[Texts: Genesis 8:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 8:26-39]
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee. Amen.
We have before us today a tale of two cities– two cities for whom it was indeed the worst of times. We all know their names: Sodom and Gomorrah.These two cities’ names have been enshrined within our culture as a metaphor for everything that can possibly be wrong with any city. We hear about Sodom and Gomorrah from street preachers who yell and wave their bibles around and try to scare people. We hear about Sodom and Gomorrah from alarmist internet articles about the supposed decline of our society as a whole. Their names are invoked quite often, usually in a way that’s meant to frighten people into repenting so as to avoid God’s wrath.
The eventual fate of Sodom and Gomorrah is generally what the angry Bible-wavers and frantic article-writers are trying to warn us about– a story we’re probably all familiar with. All of that takes place in Genesis chapter nine– just after the story we read today.
But what about this story in chapter eight? It’s not nearly as familiar or famous as the destruction narrative it precedes. But I’d argue it’s just as important, if not more so.
Today we have this weird little story about Abraham– yes, that Abraham, as in “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham”, the artist formerly known as Abram– and a conversation he has with God. Well, not so much a conversation as an argument, really.
Well, not so much a conversation as an argument, really. Take a look.
Abraham approaches God and says, “Okay, God, I get that you’re really upset with these two cities, and I totally get why. They’re full of jerks. But what if there were fifty people living there who are righteous? Surely you wouldn’t destroy a city that had fifty righteous people living in it, right?”
God says, “Well, I suppose not.”
Then, the story gets even weirder. Instead of quitting while he’s ahead, Abraham continues arguing with God! He keeps whittling the number down, and each time, God agrees. What if there are forty-five righteous? Forty-five isn’t that much smaller than fifty? Is forty-five okay? What about forty? Thirty? Twenty? How about ten? Is ten good enough?
“Sure,” God says. “I’ll keep my lightning bolts to myself if there are even ten righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah.”
I wonder what in the world got into Abraham to make him feel empowered to argue with God– and keep arguing with God.
Perhaps it was one of those situations we all get into from time to time when we say one thing we shouldn’t have, and we realize we’ve stepped in it, but then for some reason, our mouths just keep moving and words keep coming out of them, even though we can hear our brains are telling us, “Just shut your big mouth! You’re making it worse! Please shut up!” (This is a near-daily occurrence in my life.)
And Abraham isn’t just telling God he disagrees with His plan to destroy these two cities– he’s telling God that he thinks it’s unjust, out of accordance with God’s nature, and just plain morally wrong. “Blasphemous” might even be a good translation.
Abraham is arguing with God about what justice is, and all but telling God that He’s acting unjustly, not merely stating a difference of opinion or making a suggestion.
Remember that this isn’t Righteousness-R-Us we’re talking about– it’s Sodom and Gomorrah.
Do you remember that famous line in the first Star Wars movie, when Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Luke Skywalker, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy!” Obi-Wan is, of course, talking about Mos Eisley, a totally lawless spaceport town that’s run by mobsters like Jabba the Hutt, and filled with criminals and miscreants. “Wretched hive of scum and villainy” is a pretty apt description of Sodom and Gomorrah at the time our story takes place. And, not only are they collectively a hive of scum and villainy, but they’re well-known for being so. “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah,” begins our reading, “and how grave their sin!”
Was Abraham surprised to hear himself arguing on their behalf? I would imagine so! He’s taking the side of the scum and the villains!
And yet, here’s Abraham, arguing passionately with God, using very strong language, demanding that he spare their lives. I wonder whether he surprised himself that day. The citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah aren’t exactly the good guys here. Why is Abraham pleading their case?
You know, I’m not entirely sure this conversation happened for God’s benefit, or to change God’s mind. I think God’s heart was already merciful, already kind, already loving. I think it was Abraham who needed to have this conversation– it was Abraham who needed to realize that, yes, he was really willing to storm Heaven on behalf of these people.
It’s important to note that this story isn’t about people whom we would generally characterize as oppressed or marginalized.
Don’t get me wrong– the plight of the oppressed is extremely important to God. Those who are despised for no reason, trampled on, and mistreated are often cast as the focus of the Gospel message– and rightly so.
But that’s not what we’re dealing with in Sodom and Gomorrah.We’re talking about people who have objectively done something wrong. The Prophet Ezekiel will later describe the sin of Sodom (and presumably also Gomorrah) as pride, lack of charity or hospitality, coldness of heart, and a disdain for the poor and needy. These are not the oppressed but the oppressors, not the wronged but the wrongdoers, not the victims but the perpetrators. These are not people for whom many of us would easily be moved to feel compassion and sympathy, even the most progressive among us.
It is vital and necessary for us to be able to say that black lives matter, gay and lesbian lives matter, transgender lives matter, immigrant lives matter, and Muslim lives matter.
But it is equally vital and necessary that we be able to say that addicted lives matter and felons’ lives matter. The lives of politicians whose platforms are genuinely abhorrent and terrifying matter. The lives of those who make their living exploiting others matter. Aren’t preachers who spew hate and prey on fear also God’s children? What about racists and xenophobes of all stripes– the Westboro Baptist Chuch, for example? What about members of organizations like Al-Quaeda and ISIS?
We must be willing to plead with God not only on behalf of the poor and the downtrodden but also on behalf of those who have objectively done something wrong. We must be willing to plead the case of those whom we might be tempted to classify as the villain.
A drunk driver who needlessly and negligently took a life, a thief, a drug kingpin, a child molester or domestic abuser, a murderer sitting on death row– these are God’s children too, right?
These were the kinds of people living in Sodom and Gomorrah– the people whose case Abraham took before the Almighty and said, “Now see here! These are Your children too! Don’t their lives matter to you?” These are the people whose case Abraham pleaded– and whose case God was willing to hear and show mercy.
Many people read this story as a battle between God’s justice and God’s mercy, two seemingly-opposed forces that are in opposition with each other. One must prevail in any given situation. I think that’s a perfectly fine exegesis– there’s definitely something to it.
But I am reminded of a letter I received from a very wise friend recently. In the letter she was responding to, I had asked her how she understands the concept of justice, as part of an ongoing theology discussion we were having. She had much to say on the subject– all of which was brilliant– but one sentence has remained imprinted in my mind: “In this season of my life, God’s justice is mercy.”
What if, by casting some people as the villain and others as the “good guys,” we’ve missed the point– and, indeed, missed the humanity of many of God’s children?
What if the point is that God sees goodness in all of us– inherent goodness– that goes beyond our actions, and calls us all to see that in each other?
What if God wants us to see in each other what He sees in us, and it’s only through our conversations with Him that we are able to see that.
What if the point isn’t whether justice or mercy will win out in the end, but that God’s justice and mercy are one in the same. God does not judge sin out of a lack of mercy, but to bring about redemption and amendment of life for the sinner. God does not show mercy not because He is not just, but because, as my friend so astutely put it, “God’s justice is mercy.”
And finally, whose case might we be called to plead?