Hespeler, 28, July 2019 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 18:20-32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15, Luke 11:1-13
ou have heard that somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, stretching, in fact, much of the way between California and Japan, there is a massive patch of floating plastic that does nothing but grow every year. Fish, birds, whales and dolphins have floated in with their stomachs full of the stuff and having choked to death on it.
You know that plastic, a lot of it, will hang around in landfills, dumps and in the food chain for hundreds if not thousands of years. And you have also recently heard that, for all the hoopla over recycling, most recycling programs for things like plastic bags have been complete failures and that these days, the Asian countries that we had been shipping used plastics to have started to refuse to even receive them.
You know all of that, all of the problems associated with single-use plastics. But you’re standing here on the checkout line and, yes, once again you forgot to bring along your reusable shopping bags. You must have about a hundred in your trunk, but they’re really no help to you there. You only have three or four items with you, you could probably juggle them out to the car without too much trouble. But then people would probably look at you kind of funny and you can’t have that. And so, when you get there, and the inevitable question comes, “Would you like a bag?” of course you answer yes. It is convenient. It is sanitary. But what is the number one reason why you say yes? We’ve all said it to ourselves from time to time. “Ah, what difference does it make what one person does?” The problem is so huge and one bag doesn’t count for anything.
It’s almost become a tenet of our society – our go-to answer to every moral quandary of modern life. “Why not just crank up the air conditioning throughout the summer? Why should I pass up my comfort when my neighbour doesn’t?” The answer we give is, “what difference can one person’s energy use make in global warming?”
Or if somebody asks the question, “Why doesn’t somebody stand up against the terrible ways that people talk about immigrants and refugees these days,” the answer is always, “What can one person do to make a difference against all the terrible rhetoric that is out there?”
It is, in many ways, the great question. Or perhaps it is just the greatest excuse. But whichever it is, wouldn’t you like to have the answer? Wouldn’t you like to know what difference one person can make? Which is exactly why I am so upset with Abraham this morning. I mean, he had God right there. He had God on the record and yet he didn’t ask the question. He started at fifty and he firmly established that, yes, fifty righteous people – fifty people doing the right thing – could make a difference, that they could even save a city that was filled with wickedness and doomed to destruction.
And then, just like good Middle Eastern trader, Abraham started to haggle. “Okay,” he said, “so we’ve established that fifty is enough. Surely you wouldn’t destroy an entire city for the lack of, say, just five people?” and so Abraham gets God down to forty-five, and then forty, thirty, twenty and even ten! Oh, Abraham is a master at the art of haggling. But he stops too soon. He gets God all the way down to ten and then he doesn’t push it any farther. Why not? Why not push it down to five? to three? to one? Would we not then finally have the definitive answer to the eternal question: what difference can one person make?
Now I know that there are some who would refuse to take this strange conversation between God and Abraham and apply it to modern issues like global warming and single-use plastics. They would say that this debate is about a particular situation and a particular kind of threat and that we should not take the story of Sodom and apply it to different kinds of threats that we might face today. I’d just like to point out that that is not how the Bible treats the story of Sodom at all.
The writers of the Bible were only too happy to take the example of Sodom and Gomorrah and apply it to whatever contemporary issues they felt to be most important. Just about every time you have a prophet or a preacher in the Bible who wants to warn a people or a nation that they are treading on thin ice and are risking disaster, they tell them that they are behaving just like Sodom and Gomorrah no matter what particular thing they are doing that the speaker feels is wrong.
And so, for example, the prophet Ezekiel at one point explains that the sin of Sodom was that it “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) That was what Ezekiel said that Sodom did wrong. But I don’t believe that Ezekiel said this because he had special insider information about what life was really like in Sodom. (There is no mention of such problems in Sodom anywhere else in the Bible.) But Ezekiel says it because he is speaking about that very problem in the Kingdom of Judah in his own time. By comparing them to Sodom, he’s not making a literal connection between the failings of the two places, it is just a way of saying that Judah’s behaviour is just as destructive as Sodom’s was.
Jesus did the same thing when he spoke about Sodom. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” (Matthew 10:15) But the “that town” that Jesus was talking about was any town that failed to offer hospitality to him and his disciples. So, Jesus also defined the failure of Sodom (which, according to Genesis, did doom itself by failing to offer hospitality to angelic visitors) in terms of the failure of towns and cities in his own time. So when the Bible talks about Sodom, and it talks about it a lot, it is clearly not just talking about one particular time and place or what was specifically happening there, but about ongoing ways in which human beings are risking disaster and destruction.
My favourite application of the Sodom story in the Bible, in fact, is found in one of the strangest letters of the New Testament, the Letter of Jude. Jude blames the destruction of Sodom on people pursuing “strange flesh,” (Jude 7 *see footnote) that is to say the flesh of angels, but that is clearly because he had a bit of an obsession with how people in his own day were inappropriately dealing with angelic matters and ideas.
So, the city of Sodom is, in the Bible, a convenient way to talk about all kinds of self-destructive human behaviour. It is entirely consistent for us to use that story to talk about the kinds of issues that we face today. In a very real sense, in this story, Abraham and God are debating about the difference that one person can make in global warming, in the accumulation of waste plastic and a host of other issues that may threaten our world and our survival today. They are debating the very question that still affects us and our actions today.
Except, as I say, when Abraham has the chance, he kind of lets God off the hook. He gets God bartered down to ten and then he gives up and lets God go. So we never get the definitive answer to the question, what difference can the actions of one person make. And I can’t help but wonder whether that might be the point. Maybe that is precisely the question that is not supposed to be answered. When you are faced with the choice – Do I add to the mountain of plastic by taking this one bag I don’t need or do I not? Do I choose the more fuel-efficient option even if it costs me a bit more? Do I take the chance and maybe pay the price by speaking up for an injustice that I see? – when you are faced with that choice, the simple truth is that you don’t get to know what the result of your brave or wise action will be. You have to act in faith and in hope, even though you have no guarantee that it will make a difference. That is the kind of faith that God looks for from us and I believe that God always rewards that kind of faith.
So maybe that is the part of the answer to the eternal question that we are given in this passage: you don’t get to know whether what you do will make a difference, but that does not absolve you from doing what is right. But I am not sure that that is the whole answer. It is true that the debate between God and Abraham over how many righteous people it takes to save a society ends when they get to ten. God may have walked away at that point, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the debate was over. In many ways, the rest of the Bible is the continuation of the debate over that question as it tells the story of person after person who takes a stand for what he or she feels is right and just. What are the stories of Joseph, of Moses, of prophets like Amos or Jeremiah and women like Esther and Mary if they are not stories of just such individuals? Is not Jesus himself the ultimate example of someone who did the right thing at the highest cost? And does not the very fact that we remember those people, that their stories have endured, an indication that the answer might be yes, that one person does make a difference.
There is one particular figure in the early Christian church who is an indication that this particular debate that we read in the Book of Genesis this morning was still a lively debate into the early life of the church. You may have heard of him; he was one of the most famous Christians of the first century. His name was James. He was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He was often called James the Brother of Jesus, but most people seemed to know him by another name. Both his fellow believers and others called him James the Just.
Now understand that that word “just” is the same word (both in Hebrew and Greek versions of the story) as the word that Abraham and God are arguing over in Genesis – it is the word righteous. The name seems to be an indication that people – both Christians and non-Christians by the way – saw James as the kind of person who was so righteous that he could save an entire city from destruction. In other words, they extended Abraham and God’s debate to its logical conclusion and the answer was one. It really only required one righteous person to save an entire city from destruction.
James the Just was eventually assassinated. According to some reports, he was thrown down from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. This happened just before the Romans attacked and destroyed the city and temple of Jerusalem in 70 ad. You can be sure that many people made the clear connection between the two events. Maybe James really had been the only thing that was saving them from self-destructing in a foolish and violent rebellion against Rome.
The answer is one. The actions of one person who does the right thing do matter. Maybe God didn’t let Abraham push the question to that point because he knew that the thing that makes the right action effective is that it is undertaken in faith. You don’t do it because you have a guarantee that it will work but because you are willing to trust God to take what you do and multiply it through the actions of many others. But whatever you do, don’t believe the lie that this world tries to sell you that your decisions and actions don’t matter. They do. You are a child of a God who would do anything for your sake. Of course, God will bless what you do for the sake of what is right and just and good. The answer is one. It takes one.