Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19: 1-11)

My wife helps me write sermons. Last week, she came home saying I should incorporate something about Service Week. “How am I going to do that when I promised to preach on Sodom and Gomorrah?” I moaned. And then, as if that were not challenging enough, she came a second time saying I should mention Fathers’ Day. So sit back and relax; this might be a wild ride.

The Bible uses Sodom and Gomorrah, like Babylon, as an example of evil. They are so bad God rains fire and sulfur down on them killing every living thing and leaving the area so barren nothing will ever live there again. It reminds you of Pompeii or Chernobyl or perhaps the Gulf Coast oil spill.

What did they do to deserve this? Most people say they practiced homosexuality, but interestingly the Bible never says that. Once it mentions rape, but every other time, it says they did not practice hospitality. Once again, we seem to read the Bible in terms of what other people are doing rather than focusing on what we are not doing. Most of us do not even know what hospitality is all about. It is treating everyone like family. One form was inviting a stranger who came to town to stay at your house for at least three days. This was very important when there were no restaurants or hotels, rescue missions, or soup kitchens. It is also a little unnerving because it seems the richer we become, the less hospitable we become. When I have been among the poor of the world, they go to great expense in entertaining me. We rich people say this is wasteful. They have better things to do with their money. We really mean we are not about to share what we have, and the last thing we will do is invite the poor into our homes because they might steal our possessions

But let me tell the story the whole story, from the beginning. It is one of the most important in the Bible, the foundation of the history of salvation. Genesis 1 through 11 sets the stage. God creates a good universe that humans are promptly corrupt by refusing to live according to the laws God built into it. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, the Tower of Babel all make the point that humans would rather murder than love, be violent rather than be caring. By Genesis 12, God who is a lover and carer decides he must come to rescue his people from their own self-destructive behavior. God always comes to us, we never turn to him.

This time, God comes in the form of three men who pass by Abraham’s tent. Abraham does what he is supposed to do; he practices hospitality. He invites them to rest a while, washes their feet, and offers them a wonderful meal. In return, they give him what he wants above everything else in the world. Abraham wants to be a father. He has tried and tried but now he and his wife Sarah are very old. But the three men promise in one year he shall be a father and become the great Father of all Fathers. He shall be the father of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Islamic families who will bless all the nations of the earth. We know God makes good on his promises, but Sarah hears and laughs. However, she must have had some faith, because at the end of the story we know her name as the great mother.

The three men then go to Sodom and Gomorrah to see if they are as evil as reported. Suddenly they are described as angels. The Bible makes clear we had better be careful. You can never be sure if the person before you is another human, an angel, or God.

When the angels get to Sodom they find Lot practices hospitality just like Abraham. He welcomes them, washes their feet and feeds them. However, nobody else does. The rest are evil to the core. They want to rape the strangers who, being angels, can defend themselves. They blind their attackers and tell Lot to flee with his family, and then destroy everything living in the city. Lot’s wife looks back, not ready to give up her old self-destructive ways. And so we do not even know her name. We remember her as a pillar of salt.

The Bible refers to Sodom and Gomorrah in three ways. First, they are not hospitable to God. For instance, when Jesus speaks of returning in glory, he warns we should be ready to welcome him. We should not be like Lot’s wife who is not ready to leave her old life behind. The first chapter of John tells the story this way: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God.”

The second way is to not to be hospitable to people who represent God. For instance, when Jesus sends out his 12 disciples to spread his ministry, he tells them to shake the dust from their feet and move on if towns do not welcome them. God will take care of those towns just as he took care of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And the third way is not to practice hospitality with human beings. Ezekiel says the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not caring for the poor and needy. Jesus says when we care for the least of our brothers and sisters, we care for him. When we give food to the hungry, are hospitable to strangers, and visit prisoners, it counts as if we did it for God. So Hebrews 13 cautions, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

One way we can still practice hospitality in our time is to go out to where people in need are and care for them. That is what we are doing in Service Week. Another place we can practice virtue is in the family, where fathers and mothers care for children. The strong care for the weak, even though they can give nothing back in return. Sadly, too often we are finding even this form of hospitality is dying among the rich.

So the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah is simply, “Be careful how you treat the people around you. Be extremely careful about how you treat the people you meet today. They might be angels in disguise, and we all know who angels are– God himself among us.

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