Genesis 18:20-32; Luke 11:1-13
For those of you who were here last week, you will have to endure another story from the boarding school in Virginia where my wife and I live during the year because it captures an element of our first lesson from Genesis that Jason read.
Our disciplinary system for the boys at school is called the “demerit system,” by which a boy can receive a number of “demerits” for a range of inappropriate behavior. For example, a shirt untucked in violation of the school’s dress code is one demerit, whereas forty minutes late to class is nine demerits. A certain number of demerits places a boy in Saturday evening detention. In order to maintain consistency, specific infractions receive a specific number of demerits; however, it would be impossible to imagine all of the ways that a teenage boy could contrive to violate standards of decorum, so there is a catch-all infraction that we call “poor judgement,” by which a faculty member may choose to allocate any number of discretionary demerits. Some examples of “poor judgement” demerits have included using a nine iron indoors and hitting a golf ball through a wall, taking a bite out of a peer’s stick of deodorant and spitting it on his bed, or spraying aerosol near a fire alarm at 2am after your roommate farts and setting off the alarm for the whole dorm. You get the idea.
When a boy in my care has been caught with “poor judgement” they almost always know it, and they are prepared to receive demerits; however, the number of demerits awarded can become a major point of contention after the fact. So, in order to avoid a bitter dispute, I tend to ask the boy how many demerits he thinks he should receive. At this point in the conversation, there is usually a long pause, and I can almost see the boy’s thoughts working through his head. On one hand, the boy wants to receive as few demerits as possible, so suggesting a low number is appealing. On the other hand, if the boy suggests a number that is too low, I might balk at his suggestion and award him something much higher, or even worse, I might be offended by his suggestion and give him more demerits than I might have given him without a lenient suggestion. To say this in a slightly different way: the boy in this situation has discovered that I have gifted him agency and voice in an arena where he expected none, but he finds himself negotiating without power over the final verdict, so he is dependent on my judgement.
In every single instance when I have done this, the boy in question chooses a number of demerits for himself that is higher than I would have awarded him without his suggestion. Isn’t that interesting? It appears that the fear of losing his agency or being punished further for appearing indecorous is greater than the fear of the demerits itself. The conversation often goes something like this:
Me: Johnny, I’m going to have to give you “poor judgement” demerits for this.
Johnny: Yes sir, I understand.
Me: How many demerits do you think you deserve? Long pause as Johnny’s thoughts churn…
Johnny: I’d say five.
Me: Five demerits it is.
Johnny: Wait! Could I have gotten fewer?!? How about three?!?
Me: You’ll never know…
I share this extended story with you about our peculiar boarding school because it captures the dynamic of Abraham’s conversation with God in Genesis, and it illuminates something important about the nature of prayer that Jesus shares with us in the gospel lesson from Luke.
Starting with Genesis, we see Abraham negotiating with God. If you know the story, Abraham’s nephew Lot lives in Sodom, so when God tells Abraham that he is going to judge and likely destroy Sodom, Abraham engages God in a negotiation in order to spare the city of Sodom and his nephew’s life. Not unlike a school boy approaching a teacher about demerits, Abraham is extraordinarily deferential, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord,” Abraham says, we might imagine him bowing low to the ground, “I who am bust dust and ashes.” His deference makes it clear that Abraham knows that he is not on equal footing with God in this negotiation. However, perhaps to Abraham’s surprise, God engages him in a dialogue about the outcome. Again, not unlike Johnny in my example above, Abraham is gifted agency and voice in an arena where he expected none.
As a result, Abraham proceeds cautiously, starting with fifty. “If there are fifty righteous men, will you spare Sodom?” Abraham asks. When God’s response is favorable, Abraham asks for forty-five, and then forty. Growing a little more confident, Abraham doubles the intervals from five to ten, asking for thirty next instead of thirty-five. Again, a favorable response, so Abraham asks for twenty. We might imagine that Abraham is engaged in a similar thought process to the one I described for a boy who is suggesting the number of demerits he should receive for poor judgement. “Twenty is pretty good,” Abraham might be thinking, “Gosh, if I go lower, will God walk away? Or will he get angry and go back on the thirty he has already agreed to?” As we heard, Abraham decides to go for it, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more, suppose ten [righteous men] are found [in Sodom.]. God responds, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” And that is the end of the scene. Curtains down. Abraham walks away, probably pleased with his negotiating prowess.
But this narrative leaves an open and nagging question, the same question that Johnny asks from my example: How about three?!? Abraham stops at ten, but could he have gone lower? Ultimately, we might ask the final question: Would God save Sodom for the sake of one righteous man? If all we ever read is Genesis, then we would not discover the answer to this question, because the scene ends. But the story does not stop there.
Jesus shows up, and He is the answer that the New Testament provides for Abraham’s dialogue with God. One perfectly righteous man, a man who, in the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “by a single offering [of himself] has protected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14); this man named Jesus is the righteous one for whom God spares a world full of wicked, broken people. This language from Hebrews about Jesus is rich, thick Christian theology, and it is good news for those of us who have come to trust in it: no matter how broken we are, no matter how ashamed or guilty we may feel about our failures, no matter how we fail to live up to the standards of the world, God has promised to invite us into his fold for the sake of one truly righteous man. Jesus lets us know that we are so loved by Him that God will put up with all our brokenness.
Good news indeed, but this thick, rich theology isn’t where most of us spend much of our lives. I’m a priest, and I wish I could say that my daily thoughts were always informed by this kind of theology, but I would be lying to you. Most of us are getting through the day. There is a more practical lesson for us to glean from this story with Abraham, which is the lesson Jesus sets about to share in the gospel lesson today, a lesson that meets us where we are.
Jesus tells his disciples, "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” In other words, we don’t have to have the answers, but we do need to ask the question; we don’t have to know the destination, but we do need to search. Each time Abraham asked God a new question, each time he lowers his number a little bit more, he learns a new depth to God’s compassion and mercy. Abraham started with a God who needed fifty righteous men to spare Sodom, and he learned that God would spare Sodom for ten. In a short period of time, Abraham’s conception of God’s compassion increased by 500%. But Abraham stopped asking questions because he was afraid of the answer, so his understanding of God’s compassion became static, unyielding, and even arbitrary. Why 10 and not 11 or 9?
In our gospel lesson, Jesus’ disciples ask him a simple question, “Lord, teach us to pray.” In response, Jesus’ provides them with the most powerful prayer that the Christian tradition offers. Let’s focus on just one essential line from that prayer: “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done.” Jesus tells his disciples to pray for God’s will to be done because he knows that we can trust God’s will more than we can trust our own. We are accustomed by the world to think that praying is about asking God for what we want, as if praying is about bending God to our will. Jesus offers us a different model. He tells us to ask for what God wants. Jesus suggests that prayer is about aligning our will with God’s will. Abraham didn’t know that God had already foreordained that he would spare the wicked for the sake of one righteous man. If Abraham had only asked, he might have received the answer, but he didn’t ask the question!
Whenever we ask God for what we want, for what we think God is capable of, we become limited by the infinite amount of knowledge that we do not possess, and the results of our desires become infinitely contrived.
I was called back to a beautiful passage by, Austin Farrer, one of my favorite authors this week on this topic. He reflects, “Oh my folly! The world of my plans, how narrow, and bare, and stale it is! And the world of [God’s creation] which breaks my plans, how living, and various, and wide, and glorious it is!”
Many of us come to this beautiful place in the wilderness, in some sense, to escape “our plans.” Our life-plans which become so consuming and confining, so static and unyielding; our lives become limited and claustrophobic when we settle for what we already know. But the wilderness has the capacity to call forth from us a fresh curiosity and openness about God. If some of you have seen the recent photos from the James Webb telescope [pictured above], you may understand what I mean. When we experience God’s creation in all of its wonder, through galaxies billions of light years away, we can’t help but ask the question, “How? How is this all possible? What is the meaning and purpose of this?” It doesn’t have to be so grand though: an early morning kayak, an unexpected emergence of a beaver, loon, or eagle. Even the light falling just the right way through the forest canopy, so as to make us stop in our tracks and change direction. These things can knock us sideways, and bring us back to curiosity and wonder about God’s creation.
The good news of our scripture’s today is the promise that our understanding and knowledge of God will always be expanded and made more generous so long as we keep asking the question, so long as we keep engaging with God, so long as we continually offer our will up to God. We do this by saying “Thy will be done,” over and over and over again.
No matter where we find ourselves in our lives of faith: whether we have encountered Jesus or not, whether we are pious or irreverent, whether we are traditional or rebellious, the promise of God appears to be that He will forever bend our wills towards his, so long as we desire to turn towards him. I’ll close with a paraphrased word from the great English evangelist, C. S. Lewis: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ […] No soul that seriously and constantly desires [God] will ever miss [him].”