The text of the sermon, based on Genesis 18.20-32 and Luke 11.1-13, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2022.
In over forty years of pastoral ministry, it has been my experience that many people, usually around their late-twenties to early-thirties (earlier for the ambitious or precocious!), engage (or desire to engage) in conversation with their older generations of family and extended family. Mostly, to hear the stories and memories that may serve as historical lenses to see one’s self more clearly. Sometimes, to raise critical questions about nurture; sometimes, concerning an unmet need for unconditional (or less conditional) love. This tête-à-tête often foretells a change in relationship.
Nearly forty years ago, I poured out my questions and confusions with my parents. Without going into detail, there were raised voices, deep sighs, and tearful silences. Finally, my father asked, “What do you want? We can’t go back and do it over!” I said, “I need to know that you hear me.” Quietly, he replied, “I hear you.” That moment signaled our transformation toward a relationship – no longer between parents and child, but among adults – of greater mutual understanding.
From Sodom and Gomorrah, God hears an outcry, comes down to investigate, and talks with Abraham. Abraham, an advocate for the defense, challenges God.
Is Abraham disturbed God’s indictment of the people’s collective guilt and, thus, the all-inclusive judgment? That all will be destroyed for the sins of the few?
Or is Abraham, with familial loyalty, determined to save his nephew Lot and his family who live in Sodom?
Or is Abraham, like a grown-up child, taking God to task? Questioning the why and how of the long, arduous and dangerous road that he and Sarah were compelled to walk from God’s first call to them to leave their homeland to the fulfillment of the Divine promise that they, even in their aged years, would be forebears of a great nation?
We are left to guess.
Whatever the compelling reason, Abraham doesn’t (and, given his ancient worldview, couldn’t) ask God to consider the idea of righteous individualism; that each one stands or falls on one’s own good or evil. Rather Abraham appeals to God precisely in accord with the established law of judgment. Arguing, in effect: “Lord, if you do as you plan, it…you will be as unjust as the injustice of Sodom and Gomorrah. And, if, collectively, the sins of a few condemn all, cannot the righteousness of a few save all?” God answers, essentially, “Yes, but with limits.”
Ultimately, Abraham loses his case. Ten righteous are not found. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed.
Nevertheless, even in losing, something is gained.
In Genesis, up to this point, God’s authority is absolute. Discerning, deciding, and dictating; silent submission the only righteous response. Here, Abraham demonstrates a deeper understanding of faith. Less passive in obedience to Divine command. More mutual, more dialogical, as a faithful, though not quite equal partner. Marking a change in the relationship between humanity and divinity.
A change we behold in the relationship of Jesus and God. God so near, so intimate as to be called “Abba.” Through Jesus, a change in relationship so near, so intimate that the disciples want it too, asking, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
They weren’t looking for the latest contemplative technique. Even less, the etiquette of ritual observance. They hungered to know, love, and trust God the way Jesus, and Abraham before him, knew, loved, and trusted God. A knowing, loving, and trusting so near, so intimate, so mutual that God was as responsible (response-able, able to respond) to humanity as humanity to God.
A change for which I long in all of my earthly relationships. A change I sought through that conversation with my parents many years ago. For the nearness and intimacy of my prayer life, expressive of my desire to be close, to be connected with God, is directly, immediately related to the depth of my human relationships. I am only as good at being with God as I am at being with you and myself. Dare I declare that this is true for all of us.
Thus, when the disciples said, “Teach us to pray,” they weren’t asking Jesus to tell them how to do something spiritual, but rather how to be someone truly human.
© 2022 PRA
Illustration: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), John Martin (1789-1854)
3 thoughts on “Conversations and Transformations”
This is an immediate reaction to a sermon that deserves to be read and re-read numerous times, each time branching off into one of the compelling paths that intertwine to make it so rich with possibility. What a sermon for our time and for our place in history. The themes of seeking to understand, of forging mature relationship in the place of former dependency and need, of the human need to be heard and seen, of individual sin and guilt vs. collective responsibility and accountability, of what it means to pray, of the distance or proximity of prayer to being, of obedience vs trust, of faith vs servitude… so many ideas and questions laden with gifts if we can take the time to unwrap and sit with them. In short, you have boggled my mind and challenged my heart today, Paul.
I am tempted to take this sermon as a template and select one theme per day to journal on. In the midst of all humanity’s great ongoing common upheavals and my own personal upheaval of downsizing Ted’s and my home and lives and moving to a condo, perhaps this sermon will become a means of staying connected to my Self, to divine Love, to my hopes and prayers for the world and for our American society. I am going to give it a try.
Thank you, Paul, for bringing your own ever-green-and-growing, seeking curiosity, imagination, and passion to those of us who are still likewise plugging away at the eternal questions day by day.
With much love to you and Pontheolla,
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Dear Paul & Karen!!
Loving this sermon Paul and I echo all that Karen said!! I’ve been journaling since Mom died and there’s so much to unpack in this sermon. I bought a box of cards called “Nature Meditations” and since I’m in the PA wilderness this weekend I’ve been praying a lot along my nature walks! I love Karen’s idea of using this sermon as a template for journaling.
My favorite part of the sermon was that “ I am only as good at being with God as I am at being with you and myself.”…..I could start with that one sentence and examine all of my relationships! There are still so many unanswered questions I needed to ask Mom that I never was able to ask…. But I’m going to write down the questions for her anyway just so I can hear myself asking them. Maybe part of the process is asking the questions out loud even though you know an answer isn’t coming. At least we won’t be disappointed by the answer we may have received!
Love to you both!!
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Per your blessed norm, my dearest Karen and Loretta, you bless — honor and humble — me with your responses.
Karen, for you to suggest and, Loretta, for you to find resonance in the notion to employ this sermon as a template for your personal self-examinations touches the soul of me in a deep and moving way beyond my imagination to have conceived.
And, Loretta, the concept, the approach of reviewing my relationship with God through the lens of my personal, earthly encounters and interactions with fellow humans is a reality, which, I assure you, I stumbled, first, upon, and then over manifold times before it sunk in my soul as a necessary truth. For it hath become clear to me that when I am cut off from my personal relationships with others and myself (aye, my self), for example, by hurt, anger, resentment, hatred, and the like, then I am cut off from my relationship with God.
Serendipitously, a hymn we sang at worship yesterday arrested my spirit in the recognition of what, now, for me, is an unmistakably irrefutable reality:
1. “Forgive our sins as we forgive,” You taught us, Lord, to pray, But you alone can grant us grace to live the words we say.
2. How can your pardon reach and bless the unforgiving heart that broods on wrongs and will not let old bitterness depart?
3. In blazing light your cross reveals the truth we dimly knew: What trivial debts are owed to us and how great our debt to you!
4. Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls and bid resentment cease; then, bound to all in bonds of love our lives will spread your peace.
To this I sang and, continually, sing: Amen!
Love you two, each and both,