We have just heard read for us the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least the first portion of it. Sodom and Gomorrah is a story that has a lot of cultural resonance. Two cities in the middle of the desert known for their wickedness and depravity that God plans to wipe off the face of the earth. Much like Las Vegas (or so we imagine).
The story we read from in Genesis comes after an encounter that Abraham has with three visitors, who we come to understand are God and two angels. God discloses to Abraham his plans to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah, saying ” How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!” Abraham does an interesting thing, he begins to bargain with God, asking of God will wipe out the city if 50 righteous people can be found in it. God agrees and Abraham keeps pressing him. Eventually, God agrees that if there are at least 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, he will spare the cities. And so the angels go down to investigate.
There, they are taken in by Abraham’s nephew Lot, who insists on giving hospitality even though the men offer to sleep in the square. Once in Lot’s home, the men of the city come and demand Lot release the men so that they may “know” them. “Know” is sometimes Bible-speak for “have sex with”–as when Adam “knew” his wife and she bore him a son.
Lot asks the men not to do this and even offers his virgin daughters as a substitute (no one ever said reading the Bible was easy, folks). The men refuse but Lot is insistent that no harm come to the men who are staying under his roof. The angels intervene, blinding the men, and Lot and his family are able to escape the city. While they are escaping, Lot’s wife turns back to look at the destruction and is turned into a pillar of salt. (That will probably merit a sermon on its own, so we won’t go into too much on that detail right now).
But the net result is that this story has come down to us as a story of depravity and immorality. Of a wicked and decadent city that got what was coming to it. And we all know what they were doing wrong. We all know what their sin was.
We don’t have to figure that out right? I mean, we even named the act of “sodomy” after Sodom. We know what the Sodomites and the Gomorrahites were up to. We know what conduct should not be tolerated.
And for a long time, Christians have reacted with violence and intolerance toward those whom they considered to be guilty of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah: gays and lesbians. It is one of the more famous Bible stories because of its frequent use in condemning gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. The church has had a long history of that kind of intolerance.
II. THE LEGACY OF INTOLERANCE
Christians have not stopped there with intolerance, unfortunately. Christians have found all kinds groups toward whom they can be intolerant. And just has often, we have found scripture passages to back it up.
In early Christianity, there was a fair amount of theological diversity. But the pressures of Empire quickly changed all that. The Emperor Constantine, having converted to Christianity and legalized it in his empire wasn’t about to allow it to be divided. And so theological diversity took a huge hit. We became intolerant of those who developed different theologies from those that were approved. It wasn’t enough to condemn these theologies, by the way, those who espoused them had to be anathematized, or placed under a curse.
Then of course, we couldn’t agree on issues of church authority. Did the Bishop of Rome–the Pope–have authority greater than the Bishops of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria? That particular disagreement split the Church in two: Catholic and Orthodox.
Then there were those who thought the church should be reformed, like John Wycliffe in England and the Czech influenced by his ideas Jan Hus. Hus was burned at the stake. Wycliffe died of apoplexy but after his death he was exhumed and his bones were burned. We were not particularly good at embracing people who wanted reforms.
After the Protestant Reformation, we kept splitting into smaller and smaller groups, each insisting its way was right, each showing a lack of tolerance for the other.
In America, where the religions got along alright, they still nevertheless found ways to marginalize others. Religion was used to marginalize blacks and Indians. it was used to keep women in subservient places.
Over the course of Christian history, the Christian church has used religion to buttress all manner of intolerance and hatred: political, theological, racial, economic, social, sexual, national, you name it.
Indeed, it’s hard to look at the long history of Christian intolerance and sometimes outright hatred of others who are different and to conclude that it has anything to do with the faith proclaimed and lived by Jesus. Indeed, it is the kind of thing that leads people to come up with observations like the familiar one that “Christianity is a wonderful religion–it’s too bad it’s never been tried.”
Indeed, it becomes downright difficult to reconcile the long history of Christian intolerance with the radically inclusive spirit of Jesus Christ.
III. THE SIN OF SODOM & GOMORRAH
It is interesting that Jesus himself never talks about homosexuality. It doesn’t come up as a topic of interest in any of the four gospels. But he does mention Sodom and Gomorrah. And in a very interesting context. Listen again to some of the words we read earlier from Matthew’s gospel account:
Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
For the town that does not welcome the disciples, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
What an interesting comparison. Why would Jesus bring up Sodom and Gomorrah as illustrations here? It doesn’t sound like he’s talking about any kind of sexual immorality.
It might surprise us to find out that there was no uniform tradition in Judaism as to the nature of Sodom and Gomorrah’s offense. Isaiah says the city lacked justice. Jeremiah says it was moral and ethical laxity. Ezekiel says they ignored the needy.  When we reflect on Jesus’ invoking Sodom & Gomorrah it sounds like he’s talking about a lack of hospitality.
In fact, that’s exactly what he’s talking about. The closer we read the Genesis text, the more we come to understand that it is not a text about Sodom and Gomorrah’s sexuality, it is a text about the inhospitality found in those towns. The sex act that the mob describes is not an act of consensual sexuality. It is an act of violence. A rape. An effort to demean and humiliate. It was common in the ancient world to humiliate captured people this way, in effect, by treating them like women.  (That’s another sermon right there). It is the antithesis of hospitality.
The story we read from Genesis cannot be read in isolation. It cannot be read without understanding that these same angels, when they and God appear to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre, are welcomed by Abraham with an effusive display of hospitality:
When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on–since you have come to your servant.
Abraham didn’t even know who his guests were when he made this display of hospitality and welcome. To this day in Judaism, “Abraham’s tent” is a symbol of hospitality–the wedding huppah is often described as being ‘open like the tent of Abraham and Sarah’. The two angels when they reach Sodom are likewise greeted warmly and insistently by Lot. But it is the people of Sodom who greet the visitors not with hospitality, but with threats of violence.
It is hard for people in the modern Western world to understand how important hospitality was–and still is–in the ancient middle east. To refuse to show someone hospitality was a major offense culturally and religiously. This was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is why Jesus lifts them up as examples of unrighteousness when talking about the hospitality of the places the disciples will go on their missionary work.
Hospitality is what we are called to–and we so often respond with inhospitality. With intolerance. With division. With violence and hate. We are called to so much more.
IV. THE WESLEYAN WAY
And if there is something needed in our churches today–it is hospitality. A commitment to a radical hospitality is at the heart of what it means to be a reconciling community: a community that welcomes and seeks to be in ministry with all people, regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, nationality, gender identity, political ideology, ability, and so on. A hospitality that Christ expects of us. A generous hospitality that Abraham models for us.
But so often, the debates about issues of sexuality–like the debates about gender and race before them–divide the Body and do not create communities of hospitality, but armed camps, protecting themselves from the other.
John Wesley gave a sermon entitled Catholic Spirit.  In it he made a passionate argument for Christian unity in spite of division. Wesley keys in on a passage from 2 Kings 10:15: ” When he left there, he met Jehonadab son of Rechab coming to meet him; he greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” Wesley would use this as the basic understanding of Christian fellowship: “Is thine heart right as my heart is with thy heart? If it is, give me thy hand.” Wesley would say, if you loved God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, then that was all that was needed to unite in fellowship. Listen to some of Wesley’s words:
Hold you fast that which you believe is most acceptable to God, and I will do the same. I believe the Episcopal form of church government to be scriptural and apostolical. If you think the Presbyterian or Independent is better, think so still, and act accordingly. I believe infants ought to be baptized; and that this may be done either by dipping or sprinkling. If you are otherwise persuaded, be so still, and follow your own persuasion. … My sentiment is, that I ought not to forbid water, wherein persons may be baptized; and that I ought to eat bread and drink wine, as a memorial of my dying Master: however, if you are not convinced of this act according to the light you have. I have no desire to dispute with you one moment upon any of the preceding heads. Let all these smaller points stand aside. Let them never come into sight “If thine heart is as my heart,” if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: “give me thine hand.”
Wesley believed that the core of Christian faith was a small and ancient core of loving God and neighbor. That belief in the Triune God and the salvation through Christ were the essentials. And that pretty much all else was “opinion”. Matters over which people of good faith could disagree and yet remain in fellowship.
Wesley provides an important challenge and reminder for us. For he reminds us that what is at the core of our faith is an essentially simple proposition: to love God and neighbor. To extend the hand of Christian fellowship to all. Too often in our history, we have forgotten that point. We have not always built communities of welcome, and too often have responded with intolerance and inhospitality.
We are called to build communities of hospitality and yet we have told people that if they were of the wrong theology, they were unwelcome.
We are called to build communities of hospitality and yet we have told people that if they were of the wrong political persuasion, they were unwelcome.
We are called to build communities of hospitality and yet we have told people that if they were of the wrong race, they were unwelcome.
We are called to build communities of hospitality and yet we have told people that if they were of the wrong nationality, they were unwelcome.
We are called to build communities of hospitality and yet we have told people that if they were of the wrong economic class, they were unwelcome.
We are called to build communities of hospitality and yet we have told people that if they were of the wrong sexual orientation, they were unwelcome.
We have not learned the lessons of Sodom and Gomorrah, in our intolerance and inhospitality we have become Sodom and Gomorrah.
We are not without hope in this matter. We here are in a wonderful community that has made welcome and inclusiveness part of the fabric of the community itself. It is a community that is a light of God’s love to a broken and hurting world. A community of reconciliation and love. I am immensely proud of this community’s commitment to inclusiveness and hospitality. And as I have said before, they’ll have to take my ordination away before that changes on my watch.
But there is even hope beyond this community. For if we as a church welcome Christ into our hearts; truly welcome. Truly welcome the one who gave a voice to the outcast. Truly welcome the one who ate with the marginalized. Truly welcome the one who invited us all to his table, a table of welcome to all.
If we truly welcome that one into our hearts, then we will be able to build those communities of hospitality and welcome for all.
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. He 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.” But 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. But 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; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, 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.” But 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. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And 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. Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city–bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it.”
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”
 E.A. Speiser, Genesis: A New Translation (The Anchor Bible), p. 142.
 Jack Rogers, Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality, pp. 70-71.