It’s a picture-perfect Sunday morning. You enter the gracious sanctuary on the town’s historic square, as you have every Sunday morning for who knows how long.
Then you notice an odd smell. You’re not quite sure what it is, but it’s either the world’s cheapest perfume or Walmart’s store-brand mosquito repellant. You follow your nose, and you find out that it is in fact the world’s cheapest perfume, and it is being worn by the woman who is reclining on the front pew, right in front of the pulpit.
Along with perfume, she sports a red tube-top, a black leather mini-skirt, black hose ripped out at the knees, and the worst bleached-blonde dye job since the golden age of Madonna. She introduces herself as Crystal Visionz — yes, “with a z,” she is happy to point out — and she and the pastor just got married on Thursday!
Up until this moment, the biggest controversy involving the young Rev. Alton “Sunny” Kirbysmith was the time he suggested the sanctuary thermostat be set at 72 degrees during Sunday morning worship rather than 74. The telephone lines burned up for a while there, but eventually things settled down, with no defections from the congregation and only a minor dip in tithing.
But now the place is coming apart at the seams. Nobody’s saying anything on the record, but some folks are pretty sure they’ve spotted Crystal hanging around some of the local hotspots unescorted.
Soon though, there’s what sounds like good news — Crystal is expecting! All is forgiven. There’s a baby shower, and the gifts just pour in.
But then the pastor and his wife have to go and louse it up again. After their first little boy is born, Sunny announces they are going to name him Crystal’s Jewel. And oh, by the way, Crystal’s Jewel is not Sunny’s son.
As near as anybody can figure, and Crystal is pretty fuzzy on the matter herself, Jewel is the son of a computer modem distributor out in California.
A second child arrives — this time the father is a used car dealer — but at least he’s local. Crystal names her daughter Unforgiven. And then a third, fathered by — well, Crystal wouldn’t even hazard a guess this time — and he is called NotMine.
Then, as suddenly as she appeared, to everybody’s relief and absolutely no one’s surprise, Crystal leaves the pastor, the church and the town to pursue the greener pastures of life in Atlanta, where, according to a reliable source, she is making $80 an hour hitting people with a whip.
The Good Reverend Kirbysmith leaves town for two weeks, finally managing to coax Crystal home with him. A couple of days later, a select committee from the congregation recommends, “At this juncture it would be appropriate for everyone to just make a clean break here and get on with our lives.”
But Rev. Sunny has one sermon left to preach. The church is packed to the rafters. The other churches shut down for the day. Everybody wants an explanation.
Will Sunny say he fell under the spell of this woman, that he was not in his right mind? Will he say his behavior was caused by a peculiar interaction of prescription drugs?
He stands right up there in that pulpit, and he says, “God told me to tell you that you are not His people. You are not His people any more than Crystal’s Jewel and Unforgiven and NotMine are my children. And God also wants me to tell you there is an explanation for me marrying a prostitute. It’s all to prove a point.
“See, I represent God, and Crystal represents the Church. All of you have sinned just as badly and just as brazenly as Crystal here. Not one of you is any better than she is. But God is willing to pay any price to forgive you and take you back, just like I took Crystal back.”
And then, as if to clear up any misconceptions anyone might have, he adds, “And remember, this isn’t ME saying this; it’s God!”
And with that Alton Kirbysmith leaves the pulpit and the church and our town forever, dragging along with him his trashy wife, his three illegitimate brats and, to hear him tell it, the word of God.
From a storytelling point of view, every time this reading from Hosea comes around, I have tried to come up with a more effective way of telling this story, or maybe something a little less risky. But there really isn’t one. Not for me, anyway.
There are not many easy or safe things to read about in our lectionary readings this morning. Just about any text is going to tell us something we don’t want to hear. We don’t like Hosea’s talk of conception and harlotry — the King James Version uses the word “whoredom.”
The verses in Hosea immediately following this reading, if they were found anywhere else but the Bible, would be considered pornographic by many.
We don’t much like this talk of prostitutes and the conception of illegitimate children invading the quiet, pleasant, heavenly world of our scripture readings.
But that’s part of the whole problem. We think that by cleaning up our language we are cleaning up our acts, and the message of Hosea is that we haven’t really cleaned up anything.
Jesus, speaking to His most devoted disciples, the ones who have followed Him everywhere, says, “Even you, who are evil” — I’ll bet they loved that — “even you know how to treat a person decently. You wouldn’t give a child dishwater when she needs milk. You wouldn’t give a kid a spanking when he needs a hug. Think of how much better God will treat you.”
Jesus says, you can get what you need from plain old people who don’t even love you simply by making a pest of yourself. All right then. Imagine how joyfully and bountifully your needs will be met by God.
Hosea never said that the life and behavior of his wife, Gomer, was ever anything less than wicked, shameful, sinful harlotry. But he never turned his back on her as his wife. Then he went to all the supposedly good, righteous people and said to them, “The bad news is — you are no better than this tramp wife of mine. The good news is, God will not abandon you. Because we are not talking about your goodness, your strength or your worthiness. We are talking about God’s love.”
And if Hosea could give the world this message of charity and love and forgiveness 700 years before the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what must God expect of us, here and now?