Pentecost 7 C: Audacious Insistence on a God of Mercy

The readings for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Hosea 1:2–10

Psalm                    Psalm 85

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Genesis 18:20–32

Psalm                    Psalm 138

New Testament     Colossians 2:6–15 (16–19)

Gospel                   Luke 11:1–13

Of all these readings, the Genesis 18 lesson offers the most helpful theological insight.

The Bible contains verses of various kinds. Most inspire the best of faith and life. Some are dangerous, and can even inspire the worst of each.

Walter Bruegemann, in his 1982 volume on Genesis in the  Interpretation Commentaryseries, deals with Genesis 18:16 through 19:38 as a unit. It’s held together by the common idea that God is the only true author of beginnings and endings: here represented by the gift of a son to Abraham and Sarah and the destruction of Sodom. The fate of Lot is also something that ties these sections together.

Most helpful is Bruegemann’s insight that the sinfulness of Sodom and its fate at the hands of an angry God are both stereotypical, and indeed part of the Bible’s background material. The sin is not merely homosexuality, but complete disorder. The destruction is total. And both are typical of the literature of the ancient Near East. They are like today’s comic book movie fair, feeding off of our base human appetite for the reward of the good guy and the punishment of the wicked. We call it justice, but is it really?

However, there is a fulcrum moment to this sequence in Genesis 19:29:

So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled.

And the whole of Genesis 18:16-32 forms a corrective to the rest of the section. Abraham is a single, chosen, individual who is given authority by God to inject righteousness into humanity by his audacious insistence on mercy.

It’s audacious because Abraham here assumes the role of God’s teacher:

Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous 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 yet Abraham takes on this role only because the LORD, who is the author of beginnings and endings, has “remembered” Abraham, just as he did Noah when he ended the destroying flood (Genesis 8:1). The LORD has, by this remembering, lifted Abraham above the average, the common, the stereotype. Abraham cannot see the human situation, or God, as defined by retribution. He sees a necessity of mercy.

Today the gross distortion and politicization of the Christian faith is advanced by the leveling of Scripture—insisting that every word is inerrant and God’s will and word for people today. This kind of interpretation cannot help but put justice at the service of retribution, as it puts God’s wrath and mercy on the same plane.

Jesus himself, the Gospels tell us, advanced Abraham’s audacious insistence on mercy. “You have heard it said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” is but one of many ways he takes us beyond the basest of human impulses through his bold interpretation of Scripture (Mt. 5:43-45).

This day, as I write this reflection, we had an excellent example of a person rising above common expectation and insisting on a new and better way. The outcome of the Tour de France, a grueling three-week, 2000 mile bike race, had come down to a furious two person final mountain stage in the Pyrenees. On the final, treacherous mountain descent before the final climb of the day, both of these two riders struggled to stay upright on the narrow road. The overall leader of the race, in the famous yellow jersey, wobbled violently and almost wiped out at high speed, which would have likely doomed his chances of winning. Soon thereafter, the man in second place overshot a sharp corner, ran into loose gravel, managed to slow his descent, but finally crashed into a ditch.

Common sense and common custom would dictate Tadej Pogačar, the Slovenian who fell, was pushing the pace and counting on his skill as a “descender” to get the advantage and take over the race lead; therefore Jonas Vingegaard, the wearer of that coveted yellow jersey, would certainly be in the right to take advantage and open up his lead. Instead, Vingegaard, of Denmark, slowed on the road, looked back repeatedly, and waited for Pogačar to rejoin him. The two antagonists then actually shook hands as they commenced racing.

The Tour de France is an epic struggle—a metaphor of the many trials of human life. But Vingegaard refused to let the struggle hold him to the so called “natural law of tooth and claw.” I don’t know his religion or his philosophy of life, but Vingegaard joined Abraham and Jesus in declaring that tooth and claw is neither natural nor  law. Being righteous is more divine than being right.

To be human, to be Christian, to read the Bible in the Spirit, we must rise above common expectation and demonstrate just such audacious insistence on God and God’s law of mercy.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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