The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 12—Year C; Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13. Video
Things aren’t looking too good in Sodom and Gommorah. A great outcry against them has come to God’s ears, and God is determined to see if they have done that which the outcry says they’ve done. Their sin is grave; the degree of separation in that society is profound, and remember, Sodom’s great sin, according to Ezekiel 16:49 was this: pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but doing nothing to aid the poor and needy. It was the land of “us” and “them.”
And God has just about had it; God is about ready to wipe the slate clean, start all over, burn the house down, so to speak. What else can you do when society is in complete disarray? So, God sends those men who’ve just received hospitality from Abraham and Sarah on to Sodom and Gommorah to check it out. Abraham can sense God’s outrage, but Abraham is a man who clings to hope, who believes that there is still something there to work with, something from which the process of redemption can begin.
And so Abraham starts the bargaining—“Uh, God? Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if you find fifty righteous there? Will you sweep away the place and not forgive it if you find fifty righteous in it?” God ponders the question, and agrees that if fifty righteous are found, he will forgive the whole place for their sake. Abraham presses further—“What if five of the fifty righteous are lacking?” That Abraham is sneaky—five lacking sounds so much better than forty-five. God considers this proposal and declares, “For forty-five, I won’t destroy it.” And Abraham continues this dance with God, back and forth they go—“Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten?”—each time God answering, “For the sake of forty, thirty, twenty, ten, I won’t destroy it.”
The principle here is simple and profound, a small number of righteous people can affect the whole in life altering ways. Of course, as the story unfolds for Sodom, we discover that they are, in fact, on a collision course with destruction. Is it possible that there just weren’t ten righteous people to be found? Frightening though it is, we can indeed run societies straight into the ground. We are fully capable of descending the world into chaos. Madness is well within the realm of possibility, and we are absolutely complicit in the madness.
Brothers and sisters, the stakes are high, so we better well get to understanding what a righteous person looks like and how we can move in that direction because where the whole goes from here is directly connected to how we move forward from here.
Let’s start by being clear that being righteous is not about being right. Webster’s defines righteous as “acting in accord with divine or moral law.” This is about acting in accordance with some ethical framework that is coherent, and for us, grounded in God and the way of Jesus. This is about coming into alignment with those values, rooting deep, and having the courage to act accordingly.
What does that look like? Not like most of what we’re seeing around us these days. It doesn’t look like stoking fear. It doesn’t look like scapegoating. It doesn’t look like blaming. It looks like the counsel we receive in Colossians 2. It looks like living our lives in Christ Jesus, being rooted and built up in him; it looks like abounding in thanksgiving, even in the face of madness and death.
According to Colossians 2, it looks like not being taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, or as we might say today, it’s not about buying into our lowest levels of consciousness that only knows how retaliate in kind.
It’s about dying with Christ and rising with Christ and forgiving when you have every right not to do so. It’s about nailing “the could’ve’s” and “should’ve’s” and “I’ve got the right to destroy you’s” to the cross and completely disarming the rulers and authorities in the process. It’s about holding fast to Christ as our head, literally putting on the mind of Christ, and acting from that place. The world will not understand this. The world will call us naïve, but it’s the only way out of the madness.
Living as a righteous one—it looks like praying for God’s kingdom to come, on earth, on earth, in the here and now, and not just in heaven in the future. It’s about daily bread, for everyone, and forgiveness, not just in the hurts and wounds that infect our hearts, but in real and tangible ways, as in forgiveness of the debt, dollars and cents debt, that enslaves so, so many people. I’ve got no idea how we put that into practice in our economy, but as people of faith, we’ve got to wrestle with the fact that our Lord places this practice at the center of the one prayer that he taught his followers. To live as a righteous one is not to be cavalier about walking through trials—we do not have a choice about this time of trial that has engulfed our world, but let’s be clear, this is not a time for bravado—this is a time for humility and understanding the monumental tasks ahead of us. The very life of the whole is depending on us.
Living as a righteous one is about relentless persistence and asking and searching and knocking until we can find a way forward out of the madness. It’s about choosing the cross and throwing your arms open when the only thing the world knows how to do is lash out and crucify that which it fears.
It’s about doing the surprising thing, and Jesus was the master of this! I heard a story on NPR this week and learned a new word for this kind of righteous living—noncomplementary behavior—it sounds like a bad thing, but it’s a good thing; it’s the act of departing from an established script when that script is likely to lead to conflict. Montrell Jackson was an African American police officer in Baton Rouge, and one of the three who was killed last Sunday. Montrell Jackson departed from the established script when he posted this on Facebook on July 8, and I’m going to read his full statement:
“I’m tired physically and emotionally. Disappointed in some family, friends, and officers for some reckless comments but hey what’s in your heart is in your heart. I still love you all because hate takes too much energy but I definitely won’t be looking at you the same. Thank you to everyone that has reached out to me or my wife it was needed and much appreciated. I swear to God I love this city but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat. I’ve experienced so much in my short life and these last 3 days have tested me to the core. When people you know begin to question your integrity you realize they don’t really know you at all. Look at my actions they speak LOUD and CLEAR. Finally I personally want to send prayers out to everyone directly affected by this tragedy. These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets so any protestors, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer. I got you.”
Talk about a third way! Montrell Jackson could name his exhaustion, his disappointment, his love. He could name his awareness that hate takes too much energy, have compassion for those who were being reckless in their comments, and yet, set a boundary for what he would let into his own soul. He could name the complexity of how the world was viewing him, as a policeman and as an African American male. He was fully aware that so much of what was coming toward him was sheer projection, and he refused to let it rob him of his deep integrity. He understood hate as something that could infect us and threw his arms open to protesters, officers, friends, family, strangers, whoever—“if you need a hug or want to say a prayer, I got you.” Montrell Jackson, he may have been one righteous man, but in my eyes, he counted as ten. In his witness, his action, he has changed the whole.
And his brother, Kendrick Pitts, joined him as a righteous one when he did the surprising thing. Where other voices would shout for retaliation, Kendrick simply said: “Let’s put an end to all this madness, and everybody come together.” He went on: “I just want to ask God to bless these killers. I continue to pray for those guys, too.” Kendrick Pitts would have every right to want to lash out and retaliate, but he didn’t follow the script. He responded with blessing and prayer and a plea to end the madness.
And another righteous man is added to the ranks, and the whole is changed.
And last Sunday, as Baton Rouge was coming to terms with the deaths of those three officers, the police department and local African American activists in Wichita, Kansas did a surprising thing. A protest was scheduled for that afternoon, but after a meeting between the chief of police and the local activists, they held a joint cookout with the local community instead. They didn’t follow the script. And many, many righteous were added to the ranks that day, and the whole is changed.
Noncomplementary behavior—departing from the established script. This is the way of the cross. What scripts are you running in your head right now? What scripts are being fed to you day and night by the world around us? What is one small thing you could do in your life, in your circle, in the wider community that could depart from the established script? How are you rooting yourself in Christ, so that you have the capacity to open your arms on the cross instead of reaching for the same old tired script that’s leading all of us deeper into the madness? What inner capacity do you need to build and what outer support do you need to sustain it, so that you can join the ranks of the righteous.
Sodom isn’t a far away place in a long ago time—Sodom is here and now. Our world is crying out, our sin is grave. Ten righteous can change the trajectory; ten righteous can change the whole.
Montrell Jackson, Kendrick Pitts, the Wichita Police, African American activists—they’ve all stepped up. What about you? What about me? Will we take our place next to them in the ranks of the righteous? Depart from the script and “let’s put an end to all this madness.” Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
July 24, 2016