Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
This Sunday (24 July) I was filling in for the rector of the Anglican Parish of North Essa in the Diocese of Toronto. Essa is a region of farm country set in rolling hills, between the city of Barrie to the east and Canadian Forces Base Borden to the west. The two churches of the parish are little gems of rural ministry, filled with warm and welcoming folk. I had a great time. I'm not sire what they thought of me. For some reason, I felt called to preach on Genesis 18, where Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of the few righteous who may live there. A wiser preacher might have avoided the text altogether, but I suppose I felt the need to say a good word on behalf of the Old Testament / Hebrew Scriptures, a voice that isn't always heard in the church these days. MP+
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?” (Genesis 18:25)
This Sunday our Old Testament reading and our Gospel both tell us something about the God we worship. Our first reading from Genesis 18, which precedes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, shows us what we might call the God of Justice. To use a theological word, God is righteous, he is opposed to wrongdoing (sin) and he wants us to be opposed to it as well. However, because we often find this side of God to be intimidating, we have a tendency to avoid the Old Testament, because we don’t believe that the God of Justice can also be the God of Love. Some Anglican churches even cut the Old Testament from their Sunday readings of scripture. It’s not uncommon to find Christians who say that they want nothing to do with the Old Testament God who seems like a stern and merciless judge who would execute whole cities and peoples. The New Testament God, represented in the love of Jesus, is far more acceptable to many Christians. The problem is that both our readings this morning, Genesis 18 and Luke 11, show is the same God, a good and loving God who is engaged with the world, who loves us despite our sin, and who wants nothing more than to show mercy.
I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let me ask you to take part in a little experiment to find out what we think about justice and mercy.
Let’s say that you’re driving along a busy highway, say the 400 on Friday afternoon, wit everyone headed to the cottage, and you see car recklessly driving at twice the speed limit, changing from lane to lane without signalling, and putting others at risk. How would you feel? Would you feel irritated or even angry? Why do you think you would feel angry?
So, let’s go on and imagine that a few minutes later as you keep driving, you see that same car pulled over by the police. How would you feel now? Would you feel satisfied, or even pleased? Why do you think you would feel satisfied?
Now, let’s say a week later you read in the paper that the judge lets this driver off with a warning. He could have had been stripped of his driver’s license and lost his car, but the driver says he’s sorry and the judge says fine, don’t do it again. Now how do you think you would feel?
According to a Harvard psychologist named Joshua Greene, morality is something that helps humans to cooperate with one another and thus to live together. When we see someone behave in a way that is selfish, whether it’s cutting into a line or driving recklessly on the 400, we naturally want that person to be punished, because selfish behaviour makes it hard for humans to cooperate and live together. Our society depends on people agreeing to wait their turn in line, or driving sensibly.
I think the same thing happens sometimes with religion. We have a code of behaviour that that comes from the bible and is based on things like the ten commandments. That code of behaviour allows us to tell righteous and sinful behaviour apart, and helps us to live as God wants us to live. The only danger is that, like the good drivers on the 400, we can have an instinctive, gut-level desire to see the sinful punished.
I’ve been thinking about this since I saw some photos that were taken in Cleveland last week during the Republican Convention. As you may, protestors of all stripes and convictions came to Cleveland to demonstrate, including Christians.
In one of the photos I saw, a man is holding a sign warning America that God hates sinners, including adulterers, thieves, drunkards, and sodomites, to repent before they face “Hell Fire”. Next to him another man holds a sign that says “Stop Being a Sinner and Obey Jesus”.
Signs like these are a gift to atheists because they fuel the perception that God is hateful and Christians are intolerant, and these signs reflect a particular error that some Christians fall into. I think there is a special temptation in religion for faithful people to identify themselves with the justice and righteousness of God, and who call on God to punish the sinful. I am guessing that these protestors want the sinful to repent, or else I don’t think that they would carry those signs. However, because these Christians focus on a God who hates sin, they make God himself out to be hateful and horrible. This is an error because it is makes it obscures the love of God that we see clearly in Jesus, thus making it harder to preach the gospel, and exposes the believer to the toxic and corrupting power of hate itself.
In Genesis 18 it is true that we see a God who hates and punishes sin, but we need to put that in context. By this time in Genesis, God has a special relationship with Abraham, whom God has rewarded because of his goodness and faithfulness. God has promised to turn Abraham’s descendants into a great nation, Israel, which seems unlikely given that Abraham and his wife Sarah are elderly and haven’t produced many descendants. Just before our passage in Genesis, three mysterious visitors, perhaps angels, visit Abraham and promise that Sarah will give birth, and she laughs in disbelief, God replies, Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? (Gen 18:14). So God as we see him here is a God who loves the faithful and wants to bless them.
The problem is that the people of the nearby cities of Sodom and Gomorrah don’t love God and don’t love good. As the three visitors leave, it’s as if God takes Abraham into his confidence. To read a few verses back before today’s lection, 16 Then the men set out from there, and they looked towards Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19No, 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.’
So God explains that he is going to punish Sodom, and a conversation ensures in which Abraham appeals to God’s sense of mercy? Will you destroy the whole city if there are fifty good people living there? What about forty five? What about twenty, or ten? In this conversation it’s as if we see God struggling between his desires for justice and mercy. It is a conversation similar to the one in Exodus, when Moses pleads with God not to destroy the people of Israel because they have turned away from him to worship the golden calf (Ex 32:11-14). The difference is that whereas in Exodus God agrees to spare Israel, in Genesis he only finds one righteous man, Lot and his family, and so Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed.
It’s important to note here that we don’t know what exactly the sins of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are. Based on one verse (Gen 19:5b), there is a tradition in Christianity of assuming that the sin was homosexuality, and so we have a very ugly English word, sodomite, which is fortunately falling out of use. As our General Synod this year reminds us, Anglicans are slowly moving away from the idea that homosexuality is a sin, and in fact, the bible seems to say that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was that its people lacked hospitality. Whereas Abraham in Genesis 18 receives God’s messengers as honoured guests, the people of Sodom try to attack and harm them. In Matthew (10:5-15), when Jesus sends out his disciples and tells them to depend on the hospitality of strangers, he warns that it will be worse for those who turn the disciples away than it was for Sodom and Gomorrah. So if there is any sin that these two cities stand for, it is a hatred and denial of God and what he stands for, which is why God punishes them.
Now it may well be terrifying to think that we worship a God who would obliterate whole cities, however wicked they may be, just as it is uncomfortable to think about Noah’s flood. However, it is worth saying that God never does this again. Luke tells us of a time when the disciples are turned away from a village, and they ask Jesus to call down fire. We are told that Jesus rebuked the disciples, because he was heading to another place, Jerusalem, where the people would call for his death, and where, from the cross, he would plead with his Father to forgive them, for they did not know what they were doing. Here we see the God of Justice but also the God of Love. Unlike Abraham, Jesus does not ask his Father to spare Jerusalem for the sake of fifty righteous men, or even five. He just says, Father, forgive them. Forgive them all. So God forgives, and he does more than that. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God opens the door so that all may be saved.
In today’s gospel, Jesus teaches his followers to pray, not only for themselves, but for all the world. He teaches us to pray to God that “thy kingdom come”. When we pray “thy kingdom come”, we pray that God’s justice will come to fix all the things that are wrong because of human sin. When we pray “thy kingdom come” we pray, like Abraham, for God to spare the world. We pray that God will set right the world where inhospitality persists, where the poor go hungry and the rich grow wealthier. We pray for a world where rich countries turn away the refugees. We pray for a world where cities are still burned and destroyed, except that God does not destroy them, we do. Before we are outraged at a God who could destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, we need to ask ourselves, did God destroy Coventry, or Dresden, or Hiroshima? When we watch the news and see the destroyed cities of Syria, the refugees fleeing the wars of the Middle East, and the drowned children washing up on the beaches of Europe, we need to ask ourselves, did God do this, or did we do this? If we are honest, we will say that we humans did these things, as we have always done them. If we are honest, we will admit that the God of Justice has the right to hold us accountable for these things, and even to punish us for them.
Fortunately for us, the God of Justice is also the God of Love. Our job as church, as it has always been, is the same as Abraham’s - to pray on behalf of the world, to ask God in our prayers to spare us and save us from our sins and from ourselves. When we pray the Lord’s prayer, and we pray to God these simple words, “thy kingdom come”, trusting, like Abraham, in God’s promises to save us and the world from our sins instead of treating us as we might deserve.
As I said at the beginning, it is natural that we should want to see justice upheld and people punished. It’s natural to feel glad when we see that speeding car pulled over. However, I too have been pulled over. I have also received speeding tickets. I’m not always a good driver and I can’t afford to be too smug. The gift of our faith, I think, is that while we are grateful for the justice of God and while we long for the coming of God’s kingdom, we also know that we are dependent on the mercy of God, for without the love and mercy of Christ, which of us could stand before the throne of judgement? Our worship teaches us this each Sunday, when we confess our sins together before we approach God’s table, where we don’t deserve to be, and yet where we are invited anyway. So let us be thankful for a God who hears our prayer, who loves us despite our sins. And when we pray, whether on our own or during the Prayers of the People, to pray, like Abraham, for God’s justice and mercy for the world that needs them so badly.