A sermon preached on July 28, 2019, Proper 12, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. To read today’s scripture, click here. To listen along, click the play button below.
In the Biblical tradition, Sodom and Gomorrah have come to represent people lacking righteousness. A sinful culture. A society so absent of virtue that they had lost any aspiration for redemption and forgotten their yearning for God. And God, it seems, was ready to wipe them off the face of the earth.
There are 2 things I’d like us to focus on today in this lesson. First, that God chose not to wipe them off the face of the earth. And second, the sin itself – what was it that made Sodom and Gomorrah so reprehensible in the eyes of God? Let’s look at this first because it may not be what you think.
Like last week, where we encountered a popular misunderstanding that, under closer scrutiny of the scriptural text, proved to be erroneous (there is no scriptural support for Mary Magdalene being a prostitute) this is true of Sodom and Gomorrah. There is a popular misunderstanding that the so-called “sin” of Sodom and Gomorrah is sex between two men. The word “sodomy” comes from this. But there is no scriptural support for this, except through misinterpretation.
It’s the prophet Ezekiel who offers us the reason for God’s anger towards Sodom and Gomorrah: “As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. 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.” (Ezekiel 16:48-49)
So, according to scripture, the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah is its pride, its excess of food and prosperous ease and its refusal to help the poor and needy. This is a particular form of violence: Treating others as objects, creating walls of worthiness, drawing lines in the sand.
The Jewish rabbinic tradition (Midrash) goes on and on and on about this, offering details about the exact nature of corruption and conceit: “… the [inhabitants of] Sodom said, ‘We live in peace and plenty – food can be got from our land, gold and silver can be mined from our land, precious stones and pearls can be obtained from our land. What need have we to look after wayfarers, who come to us only to deprive us? Come let us see to it that the duty of entertaining foot travelers be forgotten in our land…’” (Book of Legends, 36)
To deny care, especially for the stranger, is a deeply egregious sin because the primary duty of Jewish people was and is to care for and to welcome the stranger. This, by the way is also the primary duty of a Muslim, and of a Christian. Our savior, Jesus was extremely well-educated and conversant in Jewish law and he made such huge commotion in reminding people about their duty to one another, that he was killed. “Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself,” he said, “on these two commandments, hang all the law and the prophets.”
God works through us to offer God’s mercy, God’s Love. Nowhere in scripture does it tell us to hoard what we’re given, even if it’s a result of our efforts. Nowhere does it tell us that we are only to share with those we deem worthy. Scripture tells us the exact opposite and Paul reminds us that we are the Body of Christ – the hands, the feet of Christ.
By caring for those who are vulnerable, we remember that we are part of a larger hope, a greater abundance, that must flow through us, not stop at our feet. We serve God when we serve one another. And to make that point clear, the Hebrew Scriptures remind us again and again that we were once strangers and, had it not been for the mercy of someone else, where would we be?
- Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart. (Zechariah 7:10)
- You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)
These passages are just a sampling from the Hebrew Scriptures that demonstrate exactly how important hospitality to the stranger is and exactly how much of a transgression against God it is to deny this responsibility and perpetrate this kind of violence.
However, to offer mercy, especially where we believe none is deserved, is not easy. Indeed, it is the hardest spiritual practice I can think of. I think it’s so hard because, often, we believe we, ourselves, are unlovable. Unworthy of mercy.
This leads us to the other significant aspect of this story: God’s mercy.
I saw a video clip a few years ago from a documentary called Human. In the clip, you see the head of a human being against a pitch-black background – no context, no scenery. Just the face of a human being.
This clip contained the story of an African American man, probably in his 30’s or 40’s – the kind of face that wasn’t aged but had definitely seen more than a couple of decades of life. And he began to speak – slowly and clearly, deliberately choosing his words. He started by telling about how he was abused by his stepfather as a child – being hit with different implements of punishment – and at the end of each beating, the stepfather would say, “I do this because I love you.”
The man in the video proceeded to talk about how, once he had grown up, he believed that the degree of love someone felt for him was directly related to how much pain someone could tolerate from him. This continued until he killed a woman and her child. Crimes, for which, he was sent to prison.
While he was in prison, he said, he met a woman named Agnes – the mother of the woman he killed. The grandmother of the child he killed. He talked about how Agnes and he had been on a journey together, that she saw past his condition.
He said, “by all rights, she should hate me.”
And, unable to contain himself any longer, huge tears rolled down his long brown face and he fell silent as he tried to gather his strength, regain his composure. And he said, “she showed me what love is about.”
“She saw past my condition and she showed me what love is about.”
And you knew in that moment, that the mercy shown by this woman Agnes was exactly what unbound this human being from the pain and self-hate he had been carrying for most of his life. You knew in that moment that he was no longer a violent man. You knew in that moment that it was love through the act of mercy that turned his world upside down.
It was Agnes who liberated him from the prison he had made for himself to protect him from the world. It was this mercy offered to him in his most despicable place that gave him any kind of hope.
Can we imagine a mercy like Agnes gave? A mercy the size of Sodom and Gomorrah?
Can we believe that this human being was worth such an act of love?
When society wants to seek revenge… when we want to seek revenge… Jesus tells us to love, to forgive, to offer mercy. I’m not sure I could ever, ever offer the kind of mercy that Agnes did. But that’s the task, isn’t it? That’s how Jesus is leading us, isn’t it?
As the embodiment of God on earth, Jesus kept pointing to mercy, to love, inviting even the most despicable people to his table, even those who perpetrated violence upon his own people. And when the world insisted on violence to shut him down, we learn that love, not death, is God’s hope for us. It is love, not violence, that redeems us and saving us from our worst nightmares.
Violence never redeems anything because, even though it might feel satisfying, it keeps us bound to our own pain and fear because it separates us from our own heart, keeping us behind a wall. Violence always begets violence… because this is the way of the world. But this is not the way of God. God puts an end to violence through mercy.
Abraham, our ancestor who taught us that there is one God of all Life, shows us the nature of God in this comic scene from Genesis today. Abraham negotiates with God, wearing God down, and in the process we are reminded of, if not dumbfounded by, God’s wild, extravagant love.
We are wonderfully made in the very image of God. We have, as a part of us, a spark of this love, this divine light. We are offered mercy again and again, not because we deserve it but because we are loved. And we are loved simply because we breathe.
God loves us beyond our conceptions and expectations for exactly who we are. God loves even the parts that we believe are unworthy, unlovable, and unredeemable – the Sodom and Gomorrah inclinations we have.
The ways we have dismissed the stranger.
The parts of us that have denied another’s worth.
The self-judgment that keeps us from opening ourselves to others.
No matter what we do, we cannot destroy the love that God has for us. We are not beyond mercy. We cannot escape God’s love. And, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, that means, neither can anyone else escape God’s love.
This is what it means to believe in Christ – to believe that God’s love is that boundless, that God’s mercy is beyond our conception. As Christians, then, our task is to learn to follow Christ. To journey ever deeper into our faith in this Love. To open our hearts… to others and to ourselves… so that we can more and more see Christ in one another. Every day becoming this light that offers mercy to one another, calling each other home.
This is our salvation.