Sermon - 17th January 2016
The Bible and sexuality 2: Hospitality and Inclusion
Scripture - Genesis 19:1-11, Acts 8:26-40
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
[1st Reading - Genesis 19:1-11]
The story we’ve just heard tells of two visitors to the city of Sodom, who were in fact angels in disguise, being given hospitality in the house of Lot - a Jewish, and hence foreign, inhabitant of the city.
It is a legend which survived being told and retold many times within the early story-telling tradition of the Hebrew peoples, before eventually it was included in one of the early written accounts of what the Hebrews believed to be their history and came to form part of their holy writings.
Along with many of these early legends in the Hebrew scriptures, we don’t hold them today to be literally true and factual; but we do interpret the insights that the Hebrews were trying to share, by means of these stories, about their understanding of God.
So what is the insight that we can gain from the story of the city of Sodom? Well, it has nothing to do with what the act of ‘sodomy’, or the label ‘sodomite’, or the verb ‘to sodomize’ came to mean in western society of the past couple of centuries. Anyone who asserts those meanings is being very selective in their reading of other parts of their Bibles.
In the book of the prophet Ezekiel (16:48-49), we read: “As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. 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.”
This interpretation continued in the Early Church and also in Jewish interpretations. The Midrash, a Jewish commentary, and an Early Church theologian named Origen, both state that it was this breaking of the rules on how to treat visitors that caused Sodom’s destruction.
The sin of the people of Sodom was that they breached the code of hospitality towards visiting strangers. In the ancient world it was imperative in most cultures to treat visitors with respect and honour. Earlier in the story, Abraham - the founding patriarch of the Hebrew tradition - had shown unreserved hospitality and respect to these same visitors. His nephew, Lot, also shows immediate hospitality and offers them shelter for the night. But the townsmen of Sodom react with violence towards the visitors and appear to be intent on gang rape.
Strangely, by our modern values, Lot offers his daughters to appease the crowd. But in the context of the ancient storyteller who wants to give extra conviction to his tale, it must have added extra drama that Lot is prepared to sacrifice his daughters in order to obey the laws of hospitality.
Eventually the angels step in and manage to defeat the mob, and later in the story, Sodom is destroyed because of the actions of the inhabitants of the city,
But to say the city was destroyed because of the same-sex attraction which today we call homosexuality is misleading, and ignores other parts of the Bible and a long tradition of interpretation of these texts.
The destruction of Sodom occurred because of oppression of the poor and mistreatment of outsiders. The only sexual element mentioned in the legend is an attempt at some form of gang rape - a practice of brutal and violent domination and degradation which we know has been an instrument of oppression and revenge throughout history - even up to our modern day.
There are no lessons in this story which relate to what we understand about sexual diversity today, and we need to be confident in making that assertion whenever the sin of Sodom is waved in our faces by placard-holding bigots.
On the contrary, God’s LGBT children are to be welcomed and celebrated as we claim our place in the wonderful diversity of God’s kingdom. So, let’s listen to a story of open and genuine hospitality, respect and inclusion involving a rather exotic outsider who was beginning to see God in the life of a radical teacher from Nazareth.
[Second reading - Acts 8:26-40]
This story in chapter 8 of the book of Acts speaks primarily about inclusion. It speaks of good news which is for all people. It dispels the idea that there are boundaries to God’s love. And anything which diminishes the breadth, depth and height of such an inclusive story probably needs to be challenged.
The story shows that the message of Jesus was spreading beyond the immediate localities of Galilee and Judea. The fact that Philip was sharing his message with an Ethiopian was significant because Ethiopia was considered at that time to be the limit of the known world.
The name Ethiopia was used to cover a region of East Africa which spread as far down as what we today call the Sudan. So, by sharing the gospel with an Ethiopian, the early church would have believed that their message was reaching the ends of the earth as they knew it.
And by the action of Philip baptising the Ethiopian, the early church was accepting that no-one to was too different, no-one was too foreign, no-one was too culturally remote to be included in Jesus’s world.
But there’s an even more powerful sign of inclusion in the story. The Ethiopian is described as a eunuch.
This is a word which, today, has a quite limited and specific meaning. However, in many cultures of the ancient world there were various interpretations of what it meant to be a eunuch. Castration, infertility, or impotence would all have qualified for the descriptor ‘eunuch’. But there was another interpretation, namely that the man may be sexually active but was not sexually interested in women.
Because of their nature, eunuchs were no threat to the women around them. They were frequently employed in and around the courts of kings and nobles, and perhaps most importantly, they were not going to create any offspring, or establish a dynasty, which might be a threat to the ruling family.
So, whether by surgery, or by physical condition, or by orientation, eunuchs were considered to be safe and trustworthy servants of prominent households. They often rose to high positions, and this tallies with what we’re told about the Ethiopian - he was Treasurer of a powerful and influential royal household. Just think of the degree of trust which was placed in this man and the influence he would have wielded in his own country.
Now, the Jewish law discriminated against men who it categorised as ‘incomplete’. For that reason, while visiting Jerusalem, the Ethiopian would have been kept as an outsider and defined as ‘less than a man’ within Jewish communities, even though he clearly had some level of devotion to the Jewish faith. But Philip, the travelling messenger of a new way of living, befriended him, responded to him, and accepted him without question.
In so many respects, the Ethiopian couldn’t have been more different to the norms of Philip’s usual circle of friends and co-workers; but when the Ethiopian took the initiative and asked if there was any reason why he could not be baptised, Philip found no reason.
And by including this story in his book about the early church, the author of Acts, known to us as Luke, also found no reason to exclude the Ethiopian from those whose lives were touched and changed by the spirit of Jesus rushing and burning through the lives of those early believers.
In fact, Luke actively chose to include the story as part of his own interpretation of what faith in Jesus truly meant - faith without boundaries, faith without exclusions.
The story is much more radical and revolutionary than we might realise on a first encounter. It proclaims that no-one is excluded from hearing the message of Jesus, following his way, and joining his community.
Sometimes our faith surprises us by just how deeply challenging it can be. We come to this church to both challenge and be challenged about God’s love for us and our love for other people. There are times when we encounter a world which lacks hospitality, which shows prejudice towards strangers, and which is violently oppressive to the poor and powerless. If we take a simple message from a primitive legend about exclusion, prejudice, gang violence, and the domination of the weak by the strong, we must surely recognise that God condemns these evils wherever they are found.
But if we take a radical lesson from the story of an encounter with a flamboyant and exotic stranger, whose sexual and possibly gender identity were uncertain, who was seeking a deeper understanding of God, and who was joyfully affirmed by baptism into a welcoming and inclusive faith, we must surely recognise that God blesses the diversity of this world wherever it is found.
May God bless us with power and vigour as we seek to recapture the radical message of inclusion which Luke clearly believed was such an important and authentic part of the beginnings of a revolutionary, affirming and inclusive faith.