Lectionary 17C (July 28, 2019)

Happy Sodom and Gomorrah Sunday, everybody! I love that the Lectionary pairs this scene with Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer. This scene is the perfect foil to any simplistic reading of Jesus on prayer. Life is complicated. God’s relationship with people is complicated. Abraham’s relationship with Sodom is complicated. He prays for the city, anyway. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, lives in Sodom. Lot and Abraham came to Palestine together from Babylon. They were both wealthy owners of livestock. They arranged that Lot would work the Jordan region. Lot set up his operations in Sodom.

            One day, God’s traveling with a couple friends and drops in on Abraham, has lunch with him. (Last week’s First Reading. God tells Abraham, “Remember how I love you and called you to be a great nation. Next year you will have a baby.”) As Abraham is sending God off for the afternoon, God decides, “I should tell Abraham what I’m going to do, seeing as how I made that covenant with him.” So, you get God’s statement in today’s First Reading: “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!” Abraham understands what is left unspoken: if the charges are accurate, I’m going to execute judgment.

            What exactly is Sodom’s sin? If we look ahead, we get an idea. God’s travel buddies head to Sodom to investigate. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, sees the travelers by the city gate and offers to house them for the night. The men of Sodom come to Lot’s house and demand that he let them rape his visitors. (This is horrifying, and it comes outta nowhere.) Lot refuses, pleading the rules of hospitality. (“They’re counting on me for a safe place. You cannot violate that.”) The men reply, “This fellow here is an alien, and he would play the judge. Now we will deal worse with you than with your guests.” Whatever outcry God heard, this is what we see and what God’s investigators see.

            Three sins leap out of the story. First, it’s rape. These are not consensual homosexual relations. Rape is about power and humiliation. The men of Sodom demand power, they seek to humiliate someone and make themselves appear stronger. The second sin we spot is this anti-alien attitude. The demand to rape the visitors has nothing to do with Lot being a foreigner. He was rich and insulated from trouble, but now that he is trying to prevent a rape, he’s an “alien.” It turns out, aliens, foreigners, immigrants, do not have security in Sodom. Finally, Sodom lacks what we might call Rule of Law. Lot appeals to basic hospitality conventions. The men don’t care.

            Abraham prays for this city. Why!? God sets the prayer in motion. God has promised faithfulness to Abraham. That’s gospel, that’s good news, to Abraham. God decides Abraham should know what is going to happen. God reveals even though destruction is in store for Sodom, God will not forsake Abraham. The gospel changes Abraham. God’s love draws us out of ourselves. God loves me. God loves you. Often, we act as if that’s that. But, God’s love draws us out. God’s love for Abraham involved emigration, family, and an as-yet-not-conceived child. It involved others. God draws Abraham out into the world. Now, Abraham sees, and he prays for a neighbor—not only for Lot, his cousin, but for the whole city.

            Abraham’s prayer—his famous bargain with God—fascinates and haunts us. Why does he stop at ten? It’s a revolutionary idea: a group of righteous people can save the rest of the unrighteous people. So, why stop at ten? Lots of theories, ranging from ten as an administrative unit to the rabbinic idea that Abraham should have kept pushing and because he did not, he did not become the sort of prophet Moses later did. Others say that the exchange leaves unspoken but understood that God would save the city for just one righteous person. We read this story as Christians. When Christians ask, “Can one righteous person save a city?” we answer, “Yes, of course. Christ can.” This text on its own is not about Jesus Christ. The author of Genesis had never heard of the guy. But Christians can see the figure of Christ here. Just like Abraham, we can pray for a righteous one to save. We call that righteous one Christ.

            We pray for Christ. In the Gospel of Luke today, we encounter Christ, teaching us to pray. It is prayer to draw us out of ourselves: ask that God be respected and that all people have enough to eat and know forgiveness. But there’s more. Jesus sums up his teaching, “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!” According to Luke, prayer, as Jesus teaches it, is that God send the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit. God in us and among us. God giving us the faith that God in Christ saves us. God moving us in the world. The goal of the Lord’s Prayer is that we be drawn out of ourselves and inspired to love our community. Whether that community is a congregation, a city, the world. Jesus takes the movement of prayer, from us to God, and turns it around from God to us. Our prayer is that God the Spirit give us faith that God the Son does everything for us, so that with faith we can by the Spirit do for our neighbor.

            Abraham prays for Sodom. He seeks the welfare of the city—now his own but a neighboring one, a city not filled with God’s people but filled nonetheless with people. What does Abraham say for us Christians? Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that as Christ was a light shining into the Old Testament and interpreting it for Christians, so also did that light shine back out of the Old Testament into the New Testament. Abraham’s prayer speaks to us citizens of heaven and children of God who are simultaneously residents of the United States with secular stuff to do.

            Abraham tells us we, readers of the Bible, have distorted the story of Sodom to claim it’s a condemnation of homosexuality. Whenever people distort the story like that, they become like the men of Sodom who distort what it is they really want. They want power. We want power. We don’t get it, so, maybe we blame the LGBT. We want a sense of power, so we’ll point out who is an alien, like Lot, and target them. We want power, so we’ll say to hell with the rules, like hospitality, and we will do what we please.

            That’s not all Abraham tells us, though. Like Abraham we have experienced God’s love, and that love changes us. It draws us out of ourselves. The Holy Spirit gives us faith and we pray because of that faith. We pray to Jesus Christ, who has already saved us. He points us into the community, to our neighbors, just as God pointed Abraham to his neighbors.

            You may know about an apartment house on Union Street here in Valpo, a house in such appalling shape that the Porter County Health Department ordered the landlord to vacate the premises, displacing the families who resided there. Valpo lacks any sort of official service for relocating families temporarily. The United Way, Housing Opportunities, Health Link, Churches in town, are all trying to provide temporary housing, clothing, transportation, for former residents who’ve lost everything. Their belongings weren’t safe to remove. God draws us out of ourselves. What do we pray? We pray that God the Spirit give us the faith that God the Son has done everything for us and thus we can by the Spirit do for our neighbor. Those are neighbors who haven’t done anything wrong.

            We can also love our neighbor even when our neighbor does not deserve it. On Thursday the US Department of Justice announced that it will resume executing Federal prisoners sentenced to death. The man first in line to be executed is a white supremacist who murdered three members of a family including an eight-year-old child. I’d probably lump him in with the men who wanted to rape Lot’s houseguests in Genesis 18. Which means I probably need to lump myself in with Abraham praying for this guy. And I am gonna be honest: that was not high on my list of things I wanted to do today. God draws me out of myself, and I find myself looking at this through the lens of the ELCA Social Statement on the Death Penalty. Says we oppose it for multiple reasons: it doesn’t address social causes of crime, it makes justice a matter of retribution, and it is not applied fairly because the race of the victim disproportionately affects whether the penalty is applied. So, I find myself, like Abraham, praying for Sodom.

            Because life is complicated, and so help me knowing Jesus doesn’t make it any easier. The guy loves everyone. I’ve tried loving everyone. It’s hard. I don’t do a very good job of it. But, by the Spirit I know Christ, and I know that while I have a terrible time loving just the people I know, Christ loves everyone including me and has done everything for me. And so I find myself called to do for others. Just like Abraham.