Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 24, 2016
This is one of a series of stories meant to instill in late Jews some pride in the greatness of their early ancestor Abraham. This one describes how familiar Abraham was with the Lord God.
In prior chapters, Paul has shown that Christ is superior to angelic mediators who might stand between God and us, and that Christ is our hope of glory. Today he declares that we receive Christ in our baptism. Symbolizing death and resurrection, baptism changes everything in our relationship with God, annulling our debts to God.
These familiar instructions were one way the earliest Christians prepared for the coming again in glory of Jesus, and the tribulations that would bring.
The Literary Background: The context is this: The Lord God and two angels have, in disguise, visited Abraham, who welcomed them. (See last week's first reading, Genesis 18:1-10a). As Abraham gradually discovers their identities, they start a trip to nearby Sodom, and the ever hospitable Abraham accompanies them. God decides, since he has already promised Abraham greatness, to tell Abraham of his plan to destroy Sodom. This truncated selection of verses raises the question of why God wanted to destroy Sodom in the first place. The short answer is the residents' inhospitality (something loathed by all other Middle Eastern peoples) and their sexual perversity (despised throughout the Old Testament). Specifically, see the next chapter of the Book of Genesis. Better yet, get the whole story by going back to Genesis 12 and the following chapters, to learn all about Abraham, his kinsman Lot, why Lot settled near Sodom and Abraham didn't, and how Abraham came to be in the company of The Lord God and two other visitors (the two who "walked on farther to Sodom").
The Theological Situation: The next question is why was the destruction of Sodom was to be an all-or-nothing thing? Why couldn't the innocent have been spared and the guilty punished? At the time this was written, the author's community did not have our highly developed sense of the individual and his or her destiny. That moral and religious innovation was to be gift of later prophets and sages. In this early story, not even the Lord God is thought capable of distinguishing the individual from the collective.
How are you to proclaim this? Well, put yourself in character, mostly the character of Abraham, but also the character of the Lord God. In his opening paragraph, Abraham has to sound both respectful and persuasive. So he flatters the Lord God, "Far be it from you ... Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?" When you speak these words, make it sound like shameless flattery. Exaggerate it! How would Zero Mostel (Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof) have played this if Abraham's story were a musical? Remember, no matter how much you think you're hamming it up, the audio system in church smothers half of your expressiveness, so no one else thinks you're over the top. Quite the contrary.
Make God sound solemn and judicious in reply. Then revert to obsequiousness for Abraham's second round in the negotiations. Back to solemn, "I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there." The pace quickens and each of Abraham's bids becomes shorter and more daring. Maintain the sense of drama with pauses at each change of speaker. The congregation should be asking, "Now what's God going to say?" and "Good grief, is Abraham ever going to stop this gamble?"
Today the question is, "How, then, do we get Christ in us?" Paul's answer is that when we were buried in the waters of baptism, we were united with Jesus in his saving death, and when we emerged from the saturating waters, we were joined to Christ in his resurrection. (Paul assumes that the ritual of baptism obviously simulates burial and resurrection.)
Your Proclamation: So in the first sentence, emphasize the words buried and raised. Then pause before the next sentence, because it states that even our sins couldn't keep this burial and resurrection from having their saving effect.
Next, the sentence goes on but the imagery changes abruptly. Paul speaks of something like a modern criminal indictment, "the bond against us." The indictment is not simply overturned by the staid pronouncement of an appeals court. Rather, in a most vivid image, the indictment is snatched away and nailed to the cross! (Remember, a cross was not used merely to execute people, but to humiliate them utterly in the process. So there's nothing more null and void than something nailed to a cross.) So say this sentence triumphantly.
The Lord's Prayer from the illuminated manuscript known as the St. Alban Psalter, now housed in the Monastery of St. Godehard, Hildesheim, Germany. Click here for a larger version. The psalter is of English origin, as its name suggests. The University of Aberdeen gives this essay about the psalter, including a possible explanation of how it found its way to Germany.
Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.
This page updated June 12, 2016