Monday, June 26, 2017

Sodom & Gomorrah

Genesis 18 & 19
Sodom & Gomorrah
Now the story of the destruction Sodom and Gomorrah falls in the middle of the story of Abraham and Sarah and isn’t a very important story as far as the lineages or God’s covenant with Abraham goes, but it’s a significant story because it does make a very interesting point about this new burgeoning relationship between God and humans.
And it has been so misused against people and God that I didn’t want to ignore it.  

Most people have interpreted this story to say that the sin of  Sodom and Gomorrah
is homosexuality and/or  sexual promiscuity.
That’s what made God so mad and that’s why God destroyed it.
Supposedly the moral of that story is 

“God is likely to destroy things, people and whole cities, etc,
and God doesn’t like homosexuality, so don’t be that way,
don’t make God mad and you won’t be destroyed.”
Obviously, I don’t think that is a very good moral..

But emphasizing the sexual sin of Sodom started pretty early,
and since the 13th century, the name of Sodom is synonymous
with any different kind of sexual act.

That is a terrible for what it has done to gay and lesbian people,
and for what it reduces God to – an angry judge who’s
happy to destroy everything in his path.
It’s disturbing AND I don’t think the story says that,
it doesn’t paint a picture of God like that.

Two questions  I would like to answer about this story:  

What was Sodom & Gomorrah’s sin?
Does God really blow cities up?

Before we get to these two questions,
just a bit of background on Lot. 
Lot's Wife, Chris Goodwin
Lot is Abraham’s nephew.
They left their homeland together and they traveled together.

They were both very prosperous in their own right – lots of cattle and livestock.
But they had so much, it said, that their shepherds were  
getting into arguments about who’s livestock were grazing where. 
And so they decided to go their own ways.

Abraham went  to Hebron and Lot went to Sodom.  
Now Sodom was one of the cities of the Plain. Which were on the intersection
of the Jordan river and the Dead Sea, in what is now the country of Jordan.
It was a very prosperous area.  Lots of things grew there then, even though its mostly desert now.
There were 5 cities together and Sodom was the real Metropolis.
So Lot lived in Sodom, and he was a really rich guy,
 but he was a new comer. A visitor.

After the two mysterious strangers come tell Abraham and Sara that they
are going to have a son, the three strangers
walk away from the tent and are talking.  

The Lord is talking to the two other strangers
(further proof that one of the strangers is God)
and this conversation seems to be in earshot of Abraham. 

God wonders aloud to the other strangers if he should keep his plans
about Sodom and Gomorrah secret from Abraham.

God has apparently heard a lot of bad things about Sodom and Gomorrah.
God has heard many cries of injustice from the people there
and God plans to do something  about it.
The two other strangers go on to Sodom,
And God decides to go down there too and see for himself.

So to the first question:

What was Sodom & Gomorrah’s sin?

As I said, for many years, the answer has been assumed to be .   
that the sin of Sodom & Gomorrah was sexual in nature.
Specifically same-sex relations

And some people who believe this take that anyone who
has a consenting same-sex relationship is angering God,
and could cause God to snap and destroy them or everything.

Now the truth is, the story really doesn’t actually say what the sin of Sodom is.
So people have had to guess from the context.
The only thing the story definitely tell us is that
some of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah
are crying out and that is what gets God’s attention.
The stuff about sexuality comes from the
rest of the story after the strangers go to Sodom : 

The other two strangers get to Sodom in the evening before God does.
Lot is sitting at the gate almost waiting for them and invites them into his house.
They say, “no no, it’s no problem, we’ll just sleep outside.”
But Lot convinces them and they come in the house
and Lot makes a big dinner for them,
which Abraham and Sarah had just done just a few hours earlier .
I don’t know how they ate again.
It’s like trying to juggle Thanksgiving with the in-laws.

So, the strangers are eating their second feast of the evening,
and all the men of the city surround Lot’s house
and demand that the strangers be sent out to them so they can “know them”.
The Hebrew word they use is  “yada” and it can mean lots of things --
To know, to perceive, to understand, to meet, to get acquainted with, to acknowledge
so there’s not a complete agreement about what they mean.

But I think the context is pretty clear and it does seem that “yada”
means here “to know”, as we say, “in the biblical sense”.

In other words, the men of Sodom demand that Lot send his
visitors out to them so they  can sexually assault them.
It’s terrible and frightening, no matter who is doing it to whom.
It was meant to humiliate the strangers.

This is not a relationship between consenting adults.
This would be non – consensual, it would be assault, rape.
Even in early biblical times, where the rules of
intimate interaction are decidedly different than they are today,
this was a horrible violation of some vulnerable people.

So equating this with two people who have a
consensual relationship is just ridiculous.
Apples and oranges really.

This is a violence by the village on two people who are new to the town.
Like all rape, it’s about power, exercising it and taking it away from people.

So there’s this sin, which is terrible.
But the sin is sexual assault, not sexuality, not even promiscuity really.
But there’s more to this town’s sin than assault and some people say it’s hospitality.

Now hospitality doesn’t sound too important today,
today it’s about hotel work or putting out the right cheese and crackers for guests.
But thousands of years ago,
In these desert environments, hospitality was a matter of life and death.

And it was about more than the random wandering stranger.
It was about how insiders treated outsiders.
How the powerful treated the powerless.
And if the Bible is a source to us, this concept  very important to God.

This story is exaggerated, it  shows blatantly the lack of hospitality of the people in Sodom
contrasted with the super hospitality of Abraham and Lot.

When the strangers visit Abraham and he gives them his best.
He doesn’t hold back, he gives them a huge spread of food.
He probably could have gotten away with bread and water, but he
gives lots of bread 20 loaves or something like that, a young calf to eat, water, and milk.
He goes overboard on the hospitality.
Then when two of the strangers go onto Lot’s house,  
He gives them another meal, even baking bread for them  in the middle of the night.
Another crazy thing to do.
The chosen family of God welcomes strangers and treats
those are the most vulnerable with kindness.

But the rest of Sodom doesn’t treat the vulnerable with hospitality.  
Not only do they reject the strangers, they want to harm them.
They actually ask them out of the house so that they can humiliate
them in what was considered the absolute worst possible way.

Now, I will not go into Lot’s solution to this request.
where he offers up his two young daughters to the mob of men.
I cannot reckon this with any kind of righteousness today.

But I will say that there were other rules in play,
and protecting visiting male strangers by offering up his
own daughters might have been seen as the ultimate in hospitality  - even though it’s crazy today.
And I will say that Lot and his daughters have a complex relationship
that you can go on to read further in chapter 19.
But back to the story at hand:

When Lot stands in the way and offers an alternative to attacking the strangers,
the men of Sodom yell at him and reveal their true feelings toward Lot,
and tell him that he’s just a lousy “immigrant”, a new comer,
an interloper, and that he shouldn’t judge them.

For this story, the faithfulness of Abraham and Lot and this chosen family
is contrasted with the waywardness of the rest of humanity.
The way they treat the other, specifically the weakest among them.

The sin of Sodom is not about who they chose to love,
it’s about how they chose to hate.
It’s about how they treat the stranger, the immigrant, the less powerful in their midst.

And to prove my point, I refer to the Bible, to the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 16:

49 This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud,
had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity;
but she didn’t help the poor and the needy.
50 They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me,
and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it. Says the Lord.

So the sin of Sodom is about how the powerful treat the un-powerful.
It’s about the rape (in many ways) of those who are weaker.

And we know about that.
When we’re looking at a health care bill coming from
our ruling class, the congress and senate –
some of the wealthiest and best paid and best insured people in the country
and how they are planning to take away emergency
health care from the most needy, the most vulnerable,
the oldest, the youngest,  the poorest, in our country -
and transferring that money to the richest in the form of tax breaks,
we’re talking about the sin of Sodom happening in our own backyard,
and should take this story as a warning for all of us.
As is stated in the bible over and over again, God does not like this kind of behavior.
 And we know what happens when God doesn’t like something.
Which brings me to my next question:

Does God really blow cities up?

Some modern TV evangelists like Pat Robertson 
would like you to believe that God does just that.
He blamed the hurricane in Haiti several years ago
on the fact that God was angry with the Haitian's practice
of voodoo one hundred years or so ago
So even though now the country is mostly Catholic, God destroyed it.

And some Christians have spent a lot of time proving
that there really was more than a natural disaster in the
place that they believe Sodom and Gomorrah to have been.

But does God really destroy, and whole civilizations?
I don’t think I’m very comfortable with that thought.
It goes against most of what I know and understand about
God through Jesus Christ.

Here’s some things to remember: this a new relationship between 
God and God’s people.
Previous to this relationship and revelation,
human’s relationship with the divine was difficult at best.
Gods were understood as arbitrary and acted to satisfy their own desires.
Humans were mostly seen as pawns and play toys.
But now we have a God who is not just using humans for entertainment.
God has a relationship with us.

And this story of Sodom and Gomorrah makes the point
that the relationship with this God is not the same as the old gods
Things do not happen arbitrarily outside of the relationship between God and humans.
People aren’t just pawns in the gods’ games anymore.
 As Walter Bruggemann, the renowned Old Testament Scholar writes,
“it is no longer a closed system”,
humans are now involved, God is concerned about how we treat each other.
And in comparison to the old way of thinking of the divine,
God’s actions are just and merciful.
And in the story, Abraham has been bold enough to intercede in this    
divine retribution, and God responds to him. Interacts with him.
It’s no longer a closed system, and the system now includes an element of grace.
Abraham argues with God:
“If there are 100 good people, would you save the city?
Okay, how about 50 good people? You’re way more merciful than that.
How about 45, 40, 30, 20, how about 10 God?
Would you save the city then? ” God is moved by Abraham’s plea.
Even though in the end it doesn’t seem to matter.

And Abraham, the righteous child of God,
does not just pray and barter with God for himself,
he puts himself out there with God and prays for others, again, hospitality.
He leverages his relationship with God
for the weaker among him.

One other thing about how we read these stories,
 we shouldn’t just read them and say, “this is exactly how God acts.”
We have to look at the TRAJECTORY  
of what this story  is trying to tell us about God and about God’s people TODAY.

The exchange with Abraham tells me that God is just and merciful
and loves his people and is in relationship with them. 
And the trajectory of that truth tells me today --
knowing where humanity has come to
and that redemption and loving our enemies is part of God’s plan --
that a God would not destroy a city even with only 10 righteous people.
God is capable, but God does not.

Still, I was thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah and I was
still stuck on this question of whether God destroys civilizations.
And so I had a conversation this week with my Facebook friend, Jesus  -- son of Joseph.
And he said something that I thought was very insightful,
Which makes sense because he is Jesus.

He said:
The pattern I see (in both OT and NT) is that every time a corrupt, evil civilization dies, Yahweh takes credit for it. It happens to Sodom, to Egypt, to Canaan, to Israel, to Judah, to Babylon, to Persia, and then Israelite civilization dies completely in 70 AD (something I will have lots to say about in my own preaching), and it has continued happening in the 2000 years since, and still is. And in each case, it's described as something like "the Coming of the LORD."

Is it accurate to say that when Nazi Germany was defeated, it was in some ways the work of Yahweh?
I would say yes, sort of, from a certain point of view.

Another point of view is that every civilization reaps what it sews.
Civilizations built on hate are not sustainable, and they eventually experience the results of their behavior.
 And this is as it should be.
You could say it is the will of God that people experience the natural consequences of their choices.

"Civilizations based on hate are not sustainable.”
So in other words, God has formed a world that will eventually reject hate and rejects evil.
This is easiest to say by telling a story where God suddenly destroys an evil city.
But in reality, it doesn’t happen that quickly, in the flash of a moment,
it happens over decades and centuries.
It’s a slow process, but inevitable.

In other words, as Martin Luther King Jr. Said,
“The arc of the universe bends towards justice.”

Our systems can’t sustain forever under the weight of greed, and violence, and inequality.
Brian McClaren, another great theologian of today, calls it The Suicide Machine

We can see our own system now imploding from 
consumerism, exploiting others and our natural resources for personal pleasure.
We can see it coming apart from the love of weapons, guns,
the machines of war, years of hate and fear.
And after centuries of the weakest being enslaved and cast aside,
used and ignored and thrown away, our sins have come to roost.
Our greatest hope and our greatest fear is that God’s will will be done.

Right now, our plan of action as people of faith,
is to try and help change the society that we both love and hate.
To help us all see the error of our ways and change course. 

But at some point the story of Lot tells us that the
answer might be to get out before it’s too late,
and don’t look back longingly, like Lot’s wife did,
to our wealth, and comfort, and ease of life.

So this story is bad news for the rich and the haughty.
Because they have the farthest to fall.
And it’s bad news for those who
laugh at and ignore the weak,
and don’t have mercy for the helpless
They have already had their good times. 

But the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is good news for the poor,
for the immigrants, for the elderly, and the weak, good news for the peacemakers.
For those who have cried out at the injustice in the world.
Good news for those who have been chewed up by the suicide machine
since it started churning.
It’s actually good news for everyone.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah tells us in, its own way,
that the arc of the universe does bend toward justice.
God’s way will be our ways.
Good will triumph.
Love and justice will win.

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