Amusing Grace and Biblical Sodomy

The season after Pentecost is dedicated in many ways to mission—to God’s mission in the world, a mission in which God calls the Church  (among others) to participate.

The portion read in Church this week from Matthew’s account of the Gospel is a classic instance of that mission as  Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom. “Cure the sick,” he said, “raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons!”

That’s quite a mission statement—and not a little daunting.

“And Sarah Laughed Within,” Abel Pann

Meanwhile, Sarah laughed.

Sometimes, participating in God’s radical mission of revolutionary love can feel ludicrous, like we’ve walked on stage in some theater of the absurd.

And so many also heard the story in church this weekend about Sarah laughing. She laughed quietly but she laughed nonetheless when God said she would bear a child (Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7).

Now, if you’re not merely a post-menopausal woman but you’re actually ninety years old and you’re told you would soon give birth, I think you’d laugh, too.

By the way, Abraham also laughed about this. In the chapter from Genesis before the one about Sarah, the 100-year-old Abraham actually fell on his face laughing when God told him he would have a child!

I would call this the “sacred laughter” of the Kingdom of God, a truly amusing grace, and I want to focus some attention on it. But we need to clear away some obstacles first, especially from that passage in Matthew’s account of the Gospel, which is no laughing matter (Matthew 9:35-10:8-16).

As Matthew’s Jesus sends out his disciples, he tells them that if any town will not receive them, “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than it will be for that town.”

In this LGBT Pride Month, it’s so vital for all church-goers to understand that every LGBT-identified person of faith feels their stomach churn whenever they hear those words—“Sodom and Gomorrah.” We must not treat this kind of religious language lightly, especially in places where LGBT people are eager and even desperate to find hospitality, welcome, and safety.

So let’s be perfectly clear: it does not feel safe to be in a religious space and be reminded of the story in Genesis when God destroyed those ancient cities with a storm of fire and brimstone, of burning sulfur. That story has been used to condemn lesbian and gay people and damn them to hell—and it quite conveniently comes pre-packaged with a popular image of the fires of hell itself.

“The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,” John Martin

Countless preachers have used that story from Genesis as a religious weapon, terrorizing and traumatizing their congregations. Every year, a horrifying number of LGBT youth take their own lives because of it—one would be too many.

Connecting the fate of Sodom with particular sexual acts even made its way into modern legal terminology. Still today the concept of “sodomy” is used in roughly 65 countries to criminalize lesbian and gay relationships; in eleven of those countries, the penalty is death.

In this country, sodomy laws were still on the books in some states and even enforced as recently as 2003 when the U. S. Supreme Court finally overturned them.

These religious and legal entanglements are so seamlessly woven into our cultural idioms that many of us scarcely think twice or even notice when they show up in jokes or in sitcoms or casually tossed into political speeches.

Back in 1966 John Huston directed a film called “The Bible…In the Beginning,” a classic Hollywood epic depicting the first 22 chapters of Genesis. The film won several awards, including for best director and even an Academy Award for best musical score.

The segment in that film about Sodom and Gomorrah portrays every single resident of those ancient twin cities as limp-wristed, effeminate, lisping gay men—those stereotypes are emblazoned on our shared cultural memory and they are a constant source of violence even though nothing about those stereotypes bears any resemblance whatsoever to the biblical story; that scene in the film is actually more about the misogyny of modern Western society than it is about the Bible!

Many people find this shocking, but it’s true: the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction is not about gay men; it’s not even about sex!

When biblical writers make reference to that story in Genesis—as Matthew did—they are concerned primarily with a grotesque violation of hospitality, persistent patterns of injustice, and physical violence.

The ancient Hebrew prophet Ezekiel could not be clearer in that regard: “This was the guilt of…Sodom,” he wrote; they lived with “hubris, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (16:49).

As more than a few commentators have suggested, interpreting “sodomy” as the behavior of a small sexual minority is easier and more comfortable than to suppose this ancient story might actually be directly related to our own economic system and a community’s collective failure to live hospitably and with justice.

Perhaps this is why Matthew’s Jesus refers to Sodom and Gomorrah as he sends his disciples out as emissaries of God’s Kingdom, to do the work of hospitality, and healing, and justice-making. And perhaps this could help us interpret for our own day what Jesus means by “curing the sick, and raising the dead, and cleansing lepers, and casting out demons.”

It might mean that God is calling us to soothe the hearts of those who are made sick from their social exclusion; or to notice just how toxic racial hatred can be as it kills the human spirit; or to rescue those shunted to the margins and treated like lepers just because of whom they love or how they understand their own gender; participating in God’s mission of reconciling love might mean naming and rebuking the demonic spirits of division and animosity that keep us from even just talking to each other in this country.

And don’t forget—Sarah laughed.

And Abraham fell on his face laughing.

I would call this “sacred laughter”—perhaps not at first in this story, when they laughed because of the absurdity of God’s promise, but over time when they laugh because of God’s astonishing grace, the grace that always exceeds our most reasonable expectations.

We know and touch this grace ourselves whenever we laugh in the midst of our tears, trusting God’s grace to transform what we cannot bear into something we cannot imagine.

I love that Sarah and Abraham’s child was given the name Isaac, which means “laughter.” This naming is God’s own embrace of tears and laughter mixed together into something called joy.

I think the world wants exactly this kind of life, and yearns for it—a life where we can acknowledge our pain and sorrow and name it with each other precisely because we’re on a road together toward healing and wholeness, and a road toward that great and wonderful day when our tears and laughter blend seamlessly together into the joy of God’s presence.

I think the world longs for a community devoted to curing the sick, and cleansing lepers, and casting out demons—a community where God raises us up, all of us, from death to life with an amazing grace and laughing hearts.

There’s really no time to waste. The world really wants to believe this is true—and the Church needs to show that it is.

“Sarah Laughed,” Yael Harris Resnick