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Brimstone, Fire, and Radical Hospitality

This sermon was first preached on June 21, 2020 in an online church service with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. It is part of a month-long Pride celebration, bringing queer theology and queer biblical interpretation into worship through the liturgy and preaching.

Relevant text here.

A rain came to Sodom and Gomorrah.

But not the healing, nourishing rain of water bursting forth from heavy rain clouds. Not the kind of rain that brings hearty green seedlings shooting out of brown earth, that carves out puddles for birds to flutter and children to stomp and play in. Not a rain that creates life. This rain was a rain of destruction. God’s judgement came as burning fire raining from the sky, destroying the cities and everything in them.

What an image.

Some of us are spiritual refugees of traditions that preached “fire and brimstone,” Biblical interpretation with vivid messages of condemnation and explicit threats of eternity in Hell. The term fire and brimstone comes directly from the story we read today, it’s a reference to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. For those of us who are LGBTQIA+ and grew up in the church, we know this story. Queer Christians often have to function as ameature Biblical scholars. We are often cornered and asked to defend ourselves and how we can reconcile the Bible with our identities. Many of us know the Bible inside and out, because we were forced to deconstruct our fire and brimstone faith for the sake of our own survival. Those of us who remained engage in the sacred struggle to sift something holy, something life-giving, something for us out from the ashes.

This story of the judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah is rife with baggage. It is the source of queer antagonistic slurs like, “sodomite,” and years of “anti-sodomy” laws criminalizing certain relationships as “crimes against nature.”

The use of this story to hurt people like me and people that I love makes me furious. The way that we have weaponized scripture, the ways that churches have orchestrated our oppression makes me want to burn it all down too.

But although the queer antogonistic, homo/bi/transphobic version of the story is the one that popular imagination has latched onto, it is not the only way of understanding it. And during Pride month in the midst of a national reckoning on race lead in many cases by queer, Black people full of the Spirit’s fire, its time to tell this story another way.

Lot was the nephew of the Patriarch Abraham and the Matriarch Sarah. When God called Abraham and Sarah to go out and travel to the land that God would show them, Lot came on the journey too. At a certain point they parted ways and Lot settled in the city of Sodom because the land was fertile and luscious, comparable in beauty to the Garden of Eden.

Abraham settled near Hebron. And when he heard that God was going to pronounce judgement on Sodom, he remembered his nephew there. Abraham bartered with God, begging God to spare Sodom. So God sent two messengers to Sodom to see if there was anything worth saving, if there was any righteousness in Sodom at all.

The messengers traveled to Sodom. Traveling in that time was more difficult and uncomfortable and risky than most travel today. Without the benefit of modern modes of transportation, travel was physically taxing and exhausting. It was dangerous, bandits hid out in many of the roadways and valleys ready to take advantage of weary travelers and rob and exploit them. 

In the ancient world there were no delusions of the lie of rugged individualism that plagues our culture today. People knew they had to rely on each other to survive, especially when they were most vulnerable, and foreign migrants were some of the most vulnerable of all. A foundational value of Israel and many of its laws written later, after this story took place, would go on to name hospitality as the paramount of virtues. God would tell God’s people, “Do not forget that you yourself were foreign travelers, were outsiders, were vulnerable migrants in a strange land. Therefore, protect the vulnerable in your midst.”

This kind of hospitality is not the kind of hospitality that relies on fancy hor devours, matching silver, or fine wine. It’s not even the kind of “hospitality” we are referring to when we talk about luxuries like hotels, cruises, and casinos. This hospitality was about survival. It was about making sure that the stranger among you had what they needed to make it through the night. Because next time, it could be you.

In other words, we could call this kind of hospitality solidarity.

When the messengers from God traveled to Sodom, Lot met them at the gate and invited them to stay in his home that night instead of sleeping in the town square. He gave them a place to clean up and a great feast and fresh, homemade bread. But the men of the sundown town of Sodom were angry. They were angry that Lot, a sojourner, and outsider himself, had the nerve to bring outsiders into their city.  An angry lynch mob surrounded Lot’s house and banged on the door. “This man isn’t even from here. He’s a foreigner himself! How dare he decide to let their kind into our gated community.”

Lot tried to reason with the mob but they demanded he turn over the messengers to them. They crowded the door and screamed threats of sexual violence agains the messengers. This Klan of people weren’t interested in or attracted to the messengers. That’s not what sexual violence is about. Sexual violence is about asserting domination over another person, about power and control, not desire. That is why sexual violence has been tragically used throughout history as a systematic weapon of genocide and war. It’s why straight men assault LGBTQIA+ people of all genders to “correct” them. This enraged xenophoic gang of men planned to denigrate and humiliate the holy messengers in the most personal, intrusive way possible, and they wanted to do so to send a message, “Stay in your place. Your kind is not welcome here”

Not only did the people of Sodom fail in their duty of hospitality, of solidarity, of making sure the vulnerable among them had everything they needed to be safe and make it through the night – not only did the people of Sodom fail to be hospitable. They brought violence and danger directly to the strangers’ doorstep.

And although Lot was better than the roving vicious mob, he was not righteous either. Lot is no hero in this story, he offered to sacrifice his own children, his young daughters, to the mob instead.

The Church has often sacrificed the children of God to angry mobs aiming to destroy them. Not only has the Church historically been inhospitable to LGBTQIA+ people, we have too often perpetrated violence and harm. We have funded so called “reparative therapy,” lobbied for our “right” to keep LGBTQIA+ people from jobs and housing, failed to provide essential legal protections. On the whole, we turned away from the mass deaths during the AIDS crisis, we were silent about Matthew Shepherd, we let people lobby Bible bullets around to justify queer bashing. We have ignored that the average lifespan of our transgender sisters of color is 35 years old. And when violent mobs or angry men have slain our sisters, we have let their murders go unsolved, we have allowed newspapers to deadname them in their own obituaries.

In the story of Sodom,  LGBTQIA+ beloveds are not the angry, deviant mob. We are the vulnerable travelers, denied hospitality, sacrificed to the mob of the demonic forces of the cis-hetero patriarchy to feed its insatiable appetite for power and control.

The Sin of Sodom, the prophet Ezekiel tells us, was selfishness. It was their excess of food, and their prosperous ease, but their refusal to redistribute that wealth and privilege, the refusal to be in solidarity with the poor and needy, the refusal to make sure everyone had what they needed to make it through the night.

For the people who have experienced inhospitality via spiritual abuse, at times because of this very story, I am sorry. You deserve better. You deserve more. God sees you and God loves you, and God is angry on your behalf.

Many of us have experienced the deep pain of a lack of hospitality from those we trusted to welcome us. In those moments, rest assured, God is on our side, with a righteous, protective fury like fire from the sky.

And.

All of us have failed at times to provide hospitality to others too as individuals and collectively. Even in churches that say we are fully affirming, even in churches with LGBTQIA+ leadership or pastors, there are other ways we fall short in hospitable solidarity too.

I know you can feel this as we look around. Our neighbors are not ok. They are not making it through the night safely. They are being deported. They are going to bed with growling stomachs. They don’t have enough ventilators. They can’t breathe. They are killed by the state as they call for their mothers and their blood cries out to God from our streets.

These problems feel so much bigger than us, and they are. We are captive to these sins and we cannot free ourselves. We need God to come, to burn away the chains that bind us both as oppressed AND as oppressor.

White supremacy, the cis hetero patriarchy, and corporate greed run rampant.

And God is sending a Holy Fire to burn it all down.

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