Where Do You Draw the Line?

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(sermon 6/14/20)

Genesis 18:1-8, 16-33

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. …

Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 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.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you 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?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

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In Islam, Jews and Christians are called “People of the Book” – people of the holy scriptures, the sacred texts, that were the forerunner to, and that laid the groundwork for, their own sacred texts. It might be even more accurate to call us “People of the Story,” since so many of our sacred texts are actually stories. The power of story is immense. These stories are usually powerful in themselves, and carry important messages in their own, individual rite. But we also need to see that the individual stories are strung together to convey some larger, even more important, message.

That’s certainly the case with the portion of Genesis that today’s scripture readings are part of. Today, we heard two connected stories about Abraham, just two parts of the overall story of his life that point to a larger message being conveyed. In today’s first reading, we hear about three travelers who stop to visit with Abraham. It isn’t really explained in the story exactly how Abraham knows this, but somehow he just knows that he’s being visited by God – maybe it’s God accompanied by two angels, or maybe all three of the travelers are collectively God – maybe an Old Testament precursor to understanding God as Trinity. We don’t really know which is the case, but suffice it to say that somehow, when these travelers arrive Abraham understands he’s in the presence of the divine.

And when they arrive, Abraham extends them great hospitality – he invites them to sit and relax, he brings them water to clean up with, and he asks if they’re hungry – “Oh, let me get you a little snack” he says – and then, he goes to Sarah and tells her to get some flour and bake up something special for the visitors – and apparently, plenty of it; he tells her to get three measures of flour, which is about a five gallon bucket full of flour; more than they could possibly eat.

This degree of how far overboard Abraham goes – almost to cartoonish levels – is intentional, and important. It’s meant to drive home how important it is, and to what lengths we should go, to show hospitality to, and to offer help and support to, others who are in need. Part of the message of this story is to teach us that we need to think in terms of this kind of extravagance when considering people’s needs, and to have this level of care and compassion for others. We need to think beyond just helping to fulfill a person’s basic, minimal needs, and to make sure that, as much as it’s within our ability to do so, to care for them and to help meet their needs abundantly.

But the story continues. After Abraham and the three travelers have eaten this feast, they’re sitting in the shade of a tree, letting the meal settle in. Maybe God’s sucking on a toothpick and offers a polite little belch of contentment as they’re relaxing and enjoying the beautiful day.  But as they’re getting ready to get back on the road, there’s something on God’s mind, something disturbing the contentedness of the moment. And finally, God comes clean and tells Abraham the purpose of their travels. They’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah, and they’re going to destroy the cities because of their evil and their unrighteousness. That’s all that we’re told here; God doesn’t offer any more detail about what that unrighteousness is – but we get clarification from the prophet Ezekiel, in the 16th chapter of his Book, when he explains that the “sin of Sodom” was that they were arrogant, full of self-pride; they were overfed, taking up more than their fair share of things, and they were unconcerned with the needs and suffering of others. They didn’t help the poor and needy. In other words, their attitude was the exact opposite of the extravagant consideration that Abraham had just extended to the travelers, and that point was meant to be seen by readers of this story.

And as you heard, when God tells Abraham what’s about to happen, Abraham is perplexed. Upset. Surely, he’s been to these two nearby cities many times. His brother Lot and his family live there, and he surely knew others who lived there, too. And he knows that they aren’t all bad – there are some good people there, too, at least in Abraham’s estimation, and so he has the audacity to enter into a bargaining session with God. Surely, you wouldn’t destroy the whole city if it meant killing, say, fifty innocent people as “collateral damage” in the process, would you? And God says No, I wouldn’t kill fifty innocent people. And Abraham presses his case: “You wouldn’t permit the unjust killing of forty-five people in your larger pursuit of justice, would you? And God say No, not forty-five, either. Well then, Abraham says, how about forty innocent lives? Would you consider that an unfortunate but unavoidable trade-off to achieve your bigger plans? And again, God say no, not forty. And it went on and on, all the way down to ten, when God says that even if the rest of the two cities deserved destruction, still, God wouldn’t go through with the plan if even as few as ten righteous, innocent people would be killed in the process.

Among other things, this story is an expansion on the issue of where God’s mind is with regard to extending consideration, and hospitality, to people.

In our lives, so much of our existence deals with trade-offs. Grey areas. Compromises, choosing the lesser of two evils. Living on this side of the gates of Eden means we’ll always end up having to deal in those kinds of compromises. We end up drawing lines of acceptable death somewhere all the time. When a bridge is built, it’s assumed that, say, two construction workers will get killed during the work. But the bridge still gets built; the legal and insurance costs related to that are just factored into the cost of construction. It’s the same with skyscrapers, and on and on all the way down to the most mundane of our consumer items. Sometimes, we’re conscious of the trade-off, and other times we aren’t, but whether we are or not, we’re still drawing those lines in our choices.

Of course, right now, as a society we’re caught up in two different questions of compromise – two different kinds of the calculus of death”: first, considering what number of people who will die as a result of reopening our economy and resuming large gatherings in the midst of the ongoing pandemic would be an acceptable trade-off for the sake of the economy and getting back to normal – normal, at least, if you aren’t one of the dead ones. And second, in a situation maybe more directly  like the Abraham/God bargaining session, how many deaths of innocent people are an acceptable trade-off in the pursuit of justice, in this case, the pursuit of having a safe community by way of policing – and again, “safe” assuming you aren’t one of the innocent ones who gets killed.

So where do we draw the line?

Wherever we draw it, I suspect that God would want us to draw it in a different place. I think it’s pretty clear that when it comes to where we “People of the Book,” we “People of the Story” have currently drawn those lines, the God who we profess faith in – the God who calls us to exhibit the same extravagant compassion and hospitality as Abraham; the God who would destroy entire cities for not extending that kind of compassion and hospitality to people; the God who nonetheless would call off those plans for destruction if it would result in the death of as few as ten innocent people – that God would be disappointed, even appalled, where our current society has drawn its lines.

It’s so hard to know what to think, she thought to herself as she sat in her kitchen. All those protestors yelling and chanting and blocking the streets, and certainly there had been some violence and vandalism, and that was terrible. But still, the protestors had a point, and it just turns your stomach to see the videos of those people being killed by police officers. Police officers! What in the world is going on in this world? Police officers are supposed to protect and serve, and why all of these terrible killings? Lord knows the police have a difficult and dangerous job. Like that nice young man whose family had moved into the neighborhood this past year. Dan was his name; he’s a police officer. He and his family had actually started going to the same church as she did, and she’d had a chance to get to know him as she spoke with him there a number of times. He was a nice man, a friendly man – a good man. And he was definitely having a hard time right now, working long hours as all the protests went on, every day, all day, and every night.

Just then, her oven timer beeped. She went over to the oven and pulled out the cookies she’d been baking. After they’d cooled a bit, she carefully stacked them in a plastic container, and on a piece of tape on the lid she neatly wrote the name of Dan, the police officer. Inside, she’d written a note that said “You have a difficult and dangerous job. I hope that as you carry out your important work, you’ll  do it with care and compassion for the people you are trying to protect. May you have a blessed and safe day.” That should be a nice gesture, she thought. I hope he’ll appreciate it, and it will give him a little boost, and let him know he’s appreciated.

As she thought about having gotten to know Dan at church, she also thought about Simone, a young African-American woman who went to the same church. Simone had grown up in the church, actually; she was baptized there as an infant and had been there ever since, through all the years. The woman had known and loved Simone almost since the day she was born. Now, Simone was a young woman in her twenties, and now she was one of the protestors, out in the street every day demanding justice for the innocent people who have been killed by police – victims of individuals, to be sure, but even more importantly, victims of an entire policing system that was inherently plagued by systemic racism. In fact, Simone’s own 14-year old cousin was an innocent victim of one of those killings.

It’s just so hard to know what to think, she thought. Yes, there are many good police officers out there – people like Dan – but there are many who aren’t too, way too many who aren’t, and the policing system is obviously terribly flawed. She didn’t have all the answers to how to fix things, , but still, she knew that the current situation had to change – this just isn’t right. Too many innocent people are being killed.

Just then, the oven timer beeped again, and she pulled more cookies out of the oven. These went into a container, too – this one with Simone’s name on it. And inside, she’d written a note: “You’ve suffered terribly, and for way too long. This situation is wrong and has to change. I hope that you can achieve that. May you have a blessed and safe day.”

And so may we all.

Amen.

Talking with God (sermon 7/28/13)

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Genesis 18:20-33

Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 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.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you 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?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

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Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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I’ve mentioned a couple of movies in the past few weeks. Here’s another one. Maybe you’ve seen the movie “Bruce Almighty.” Without getting into all the details of the movie, Jim Carrey plays Bruce, a cocky TV news reporter who’s having a really bad run of luck. And in the midst of all his problems, he thinks that he could do a much better job of being God than God is apparently doing, at least from his viewpoint. So, as can only happen in Hollywood, God shows up, in the form of Morgan Freeman, and gives him his chance – Bruce is now God, and the real God is going to take a long-overdue vacation. One of the first dilemmas Bruce faces is dealing with all the prayers that he’s constantly hearing in his head, prayers for all sorts of things. With his God-powers, he quickly converts the prayers in his head to a sort of heavenly prayer email system on his computer, but he gets inundated with millions and millions of prayers that pile up faster than he can answer them.  

Have you ever wondered how God keeps track of all the prayer requests? I have. How does God find a way to reply to each and every prayer, even prayers that ask for contradictory, opposite things? With all the prayers from people starving to death, or dying of some dread disease, or having some other life-threatening crisis, do you think God gets annoyed about prayers that some sports team would win their game, or for a politician to win an election, or for a promotion at work, or to just be able to lose ten pounds before the upcoming high school reunion? I don’t know the mind of God, but personally, if I were God, I think I’d get pretty ticked off about those kinds of prayers that would just seem to be clogging up the system.

Both of today’s scripture readings deal with prayer, or at least people talking with God. Prayer is the central, primary way that God uses to commune with us, and to transform us, to make us more fully agents of the reign of God in the world. In the gospel text, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, as if they hadn’t already been praying their whole lives, and Jesus offers them Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. Simple, to the point: pray for your daily sustenance, ask for forgiveness for your shortcomings, and to be saved from the time of trial. Life’s basics. And Jesus assures them that God will indeed hear and answer our prayers. All through the gospels, and especially in Luke, we read about Jesus’ prayer life. How he would regularly go off by himself, alone, to some secluded and quiet place, to meditate, and pray, and commune with God the Father. As busy as Jesus was, he made the time to get away and pray. It wasn’t in place of the communal worship that he still did in the Temple or in the synagogues, as a good, devout Jew. And it wasn’t in place of his studying of the scriptures, in order for him to teach and preach. This was in addition to the rest of that. This was time for him to connect with God, to let God hear his deepest thoughts, and to hear God’s guidance in return. Jesus taught his disciples that this kind of meditating on God, and praying to God, was absolutely essential to their relationship with God. And this deliberate, intentional setting aside of time on a routine basis to mediate and pray and be in this kind of communion with God is essential to each of our lives of faith, too. The early church fathers called this time “holy leisure” – a time set aside from the rest of the day’s activities, something that creates a sense of balance in our lives. It’s a way to be at peace, and to learn more about God by appreciating the intricacy and beauty of creation and of our human relationships. Jesus teaches us that we need to have these times of “holy leisure.”

But that isn’t realistic, is it? I mean, we all have busy lives. We all have work commitments, and family commitments, all kinds of things that keep our daily calendars completely filled. We can’t just tell people that we can’t do this or that thing, or take on that commitment or another, because we have to carve out an hour a day to just sit in contemplation and prayer. Plus, it just sounds kind of weird. We’re all just too busy; we can’t do that. Can we? In light of the terrible damage caused to us by our constantly busy lifestyles, the psychiatrist Carl Jung once said that “Hurry is not *of* the Devil; it *is* the Devil.” And maybe he was right.

The next time we’re upset, feeling like we’ve been praying for something and God hasn’t answered our prayer, maybe we should ask ourselves if maybe God’s been answering us all along, but we just haven’t placed ourselves in a position spiritually to hear that answer. Maybe we haven’t drawn off to that quiet place away from all the surrounding noise, where we can hear God’s voice speaking to us. Maybe we haven’t allowed ourselves to be open and willing to accept the changes within ourselves that God’s answers might actually require. So it’s like we’re a television that’s only hooked up to basic cable, and God’s answers to our prayers are that great movie showing on HBO that we can’t get. It’s really right there, all around us, it’s just on a frequency that we aren’t set to receive. And then we get discouraged and say that God hasn’t answered our prayers. We have to pay attention to our dedication, and our discipline, of taking time out for meditation and prayer, and just as importantly, being willing to hear God’s answers and accepting whatever change in ourselves those answered prayers will require.

The idea that God most definitely hears us, and is willing to grant us what we ask – that God is even willing to change his mind in order to grant what we ask – is seen in the passage we read from Genesis today. Abraham and God and the two angels are sitting together, communing with one another in the shade of a grove of oak trees, when God and the angels have to leave. They’ve got work to do; God has decided to destroy the city of Sodom due to its great wickedness and sinfulness. What exactly was that sin; that wickedness? We’re never really told in the actual account in Genesis, but we’re told in Ezekiel 16 that their sin was that they were prideful. They lived lives of great prosperity. They had abundant food and other material things, but they didn’t use them to help the poor and the needy in their midst. The sin of Sodom that had caused God’s anger against them was that the people were self-centered and greedy; they didn’t extend compassion to those in need.

And of course, it’s in this passage where we find the great story of Abraham’s bargaining, haggling with God in order to save the city. Abraham makes his case to God, playing on God’s sense of fairness. Surely, you wouldn’t destroy the good along with the bad. Would you bring an end to the city if there were 50 good and righteous people within it? If there were 45 left? If there were 40 left? And he keeps bargaining God all the way down to God agreeing not to bring an end to the city even if there were only ten good and righteous people left within its walls. God answered Abraham’s plea. And God answers our pleas, too.

But we know the rest of the story here; the part beyond what we read today. We know that God’s answer came with a twist that Abraham hadn’t really expected. God agreed not to bring an end to the city if there were any good and righteous people left within it – so God’s angels went to the city and told all the good people to leave, to get out of the city – and then the city, emptied of its good people, was brought down. And just as God’s answer to Abraham came with an unexpected twist, often times the answer to our prayers come with unexpected twists, too.

And following God’s direction had to be scary for Lot and his family. Put yourself in their place: God called them all away from the only way of life that most of them had ever known. A good, prosperous life, a happy life, a familiar life. And now, they were being told to leave it all behind and set off in a new direction, and fast, before it was too late. Don’t pack up the silverware or Grandma’s dishes; no time to grab the wedding album or the shoebox full of family photos. Just go. Everything they knew and valued and cherished had to be left behind. No looking back; no idolizing the past; Lot’s wife was our warning not to do that, I suppose. The places they worked, and shopped. The home they’d lived in, and the place they worshiped God since they were children, all gone now, with God leading them away from that past and into a new, uncharted, unfamiliar future. It had to be terrifying for them, to be sure. But because they allowed themselves to be open to God’s voice, and because they accepted the changes that God’s word required of them, they were able to respond to God’s call, and they were saved. They survived, even if the city didn’t.

Accepting that kind of challenge was scary for Lot, and facing that kind of challenge from God is scary for us to face, too. But we can be confident that if we do make that time in our daily schedules to sit and meditate and pray and commune with God, we already have within us all that it takes to be faithful, and open, to hear whatever God’s answer to our prayer is, and to be strong enough to accept whatever changes that answer might require within us. We were given all that we need to do these things in our baptism. We have been given the strength and the boldness of God’s own Holy Spirit, working within us and making us able to do those difficult things. We don’t have to be superhuman; we don’t have to have any great willpower. Just the opposite, actually. We just have to set aside our own pride, and humbly allow God’s Spirit to work within us.

In the midst of “Bruce Almighty,” Bruce ends up losing his girlfriend – who, with all the subtlety of a brick, is named Grace. He wanted to get Grace back, and he was clinging onto all sorts of wrong-headed ideas of his own to get Grace back in his life by way of exercising his Godly superpowers. But in the end, all his efforts were a failure. And he finally set his own agenda and his own selfishness aside, and he came to the understanding that he loved her so much that his prayer to God was that all he wanted was for her to be happy and to have a good life, with or without him. Whether it looked like his picture of the way things should be or not. Whether it worked out to his personal benefit or not. And *that*, God told him, was a real prayer. Of course, since this is a movie out of Hollywood, as soon as Bruce has this epiphany everything is set right. His life turns completely around for the better, and he gets Grace back. But as far removed from Hollywood as our own lives are, if we open ourselves up through meditation and prayer and communion with God, if we humble ourselves and we’re willing to open ourselves up to the unexpected twists in God’s answers to us, if we’re willing to accept the changes that it might require of us, then we really will hear the answer to our prayers. We really will hear the voice of God speaking to us. And just like Bruce, we’ll have grace in our lives, too.

 Thanks be to God.