October 28, 2018

Genesis 19: 1-19

WE LIVE, WE LOVE:  Looking Back

Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church


I don’t know how old I would have been the first time I heard the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a child in Sunday school. I’m certain that many of the details we heard this morning were glossed over except the part where Lot’s wife disobeys God by looking back at the burning city and for her transgression is turned into a pillar of salt. It’s actually unclear in the story if it’s God she was disobeying but that’s how the story was told to me. As a child, it was a dire warning about being disobedient. Even though it didn’t escape me that my older brothers who often did things they were told not to do were never turned into pillars of salt, this story and others like it in the bible, helped to keep me on the straight and narrow in my formative years.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned that the word “sodomize” originates from this story. As a child I had no idea this is one of the primary passages in the bible used by some Christians to prove that God abhors homosexuality. Even though the violent behavior of the men in the story looks nothing like the loving, stable same-gender relationships I have witnessed and been a part of for years and even though homosexual relationships as we know them today didn’t exist in the era in which this story was written, some people still use these verses of scripture to defend their anti-gay rhetoric.

I was well into my twenties, just becoming aware of feminist interpretations of the bible before I even noticed the part in the story where Lot offers up his two virgin daughters to be sexually violated by the men of Sodom in order to protect his male guests to whom he has graciously offered hospitality. It’s clear in various translations that when the men of Sodom ask Lot to send out his guests so that they may “know” them what’s being referred to is a sexual assault.

It’s only through my now quite mature eyes that I am able to look at this story and see in it a city with what we would now call a culture of rape. It’s only now that I see an unnamed woman, Lot’s wife, conveniently used over the centuries to distract us from seeing that what’s morally wrong in this story isn’t that a woman disobeyed God by looking back at a burning city. What’s morally wrong is the sexual violence being perpetrated by the men of the city towards other men and women and a father who treats his daughters as if they are expendable and of less value than the guests he has known for only a few hours. What’s wrong is the way lives are threatened and ruined when power is abused and fear rules the day.

There’s been a lot of speculation by biblical commentators over the years about why Lot’s wife looked back on Sodom as it was burning. Did she turn back because she was thinking about her two daughters who were left behind with their husbands, the ones who laughed at Lot when he said they needed to flee? Was she watching to see if they were coming with her? Did she look back because she actually liked living in Sodom and wanted to return because she was herself a sinful woman as some have suggested? Did she look back on the destruction with the eyes of a voyeur the way we slow down to look at a car accident on the side of the road? Did she look back because she wondered if she should actually be following her husband? After all he just offered up their daughters to be violated.

We don’t know why the storyteller chooses to tell us she turned back. (And let’s be clear it is a story. No woman has ever actually been turned into a pillar of salt.) But what if instead of thinking only about her punishment for looking back, or the negative implications for any of us of getting stuck in the past, we considered for a moment the positive aspects of looking back on destruction, death and deviance. What if Lot’s wife was immortalized not for what she did wrong but for what she did right? What if she stands looking forever back on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to remind us that to look back on suffering is to learn how to move forward without making the same mistakes of the past? What if to look back on abuse until it is acknowledged allows us to get on with healing?

If you travel to Israel/Palestine, you will find around the basin of the Dead sea, pillars of salt that have formed up out of the ground. One of these salt pillars has been named after Lot’s wife. Although salt can have destructive tendencies, in many parts of scripture, salt is celebrated for its’ life giving properties. In biblical times and still today salt is used as a preservative. It has medicinal properties that make it good for killing infections and encouraging healing. Some use it for protection. There are many sayings that hail the virtues of salt. We talk about people being “worth their salt.” We also talk of those who are for us a “pillar of strength.”

If even just a pinch of salt can make a difference, what if we preserved the memory of Lot’s wife as one who reminds us to keep looking back upon the destruction of our world, especially the people and places destroyed by abuses of power and sexual violence, until everyone who has been silenced finds a voice, until suffering is honoured and together we move forward with healing and hope.

This week alone there was no shortage of news stories relating to our need to remember the past for the sake of a healed and hopeful future. Many of those stories contained explicit or implicit references to sexual assault.

On Friday, the cremated remains of Matthew Shepard were finally laid to rest in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Matthew Shepard was violently beaten and tortured in Laramie Wyoming and left tied to a fence post to die just over 20 years ago after being gay bashed by two locals. You may remember how people gathered outside his funeral holding up signs that said “homosexuality is a sin” some of them probably quoting the scripture passage we read this morning. Up until now, his parents were afraid to give him a public burial for fear his gravesite would be desecrated and Matthew violated all over again.

Also in the news on Friday, Laura Leigh Paul became the first indigenous woman since the inception of the #MeToo movement to lay a charge against a prominent First Nations actor for allegedly sexually assaulting her over 25 years ago. I heard her interviewed on CBC radio on Friday morning. When I went searching for more information about the case all I could find were headlines about the way her perpetrator’s career is being adversely affected by her coming forward.

In a related story, yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the apology the United Church of Canada made to the former students of the Indian Residential Schools and their families for our participation in the creation and administration of Residential Schools.

We all have things in our lives that keep us frozen like statues stuck in the past, old stories that skew the way we see ourselves in the present, nostalgia about the good old days and simpler times, things we need to let go of in order to be fully present to the here and now. Even Jesus warns us about not becoming like Lot’s wife, looking backwards when we should be looking forwards.

But there are some things about the present that can only be understood and brought to justice by acknowledging what has happened in the past. There are cycles of abuse and violence, particularly sexual violence, towards mostly women and children but also men that will never be broken if we don’t continue to keep our eyes on the harsh realities of those who have been wounded in the past.

I confess that despite knowing that we cannot move into the future without reconciling our past, I tire of hearing stories in the media about the church being called into account yet again for the past abuses of its’ clergy. I tire of the slow pace at which we barely seem to be getting anywhere in relationship to truth and reconciliation in this country. I confess my own part in wanting to skip through the past and just get on with it. I tire of hearing the name of Christianity being associated with protests against gender identity and sexual orientation.

And so I was moved this week when I heard that 20 years after his death the place Matthew Shepard’s family entrusted their son’s remains to for safekeeping was a church. Because it seems to me that’s who we should be as churches, people and institutions who like Lot’s wife stand firm in the face of violence and oppression declaring we will keep watch over and steward the stories of our destructive, fear-filled and sometimes hateful past, until we fear no more and we love as we are intended to love.