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?”
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?