Sixteen years ago today (27th July 1998) I preached this homily to the crowd in Oakland for Sunday Week 17 of Year C (Gen 18:20-32; Col 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13). It has more than usual of me front and centre and it is a little painful to re-read it knowing that though the dissertation I talk about was finally written (at least as a good first draft) it was never submitted.
Since prayer is, perhaps above all, about honesty I need to be honest with you this morning. I find myself right now at a low ebb in the tide of my life. It’s all focused on my dissertation writing which seems to be going nowhere. I can’t bring myself to do what I need to do and I’m feeling stupid and lazy and full of shame over it. So I revert to long-ago patterns and do what I’ve always done when my personal tide is out: I withdraw, I hide away, and I don’t answer my phone calls in case any encounter might deepen the sense of failure.
Those unanswered phone calls are a perfect metaphor for my prayer right now too. It is as though God keeps leaving messages on my answering machine that I listen to but leave unanswered. It’s not that the messages are threatening — quite the contrary — they are messages of hope and devotion and life that even in my torpor can bring a smile to my face or tears to my eyes. Waking mornings, there are love songs on my lips. Sitting at the computer, a gentle touch on my shoulder offers a presence. Driving, an undeserved turn of sunlight brightens everything. No, the messages are good ones, messages a friend or a lover would leave. Earnest, concerned, faithful. But still I listen and leave it at that. Because maybe to answer is to ask for trouble. Because maybe I’m not too sure, in my deepest heart, that I should let God get my hopes up. Because God might not be all God appears to be.
But isn’t that the question with all prayer. Who is this God who wants to engage us in conversion? And why? If we knew no other tales than this most ancient one told today of Abraham and Adonai what would we know about God?
We’d know that this God is curiously like a human being but with an awesome power to punish — at least that’s how Abraham treats his mysterious visitor. We’d know from Adonai’s own lips that the cries of the innocent for justice have brought God here on the road to Sodom. Adonai is here to see for himself what his ears have heard. What else do we know? Very little. But after Abraham has finished with God we know a little more. Or we think we do. We discover that God can be swayed by the wheedling of a persistent patriarch. But how much of what we we’ve learned is the image of Abraham’s fear and how much is a glimpse of God’s self? It is, after all, Abraham who brings up the whole business of death, of smiting and sweeping away. If you could listen just to God’s words all you’d hear is the constant promise of life: while Abraham is playing patriarchs with God, God is simple and direct. “Fifty innocent people and Sodom is safe.” “45.” “30.” 20.” “Ten innocent people and Sodom is safe.” Among the posturing and politics, what does God say over and over again: “I will not destroy.” “I will not destroy.”
Now, Abraham is so pleased by his bold haggling with God that he doesn’t notice that how easily the bargain is struck. And, because he believes the worst of God and because he listens with fear, Abraham stops too soon. Why didn’t he go further and try and knock God down to five innocents or one or none at all? If Abraham had been listening to what God actually said he might have asked a different question altogether. What would we have found out about God then?
Jesus is the one who kept on asking. Who didn’t stop short. The one who refused to believe the worst of God. He learned it in his own life but he also learned that each one has to discover that trust for themselves. It cannot be taught because it never ceases to be a question: ‘who is God?”; “would God do this to me?” So Jesus asks the questions: “would you do that to your child?”; “well, is God better or worse than you?”
It is that last question that can get you into trouble. I guess you have to be careful who you ask. But Jesus kept on asking until someone took him seriously and nailed him and his questions to a cross. Would you do that to your child? Would God?
Well it depends on who you think God is. Does God sit there with his celestial remote-control waiting to press the smite button? Or does God sometimes not get what God wants? Does God ask and not receive, seek and not find, knock and have the door slammed shut?
Maybe sometimes God’s calls go unanswered. The messages heard but unheeded. Not out of malice. Not even out of fear. Sometimes the truth is too good to believe. Sometimes the offer of life is too embarrassing.
But, thank God, where I would have given up long ago God is shameless. The calls keep on coming. God still sings songs of love and surprises with a gentle touch and still lights up the sky of life. God still offers and hopes … and waits.