Migrants in Sodom

A Homily for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 18:20-32; St. Luke 11:1-13


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who teaches us to pray boldly. Amen.

men of sodom
“The Men of Sodom,” 18th c. Dutch

Many of us may recall the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s one of those Bible stories that, were it adapted for film, would likely be rated R for its mature subject matter. We read the set-up today, in which the Lord has taken notice of those two cities for their wickedness, remarking “How grave is their sin!” The Almighty determines to send an angelic away team to investigate and take divine action. Meanwhile, Abraham pleads with the Lord, asking that They spare the cities for the sake of the righteous who live there – even if it’s only fifty people.

Or forty-five.

Forty.

Thirty.

Twenty.

Ten.

If only ten righteous people may be found, would God Almighty set aside Their anger?

The Lord agrees, and the angelic visitors arrive incognito to seek out these ten hypothetical good folks. Abraham’s kinsman, Lot, greets them at the city gates and welcomes them into his home, providing a feast. Things are off to a pretty good start.

But before the angels can lay down for a good night’s sleep, all of the men of the city descend upon the residence, demanding that the supernatural guests be handed over. Lot refuses, making the morally repugnant decision to offer his own daughters even as he places his own body on the line in defense of his company. Standing between the angry mob and the doorway to his house, Lot faces certain violence as the crowd exclaims:

This fellow came here as an alien! Yet he would play the judge? Now we will deal worse with you than with your guests!

And they move to attack him. The angels rescue Lot, pulling him inside, before blinding the mob so that they cannot find the doorway, and then these divine guests give Lot and his family stern orders to flee the doomed cities – and, when the family lingered a little too long the next morning, took them by the hand and forced them to safety.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah has long been used to wrongfully indict our gay, lesbian, and bisexual kindred. You’ve undoubtedly heard this interpretation yourself. Seizing upon the detail that the men of the city desired to “know” the angelic guests – a biblical euphemism – commentators have argued that Sodom’s sin is homosexuality. But this interpretation considers only one minor detail – gender – while ignoring larger issues of consent, violence, and the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and to respect the resident alien. We see Sodom’s destructive xenophobia on full display not only in how they treat the angels but also their threat against Lot. Indeed, the prophet Ezekiel, never one to shy away from explicit sexual imagery, says of the ruined city:

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.

And later in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus himself compares a group of people to Sodom and Gomorrah, it is not for sexual acts but rather their refusal to welcome the apostles and perform acts of charitable hospitality.

More recent interpreters, following the testimony of Ezekiel and Christ, have described Sodom’s sin simply as “inhospitality,” but that is to woefully understate the situation. Had the people of Sodom passively ignored the angels, letting them sleep outside with no food or shelter, they may have fared better. Instead, they attempted to seize the men and to actively abuse them. This story is not one of inhospitable apathy but outright malice.

Compare Sodom’s violence to Abraham’s actions we read last week, at the outset of this prolonged episode.

abrahams three visitors
“Abraham’s Three Visitors,” 18th c. Dutch

Abraham, like Lot, welcomed the mysterious visitors in to his household, feeding them with bread made from “choice flour” and personally choosing a “tender and good” calf from his herd, treating his visitors as though they were highly-favored guests. The author of Hebrews recalls this episode in their sermon and reminds readers:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

How strange, then, that Abraham, hospitable and welcoming, chosen from among the nations, would risk his favor in the Lord’s eye and intercede for such a wicked city. What are these people to him that he would care for them? Already at this point in Genesis the Lord made a promise to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham and Sarah – a promise repeated just two verses before the outset of today’s reading. Here he stands to do just that by calling upon God’s justice and mercy as the righteous “Judge of all the earth.” Abraham not only welcomes in the foreigner in his midst but also intercedes for those who stand condemned.

hands2bd5rd2-large
“Hands of the Apostle” – Albrecht Dürer, 16th c.

In Saint Luke’s Gospel, our Lord teaches his disciples how to make such intercessions as our forefather Abraham. Christ hands over a prayer by which we draw near to God, addressing the Almighty not with Abraham’s lofty praise but rather in intimate terms, as a parent, a life-giver and provider, who brings about forgiveness and sustenance, a revelation of how it will be in the new creation, and who promises to deliver us from temptation and the time of trial. Luther put it this way in the Small Catechism: We pray “that God would preserve and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not…mislead us into false belief…and other great and shameful sins….” Just as Abraham was bold to plead for Sodom’s deliverance, so too may we boldly pray to our Lord and our God on behalf of the world. For just as none of us would give a child poison in place of good food, our Father in Heaven will not withhold blessing us through the Holy Spirit.

But dear friends, there are on this day places where strangers are being abused, where children are denied the nourishment they so desperately need, where those seeking safety are handed over instead to violence. There are, in this very country, places where migrants and visitors are being mistreated in our name. The stories have continued to pour forth from these detention camps.

20190729_002227
Eighty-eight men are crowded into a cell with a maximum occupancy of forty-one. One man holds up a simple sign: “Help – 40 Days Here.” From the DHS OIG Report

This month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a US citizen who had been detained for some three weeks. Eighteen-year old Francisco Galicia was arrested by Customs and Border Patrol and transferred over to ICE custody. In detention for twenty-three days, he lost twenty-six pounds. The shame here isn’t that it happened to a citizen but that the conditions are so horrid that people are literally being starved. Francisco reports that he and his fellow detainees were denied showers and toothbrushes. His time of trial matches with other reports, including one issued by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General, of overcrowding, malnourishment, and unsafe health conditions at these detention centers where mistreatment and abuse rule the day. These prison camps are a millstone around the neck of our country.

This is not an immigration issue; it’s a human rights issue.

This is not a partisan issue; it’s a moral issue.

This is no way to treat our fellow human beings, made as they are in the image of God. This is not the way of our Lord. These actions are evil, and they rival even Sodom and Gomorrah in their cruel depravity. Dear ones, our forefather Abraham unwittingly entertained angels and pled for mercy for the nations. Our Lord has bid us pray for the Kingdom of God to come. Let us pray, then, that the captives may be set free and the stranger in our midst may be welcomed. Let us have the confidence of Abraham to plead for others, to intercede on their behalf. Let us pray that we be saved from the tempting fear and false belief that turns us against immigrants seeking refuge on our southern border. Let us pray that the wicked ones who work these evil deeds may repent and seek forgiveness of sin and newness of life through Christ’s radical, foolish, self-giving, all-conquering love.

But let us also pray that God will stir us to action, that we may be the hands of Christ serving a world in need and the mouth of Christ interceding for our detained sisters and brothers. In our baptismal vows, we promise to “care for others…and work for justice and peace” and to renounce the forces that defy God. Now is the time to do just that. Let us knock on every door of every hall of power and demand justice, ask every elected representative and government official to stand up for human dignity, and seek God’s good and gracious will for all people. Let us boldly demand that those who claim to represent us welcome the stranger and treat them with basic human dignity. Let us stand between sojourners in our land and the angry mobs that seek only to do them harm. Surely showers and toothbrushes are not too much to ask. Surely adequate space to lay down does not bear too great a cost. Surely, when a beloved child of God asks for daily bread, we should not feed them to the snakes.

Our Lord has taught us how. Let us pray for bold action.

Amen.

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