There are times when the world around us seems so broken, so messed up, so beyond repair, that it seems like the best course of action would be to just wipe the slate clean and start all over. Do you ever feel that way? It brings me some comfort to know that God has these burn it all down moments, too.
In our text for today, Abraham is trying to talk God down. Or maybe it’s the other way around. What results is reassurance from God that if there is any way to save Sodom from destruction, any chance that a just and righteous way of life can re-emerge, God will be merciful and spare the people.
The witness of this sacred text is also that, for better or worse, we are all in it together. Evil may threaten to swallow us all in its quest for power and control, but even a righteous few can turn it all around. Or not.
In the Hebrew Bible, the themes of justice and righteousness consistently circle around the concept of hospitality, which is almost ubiquitous in ancient Near Eastern cultures. It was necessary because people were on the move, on temporary journeys or as entire people groups migrating from one place to another. Of course, there were no La Quintas on every street corner. People depended on the hospitality of strangers for their survival, for shelter, a meal, a bed, and sustenance for their animals. But for the Hebrews, it is not just necessay for survival, it is a gateway for encountering Divine presence. In other words, if you want to meet God, welcome the stranger—in this case, Abraham and the messengers from God.
And of course, the great sin of Sodom, is their notorious INhospitality to strangers, travelers, and the poor.
It turns out that God can’t even find ten faithful people in Sodom. It’s even worse than they thought. And the following chapter of Genesis details what is essentially a rescue mission to get Lot and his family out before God goes through with the initial plan and, well, burns it all down.
Ezekiel 16:49-50 New International Version (NIV)
49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”
From Rabbi Steve Greenberg:
“Rabbinic legends about Sodom describe an area of unusual natural resources, precious stones, silver and gold. Every path in Sodom, say the sages, was lined with seven rows of fruit trees. Eager to keep their great wealth for themselves, and suspicious of outsiders’ desires to share in it, the residents of Sodom agreed to overturn the ancient law of hospitality to wayfarers. The legislation later prohibited giving charity to anyone. One legend claims that when a beggar would wander into Sodom, the people would mark their names on their coins and give him a dinar. However, no one would sell him bread. When he perished of hunger, everyone would come and claim his coin. There was once a maiden who secretly carried bread out to a poor person in the street in her water pitcher. After three days passed and the man didn’t die, the maiden was discovered. They covered the girl with honey and put her atop the city walls, leaving her there until bees came and ate her. Hers was the cry that came up to God, the cry that inaugurated the angelic visit and its consequences….
The people of Sodom are not only protective of their wealth and punishing of acts of charity; they are also desperate to force everyone to fit a single measure. They have a well-to-do gated community that makes sure no beggars disturb their luxury and peace. They have zoned out poverty. But what makes Sodom the “right” kind of neighborhood is that no difference is tolerated. “Our kind” of folk are welcomed and protected, while all the rest are excluded or eliminated.”
We need only look to what’s happening at our Southern border to imagine that we find ourselves living in a 21st century Sodom.
family separation #wearesodom
migrant concentration camps #wearesodom
billionaires trafficking children #wearesodom
Poverty and severe income inequality #wearesodom
Inaccessible healthcare #wearesodom
Police shootings #wearesodom
Mass shootings #wearesodom
Mass incarceration #wearesodom
White supremacy #wearesodom
I probably don’t need to preach to this congregation about how important it is to stay politically engaged in these times in order to push back against what is becoming an increasingly evil administration. But within the context of Christian community, the practice of hospitality is not just about enacting more humane immigration laws or crafting statements of inclusivity. Those things are essential and cannot be neglected. But the Christian practice of hospitality, I believe, also requires us to get our hands dirty with the work of hosting strangers right here in our midst. Because, like the Hebrews, it’s how we know God. Even our defining ritual happens around a table where everyone is supposed to be welcome.
The ministries of hospitality that UBC already provides: God’s Family Dinner, the Street Youth Drop-In. Some of our members are heavily engaged in these ministries, and others are not. It makes me wonder what additional kind of ministry of hospitality God might be inviting us into next. Where will the rest of us get our hands dirty?
It’s not just a question of what can we do with our land, but what can we do with our hands, and our hearts, and our skills, and our voices.
Jesus comes to us as a stranger. The Gospel of John says that He came unto his own, and his own received him not. Jesus also comes to us as God incarnate, and I think one of the ultimate purposes of Christian faith is to keep making us more incarnate, bringing us back to our bodies, back into our flesh. In such a way that we can embrace the fullness of our humanity and all the vulnerability that entails, namely that we are utterly dependent on God and each other for survival. That is both terrifying and liberating at the very same.
As we move forward, UBC, with discussions about the future of the church, and sort out logistics, and itemize pros and cons, let us keep returning to the biblical witness and this question: How will we encounter God in the strangers who comes to stay in our midst? What mercy and grace will their presence bestow upon us? What opportunities will we have to know and be fully known, to experience ourselves as vulnerable, fragile flesh utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers?