Whether you come to church next week or not, you will be spared hearing the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which the authorities in the church have deemed it better for us not to read aloud in church these days. They might be correct on this matter.
Today, though, we heard the pre-amble to God’s judgment on these two cities of the Plain, in the charming, if somewhat tedious, bargaining session that Abraham engages in with the Lord, on behalf of Sodom, in order to try to get God to think, I guess, in terms of proportionate response. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham asks God, when he learns of the Lord’s plan of doom for Sodom and Gomorrah, because of their very grave sin. “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?”
You heard what ensued, as Abraham appeals to God’s mercy, even more than to his sense of fairness. What about 45 - would you spare the city for 45 righteous? Do I hear forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? Going once, going twice…! Having agreed that for the sake of ten righteous people God would spare the cities their destruction, then the Lord went his way, and Abraham went his way. But in the end things did not go well for Sodom and Gomorrah. We are left to conclude that ten righteous people could not be found there - only Lot and his family. And for them, a warning to flee would have to suffice.
With apologies to places like Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Ghazni, and Aleppo, when I think of a city destroyed, my mind turns toward the bombing of Dresden in February of 1945. I have been powerfully influenced in this point of view, I admit, by Kurt Vonnegut’s acerbic novel, Slaughterhouse Five*, which the author used as a way to reflect on his own experience of surviving the bombing of that city, and his witness of the aftermath of the destruction.
You won’t find much modern writing that holds up as well after fifty years as this remarkable book. In it, Vonnegut explicitly engages Christian theology several times. About midway through, he describes a “visitor from outer space [making] a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be so cruel…. He [the visitor from outer space] supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.
“But the Gospels actually taught this: Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. So it goes.” (p. 108-109)
Lest this passage lead you to presume that Vonnegut is fundamentally anti-Christian, remember that the novel is introduced with a verse from “Away in a Manger” as its epigraph. And toward the end of the book, as they make their escape from the burning devastation of Dresden, the hero and his companions are given shelter by an inn-keeper who tells them they can stay in a stable for the night. (You get the allusion?)
Earlier in the novel, there is a scene that takes place in the middle of the night, when the hero, Billy Pilgrim, cannot sleep, so he goes downstairs to watch the late movie on TV. He turns it on to find “a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them.” Billy Pilgrim has the unusual ability to watch the movie both backwards and forwards, which seems to be little more than a conceit to allow the author to describe in reverse the narrative of a bombing sortie. This backwards narrative unfolds in three paragraphs of eloquent, imaginative prose. This is how it goes:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again. (p. 74-75)
Earlier in the book, Vonnegut, explicitly references God’s destruction of Sodom with brimstone and fire. His perspective on the episode is not charitable toward God. The writer’s sympathies lie with Lot’s wife, who, he reminds us, “was told not to look back where all those people and all their homes had been. But she did look back,” he writes, “and I love her for that, because it was so human. But she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.” (p. 21-22)
If Billy Pilgrim could watch the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in reverse, I think it would look something like this:
Lot and his two daughters walk backwards out of the hills above the city of Zoar. They go past the city where the Plain stretches out before them and they see billows of smoke and tongues of flame being sucked into the windows, doorways, and basements of the houses, and into the ground beneath the trees, dry brush, and fields around the cities of the Plain, as if a giant vacuum is it work there.
The clouds above exert a miraculous magnetism from above, that shrinks the fires below, and, by some unimaginable force of mercy, retracts showers of brimstone and bolts of fire, gathering them up into dark clouds that grow ever lighter, as the sky brightens above.
Beyond the clouds, the fire and the brimstone, are carefully packed away separately to avoid just this sort of disaster ever taking place again. And the wrath of God, horribly palpable only moments ago, now dissipates across the clear blue sky.
At the same time, the corpses and wounded bodies from one end of the city to the other are uncovered from piles of rubble, their burns healed, their broken limbs mended, breath filling their lungs, as the rubble is righted and repaired by a remarkable feat of gravity in reverse, and the people get up and go about their day.
With apprehension, Lot and his girls, still moving backwards, approach a pillar of salt, standing incongruously in the midst of the Plain. Unwilling or unable to turn their heads toward the pillar of salt and the city beyond, Lot and his daughters seem unaware that they are headed straight for it. And yet they are all crying as they draw closer. Just as they approach the pillar of salt, backwards, with looks of grief and terror on their faces, miraculously, there is movement from within the pillar, and as their backward footsteps carry them past it, the pillar of salt is brought to life, and from its grainy contours emerges the figure of the girls’ mother, Lot’s wife.
His family restored, Lot, once beset by anxieties and fears about his future, finds that his mind is now settled and at ease, confident in what lies before him and his family, which, still they approach moving backwards more swiftly than you would have thought possible.
On arriving at Sodom, they can at last turn around, and there they are greeted by two angels - handsome men, so striking that they turn the heads of everyone in town. And yet, no one gets fresh. Lot puts his girls to sleep in their comfortable home, and a throng of the men of Sodom arrives to greet the family. Realizing that the commotion created by such a large crowd might disturb Lot’s sleeping daughters, the men disperse, and tiptoe quietly home, taking care that Lot, his family, and his angelic guests, are all safe and sound for the night. Eventually, the two angels take their leave of Lot and his family, leaving with them word that their report to their superiors will clearly indicate that the people of the city, if they ever were wicked, have now made amends for their past ways, and appear to be paragons of civic and religious virtue.
A rainbow unfolds, stretching from the streets of Sodom to the main square of Gomorrah, bringing joy to one and all, and reassuring them that God had promised that this would be the sign he’d use to remind himself not to destroy his people ever again, even when they try his patience sorely.
Who knew there was such a lovely story to be found about Sodom and Gomorrah? If only we tell it backwards!
According to archaeologists, neither Sodom nor Gomorrah seems to have been a real place. It may be that the value of telling the story of their destruction is mostly didactic; maybe we have to be able to tell the story forward, in order to then learn how to tell such awful stories backwards.
Most of the destruction of actual cities that I am familiar with - in places like Dresden, Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Ghazni, and Aleppo, which is to say, destruction in places where we cannot just tell the story backwards and make everything alright - has been delivered not by the hand of God, but from the human impulse to destroy one another. So it goes. And when we allow this fact to dawn on us, it begins to make sense of the story of Abraham bargaining with God for Sodom to be spared, if only ten righteous people could be found there. If only.
We live in an age in which many people tend to think more highly of themselves, their own abilities, judgment, and desires, than they do of God’s ability, judgment, and will. Such attitudes prepare people to reject God on the basis of the story of the destruction of two imaginary cities, but to place their trust in human nature, which has wreaked more havoc in more cities than the Bible could ever account for. So it goes.
But if we take the lessons of Scripture seriously, we might learn that bargaining with God on the basis of a proportionate response, or any other economic measure, is not a winning proposition. God’s great hope for us, it would seem, is not that we should improve our negotiating skills. It’s far more likely that God’s great hope for his people is that we should learn to tell stories of death and destruction backwards, to make them stories of life and hope. More to the point, God’s great hope for his people, is that we should learn to live this way - which is to say that we should live in a way that will often feel backwards in a world that seems capable only of veering ever closer to destruction, disaster, and death.
If only we could fashion for ourselves factories that operated night and day, dismantling the hatreds and resentments, and dreams of power that we have transformed into missiles, rifles, and bombs. Workers in those factories would separate the dangerous contents into less-dangerous materials. (And it might well be mainly women who are able to do this work.) The ingredients of our destruction could then be shipped to specialists in remote areas. And it will be their business to put those ingredients into the ground, and hide them cleverly, so we’ll never hurt each other ever again.
I believe this may be what Jesus had in mind when he taught his disciples to pray, addressing our Father with these words; “thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
28 July 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
*All non-scriptural quotations from Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Dell Publishing, New York City, 1968