Text: Genesis 18:20-32; Luke 11:1-4
“Hey, Coach!” These days it surprises me so much when I hear this that I often don’t respond – at least not for a moment. It’s been so long since the people with whom I spent most of my time called me “Coach” or “Coach T” that it takes me a while to realize that this title is being directed to me from someone who shared my past, including a couple of Pullenites. Two careers ago I spent eight years coaching either women’s volleyball or basketball, an experience that taught me many things. One of them was something about what is required to be part of a team.
Ideally coaches try to help their athletes maximize their personal potential and fully develop their skills. But sometimes the team needs for a player to play a position that’s not the best fit for him or her because it’s what the team needs. Coaches know when they are asking a player to take on a role that is not best suited for the athlete. But the ultimate goal is to put the very best team on the field or court. This means at times individual needs are sacrificed for the good of the group. Recently reporters asked Duke’s Coach K about this being the last time he will coach the US men’s basketball team in the Olympics. Surprising some, he wouldn’t talk about it, saying “the worst thing a competitor can do is be only in your moment.” He knows well that it’s not about the individual. It’s about the team. These days there’s a steady stream of high-level college players transferring to other schools because what the team needs from them – which is sometimes to play a back-up role – isn’t what they want or need to develop as individual athletes. Being part of a team requires sacrifice that isn’t necessary when you’re on your own.
Yet none of us wants an individual to give up core aspects of his or her selfhood in order to get along with a group, be it a team or a family or a church. I may have to give up some of my individuality or things may not always go my way if I choose to be part of a group. That’s a given. The question is when what I have to give up becomes too much. Ironically the juxtaposition of the two passages Chris read today led me to ponder this tension between the individual and the community. Let me explain.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is both fascinating and troubling. Chapters 18 and 19 of Genesis tell the sordid tale of the destruction of these cities and the disgraceful misconduct of the residents, including Lot, the nephew of Abraham, and his family. As we all know, it is often argued that the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were related to homosexuality, when in fact, reputable scholars believe social injustice was their major offense. Ezekiel 16 describes their sins as arrogance and an abundance of food and ease without caring for the poor and needy. Jesus later condemns a town to a fate like Sodom because of its refusal to receive strangers who share God’s word.
Our portion of the story picks up where God and Abraham are having a conversation about the two infamous towns. Apparently Yahweh has heard the cry against Sodom and Gomorrah and feels the need to respond because their sin is very grievous. After arriving in Sodom, Abraham proceeds to bargain with God on behalf of the righteous people in the city. Note that the word “righteous” does not refer to sainthood or perfection as many of us were taught in Sunday school. The meaning of the root word for righteousness, sedaqah, is a relationship word. It’s about being in right relationship with others, not just following a strict set behavioral rules. So Abraham asks God, who is pondering the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” What if there are 50 righteous people there? Will you, the God of justice, treat them so unjustly? Abraham sticks his neck out here by raising the ethical dilemma God faces. One commentator suggests that Abraham understands his relationship with God to be such that direct questions are not only in order but welcome.
God responds by agreeing to spare the whole city if there are 50 righteous there, and the bargaining begins. What if there are 45? 40? It sounds like an auction in reverse order. Then finally, will you spare the city if there are just ten righteous people there? The reply? “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” We have to wonder if Abraham thought there were even ten righteous people in Sodom, but apparently he decided not to press his luck further. Later Lot’s family is given an opportunity to escape and the cities are destroyed. Sodom was condemned because of the way its citizens treated their sisters and brothers.
What does all of this mean? Did it even happen or is it all metaphor? We can’t know for sure. We can probably assume the numbers aren’t to be taken literally. While there is certainly much fixation on the nature of the sins in this story, many scholars contend that what this episode reveals is something important about God. That is, God cares about the individual. Just as we are each made in the image of God, the Holy One also takes us seriously as individual people. The presence of fewer and fewer good people still mattered to God. Says Professor Terrence Friethem, when Abraham saw that God’s justice had been established beyond the shadow of a doubt, he could leave the fate of the few in right relationship up to God. Another lesson is that while the misbehavior of a few can contaminate a group, the goodness of a few might save a group. The bottom line is that individuals matter.
Then we turn over to Luke’s gospel and read his recitation of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. It’s shorter than Matthew’s version – bare bones, but powerful. Luke reports that following a period of prayer by Jesus, the disciples ask him how to pray. Jesus replies, “Pray this way.”
“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Did you notice the pronouns? This prayer refers to “us.” Give “us” our daily bread. Forgive “us” our sins. Do not bring “us” to the time of trial. It is a community prayer that three of our primary needs may be met: our need for bread, forgiveness and deliverance from temptation. These are not magical words to say. Rather, they teach the disciples and us about the nature of the One to whom we pray, the one who is ultimately the source of bread, forgiveness and deliverance. And it’s a prayer of and for the community. It’s not about me but about us.
Life is always a balancing act. I believe one of our core life-long challenges has to do with living in the tension between what appear to be competing interests: “How much do I keep for myself and how much do I give away?” is one of these fundamental life questions. “How much should I do for my children and how much should I let them do for themselves?” is another one. The balance between individuals and groups is in this category. How can I take care of myself and also give myself away on behalf of others? When am I sacrificing my individuality too much in order to be part of or conform to group needs or norms? As the Lord’s Prayer is not a magic formula for praying, there is no perfect way of responding to this question either. We all have to answer it for ourselves in each period of our lives. In fact, the “me vs. others” question is one we face every single day.
During conversations about the Rule of Benedict that some of us have been having on Tuesday evenings, we’ve been hearing Sister Joan Chittister’s reflections on the rules that have given order and meaning to her life for more than 50 years. They also have framed the lives of thousands of others for more than 1500 years since Benedict’s Rule was written in the early 6th century. It was not written for saints and perfectionists, but for everyday people who want to live spiritual lives without totally withdrawing from the world around them. In her book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, Sister Joan describes what it means to be part of one community for your entire adult life. Most of us are less rooted than Joan and her fellow sisters, and we don’t live in a monastery. But she does have some important things to say about being an individual in a community that takes its group life seriously. She clearly states the dilemma we face: “Our culture trains people in individualism and then condemns them forever to live in groups, large groups.” Drawing from Sister Joan and many centuries of human experience with Benedict’s Rule, let me offer some wisdom that didn’t originate with me.
It is in the community that I really learn to listen to the voice of God in other lives and to see the face of God in the other as well as in my own. It is in the community that I learn to wield patience as well as power. It is easy to be even-tempered in private. It is easy to be virtuous alone. It is easy to be strong when untried. It is easy to win when there is nothing to endure.
It is easy to make decisions when it’s just me. It is also easy to be superficial and self-centered and characterless. We have plenty of examples of this in our country today, and it isn’t pretty or inspiring or life-giving. In fact, it is devastating for our society.
Almost everything today is immediate, private and fluid. That is our American inclination and our technology magnifies it. The new and very popular game Pokémon Go drew a large group of people to the Durham Bulls baseball field recently. But they were playing the game as individuals – it was a crowd of people primarily interacting with their phones instead of engaging with others. Our lives are so mobile, so technology-based these days that loneliness and fragmentation and selfishness are endemic to the culture. We confuse community with living in groups. Yet lots of people seem to be living alone in the same space as others.
Fullness of life is more than preservation of the self. We are not to be our own law nor the centers of our universe. Life is for something other than our satisfactions. Friendships, relationships and community call us out of isolation and selfishness in order to teach us how to love and how to serve and how to grow. Sister Joan says being in community wears our rough edges off. As we try to form community, we are formed by it.
For those who live by the Rule of Benedict or other similar wisdom teachings, growth is the goal – not perfection, but growth. And growth comes when we can hear another view, learn another way, conceive of the possibility that someone else might have wisdom to share or even a better idea. If I’m in control (to the degree any of us can be), I can do it my way. But when I’m in a friendship or a family or a congregation, my needs and my views aren’t the only consideration.
Balancing this with my very real need to take care of myself, to speak my truth and give voice to my needs can be one of life’s most significant challenges. Some of us grew up with what has become known as “worm theology.” That term was mentioned in a group recently and some looked puzzled, so let me explain. Many of us were raised in churches where we sang a hymn that began this way:
Alas! and did my Savior bleed and did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?
An update of the hymn now says, “For sinners such as I?” but for many the “worm theology” is indelibly imprinted in their consciousness.
This kind of theology is totally foreign to what Sister Joan is offering us. She’s naming an understanding of God and our calling to be “servants” in the world based on a soul-deep awareness of our belovedness in God’s eyes – not a view that says we’re depraved sinners in the eyes of an angry God. It is because we are so loved and valued by our Creator that we can give ourselves away and not need to constantly proclaim our worthiness to ourselves and to others.
This tension I’ve named between being whole as individuals and self-giving members of a group is a paradox because we are called to both at the same time. And, I believe, this seeming contradiction is based on another more fundamental one I will describe this way: We are each absolutely and eternally loved by God just as we are AND God is always calling us to more – to be more loving, more forgiving, more patient, more compassionate, more open to the needs of others and the world in which we live. Yes, we were created in God’s image, and we are God’s beloved. But it doesn’t stop there. I don’t think God says to us, “Yes, I love you dearly, and you can just keep on being exactly like you are and never change.” Instead I think our Creator says, “I adore you as you are, and because I love you so much, I want you to grow into an even more exquisite creature than you are today.” Loren Mead, a church consultant, once said: God is always calling us to be more than we have been. That doesn’t mean we’re not enough in our basic nature. It means that God sees all the possibilities within us and wants us to realize as many of them as we can in this life.
If our goal in life is to love as God loves, and I hope it is, this makes for a lot of hard work in our relationships with spouses, partners, children, parents, friends and fellow church members. Finding the balance is tricky. Some of us have a tendency to over-emphasize the “you are beloved” part and not challenge those we love to grow and change. This results is asking too little of them. Yet, on the other side, we can also err by losing sight of that core belovedness and instead demand that our loved ones be something they aren’t, can’t be and never were intended to be. Finding a balanced place in the middle is a life-long challenge if we do indeed want to love others as God loves us.
So I hope you’ll take from today’s texts that it’s about me AND it’s about us. God cares for each of us as unique individuals but also desires that we build deep, supportive relationships with others. The troubling Sodom and Gomorrah story demonstrates that individuals matter to God. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of a community that is bound together. In its current state our world desperately needs people who know their worth and who use that knowledge to fuel their work for justice and peace in ways that affirm the worth of others. This is our calling and it is a life-long journey with many detours along the way. This way of living is not achieved by denying one part of life for the sake of another. It requires steady, steady attention in a world that constantly tries to distract us. Sister Joan says the monastic learns young to realize that the whole of life must be open to the possibility of change, always and everywhere, because God cannot be defined by yesterday. To find the Holy One we must always be ready to bend our hearts and change our paths and open our minds. At its core, this means that our own welfare and the welfare of others are bound together.
What I learned in my coaching days is that being part of a team may not allow me to be a star. But it can turn me into a more balanced, unselfish and loving individual – and, God knows, our world needs a lot more of those.