Joe’s Sermon Backgrounder #1 for RCL Proper 12

Joseph W.H. Lough

In seven Sundays after a brief (twenty-four year) vacation from the pulpit, I will once again be praying God use my gifts of preaching and prophecy. It is a pretty big deal because on the one hand I am bound to listen to how the Spirit has spoken to the community of faith over the past, oh, 2.5M years (which is where I date the emergence of human beings from other protohominids) while on the other hand I would not be mounting the pulpit did I not believe that God would minister through me by bearing witness to a word specifically directed to them, a new word. And both are pretty terrifying; both listening to how the Spirit has spoken through time and listing to how the Spirit might be speaking today.

I say might because, according to our tradition, it is up to the spirits of the prophets to judge whether or not any of them is actually speaking an authentic word from God (I Cor. 14:32). There is nothing automatic or inevitable about the divine power of the word preached from the pulpit.

And what a passage the Spirit has assigned me: Genesis 18:20-32 (the alternative text for Proper 12). Woe.

Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”

So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death 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?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” (Genesis 18:20-32, ESV)


English: Lot Flees as Sodom and Gomorrah Burn ...
English: Lot Flees as Sodom and Gomorrah Burn (Gen. 19:1-20,24-36) Русский: Истребление Содома и выход из него Лота (Быт. 19:1-20,24-36) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sodom and Gomorrah. Does everyone feel what’s coming next? Ouch!

Now, whether obvious or not, Abraham’s petition to God is inseparable from his and Sarah’s radical hospitality displayed in Gen. 18:1-19. And, again, perhaps not so obviously, there is a kind of playful parallelism between chapters 18 and 19 of Genesis. Abraham and Sarah, barren and spent wanderers in a dry and unproductive desert, are contrasted to Lot and his family, productive and fecund occupants of a wet and lush oasis. Both entertain guests. Both practice hospitality. And, yet, they are so different.

But what strikes me is Abraham’s posture towards these differences and God’s responses to Abraham’s doubts. Does Abraham know that his God is gracious? Does Abraham believe that his God will be lest just, less forgiving, less gracious than Abraham and Sarah themselves? But it is also remarkable to me that God does not shower fire and brimstone upon Abraham. What? You believe that you are more forgiving than I am?

The passage, at first take, strikes me as a real indictment against all of us who, upon experiencing difference, secretly or openly want God to do bad things to those who are different; it speaks to the widespread conviction that God is ready and willing to do bad things to bad people; but it also speaks to Abraham’s sincerest desire that God be merciful and to Abraham’s boldness to call upon God’s mercy.

And let there be no doubt; Lot is a bad man. He offers his daughters to strangers to do with them what they will. This Lot God spares in the story. Moreover, God does not spare Lot’s wife, which begs the question of where she was when Lot was offering the strangers his and her daughters. What is this brotherhood that preserves Abraham/Lot, but destroys Lot’s wife and offers up his daughters?

Not an easy passage to say the least.

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