29 July 2007

bargaining

Genesis 18:20-33, ". . . while Abraham remained standing before the Lord."

Let me just say that my father is a master.

And even though he is not a Master of Business Administration, he is skilled at the art of negotiation, of bargaining, or getting the best deal.

Maybe it was all that time watching The Price is Right when he would come home from the farm for lunch. He still talks about all the cars he's won . . . or should've won I suppose. And that's because more often than not, at least while sitting in front of the television, he would guess the right price. Maybe under the tutelage of Bob Barker was the place where my father got his experience.

Or perhaps it was back when he and my uncle sold Allis Chamblis farm equipment. Or maybe it was when that business failed and suddenly my father was on his own, no longer in the tractor business except that he had one tractor left. And with that one tractor he started farming the land that his father had left him. Maybe it was the experience of loss that taught him to drive a hard bargain, to negotiate.

And maybe for Abraham, being the nomad that he was, maybe it was the experience of that nomadic existence, of being in between, of that sense of risk that one feels when you think that you do not quite yet have a home, maybe that is where Abraham gets his bargaining skills. Because it is as if Abraham is bargaining in this passage, not for a new car but for the lives of Lot and his family.

We hear Abraham say, “So God, I'm just dust and ashes of course.” But for my father the phrase would go something like, “I'm just an old farmer you know . . .” and when you heard that phrase, it was then that you had better watch out. He'd have that little curl of a smile and a twinkle in his blue eyes as he would bow his head slightly as he said those words. And it is strange but in those sorts of moments when I would watch my father negotiate and bargain, I would this strange sense that here were two people meeting, one seemingly holding all the power standing before one who declares readily that he holds none; but you know as my father would stand there, he did have a great deal of power after all, even though he was “just an old farmer.” And Abraham holds a great deal of power here as well, even though he is “but dust and ashes.”

And it is related to this issue of power that an alternative reading of the beginning of this passage emerges. There are earlier manuscripts that have this first verse reading that the Lord was standing before Abraham; it would not read “while Abraham remained standing before the Lord” as we have this morning. Instead if we follow Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann's lead, as I tend to do here, we have God standing in a deferential position to Abraham. And that seems to me to be a subtle but profound shift, that is to have the stronger standing before the weaker, the one who is but “dust and ashes” giving instruction to the Almighty God. This mere human bargaining on the idea that good could defeat evil, that the small could overcome the mighty, that a just God would spare the few for the sake of the many . . . and that maybe, possibly, some “little old farmer” could get a great deal on a brand new car.

So Abraham begins with that gesture of humility to the God who stands before him, “O God, I know that I am but dust and ashes, but God, . . . uh . . . don't you think that maybe, just maybe if there were fifty righteous people left in Sodom then that would be enough? Surely a God as just as you would not kill fifty righteous people because of all the others? I just can't believe that you would do that,” Abraham says (well at least in my paraphrase he does!). And you can imagine old Abraham looking down, maybe kicking a bit of dust with his feet. “Maybe if there were just fifty?”

You see, according to this passage, God is set against the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, but here is Abraham the righteous, the chosen one of God, arguing with God about what God is about to do. And the way that we might imagine this God that we see in Genesis is more like the God of the surrounding peoples. Their gods are the ones who are good to you when you give the correct sacrifice; the gods of the surrounding peoples would also punish harshly for transgressions, no “ifs”, “ands”, or “buts”, no mercy or grace.

The God that we read here sounds more like one of those than the God that we know. But through Genesis there is this growing awareness of a different kind of God, this Yahweh, or maybe if you can make the theological stretch that perhaps even God is learning a different way. Perhaps even in this scene where Abraham is now arguing with God about the “right thing” to do, God changes God's mind. Is it just to kill a few for the sin of the many? Will God be able to see the places of goodness, instead of only the negative. Is it possible that the righteousness of a few can save many? And for us, as followers of Christ, the question may arise in our minds as to whether it is possible for one, only one, to provide salvation for all?

And this is in part what Abraham is arguing. Maybe my father would get caught up in the numbers, but we should not. It does not matter whether it is 50 or 45 or 40 or 30 or 20 or 10. We are not in this to win a “brand new car”; we are asking questions about justice and how God's way of salvation comes from the small saving the large, the last being first.

It can be hard for us to see the small saving the large, the last being first, in our lives, in our families. And I work with many families where a parent has so developed a negative way of looking at their child or teenager that they begin to say things like, “You can never do anything right.” And that teenager or that child begins to believe them. Or perhaps it is the couple where some of the difficult experiences of life, the pain that may have occurred between them, has led to be unable to see the good any more. It can become so hard to see the good.

It is something that we have learned about how we think, how our brains work, that we build up ways of seeing the world, a way of perceiving the situations around us, a way of hearing the messages that people send us. So that after a while, even when someone says “Good Job” to us, we begin thinking of how they must think we've been performing poorly on everything else that came before it. And when you hear, “That dress is very slimming,” we immediately think about how fat they must think that we are. And it becomes important for us to speak words to our children (and to ourselves) about how good they are, whether they always do what we wish them to do . . . or not. We just love them. And we see the places of goodness, even if at times that seems like a small minority of the time, it is there. They are a child of God. We are all children of God.

But sadly we don't always see that. We all know that there are times when our own anger, our need to punish, our need to see a person or a group of people in such a negative way, that that negativity takes over. We no longer see the good. And that is perhaps the most disturbing part of this text that we have read this morning. Even though the passage that we have read this morning is a critique, if you will, of what follows, we know that the destruction still occurs. We know the rest of the story. And that story is not a story about homosexuality, but a story of the violation of the stranger, the opposite of hospitality, of a prevailing ethic in these two cities of how can I use you instead of protecting the stranger, the traveler, the sojourner, the one who is vulnerable, the one who has no power.

These cities are destroyed despite the presence of a little good in them. And maybe sometimes we too just don't seem to understand the grace that God offers us. We would rather see all the bad in ourselves instead of the good. We would rather condemn ourselves. Or perhaps we don't seem to know how to offer that grace to others; it seems easier to look at them as a bad people, as a terrible teenager, or as the bad kid.

But maybe this is where we begin to learn to. That we begin to look towards Jesus, the one who was always touching people who were not supposed to be touched, loving those who were not supposed to be loved, this Jesus who was the one through whom comes the salvation of us all.

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