The sermon for Sunday February 8th, 2015 comes from a difficult text: Genesis 19:1-11. But even difficult texts have something to say to us about our relationship with God, and we should listen carefully as we read them. This passage in particular deals with some of the things that have come up as hot topics in the last few years, but a close read suggests that they are not the point of the story, and that the point of the story is a much older concept, the concept of being hospitable to the strangers in our midst. Here is Rev. Harrison’s sermon.

Hospitality and Self-Sacrifice

One of the strange things about Biblical people and places that show up in our everyday language is that they don’t always mean what they meant in the Bible. Take Jezebel for example. The modern meaning of Jezebel is a temptress. But Jezebel didn’t tempt anybody. She was a foreign queen and an idol worshipper. She brought in foreign priests of Baal, and arranged for the death of Naboth to take his vineyard. Jezebel’s sins aren’t about sex or temptation, but that’s the meaning of the word Jezebel today.

We have a tendency to make things about sex when they aren’t. When Hollywood remakes classic movies or true stories, they always add a romantic subplot. News organizations have learned that the most salacious stories get the most viewers, so they overreport the sensational and ignore the essential news of our day. Which brings us to today’s Old Testament story. The story of Lot’s visitors in the city of Sodom. In spite of the present meaning of the word “sodomy,” this story isn’t about sex or sexual orientation. The story is about hospitality, a community that rejects it, a righteous man who offers it, and how even the righteous can fail the test of justice.

Hospitality is a big deal in the Bible. Exodus 22:21-24 “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” Leviticus 19:33-34 “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” And there are a number of stories in the Bible about the importance of welcoming and being kind to strangers.

But why are foreigners classified among vulnerable groups like widows and orphans? The key is that ancient Israel was a tribal society. The only people you could depend on were the people in your tribe. There were no police. The only thing that protected you from being a victim was the potential that your kin would seek justice. But if you don’t have any kin, or they are in a far away land? There isn’t anyone to protect you. For that reason, an immigrant was just as vulnerable as a widow or an orphan. There is no one to protect them. And thus God, who hears the cry of the weak and hurting, commands us to care for the aliens in our midst.

This is what the story of Sodom is about. The men of Sodom broke the code of hospitality that made it safe for trade and travel to exist in the ancient world. There were outsiders among them and they attacked them, because there was no one to stop them. They weren’t in it for profit. They attacked because they were foreigners, aliens, people who didn’t belong. Though extreme, it is not an unfamiliar impulse. It is a natural human tendency to make distinctions between who is in and who is out. It helps us develop close friendships and strong communities. But when we demonize people who are outside of our group, whether they are from some other place, or speak differently from us, or look differently, we run the risk of becoming a society that cares more about in and out than right and wrong. It becomes more important to fit in than to do the right thing. This is life or death for teenagers. Kids who don’t fit in get picked on, mistreated, and sometimes brutalized. And I spent a lot of time in youth groups talking to kids about how in school you have to step up and do the right thing even if it means becoming an outsider. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it the pressure to fit in doesn’t end with school.

When two visitors come to the city of Sodom, expecting to be able to sleep safely in the town square (as was the custom), the men of Sodom have violence on their minds. They don’t like outsiders, they don’t want anything to do with people who don’t belong. And what is the cruelest and most violent thing that you can do to another human being? Rape. For the men of Sodom, it wasn’t about sex. Rape never is. The men who gathered had wives and concubines and sons and daughters. It wasn’t about sexual orientation. There wasn’t anything the men could do with the strangers that they could not do with each other. The sex isn’t the sin in the story of Lot and Sodom. It is the weapon used to carry it out. It was about hurting someone who didn’t belong.

But now Lot steps in. And Lot is a good man in a bad world. Lot is a foreigner himself. He came from Haran with Abraham. But he has built himself a household, and Abraham has become a prosperous and powerful man. In some ways Lot has power and in some ways he does not. We know that Lot is a righteous man because Lot sees that an injustice is about to take place, and he steps in to do something about it. It is said “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men should do nothing.”[1] Lot does something. Lot invites the strangers into his house, thinking that under his roof the men would be safe. But the men of Sodom pound upon his door, demanding that the foreigners be given over to them. Lot is in a tight spot.

There are two ways to interpret what happens next. And I think each of them should inform us on what it means to be righteous. Lot offers his virgin daughters to the men banging on his door. The first way to understand this is the ancient way. In ancient Israel, women were property. And so we should see the offer for what it is. Lot is offering up his most valuable assets in order to protect these two outsiders he does not know. He’s an example of what it means to be righteous. In contrast with the men of Sodom, Lot values hospitality so highly that he’s willing to give up his daughters. It tells us that the righteous care so much about the weak and the vulnerable that they are willing to give up their most treasured possessions in order to protect them from harm.

The second way to understand the story shows Lot in a different light. In modern society, women aren’t property but people. When we look at the story with that in mind, we see that Lot is stuck between a system that is designed to destroy and people he is sworn to protect. And he does nothing to stop the system. He simply points it at someone else. In this case, his own daughters. He wants to do the right thing and protect the visitors from being victimized, but instead he just offers up another victim. Lot isn’t hoping to prevent the violence from occurring; he’s using his privileged position to redirect the violence towards a different target. Sometimes even the righteous fall short of justice. We shouldn’t interpret that to mean that justice is impossible. But we should take care, when we’re trying to protect ourselves or people we care about, that we aren’t doing so by sacrificing someone else.

I want to share a story about someone who chose to offer hospitality in a dangerous situation like Lot did, but who did so without targeting someone else. Her name is Keshia Cole.[2] In 1996, she was an 18-year-old African American girl, still in high school when the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor is a diverse and multicultural place, and the rally attracted a large counterprotest, with people carrying signs on stakes with anti-racist slogans. The two groups were separated by a fence that kept them apart until a woman with a megaphone shouted, “There’s a Klansmen in the crowd.”

Heads turned to see a man in a confederate flag T-shirt, with an SS tattoo on his arm on the wrong side of the fence. He didn’t belong. He was one of their enemies. He tried to walk away, but the crowd turned into a mob. Someone shouted, “Kill the Nazi.” They chased him. He turned to run, but fell. Soon he was on the ground, surrounded by a circle of people kicking and beating him with placards. You might think that a group of people committed to diversity

The situation is not so different from Lot’s. An outsider with no one to protect him, and a mob of people who have chosen cruelty over humanity (hospitality?). Keshia did something that not many of us would do. She dove on the man, covered him with her body and shouted for people to stop. She stayed there, protecting him with her body until the police were able to come. She chose to protect someone who was vulnerable, to offer safety to someone who probably would not have done the same for her.

It was an act not so different from the act that we celebrate each week, as we come to praise the risen Christ, who offered himself up so that we might not die but be saved from sin and death. And in Christ, all the distinctions that we make between insider and outsider, friend and enemy, citizen and alien are dissolved in favor of bonds of unity, kindness and care.

In Sodom we have an illustration of how brutal society can be. There is a tendency in the human heart to divide the world into us and them, and a community can be cruel to the people outside its borders. Lot gives us an example of someone who refuses to follow the group and join in their community. But he does not go far enough. Instead of stopping the brutality, he just points it at someone else.

But Jesus offers us another path. He chooses what is right over what is safe, he takes the risk to love those who aren’t from here, who don’t belong, who are his enemies. He teaches us to care for the other as if they were our own. We know what lies at the end for the people of Sodom. And we know what lies at the end for Jesus, too. But the difference is that in death Jesus was raised to eternal life, and in him we are welcomed into God’s kingdom of righteousness, where no one is in our out, and every single one of us is claimed as God’s own.

[1] It has been said, but it is unclear who was the first to say it.

[2] Wynne, Catherine “The teenager who saved a man with an SS tattoo” BBC News, 28 October 2013. << >> Accessed 7 February 2015.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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