Sunday, July 28, 2013

The One Good Apple

Genesis 18:20-32

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
20 Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21 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.”
22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[a] 23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 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? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”
One of the first theological doctrines that I remember learning was that in the Presbyterian and Reformed system, sinfulness is not merely a problem for an individual person.  There is something about sin that makes it a social problem. 


Now it is true that an individual can sin. 


But it is also true that sin permeates our humanity and community.


Theologically, we often refer to this as “the doctrine of Original Sin,” or in terms that John Calvin expressed it:  “total depravity.”  I think modern theologians tend to express it this way – “sinfulness is in our DNA.” 


In the New Testament, St. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Romans:  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:23).


I said this was one of the first theological doctrines that I remember leaning as a child – and I did not learn this from my preacher or my parents or my Sunday School teacher, but rather from my 1st grade teacher, who one day, after staring down the class sociopath, then looked at the rest of us and said, “Now remember class, one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.”


I’m told this is actually true of apples.  Apples, as they ripen and over ripen, produce ethylene, which speeds the ripening of the other apples.


In other words, human sinfulness by definition infects and rots the fabric of the whole community.


         Let me give you some examples of what I mean by this.


Take one group of honest people for whom truth telling comes innocently and naturally, add a dash of liars, shake well and allow to sit. What dish will result?


         It will not be long before all trust is gone.  No one will know whom to trust or not to trust.


         Human sinfulness by definition infects and rots the fabric of the whole community.


         Take a nice community.  A pleasant neighborhood where everyone knows everyone and people don’t always lock their doors.  Add just one shooting – or not even a shooting – a simple burglary where no one gets hurt.  And now the presence of that one bad apple robs the whole neighborhood of a sense of security and trust.


         Take the political situation today.  Add the two recent scandals of the candidate for the mayor of New York and the current Mayor of San Diego both of whom face controversy over their sexual misconduct.  Their conduct casts a shadow that overwhelms the good and decent political leaders in our communities – and yes, I do believe we have many good men and women in public service.  But the few bad apples spoil the bunch and by and large we don’t trust ANY politicians any longer.


         Take group of church members in a committee, session or board of deacons – let one person suggest to another that they should lie to the rest of the church group so they can get their way, and pretty soon everyone is suspicious of everyone else and no one knows whom to trust – yes, even in the church the one bad apple can spoil the bunch.


         Anytime you are trying to build a church, or a society, or a family, or a group, or a world -- it only takes a few rotten apples to mess it up for the rest of us.


         Now the solution to that is simple enough – we gotta get rid of some folks.  We’ve got to get rid of the wicked few.


         That sounds like a good approach.

But – that was also the approach of the Pharisees, the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and the Taliban --  and they all failed.  In fact, they promoted evil. 


         Because whenever one group tries to get rid of the wicked few in a society or a neighborhood, we always run into another theological truth, and that is that you cannot get rid of sinfulness in a human community.  There is just too much of it.


         To try to do so is like stamping out a gasoline fire.  The more you stomp on the fire, the more it spreads.  And that means that every community, and this community, will eventually move toward becoming like Sodom and Gomorrah.  Which, by the way, is not a pleasant thought.


By the way - What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that resulted in their destruction?



The Bible says in Ezekiel 16, “Now this was the sin of Sodom: She was arrogant …  they did not help the poor and needy .. Therefore I did away with them.”


         Now it is in this story that Old Abraham came up that rarest of all human discoveries, a new theological idea. Most theological ideas are not new, but this one was.


         What if, he said, given the fact that the sinfulness of a few can destroy a good community, what if the nature of God is to work the other way? What if the broken and wicked community can be saved and redeemed by a few good apples --  a few righteous people?


         That was an idea so innovative that he took it to God Almighty. Abraham finds this difficult to do.  His demeanor is like that of a young, newly hired apprentice approaching the company’s CEO with a new idea he hopes will revolutionize the industry.  Or better yet, a friend of mine once told me that when Abraham presented his new idea to God, Abraham acts like a frightened little boy facing the toughest bully on the street. And he nervously draws a dare line for the toughest bully on the street.[i]


         Have you ever done that as a kid – or had someone else do that to you?  A line is drawn.  And one kid says to the other, “I dare you to cross this line.  In fact, I double dare you.  I’ll double dog dare you and even triple dog dare you to cross this line.”


"I know you are going to beat up on Sodom and Gomorrah,” says Father Abraham, “but suppose there are 50 righteous, would you step over that line and save them?"


         The divine answer - God steps forward and said yes.  I’ll cross that line.


         With that, Abraham realizes he might not have started this negotiation on the best of terms.  It’s like going to the boss to ask for a raise.  You practice your speech, you agonize over just the right words, and finally you say, “Boss, can I have a $10 raise,” and the boss says, “Sure, why not.”

There is this sudden realization that you should have asked for a $20 raise.


So there is Abraham.  God has agreed quickly and easily.  Come up with 50 righteous people, and I’ll save the cities. 

But – what if Abraham is not able to come up with 50.  So he draws another dare line in the sand.  "What if there are only 45 righteous people?"


         And God crosses the line, and says, “Come up with 45, and the whole town is saved.”


         Abraham, being less and less sure of what he can come up with crosses another, and then another, and another dare line in the sand.  What if there are only 40 righteous people in town?”


         “I’ll save the town.”






         The mercy of God for the righteous is stronger than the punishment of God for the wicked.


         But you know the outcome, Sodom comes up short and the prospect for the human community is a dim one indeed. And that is why for us and for ancient Israel, there should be an element of fear for what we need to do next. And that is to put this community in this story.


         And if you think the prospect for hope for this community is to destroy the wicked among us, then you are way behind the times. The hope for the community is in finding a few righteous.  We need a few good apples.


So let’s start counting the righteous. 


Are there perhaps among us here today, 50 righteous?  Let’s see a show of hands – how many righteous people are here today?  Oh, wait!!!  Before we do, let’s be sure we know what we are talking about.


         If you want to understand a word, what better place to go than to the dictionary.


         Righteous. Adjective. Meeting the standards of what is right and just; morally right; guiltess.”[ii]


         Are there 50 of us who qualify as righteous?



Hmmmm….  One of the strangest gifts I can remember receiving on behalf of a church was presented to the Faith Presbyterian Church of Sumter SC, my first pastorate. A fellow came into my office one day and handed me a check made out to the church for $10,000.  It was a hefty amount for a church that was always in financial distress, and it came as a great relief.


         However, I didn't quite know what to do.  The fellow didn't seem familiar at all.  But I was afraid to ask who he was, because I imagined him responding by saying, "Don't you remember me, I'm one of your members. I was here two Easters ago." I didn't insult him and risk tempting him to take his money back.


         I did ask him if he wouldn't mind telling me what prompted him to make such a gracious gift.


         He told me a little bit of his story, and I learned that he was not a member of the church, even an inactive or infrequent member.


         I started to tell him about our church, but he stopped me and told me he really wasn't interested. He didn't have time to hear about the church.


         That struck me as odd. Here is a righteous man, making a generous gift to a people he does not know, or care about. As he got up to leave, I ventured a bold question, "what prompts you to be so generous and to give our church this money?"


         "I'm a friend of Walter Perry," said the fellow.


         I knew Walter. He was the Clerk of our Session.


         "He and I play golf," said the stranger.


         I knew Walter played a lot of golf.  


         "We had a bet," said the stranger.


         I knew Walter was a seriously compulsive gambler. He had just recently lost entire savings. He had been fired because of his obsession, and his marriage was in trouble.


         "You mean to tell me, Walter finally won a bet, you lost and he wants all of the winnings to go to his church?"


         "Oh no, preacher," said the stranger. He just wants me to give a tithe -- a tenth of it to the church."


         Are there 45 righteous?


    Several years ago in another community and in another church, we had a young man named Joe.  Everyone loved Joe.  He had grown up in the church.  People remembered him coming forward for the Children’s Devotionals during the worship services and giving these wonderful answers whenever the pastor asked a question to the kids.  They remember how Joe grew up, and would often help give the Children’s Devotional.  Joe went on mission trips with the church to Mexico.  When Joe graduated from the Citadel in South Carolina, he came back home and wanted to volunteer to work with the youth.  But a few weeks into his work with the kids, the youth pastor and I decided to remove him from working with children.  Nothing had happened.  But our experience suggested there was something not quite right with Joe.  He had passed the background checks.  He had obeyed the rules, including never being alone with a child.  But still, we made the difficult decision to remove Joe from his position of volunteering with youth.


Firing volunteers is tough.  It’s not easy.  We lost three families from our church.  One of them came to the Session and said, “How dare you do this – Joe is the most Christian, godly and righteous young man in this church.”


But Session stood by the staff, and Joe was removed from working with the volunteers.


Two months later, I received an email.  In Gwinnett County, Georgia, where I was serving at the time, there was a service that sent anyone who requested it an email with the arrest records for the previous day, including mug shots and charges.


And there was Joe.


The charge was sexually molesting a child.


Joe admitted his guilt to the police.  As is often the case, the police soon discovered there had been other molestations by Joe.


So here was a member of the church described as “the most Christian, godly and righteous young man in the church.” 


         Are there 40 righteous?


         There is an actor in Hollywood who has that rare quality found in all too few actors today.  He is a man of faith.  He is a devout Christian.  He freely speaks about his faith.  As it has grown, he has regretted some of his earlier movie roles. 


A few years ago, he made a movie about Jesus Christ.  It depicted the violent execution of Christ.


The actor is Mel Gibson, and the movie was “The Passion.”  When the camera zooms into show the nails being hammered into Jesus, the Roman soldier’s hands holding the hammer and nail and pounding it into the flesh of the Savior were the hands of the director, Mel Gibson. 


As Gibson later said in an interview, "It was me that put Christ on the cross. It was my sins" that put him there.[iii]


And yet, this man of great faith has great failings.  Shortly after making this movie about Jesus Christ, his wife made public an audio tape recording of Gibson in a fit of rage.  There were accusations of Gibson hitting his wife while she held their baby in her arms.

True or not, all of this was consistent with the record of Gibson’s arrests, drunk driving, and assaults on others.

A man of faith, with such anger and violence.



         Are there 20 righteous here today? Or 10? Or dare I draw even another line. One that Abraham did not have enough courage to add. Is there even one?




         In Paul's letter to the Romans, he says that "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."


         Is there not even one righteous person here at Grace Covenant Church this morning?


         Or among all of humanity?


         Paul's letter deals with that issue and in it he states very clearly that the answer is no.


         Not 50, not 40, not even --- not even one.


         Which is not pleasant news when one looks to see what happened to Sodom and Gommorah.  As my 1st grade teacher said, "One bad apple spoils the bunch." But in Sodom and Gomorrah’s case, there was not even one good apple to save the bunch.


         And what of our world?


         Our sinful recklessness has damaged the environment. What will save us?


         Our healthy capitalism has often turned to become sinful and destructive greed, establishing poverty at the deepest levels. What will save us?


         Our sinful fears and hates have brought us to war and violence and terrorism that can destroy us in the blink of an eye. What will save us?


         Are there not 50, 40, 30?  Is there not even one righteous person?


         Yes, there is one among us who is righteous.


There is One among us on whom God's favor falls. 


Jesus Christ.

Good news that Abraham only dimly saw. That into the midst of broken human community, God himself would provide his own righteousness. He makes our community life not only possible, but pleasant.


         It is through the one good apple, the one righteous, the one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that we are saved.


         Are there 50 righteous among us?


         No, but thank God, it doesn't matter.


         We need only one righteous among us -- Jesus Christ.

[i] Thomas G. Long
[ii] “Righteous,”  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. New York:  American Heritage Publishing Company, 1971,  p. 1118.
[iii] “The Passion of Christ,” Wikipedia