Last week I sifted through an onslaught of YouTube sermons for themes in pastors’ messages to the Church during COVID-19. In the middle of a global pandemic, many preachers are circulating apocalypse passages from Revelation, healing stories from the Gospels and repent-and-save-yourself sermons designed to terrify the hell out of people.
In my stereotypical, rebellious way, I decided the world needs something different, and the Church needs something new. Maybe now is the time to take risks in ways we could never have imagined only a month ago. So last Sunday I preached on Sodom after rediscovering a Lot who taught me deep truths about heavenly hope and holy hospitality.
Across centuries of Christian preaching from Genesis 19, Sodom, the town labeled for all eternity as Sin City (sorry, Las Vegas, but you’re No. 2), has been associated with angry sex mobs and Sodomites. But perhaps there is more to this story than preachers have typically let on.
To begin with, this story is not about sexuality but hospitality. Two divine beings, heavenly creatures in flesh and blood, arrive at the city. They meet a hospitable and humble human named Lot. In the ancient world, hospitality meant much more than it does in modern American culture. For example, it required protecting travelers and villages from harm.
As described in the Genesis passage, the city of Sodom is chaotic, full of unruly power and vicious ugliness, a community built on dehumanization through sexual dominance. When a mob of men enters the scene, they are uninterested in consensual or covenantal relationships. (Remember, this is not a story about sexuality.)
“Maybe now is the time to take risks in ways we could never have imagined only a month ago.”
The men of Sodom are focused on power and dominance, dehumanizing those they view as different or less than human. Their need for control puts others in danger. (There are times in our lives when a powerful mob makes its way to our front doors, and we are called to stand tall, to speak up, to stop wickedness before it infects the greater good.)
By welcoming the strangers, Lot practices the kind of hospitality that was expected in that ancient culture. But when he confronts the dangers, he models radical hospitality.
In our world, now more than ever, we need radical hospitality. Ordinary hospitality typically entails physical presence – opening your home, feasting with others, sharing a bottle of wine. But in these days of global pandemic we are called to keep others away, to practice social distancing and to keep our doors closed and houses locked down – for the safety of all.
Even so, radical hospitality can still be at the heart of our daily practices. While we cannot open our homes to others, radical hospitality compels us to open our hearts of our daily practices. In these days we may not be able to open our homes, but radical hospitality requires us to open our hearts and our spirits in courageous ways for the good of all people. When mobs of madness come knocking, radical hospitality calls us to take courage and stand strong.
March Madness 2020 has taken on meaning that no one was expecting just a few months ago, but it’s a madness to which we must respond. With the needs of neighbors growing, the financial suffering increasing and the death toll rising, it is easy to lose faith. We feel stuck, with hands tied and hearts hurting, as we watch communities we love sink into graves of hopelessness. We are fighting off fear, defending against depression and pushing against despair – for the sake of our sanity, our families and our communities.
Like the story of Lot, this living nightmare may even force us to think the unthinkable and give up the unimaginable.
For the sake of the divine strangers in his house, Lot offers the mad mob his daughters, his flesh and blood, his legacy. We can respond to Lot’s action in several ways. We can rationalize his offering by pointing to culturally acceptable ancient (or not so ancient) practices, where women were considered second-class citizens whose bodies were not their own. We could shame Lot for doing the unforgivable, treating his beloved daughters as property. Or we could be charitable to a man stuck between a mob and a moment of insanity.
Today our world is stuck between a maddening mob and a moment of insanity. This insanity is the place in our minds where fear paralyzes our hearts, where a small moment can lead someone to sacrifice the unthinkable. These moments of insanity are the moments when we want to give up or to end the suffering. We want the pain of loneliness to stop forever. In these dark, depressing moments, is where we think the unthinkable, where we may even consider doing the unimaginable.
But then hope slips through a crack in the door. In Genesis 19, the heavenly strangers grab hold of Lot and pull him out of the madness. And so it is with us. A holy hand reaches through the crack in the door and pulls us back in. It grabs hold of us and pulls us back into the home of God’s heart, a sanctuary where the Spirit of all that is good dwells. When we bravely face the growing fears of our day with radical hospitality, our faith opens a way for hope and Holy Spirit to deliver us. God’s love offers us this kind of hope.
Sometimes our faith is too fragile, and we must lean on the faith of others to bring us back into the home of God’s heart. We wait for others to take action. But perhaps we should not wait because we are most able to see hope when we try to offer it to others. On Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, people are reaching out across the nation and world to help pull people from the clutches of fear and loneliness. People are making calls to those trapped in isolation, reaching out with a comforting voice. Strangers are donating money and resources to help others avoid financial collapse.
“Even in these extraordinary days, radical hospitality must still be at the heart of our daily practices.”
By reaching out virtually with heavenly hands, people have been creating hope in ways few of us could have foreseen.
Take courage. Let us stand against the mad mobs of crooked greed and lustful power that hoard wealth and resources. Let us use our resources to lift up those in need, giving money, food – and yes, toilet paper – when we have more than enough.
Take courage. Let us stand against the mad religious mobs of fearmongering that spread shame and terror. Let us proclaim a God of love, a God of hope, a God who never uses a virus as an act of wrath, and a God who never leaves anyone behind.
Remember, God has not forsaken us or forgotten us. Emmanuel, God is with us. Jesus, the incarnate son of God, who stretched his hands across human divides and healed the sick and raised the dead, is the One who pulled us all out of darkness, despair and death.
Remember, Easter is coming. Remember that in the end, God’s ultimate eternal love will pull us all out of the grave.
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