Not a Pilgrim, but . . .
The Seventeenth Sunday After Trinity
Not a Pilgrim, but . . .
I went to seminary with a lady named Joan who is an emergency room physician. She made me aware of the E. R. as the filthy drain of humanity.
For those of us with queasy stomachs, the scene itself is sufficiently revolting. But Dr. Joan wasn’t referring to the blood and gore. She was talking about the depravity that delivered so many of her patients to her gurney.
They came courtesy of choices they had made: choices in favor of alcohol and drugs and exotic sexual practices and other toxic things. They put themselves in the E. R. And that was hardly the end of the matter. Most of them appeared ideal candidates to put themselves there again . . . and again . . . and again.
Nor is that depressing thought the last word. The hospital company that employed her forbade her to discuss those choices with her patients. And if talk of their physical acts was off-limits, discussion of the moral decay inside them that spawned their choices and acts was way beyond the pale.
Joan ignored the commandments the hospital hierarchy handed down and counseled her patients anyway. And lived in constant fear for her job. Imagine getting fired for telling the tattered, bloodied wretch lying before you that driving while high is a remarkably stupid thing to do.
May God have mercy on her superiors.
Every time God’s word puts Sodom and Gomorrah under my nose I think of the E. R. Evil lurks in every corner of a fallen world, of course, but it shows up in concentrated form in some places. Among the earliest of those were Sodom and Gomorrah.
They were not, however, the very first. By the time God appeared to Abraham under the terebinth, or oak, trees of Mamre on His way to Sodom, He had already responded to the wickedness of man by sending a cleansing flood.
The stories bear remarkable similarities. In both, God visits destruction upon His creatures as recompense for their great evil. He spares one righteous man and his family as a nucleus with which to begin anew. And after the rescue, the man – first Noah and next Lot – gets drunk and his children engage him in sexual sin.
And there was no emergency room in their day.
Lot heaves into view again today as one of the Bible’s most complex and puzzling characters. He journeys with his uncle, Abraham, from Mesopotamia to Canaan. For the most part, he walks as a faithful surrogate son, but clearly he lacks some quality Abraham possesses.
Lot is not a pilgrim – not in the sense his uncle is. He travels, but without a sense of call, a spiritual destination.
Abraham, without a natural heir, takes a special interest in him. We have already seen him raise an army and thunder into battle with Chedorlaomer, the great king of the East, to rescue Lot after he was taken captive.
Still, at this stage the patriarch looks like a pitiable excuse for a patriarch. We know him to be such, for God has promised him land, seed and the blessing of protection and prestige, but Abraham’s blessings are decidedly mixed.
The Promised Land looked like something less than a prize when a famine forced him to flee from it. He returned from Egypt with herds and flocks, a prosperous fellow, to be sure, but to whom would he pass them on?
God has assured him his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore, but the count right now is stuck on zero. And – did I mention? – his wife Sarah is barren.
Our author will not discourage us from the thought that Lot may be Abraham’s heir, the anointed one who will come into his kinsman’s great possessions and through whom the blessing of becoming a great nation will pass.
Already, he has participated hugely in Abraham’s wealth. Their combined herds and flocks have grown so great the land will not support them all. Their herdsmen are quarreling over grazing rights; clearly, they must reach an accommodation.
And here we see the dark blemish on Lot’s soul. A close reading of the text reveals that he is walking by sight and not by faith. Faithful Abraham, trusting in the Lord to deliver on His covenant promises, takes the gracious path and allows Lot the choice of territory as they prepare to separate.
His vision blurred by a lack of faith, Lot can see only the greener pastures that will support more and fatter animals. He makes all of his decisions in the moment, without view to spiritual implications. And now we find him living again in Sodom, one of the cities of the plain on which the Lord’s judgment is about to descend in a storm of fire and brimstone.
As the Lord and two of His angels make their way toward Sodom they come upon Abraham’s abode. His reaction tells us these are no ordinary travelers. He prepares what he calls a “morsel of bread” – in fact, loaves made with the finest meal, butter, milk and a tender calf to set before them.
God reveals to Abraham that in another year his wife will bear him a son. In view of their advanced years, this must have been staggering news to both of them. Sarah laughs. Whatever they believe, Abraham does not abandon his concern for Lot.
The Lord informs him He is on His way to Sodom to destroy it for the wickedness of its citizens:
“And the LORD said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know’” (Genesis 18:20-21).
And Abraham begins to plead for the preservation of the righteous there:
“And Abraham came near and said, ‘Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it?
“Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (18:23-25).
In the exchange that follows, Abraham wins concessions all the way down to 10 righteous souls . . . but, alas, Sodom cannot muster even 10.
And herein is an indictment of Lot. When the Lord’s angels arrive, they find him seated in the city gate, indicating his importance and influence. But clearly, he has evangelized no one – not with any success, at any rate.
He and his wife and two daughters are Sodom’s only righteous citizens – and I must hasten to add that their righteousness is entirely relative.
Even his sons-in-law – actually, the men betrothed to his daughters – will not heed his warning to flee the city.
Lot invites the travelers into his house and his fellow townsfolk waste no time in manifesting their unspeakable evil, thronging at his door to demand he send out his guests so they can rape them. Lot now recapitulates the sin of his uncle, who foisted off his wife as his sister to save his own skin.
This is a story remarkably lacking in what today we call family values. Incredible as it may seem, Lot offers his virgin daughters to the mob as sexual surrogates. This cowardly response puts his daughters in grave peril, further enrages the townsfolk and requires Lot to rely on the protection of those he is trying to protect.
The angels strike the rioters blind and Lot, still reluctant to flee, at last escapes with his family. In a scene in search of a sci-fi movie, as fire and brimstone rain down they make their way across a landscape pocked with tar pits . . . and we learn that the head of the household was not the only one who had become overly attached to Sodom.
Defying the express orders of the angels, Mrs. Lot looks back . . . and turns into a pillar of salt. Beloved, when our Lord saves us He will not countenance a return to our former state of lostness. He means for us to forge straight ahead on the path of righteousness. The author of Hebrews warns:
“Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: ‘For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry.
“Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Hebrews 10:35-39).
When we begin to believe no greater depravity is possible we discover the two daughters have become as contaminated by life in Sodom as their parents. The angels urge Lot to flee to the mountains but he pleads to be allowed to travel instead to a smaller city called Zoar.
Some unspecified fear overtakes him there and he finally leads his daughters into the mountains. Isolated and impoverished, living in a cave, they despair. To preserve the family line, the girls get Lot drunk and they lay with him in turn, each becoming pregnant and in time bearing a son.
The elder daughter calls her son Moab and the younger names hers Ben-Ammi. The nations descended from them, the Moabites and the Ammonites, will be at enmity with the descendants of Abraham through his son Isaac, known as Israel.
Could any city incur a more devastating judgment than that God visited upon Sodom and Gomorrah? It appears so. When our Lord Jesus dispatches His disciples to preach the gospel He tells them:
“And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!” (Matthew 10:14-15).
And when Capernaum will not repent, He says:
“And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you” (11:23-24).
Sodom has become the paradigm for the redoubt of the wicked. Surveying this sordid story, we ask ourselves: What made Lot righteous – for so he was, for God saved him.
I propose a twofold answer. First, his connection to Abraham. As close kin of the patriarch, he came under the covenant God made with him. And as is so often the case, a voluntary response is in view at the same time. Lot was more righteous than we know from the Genesis account. St. Peter addresses the matter:
“For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly; and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly; and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds) — then the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment . . .” (2 Peter 2:4-9).
This righteousness showed through in Lot’s welcoming of the traveling angels into his home. The author of Hebrews advises:
“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (13:2).
A final word: As I studied for this sermon I read an essay by a poet named Alfred Corn, who described how his attitude toward the Lot story had changed.
Mr. Corn related a Bible-Belt upbringing in which he was immersed in Scripture in what he would come to see as an overly literal, even fundamentalist, context. It all seemed fine at the time but as he matured he found his way to an understanding he describes as “adult” and “analytical.”
The proximate cause of this shift was his awareness of feelings of attraction to other males. Early on, he regarded those feelings as sinful; eventually, he came to accept them and act on them. After all, he decided, hadn’t God made him that way?
On one hand, I must compliment Mr. Corn for resisting an urge that has overcome others, an urge to brush aside the condemnation of homosexuality in the narrative by way of a decision that its rebuke is intended for those who engage in sexual assault.
We must not minimize the horror of conduct of that sort, but we need not do so to point out that to condemn one form of bad behavior is not to condone another. Both are wrong.
Mr. Corn instead locates the problem with homosexuality in the culture: In a time of high infant mortality and constant peril from predators, animal and human, it was natural to discourage any sort of sexual conduct that did not promote childbirth.
Still, Leviticus denounces same-sex relationships as displeasing to God; Mr. Corn acknowledges the Levitical prohibition and reveals that it moved him to abandon the faith of his youth. How could he serve a God who created him with certain feelings and condemned him for those very feelings?
In time, he was able to return to the religion he was raised with by revising his understanding of God. Times have changed. Abundant children, once a blessing, now represent a curse. Corn writes that “human fertility has become a threat to civilization” and overpopulation a matter “terrifying to contemplate.”
Surely God has changed with the times: “Nor, I believe, has God abandoned to chaos those who know themselves to be God’s children. We possess overall guidelines spelled out clearly in the Bible, guidelines that have not changed; but the regulation of the detail of conduct is different from its early formulations, in keeping with altered conditions . . . that history has wrought.”
His remedy for outdated interpretation is “an overview in which we catch the essential gist of sacred story. In this perspective, God is loving and merciful, not an angry deity lying in wait to punish us.” The goal, it turns out, is “a just society” – whatever that means and however we get there.
Do you hear an echo? Do you not suppose Lot’s daughters produced an equivocation much like this one in justifying their decision? Would God not want Lot’s line continued?
Irony comes full circle; God’s claim of love for His people is turned around to support a repudiation of His loving law that He establishes to protect them. For that is what His law does. It keeps us from the things that incur God’s wrath . . . and send us to the E.R.
This is the same God who tells us, “Be holy for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
The reason 10 righteous could not be found in Sodom is that virtually everyone in the city had put himself in the place of God, doing what was right in his own eyes . . . as Lot’s daughters would do, as Mr. Corn would do.
Beloved, our Lord provides us these stories for a reason. May we understand and internalize the lessons in them, and may He receive the glory. Amen.Posted on: September 18, 2016Ed Fowler