed them.  No wonder Martha is frustrated. And then, when Martha triangulates Jesus into her frustration—“Don’t enable my sister’s laziness! Tell her to help!”—Jesus takes Mary’s side.

Why does Jesus honor Mary’s behavior? Mary seems either oblivious or just downright lazy. Or maybe—maybe! she’s a well-differentiated woman. Let all the male disciples forage through the kitchen themselves. Jesus doesn’t require women to do all the background work; he calls all of us to a life of attention to God. Mary is training her focus. Martha will understand that when she has to, and not one moment sooner.

Mary wants nothing more than to be close to God, and she sees that when she is with Jesus, this happens naturally. What image do you have of the kind of person who is close to God? Someone who is somehow not a sinner? What does this even mean? Someone like the seemingly perfect person in Psalm 15, for instance? Who leads a “blameless life” anyway? But maybe Mary, in her focused attention, has figured out closeness to God. I just bet Martha is the older sister, brought up to be responsible. Meanwhile the younger Mary listens and trusts—like a child. Perhaps she’s practically still a child herself.

Jesus makes several references to children being especially receptive to the Kingdom of God. They receive it naturally because they listen and trust. They have to listen and trust, because they know they are not self-reliant.

It’s when we get older that we fool ourselves into thinking we are self-made people. That’s when God begins to feel authoritative but distant, and Jesus sounds well-intentioned but naïve (“Love your enemies?” What?!), and the Holy Spirit becomes a nice idea, but it’s not like we’re going to become radicals and let all this change our lives. After all, we’re adults, and we’ve got stuff to do.

I mean, just this week I was busy co-leading the music station at Vacation Bible School, and taking care of my daughter, and setting up a vet appointment, and going to the gym, and getting an oil change, and planning adult formation events for fall, and inviting conversation about racism on Facebook, and collecting Pokéballs on the front steps of St. Paul’s. Write a sermon? Hah! That means listening before talking. And I don’t have time to listen. I only have time to talk.

Singing together
 Meanwhile, all week, God was assailing me with opportunities to listen, most of them coming from the children at Vacation Bible School. We weren’t planning to teach the five-year-olds the Zulu lyrics to “Walking in the Light of God,” but there was little Lydia singing with perfect pitch and rhythm: “Siyahamb’e ku khan yeni kwen kos!” Then there was Allie, holding a drumstick like a baton to conduct a group of young percussionists and inspiring others to follow her. There was Declan’s declaration about VBS—“I don’t like it; I love it!” —which we promptly turned into a song. All week long, children were sitting at our feet, and we tried to show Jesus to them through stories and songs and crafts and science experiments and games and food and opportunities for service.

On Thursday I said to one group of grade-school musicians, “Today’s theme is ‘God calms.’ I think God calms us through music. And I have a story to tell you about that.”

A boy jumped in: “I’ve heard this story before!”

I smiled and said, “Oh, I really doubt that!” And I went on: “One winter’s evening I was driving home, and a huge ice storm hit. My car was sliding all over the road …”

The boy piped up again, “And you sang this song over and over again to help you get home. And now you want to teach us that song.”

“Oh!” I said. “Yes, that’s exactly the story. Did I tell the story last year when I taught this same song?”

Several kids smiled and nodded. Well! Would you look at that. They were listening. They remembered my story from a whole year ago, which is a significant percentage of their lives. And several kids from the next group remembered the story as well!

At noon the same day, there was a girl whose parent was a little late picking her up, something that inevitably happened to a few kids every day this week. Most of the other kids had left, not all, but this girl was sitting by herself, so I sat next to her. She told me she was feeling very anxious about not having been picked up yet. She thanked me for the song, which she had been singing to herself over and over until I came and sat with her. I told her that I was certain one of her parents was on the way. I also asked, “Do you see how many adults there are here who care about you?” “Quite a few,” she admitted. And right about then, her mom showed up—only about seven minutes late. But now this girl knows that God calms us with music, and she is reminded that she’s part of a big family here at St. Paul’s.

Storytelling in the nave
Say what you like about children never listening. They are the best listeners we have. We can’t always tell because they multi-task so well. And they won’t always do what we wish they would do, but doing and listening are very different things. They do, indeed, listen and incorporate what they hear into their life experience. When they’re in Godly Play, they listen and incorporate. And when they’re in the pews, even on days when they seem like a vibrating bundle of energy disturbing your personal quiet space in a room of 300 people … they are listening and incorporating even then. Are you?

During Vacation Bible School, this room was the storytelling place. That’s what we do here: we tell stories. We don’t read stories to ourselves. We hear them out loud, the way they were meant to be received. So don’t read the story. Let the story read you.

More storytelling in the nave
Make connections. Sarah and Martha both prepared feasts, maybe 2000 years apart from each other. We’re about to do something similar 2000 years after that. It’s not a lot of food, but it’s enough to help us conceive of this much larger family of ours. It’s a feast of bread and wine and blessing. The blessing comes through us all being gathered together and listening attentively to God. There’s a longstanding tradition of the priest giving a blessing at the end of the service, but it’s not necessary, because we have already been blessed through Holy Communion. When we gather here, we are preparing to receive a feast. We are making time to listen and receive.

Martha didn’t understand that listening is its own kind of hard work. When we’re really listening, we’re not just passively receiving, but struggling to incorporate new ideas and experiences, including experiences that are not our own and never can be. Stories come to us not only through the Bible, but through other people in our lives, and through the news, and everything we hear, from every source, is filtered through somebody else’s narrative. It’s up to us to decide how to fit it into our own narrative. What do we hear? How will we allow it to change us? Christ is at work in the hard work of our listening. Prayer means listening before speaking, and this will change us.

There’s an old joke about a priest who is nothing like me, but whom I admire greatly. She is asked by a parishioner, “How often do you pray?” The priest replies, “One solid hour every morning.”

Shocked, the parishioner continues, “But what about those days when you have way too much to do to spend a whole hour in prayer?”

“Ah,” replies the priest. “On those mornings, I pray for two hours.”

Let the story read you. Listen and pray. Amen.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Paraphrase of the Book of Job

Job by Bonnat (image from Wikipedia)
In hunting through my hard drive for resources for my next sermon, I came across something I forgot I had created in 2009: a brief paraphrase of the entire Book of Job.

The Book of Job is wonderful on so many levels, but it's really dang long. Think of this as the Cliff's Notes version. You can always go back to the received text to clarify and to learn more. Enjoy.


A Paraphrase of the Book of Job
© 2009 by Josh Hosler
(then Associate for Christian Formation at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA)

The Characters

Narrator: One day, Satan made a dare to God. He said, “That Job is a really good man. But I bet I can make Job curse your name.” God said, “OK, you’re on. Give it a shot.” That day, all of Job’s possessions were destroyed, and every last one of his children was killed. But Job wouldn’t curse God’s name. The next day, Job became covered with painful sores that wouldn’t go away. His wife said, “Just curse God’s name. Then maybe God will kill you and your suffering will end.” But Job had too much integrity for that. He refused to curse God’s name. Three friends came to sit with him for an entire week in silence. And after a week, Job spoke.

Job (in tears): What’s the point of life? I wish God would kill me now and get it over with.

Eliphaz (there, there): Suffering happens to all of us, but it’ll all come out in the wash. You may suffer for a little while now, but it’s just to remind you that God is in charge. Ultimately, you’ll be happy again because you’re a good person, and all the bad people will suffer eternal torment. We all get what we deserve in the long run.

Job (bursting out): Eliphaz, you’re no help at all! My experience alone is enough to prove you wrong. You call this “a little bit of suffering, just for now”? I have nothing left to be happy about, and I never will. And as for you, God: Leave me alone! Even if I’d done something to deserve punishment, this would be way too extreme. Why are you picking on me?

Bildad (reasoning): Look, Job, God doesn’t make mistakes. If it’s not your fault, then your children must have done something so bad that God punished them with death. Stick with God and trust God’s plan for your life. Eventually, you’ll get over this suffering and be happy again.

Job (impatiently): Shut up! I’ve heard all this before. Yes, yes, God is so far beyond our understanding, blah blah blah. How does this help me? I’m only human, so there’s nothing I can say to change God’s plans. Believe me: I’m innocent, and so were my children. Yet despite that, my life is ruined. Look, God, didn’t you love me once? You gave me a wonderful life, but I should have known there was a catch. Now comes the suffering. So why was I born at all? I insist—just kill me now.

Zophar (shocked): Be careful how you talk, Job! You think you know everything about God. But the truth is that, compared with God, you’re like a little worm. So get that chip off your shoulder. All of God’s gifts are undeserved, but if you stay faithful, everything will be all right. Only bad people will suffer forever.

Job (frustrated): Zophar, it sounds to me like you think you know everything. I wish you and these other two so-called friends would quit ridiculing me. God holds all the cards—not me, and certainly not you! In fact, I’ve had it with all three of you. Shut up and let me pray. OK, God: First, stop punishing me. Second, answer me directly. What have I done to deserve all this? You don’t know what it’s like to be human. Our tiny little lives may seem like nothing to you, but they’re very important to us. Is there anything for us after death? Is there any resurrection? That’s all I want to know.

Eliphaz (scandalized): Job, you’re trivializing religion and bordering on blasphemy. Do you think you’re the first person who’s ever suffered? Aren’t God’s promises in the Bible enough for you? You can’t deal with God on your own terms. That’s sinful, and God will punish you more if you keep on like this.

Job (desperately): Shut up! You should be comforting me, not blaming me. You don’t know what it’s like to be in my shoes. When I talk about my pain, it hurts. When I stay silent, it hurts. It all hurts, and I can’t make it stop! Then you come along and make it worse. Isn’t there anybody on earth or in heaven who will take my side—some attorney to clear my name? It’s only been a week, but everyone’s talking about me behind my back, and I’m sick of it. My only hope is in death. Death and I can be buried together, and you three can attend the funeral.

Bildad (the voice of reason): Job, we’re doing our best, and you don’t even appreciate it. Here’s the most important thing to remember: Bad people get punished. Don’t become one of them.

Job (angrily): I told you I haven’t done anything wrong! God is angry with me for no reason. Nobody understands me anymore; even my wife can’t stand my company! I’m the victim, yet everybody hates me. Can’t I even count on my friends to stick up for me? Quit trying to make me be good; I’ve told you I’m innocent. Worry about your own souls for a change, and be good to me.

Zophar (Sunday school teacher): Don’t you know the story of Adam and Eve, and original sin? We’re all tainted by sin. Not one of us is good—only God. Just pray that God will save you—it’s your only hope.

Job (irritably): Just listen for a minute; later, you can mock me all you want. I’m not complaining to you. I’m complaining to God, but God isn’t talking back. Why do people get away with murder? And all these powerful corporate executives make a living off other people’s suffering, but they never get punished. You might say, ‘Well, God will punish their children instead.’ But that makes no sense; they’re the ones who sinned, not their children. You keep insisting it’ll all come out fairly in the end. But how can anyone know that for sure? Look at all the genocidal dictators who died in comfort and peace and were given fancy funerals where people gave lying speeches about how wonderful they were.

Eliphaz (activist): But you keep drawing a distinction between bad people and good people. From God’s perspective, that distinction is meaningless. Besides, you lived a comfortable life for all those years when other people were starving in the street. That means you’re guilty! You were part of a corrupt system that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. And what did you do to change the system? You’d better submit to God’s will for your life and stop talking—it’s the only way God will save you now.

Job (determined): Whatever. I’m not budging. If I could, I’d bring a lawsuit against God. I’d put him on trial for crimes against humanity.  An impartial judge would clearly find me blameless. But where is the impartial judge? God will do what God will do, and I’m helpless! And I know I’m not the only one who has suffered … so why does God let so much suffering continue throughout the world? Murderers, sexual predators, burglars—they’re constantly committing crimes and not getting caught. They deserve this kind of suffering. But will it ever happen? From all I’ve seen, God’s disciplinary track record is not encouraging.

Bildad (supreme intellectual): God’s plan is perfect—you just can’t see it all yet! Even the imperfections are part of the picture, and we’ll all understand someday.

Job (sarcastically): Oh, thanks. Thanks a lot, O tremendously wise one. You’re so helpful. Now everything is fixed … look, don’t presume to speak as if you understand God’s plan any better than I do. What would you have to say for yourself if God really started talking? God has ruined my life, but I’m not going to compromise my integrity by telling myself comforting lies. Until God gives all the wicked people what they deserve, and takes back all the punishment that I don’t deserve, I won’t be satisfied. But that’s not how it works. Bad people prosper, and good people suffer, and it’s not fair. I suppose God is the path to wisdom, but … I don’t see how to get hold of that wisdom. Oh, how I miss my old life! What I wouldn’t give to have it back again, and the children I’ve lost! I did my very best—really I did. God, to whatever degree I deserve punishment, let me have it. But it can’t have been this bad. It really can’t.

Elihu (popping in from out of nowhere): OK, look. All of you are older than I am, and that’s why I haven’t said anything up to now. I figured the four of you would arrive at some kernel of wisdom eventually. But what have you proved with all your blustering? Nothing. None of us is any wiser than we were before all this happened. You three supposed friends, you’re all total frauds! Now it’s my turn, and I have a lot to say. Job, please hear me out and try to prove me wrong. You say you’ve done nothing wrong and that God is silent to your accusations. But God always answers in one way or another, even if the answer is silence. Or the answer might be pain and suffering. Or the answer might be … well, anything. Your best bet is to just keep praying. All our ancient stories come to this same point. Second: God is, by definition, good. God is not capable of evil. Ergo, you’ve got nothing to complain about. Why don’t you just apologize for having sinned? Confess, even if you don’t know what you’re confessing. You’ve gotten too big for your britches, Job.

Zophar: Who is this guy, and where did he come from?

Bildad: I have no idea.

Elihu (not hearing them, undaunted, building through self-assurance to a state of ecstasy): Third: What does it matter to God whether you’ve sinned? God is so great that you can’t possibly hurt him by your actions. God is not dependent on your actions. Fourth: It’s easy to pray when things are going badly. But do you remember to pray when things are going well? All the time that we’re going along with our happy lives, we forget to talk to God. So why should God rush to answer you when you finally pick up the phone and call? Look, Job. God keeps track of every one of us. Somehow God is in charge of everything, yet he still has time to take care of the smallest things. Frankly, this blows me away. Everything about God is so beautiful! All of this wonderful life is a miracle! Praise God! Praise God!


God (fed up): OK, I’ve had enough of this.

Zophar (in awe): It’s the LORD!

God (commanding): Job, stand up straight!  It’s time for me to cross-examine you. Where were you when I created the earth? Do you know your way around the cosmos? Would you know how to run it? Would the creatures I have made obey your commands? Can you provide enough food for all the animals on earth? I could go on and on, and I do for four chapters … but for now, let me just say: Will you try to make me a sinner so you can remain a saint? Silence!

Job (completely humbled): I’m speechless. I thought I understood you before. But I’d only heard about you—now that I’ve seen the real thing, well … I talk too much. I will shut up.

God: As for you three, beat it! At least Job was being honest. You were all telling sweet-sounding lies. Go home and pray for your souls.

Narrator: And they did. And immediately, God gave Job double the fortune he’d had before. Job and his wife had ten more children, and Job lived to the age of 140 in happiness and comfort. The end.


Some of the language in this paraphrase comes from Eugene Peterson’s The Message Remix (TH1NK Books, 2003).

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Hosea: Out of Egypt, Fruitfulness

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Hosea (image from Wikipedia)
“Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.” So begins our reading today from the prophet Hosea. And fruitfulness—or the lack thereof—is the major theme of this prophet’s book. Hosea lived in the 8th century B.C.E., around the same time as Amos. The two of them preached against the corruption that was rotting the northern kingdom of Israel during that time. The introduction to the book of Hosea says that he was a prophet during the reign of King Jeroboam of Israel and the reigns of four consecutive kings of the southern kingdom, Judah. Hosea’s book is relatively brief—only fourteen chapters, during which the prophet employs some shocking metaphors that can still trouble us today.

Hosea’s first prophetic act is to marry a prostitute named Gomer. And when she bears children for him, he gives the children prophetic names: Jezreel, which means “God sows”; Lo-ruhamah, which means “not pitied”; and Lo-ammi, which means “not my people.” These names are meant to display both God’s power and God’s disfavor with Israel. God says to the Israelites, the chosen people, “You are not my people and I am not your God.”

One theme that runs through the remainder of the book is that God plans to send Israel back to Egypt again. This is a metaphor, because the nation of Egypt does not literally enter into Israel’s story again. But God, who took Israel out of captivity, is perfectly capable of undoing this work. Assyria is the new Egypt; it will invade Israel and take its people into captivity beginning around the year 740 B.C.E.

The theme of prostitution, begun with Gomer, also continues throughout the book. Hosea proclaims that Israel has “played the whore” by worshipping idols. Hosea’s next prophetic act is to take a mistress, a woman who is already an adulteress. But God says that while this woman is to appear as Hosea’s mistress, she is not to have sexual relations with him. This is to show that “Israel shall remain many days without king or prince.”

Hosea’s prophetic acts trouble us because they are abusive. We can’t imagine God’s hand at work in the victimization of these women and children. We also don’t know how much of this literally happened, though it is true that the prophets of ancient Israel did some very strange things to make a point. Metaphorically, women and children are of the world of fruitfulness; without them, the men who were clearly in charge of society could leave no legacy, no lasting mark of their existence. In the same way that an Israelite man understood the fruitfulness of marriage and family, he could also understand God’s need for the people of Israel in order to make God’s actions fruitful in the world. It is through human beings that God makes Godself known.

One key wordplay underscores both the metaphor of fruitfulness and the metaphor of a return to Egypt, and that is the name Ephraim, which comes up again and again. Ephraim was one of two sons of Joseph, who had gone down to Egypt in the Book of Genesis and had established the presence of the Hebrews there … and in Hebrew, the name Ephraim means “fruitful.” By referring to the people of Israel as Ephraim repeatedly, Hosea sets up the irony that Israel is not bearing fruit after all. In chapter 9, just before the passage we heard today, Hosea lays the metaphor bare: “Ephraim is stricken, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit.” Ephraim was also one of the first Hebrews born in Egypt, so his name is of particularly fitting use to refer to a people who are in imminent danger of going into captivity again.

And so we come to today’s passage, in which Hosea talks of the fruit that Israel bore in the past. But the fruit Israel bore led the people not to give glory to God, but to themselves. And a new metaphor comes in: that of Ephraim as a trained heifer that must now get to work breaking the fallow ground to plant new seeds. For all his talk of “gloom and doom,” Hosea is actually a prophet of hope. Though Israel will fall to the Assyrians and the people will be scattered, God will not give up on the chosen people.

And Christians can pick up an echo of Hosea’s hope in today’s gospel passage, in which Jesus sends out the twelve apostles to proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Like the twelve tribes of old, Jesus has handpicked a new twelve to break up fallow ground and to begin planting seeds. Jesus intends to do away with the idolatry in our hearts, not through punishment, but through the ultimate sacrifice of self-giving love. God loves and cares for God’s people and will go to any length for us, no matter how often we turn to the idols of self-reliance.