There they are—Abraham and God standing together under the oaks of Mamre not far from the door to Abraham’s tent. The smell of cakes baking still lingering in the air. Embers still glowing from the fire Abraham built to welcome his guest. There they are—the two of them standing together each lost in their own thoughts. Abraham still puzzling over God’s wild promise that his old wife Sarah will bear a child and God wondering to God’s self, “Shall I hid from Abraham what I am about to do?” and then answering his own question saying, “No for I have chosen him that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the ways of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.”
God then says to Abraham, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”
For centuries, for millennia, folks have been talking about the sin of Sodom. The conversation started in the sixth century BCE when the prophet Ezekiel talked about the sin of Sodom as he chastised the leaders of Israel for selling out God’s dream, for selling out God’s people. Through the mouth of the prophet God speaks to Israel saying, “As I live, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”(Ezekiel 16:49)
The sin of Sodom wasn’t sex; the sin of Sodom was selfishness and pride and callous indifference to the needs of God’s lowliest people. The sin of Sodom was a glaring, gaping lack of righteousness. Righteousness. Following the law of God. Welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, watching out for the needy and the poor, caring for widows and orphans. Living with compassion, integrity, kindness.
Abraham doesn’t push God on the question of sex. Abraham pushes God on the question of righteousness. No wonder. God’s world, God’s reign hinges on the witness of the righteous. The rabbis used to say, “And even for the sake of one righteous man (sic) the world would have been created. The righteous one is the foundation of the world”1
Almost two weeks ago, I was standing at the gate of Dachau—the first concentration camp built and the model for all subsequent work and death camps the Nazis built. There’s not much left of the camp itself. But what is left is the witness of those who went through the gates—the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, dissenting clergy, asocials, mentally and physically handicapped, communists, Poles and Slavs whom the Nazis targeted. In panel after panel their stories are told. But these are not only the stories of victims and perpetrators. Those panels also record the stories of resistance. Stories of righteousness.
As I looked at the pictures of those who resisted and read their stories, I was reminded of two stories I had heard. One from a person who spent a career studying those who resisted the Nazi regime and the other from my professor of Bible whose parents had resisted the Nazis—the father as a member of the dissenting clergy and the mother as one who hid Jews in her home. People who used the resources at hand to live lives of kindness, integrity and compassion for the most vulnerable. People the state of Israel has named Righteous among the Nations. The righteous ones.
You know how it is when you come home from a trip—you have a hard time staying in the moment. Present and past get all mixed up together. Something you read or see or hear takes you back. Maybe it’s those avatars on Facebook all taking on the face of Trayvon Martin. Maybe it’s a headline in the newspaper—“Homeless Man Shot by Police”. Maybe it’s a picture still lingering in your mind. A picture chillingly close to those you have just seen. A picture of young gay man draped on a barbed-wire fence. Then you are moved to say, “I am Trayvon Martin. I am Vincent Woods. I am Matthew Shepherd.”
When the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was announced, the Episcopal bishop of Central Florida said, “”I want to live in a world where George Zimmermann would have given Trayvon Martin a ride home because of the rain.” That bishop might well have said, “I want to live in a world where the righteous give witness.”
We are called, you and I, to do our best to follow the way of righteousness. To give witness to another way of living in this crazy world of ours. Sometimes that means speaking out like the prophet Ezekiel. Sometimes that means challenging God as Abraham did under the oaks of Mamre. Sometimes that means healing. Sometimes harboring. Sometimes feeding. Sometimes freeing. Always that means seeing and cherishing the image of God in those who walk this world with us.
1H.N.Bialik and Y.H. Rvnitzkky, The Book of Legends, 548 in Mary Donovan Turner, Old Testament Words, 86.