This summer at Church of Peace we’re doing something unusual and courageous. Right out loud in the church service we are reading and hearing the terrible songs and stories of God. It is all right to be honest about how this feels. Look, it’s a [lovely] summer Sunday. We’re in here sheltered by the dome and the mural, wrapped up in the music, seeing the light of God in the faces of the people we love. And in the middle of all this church-scented loveliness, we are choosing to hear the violence of God. It is all right to notice, something is wrong.
Watch the news and see images of children being taken by ICE agents. You know our children practice hiding in closets at school, crammed together in silence so the shooter won’t find them. Still children are forced to get out of the car. Sit down here on the curb, we’re going to handcuff your parents while we search the vehicle. If you see this happening, and you notice something is wrong, you are not mistaken. You are not lying.
Today Ron did not read one of the imprecatory Psalms; I’m afraid it’s worse. Our scripture is the story of the LORD our God raining down sulphur and fire upon a cluster of cities destroying every person, every cow, every flower—except for Lot and his daughters. Now before the section Ron read, there are two vignettes leading up to this action.
First, the LORD our God wonders whether to tell Abraham about his plan to wipe out the Cities of the Plain. When God decides to let him in on it, Abraham shames God into reconsidering. “Come on God, this is not who you are,” Abraham prays. Then he begins to negotiate. “How ‘bout this. Say I find fifty righteous people in Sodom, will you forgive the whole city on account of fifty who don’t deserve to get killed?” God says, “Sure. Find me Fifty.” “All right, God. Thanks. What if I can’t find fifty; what about forty-five?” God answers, “Sure. Find me forty-five righteous people, I’ll spare the city.”
And you know how these stories go, Abraham keeps negotiating and gets God down to ten people. But the people who made up this story want to underscore the sinfulness of Sodom. Not even ten righteous people could be found! And so God does not think of the rainbow, the sign promising never again to destroy the world. And God does not summon a prophet like Jonah to go persuade the people to repent. No, God’s mind is set. Off she goes to mix up the sulphur and fire.
Meanwhile, the second thing happens. There weren’t ten righteous people in the city, but God thinks there’s one, so she sends two angels to get Lot and his family out of Sodom before the firestorm begins. Remember whoever made up this story wants to convince us that Sodom was consumed by sin. So the story goes that the men in the town tried to attack the angels who were staying at Lot’s house; the townsfolk formed a mob and tried to gang rape them.
Today there are are Christian preachers who invoke this incident to argue that the sinfulness of Sodom was that men wanted to sleep with other men. Let me be clear. This is not a story about men being attracted to other men, and loving other men, and sleeping with the men whom they love. This is a story about gang rape. And it gets worse.
When Lot refuses to let the men of the town grab the angels in his house, he offers up his daughters instead. They’re virgins, he explains. Perhaps you would like to rape them? Instead, the angels strike the townsfolk blind, pull Lot into the house, and lock the door.
The next morning, God *in his mercy* takes Lot by the hand and hauls him out of the city with his wife and daughters. Then the LORD pours the fire down on everything living, but Lot and his daughters make it to the next town. Lot’s wife looked back, and no mercy this time. She got herself turned into a pillar of salt. And it gets worse. In the new town, Lot’s daughters get him drunk, and they each rape their father, and the angels of the LORD do not stop them. God wiped out the Cities of the Plain; so you could see the smoke of the land rising up to the sky like smoke from a furnace.
This is a story of intimate violence —people raping members of their own family. This is the story of massive indiscriminate violence —even the animals and littlest children were killed by the fire of the bomb. In the middle of the horror, what’s getting me is that I think I’m a person who knows God. The God I love and worship and mean to give my life to, is not the God in this story.
Now I know, this story was made up by human people, and its authors had an agenda. They needed to explain how the Cities of the Plain were destroyed. They wanted to scare the children —to emphasize the sinfulness so every city will be afraid of God’s wrath. Okay. So let’s say these people were making up a story about God, and say they were mistaken. Their idea of God does not match my idea of God, can’t we just agree to disagree and move on. Only thing is…
What if the people who made up this story know something of God that I don’t? What if they’re not even lying…
See I want to fix this story for us and I can’t. I cannot reconcile this God who will storm into the school and blow it to pieces with the God I praise and pray to. I don’t know who this God is, and maybe it is all right to be honest about that.
The truth is none of us know all of God; there’s always an other side we cannot see. What I’m learning is that growing in my faith involves being honest, then becoming increasingly more and more honest, about what I don’t know.
We live in a world where information is what soothes our fear. You need to know why anything happens, Google it or ask Siri; there are answers to everything. But when your question is, “Why did I get to walk out of the school alive?” you’re not looking for a flippant answer. You might be looking for someone who will tell you the truth, someone who will say, “I don’t know why, but if that’s what you’re asking God, I will stand beside you and join my prayer with yours.”
When we become ferociously honest about what we don’t know of God, what some call the mystery of God, what happens is we’re able to become more and more honest about what we do know of God — just like it’s the darkness in the theatre that makes the spotlight matter. Moving deeper into the mystery of God, right into the violence and the trouble —moving deeper into what we don’t know— this exposes what we do know to be true. Here we see how the power of God is compassion. We can see peace from this place, and it’s even not wishful thinking, and we’re not even lying.
This work of becoming more and more honest is the work of our faith, and I’m commending it to us as a strategy for hearing the dreadful Bible stories and the imprecatory Psalms. There’s something terrible we don’t understand. There’s something beautiful we don’t understand. There’s something beautiful we really can see, Behold. This rigorous honesty is how I am growing in my faith; it might help you grow in yours, and if so, that could be enough.
But there’s something more. What if our effort to grow in faith is not just for our own spiritual fulfillment, what if growing in faith could actually turn the world toward peace…
Right now, we’re living in a world shocked and shaken by violence. If you, yourself, have not experienced violence in your life, you are sitting near someone who has. If you do not know someone who has been killed by the shooting of a gun, you’re sitting near someone who does. Nobody gets out unscathed.
Right now, people who survive violence do not need flippant answers from Christians who’ve got God all figured out. They do not need people to tell them, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” when the people saying this don’t really mean it, when that phrase gets hurled at the hurting because we do not know what else to say.
As a church, we have something better to offer. For one thing, we’re not afraid to listen to survivors, even when this means hearing the horror. Listening to horror is pretty much our project this summer; we are training for this.
We are not afraid to say, “I don’t know why” when that is the truth. We’re not afraid to look for the helpers, to say the prayers that summon the angels, to say “Hold on, it’s not over yet,” when that is the truth. Our commitment to be honest and ever more honest, this might be exactly what is needed in the moment when there are no satisfying answers.
As the church, we can do the work of keeping the names of the people before God to protect them from the violence of being forgotten. We can carry them in our thoughts and prayers, so when we say this we’re not even lying.
I do not know all of God; I know this much is true. It is God who comes to those who weep to wipe their tears away. When you watch the news and see one more candlelight vigil, and see the tears on the faces of teenagers, and see they match the tears on your face, on my face, and LORD have mercy, Christ have mercy, LORD have mercy upon us…. you have a prayer for peace in you. Please do not withhold your prayer.
If you’ve got peace like a river in your soul, love like a river in your soul, if you can dream of the day, please do not withhold this truth. The world is longing for this. May it be so. Amen.