Good Intentions

It is a wonderful thing to live in the city in the world that is singularly identified as the city of brotherly love.  There are other Philadelphias, but we live in the Philadelphia.  If there is a city of brotherly love to be built in this world, the right of first refusal, for the last few centuries, has been ours.  

As we know too well, however, we don’t really live up to our name in this city.  Murder in our streets is quite literally rampant.  Poverty is legion.  Schooling is dismal for many kids.  Justice and Equality have not taken deep root, as the socio-economic realities of Race threaten to choke them out.  But still, as I say, the city of brotherly love is ours to build or not to build; the name is already ours.

Did any city ever have a name more certainly doomed to infamy than the city of Sodom?  What has that place and its awful name ever stood for but violence and rape, fire and brimstone?  Its name, affixed to a crime of shameful abuse and a devious lack of specificity, singularly identifies the city of debauchery, sin, and license without peer.  Should ever you find yourself on the path to Sodom (or its hateful sister city Gomorrah), you know you are in trouble: beat a hasty path in the opposite direction, and whatever else you may do, don’t look back!

Here in Philadelphia, the name that William Penn gave our city implies that we at least know what we are asking for as a society brought together between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers.  It may be only a dream; it may be elusive, but to be a city of love is somehow our birthright.  If we never see that reality, it wouldn’t be the first time a birthright was squandered.

As for Sodom, at least one possible origin of the name of that city is a Hebrew word for “burnt.”  So maybe Sodom lived into its unhappy destiny after all when God destroyed it with a rain of fire and brimstone.  Maybe they got what they asked for, so to speak.  Maybe they had it coming.

Certainly Abraham did his best.  Did you hear him bargaining with God?  Did hear his obsequious pleas, his step-by-step haggling with the Lord?  Fifty, forty-five, forty.  Do I hear thirty?  Twenty? Ten?  Going once, going twice: OK already: for the sake of ten righteous souls God will not destroy Sodom.  Enough already!  That Abraham really knows how to drive a hard bargain!  What a mensch!  He knew just what to ask for!  And can you believe that in all of Sodom not ten righteous souls could be found?  Only Lot and his brood would be spared from God’s wrath.

Interestingly, the church doesn’t give us an opportunity to hear how the story works out in the end.  Not next week or the week after.  The continuation of this story (which is to say the part we already know about – the sex part and its unpleasant aftermath) is never assigned to be read on a Sunday.  The church wants us to hear about Abraham’s successful bargaining with God but not about the unhappy ending for the city.  You’ll have to learn on your own about how Lot’s wife looks back and becomes a pillar of salt.  (They warned her not to look back!)

There is something slightly dishonest about reminding ourselves that God promised he would not destroy the city for the sake of ten souls but then failing to remember that he couldn’t find them.  In this age when the topic of sodomy is an unholy fixation of the church, it seems somehow delusional to recount the promise of Sodom’s deliverance but not to rehearse its destruction.  Who do we think we are protecting with this omission?

I suppose we are protecting ourselves from our own obvious confusion about God.  Who is this God who is willing to negotiate mercy with Abraham but then unleashes a storm of destruction anyway?  Who is this God who leads Lot and his wife to safety only to exact cruel punishment on the poor woman for looking back?  Who is this God who keeps an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction at his fingertips?  Who is this God, and what does he want from us?  How are we to deal with such a God?

As is often the case, Jesus teaches his disciples a fairly straightforward way of dealing with God: he suggests prayer.

And how are we to pray?  You learned the answer to that question in Sunday School when you learned the Lord’s Prayer.  And you got a gold star.  Or at least I’m going to assume you did. (I did.)

And here’s another thing we learned in Sunday School – or at least we think we did:  Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.

Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.  Isn’t that nice?  We love this promising formula.  But when we think about it for a minute, we are often frustrated by it.  Because didn’t Abraham ask?  Didn’t Lot ask?  Didn’t his wife want to be delivered?  What happened?

This beautiful teaching of Jesus’ causes us a lot of grief if we think about it too much.  Because most of us have asked for something that we were never given; most of us have sought for something that we have not yet found; most of us have knocked hopefully on doors that remain firmly shut to us.  What’s going on here?

Here, for once, Jesus is trying to treat us like adults.  “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened… but it does help if you ask for the right thing, seek for the right thing, knock at the right door.  If your child should come to you and ask for a scorpion, you might give him in egg instead; if she comes looking for a serpent, perhaps a fish would be better?

Jesus is treating his disciples here like adults, assuming they know the difference between what’s good and what’s bad for their children, and recognizing that the children don’t know what’s best for them.  

So Jesus wants to treat us like adults; he wants us to understand that there are subtleties even to this simple teaching.  But we so often insist on acting like children. “Why doesn’t God give me what I want?  He said he would!”   We reach for the scorpion, when God would give us an egg.  We reach for legal battles, when God would give us Justice.  We reach for Wealth, when God would give us Prosperity.  We reach for Power, when God would give us Equality.  We reach for the serpent of War, when God would give us the puckering fish of Peace.

All of which is to say, we don’t even know what to ask for.  What good parent wouldn’t say just exactly what Jesus says to his disciples: Ask it of me and I will give it to you!  Seek for it and I will see to it that you find it!  Knock and I will ensure that it opens to you!  And what parent doesn’t know that as soon as you have promised the world – anything – that clever child finds a way to ask for something you know you cannot give?  A parent’s best intentions are often thwarted by the myopia of a child: the child’s sheer inability to see beyond his or her immediate wants and needs.

When Jesus teaches us to ask, to seek, to knock, he is not pandering to our immediate wants and needs.  And he is not trying to give a lesson in skilled negotiation, so that like Abraham we can extract from God the best deal possible.  He is trying to give a lesson in good intentions: somehow matching our intentions to his, as his intentions are matched to God the Father’s, so that when we ask, we are asking the same questions; when we seek, we are looking for the same things; when we knock, we are knocking at the same door.

The flaw in Abraham’s bargain with God is that it completely omitted the other party: the men of Sodom.  Let’s not haggle over the details of the sin of Sodom: let’s just say they were bad.  Let’s assume that it isn’t about sex (as many scholars tell us it isn’t; but you know how we like to make everything about sex!)  Whatever their sin, the men of Sodom had adopted intentions that were entirely at odds with God’s intentions: so much so that when angels came to visit they found themselves in a difficult situation.  And there were not ten men in all that city who would stand up for them; not ten men who would ask after, seek for or knock at the door of God’ s intentions.  And for the cruel intentions of that city, God rains down brimstone and fire till it went up in smoke.  For their cruel intentions.

The point of the characterization of the men of Sodom is not a commentary on sexual ethics; it is a judgment on cruel intentions.  The hearts of the men of Sodom (the women are hardly mentioned, like so much ruin, it seems to have been the men’s doing), their hearts were set on ruin, because, like children, they could think of nothing beyond themselves.  And Abraham’s best intentions could no more save the city of Sodom than William Penn’s good intentions could make Philadelphia a real city of brotherly love.

And what about us?  What kind of intentions steer our hearts?  Do we not often reach for the scorpion or the serpent: grabbing what we want because we want it and we want it now, and assuming that we will deal with the consequences later?

We don’t try to organize our intentions in harmony with God’s intentions.  And when things go wrong we start haggling with God, trying to drive a bargain: Please make him better, please keep him safe, don’t let her die.  Please stop all this awful killing in our streets!

We think we have to bargain with God for this, forgetting that God intends for us to live at last without fear, without sickness, without tears, without death: this is the image of the holy city of God that Saint John sees in his Revelation.  But the way to that city is the way of the Cross, which is a hard and sometimes difficult way.  The way to the promised land is never easy.  On the way it seems that God will test our intentions.

Part of our frustration with God could be summed up in that age-old child’s question: Are we there yet?  No, we are not there yet, but we are on the way.  We are not the people that God means for us to be yet, but we are on the way.  We are not the city God means for us to be, but we are on the way.  We are not even the church that God means for us to be, but we are on the way.  As we go we will have to ask for many things, seek many times, knock at many doors.

What kind of people will we be, as God tests our intentions, sending his angels to us at the most inconvenient hours of the night?

What kind of church will we be, as God tests our intentions by setting before us real challenges?

And what kind of city will this be, this city of brotherly love?  Will we be a city worthy of our name?  

We cannot do it just by asking, asking, asking for everything we want.  We must make it our heart’s intention and desire to build between these rivers a city founded in love.  Surely William Penn imagined such a city to be God’s intention and desire.  Penn hoped that the people of this city would ask the right questions, seek the right things, knock at the right doors.  He hoped these would bear testimony to our intentions to love on another as we would be loved, as Christ loves us.

God, who for reasons we cannot understand (I certainly can’t) keeps a supply of fire and brimstone stashed somewhere in the garage, this God has only the best intentions for us.  He sent us his Son to show us that.

It was in sending his Son Jesus to live with us, to suffer and die, like we suffer and die, that God showed his true intentions for us when he raised Jesus from the dead, and the unfathomable depths of the storehouse of God’s love finally became known.

How are we to deal with this God?  Not, it turns out, by haggling for the best deal we can get.  Rather we are to ask and to seek and to knock, trying, as we do, to ask after, to seek for, and to knock at the doors of God’s intentions for us, which are that we should be given what we want, that we should find what we are looking for; that the door should be opened to us.

And if we start with a desire in our hearts to build a city here between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers that truly is a city of brotherly and sisterly love, then that is a good start for all our questions, a good destination for all our seeking, and a worthy door at which to stand and to see whether or not in time God will open it to us, if it is our hearts desire, our dearest intention, as surely it must be God’s.

Even though we are not there yet, isn’t it time we stopped behaving like children, and behaved like true grown ups who know that there is nothing simple, but something brave and faithful about asking with the confidence that it will be given to us, seeking with the assurance that we will find, and knocking  at the door of God’s holy intentions for us at any hour of the day or night with the firm conviction of hope that God has left it unlocked.

Preached by Fr. Sean E. Mullen
29 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 30, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.