Negotiating with God

Negotiating with God July 23, 2022

I have the privilege of giving the sermon today at Trinity Episcopal Church in Pawtuxet, RI. The lectionary texts I’ll be using are Genesis 18:20-32 and Luke 11:1-13. Here’s what I’ll be saying . . .

Today’s lectionary readings raise an important question that any serious person of faith asks on a regular basis, even though we know that we aren’t supposed to ask it. That question is: What is the best way to negotiate with God?

“God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” I was taught as a youth that this is how a human being is supposed to interact with God. Find out what God said about it, accept it unquestioningly, act on it, and move on. Don’t ask questions. How do I know what God says about something? It’s in the Bible, God’s exclusive way of communicating with human beings for the last many centuries. That, at least, is how I processed what I was taught as a kid (even though I had many unspoken questions).

There’s plenty of evidence in the Jewish scriptures that this might actually be the best way to think about God’s relationship with us. God tells Noah to build an ark to certain specifications, and Noah does it. In a later story, God tells the Israelites to kill all the inhabitants of a certain city once they have won the battle and punishes them when they fail to do so. And just four chapters after today’s reading from Genesis, God tells Abraham to offer his son Isaac up as a burnt offering to God, and Abraham fully intends to do it until stopped at the last second (more on that later). All of these sound like the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” perspective, one that many Christians and other persons of faith still embrace.

But Genesis 18, today’s reading from the Jewish scriptures, tells a very different story. Abraham and his entourage, who have been the central characters of the Genesis narrative for several chapters, have come to the region of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is a wanderer, as the children of Israel will be in the book of Exodus to come; it is clear throughout the Pentateuch that this is a nomadic God who is suspicious of cities and “settling down.” We have already been told in an earlier chapter that the citizens of Sodom “were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the Lord”; we also know that Abraham’s nephew Lot, tired of wandering around following this seemingly arbitrary God with Abraham, has settled down with his family in Sodom.

That backstory explains why Abraham is immediately concerned when God lets Abraham know that the wickedness of Sodom has reached the point that God can’t stand the sight or stench of the place any longer. Sensing that God is going to wipe Sodom off the map (God has, after all, done this sort of thing before), Abraham immediately starts negotiating. His family, after all, lives in this city that God is intending to indiscriminately destroy.

He begins by asking God what appears to be an innocent, but turns out to be a game-changing, question: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”, followed by “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?” It would be wrong for you to wipe out the righteous and the wicked together as if there is no difference between them. “Far be it from you to do such a thing,” Abraham says. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

Notice what’s going on here. Abraham is accusing God of planning something that is inherently unjust and unfair. This only makes sense if the standard of fairness and justice that Abraham has in mind is independent of God. In this conversation, the mere fact that God intends to do something doesn’t make it right—it isn’t that simple. Abraham is holding God to the same standard of justice and fairness that we claim to hold each other to.

A story such as this would have been shocking to those who heard it for the first time. Ancient cultures viewed the gods as something or someone to be appeased, to be groveled before, and to be sacrificed to. A God who is willing to converse and negotiate? A God who is willing to change its mind? A God who is willing to be held to a moral standard that applies equally to divine and human alike? Unheard of. But that’s the God who occasionally shows up in these ancient stories, defying expectations and breaking the traditional mold. The God of Genesis 18 is perfectly willing to negotiate with Abraham, just as we do with each other. It’s worth noting that even though Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed in the next chapter, Lot and his family make it out alive. Abraham’s negotiations are successful

Even the well-known story of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac in obedience to God’s directive four chapters later has an unexpected ending. Abraham lived in a culture where human sacrifice to the gods, often the sacrifice of a child, was common. God’s command to Abraham makes perfect sense in that culture—until the story turns expectations on their head when God stops Abraham at the last second and provides a non-human substitute. What kind of God is this? From the outside, it might be said that God is changing and evolving just as human beings do.

Today’s gospel reading from Luke continues the issue of how to negotiate with God in several interesting ways. Setting aside Luke’s version of The Lord’s Prayer (did you note that it’s quite different than Matthew’s version that we’ll all be saying together later this morning?), think about the odd parable that Jesus tells immediately after. As with all of his parables, Jesus is placing us in a situation that most of us are familiar with. If the poor guy without enough to feed his unexpected late-night guest is us, and his friend who reluctantly gets out of the comfort of his bed to help him out after several refusals is God, what are we supposed to learn about our relationship with God from this story?

It’s important to see that the two guys are friends, but equally important to note that in this case, mere friendship is not enough. Friendship plus persistence to the point of annoyance is what does the trick and gets the guy out of bed. But the man who needs help trusts his friendship with the guy in bed sufficiently to believe that pounding on his friend’s door and getting him out of bed might piss his friend off briefly but won’t ruin their friendship. I doubt the guy needing bread would have acted the same way at a stranger’s door.

The parable is a set-up for a very familiar passage, probably one of the first half-dozen Bible verses I ever memorized as a young child. Here’s how I learned it.

Ask, and it shall be given you. Seek, and you shall find. Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you.

And what exactly is such persistence supposed to produce? I know as a kid, I thought this meant that if I begged, cried, moaned, and insisted persistently to God enough for something, I would get what I want. When Jeanne’s and my 10-month-old corgi Bovina wants something, she postures, whines, barks, and makes a general nuisance of herself until she gets what she wants. And it works. Every time. Just like it did for the guy pounding on his friend’s door at midnight. Worth remembering the next time you are inclined to pray for something specific.

Jesus closes today’s gospel passage with final examples that seem to confirm the impressions created earlier. A decent parent does not give a snake to a kid who is asking for a fish, nor does she give a scorpion to her child who wants eggs for breakfast. We all know where this is going—just as an imperfect human parent knows enough to give a child what they want rather than something random and harmful, so will God do for you.

Except that’s not what Jesus says. Here’s what Jesus does say:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

This completely changes the dynamic. What exactly does it mean that in response to our specific requests, many of which arguably might be random or poor things to be asking for, we get the Holy Spirit in response?

Remember back to Pentecost several weeks ago. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of divine presence and power in each of us, a continuing incarnation in which God engages with the world through human beings. Among other things, that means that bringing the divine into the world is our responsibility. It’s on us. God is no longer in the business of handing out gifts from on high, if God ever was in that business in the first place. As Benedictine sister Joan Chittister writes,

Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness, and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.

We, as bearers of the divine into the world, are the answers to prayer. We are the ones tasked with being the mercy and justice, the charity and care that we so often look heavenward for. We’re it.

One final observation. As Jeanne and I talked about these texts this week (I really needed help tying things together), we both noted a continuing thread that runs through the Genesis and Luke texts. In all of these stories, God is a person. A real person seeking to engage with human beings just as human beings should be seeking to engage with each other along with all that entails. Negotiation and persistence to the point of nagging are on the table, because that’s what people do. Scholars talk about the tension between the transcendence and the immanence of God, between the “Otherness” and “intimate presence” of the divine. Today’s texts are all about immanence. God is here. God is present. God is a person seeking relationship with you. Amen.

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