My prayer is that the spirit of Psalm 85 is the spirit of what I offer today: “Let us hear the words of God. Are they not words of peace… peace to those who turn to God in their hearts? Surely God’s salvation is near to those who worship God, so that divine glory may dwell in our land. Mercy and truth will meet. Justice and peace will kiss.”
But today we need to start with the opposite, with how the words of God and words about God at times are twisted to hurt and harm. So every now and again I do a sermon that’s a public service announcement about the use and misuse of scripture. We explore a piece of scripture that’s often shorn from its context and sharpened and used to cut rather than to heal. So we’ve got a lot of folks with soul wounds that they got at church, of all places – which just isn’t right.
It’s Pride weekend, which at its best is about wholeness, wellness, the whole spectrum of the light of love. It bears repeating that our church and our denomination is Open and Affirming to the ways that God has created people to seek and find and share and express love.
So let me take this opportunity to disabuse us of a much abused bit of scripture: Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Book of Genesis, chapter 19. The Lectionary seems to avoid this story altogether. But if we don’t talk about it then we’re letting what the Westboro Baptist types say about it carry the day. And they’ve got it dead wrong. So here we go …
The scripture we read first was from chapter 18 and I want us to keep this up front and center because, actually, the Book of Genesis keeps it up front and center.
Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of what is to be the people of Israel, offered hospitality to strangers, out in the wilderness. Abraham was sitting at the gate of his tent, when three strangers came by. He ran to them, bowed to the ground, and begged them to allow him to welcome them into his home and feed and care for them. He and Sarah were unaware that they were entertaining angels.
And so they received a blessing from God – in their old age a child is born. The miracle is so surprising and delightful that Sarah laughs. The child is named “Isaac,” which means laughter.
Laughter, love, blessing on future generations: that’s what Abraham and Sarah receive in return for their hospitality to strangers in a harsh land.
A little while later in Genesis we get to chapter 19, which begins with A man named Lot sitting at the gates of a city, called Sodom.
Two strangers come by and Lot runs to them, bows down to the ground, and welcomes them into the city and into his home. Sound familiar? As it turns out, Lot is Abraham’s nephew. He and his family are in Sodom because they were captured as prisoners of war. But, long story short, they grew to feel comfortable there. At any rate, here they are welcoming these strangers into their city and into home – and, just like Abraham and Sarah, they were entertaining angels unaware.
Now, Sodom has been a city at war. They’ve been stomping around dominating and destroying and defending. So they’re suspicious of any kind of foreigner hanging around, let alone two guys who just traipse through their gates at the invitation of this other foreigner living in town, this Lot character.
Forget entertaining angels unaware, they’re probably harboring terrorists. “If you see something, say something.” So word spreads. And soon a mob of men forms outside Lot’s house.
“We know you got a couple of foreigners in there. Hand ’em over.”
And what this mob intended to do with these two foreigners is show them who’s boss. In those days, and still to this day, an angry violent man who wants to humiliate and dominate another person – man or woman – does so by forcing themselves onto them. We talk about armies “raping and pillaging,” because that’s what they did, to men as well as to women. The conquerors had to utterly humiliate the conquered, the soldiers of the losing army – the losers. If we fast forward to Jesus’ time, the Roman army was known for doing this too. It still happens to this day. And that’s what this mob wants to do to the two angels of God.
And Lot … well, Lot doesn’t respond very well. And I should say that in the book of Genesis overall, the morality of him and his family, and their ability to make good decisions, gets a pretty dicey review. Anyway, Lot says to the mob, “Here, take my daughters instead. Just don’t hurt my guests (my male guests).”
The mob says, “You’re a foreigner too. We can’t trust you or who you welcome as your so-called guests. You’re really in trouble now.”
Then the angels sweep in and help Lot and his family escape.
And this episode is the last straw for God. God has gotten so fed up with how horrible everyone is in the city of Sodom that fire rains down and destroys it, along with Gomorrah, which is a sister city with Sodom and kind of tags along with all the iniquity to the bitter violent end. You could say, this is an ugly and tragic situation of reaping what you sow.
And what did they sow? The story is about the violent extreme of being inhospitable to strangers. Genesis makes it very clear. And according to the prophet Ezekiel, speaking later, warning his people about their ways, this violent inhospitality was part of a larger culture of hardheartedness in these two cities: They “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did horrible, abominable things. Therefore God swept them away” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
Now all this is a far cry from the laughter, love, and blessing that Abraham and Sarah received for their warmth and generosity and hospitality to strangers. The book of Genesis couldn’t make the contrast more clear.
And the contrast could not me more clear between what the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is actually about, and the love and the laughter and blessing that any two people can enjoy when they fall in love together and commit to sharing life together with the person whom God has set them towards falling in love with and sharing life with. Couldn’t be more different. It’s twisting the scripture to claim otherwise.
So that’s the public service announcement.
The take-away, I hope, is this: The Good Book has got Good News. So let’s not let it be abused. “Let us hear the words of God. Are they not words of peace… peace to those who turn to God in their hearts? Surely God’s salvation is near to those who worship, so that divine glory may dwell in our land.” Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! And what does that divine glory look like? “Mercy and truth will meet. Justice and peace will kiss.” (Psalm 85:8-10)
May it be so. Thanks be to God.
(Delivered June 25, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
Yahweh appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me. Therefore I swept them away, as you are aware.
Let me hear the words of God, the One Beyond Name. Are they not words of peace, peace to God’s people, to God’s faithful, to those who turn to God in their hearts? Surely God’s salvation is near to those who worship God, so that divine glory may dwell in our land. Mercy and truth will meet. Justice and peace will kiss.
The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.’ They said, ‘No; we will spend the night in the square.’ But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’ Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’ But they replied, ‘Stand back!’ And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door. Sodom and Gomorrah Destroyed Then the men said to Lot, ‘Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city—bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.’ So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, ‘Up, get out of this place; for the Lord is about to destroy the city.’ But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting. When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city.’ But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, they said, ‘Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.’ And Lot said to them, ‘Oh, no, my lords; your servant has found favour with you, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, for fear the disaster will overtake me and I die. Look, that city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!’ He said to him, ‘Very well, I grant you this favour too, and will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.’ Therefore the city was called Zoar. The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar. Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulphur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord; and he looked down towards Sodom and Gomorrah and towards all the land of the Plain, and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace. So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled.