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s198o04 Lockleys Sunday 31 31/10/2004

"Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom". Isaiah 1.10

If you were to think what might naturally follow these words, you may well think of the wrong thing.

No one in Sodom or Gomorrah sacrificed to the Lord with rams and fed beasts, bulls, lambs or goats. The worship in these places did not consist of offerings, incense, new moons, Sabbaths, convocations or solemn assemblies. One would not have thought that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were noted for their "many prayers".

The prophet is not addressing the people of Sodom and Gomorrah at all; he is addressing his own people. He is saying in no uncertain terms that their lifestyle was no different from those God had already destroyed.

So too, if our religion as Christians has all the hallmarks of devotion, but neglects to "seek justice", to "rescue the oppressed", to "defend the orphan" or to "plead for the widow" we will be called Sodomites as well and be treated as such.

And the orphan whom we are to defend are as much spiritual orphans; those who have lost their heavenly Father. There are many who have been baptised, but the cares of the world have meant they have lost contact. Similarly the widows are those who have had an intimate relationship with God, but for whatever reason they have lost it. We are bidden to plead for and defend these people, not criticise them. So our religion is one of acceptance rather than oppression of those who are different to us.

Our acceptance of one another in our Holy Communion will bring healing to all who are accepted. If our Holy Communion is actually a surreptitious competition then no one will be healed.

The other thing that this quotation tells me is how frequently terms relating to marriage and religion are intermixed. Time and again in the Bible words like fornication and adultery are used and they are quite clearly not referring to sexual morality at all. They are referring to the faithfulness of the people of God to their Lord. Just as the prophet Isaiah calls his own people Sodomites as a derogatory term for apostasy against the God who had brought them up from the land of Egypt and the house of slavery, so other authors use these other word of a sexual nature to describe identical apostasy.

I don't often speak about the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, and actually the activities there referred to are not about illicit intimate behaviour. It is all about keeping new-comers in their place, making sure that anyone different knows whose boss, and keeping others suitably compliant. They were bullies, no different from the schoolyard or ecclesiastical ones of today.

We see an example of ecclesiastical bullies in our gospel reading for today; the ones who grumbled because Jesus chose to accept the hospitality of the chief tax collector who was rich. Here was a person who was well used to be ostracised. He was short in stature, and his attempts to politely push through the crowd to see Jesus were in vain. How easy it is for us not to notice someone who also wants to see, but our standing in the Church obscures the view that others might get. So he climbs a tree, another symbol of his ostracism, to get a glimpse of this person passing by. As with the lepers of a month ago, he was not asked to do something difficult. He was rich, and he was well able to entertain Jesus. His reaction to the request makes it plain for all to see that he welcomed the opportunity to have Jesus as his guest. Again, how often we are busy with our ministry of devotion towards our God, all the while lamenting that others don't join us in doing it "our" way. When we let others express their devotion their way, how happy they will be! Jesus didn't ask him to do all these things for the kingdom, he was happy to make such amends as he could.

Sodom and Gomorrah were all about power and control, and that can be as much a part of our religion as there are secular bullies. When we view others as only of worth when they are compliant, then we are being subtle bullies, but real bullies never the less. When we view others as saved only when they are Christians or Anglicans like us, then despite our "orthodoxy" it is really apostasy from the God who loves all people. If newcomers are only welcome as long as they don't change anything, then I have to ask: what are we doing any differently?

In the beginning, Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent to want to become "like God"; the acceptable and stated consequence might be about "knowing good and evil" but the rather more desirable but un-stated consequence would be that they would not need other people and they would have ultimate power and control over other people.

How odd that those made in the image of God were tempted to disbelieve their own status before God, and desire something they already were: "like God". I am reminded that the devil in the wilderness tempted Jesus the same way. Just after God spoke to Jesus and called him the "beloved son", the tempter asks Jesus to prove it. Again and again he challenges Jesus: "If you are the Son of God .."

So if our religion is also about becoming "like God" (when we already are) so that we don't need other people and have power and control over others, the practical consequences of our religion for others is no different to the perversities of the bullies of Sodom and Gomorrah. No matter what we sacrifice.

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