Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Story Everyone Gets Wrong

Sodom and Gomorrah: These two towns instantly conjure up visions of depravity, immorality, and God’s violent and decisive condemnation. The punishment of the sin of the people of Sodom is clear: God hates what they have done and God’s punishment is unmatched and sweeping.

What is it that they have done to warrant such violence? What is the “grave” sin of Sodom? We know that this text has been used for centuries as God’s warrant to denounce homosexuals and/or their life style and/or their sexual practices. People with strong conservative faith convictions often cite these passages as proof-text for denying rights to gay and lesbian persons.  Of course, it’s not a personal prejudice on their part; they’re simply being faithful to God’s inerrant word as recorded in King James’ bible.

Yet, our text today only foreshadows the sin and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; we haven’t actually gotten there yet! Whoever stitched together this section of Genesis got things out of order and so we’re presented with what amounts to a theological reflection – the main event doesn’t get underway until the next chapter.

It’s a queer thing: we’re being asked to reflect on a story that nearly everyone gets wrong!

If the subtext of Sodom and Gomorrah really is that “God hate fags” then the deranged fanatics from Westboro Baptist are right – and churches like this one should be ashamed of propping up an immoral lifestyle choice.

But, the sin of Sodom is not male homosexuality; rather, the sin of Sodom is not welcoming the stranger. It’s the sin of inhospitality taken to the extreme of predatory sexual violence.

To better understand the story that every gets wrong, we’ll behave like good Presbyterians and  let scripture interpret scripture. Here’s a glimpse of how other biblical writers understood the sin of Sodom:

The Hebrew scriptures reference the story in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, wherein the prophets denounce the sins of injustice, idolatry, pride, and neglect of the marginalized.

In the New Testament, while Jesus never comments regarding human sexuality, he does reference Sodom and Gomorrah, and does so in the context of sending out the seventy to minister in surrounding towns and cities.  His admonition is that if they are welcomed, then they should stay and labor among the people; but if they are not welcomed, if the town is inhospitable, they should leave knowing that God will judge that town in the same way, for the same sin, as Sodom. The issue is hospitality. The issue is caring for the stranger.  The issue is welcoming those who come to labor and live among us. The issue is justice.

The banter between Abraham and God in today’s text is all about justice, it’s about Abraham questioning God about the minimum number of “righteous” people that it’ll take to save the town. He’s negotiating, haggling actually, and is trying to get God to zero in on what’s the critical mass of good people that will tip the scales so that God saves the entire population even if bad people get a pass.

It’s a bizarre kind of conversation and it’s the only one of its kind in the Bible. Nowhere else is there this level of one-to-one bargaining. Yes, in the book of Exodus, Moses pleaded for the people of Israel but he wasn’t haggling with God like they were two equals. This story is unique in that respect. In essence Abraham is like the automobile salesperson who asks, “what’s it going to take for you to buy this car today?” Abraham is asking God, “what’s it gonna take to save the people of Sodom?”

50 righteous?
Would you do it for 45?

Abraham is making all kinds of assumptions about God in his attempt to negotiate a deal to save some small subset of righteous people.

First of all, Abraham is assuming that God is subject to the moral order that God created. In essence, the one that made the rules will follow the rules!

Secondly, Abraham assumes that if God insists that Abraham honor his relationships that God will do the same.

Thirdly, God is held to certain standards in dealing with issues of justice and cannot ignore differences between the wicked and the righteous in acts of justice.

In the midst of all of those somewhat heady theological assumptions we find Abraham engaged in a little old-fashioned horse trading! This isn’t being stereotypical: it was (and is) a common, even expected, practice in the Middle East. Haggling.

Abraham drills down the price for saving Sodom. Interestingly he stops at 10 – really – you’d think he’d want to know if 5 would do it, or even 1! But I think Abraham realizes that for anything to happen, there has to be a critical mass. There’s a minimum size or amount of something required to start and maintain a venture.

I have a refrigerator magnet that’s a quote by JFK: “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”

I believe that’s true – but it’s also true that for sustained change, sooner or later a critical mass of people must coalesce around it.

One of the reasons we haven’t seen sustained change in Wilmington regarding issues of race, violence, or discrimination is that we tend to operate in silos, every church or pop-up organization is attempting to do their own thing, apply for their own grants, compete for an increasingly limited pool of money, and attempt to take the lead with the result that there’s no critical mass, no arranging of resources, no one examining the strengths of organizations and connecting to maximize effectiveness. Everyone is in it for themselves and competition on that level will not revitalize a city that remains as dormant as it was 15 years ago.

What’s required is collaboration and a pronounced willingness to abdicate the spotlight in deference to the greater good. That’s clearly a challenge – from the Oval Office to the debate stage to local politics – folks are “in it to win it” and the country, the city, and the community loses. This isn’t just pertaining to government – arts and educational organizations and a plethora of do-good non-profits are all convinced they deserve the front row. Few are willing to listen and almost none are willing to change.

Funny, then, that God appears willing to do both – to listen and to change –  when confronted by Abraham.

This is the part that makes this reading so unusual.

Is it possible that God seeks consultation, even collaboration, from humans?

Apparently so. The text is clear that God takes Abraham’s thinking into consideration when deciding what divine action will be. God takes seriously what human beings think and say and allows them to contribute to God’s shaping of the future!

For Abraham’s part, he brings a few new ingredients to the conversation: energy, words, and insights, all of which offered with respect, humility, and forthrightness, all of which give God new possibilities with which to work – all of which have the potential of changing the divine decision.

We get the idea that God works through humans on behalf of what’s positive and good – go forth in the knowledge that we are God’s body – and all that – but this story opens up a whole new vista into the world of divine justice and humanity’s ability, invitation even, to participate therein.

So what’s the common thread to all of this? Participation.

How do we improve our community, our city, our country? We participate in the process. We vote. We educate ourselves. We speak up. We write letters and emails and make phone calls and get into the trenches. Who we are as a country is ill-being defined for us and we are protozoan saps if we don’t raise our voices.

How do we build and develop our faith? We participate in a faith community, in a church. We attend worship services, we serve on a committee, we attend potlucks, we give money to mission campaigns, we offer to teach Sunday School, we read books, we knit prayer shawls, we serve at Winter Sanctuary or the Corner Table – we do whatever we can, whenever we can. We participate. It works. It’s the only way to develop faith. Participation.

How do we strengthen our relationship with God? We participate in the divine process of justice and seeking good for humanity. Apparently God is interested in what we think, feel, and will do. Now, granted, we are clearly the “junior partners” in this arrangement but we do have a call to be engaged, not passive or acquiesce to simply accept the world the way it is. Those are not faithful options, they are not options for people who consider themselves children of God or followers of Christ. Participation. Always.

Every time we are tempted to drop out and think there’s nothing we can do to improve things…remember Abraham’s conversation with God. Remember that participation is the only strength you need to make a difference. Remember: one person can make that difference. Shouldn’t you at least try?


Sunday, July 21, 2019

Lunch and Laughter

Some of you may have noticed that your inbox was deprived of this week’s church email. I’m saying “some of you” but for all I know – no one noticed as no one demanded an explanation! The reason for its absence? I took a few days off and visited friends from college days in Santa Barbara, Jim and EJ, at their home in Asheville, NC. They have recently retired to a spectacular mountaintop home with commanding views, a nearly impossible switch-back laden driveway, and far too many black bears frolicking in their yard.

EJ retired from teaching and is an accomplished artist – oil painting – and volunteers at 10,000 Villages. Jim was the VP of Engineering for a Fortune 100 company and now spends his time woodworking and volunteering at Habitat for Humanity. Since Thursday is his day to work, I accompanied him and help build the porch on one of 14 homes in a cul-de-sac.

We rewarded our day of hard-work with dinner at The Biltmore Estate and enjoyed an evening al fresco in The Bistro. It was the second of two amazing dining experiences we had this week. The first was at the Grove Park Inn the day prior. It was, perhaps, a perfect dining experience: again, we were outside with gorgeous views, the food and wine were delicious, and the service was spot-on – friendly, courteous, and non-intrusive.

One of the ongoing debates in the restaurant world is which is more important – the food or the service? Now very poor marks in either area typically ruin a dining experience – but in a gray area, can one make up for the other? Would you return to a restaurant – a real one with table clothes and servers who didn’t call everyone “guys” – would you be more likely to return to a restaurant with just so-so food but outstanding service, or to one with killer food but lackadaisical even inattentive service?

The wait staff and maitre d’s always claimed that they could serve up a dirt-burger and mud-shake with such care and panache that patrons would line up for more; while the kitchen crew smugly held the belief that as long as the food got the table somehow, the server could be a snarling armadillo and the experience would be salvaged. The front of the house figured that personality could save any culinary disaster, while a chef friend of mine responded with the simple tongue-in-cheek motto: “food adds a festive touch to every meal.”

Lunch and laughter: today’s story of Sarah and Abraham.

The three mysterious visitors who showed up unannounced at their tent in the middle of the sand-swept desert for lunch that day didn’t have to decide between service and food – old Abe and Sarah were the Howard and Johnson of their day and super-sized the menu without even asking if their guests wanted “curds” with their order. The diners requested a simple basket of rolls and a glass of water but were served a Mediterranean medley of veal and feta. Food does add a festive touch to every meal and these hungry and weary travelers were served a feast.  As for service, the author of Genesis obviously knows 5-star service as the detail is noted that Abraham parked himself nearby – not intrusive – just attentive and ready for any request or hint of dissatisfaction.

To a bunch of folks who didn’t eat out much and who rarely if ever tasted a veal chop – the savory morsels of this story must have produced more than one salivating Semite. Abraham and Sarah didn’t just feed their guests, they treated them to a “Babbette’s Feast” that went far above anything expected or warranted.

Along with good food – good humor.

While some may relish the food vs. service debate – it’s the company, conversation, and conviviality that transform a simple meal into a gastronomical gala. I love dinnertime banter. The experience of eating together creates a bond, a level of intimacy or sharing that not only permits, but also encourages good conversation. It’s no surprise that Jesus spends most of the New Testament eating or partying. Breaking bread together tears down no small level of barrier or divide. Good food, good conversation, good humor.

Frederick Buechner, a theologian with a sense of humor, clearly an oxymoron, distilled the story of Abraham and Sarah to this:

When God told Abraham, who was a hundred at the time, that at the age of ninety his wife Sarah was finally going to have a baby, Abraham came close to knocking himself out—“fell on his face and laughed,” as Genesis puts it. In another version of the story, Sarah is hiding behind the door eavesdropping, and here it’s Sarah herself who nearly splits a gut—although when God asks her about it afterward, she denies it. “No, but you did laugh,” God says, thus having the last word as well as the first. God doesn’t seem to hold their outbursts against them, however. On the contrary, God tells them the baby’s going to be a boy and that they are to name him Isaac. Isaac in Hebrew means laughter.

Why did the two old crocks laugh? They laughed because they knew only a fool would believe that a woman with one foot in the grave was soon going to have her other foot in the maternity ward. They laughed because God expected them to believe it anyway. They laughed because God seemed to believe it. They laughed because they half-believed it themselves. They laughed because laughing felt better than crying. They laughed because if by some crazy chance it just happened to come true, they would really have something to laugh about, and in the meanwhile it helped keep them going.

Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” says the epistle to the Hebrews. Faith is laughter at the promise of a child called laughter.

Sometimes we laugh because we’re nervous. Sometimes we laugh because we’re afraid. Sometimes we laugh because we’re confused. Sometimes, like last week, we laugh through tears. Sometimes we laugh simply because we don’t know what else to do. Sarah, “call it ‘woman’s intuition,” had a feeling that would change their lives. God had come near and she was nervous, afraid, and confused – and so…she laughed! When you think about all of the other possible responses…a little laughter seems strangely faithful.

Abraham and Sarah didn’t argue, dispute, or assert the obvious and contrary fact that they were way too old for making babies. Instead, they took the trio in, fed them, shared a good laugh, and somewhere deep within let words and ideas that didn’t match with their experience or tradition seep in and find a place to ruminate. They kept those confounded ideas in their hearts – a little broad-minded, a tad tolerant, and arguably freethinking. Hard to believe that the matriarch and patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would be unable to find a home in many of today’s religious communities with that kind of radical attitude!

The name of that radical attitude: hospitality!

Hospitality is one of those happy, feel-good kind of words. We hear it so often with “southern” stuck in front of it and it’s something that really, I think, most every would like to practice and probably most folks think they do. I don’t know anyone who is intentionally inhospitable but the model of hospitality that Abraham and Sarah offer is a brand that that isn’t frequently offered, even in the finest of homes or establishments such as this one.

Old Abe, upon seeing that he had visitors, strangers even, jumped up, ran to meet them, bowed and honored them, invited them into his home, offered refreshments, prepared a delicious brunch, and then waited on them hand and foot (literally) like a common servant. Abraham moves speedy quick – hurrying here, hastening there – everything with a sense of urgency and importance. Their every need was anticipated and satisfied beyond their expectation with food that was savory and abundant. Surely there were no complaints about the cuisine or the service that day – Abraham’s hospitality was worthy of Michelin recognition.

Yet this is not about fine dining, it’s about hospitality and in this case the distinction is that not only did Sarah and Abraham receive guests, but also they were hospitable as well to the words they spoke.

It’s relatively easy when taking care of someone is a one-way street. There’s a bit of a divide that’s created: I serve, you receive – no real interchange and no reciprocity.

Biblical hospitality requires a relationship. It’s not “doing for” it’s “being with.” It requires openness to another’s life or viewpoint, to their opinions or attitudes, to new ideas or ways of doing things. Biblical hospitality is an exchange wherein the whole self responds: spiritual, emotional, and physical – many times, like our aging parents-to-be, in the midst of the more mundane affairs of everyday life.

Sarah and her husband responded to the visit of three travelers – not knowing of their divine status or charge – with an eagerness for service, a willingness to hear their story, and an openness to being changed and transformed – even when they were certain the course of their lives were set. 

That’s what happens when you combine lunch and laughter!

I leave you with these words from the poet W. H. Auden: “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”

May your laughter come freely, your discipleship costly, and your love abundantly.