Editor’s note: I really don’t like folks who wear their religion on their sleeve. It makes me uncomfortable, kinda like when the Deet mixes with your sweat when you’re doing yard work in Georgia in July and you can’t seem to move without everything sticking to you. Maybe that’s just me. Both instances leave me wanting to get out of that awkward situation quickly and shower off all the memories thereof.
That said, I am also not one to miss sharing a good word. Thus in the midst of all the chaos and bad news that has filled my news feed as of late, I am happy to share a light in the darkness with all the readers out there. I recently moved my letter of membership to The Church At Ponce & Highland. My Minister to Families, Carra Greer, and her husband, Brian Greer offered an amazing word a few weeks ago that spoke to the sadness and frustration I have felt recently, in light of all of the senseless killings of our own people. Thus, I asked Carra if I might share their sermon with Southern Indeed readers.
It should also be said that Brian Greer is the first man Southern Indeed has featured as a writer- a thing of merit all of its own!
Personally, I really am not into complaining for the sake of hearing myself complain. Me? I am a doer. In my mind, there is always an opportunity for a resolution, solution, or way to fix things. It may not be perfect or pretty, but one of the reasons I have always felt called to policy and politics is because I know in my heart we can always strive to improve. I am no damsel in distress and you will rarely find me throwing my hands up in the air, looking for someone to swoop in and save me. For this reason, this particular sermon really spoke to me and in turn, I share it with all of y’all for your consideration of what we may do and how we may find comfort.
The sermon focused on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18:20-33. Rather than focusing on the death and destruction, the Greers focused on the small flicker of light in the darkness. That’s my kind of theology, but certainly does not have to be yours. If discussions of faith and God are not your thing, you may wish to wait for the next post. Conversely, if you would like the audio of the sermon, please click here. And now onto the good stuff…
“A Flicker of Hope”
Rev. Carra and Brian Greer
Church at Ponce and Highland
July 24, 2016
Fear, destruction, disorder, hate… these are the words I hear on my TV at night or see as I skim through my Facebook newsfeed. We live in a confusing time. Every day we hear of more lives senselessly lost: fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, aunts, uncles, and grandparents ruthlessly torn away from their loved ones. We see different groups and individuals blamed for these atrocities (some rightfully so and others through slanderous means). Confusion and fear are gripping our country and as a result they are breeding hateful words on the lips of those who should know better… our civic and religious leaders.
Despite all of the horrible things we have seen and read over the last few weeks, it was a single Facebook post that sent me over the edge. A friend, who is also a pastor, was commenting on the senseless and horrible killings in recent weeks. He said, “as a child, I used to get upset about the idea of Jesus coming back during my life. I wanted to see and experience the things this world had to offer, but after the tragedies of this week, I am now ready for his return more than ever!”
After reading those words, I was filled with disgust. Here was a fellow Christ follower essentially giving up on the world, wanting to eject out of here and into heaven’s sweet embrace.
Why? Why must the accepted response of the church be to throw in the towel and give up? Why must our answer to despair and contention be to look for the exit? To hope for Jesus’ return?
This brings us to today’s scripture:
We are dropped into the middle of a negotiation between Abraham and God. At stake are the lives of those living in the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. On one side, Abraham is trying to save the lives of the citizens of these cities and on the other side a seemingly unconcerned and distant God is willing to end thousands of lives over the sin of the cities’ people. The tension is palpable, with the parameters of the deal constantly changing. Ultimately, after much negotiation, Abraham convinces God to spare the city, should he find ten righteous people. Once the deal is made our passage ends without resolution. Of course, the fates of the cities are sealed and they are destroyed, since no righteous people can be found.
We could end our sermon there. Chalk this conversation up to yet another example of God proving God’s disgust for sin and debauchery and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah getting what they deserved. Fortunately, there is more than meets the eye to this negotiation between humanity and the Divine.
Growing up, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was a cautionary tale told in my church to warn my youth group of the dangers of sin and why you should never leave the comforts of the Bible Belt for the depravity of places like California. (That last part wasn’t so much said as it was implied and of course I did grow up in Mississippi). All that aside, many things are going on in this passage that are relevant to the issues we are currently facing.
Haggadic traditions in the Oral Torah open wide the possibilities of what is happening in Sodom and what might be making God unhappy. Inhospitality. Greed. Theft. Deception. Disregard of the poor and the orphan. Inhumanity. With possibly the pinnacle of Sodom’s depravity being mercilessness. A narrow reading that misses what’s truly happening is one that thinks homosexuality is central to this story. Inhospitality is ultimately what caused the destruction of this city, not homosexuality.
Looking past the commonly interpreted reading of this passage, our scripture reveals an example of the dichotomy of God. The Divine is a mixture of mystery and certainty. In our passage, God is present and active in the negotiation. In the midst of despair, God is offering Abraham an active role, a participatory role in what is happening around him. It is in this back and forth that the special relationship between humanity and God is revealed. A relationship that is trying to redeem a world that has gone askew from what was intended. For some modern Christians, it is difficult to live in this tension. Rather than delving into the mystery of God, they live within the certainty of tradition and all that it has to offer, ultimately taking the easy way out when tension arises. For some that may mean turning a blind eye to community and focusing on themselves, “hating the sin but not the sinner” or living by an “us and them” mentality. On the contrary, we can choose to embrace the unknown of God, the mystery but it is not without its consequences. As always, we think we know a bit about God but we know nothing about God (God is mystery… we don’t know why, or how, or when of God) and for some that is a scary place to be.
This scripture embraces an example of humanity working with God, to change God’s mind. There is an active partnership between humanity and the Divine. This is huge! It suggests that God is involved, dynamic and changing. A God willing to change God’s mind suggests that humanity can make choices that do indeed affect this world and confirms that our actions are creating hope for the hopeless and a voice for the voiceless. It means we are not to sit idle, watching the world burn, but advocating on behalf of it.
CARRA: Further analysis of the text confirms this working relationship between humanity and God. Abraham uses the participle that translates “perhaps” (Perhaps there will be a certain number of righteous people in the city. Perhaps God will be merciful.) “Perhaps” embraces the mystery of God and shy’s away from the narrative of certainty.
The use of “Perhaps” can express hope, or it can express fear or doubt. It does not express certainty. One can have true, sincere HOPE and also have FEAR and DOUBT… hope isn’t always the absence of fear and doubt. But one can have FEAR and DOUBT without hope… this deep despair can be debilitating and lead to no change, no hope, no action…it’s that fear-mongering we saw so much of last week in our political rhetoric. Certainty causes us to be callous, dismissive, inhospitable, and isolationist. Certainty leads to ego. It leads to no more questioning and seeking… and leads to an inactive faith, a lazy faith.
This lazy faith is comfortable with a community that is broken. Where it’s members are divided between the haves and have nots. Where the solution to problems is to blame it on outsiders, the others and to stand silent while an “us and them” is established and walls are proposed and constructed. A lazy faith is content with the assurance and certainty that their relationship with God is a given and that an active relationship is no longer necessary or needed. As Brian mentioned before, his Facebook friend is taking the common view of many believers, today. That this world is slowly destroying itself and the only response is to claim Jesus and for Christians to remove themselves from the chaos and mess of society. They rely strongly on certainty (it’s concrete, you can wrap your mind around it) while completely dismissing the mystery.
So let’s look at this scripture a little differently? Instead of the term “righteous person” we substitute “advocate for the least of these.” What if God is looking for advocates who are trying to restore and redeem the hurt among them? Ultimately, Abraham reaches the conclusion these advocates are nonexistent and these communities are “destroyed, condemned, undone” by their inhospitality and lack of social justice. A community can only exist when its people truly care for each other. We, as Christ followers and advocates for justice and mercy, have to be courageous and prophetic in our decision-making for the future of our community. We have to be willing to question God, boldly. It is through the questioning that we find hope and purpose and an active partnership with the Divine. This exercise in negotiation forces us to no longer abandon our community when times get tough; instead we stay, we dig our heels in and help create the change and healing and hope that needs to happen. We must challenge the impulse to wish for heaven, we must double down and work that much harder to redeem the here and now.
If we choose to accept certainty instead of embracing the mystery of God our community will fail because we neglect our role to advocate for those at the margins of society. Remaining silent, not challenging unjust power will destroy community, our community. When we as believers don’t stand up to hate, injustice, racism, prejudice, abuse… then our community will no longer exist because we have chosen to represent no one but ourselves; there will be no community to go to or fight for. A lazy faith cannot be an advocate for change, it only exists for self-preservation and maintaining the status quo. A lazy faith, lives her life and makes her choices with the end result of “making it into heaven,” while an advocate for change, lives her life for those around her. She makes her choices for the here and now… for those hurting now, for those hungry now, for those in deep despair now, for those being killed in our streets for no reason now, for those being discriminated against because of their sexual preference or their gender identity NOW.
What does this mean for us today? It means hope matters. Where one person is hopeful, where one person is good, where there is even the smallest flicker of light… God will be present and darkness will not prevail. “Is there anything too extraordinary for God?” The answer is no.
I’ve been thinking non-stop about the #blacklivesmatter movement and the horrible systemic violence and racism against black people that has always existed in this country, but now it’s being recorded and exposed with the prevalence of cell phone video and social media. I’ve read many, many articles written by black leaders, advocates, ministers, and mothers. I’ve gone through a series of emotions about my own white privilege. I have acknowledged my white privilege and more than ever, I want to find a positive way to support my black friends and strangers, for that matter. But I have no clue where to begin. And more often than not, what I feel inside is fear… fear that I won’t say the right thing; fear that I’ll miss the point due to my privileged point of view; fear that I’ll hurt more than help; fear that I’ll be misunderstood; fear that I won’t be recognized as a white woman that really, genuinely, authentically, whole-heartedly cares so deeply about black lives. What I have come to understand, more than ever… even though I am just one person in this huge movement, my silence would be the true sin. My silence would be the most hurtful action I could take, because I do have this “privilege” whether I like it or not… and I can choose to use my position as a white, middle class, educated woman to be a voice for those silenced by society, silenced by systemic racism and discrimination. And more than a Facebook post or 140 characters on twitter or a picture on Instagram with my black friend or a hashtag with the names of Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile… you and I can do something. We can be a small bit of hope and little flicker of light in this darkness, we can advocate on behalf of those being hurt by joining in peaceful, meaningful protests, by signing our names to petition our leaders and government to investigate our law enforcement and our judicial system and encouraging others to do the same. We can be agents of peace and reconciliation in our communities by creating safe spaces to have dialogue and discussion among all different types of people. We can speak genuine words of love and concern to our friends of color. We can be vigilant to what’s happening around us and offer help or support if we see someone in need, because, unfortunately a white woman or white man present in some situations may make all the difference, it may be the difference in someone losing his or her life. We can be agents of change by actively and intentionally teaching our children a different way to live, to think, and to engage in community and in relationship with others. We are taught to hate, to categorize, to isolate ourselves from those who are different, to fear what we don’t know… we are not born that way.
For too long, I assumed if I was a person of hope, it meant I would have no fear, no doubt, no concern, no confusion… but this scripture this week, helped me articulate something I’ve been feeling lately that I just couldn’t put into words until now… one person of hope can impact an entire community and being a person of hope doesn’t eliminate the fear and doubt and discomfort that comes with being an advocate and agent of change.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Sodom and Gomorrah had ten righteous people or advocates for the least of these. I image their cities would have lived on, they would not have been destroyed by the choking sin of inhospitality. They could very well have become beacons of hope in their parts of the world. This story compels us to not remain silent and speak boldly when we witness injustice. So this week, when we will inevitably and despairingly hear of more violence or inequality that causes us fear or refuge into isolationist ideas, may we confront these fears and swim in the mystery of God. Let us remain focused on the here and now instead of longing for the exit. Perhaps one small flicker of hope, in this sometimes dark world, can create a wildfire of transformation.
Join me in prayer:
God of Hope, create in us a community seeking justice for those without, hope for the hopeless and redemption for those broken by society. Guide us this week are we seek ways that we can be your instrument of change in our interactions with those we meet. Remind us to swim in your mystery, choosing to question and be active in our relationship with you. Amen.