A Way Forward

       There is not much else I enjoy in this world as much as I love a good story. I love to be drawn in and the rise and fall of a narrative; I love when stories are predictable, and I love when they are surprising. But the thing I love most of all is how stories shape us; how they take on new meanings and how they make us reflect on where we are and where we are going. And this is part of what I love so much about Christianity and our sacred texts, how they help us understand our world and prompt us to be better.

       Many of us could probably name several sacred stories from our scripture off the top of our heads; we might not be able to give details or locations, but we probably know the main players in the story. Today, I want to turn toward a commonly known story that often lacks names of people and details. I don’t know when my young brain learned in church that if you ever wanted to describe a bad, bad place, you’d reference Sodom and Gomorrah, but it seems like it’s something I’ve always known. And outside of referring to as a place of sexual sin, I don’t think I could have articulated the story at all. What I most knew about Sodom and Gomorrah is that they were taught to me as places of sexual sin, and this was the thing that enraged God so much that these two infamous cities were burned to the ground.

       I was surprised, then, to see Sodom and Gomorrah referenced in the prophet Isaiah’s word to the people of Judah, nearly 700 years after that event. Just as we might use these words now, Isaiah is using them as a shortcut to relay the intensity with which he shares his prophetic word. And it is this prophetic word that I think gives us insight into what God despised in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Modern day scholarship tells us that it was not queerness that God hated, as is often referenced by these two names, but rather the lack of hospitality and the rush toward violence and exclusion.  

       Our passage from Isaiah refers to the rulers and people of Sodom and Gomorrah and then the prophet goes on to renounce things that are surprisingly familiar for modern-day Christianity. God tells the people of Judah through Isaiah that God has had enough. And this is not the sort of enough that one feels after a delightful meal with friends, but rather the sort of enough that is implied when a parent tells their child, “That’s enough.” God was exhausted with performative sacrifices and burnt offerings that were not paired with any sort of faith or conviction. The Lord, had become burdened and wearied by acts of faith backed only by immorality. The comparison that Isaiah makes here is not that the people of Judah were too sexually immoral, but that their lives were not adequately shaped and changed by the works of faith with which they were engaged. I have had enough, says the Lord.

       I have had enough. I don’t know which the many events this week that made these words ring so loudly. We’ve had a horrific and terrifying rise of antisemitism in our country, a school shooting a little over four hours from here that barely made the news, and a nation in revolution fighting religious compulsion and the oppression of women. Maybe it’s a little bit of all of it and other events as well, but when I read and reread that line “I have had enough,” it echoed through my soul.

       I can only imagine that to the people of Judah, Isaiah’s comparing of them to Sodom and Gomorrah cut deep, and when I read through the litany of acts of worship deeply disconnected from any sort of real faith, I cannot help but feel a similar sense of conviction, that maybe, we too, ought to hear the words of the prophet. That maybe we, too, are Sodom and Gomorrah, that maybe the Lord has had enough of this world as well.

       This week, as I watched teenagers huddle in agony outside of their high school in St. Louis and Jewish folks share stories of swastika vandalism, and saw young women march in the streets against religious oppression in Iran, it didn’t take much for me to tip into anger as I also watched Christianity be used as a political bargaining chip and fear mongering be used to vilify whole groups of people just for existing, even though they are the very image of God.

       It does not take much for me slip into a hot anger that wants to do nothing but stew. Friends, I am angry. After every school shooting, I have developed a habit of prayer: I pray the optional anthem for our Rite II Burial Office. You can turn to it in the black Book of Common Prayer in the pew in front of you on page 492. Each time I pray, “In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help? From you alone, O Lord, who by our sins are justly angered. Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.” Deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death becomes my refrain on weeks like this one where anger and bitterness feel all-consuming, and no path ahead seems possible.

       And then, in preparation for this sermon as I sat and wrestled with my anger and all these connection points to Sodom and Gomorrah, my eyes landed on what might be one of my new favorite lines of scripture. After Isaiah lays out this litany of wrongs and frustrations that God has with the people, the Lord says, “Come now, let us argue it out.” Come now, beloveds, let us find a way. To Judah, I imagine there wasn’t much worse than being compared to Sodom and Gomorrah, but I also wonder about the relief as the Lord makes that turn, offering path forward. That, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.” Come now, there is hope amidst the bitterness of eternal death; come now, let us argue it out.

       Each of our sacred stories teach us and inspire us and change us; and this story, which we share with our Jewish and our Muslim siblings in faith has grounded me in the truth that God always offers a path forward, no matter where we start. No matter how steeped in white-washed forms of sin or how angry we may be about the state of the world around us, the Lord invites us into a life of transformational faith. Come now, let us argue it out; it is never too late to change, to allow our faith to more deeply affect how we move through this world and to trust in God’s eternal willingness to offer a path forward. Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful Savior, come now, and wash us clean like wool and make our spirits like snow. Amen.

A sermon on Isaiah 1:10-18, delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on October 30, 2022.

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