“Loyal to a Fault”

Rev. Steve Goodier
Christ United Methodist Church, September 12, 2004

Scripture: Hosea

Steve Allen quipped, “I’m loyal to a fault. I’ve got a great many faults and I’m loyal to every one of them.”

Baseball fans will recognize the name Don Sutton. He pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Houston Astros, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Oakland Athletics and the California Angels. “I am the most loyal player money can buy,” he said.

Let’s talk for a moment about loyalty. I have been preaching a series of messages on the “Fruits of the Spirit.” We’ve talked about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and gentleness. Today we’ll look at faithfulness.

The life of Hosea, a prophet of Israel, is a study in loyalty. His unusual life is built on the theme of loyalty faithfulness. God told him to marry a young woman named Gomer. But the worst part of it wasn’t her name, but the fact that she was a prostitute. NOBODY, particularly a prophet, would consider such a marriage. Virginity was prided in the culture and Hosea’s parents certainly had another young woman in mind for their son to wed.

But he married the prostitute and Gomer soon gave birth. Hosea named his son Jezreel, after the valley. The name gave Hosea preaching material. “God will be avenged for the Jezreel,” he’d say, reminding people of the lives lost there during battle.

Prophets often acted symbolically, and to give their children unusual names was not unheard of in Israel. (Ask Isaiah, who also bestowed weird names on his children.) But these names became stranger as Gomer had more children.

Gomer made no secret of the fact that she was seeing lovers, and Hosea was clear that the child was not his. So he had a powerful preaching theme: “The Lord, too, is married to an unfaithful lover,” he’d say. “The Lord is your groom and you, O Israel, are his bride. Yet you visit the temples of Baal and worship him in your homes. You have forsaken the Lord for your idols and lovers.” It was good preaching material, but Hosea couldn’t have been pleased with his family life.

They soon had a daughter that Hosea had likewise not fathered. He gave her the popular name “Not Loved,” for he would not love the child of a prostitute. And he had more preaching material: “Because you are unfaithful, O Israel, I will not love you,” says the Lord. “You once were loved, but you will now be ‘Not Loved.’” (Maybe his preaching didn’t draw huge crowds, but he made an impression!) The infidelity did not cease, and Gomer had third child, a son. The child was not Hosea’s and he named him descriptively, “Not My Child.” And now he had more preaching material: “You were once my people,” says the Lord, “but you will be called ‘Not My Children’ for I will no longer be your God.” You get the pattern here.

Gomer eventually left Hosea and the kids to be with her newest squeeze, and the prophet thought he was rid of her. But God couldn’t let that go, either. The Lord told Hosea to find Gomer and bring her home as his wife. Neither he nor his children wanted her back. He no doubt reminded God that he humiliated himself by marrying a prostitute and his children with their strange names were the laughing stock of the neighborhood. Besides, he had every right to divorce her and walk away…or to accuse her of her repeated infidelity in front of their friends and neighbors and invite them over for a stoning party. She had already gotten off pretty easily for her indiscretions. Bring her home? As his wife? He’d never be able to hold his head up again in polite company.

But God insisted, and Hosea, as usual, obeyed. He found Gomer at a slave auction. She had fallen on rough times. Her lovers no longer wanted her. She was homeless and penniless (shekeless?). Finally, she had sold herself into slavery so as not to starve. Hosea came up with the money and bought her freedom, then took her home.

And his preaching suddenly changed: “O Israel, though you have turned away from me, I will not forsake you. I will bring you again to myself and love you.” Hosea then changed his kids’ names and built on his new preaching theme: “O daughters of Israel, you were once ‘Not Loved,’ but I will call you ‘Loved.’ And sons of Israel, you were once ‘Not My Children,’ but you will forever more be ‘My Children.’ For you are my children whom I love, and I am your God. I will always be faithful to you.” It was good preaching stuff, to be sure, and Hosea’s family life took a significant upward swing.

Any of us can understand faithfulness. It is at the highest form we declare to one another as we marry. The faithfulness of a parent is essential to children if they are to grow up to become trusting, happy adults. Any of us can understand faithfulness. Even animals!

Let me tell you a true story about a cat, named Mehitabel, and the boy who wants to win her love, Andrew. This cat is about as affectionate as a cactus. She goes to great lengths to avoid a young boy who loves her. She would rather sleep the day away in one of her many hiding places scattered throughout the boy’s house than be near him. And on one of those rare occasions when she makes an appearance, he can forget about touching her. If he never has anything to do with her, that is all right by the cat.

Andrew tries his best to be nice. He looks for his cat, searching the house for an occupied hiding place, and feels abundantly grateful if he should stumble upon his treasure. He is occasionally allowed to stroke her once or twice before she flits off. He even feeds her, hoping to eventually win her confidence and perhaps even a bit of affection. But he is seldom rewarded with anything like attention.

Andrew decided to try a new tactic. He composed a love letter and left it by cat’s food dish. This is what it said: “To cat (he couldn’t spell Mehitabel!): I love you. Before you love me I will love you more. Love, Andrew. Meow!” “Meow” was his way of establishing some rapport with the cat….

I have no report as to whether or not the letter helped, but maybe that’s not the point. It’s never about getting results, it’s about doing the right thing. It’s about being faithful, that’s all.

Senator Mark Hatfield visited Mother Teresa in Calcutta. He saw her home for the destitute dying. He encountered poverty like he’d never before imagined. He witnessed long lines of people waiting for medical attention. Overwhelmed, he asked her, “How can you bear the load without being crushed by it?” Mother Teresa replied, “My dear Senator, I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful.”

It has always been about being faithful. It’s never just about results.

There are few things more important than faithfulness. That is no doubt why Paul identifies it as a gift of the Spirit. Faithfulness is at the heart of God’s character. It is also a necessary part of all healthy relationships. Children need faithful parents. People need faithful friends. It is at the very core of trust, and trust is vital to our very survival. Like Mother Teresa, we are each called to be faithful.

We forfeit our friends and families when we forfeit faithfulness. In her book Small Sacrifices, (Signet, 1988) Ann Rule tells of the story of a mother who was unfaithful to her three children and consequently lost everything.

Diane Downs rushed to the emergency room covered in blood. She screamed that her children were in the car and had been shot. She said she’d stopped to help a hitch-hiker who pulled a gun and shot all three of her children in the head and torso. Her five-year-old daughter died. Her 15-month-old son Danny was paralyzed and would certainly suffer psychological trauma. Her six-year-old daughter Christie suffered a stroke, some paralysis and, like Danny, psychological trauma.

Police immediately scoured the area for her assailant. But the investigation eventually turned from the search for an elusive killer to the motive why a mother would try to murder her own children. Diane apparently had been having an affair with a married man named Lew. He was not interested in being with her when the children were around, so, the prosecution later postulated, Diane decided to eliminate her children in order to keep Lew.

During the saga, one man took a genuine interest in her children. He was Fred Hugi, the prosecuting attorney. Hugi was married, but they had no children. He had always said that he never liked them and had nothing to do them. But all that changed when he visited the hospital to see Danny and Christie. His eyes filled with tears at the sight of Christie. She could not move, but she made eye contact with the lawyer. He fell hopelessly in love with her.

Hugi visited her several times a week. She was eventually given to caring foster parents and the attorney continued his visits.

Over a year after the incident they finally went to trial. The most solid evidence against Diane came from her daughter Christie. She told a horrific tale about the frightening events of that night. She was afraid of her mother and needed reassurance that she would be safe if she testified. She told how her mother had shot all three children – Danny on the floor of the car, her sister in the back seat and she in the front. She described in detail her fear, shock and disbelief. When asked why her mother would do that Christie replied, “Maybe she loved Lew more than us.” Christie was asked, “Do you love your mother?” She thought for a moment and answered, “Yeah.” (She couldn’t pronounce “yes” because of her stroke.)

Diane Downs was finally convicted and is serving time in the Federal Penitentiary. Her children continued to live with the same foster family for two more years.

This sad story of a mother’s faithlessness doesn’t end here, however. It takes a wondrous and beautiful spin. For both children were eventually adopted by a caring family committed to raising and loving them, regardless of their long-term special needs. It was a couple who didn’t have any other children of their own and wanted to be faithful to Christie and Danny for the rest of their lives. They were adopted to Fred and Joanne Hugi – the prosecuting attorney who fell in love with Christie the first time he saw her fighting for her life in a hospital bed. This family chose to go the distance, to keep faith with two small children when the world had been so unfaithful.

The most sincere expression of love is faithfulness. None of us is called to be successful, neither are we called to be the best. But, rather, each of us is called simply to be faithful, as God is faithful to us. Those who are loyal to a fault know something of the heart of God.

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