The Lord said to Abraham, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and 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, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came 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 forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 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 the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself 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, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself 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 do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” Genesis 18:20-32 NRSV
How should we pray? Jesus gives his disciples one answer to that which became the Lord’s Prayer used by Christians everywhere. We Anglicans are, of course, familiar with it, especially in the King James Version since it’s part of virtually every single worship service, and it’s no wonder; it’s short, simple, and an elegant theological statement. But how different might our prayer lives be if Jesus had instead pointed to this text from Genesis and said, “Pray like this: pray like Abraham.” I get why he didn’t do that. The Lord’s prayer is difficult enough for us to deal with, emphasizing, as it does, forgiveness as well as being content with only what you need for today. But since we’ve all already mastered the spiritual baby steps offered in that prayer through our frequent repetition, let’s move on to the advanced level course on prayer that Abraham gives us.
Abraham’s prayer grows out of a response to God bemoaning the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah and saying he’s going to see what’s going on for himself, the implication of coming “down” to earth being that the cities will then be destroyed, and Abraham, being a just and righteous man, naturally responds to this by gleefully saying, “It’s about time. Lock them up!” Right? Not exactly. Instead of that more-expected reaction, Abraham has the audacity to not only question God’s punishment, but to stand in God’s way (the text makes it a literal, physical stand) and effectively give God, the judge of all the universe, a lecture on justice. Abraham makes the case that a just God would never destroy the innocent along with the wicked. And God says, “Okay, you’re right, I won’t do that if I find ten righteous men.” Unfortunately for Sodom and Gomorrah, only one righteous man, Lot, is found, but God lets he and his family escape, going Abraham a little better on their bargain. (Technically, Lot’s wife didn’t get very far in her escape, but that’s another story)
This passage is often viewed as an argument in favor of one of the main theories of process theology, the idea that we can actually change God’s mind. But in the verses just before this passage, God considers hiding from Abraham the destruction he is about to wreak, then decides no, because he has chosen Abraham and all his descendants, (which includes us, by the way), to do righteousness and justice, so rather than Abraham changing God’s mind through this discussion, it’s actually God testing Abraham to see if he truly is righteous and just, to see if he knows how to pray.
So what can we learn from how Abraham prays? First, that it’s okay to argue with God. Abraham is very deferential when speaking with God, but he’s not afraid to challenge him. He tells God, “This doesn’t make sense. What you are proposing is not the God that I know.” So if we want an authentic relationship with God, we have to be willing to confront God with our frustrations. Too many of us keep our conversations with God peaceful and calm and comforting, but that’s certainly not the message we get from Abraham–or most of our other Biblical models, FYI.
Secondly, Abraham is so committed to his beliefs, he’s willing not only to verbally challenge God, but to stand in the road and get in God’s way to stop what is happening. This YHWH is a vengeful God and does not suffer fools gladly. Not that long before this, he already destroyed the whole world, sparing only Noah and his family, and now he’s about to destroy a couple of big cities, so Abraham is in effect risking his life because he believes his actions are aligned with God’s will. So prayer sometimes means taking a big risk. Tomorrow, August 15, is the feast day of Jonathan Daniels, the Episcopal seminarian who put his life on the line for the cause of civil rights in this country and was martyred for it in Alabama 50 years ago. He is just one example, but there were and still are countless others willing to risk their bodies and their lives for causes they believe align with God’s will. They know how to pray like Abraham.
Third, and most importantly, Abraham does not pray for himself, but for others. He prays, in fact, for cities full of people he has never met, whom he is probably predisposed to dislike since they are apparently not very nice people. According to the prophet Ezekiel, their sins were pride, arrogance and accumulating wealth without helping the needy (16:48-49). So Abraham puts himself wholly on the line for people who can’t even be said to deserve it. This is shocking compassion, but it’s what Jesus had in mind when he taught us to forgive those who trespass against us or those indebted to us, and it’s how our own liturgies encourage us to pray.
In formal services such as Eucharist and Morning Prayer, the rubrics specify that the prayers should be intercessions. Intercession simply means praying for others, exactly what Abraham does. There are informal liturgies called daily devotions where the rubrics invite “prayers for self and others,” but those are services meant for the home, not public liturgies. It’s not that if you were to pray for yourself during a service someone would jump on you and say you’re not allowed to do that. This is not about punishing us if we pray incorrectly, it’s about encouraging us to understand that our role and our responsibility in the liturgy is to bind ourselves together as a community and to focus on serving others. Praying communally for the needs of others and then trusting that the community will pray for our own needs powerfully forms us into a body of brothers and sisters that know we are to put others’ needs before our own–not that we always succeed in that, but we are at least learning what God expects of us. By contrast, when some of our political leaders speak, people who call themselves Christian, it sounds like they don’t even have a minimal understanding of what God expects of them, as if they don’t even know that they are supposed to pray for, let alone forgive, their enemies. Episcopalians may not be any kinder or more compassionate than any other Christians, but we are not just hearing words about being loving and forgiving our enemies, we are seeing and practicing it every week. Our liturgies and our scripture remind us that we are called to stand in the road and intercede with God, not just for our loved ones, or our friends, but for strangers, even perhaps those we think are enemies.
Abraham sets a high bar for us. It is certainly not easy to pray for those you hate. These are times rife with hateful rhetoric towards others, all in a cultural context where we are constantly told to put ourselves first, our families first, over and above everyone else and everyone else’s families. But Abraham, the father of our faith and of all the faiths who believe in one God, put others first. We’re not always going to be able to live up to it, but we need to at least understand what God wants to hear from us in our prayers. Pro-tip: it’s not our own needs. God knows our needs before we ask. God’s desire is to hear us pray for each other. If each of us prayed in that way, interceding with God even for the people that enrage us, we could change the world. Not because we would change God’s mind, but because we would change our hearts. Giving in to emotional waves of rage against people you disagree with may feel good in the moment, but that kind of anger only shrinks our hearts and makes us small and petty people. When you pray for your enemies, you may or may not help them, but you certainly help yourself because the more you pray for others, the more you grow your heart. That is how Abraham teaches us to pray. So when you find yourself getting angry or judging someone, wishing God would smite them, remember Abraham, standing in the road for the sake of people who might not even deserve it, and maybe your heart will be softened towards your enemies. Maybe you might even pray for them. Maybe you might even forgive them, as we are commanded to, as we ourselves have been forgiven.
Based on sermon preached July 24, 2016, Church of the Angels, Pasadena