The forgotten story of Sodom

Good morning, Friends!

For the last couple of months, every Sunday we’ve been looking at different people from the Old Testament. These are our spiritual ancestors, the people who shaped our faith.

They were the pioneers, who learned things about God that we still need to remember.

I’ve also been trying to share some unusual stories with you – not just reviewing the familiar ones, but sharing stories you may not have learned in Sunday School.

So, today I want to continue with this series. And today we’re going to be looking at someone who was the founder of the entire Jewish, Christian and even Muslim faiths. We’re going to look at Abraham.

We’re also going to look at a pretty unusual story, one which turns some of our ideas and prejudices upside down. It’s going to be an interesting ride, so hang on tight.

As the story begins, three angels show up at the home of Abraham and his wife Sarah. At first, Abraham and Sarah didn’t know they were angels. They looked just like anyone else. They were just traveling strangers.

So, Abraham and Sarah did the hospitality thing. They invited them in. Abraham sat them down, and in the North Carolina translation, he fixed them some barbecue and biscuits – the best food that he had.

Now, Abraham and Sarah were getting right up there in years. They didn’t have any children. God had promised Abraham that he was going to be the father of a great nation, but so far, not much had happened in that line. They’d about given up on having kids.

Anyway, at the end of the meal, one of the angels said, “Where’s Sarah?”

Abraham said, “Over yonder in the tent.”

Angel said, “I’m going to come back here in a few months, and by then you’re going to have a son.”

Sarah was eavesdropping over in the tent, and when she heard that, she laughed and laughed.

Angel said, “Who laughed?”

Sarah said, “Not me!”

Angel said, “No, I heard you laughing. Why do you think that’s funny? Is there anything too wonderful for God to do?”

Anyway, now comes the part of the story which most of us have probably never heard, or forgotten. It’s a story which I think has been greatly misused by many people over the years. It’s the story of Sodom, which was destroyed for being sinful.

As is usually the case, most people get a few things right about the story, but they also get a lot of things wrong.

People always remember the part of the story where Abraham’s nephew, a guy named Lot, heard that Sodom was going to be destroyed, and fled for his life.

The angel who warned Lot told him to take his wife and family, get out of town on a run, and don’t look back. Lot’s wife looked back, and what happened to her? She was turned into a pillar of salt.

Most people think the reason Sodom was destroyed was because they were homosexual. Actually, that’s not the case. If you read the book of Genesis, it says very clearly that Sodom had made war on the other cities in the area. Sodom is described as oppressing its neighbors.

It says that the “cry of their oppression” had “gone up to God”. God had decided to wipe out Sodom, long before any other allegations had been made against the city.

In fact, nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures is homosexuality described as the “big sin” of Sodom. The prophet Jeremiah says that the people of Sodom “committed adultery, told lies, and strengthened the hands of evil doers.” (Jeremiah 23:14)

In Ezekiel, God says, “Sodom had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, and did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50) Then God goes on to say Israel had committed TWICE as many sins as Sodom, and that Israel should watch out!

I think that folks who hate gay and lesbian people, find it easier and more fun to preach about what they see as somebody else’s wrongdoing rather than their own. I think they’ve forgotten that Jesus said, “Whoever is without sin among you, cast the first stone” and “Take the log out of your own eye first.”

Sorry to sound off like this, but it’s important to set the record straight.

Anyway, here’s today’s story.

When the angels got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way.

Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what I have promised him.”

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin is so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham approached the Lord and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city?

Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” the Lord said, “I will not destroy it.”
Once again Abraham spoke, “What if only forty are found there?”
The Lord said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

Then Abraham said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

The Lord answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

The Lord said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

Then Abraham said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

The Lord answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

Genesis 18:16-33

This whole story of Sodom is really strange. This city is completely destroyed, burned up and gone. Everybody who witnessed it must have been terrified. Sodom became a symbol and a legend and a warning. People must have said, “Never again!”

God made the people of Babel all speak different languages, so they couldn’t communicate with each other. The people got scattered, all over the earth, and Babel didn’t exist any more.

And if you really think about it, the story of Sodom is also just a few chapters away from the story of the great flood, when God destroyed the whole earth – once again, because of sinfulness and evil.

So, you’ve got the great flood in chapter 6. You’ve got the story of Babel in chapter 11. And now you’ve got the story of Sodom in chapter 18. Kind of a pattern going on here, wouldn’t you say?

But now along comes Abraham, the ancestor of all the Jewish people, which also makes him the spiritual ancestor of every one of us. And Abraham tries to throw a monkey wrench into the story. Instead of just sitting back and saying “Oh, how terrible!” Abraham tries to stop the destruction of Sodom.

Abraham says, “Hey, Lord, what if I find 50 righteous people in the city? If I can do that, God, will you hold back?”

And God says, “Yes.”

Then Abraham says, “What if I only find 45 righteous people? Will you hold back then?”

And God says, “Yes, for the sake of 45, I’ll hold back my hand.”

And Abraham goes on, and bargains with God, and asks, “Well, what if I only manage to find 30? What if I only find 20, or 10?”

And God agrees not to do anything.

It’s interesting, because everywhere else in the Bible, Abraham is held up as the great example of faith. Abraham leaves his home, leaves his country, and becomes a nomad and a wanderer at God’s command. Abraham believes that God will give him and his wife a son, even though they’re elderly.

Then, when they finally have a son, God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, only at the last minute, God provides a ram as a substitute. You can imagine that Isaac had some real trust issues with his father afterward, but the Bible holds up Abraham as a great example of total faith.

But that’s not what the story today is saying. Here, instead of faith, Abraham is the great example of mercy. Abraham pleads, over and over, for God to have mercy on Sodom and not to destroy it.

Now, I’d like to share my own interpretation of the story with you. You can disagree with me about this if you want to.

What if this story isn’t just about an event which happened 4,000 years ago? What if Abraham is still pleading for mercy today? What if Abraham is praying to God on our behalf?

None of us is perfect. Some of us may be better. Some of us may be worse. But nobody’s perfect. We don’t know what’s in other people’s hearts, and we’re not supposed to judge. Most of us are a kind of a mix of good and – well, not-so-good. We’re a mix of right and wrong, good and bad. It’s all mixed up together inside us, and we aren’t always in control of ourselves.

The apostle Paul talks about this when he says, “I don’t understand my own actions. I don’t do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. . .I can will what is right, but I can’t do it. I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do. . .” (Romans 7:15, 17, 19)

Isn’t that the human condition? Aren’t we all a mixed-up mess sometimes?

But what if our great ancestor Abraham, that powerful personality from our past, what if Abraham is pleading to God on our behalf? What if today’s story really isn’t about Sodom, but about us?

What if the story of is really about our mixed-up, messed-up, scrambled-up lives, our motives and our actions, and our fear that we will be judged and condemned forever?
Let’s think about this for a moment.

Abraham pleads and bargains with God – what if we’re only 50% good? What if we’re only 45%, or 30%? Is it enough if we’re only 10% good some days?

Maybe God agrees not to destroy us, for the sake of that 10% of potential goodness – and you get the feeling that Abraham would keep on pleading, all the way down to even smaller fractions, to 5% or 1% or even less.

The Jewish rabbis talked about there being good and bad in everybody. Actually, they talk about there being a good self – what they call yetzer hatov in each of us. And there’s also a bad self, a self which is spiritually unhealthy and destructive, what they call the yetzer harah.

Our good self and our bad self often struggle against each other. But our good self, the yetzer hatov, they say, is our real self, our true self. It may only be a spark. But it’s there, and that’s what God is always trying to reach out to.

Maybe Abraham’s outstanding spiritual quality isn’t just faith. What if Abraham’s greatest quality, the thing we’re supposed to remember him for and imitate ourselves, what if it isn’t just faith, but mercy and hope and love?

One way to interpret the story of Sodom isn’t to apply it to people who lived long ago in a distant land, or apply it to people we might dislike or find different or feel uncomfortable to be around. Maybe we should apply the story of Sodom to ourselves, instead.

I think that this story is really a call for us to listen to our better self, to listen to the voice of God within us. It’s not about the evil done by somebody else. It’s about us.

We know that there is danger and destructiveness, violence and hatred in our own hearts and minds and actions. And God knows all this even better than we do. As human beings, our capacity for evil is beyond understanding – but our capacity for good is pretty amazing, too.

Whether we know it or not, Abraham pleads on our behalf with God, for the sake of the good that is still in us.

I want to close by looking at a couple of tiny details that I almost missed. Bible scholars like to say that God lives in the details, and I think these details may be important.

The first detail has to do with the number 10. Remember, how Abraham got God to agree not to destroy the city, if there were still just 10 good people in it?

Well, in the Jewish tradition — which we are descended from — the Jewish community gets together to pray every day. And the basic unit of a Jewish prayer community is called a minyan.

A minyan always has a minimum of ten people. The community has to pray together, every day. And you always need to have at least ten people present.

I wonder if that tradition of the minyan comes from this story about Abraham and God? What if God will not destroy the city, if there are at least ten people praying?

In the next chapter after this, it says that God destroys Sodom, and that’s the part of the story everyone knows about. But suppose – just suppose – it didn’t happen that way?

At the end of today’s reading, in verse 33, there this one brief, mysterious line. It says, “And the Lord went his way, when the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place. . .”

What if God really listened to Abraham, when Abraham appealed to God for mercy?

What if Abraham actually forced God Almighty to re-think things, and God turned away from destruction?

That would actually be sort of like what Jesus did, wouldn’t it? Jesus didn’t want the whole human race to be punished. Jesus came, not to condemn the world, but to save the world.

What if God is willing to forgive the worst of sinners, for the sake of the good that God still sees in us – whether it’s 50% good, or 40%, or 10% or only even 1%?

Maybe God forgave us all, a long time ago. Maybe God really wants, is for each of us to be our better self, our true self, every day, and even right now.

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