The sin of Sodom

A sermon for Year C, Proper 12, track 2: Genesis 18:20-32

It reads more like a folktale than theology. God says to Abraham, “I’ve heard reports about this place called Sodom. I’m wondering if they’re true,” as though God could not see into the very souls of Abraham, Lot, and all in existence. And Abraham bargains for the lives of the righteous, as though God does not have mercy upon sinners and saints alike; as though we are not all a bit of both. (Genesis 18:20-32)

It reads like a folktale, and as such it has taken on a resonance that permeates our culture. When we think of Sodom, we think of sin. But when we think of the sin of Sodom, we often get it quite wrong.

Dozens of biblical references to Sodom and its destruction fall into a few patterns.

Some reference Sodom and Gomorrah as examples of faithlessness, of infidelity to God. Sometimes this is cast as adultery, but the context makes clear that this is idolatry. This is the turning aside from the God who has created us and covenanted with us and borne with us all our lives on this planet, to covet something altogether other. Echoing the story that follows our Genesis reading, Jude describes it as an unnatural lust for angels, a discontent with being human. (See Jude 1:5-7.) Like the story of the Tower of Babel, or the legend of the Nephilim, the image is of humanity breaking the bonds of Creator and creation, seeking to be something other than the humans that God made us to be.

And yet humanity was sufficient for Jesus. God willingly entered into our humanity, having more humility than we ourselves apparently possess.

Some use Sodom as a byword for the results of its destruction: the tale is told to explain how the salt flats along banks of the Dead Sea came into being, and to warn against future desolation. (See for example Deuteronomy 29:32, Zephaniah 2:9, Matthew 10:15 and parallels.) A modern-day prophecy along these lines might warn of our climate crisis, the wildfires that are devastating parts of our planet, the heat that is killing us. “Turn!” the prophets of climate change urge us: “Turn, or burn like the plains of Wyoming.” Even London is burning, not for its own sin alone, but for the recklessness of us all.

These references should warn us against categorizing the sin of Sodom as something specific to those people, in that city, in that story; the prophets recognize that the same danger awaits us all.

This is important, not only but righteously because for centuries, LGBTQ people, and particularly gay men, have been made scapegoats for the sins of Sodom, which had nothing to do with loving relationships, and everything to do with selfishness, violence, and blasphemy.

It is important to recognize what the sin of Sodom is and what it is not – and I will repeat until the cows come home that it has nothing whatsoever to do with love, or loving, or the delight of happy human relationships. It is important because when some of us make others of us scapegoats for the sins of the world, we miss our chance at repentance.

Ezekiel writes to Jerusalem, a city so full of its own satisfaction that it is fit to burst, a love letter from God, but it is a bitter letter, from a spurned lover: Jerusalem has forgotten her covenant with her beloved. Ezekiel writes that even Sodom and her daughters have not committed the crimes of her sister, Jerusalem. “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:50.) This is the perhaps most explicit description of Sodom’s sin that we find in the Bible: selfishness, pride, and contempt.

The judgement which was pronounced upon Sodom in the old folktale is the judgement pronounced upon Jerusalem and upon all of us, when we are faithless, dissatisfied with the wonderful and variegated humanity with which God has blessed us; when we either become self-righteous, or turn to other gods to fill our covetousness and our envy.

And yet, God entertains Abraham’s pleas to stay the hand of judgement, for the sake of the little bit of righteousness that exists among us, the spark of humanity, which is made in the image of God, that inhabits each of us. And yet, says Isaiah, just as Lot and his family were plucked as a brand from the burning fire (see Amos 4:11), God does not delight in our destruction. (See Isaiah 1:9-10.) And yet, as the arc of scripture unfurls, and the prophets post warnings, God is merciful. And yet, God not only sends angels disguised as men, but God becomes human, comes to us, lives with us, would die for us to save us from the tribulation that we are about to bring upon ourselves.

“I will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters, and I will restore your own fortunes along with theirs,” prophesies Ezekiel, “in order that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all that you have done, becoming a consolation to them.” (Ezekiel 16:53-54.)

In a divine twist, God uses mercy and forgiveness as the instruments to provoke repentance from Jerusalem, to bring hope even to the destroyed Sodom and the abandoned Samaria.

The folktale of Sodom’s destruction seeks on one level to explain the sulphurous landscape of the Dead Sea plains that lie between the fertile Jordan Valley and the Red Sea. Today, even the Dead Sea is dying, drying up as the planet warms. Yet it is Ezekiel, again, who has a word even for that desolate region, prophesying in a vision that even the Dead Sea will be restored to new life by the waters that flow from the new, the renewed Jerusalem. (See Ezekiel 47:1-12)

May we be the prophets we need for this time, this place, this peril; and may God continue to be merciful to saints and sinners alike, for as long as we are human, we are both.

The story of Sodom is one that has been repeated as a cautionary tale for generations, and it has done such harm when it has been wielded as a weapon against God’s beloved children, when it has been used to deny love. And yet, God is love. Even for us, there is hope in the mercy of Jesus Christ, who is the very life of our loving, liberating God.


Image: Wildfire photo by Mike Newbry on Unsplash

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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