Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 19) transports me to the far reaches of Madison County, to the little hamlet of Sodom Laurel, famous not only for its name but for the mountain ballads of Dellie Norton and the photography of Rob Amberg. When I was directing service-learning at Mars Hill College, one of our community partners for a number of years was the elementary school there in Sodom Laurel, where college students would go to tutor and mentor struggling kids. It was a hard sell to convince many of the predominantly conservative Baptist students to make the half hour to 45 minute drive over Lonely Mountain to get to a place called Sodom. There are various legends as to how the community got pegged with that unfortunate name. The official name is Revere, but I never heard anyone call it that. One story, coming from Dellie, was that a preacher came through Revere during the Civil War, and stumbled across a logging camp that was sinning to beat the band, and he likened the community to the biblical Sodom. According to another story I heard from an old-timer in Sodom, (and I hope this was the true account), Presbyterian missionaries had followed the Laurel River down the Lonely Mountain in hopes of “civilizing” the backward hillbillies, a la Catherine Marshall’s Christy, and they christened the community with the high-falutin’ name of Revere. The hillbillies didn’t much like their attitude, and started calling the community Sodom instead, in hopes of driving the missionaries away. The name stuck; the missionaries didn’t.
However the original biblical community of Sodom got its name, it eventually came to be associated in our culture with the the taboo practice of back door copulation, prohibited by law even among married couples in in many states, including my own, until the Supreme Court struck down these laws just ten years ago. It’s an interesting journey to see how far afield our lingering association of sodomy with homosexuality is from the actual biblical account. Abraham and Lot had gone separate ways, Lot choosing to settle his family in the fertile lands of Sodom. The Lord was not pleased, judging Sodom to be a desperately wicked city, and threatened to destroy it. Abraham made pleas on their behalf, but when he failed in his diplomacy, the Lord sent a couple of Navy Seal-like rescue angels to get Lot’s family out of harm’s way before the fire and brimstone started falling down on the wickedness. And here’s where the story gets interesting. Some of the Sodomites come calling on Lot, demanding that he send his two visitors out into the streets, so they can gang rape them. Lot refuses, and tries to pacify the violent crowd by offering them his own virgin daughters instead. In the context of the middle eastern culture this story emerged from, providing southern hospitality and safe sanctuary for strangers and immigrants was high on the code of ethics; seeing women as human beings worthy of the same protection was not. The gang doesn’t abide by that code, though; the crazed Sodomites don’t want to negotiate with Lot, and start to rush the house. The two angels call on their wonder twin powers and strike the perps blind. The heroes rush up Lot and company, who don’t seem particularly eager to get out of harm’s way, and then the shock and awe starts. Lot’s wife, still somehow attached to the place, turns to look back, and is hoodooed into a pillar of salt.
It’s a crazy story, subject to all sorts of interpretations. What was the precise trespass of Sodom, a sin so serious as to precipitate the napalm? Was it about sexuality? Not according to the Bible. The prophet Ezekiel gives a direct answer to the question, in chapter 16 of his prophecy: 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. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it. The cause of the city’s cursed destruction was their arrogant inhospitality toward these strangers in their midst, an inhospitality so stark that it caused them to believe there was nothing wrong with abusing and violating those they deemed vulnerable. You’re not likely to find Ezekiel’s definition of sodomy in Merriam Webster or in any of the homophobic harangues coming from the pulpits of our country, but it’s there in the Bible nonetheless: Pride and haughtiness, an excess of food and prosperous ease, and even with an overabundance of riches, a stubborn refusal to share with the poor and needy. Abominable violations invariably arise from such attitudes. And a curse on the inhospitable and violent actions follows. I wonder if Jesus had this story in the back of his mind, when he commissioned his disciples to go into strange lands, sharing good news and healing the sick, giving them leave to shake the dust off their feet as a curse to any household that didn’t show hospitality. Don’t look back, I can almost hear him echoing the warning of Lot’s guardian angels. Dust from sandals isn’t fire from heaven, but it does reinforce the notion that hospitality to the immigrants and strangers who wander into our midst is indeed high on the code of Christian ethics. I’ll hand this to the denizens of Sodom Laurel; they understand that code. The few students who did choose to travel there on a regular basis to tutor and mentor the kids there came back describing the people as the friendliest, most welcoming and gracious and hospitable bunch of folks they had ever encountered. Perhaps a new definition of sodomite will emerge from the little community across Lonely Mountain. Who knows, they might even welcome Presbyterian missionaries, if they come with a better attitude.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.