by Ellen Sims
texts: *Isaiah 1:1, 10-18; Luke 12:32-48
*(Isaiah and other texts reference the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which has been understood as a proof text against homosexuality. Below this sermon is a Bible lesson on Genesis 19 that disputes this common misreading.)

I begin with a poem which I dedicate to YOU and especially to our church council. The poet Marge Piercy said at a reading of this poem that it’s often read at memorials for radical lawyers, activists, and community organizers. I think this poem describes you, my friends. (See link for poem “To Be of Use.”)

Each of us cries for work that is real. The reason we’ve gathered here is not to learn the secret password for heaven but to, as Isaiah said, “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” That’s the really real work. And when we do that, we are, as Jesus said, helping to usher in God’s kingdom here and now.

We at Open Table are engaged in what Margie Piercy calls “work that is real,” work that matters. It’s because we ARE doing real work and because that real work needs more workers that we want to invest more deeply in this real work ourselves and invite others to join us in this work. Not for personal acclaim but to contribute to the coming realm of God. Not working to the point of unhealthy exhaustion but because it is good for us and our world to be engaged in work that is real. Not that you don’t otherwise have purposeful vocation in your 9 to 5 job and with your family and community. But spirits are nurtured in a faith community like ours as we work. While we serve others together “out there,” we as flawed friends work through challenges that develop our inner resources.

If you don’t want to risk the experiences of both failing and being forgiven, of brokenness and healing, of misunderstandings leading to deeper understandings . . . choose labor that uses your hands and mind only. But real work that works on you as you work in the world can be found here.

My sermons aren’t usually outlined into three simple points. But this one is. I’m going to pose three questions:

Why does Open Table’s work matter?
How can we invest more fully in this real work?
How can we include others in this work?

Before I offer my answers, please take a moment to consider how you would answer those questions.

Why does Open Table’s work matter?
How can we/you invest more fully in this real work?
How can we/you include others in this work?

1. Why does Open Table’s work matter? Because, small though we are at this point, we are making a difference in our community. Someone who belongs to another church in our city told me last week that she’s astonished at how well known such a small church is. She is surprised at how many people only (seemingly) peripherally connected to us claim us as their church. Especially she’s amazed by our engagement in the community. She said, “I tell people y’all are the little church with the big heart.” Maybe that’s a little cheesy for an ad campaign. And we’re certainly not competing for a gold medal in community outreach. But it’s good to hear someone say that about us, isn’t it? Of course, we are aiming not simply to serve our community but to serve needs that might not otherwise get met. Last week’s community engagement illustrates this point. Think about this:

On Sunday we collected school supplies and money so that immigrant children would be prepared to start school. As Juan told us, aiding these immigrant children is controversial in our city. No other church at that point had contributed to the school supplies drive for these children.

Last Tuesday we fed and hosted overnight three families in the Family Promise program who are currently without housing. Again, Open Table is filling a gap. Without our support, the church we partner with would no longer be able to continue as a host congregation because of dwindling volunteers from their church. Our role makes an inordinately big difference in the reach of Family Promise.

And just yesterday we fulfilled our weekly responsibilities facilitating the Free2Be support group for LGBTQ teens. This unique ministry to LGBT teens would not exist in Mobile were it not for OT. I don’t have to tell you what an impact you are making for teens who daily deal with prejudice and bullying but who weekly find, thanks to you, safe space, supportive peers, and affirming adult facilitators. Your courage and vision make a difference. Without YOUR support this week, these three community ministries either would not exist or would have less impact. These are just a few examples of the real work you are doing together to make a real difference in our community.

I hope there are other reasons you personally value this faith community. Undergirding our work together is our commitment to follow in the compassionate ways of Jesus and love God and neighbor. I hope you agree that Open Table matters to our community, and I hope it matters to you personally.

2. If you agree that Open Table matters to our community and if you feel it matters to you, I hope you’ll help us sustain and grow our ministry. How?

Well, we begin by realizing that this appeal to support a new church comes at a time when Church has lost it authority and appeal in our culture. Churches are closing their doors every day. Denominations are in financial freefall. Church attendance and church membership continue to decline significantly as the Spiritual But Not Religious and self-avowed Nones increase. In this unpropitious context we started a brand new church. We birthed a progressive church in a very conservative culture. And we are audaciously inviting the very people who’d be the least likely to set foot in a church. Yet miraculously we are here, still here seven years later.

Here’s Open Table’s specific financial reality. We have little overhead. We are not burdened by a building so we have not need to make repairs and pay off a mortgage. We have a bare bones budget. And we received three consecutive 18-month grants from the United Church of Christ for a total of $60,000. This past year is the first year we’ve operated without any denominational support although our conference still covers the cost of our insurance. Unfortunately, for the first time ever our expenses are exceeding our income.

Fortunately, we have been frugal, and during the years of denominational support, we saved for this possibility. We hope by year’s end our offerings will pick up. If not, the budget we’ll propose for 2017 will need to be even more stringent.

You can invest in our future together, as you are able, with your offerings that pay for our rent and office supplies, books for our Sunday school class and worship supplies, salary for me and our of part-time bookkeeper/office administrator, our marketing and the costs of community engagement. More than a tithe of our offerings are sent through our denomination for needs in the larger world. When you invest in your pastor, by the way, you’re not simply receiving sermons and hospital visits and overall leadership and counseling and church weddings and funerals and baptisms and such. You are even then investing, through me, in our larger community as I sit on boards of organizations serving others, respond with pastoral care for LGBT folks in the larger community, cultivate relationships in the larger community, contribute leadership to causes for interreligious and interracial dialogue, grant interviews with local media to lift up the disregarded, and collaborate with other colleagues for the benefit of all our residents while serving within a denomination known for its social justice impact.

You also can invest in Open Table with your time and talent–as Rosemarie is doing with her prayer ministry. Some of us will have times in our lives when we need to receive more and other times when we can give more. But we exist because you contribute. And as today’s Gospel reading says emphatically: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

I’m not calling you to make Open Table bigger and better; our call is to work for the coming kingdom of God. My prayer is not that more people become committed and contributing members of Open Table, but that we all do what we can to make the not-yet-fully-here realm of God more of a reality.

3. Of course, we can expand our capacity for doing “real work” in the world as we grow, as we add new participants and members to Open Table. So how do we include others and enlarge our odd faith community that gives relatively little emphasis to formal membership or uniform belief or other usual means of locking folks into a commitment to one particular faith community?

I’m actually very interested in your ideas for inviting new people into our midst. Todd has done a great job creating attractive ads that identify us as progressive and diverse and inclusive. I love the new rack cards he designed and encourage you to take some with you. But the very best way for us to attract visitors is by personal invitation, sharing why YOU participate in Open Table. And the best way to make it more likely visitors will return and perhaps invest their lives with us—is by getting to know one another, being respectfully attentive to new folks. If Open Table means something to you, this is not a ploy to gain members. It’s a genuine way of including others who might, like you, feel strengthened, challenged, and supported through this community and who, like you, will be glad of companions in working for what is real, ultimate, lasting . . . what is of God.

But today is the Sabbath, a time for both rest and resolve but not work. Even the really real work stops on this day. The oxen in the field need Sabbath time. We do, too. So enjoy moments of peace. Devote this day to calm and quiet. Leave here for a frivolous diversion or a happy adventure. Or spend it in mindful gratitude and time with loved ones. I hope this can be a no-agenda day for you.

But the really real life in God is not something we experience in passive and unreflective mode. After Sabbath, be Marge Piercy’s sleek seal who jumps in head first. Be the water buffalo who strains in the mud and the muck. Be the Hopi vase that is both beautiful and utilitarian. I hope you will want to be and do with us at Open Table.

PRAYER:
God of Isaiah and Jesus, may we hear your invitation and challenge. May we find, if not here, then elsewhere, a community of faith with whom we may invest our lives for your kingdom’s sake. Amen

Exploring Genesis 19: Why the Sin of Sodom is NOT Homosexuality

Ways Some People Handle the Troubling Passages in a Troubling Bible
1. They simply don’t read or value the Bible.
2. They read the Bible literally and then try to ignore the troubling parts.
3. They read the Bible seriously, using good scholarship, and recognizing that the Bible writers were writing theology—not science or history—so they did not know as much about some topics as we do today and lived in a context different from ours.

The story of the destruction of the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, found in Genesis 19, has become a proof-text for those who seek Biblical condemnation against homosexuality. We’ll limit our study to the first 11 verses, which are really the first episode in the chapter-long narrative about Lot and the residents of Sodom. The question for you to consider: “What is the sin of Sodom?”

Most people believe homosexuality is the sin for which the ancient city was destroyed by an angry God. Many scholars today no longer think so. They say Sodom’s sin was something else entirely and base this conclusion on these things:
1) The context of this story within the larger Abraham saga in Genesis.
2) The other references to Sodom in the Bible
3) The details in the story itself.

1. First consider what’s happening in Genesis 18, which precedes our reading. Abraham, Lot’s uncle, is visited in the heat of the day by three men. These three strangers appear at his tent at Mamre, and Abraham immediately brings food and water to them, as was required in this ancient Near Eastern desert culture. He bows to them—total strangers—and washes their feet and kills a calf and prepares a feast for them. He does so because survival in that desert culture required that travelers be given gracious hospitality and protection. To this day in parts of the Middle East this code of hospitality remains. Hospitality to strangers was/is the highest value for this culture. In return for Abraham’s protection, the three strangers tell him his long-barren wife will finally bear a child in her old age. That chapter ends as the three strangers set out toward the city of Sodom. But as they leave, God cries out to Abraham: “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!”

If Sodom has already earned a sinful reputation and the wrath of God, then the actions in the next chapter, which some define as homosexuality, cannot be the sin being condemned. Whatever is wrong with Sodom predates the events we’re about to hear.

2. Now let’s recognize how the rest of the Bible views the sin of Sodom. Sodom’s ambiguously sinful reputation was previously established in Genesis 18 and its enduring reputation is later attested to by no fewer than 15 biblical allusions. Significantly, of these 15 references, only Jude 1:7-8 understands the sin of Sodom to be of a sexual nature; the Bible mentions Sodom in other places in association with sins of idolatry, murder, greed, mistreating the poor, arrogance, pride, cruelty, oppression—or unspecified sin. However, even the Jude passage does not mention homosexuality. Thus, the Bible itself does not perceive the sin of Sodom to be homosexuality.

3. Finally, let’s attend to the details of the story itself. (Genesis 19: 1-3)
The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2He said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.’ They said, ‘No; we will spend the night in the square.’ 3But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.

What does this remind you of? Any similarities between Gen. 18, the story of the angels visiting Abraham and this story of angels visiting Lot? The theme common to both is hospitality. Three men at Mamre have been recognized by the reader, through Abraham’s act of righteous hospitality, as the two angels who arrive at Sodom, still in need of hospitality.

4But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; 5and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’

Does it seem plausible that the narrator is telling us ALL the men in a town are (as we’d say it today) gay? Are they asking for a date? Or are they actually threatening gang rape (as Willian Countryman and other scholars argue)?

Most scholars acknowledge that the crowd’s demand “to know” the visitors, using the Hebrew word yd’, sometimes means sexual knowledge. But despite popular understandings of this verse and the etymology of the term sodomy, most scholars now agree that “the turbulent mood of the narrative suggests gang-rape rather than a private act of either ‘sodomy’ or any specific homosexual act” (Countryman 164). Besides, in biblical times there was “no elaborated understanding of homsexuality as a sexual orientation. The ancient Israelites did not even think about sex in these terms” (Helminiak 39).

6Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, 7and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’ 9But they replied, ‘Stand back!’ And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. 10But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. 11And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.

The entire city is characterized by violence, not lustfulness, as one older commentary claims. The mob’s shouts, threats, and physical intimidation–“pressing hard against” Lot and trying to “break [the door] down” (19:9)–are actions of violence, not sexual desire. The setting and character that is Sodom reveal that the moral dilemma Lot faces is about honoring a code of hospitality rather than defending a code of heterosexuality.

Male gang rape (like any rape) was and is an act of aggression, not of sexual desire. Evidence from antiquity, including artistic renderings, attests that conquerors raped defeated soldiers to humiliate the enemy to the utmost by forcing the men to assume the inferior position of women. At least one writer compares this ancient horror to male-on-male rape in contemporary prisons, a violent practice that signals power and control over a victim, not sexual attraction. Such an abuse of power and act of violence is detestable whether the victim is male or female.

There is not a word that can be translated directly from the biblical texts to fit our meaning of homosexuality. In other words, “in biblical times there was no elaborated understanding of homosexuality as a sexual orientation. The ancient Israelites did not even think about sex in these terms” (Helminiak 39). Whatever is being condemned in Genesis 19: 1-11—it is not homosexuality as we mean it today.

What would you say is the sin of Sodom? Contrast this story with the one in Genesis 18 about Abraham serving the three strangers. Bear in mind that the other 15 allusions the Bible itself makes to Sodom never name its sin as homosexuality. Recall the details of this story. This story seems to be about the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and offer radical hospitality to all, so the sin of Sodom is clearly not homosexuality but rather the extreme violation of sacred hospitality codes of that culture. In fact, this text might, ironically, be used to advocate for the protection of all “strangers” in our midst, including those seen as Other by virtue of their sexuality.

The Bible is not to be used in shouting matches to condemn others. We use it for lessons in loving others. The God of Love is still speaking through this ancient holy book.

A (now dated!) Annotated Bibliography for Further Study of Genesis 19

Achtemeier, Paul J., Gen. Ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996.
The entry on “Hospitality” specifically mentions Gen. 19: 5 in explaining the ancient Near East custom that grants a right to “test the stranger.”

Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994.
Offers, briefly, a feminist perspective on the unnamed daughters of Lot.

Brawley, Robert L., ed. Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture. Louisville: Westminster, 1996.
Contains a marginally helpful chapter on “Same-Sex Sexual Relations in Antiquity and Equality and Sexual Identity in Contemporary American Society.”

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Sets the Sodom and Gomorrah pericope as the middle of a 3-story unit from Gen. 18:16-19:38. Offers theological critique of the themes of God’s judgment versus special rescue.

Countryman, L. William. Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
Helpful chapter on “Women and Children as Property in the Ancient Mediterranean World.”

Frick, Frank. A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson, 2003.
Brief discussion of etiology. Explication of the story cycles that clustered around central figures like Abraham and Lot and the narrative device of including one literary complex within another.

Hasting, James, ed. Dictionary of the Bible. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1963.
Another entry on “hospitality” in the ancient Near East.

Helminiak, Daniel. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. New Mexico: Alamo Square, 2000.
An accessible and thorough cultural exegesis of this passage that focuses on the sin of inhospitality.

Miller, Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller. Harper’s Bible Dictionary, 8th ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
Entry on “Hospitality” is helpful, even though it does not offer Gen. 19 among its illustrations.

New Interpreter’s Bible, Vo. 1. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed.
Michael D. Coogan, ed. Oxford, Oxford UP, 2001.
Helpful footnotes highlight some lexical issues (e. g., the Hebrew word “tshq”). A website of the Oxford University Press uses this very passage, Gen. 19: 1-11, to contrast the differences between their 1977, 1991, and 2001 editions. The footnotes show scholarship has, in such a short time, moved from interpreting Sodom’s wickedness as homosexuality to inhospitality. See “Oxford University Press: NOAB Comparisons of Selected Verses” at www.us.oup.com/us/brochure/019528481X/verse.comparisons/?view=usa .

Phipps, William E. Genesis and Gender: Biblical Myths of Sexuality and Their Cultural Impact. New York: Praeger, 1989.
Contains no specific use of the Lot story, but may have some minor use in looking at the J source’s stance toward Eve and through Eve, toward women.

Rosenblatt, Naomi H. and Joshua Horwitz. Wrestling with Angels: What the First Family of Genesis Teaches Us About Our Spiritual Identity, Sexuality, and Personal Relationships. New York: Delacourte, 1995.
The chapter “Sodom and Gomorrah: Overcoming Suspicion of Strangers” adds further support to the focus on the hostility of Sodom to strangers but the primary author is a psychotherapist, not a Hebrew Bible scholar, and the book as a whole is more popular, verging on the devotional, than scholarly.

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