Jul 24th | The Reverend Wendy VanderZee | Luke 11:1-10
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This is a sermon that I knew someday I had to preach but was dreading the possibility at the same time. It’s not so much the negotiation between Abraham and God that deterred me. There’s some potently preachable stuff there. It is the larger context of the story that I found intimidating. It’s that Abraham and God are specifically talking about whether to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. There’s a lot of baggage among many Christians having to do with those two cities.
It’s important to clear up some uncomfortable things right off the bat. God wanted to destroy the cities because of some reprehensible acts done there. Prevalent among them were their vicious inhospitality which included sadistic cruelty to beggars and visitors, their riotousness, and their greed. The other reason the Hebrew texts tell us that Sodom was eventually destroyed was because of hedonistic acts of pedophilia and rape of young men. Not, mind you, same-sex intimacy within a monogamous relationship as we commend it today, but specifically non-consensual and violent sexual assault. This is what happens in the chapters following today’s story.
In Genesis 19 that follows, two human-like angels that God sends to Sodom are welcomed by Lot. However, some men of Sodom surround the house with torches and weapons and furiously demand that the angels be given to them so that they can “know” them. In short, they wanted to torture and rape them.
Lot, not a man of great moral stature himself, was ready to offer his daughters to the men of the city as ransom for the two angels. In the nick of time, Lot and his family were rescued from certain doom. Sodom, by the way, is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “burnt,” and Gomorrah from a word meaning “buried,” references to their destruction, not to their sin.
Now that we have a better idea why God was intent on destroying these evil cities, we can focus on what is going on between Abraham and God and the petitions for mercy in the quest for justice in chapter 18.
The passage begins with God hearing the human outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah. There are no specifics about where the uproar came from, but we probably assume it came from either the sojourners who are being victimized by the oppressors, or from Lot and his family. It is interesting to note that verse 21 reads God saying,
“I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” From these words, it appears that the human-like creatures God sends are, indeed, angels who are God’s eyes and ears to the goings on.
Somehow Abraham is witness to this conversation and is also aware of the evil that is being done there. He fears what may happen to his nephew Lot and his family. Abraham also seems to be holding out some hope that there may be more besides Lot’s family who still honor God in those cities. Knowing that God is a God of mercy as well as justice, and that the outcries are indeed based on fact, Abraham takes it upon himself to bargain with God.
He comes to God and asks, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” In other words, will God incinerate a whole city if there are righteous ones among them? This is no rhetorical or theological question that is being discussed around a few beers. This is a question that Abraham wants answered here. Abraham enjoins God in a progression of hard-knuckle negotiating.
It’s this very process of negotiation that Abraham and God engage in that is so fascinating and so full of meaning for us who are trying to live out of our Christian faith and maintain a close, meaningful relationship with God.
We are all pretty familiar with the proceedings, Wendy read this morning. Abraham begins with fifty: “suppose there are fifty righteous in the city, will you sweep away the place and not forgive it for fifty righteous there?” God promises that he will not destroy the city for fifty righteous. Then Abraham goes down to forty-five, then, thirty, then twenty and finally ten. Each time God promises not to destroy Sodom for the sake of the number for whom Abraham intercedes.
First Abraham is bold and even confrontive as he addresses the Almighty.
“Far be it from you, God, to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
Then between each intercession for lesser amounts of righteous, Abraham, surmising that he started off a little too brashly, begins to grovel with increasing humility.
“Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes”, then “O do not let the Lord be angry if I speak,” and then, “Let me take it upon myself, once again, to speak to the Lord,” and finally, “O do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more.”
Only one question remains. How small could a community be to act as an illustration of a just and merciful God? Here, Abraham persisted until God agreed upon the number ten, which as we find out in the next chapter was not enough for God to refrain from destroying the city. It told us, as one biblical scholar deduces, what were the minimum number of believers necessary to form a community of faith and hold services at a synagogue.
For anything less than ten, Abraham knew that a community of the faithful could not be sustained under such pressures of conformity to sin. But God’s mercy did not stop at ten, because as we find out in the next chapter, God provides a way for Lot’s family to escape the inferno that finally came. All except Lot’s wife, who dared to look back in longing despite God’s warning and was turned into a pillar of salt. But that’s another sermon.
What can we learn as developing, maturing Christians from the dialogue between Abraham and the Almighty God?
There are several characteristics of prayerful negotiation that we can learn directly from Abraham. First, the demand or request must be specific and logical to be understood by both parties. Second, the person making the demands must exert a certain amount of humility and gravitas. Thirdly, and finally the intercessor must be persistent. Be clear and logical yet bring humility to bear, and don’t give up. Abraham, we will discover, showed all three in what amounts to be a model of intercession with God.
Let’s take them one at a time. First, the demand or request must be specific and logical. The need for specificity in the request is really about the pray-er and less about God. God already knows the particulars of the situation in which we find ourselves. God is definitely in the details. Rather it is important for us - for you and me - to know precisely what we are asking God to do or to influence. It is important for us to be able to formulate precisely in thoughts and, if necessary, words, what is in our hearts and minds that we want to bring to God’s attention. It is not a matter of God understanding what we want, but a matter of us coming to terms with and naming our own needs and desires. The more specific we are the more revealing and honest we can be with ourselves.
Secondly, when we make requests to God, we approach God, like Abraham, with an appropriate blend of confidence and humility. As much as we might try to imagine, we are not equals to God.
You may recall a scene from the movie, Rudy, the young man who wants to make the Notre Dame football team despite his comparatively diminutive size but which he makes up for with his intensity. He goes into the Notre Dame chapel to pray and demand that God, via the priest, find a way to get him on the football team. He meets the university chaplain, who, perceiving Rudy’s spiritual dilemma, says:
You know Rudy, I’ve learned two things in life that are certain. One there is a God, and two, I’m not him.
In our prayers of intercession and our approach to God in our private moments, we need to have a sense of our smallness, our utter insufficiency, and deficiency compared to the all-knowing, all-encompassing God of the universe. In so doing, paradoxically, it is God who, in the midst of our humility, lifts us up and treats us as we were God’s own children, which we are! God, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, makes us worthy!
Thirdly, in our petitions before God, again, with Abraham as our example, we are encouraged to be persistent. Speaking personally, this is my most irksome fault when it comes to prayers of intercession with God. Think of it in terms of the super-talented freshman on a major college basketball team with his eyes on the NBA. It’s the “One and Done” phenomenon.
I’ve made my request known to the pro team. They should know how good I am. They’ve seen the college tapes. Let my record speak for itself. The ball’s in their court.
In reality, I’m slothful.
Our persistence is not a matter of God forgetting or waiting to see if we really intend what we mean. Persistence has to do with our sense of passion about for which we hope and our compassion for those with whom we intercede. God, through his Son Jesus Christ, wants passionate and persistent followers of him. We learn form the Book of Revelation, that God detests luke-warmness. We are to be passionate and persistent in our dealings with God as much as in our mission with the people we are called to serve in the world.
God does not recruit “One and Done’s”, whether in prayer life or our daily walk with Christ. God wants those who stick it out for the duration, to learn from our mistakes and strengthen our resolve to learn and grow in our faith. Okay, I realize that I went from football to basketball and there are limits to a metaphor, but hopefully it’s sticking.
It is most important for us also to remember the entire context of Abraham’s series of petitions. Abraham knows that God is a God of justice and mercy. In this story and the one that follows we learn that justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin. One does not exist without the other. Abraham pleads for mercy for the sake of Lot and the remaining righteous because he knows that God is a just God and will not tolerate injustice and wonton wickedness. At the same time, Abraham knows - in fact reminds God - that mercy dictates that the innocent cannot be destroyed with the wicked. Abraham also knows that God always leaves room for the repentant sinner to have a change of heart, just as God himself repented of asking Abraham to slay his covenant son, Isaac, to prove Abraham’s faith. Justice implies mercy. Justice, in fact, demands mercy.
Of course, this is as true a claim on us as it is for God. God, who extends mercy to us, demands the same in our dealings with those who hurt or wrong us. In fact, the two are so intricately entwined as to be inseparable.
If you break a good law, justice must be invoked not only for goodness’s sake but for the good of your own soul. Justice may consist of paying a price for what you’ve done or simply of having the painful knowledge that you deserve to pay a price, which is payment enough sometimes. Without one form of justice or another, the result is ultimately disorder and grief for you and everyone else. Justice itself then is, in a sense, merciful.
Just ask Sister Helen Prejean, who in 1982 became the spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers who was sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. Told in her book, Dead Man Walking, and the subsequent movie of the same name, the Roman Catholic nun, in the months before Sonnier’s death, came to know a man who was as terrified as he had once been terrifying. She also came to know the families of the victims and the men whose job it was to execute - men who often harbored doubts about the rightness of what they were doing.
Sister Helen could not persuade the legal powers to find mercy and prevent the execution of Patrick Sonnier, but she did offer him an opportunity to confess his horrible crime and receive a different kind of mercy, that allowed him to face his death un-alone and unafraid.
In the ministry of Sister Helen Prejean, we find that justice itself is not without mercy. Just as Abraham bargained with God to save Lot and his family, we too may be called upon to demand mercy for the sake of victims who have been wronged and for the souls of those who have done the wrong. While justice does not always end in mercy, justice does make mercy possible. May we each come to know the depths of God’s mercy, and may we find our own capacity for mercy in our dealings with those we love, and with those who we find hard to love.