Sunday, July 29, 2007

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah

I have to be careful at what I say this weekend. I probably should be used to that by now. Some of you might remember a few weeks ago when I had to be careful about what I said about the story of Bathsheba and David. I had to remember to explain a story from the Bible that some might think of as being rated R in a way that G ears could hear. There are a few stories that are like that and others that are kind of tricky to navigate like when Paul says in the second reading today, “You were also raised with him through faith in the power of God…” Some of you are, undoubtedly, aware that this was a bone of contention between us and our Lutheran brothers and sister up until a few years ago when we put together a common declaration outlining where we agree and where we disagree on this subject. I hear several priests and catechists who, in explaining this and passages like it, articulate a perfect Lutheran explanation and fail to note Catholic nuances. I can hardly blame them, however, since it really takes a keen theological mind to navigate the waters of grace and salvation.

I’d be content if that was what scared me about preaching this weekend. But it’s not. What scares me is the first reading and the truths and untruths that surround it. It would be easy for me to sprint past it on my way to the gospel and simply never mention the terms Sodom and Gomorrah, or Abram and these three men/angels/God or any of that. But, being a person that simply cannot ignore the elephant in the room, I will do my best in coming to grips with this controversial experience.

First of all, let me give a brief explanation as to how Abram found himself entertaining angels. Earlier in Genesis we heard that Abram and his brother, Lot, lived too close to one another. Their servants and shepherds fought one another too often so God moved them to a more spacious land. God had them both settle in Canaan. It says, “Abram stayed in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked in the sins they committed against the LORD.” We read this passage not-all-that-long-ago in daily mass and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor Lot. Abram is promised progeny and great growing conditions while Lot is left to live in a town that makes the West Bank seem like the West Indies. So, a few chapters later, God is hearing some distressing things about what is happening in Sodom. Why is God surprised that evil is happening? We heard five full chapters before that “the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked in the sins they committed against the LORD.” To some extent, it goes back to the Old Testament belief that God can only take evil for so long. He wants us to repent, to seek to be forgiven for our transgressions. But, when we don’t do that, at some point God gives up on us and destroys us. So, he sends three Angels to go see if evil is really happening there and, if so, to destroy it. Our story today is intriguing, therefore, because had Abram not intervened there could have been a drastically different outcome.

Some of you may remember that two weeks ago I talked about my experience of Middle Eastern hospitality. Despite what is often portrayed in the media, when I lived in Israel and visited Egypt, I found that people were quintessentially hospitable. When you see a traveler, it is not just expected that you give water to him or her, but that you give them rest and a place to wash and some food as well. It’s part of their culture and very different from our attitude which tends to be more suspicious and fearful of strangers. Abram takes in the very angels sent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Had they passed by, there is every bit of evidence that they would have simply destroyed those evil cities including poor Lot and his family. But, instead, Abram stands up to God. Let me say that again because it is so foreign in our ears; Abram Stands up to God and challenges him. Who is Abram to challenge God’s morality? But that’s the very point of this story. Abram, undoubtedly, wants to secure the life of Lot and so he gets God to spare the fifty, forty or even just ten inhabitants that are living a just life. And, when the Angels go there the next day and threatened to be treated with sexual violence, a most inhospitable act by the inhabitants of those cities, God first clears out Lot and his family, the only just members of their society who didn’t give into sexual immorality, violence and whatever else was happening there, before he destroys Sodom and Gomorrah.

It’s hard for us to think that this whole thing could have ended differently had Abram not spent time negotiating with God. It took Abram’s persistence, the same persistence of the neighbor who from the gospel, in order to ensure that justice triumphed over vengeance, that right triumphed over wrath. I think both of these stories are trying to get us to see the real power of prayer, especially in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I think we set ourselves up for our prayers to fail all too often. Even though prayer is not magic and God is not a god that does whatever we want, we must still pray for, beg God for what is right. It doesn’t mean we are going to get the answer we want in the exact amount of time we want it. But, persistence in prayer shows God what is truly important to us and how important we think he is as well. If we stop asking, we not only show that we don’t really think something is important but we show God that we don’t trust in him. “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

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