Saturday, July 27, 2013
Hidden Oaks of Righteousness
RCL Proper 17C
28 July 2013
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
During the last fifteen years our church has been racked with conflict over the place of gay and lesbian Christians in the life of the church. This conflict has divided friends, families and congregations. It has led to scriptural duels in which opponents fling Scripture at each other much in the same way that the warring wizards and witches of Harry Potter’s world fling curses and hexes at each other. Most of the casualties have not been among the warring wizards and witches but among those who have been on the sidelines.
One of the scriptural passages that has been frequently invoked in this conflict begins with are chapters 18 and 19 of Genesis where the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is both debated and accomplished. The great debate is over what the ‘sin’ of the cities is. For some this sin is sexual immorality with an implication that this immorality is a homosexual one. But what is a more compelling explanation is found in the word God uses to describe the reason for divine intervention: ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!’ (Genesis 18.20). The word ‘outcry’ is a term used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to the cry of victims of injustice and oppression (see Exodus 3.7 and Isaiah 5.7).  It suggests that the sin of the twin cities is one of social and economic injustice, a very different kettle of fish, and one which permeates our own societies. 
But our debates about sexuality may have clouded our eyes to what is an even more important teaching embedded in today’s reading from Genesis 18. This teaching emerges out of Abraham’s bargaining with God over the fate of the two cities.
Notice that Abraham’s demand is not that the guilty be punished and the innocent spared, but rather that the Lord forgive [the entire city] for the sake of the innocent . . . who are in it. 
What Abraham is pleading for God to consider is that those who are righteous, who are faithful to God, even if they are a tiny minority, shield the unrighteous, the violent, the unjust from God’s justified anger and destructive power. 
Later Jewish theological and spiritual reflection will develop this idea into the notion that the world as we know it is shielded from destruction by the existence of thirty-six righteous persons. So long as there are these Tzadikim Nistarim, the ‘hidden righteous’, God preserves this world, even if we were to fall into total barbarism. While this may seem at first to be a strange teaching, it has at its core the belief in God’s compassion for all that God has made and the unconquerable hope that God’s purposes for this creation will be accomplished.
So, what has this to do with us, Anglican Christians living in the second decade of the twenty-first century? It is a reminder that prayer matters. Prayer shapes the one who prays in ways that we cannot imagine and forges us into tools that God uses to renew the world in which we live. To be righteous is to seek to be faithful to God at all times and in all places; to be righteous is to be a living sign of God’s compassion and a source of hope for others.
It is this kind of righteousness that Jesus seeks to establish among his disciples when he teaches them how to pray.
‘Father, hallowed be your name’: I once read a foolish essay that suggested that God’s name is ‘Father’. When Jesus calls God ‘Father’, he is inviting us to share in an intimate relationship with the one who created us. Even though the universe we inhabit is immense, we dare to claim that the One who created all that is can be known and experienced as personally as we know any other friend or family member.
‘Your kingdom come’: In one brief phrase we express our belief that God is sovereign and that God’s purposes will be achieved. We are surrounded by real and imagined authorities who sometimes act as if they are sovereign. While they have power over us, they cannot claim our ultimate allegiance. This is a radical political statement that we often make without contemplating the full implication of it.
‘Give us each day our daily bread’: With another brief phrase we undermine all our illusions of self-sufficiency. All that we have is first and foremost a gift. Our every breathing moment is gift; every morsel of food we eat is gift; every possession we have is ultimately gift.
‘Forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us’: There is no more difficult petition in Christian worship. If there is one thing that I know about myself, it is how hard it is for me to forgive. Yet, when I recite this prayer, I hold myself hostage to bitterness and narrowness, so long as I am unable to forgive others. I tell you truly; I know too many people who are burdened with wrongs that they cannot set aside and with wounds they keep open.
‘Do not bring us to the time of trial’: This is a difficult petition and much ink has been used in trying to explain it. I have found some guidance in a form of the Lord’s Prayer that reads, ‘save us in the time of trial’. We have faced, are facing and will face temptations to turn away from following the way of Christ. What we need is God’s wisdom when we come to these moments and courage to act as Christians even when it is not convenient to do so.
To seek to live as one of God’s righteous ones is not about arrogance or pride or religious tribalism. Righteousness is found in doing justice, fostering reconciliation, loving steadfastly and serving all of humanity and all of creation with humility. Each time the Lord’s Prayer is recited, we hear anew petitions that help us understand the shape of genuine righteousness. We are reminded that the world is upheld not by many but by a few 'oaks of righteousness' who are known to God and on whose behalf God continues to work for the renewal of this fragile earth, our island home.
May the number of God’s ‘hidden ones’ increase and may we be found among them. Amen.