When I walked through his back door, one glance at his deeply furrowed brow told me something was askew. I knew that aged face well. For years it had greeted me with a country howdy and near toothless smile when I stopped by to bring him and his wife Holy Communion. We’d sit in their kitchen, the air of which was heavy with a lifetime of fried meals. As we sipped coffee, we’d chat about his aching feet and her arthritic hip and their lost days of lighthearted youth. Then, eventually, we’d shove aside the week-old newspapers and piled-up ashtrays to transform the table into a makeshift altar, over which, in the King James tongue he insisted upon, I’d intone the liturgy of the Supper for these homebound saints. But today was different. For months he’d been adjusting not so well to being a widower, passing the days in his newfound, unwelcome loneliness. But as I joined him on an adjacent stool, and he began to shake his head at the open Bible in front of him, I sensed the issue was something new. He wasn’t sad because of his loneliness. He wasn’t in pain because of his feet. No, he was awful upset, he began to explain, by a story he’d happened upon in his Bible reading. He paged through Genesis until he came to chapter 19, in which the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were charcoaled by the Almighty. But that wasn’t the account that had him all riled up; he’d learned that tale in Sunday School decades before. It was the after-story that had him shocked, the biblical postscript of Sodom’s destruction. Jabbing an indicting finger at the page, he said, “Pastor, I can hardly believe what I read this week. It says here,” he said, poking the page, “that when Lot and his daughters got up into the mountains, both of them girls got their dad drunk and had sex with him. And got pregnant!” Then closing the Bible as if it were too revolting even to have it open to that chapter, he added, “I wish I’d never read that story.”
Dislike that tale all you want, there it is, inking the biblical skin like a tattoo gone bad. It turned the stomach of my elderly friend. Incest will do that. I don't like it for that reason too, and a whole host of others, but undergirding them all is a deeper, darker reason. And it’s a reason that hits closer to home. You see, the story of Lot and his daughters is not just about drunkenness or sexual perversion. It is, at its core, a cautionary tale for all of us. It reveals how hard it is to escape from our own past. It shows the extent to which an environment of iniquity can seep into the souls of believers, transforming them from the inside out, so that even when they “flee to the mountains,” like Lot and his girls, they take Sodom with them.
I should know. I used to live in Sodom. In fact, I’ve lived in more than one city by that name. The first was a deeply religious city, steepled churches gracing every corner. I walked its neighborhoods, Bible in hand, cross dangling round my neck. All the streets were straight, and all the people were, too. Everyone was required to confess that they were sinners, but woe betide them if they actually sinned. For although truth and judgement were in full supply, mercy was a scarce commodity in this Sodom's marketplace. And I was at home there, an upstanding citizen with a heart pumping Pharisee blood.
The second Sodom was a city of rebellion, neon signs winking lasciviously through the twenty-four hour night. I staggered through its slums, intoxicated by lust, living from pleasure to titillating pleasure. Streets wound in serpentine courses through a city whose infrastructure catered to citizens who loved being lost. There was unbounded freedom to be whoever, whatever, whenever you liked. The only law ever enforced was a strict code summed up in three words: follow your heart.
Perhaps you’ve lived in one of these Sodoms as well? Perhaps another? If you’re a refugee like I am, then perhaps you too can attest to how hard it is to leave Sodom once and for all. For it’s one thing to “flee to the mountains,” to try and leave behind the Sodoms of self-righteousness, the Sodoms of sex or drugs or alcohol abuse, but it’s quite another thing not to take bits of Sodom with you into exile. It seems to me that’s what Lot and his girls did. Their hometown may have burnt to ashes, but the fires of immorality kindled there still burned hot in the hearts of this family. I have flames that burn in my own chest. And chances are, if you’re a refugee, you do too.
We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes, but the greatest lesson to learn is that the opportunity to repeat those mistakes is never more than a heartbeat away. You may have fled from Sodom years or decades ago, but it’s only a bottle, a snort, a hook-up, a moment of hypocrisy away. To pretend otherwise is to deceive yourself, and to invite disaster into your life. That’s one reason why, though it is painful to do, recollection of past sins, and the hellish fallout from those, is a seeming necessity for refugees from Sodom. David wrote Psalm 51, his hymn of repentance, after committing murder and adultery. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that song was never far from his lips. He was forgiven, yes, but he needed to remind himself of exactly what he was forgiven, of what the grace of God had freed him from, that he might not repatriate himself to the Sodom from which he had fled. To recall our past sins is not to deny that they are forgiven, but to ready ourselves for a continual fight against their recurrence.
In this fight we are far from alone. We did not leave Sodom on our own initiative, our own will-power. Christ climbed over the city walls to rescue us, and then climbed back over, carrying us upon his shoulders. He bore us up into the mountains, and now, and always, never leaves our side. He knows the past fires that still burn in our chest, so he never tires of dousing those flames with the waters of baptism, daily drenching us with that divine dew. Sodom’s foolish ways he roots out to replace with the wisdom that comes from above, speaking his word over and over into us, to create new hearts and new minds within us, fashioned after his own, heart and minds devoted to higher things.
Most amazing of all, should we ever, God forbid, go astray with Lot and his daughters, letting a Sodom heart woo us back into its clutches, the Lord does not rain fire and brimstone down. He rains down himself. He floods us with the waters of baptism, calls us to repentance, douses the iniquitous flames again and again. For he is not a God who gives up on his children. Quite the opposite. He never wearies, never wavers, of beckoning us away from our past Sodoms, into the present of his grace, and onward to the heavenly Jerusalem, where stories like Sodom are part of past that will never be retold.
(I'd like to thank Pastor Christopher Seifferlein, who provided the idea that I fleshed out in this post.)