21 March 2021, 12:32
Genesis 4:1-16 and John 8:31-47
© Stacey Steck
Call me old fashioned, but I’m a huge fan of the good old Broadway musicals of the 1950s and 60s. I can’t get enough of Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, The King and I, Singing in the Rain, and most especially Oklahoma, my absolute favorite, that great Rodgers and Hammerstein classic set on the frontier. “O, what a beautiful morning, O what a beautiful day. I’ve got a fresh cup of coffee, everything’s going my way.” How can you go wrong with a show that begins that perfectly! Of course, the backdrop to all the drama in the show is the growing conflict between the farmers and the ranchers symbolized by the contested courtship of the beautiful Laurey by the cowboy Curly on the one hand, and the farm hand Jud on the other. You may remember the scene in which the showdown between the farmers and the ranchers comes to a head, and has to be defused by the more cool headed members of the community, who remind everyone that, and I quote:
The farmer and the cowman should be friends.
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow,
But that's no reason why they cain’t be friends.
Now, it’s too bad Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn’t written their lyrics by the time Cain took Abel out to a field and killed him. Maybe he would have seen the error of his ways and spared himself a lot of grief, not to mention Abel’s life. Then again, he didn’t even listen to God’s advice, so maybe there really was no talking to him. But Cain the farmer saw Abel the rancher as a threat, and saw no reason why they should be friends, or brothers, for that matter. What Cain couldn’t seem to embrace was what Aunt Eller told the feuding cowboys and farm hands back in Oklahoma,
I’d like to teach you all a little sayin’
And learn the words by heart the way you should
I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else
But I’ll be danged if I ain’t jist as good!
In a way, that was God’s message to Cain when Cain’s “countenance fell.” “Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” God seems to be comforting Cain by telling him that his problem was a matter of effort not character. He is “good” enough, just as good as his brother, and doesn’t need to be any better, but just needs to put a little more thought into it next time. The quick and common reading of this passage leads many people to believe that God favored Abel’s gift over Cain’s because Abel’s was a gift of livestock, which was somehow better. While that may be possible, what it far more likely is that what displeased God was not a question of which agricultural product was superior, but rather the quality of the product offered. “In the course of time,” the Bible says, “Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions,” in other words, Cain brought just the basics, while Abel brought the best. And this difference is what God seems to be highlighting in his message to Cain, that next time, don’t just do the task, do it the best you can.
Now, the story is probably a lot more complex than we have received it, but as it reads, the whole thing does seem kind of unfair for Cain since his offering gets rejected and there was no explanation ahead of time about what would constitute an appropriate offering, nor any justification given after the fact. All we can do is infer that either livestock is better or that Cain didn’t offer up the best quality stuff. But either way, it’s kind of like an episode of bad parenting. If you set a child up for failure, that child is going to fail, and Cain failed. To God’s credit, there is an attempt at divine remediation. God tells Cain what he needs to do to get right with God: to “do well” so that the sin lurking at the door will not overcome him. It’s not very specific information, but Cain does not go forward completely uninformed or uncomforted.
Unfortunately, instead of going home and looking for the first fruits of his garden which he could give God next time, he takes his brother Abel out in the field and assassinates him. I guess some people don’t react well to disappointment. For his part, Abel had done nothing to Cain, and for God’s part, all it says is that God did not have regard for Cain and his offering. God did not punish Cain but merely praised Abel more highly. But, as so often happens, we take out our aggressions on the less powerful, and the younger brother lay dead at the hands of the eldest. I wonder if God regrets not giving Cain an attaboy.
This entire story comes, of course on the heels of Adam’s and Eve’s sin in the garden when they chose to disobey a pretty specific commandment. We are meant, I think, to understand that there are consequences to sin. Everything was just fine until that fateful bite of the apple, and the next thing you know there is blood on the ground. Sin is to avoided like the plague, to use an old cliché, but the way we don’t avoid it would lead you to believe we human beings have never been prepared by God on how to avoid it. But we have, again and again. We simply choose otherwise. We know what the right thing to do is, but we go and do otherwise, just like Cain. We know we should eat better, but we keep eating food that is bad for us. We know we should exercise, but we choose the couch. We know we should save for retirement, but we go right on buying things that we probably don’t really need for the future, but that provide us with creature comforts in the present. And all of these things that we’ve been warned about, but continue to do, have their consequences.
It is this same tendency that Jesus finds in the religion of his time, and he calls it out in our passage this morning from John. We are slowly but surely making our way through this pretty dense story of Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders of his community, and yes, it is as hard for me to make sense of it as it is for you. John has a pretty challenging way of telling a story, but it is worth the effort because it gives us a clue about how to avoid the sin which causes us so much grief. In today’s installment, Jesus takes on some of the same dynamics we see in the Cain and Abel story as he makes his case for why his view of God’s kingdom is the true one. Throughout these chapters in John, Jesus has been challenging the notion that there is any inherited way to know God. Just because you have Moses, doesn’t mean you know who God is. Just because you follow Abraham doesn’t mean that you are entitled to something. Just because you are the older brother, so to speak, just because you are the legitimate heir to the promise, doesn’t mean you’re really going to receive what you think is coming to you. If you remember your Old Testament, you remember that God doesn’t play by the rules we set about things like birth order. It may have been the custom that the firstborn would inherit a greater share than any subsequent siblings, but that never stopped God from favoring the younger brother. In story after story, it is the younger brother who is the path through which the promise flow, and it all begins in this story of Cain and Abel. As the firstborn, Cain probably expected that no matter what he did, he’d be the favored one – until he wasn’t. Abel, the younger son, like Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, and so many others, was God’s favored one, at least in this episode. Cain made sure we’d never find out it that blessing was permanent, but Esau, Ishmael, and all the rest of the other older brothers sure did. God is more interested in God’s ideas than ours.
And so in Jesus’ time, Jesus is God’s big idea, the light and life of the world, and these older brothers aren’t having any of it. They are going to fight for their privilege, and like Cain, try to eliminate the threat in front of them, oblivious to the fact that the Father has already chosen the heir. But Jesus is determined that God’s plan be fulfilled and so he takes on this contentious bunch using, interesting, the same strategy that God used on Cain. Look, Jesus says to his opponents, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man from God who has told you the truth that I heard from God.” Sound familiar? It should, because it’s a lot like God’s message to Cain: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” It’s a question of doing the right thing. If Cain does the right thing, he’ll be fine. If the Jews who claim to be the spiritual children of Abraham are as faithful as Abraham, they’ll be fine. But in neither case did everything turn out fine. In both cases, God basically says, “Look, you don’t have to do much, but you have to do something, and all I ask is that you follow my instructions,” and neither of them could.
At the beginning of our passage from John this morning, Jesus makes a bold statement that is really the crux of it all: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” That’s it. Basically, he says, “Follow my teachings, the ones I’ve received directly from God, and you’ll be fine. Don’t worry about all those traditions you’ve inherited and misinterpreted. I’ll straighten you out. But you have to listen to me.” And that’s how you avoid sin. That’s how you avoid catching that virus we’ve been talking about here in Lent. It’s as if Jesus were a doctor, saying to his patient, “If you take the prescription I’m writing for you, you will be my patient and you will be immunized and your immunization will make you free.” If you don’t, there’s not much I can do for you and you’re going to get sick and die. End of story. And so what Jesus is advocating is a kind of preventative spiritual medicine. Focus on taking care of your spiritual life, and the challenges of sin will take care of themselves. And the prescription Jesus offers is a little like the COVID-19 vaccines we’ve been receiving. If you get your two shots of their vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna and all the rest don’t guarantee you won’t catch the virus, but they almost guarantee you won’t get really sick or die. In the same way, believing that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life doesn’t mean you’ll never sin again, but it does mean that you won’t die in the way Jesus described to his foes in our passage from last week: “I told you,” he says, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.”
It’s a hard sell, and Jesus knows that. Those scribes and Pharisees had a lot at stake, just like we do, just like Cain did. Just as the Jews cannot, according to Jesus, “accept my word,” Cain could not “accept God’s word” of love despite not having his gift honored. In both cases the divine one gives hard medicine, but it is for the patient’s own good. Both were hard-hearted, to use that great old Biblical phrase. They were too set in their ways, or too blinded by emotion, or too sure of themselves to be able to receive the grace which was being extended to them. And the truth is that those same obstacles are part of our experience too. We can be too set in our ways, or too blinded by our emotions, too sure of ourselves to be able to receive the grace which is being extended to us. We can be hard-hearted and ignore the wisdom that is given to us by none other than the word made flesh.
In our passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus seems to be describing a spiritual death, and it sounds pretty bad, but there is another kind of death that sounds just as bad, the kind of death Cain experienced after he was sent even farther east of Eden than his parents had been when they were banished from the garden. Cain knows what awaits him as a wanderer, cut off from family, community, and, so he believes, God too. “My punishment is greater than I can bear,” he exclaims because he knows how unpleasant and uncomfortable his life will be. He is, is a sense, a archetype of the tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers Jesus would one day welcome back into the fold, the place God wants us all to be. There are many in this world who feel this way, who feel cut off, who feel like wanderers, who feel as though the sins of their pasts preclude them from any decent future. But just as Jesus welcomed the tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers, and reintegrated them into life, we are called to do the same with people of any kind who feel that cut off, abandoned, hopeless way.
In a moment, Angela and I are going to sing the first two verses of a hymn that speaks to the kind of work that is always ahead of us if we have welcomed Christ into our lives. God warns Cain to do well, and Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of not doing what Abraham would do, so it raises the question of what we are called to do. This hymn, called “Let us build a house,” is a song originally written for the dedication of a new church building but it has a much deeper significance than that. It’s more like the offering of a kind of roadmap for we who do believe the great “I AM” to help others to do find him too. When we build a house worthy of the name church, we create an environment where it is easier to believe, easier to practice preventative spiritual medicine, and easier to practice the public spiritual health that addresses the social ills of our age. When we build a house worthy of the name Christian, the sin-sick soul finds a balm, the broken hearted become glad hearted, and the virus of sin doesn’t stand a chance. Angela and I want to invite you to join us on the third verses, and to sing like you don’t care you’ve never sung it before. May we never be too set in our ways, or too blinded by our emotions, or too sure of ourselves to be able to receive the grace which is being extended to us. Amen.
14 March 2021, 12:43
James 4:4-17 and John 8:12-30
© Stacey Steck
Brothers and sisters in Christ, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Yes, from the book of James come these good words for Lent, and these good words to build up your spiritual immune system. Sin is all around us and we don’t want to fall into it any more than we want to catch a virus, and so we must use the wisdom of our spiritual sages as well as from our medical doctors. James offers a kind of spiritual prescription to try to help us stay as healthy as possible.
The truth is, of course, that we are always running around with the low grade fever of our spiritual dis-ease. Some days we’ll run a lower temperature than others, and some days we’ll experience less painful and uncomfortable symptoms, but there’s no escaping the virus of sin, and the best we can hope for is to manage our symptoms as well as we can, keep our spiritual immune systems as strong as we can, and let our divine healer do the rest. This morning, I want to use our Scriptures to point us to one form of remedy, namely, that by staying focused on the present moment, we can avoid the temptations that come by looking too deeply into the past, or too far ahead into the future. Let’s call it the “here and now” strategy, a way that is faithful to our Lenten traditions, as well as a good bit of the witness of Scripture. That might seem a little strange sounding, given how much time the Bible spends on remembering the past, and looking toward the future, but I hope it will make a little more sense by the time we are finished. Yes, as we are told over and over again, ours is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, important guys from our history, and yes, as we are told over and over again, Christ will come again in glory, a vision grounded in hope, but the here and now is where we actually live, and where we make decisions, and where we make our prayers, and keep our fasts. When we are feeling like the Psalmist in Psalm 39 who says, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears,” we don’t just remember that we prayed about our troubles before, and we don’t put off praying until later when we feel better, but we do it now. When Lent rolls around each year, it is not last year’s fast, or next year’s fast that helps us focus on God’s grace. It is this year’s desire that matters, this day’s hunger for what we have given up, which helps us recognize God’s blessed provision of it the rest of the year.
Before I look at the way our passages for today make that case, I want to remind you of the story that comes just before our passage in John, a passage that belongs to another year in the lectionary, but which makes the case in a graphic way. It’s the famous story of the woman who is caught in adultery that Jesus saves from being stoned to death by saying to her would-be executioners, the scribes and the Pharisees, “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Of course, when they heard it put that way, all her accusers melted away leaving Jesus alone with the woman whom he told, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin.” As usual, Jesus is pretty crafty about how he brings people to the truth. The scribes and the Pharisees of course, were caught up in the history of the event: who was she unfaithful with, what does Moses say the punishment should be, how will we put this unfortunate event behind us. But Jesus, in his very clever way, brings them back to the here and now and causes them to focus on themselves, the condition of their own spiritual lives in that very moment. And once they are gone, Jesus does not let the woman simply walk away into a future with a “get out of jail free” pass, but he focuses her too on that very moment, and every subsequent moment of her life. “Go your way, and from now on, do not sin.” He’s not letting her off the hook. He’s asking her to think about each decision she faces as she faces it, and to choose the way of grace he has shown her. To each party in this encounter, Jesus is issuing an invitation to live in the present moment and experience all the opportunities and blessings it has to offer.
There is some scholarly debate about whether that story really even belongs in the Bible, or if it belongs where it is placed in the Bible, but if you look at the rest of these seventh and eighth chapters of the Gospel of John, it makes perfect sense to me. That’s because throughout these chapters we’ve been looking at during Lent, Jesus is always trying to get people to look at the here and now rather than the past or the future. In our passage today, he once again meets up with people who are fixated on the past or the future: they want to talk about rules and witnesses more than they want to talk about light and life. They want to dispute his statements about the future rather than find out who he really is, which is really the point of John’s whole Gospel. To their credit, they do ask the right question at one point. They ask, “Who are you?” but they seem to ask it not because they really want to know, but so they can win their argument if his answer does not make the grade. One way or another, they are determined to ignore the truth of the moment.
Our reading from James contains the same sense of focus on the here and now, about living the faith in each moment rather than at some other time that doesn’t matter nearly as much. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then who knows the right thing to do, and fails to do it, commits sin.” Come on, people, don’t you know that at any moment you could get hit by a bus? Well, maybe not such so much in Rowan County, but you could catch COVID. How does that old saying go? We make plans and God laughs? James offers this pointed reminder about how hard it is to keep focused on what really matters, and that by losing that focus, we aren’t able to see what the right thing to do is, and so we fail to do it, and then we commit sin, and we regret it. In particular, James calls out his brethren for putting too much stock into the future they believe is of their own making. Sure, it’s OK to make plans but it is not OK to live without acknowledging our frailty and our daily dependence on God, rather than ourselves. We are only here to be a mist that appears for a little while because God has made us, and we’ll be gone before we know it, having accomplished nothing that matters to God, if we don’t slow down long enough to participate in what really matters, what James calls “doing the right thing.” And that “right thing” is not found in neither the past nor the future but right now.
History is important. History gives us context. It gives us heroes to emulate. It gives us lessons to learn. But it also gives us cover to ignore the actual situation in which we find ourselves. Not every problem can be addressed by looking to the past, and in fact, sometimes the past is a bad guide. If we made all of our decisions on the basis of precedent alone, rather than taking into account what we’ve learned along the way, we’d still be owning slaves, battering our wives and children, and burning witches, or anyone else who seems threatening, at the stake. If history were our only guide, we’d still be using lead paint in our houses and leaded gas in our cars, and wondering why our children were developmentally delayed. It is true that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, but it is especially true of they forget how we have changed over time and moved on from a rigid adherence to the past.
And the future is important too, especially for people of faith, for whom hope is our horizon. A lot of what we do for our children and our community, maybe even most of what we do for our children and our community, is to ensure that they have a future worth living in. That’s why we make plans, and save for a rainy day. It would be foolish for a squirrel to not store up nuts for the winter. But it would be even more foolish for that squirrel to spend all of its time hiding away acorns and not making sure the local hawk or owl doesn’t carry away its offspring. It is just as foolish to think that technology will be able to solve every problem, or that saving enough money will make sure we don’t end up miserable, or that enough loyalty or education will keep us employed. All of those approaches are wishes based on the future, and some of them may come true, but they may also come true at the expense of relationships that could have been deeper, and an environment that could have been cleaner, and a society that could have been more just or fair. Anyone then who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.
The story is told of a heartless, miserly, but very rich old Englishman who died at an advanced age. This was a man who could in no way be convinced to be generous in the face of the many great needs around him. He was a man of closed fist, rather than open hand. He was so tight that his will stipulated that “one thousand pounds should be expended on his funeral,” at a time when a thousand pounds was a lot more than it sounds like today. The man however, had a very benevolent-minded neighbor, a woman who always looked to meet the needs of her beloved community, and she came up with an idea. “Why not benefit the poor by this strange injunction? Why not invite all the needy, infirm, and aged of the neighborhood and give them clothing suited to the ceremony?” And lo and behold, her suggested was adopted, and carried out, and it was, in the words of the narrator of the story, “A delightful funeral – the most cheerful scene that had been witnessed there in years. No tears, no groans, no sighs, not a mourner visible; everybody smiling, and in tip-top spirits. The old women came trotting along, each in a warm, comfortable cloak, new gown, and bonnet; the old men in full suit of decent black. None thought it necessary to look lugubrious and lachrymose, or other than they really felt – gladhearted. Right joyous was the spectacle and pleasant to many was the thought that the old miser who had taken special care to aid no poor creature when alive, should have made so many aged hearts light and happy when he died. Yes, that was a funeral worth attending!”
Maybe it’s just a quirk of the way the Greek was rendered into the English we read today, but our passage in John ends on a lovely here and now note: “As Jesus was saying these things, many believed in him.” “As he was saying these things.” The people who believed were those who were paying attention just then, at that moment. Maybe they were thinking about their pasts, and maybe they had an eye on the future, but they were living in the moment enough to hear what the scribes and the Pharisees could not, that Jesus is the light of the world and “whoever follows him will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life,” that Jesus is who he says he is even without enough witnesses, that Jesus has been sent by God to show us how to live in the here and now when he himself recognizes that his hour had not yet come. Those who believed in him, who found light and love, probably had a great respect for the past, and a forward-looking perspective on the future, but they also had an appreciation of that day, that hour, and that moment. They had the presence of mind that allowed them to transform a miser’s life into a joyous celebration.
In a few moments, Angela is going to lead us in the singing of a hymn, a hymn with an old tune, new lyrics, and words which should draw us more deeply into the here and now, if we let them. I want to invite you to sing along, and as you do, really focus on the words of the song, not the fact that we’ve never sung it in the past, not with an eye to what you’ll be doing later today after the service, but focusing on right now, on being present in this moment to “come and find the quiet center” to which God is calling each of us. It is in that quiet center that we’ll find our greatest strength against sin, our deepest experience of grace, and our most intimate relationships with God and one another, the ones that really make life worth living. Let us stand as we are able, and sing. Amen.
07 March 2021, 12:45
John 7:40-52 and Genesis 13
© Stacey Steck
The past two weeks, I’ve shared with you a little biology as I’ve been making the case that sin is something like a virus, and that the strength of our spiritual immune system is what will help us avoid getting a case of the sin-sick soul. As we have all learned during the time of COVID, however, even the strongest immune system is no guarantee against catching or defeating a virus. In addition to all the stories we’ve heard about the vulnerability of people with delicate underlying medical conditions, we’ve also heard the stories of healthy people in their prime being struck down by the virus. That is why so much emphasis has been placed on masks, and social distancing, because the best defense is to avoid inhaling it in the first place. Distancing ourselves from the source of contamination is our best strategy. It hasn’t been anyone’s idea of fun, but it has certainly helped us get through this with a lot fewer casualties.
Be that as it may, this now nearly year-long social isolation has come at a price. By now you’ve heard the statistics about the increase of depression, anxiety, suicide, domestic violence, and child abuse. For some people, the remedy has almost been worse than the disease. Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding like I am diminishing the negative consequences of this social isolation, the truth is that at least we are alive. Sometimes we have to take a risk in order to survive.
Our story this morning from Genesis is one such case of running the risks of social isolation. Don’t get me wrong, Abram’s separation from Lot was not a life or death decision in the same way we face currently, but it was a decision that involved risk, and yet it was a decision that needed to be made for the benefit of the body. If it’s been a while since you’ve read the part of Abraham’s story before he became Abraham, a quick retelling of the back story is that kind of out of nowhere, God chooses Abram to be the source from which not only will Judaism come, but also God’s blessing on the whole world. “ ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.” And so Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot left the cozy confines of their corner of what is present day Iraq and began to travel to what we now call the Holy Land.
Well, it turns out that when they get there, there’s a famine, and so they journey on even further down into Egypt, where Abram makes the questionable call to pass his beautiful wife off as his sister “so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” And lo and behold, pimping out his wife did go well for Abram because when Pharaoh found out about the ruse after he had taken Sarai for his wife and been afflicted with some kind of plague, he escorted the whole kit and caboodle to the border, along with enough livestock to make Abram a pretty wealthy man. And so we come to today’s story of social distancing, in which Abram recognizes that the chances of everybody getting along in the place they ended up were slim, and so he makes Lot an offer. “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” And Lot makes his choice, and takes his own estate eastward, and once the dust has settled, God restates the divine promise and tells Abram to take a good look around at this land where the rest of the Biblical story will take place.
Now, it’s true that the details of the Bible are too sketchy to say that Abram made his offer to Lot because he knew that the Divine promise was at risk due to the conflict that was brewing once they had made their fortunes, or because he saw the moment as an opportunity to expand his legacy. But it’s pretty reasonable to think that Abram could see that his property was at risk if there wasn’t a resolution to the issue of land, and so he became the inspiration for Robert’s Frost poem called Mending Wall, and its wise and famous saying that, “Good fences make good neighbors” by offering Lot his choice of land, and here is where, this Lent, we can learn something from this case of social distancing.
First of all, it is noteworthy that Lot seems to have made his decision for the eastern lands on the basis of appearances, because it looked like the easier and more profitable choice. “Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt,” not the dry, dusty parts of Egypt, but the lush, Nile-flooded parts. He saw his opportunity and took it. Unfortunately for him, a lot of other people saw the same opportunity in that piece of land, and almost immediately he run afoul of his new neighbors, and Abram had to bail him out. Abram wasn’t God’s choice for no reason, and maybe his way of handling this conflict tells us something about why he got chosen. As the patriarch, Abram could have simply taken the better land for himself, or decreed that Lot would be the one going east, but instead, he wisely leaves the decision up to Lot, with the result that Lot has no one to blame but himself when things don’t turn out as planned. He couldn’t turn around and make the case that Abram sabotaged him. By acting unexpectedly and magnanimously, Abram avoids making the situation worse. Lesson number one in avoiding sin: Be wise about it, even if it costs you something. Sure, Abram got the inferior land, but he avoided a lot of trouble, from both Lot and potential enemies.
Lesson number two in avoiding sin: Weigh carefully the consequences of your choices. The Bible doesn’t specifically say that Lot knew just what kind of people lived in the land he chose, but it does kind of imply it when it makes sure to include that “the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.” For Lot, it appears that greed or at least opportunism overwhelmed his better judgment. He could have said, “Oh, Abram, you’re the one to whom the promise was given, you should have the best lands for yourself,” but instead, he tries to take advantage of the situation and ends up in a far worse condition. You probably remember the famous story about his wife turning to a pillar of salt when the family had to flee the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but do you also remember that Lot becomes the father of two nations who become Israel’s mortal enemies, Moab and Ammon? Yes, Lot’s choice set the stage for a lot of heartache.
And finally, lesson number three. Avoiding temptation is worth the risk. Abram had a lot more at stake than Lot. The future of God’s plan was squarely on his shoulders. And yet he took the riskier path, not only in allowing Lot to choose the land, but in choosing to divide up in the first place. For all the potential conflicts, there was strength in numbers and Abram left himself vulnerable by having Lot go his own way. He could have circled the wagons, become authoritarian, built bigger barns, all the things people do when they are in self-protection mode, but Abram must have sensed that the threats were greater from within than from without. So he took the risk and left the consequences in God’s hands.
It may seem counter-intuitive to be riskier when trying to protect oneself, but as we have seen in the pandemic, the risk of social distancing has paid off. Yes, there’s a risk of social isolation. Yes, there is a risk of ridicule about wearing a mask. Yes, there is a risk of missing out on opportunities because we are hunkered down. But the bigger risk is if we act foolishly in the face of evidence which would save our lives. You know that I always say, “Life is not lost by dying” but that doesn’t mean we should casually disregard the life we have been given. As the guy we claim to follow once asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his own soul?” The same is true of the moral and ethical decisions we face all the time that have social implications. To drink at that party or not. To sacrifice extra time with family to make a little more money. To remain silent in the face of injustice to avoid losing face in front of your friends. Can we keep our eyes on what is really important?
Having a strong spiritual immune system means taking the right kinds of risks because God’s promises are worth those risk. The quick fix, the white lie, the crossing of our fingers behind our backs, even the breaking of the law are easy risks that may come with benefits. But those benefits cannot compare with the blessings that come from placing our trust in the unseen giver of extravagant promises, even if that means risking social separation. As we seek to separate ourselves from the sources of contamination in our lives, let us avoid taking foolish risks and instead take the ones that really matter. Amen.