Readings: Gen. 18:20-33; Ps.138; Col.2:6-15; Luke:11:1-13
In one of the most extraordinary passages in Genesis, that most remarkable first book of the Bible, Abraham admonishes God concerning the AlmightyÔ^└^┘s intentions for the city of Sodom. Abraham stands before the Lord and says, "Wilt Thou destroy the righteous with the wicked?Ô^└ŽShall not the judge of all the earth do right?" Many of us smiled as we heard those words readÔ^└^ďand it is a charmingly na├»ve scene at first hearing, is it not? We may imagine this exchange in many ways, of course, but the text asks us to see Abraham speaking to the Lord God as an embodied presence with whom Abraham could argue and even bargain for the fate of the city on the plain. The words of Abraham have penetrating intensity however we imagine them offered: Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?
Imagine it! God and Abraham are standing on the heights above the city in the hills. Below them, the citizens of Sodom go about their business in blithe ignorance of the entire discussionÔ^└^ďnot that it would have made any difference to them. The Lord of Hosts has told Abraham what will happen because the God has already decided (as presented in Genesis, chapters 12-17) that Abraham needs to know GodÔ^└^┘s intentions because Abraham has been chosen as the one through whom the knowledge of God and the blessing of GodÔ^└^┘s presence will come into the world. Because of GodÔ^└^┘s decision to let Abraham know the divine purposes, Abraham is in a position to challenge GodÔ^└^┘s plans and actions regarding Sodom.
As we read this text, we must admit that we have learned to think of the sin of Sodom in light of the material in the next section of the narrative, chapter 19. There, the narrative presents a truly horrifying scene of decadent violence which involves a proposed violation of the desert hospitality code so heinous that another hideous crime is offered as an alternative and lesser offense. Lot defends his male guests from gang rape by offering to give his daughters to the same fate so that the law of hospitality not be broken. The common tradition for some time has been to focus on the sexual violence that the men of Sodom wish to commit. We have come to concentrate on the male/male sex element as somehow intrinsic to the story, and look past the real core, which is the inherent violence involved, whether it be aimed at the male guests or LotÔ^└^┘s daughters. In doing this, the text gets misinterpreted in several ways, much to our detriment as a society and to the great harm of many of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and to women generally. In Gen.19, both Lot and the citizens of Sodom view some group of people under LotÔ^└^┘s care and within their larger social matrix as objects who may be offered up to violent behavior. But we must remember today that we are not there yet in our reading.
So, without getting sidetracked into how Genesis 19 has been misread and misused, I want to say that it is worth noting that the sin of Sodom is not made explicit in our text today in chapter 18. Indeed, there is no coherent view of the sin of Sodom to be found in the references by the prophets later on. Read Isaiah, Amos, Exekiel and Jeremiah and youÔ^└^┘ll see my point. The martyred Roman-Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, hardly a liberal on the interpretation of Scripture, once preached on this text saying that the sin of Sodom should be understood as the human lust for material goods and pleasure, and not be read narrowly or with a specific behavior in mind. So, whatever comes later in chapter 19 must be read there and then. The archbishopÔ^└^┘s view helps us to focus on the dialogue between Abraham and God in the text for today.
The argument Abraham advances to stay GodÔ^└^┘s decree is not that Sodom is less bad than God believes, but that there may be righteous people there whose death would be a crime against justice, an action that is not worthy of God. Abraham does not say that Sodom is worth saving; but instead, that Sodom is not worth destroying outright because it would cost God too much. The lavish language of polite petition and the attitude that Abraham adopts should not blind us to the enormity of his undertaking: he is challenging the God of power and might to be a God of justice and even generosity. And God agrees.
There are few other moments in the history of Western thought in ancient time as important as this. The only parallel I can think of is the great debate on the nature of justice in "The Eumenides" the third play in the Orestia trilogy by the Greek tragedian, Aeschylus, written perhaps as much as a millenium later. We learn from our text today that Abraham brings God to say that while God may do whatever God wills to do, God wills to be bound by a new view of justice and mercy based in individual lives. The old idea of corporate responsibility is replaced here by the decree that it is better for the guilty to live than for the innocent to perish. This principle is embodied in our own legal system now. We say, better for 10 guilty ones to go free than for one person innocent of the charge to be convicted. That idea was born when Abraham argued with God for Sodom. So, for the sake of a few, many would be spared.
Other than an amusing and perhaps encouraging folk tale, what does this text enable us to see and understand about our relationship with one another and with God?
We do not know, as Sodom did not know, who intercedes for us with God. Think of what that means! People pray for us, by name and collectively, they may know us or not, and those prayers make a difference. Just so, our prayers make a difference. We may not see where, how, and when, but our prayers matter.
We offer prayers for others and are prayed for by others as we areÔ^└^ďa mixed bag of motives and behaviors the mixture of which is a reality as complex as Abraham cites for Sodom. How much good is in us, is worth arguing for, is worth reaching out to?
Prayer is never truly offered in the form of an action memo to God, but as a petition delivered in humility but with the confidence that comes from being able to say that God is responsive, compassionate, and just to each and to all, exemplified by the ministry, atoning death and saving resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is what moved the disciples to ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. They wanted to pray well so that they could pray effectively.
Jesus gives them what we call the LordÔ^└^┘s Prayer, but might better name the LordÔ^└^┘s prayer program. I find that I offer the LordÔ^└^┘s prayer in many times and placesÔ^└^ďsome of which are not moments of reflection, but times of fear and anxiety, like a verbal worry bead. Better than curses and apoplexy, but not a meditative high point, either. Every time I ride a plane, for example, I say it. Sometimes when I am stuck in traffic I say the words as a substitute for others when I am frustrated at slow vehicles. Or I race through it at a hundred miles an hour as part of my prayer life. None of those moments are quite what Jesus had in mind. You can no doubt recognize similar uses of the prayer in your life. The words are a substitute instead of a springboard and outline they were meant to be.
In preparing for today, I came across several versions of questions to ask in the course of praying the LordÔ^└^┘s Prayer. Since for me, especially lately, it has become important to look at my prayer life within a framework and vocabulary familiar to friends of Bill W and other 12 step programs, I have reworked the meditative questions into a form that is helpful to me, and I offer it to you today.
Questions to Meditate on Concerning the LordÔ^└^┘s Prayer
If my faith has no room for others as they are and their needs as they are, How can I say "Our"?
If I do not proclaim our common human relationship with God to everyone in my daily living, and if I do not offer myself to have a relationship with others, what do I mean when I say "Father"?
If all my interests and pursuits are rooted in earthly things and values and I do not pursue spiritual peace and joy, what do I mean by "who art in heaven"?
If I am not devoted to GodÔ^└^┘s purposes, seeing and appreciating holiness wherever it appears, what do I mean by "hallowed be thy name"?
When I am unwilling to accept God's dominion in my life, asking God to shape my personality and to remove all defects of my character as God sees them, do I really mean "thy kingdom come"?
If I am resentful of not being in control and work against the good that is in me and the possibilities that life is offering me, not letting go and letting God work, do I really mean, "thy will be done"?
Unless I am truly ready to give myself to God's service here and now, what do I mean when I say, "on earth as it is in heaven"?
What do I mean if I pray "give us this day our daily bread", without an honest effort to take responsibility for my life and relationships one day at a time, or if I withhold from my neighbor what I could share in goods and in the good news of the risen Christ?
If I hold grudges or wonÔ^└^┘t let go of my past, what do I mean when I say, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"?
If I will not let God to uphold me where I am and will not admit that God knows me as I am, what do I mean when I say, "lead us not into temptation"?
If I am not fighting evil with my life and prayer, how can I say, "deliver us from evil"?.
How can I pray "thine is the kingdom" if I am unwilling to obey the King?
How can I pray "thine is the power and glory", if I am seeking power for myself and my own glory first ?
How can I pray "forever and ever", if I am anxious about letting God be the Lord of all people, things and situations here and now, just for today?
How can I pray "Amen", if I do not honestly mean, "cost what it may, this is my prayer"?
Help me, Lord Christ, to pray as you did and to receive the serenity that is yours: Take my life and, let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee. AMEN.
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