I preached this sermon at Hood River Valley Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on May 20, 2012. The scripture lesson is Genesis 19: 1-25.
Our friends didn’t always appreciate our sense of humor. I remember one particular evening at the IHOP when the rest of the group moved to another table because the two of us – supposedly – were giggling too much. Bill had that effect on me. We were best friends. We were in high school. That meant it was his job to get me to snort my soda.
At the end of the evening, I pulled into his driveway and turned off the car. We always talked one-on-one at the end of an evening with our friends. Our giggles out, the tone would become more serious. As two young men growing up in the late seventies, this is when we talked about girls, about our families, and about all the things that mattered most to us.
We all have that relative who we love dearly. You know the one who’s a good person but always seems to find trouble? (My brother had some years like that.) You just wish Uncle Joe or cousin Millie would live up to their potential. You just wish they’d stop making bad choices, sabotaging themselves, and hanging out with the wrong crowd.
Lot seems to be that relative for our patriarch Abraham. He’s a good guy. He wants to do right by God. He really tries but somehow he always finds trouble.
So, before our reading begins today, Abraham is walking with God and God’s two messengers — the NRSV describes them as angels –though that’s not a perfect translation. Messenger, still not a perfect translation, seems to fit their role in this story better.
Now, this is after God’s bombshell visit to Hebron, a visit in which the righteousness of Abraham and Sarah is evident in their hospitality. This is immediately after that bombshell visit in which God tells Abraham and Sarah that, despite Sarah’s old age, she’s going to have a baby.
So God, perhaps sensitive to the enormity of the news just dropped on the elderly Abraham, debates whether to discuss with him what’s next on the agenda. Ultimately, though, God decides, to tell Abraham.
“I must go down” to Sodom, God tells Abraham, “and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” (Genesis 18: 21 NRSV)
I can imagine Abraham rolling his eyes. I would if I were him. Not out of disrespect to God but because Lot had found trouble…again. Lot has fallen in with a bad crowd. He’s moved to the plains, to Sodom. That place that, according to Ezekiel 16, had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things.” (Ezekiel 16: 49b-50a NRSV)
Abraham intercedes on Lot’s behalf. He barters with God, what if there are 50 good men, will you save the towns? Of course, Abraham probably expects God to offer a higher number. Maybe 100 good men? As some commentators have suggested, however, God surprises even Abraham with his mercy.
God does not want to punish the righteous with the wicked.
And so we arrive in Sodom in the evening along with God’s messengers. What happens next is familiar in our culture, at least vaguely. Even if you’ve never read Genesis, you’ve probably heard about Sodom and Gomorrah. As told in secular and in many church settings, this is the story of a God who punishes two cities because of their evil ways.
God gives up on their ability to change or transform. Evil now, evil always. No resurrections.
In this interpretation God rains fire on Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexual acts. This ferocious god — fed up by the disobedience of the townsfolk — saved Lot and his two daughters only because Abraham interceded on their behalf. As a result of this we even use the term sodomy and Sodomite to refer to a kind of sexual behavior and those who engage in it.
Of course, the problem with allowing the secular culture to interpret the Bible for us is that we miss the nuance. We miss hearing God’s loving voice. We fail to allow the Holy Spirit to envelope us and guide us. Our sacred text must be read and studied prayerfully or we will be led astray.
Perhaps even turning its meaning on its head.
I remember that evening well. The sun was setting when I noticed the two men near the town gate. Why had no one offered to put these strangers up for the night?
Well, I know what my kin Abraham would do; he would offer hospitality. Like Abraham, I love our Lord, the maker of all that we see, the one who led our people out of Egypt, the one worthy of our worship.
And, so, I did what my God requires, I approached the two strangers and offered to put them up for the night. At first they hesitated but I insisted. They were strangers and didn’t know how hostile this town could be to those from the outside. As an immigrant myself, a resident alien with some rights, they still reminded me from time to time when I got too “uppity” that I wasn’t “from around here.”
So, I brought the strangers home and made them a feast! We were lingering over coffee and my wife’s famous cherry pie when I heard the commotion outside. There were so many of them! Sounded like the whole town. They called to me, “Lot! Lot! LO-OT!” They were getting louder.
“Give us those strangers! They don’t belong here. They probably don’t even speak English!” I feared they wanted to dehumanize my guests…rape them…treat them as women. I hoped my guests had not heard their hateful words because it was my job as host to protect my guests.
I went to the door. My guests followed and closed the door behind me. I stood on the front stoop and looked at the townsfolk. They were ticked — no, worse than that — they were in a frenzy of hatred and hostility. Some of ‘em had been drinking. It really was the whole town at my door.
So, I put on my most charming voice, my most respectful voice,“I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly,” I said. And, though I’m ashamed to admit it, I offered them my daughters. It was horrible to do so, but I am under an oath sworn to God to protect the vulnerable, the stranger. Hospitality is just that important.
Fortunately for my daughters, the townsfolk were too intent on the foreigners to take me up on the offer. They weren’t trying to satiate their sexual desires; they wanted to inflict their evil on the outsiders! And now I had just enraged them even more. They reminded me that I wasn’t one of them, either — that I was an alien, an immigrant –and they were prepared to do even worse to me!
I had failed in my duties of hospitality when the two men had to protect me. They pulled me inside and — somehow? — blinded all of the wicked townspeople so that they could not find the door.
I don’t know about you but I get angry when our sacred text is used as a weapon. The Bible is a powerful testament of our ancient kindred’s experience of the Divine. When it is used for hatred, stumbling blocks are put before people.
Recent surveys have shown that those under 30 associate Christianity with hatred. Is it really any wonder… when we let the media and the secular culture define us and interpret Jesus? Jesus: our upside down savior? We let the voice of abundant love that overcomes death be drowned out by those who don’t study the Bible prayerfully and thoughtfully.
According to the U.S. Religion Census released on May first, Portland — our Portland — is the least religious city in the country. Religious is defined as having an affiliation, even marginally, with a religious body of some kind. Only 32% of Portlanders are connected to a church, mosque, or synagogue. We’re not much better. In Hood River County only 38.4% of people are associated — even slightly — with a religious body.
We’re failing to teach the loving core of our faith. We’re failing to teach the Bible and make it relevant to the twenty-first century. We’ve allowed the secular culture to limit God’s extravagant love. In the case of the narrative of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we’ve allowed others to tell people that it is a story of punishment for homosexuality.
It is not.
This is a story that reveals the truth about the importance of hospitality to the stranger, to those who are not like us. As Disciple scholar Rick Lowery puts it, this narrative is a reminder that, “When you declare war on the poor and the vulnerable, you declare war on YHWH,” on God. We should all be appalled that one of the stories of our faith has been used for hatred when it is about the importance of love. When it is about radical hospitality.
Jesus himself referred to the meaning of this story in the tenth chapter of Matthew. As he sent the apostles out to teach, Jesus said, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matthew 10: 14-15 NRSV)
College came and I went away to school. On my weekends home from college, our friends would still gather. And Bill and I would still end the evening in his driveway.
It was in Bill’s driveway that he told me about the girls he dated, and how it never seemed to last. It was in Bill’s driveway that I first told him about the girl in the college cafeteria. The one with whom I flirted — religiously — after every meal. It was in his driveway that I would later ask him to be my best man.
One weekend home from college we pulled into Bill’s driveway. This night, Bill stammered and hesitated. His nervousness — his fear? — filled the car. Eventually, he got out what he wanted to say to me. Bill came out to me. My best friend told me he was gay.
It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s just that a best friend’s love is unconditional. It didn’t matter to our friendship.
It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s just that I grew up in the church. Heck, I was born in the Disciples of Christ’s Vatican City. I was ushered into life in Indianapolis where my dad served Speedway Christian Church.
I threw paper airplanes made from church bulletins off the balcony at First Christian Church in Salem. I went on hay rides on a Missouri farm with the youth group. I went with my grandfather — who wore his perfect attendance pin — to the Disciple church in Irvine, Kentucky. I gave my Good Confession at a storefront Disciples church on Palm Sunday because I know a god who loves all of God’s people extravagantly.
And, so, I accepted my friend for who he was because that is what Jesus taught me.