In August I visited my friends the Issa family, who live just outside of Jerusalem in the refugee camp of Anata in Palestine. The wall that divides the West Bank from Israel literally runs through their backyard. They are that close to Jerusalem, and they cannot legally enter.
On a previous visit, their hospitality amazed me. They helped me and my delegation when we were lost, even though the language difference between us would have made it easy for them to say, “Sorry, we can’t help,” and walk away.
This time I brought my mother-in-law, Judy, and my Rabbi friend, Linda. And all along the way, from the city of Jerusalem, on the bus and in the Issa family’s home, we received incredible hospitality. Again.
The bus driver knew where to drop us off, because I showed him a text in Arabic that my friend sent me. And when he saw me looking worried, because the ride was taking longer than I remembered, he assured me that our stop was coming up.
When we got off the bus, and I confidently headed up the hill toward the Issas’ house, guess what? I got us lost — again. And because I was traveling with women who had difficulty getting around, I was really nervous. So the minute I thought I recognized the Issa house in the distance, I saw a neighbor, waved him down, and pointed to the house for confirmation.
Turned out this neighbor spoke English, confirmed that we were headed to the right house, except that to get to the house, we’d have to slip through his olive grove and jump off a 2-foot-high wall. No big deal for me, but he was worried about my companions, so he accompanied us, and held our hands as we maneuvered our way down the wall.
We arrived at the Issa house, and I shared some gifts I had brought for the family. It included a quilted wall hanging, made by Annabelle, Sydney and Kay, some Penn State swag for Papa Issa, and for the kids — Pop Rocks. The Pop Rocks were hours of entertainment.
And then Mama Issa asked us if we’d had dinner, which we had not. The kitchen went into a frenzy. Before our delicious dinner, we were offered cake, juice and fruit. So, by the time we got to dinner, we were full. But we knew better than not to eat. If we didn’t eat, we were going to be stared down by mom.
And then she brought out the cake. And the hookah. And coffee. And tea. We were all stuffed, but we had to eat it. It felt like an insult not to. And also, it was so good.
By now it was 11 p.m., and I thought maybe we should get going. After visiting for five hours, we were all getting tired. But then they were showing us picture from a recent wedding they attended, and when I remarked on the amazing 5-inch heels they wore, mom made me put hers on.
They were amazing heels. Terrifying, but I looked good in them and they fit me perfectly.
By midnight I was putting my foot down. It was really time to leave. But the family wanted us to stay overnight. This was not just a “no . . . please . . . stay . . .” It was a genuine invitation, which we declined. But I promised them that next year, I would stay over.
Dad called a car to drive us back to Jerusalem, but when the driver arrived, we had to wait a few minutes so he could have tea, then coffee, then he needed cake. And a cigarette.
It was another day of hospitality in a place where I felt so undeserving of it. It was all so lovely, so genuine, so heartfelt. And this hospitality had no Western time table. It didn’t care that we thought it was time to go. We just had to enjoy it.
Genesis 19 contains one of the most awful stories in the Hebrew Bible. The story begins with God sending two angels to visit Sodom. Like travelers did at the time, they waited at the gate for someone to offer them hospitality.
Lot was at the gates of Sodom, and welcomed the guests to his home, offering them a place to bathe, refresh themselves and eat. These angels refused the request politely, but Lot insisted.
He made sure they were able to eat and clean up after being on the dusty road for so long. And just as they were getting ready to sleep, Lot’s home was surrounded by all the men of Sodom who demanded that they “know” these men.
This act the men of the town wished to inflict on these angels is the worst form of humiliation for a person. It’s not an act of pleasure, but an act of power.
And Lot, himself a product of his own culture, which valued strangers over his own female children, offered up his own daughters instead of these angel strangers.
I admit that’s a part of the story I have to take a big cleansing breath after. Because I am so angry with Lot his lack of value for his daughters.
And, I remember, that while God is present in this story, and a truth is being told, these stories are written down by humans with their own biases and value systems. And, once again, we will need to wade through those to get to the truth God has in this story.
Lot tried to talk the angry mob out of their evil plans, and his neighbors, noting Lot’s status as a foreigner, threaten to do worse to him than they had planned for the strangers.
Here in this story, the stranger and the foreigner had no value. In the eyes of the people of Sodom, they are free to assert power over Lot and the angels, not treat them as revered guests, neighbors and friends.
The strangers pulled Lot back inside the house and made sure he found a way out to safety. And they said to Lot, “We are going to destroy this city. The outcry to the Lord against God’s people is so strong that God has sent us here to destroy this place.”
The idea of God destroying people doesn’t feel good, but wow, I do empathize with God on this one. These people who want to exert power in violent and destructive ways over people that they do not know or understand — that is the height of inhospitable. And it is clear that God despises this lack of hospitality.
Hospitality is a central value to God. So central, there are countless verses that talk about kindness to strangers and outsiders. Deuteronomy says, “Love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Psalm 146 says, “The Lord watches over the strangers; God upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked are brought to ruin.” Jesus in Matthew 25 says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me . . . in as much as you did it to the least of these, you’ve done it to me.” Hospitality to the stranger is very important to God.
So much so, God destroys those unable to practice this central value of hospitality. The prophet Jeremiah writes, “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods, then I will dwell with you in this place.”
In case you are wondering about this particular interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, let me assure you it is affirmed by the prophet Ezekial who wrote, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”
Jesus also affirmed this understanding of the text when he said in Matthew 10, “And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” This text from Jesus is about the disciples looking for hospitality among the towns they enter to preach the good news.
The crime of Sodom and Gomorrah is the lack of hospitality. And yet, over the centuries, the popular moral of this story has become that God despises gay people. If this text was about gay people, it would be some of the men coming to surround the town. But it was all of them that surrounded that house. This was about power.
Jewish and Christian readers of the text understood this Sodom and Gomorrah story to be about the lack of hospitality shown to the angels, up until the 2nd and 3rd century, during the time of Constantine, who made Christianity the religion of the empire. Lack of hospitality might cut too close for Empire Christianity, and it would be easier to blame the sexual outcasts for the destruction of Sodom than it would be to take a look at how we treat those who are not like us.
It’s easier to blame the outsider — in this case, gay folks — than it is to face the truth of this story: that we do not welcome the stranger. And that lack of hospitality will be the death of us.
The story of Sodom has me looking at myself differently. Where have I lacked hospitality? Where have I seen myself as better than others? Where I have refused to help, and to share what I have? I can think of plenty of instances.
The story of Sodom has me looking at God differently. It’s clear throughout human history that God tolerates a lot from us humans. But this thing is too much for God. God loves us and created us as very good, and when we twist that around and decide that we are God and outsiders are bad, God cannot abide this.
The story of Sodom helps me see what our lack of hospitality has done to us and is doing to us.
But there is hope. We can change. We can be the hospitable people God created us to be.
Back to the Issa family. I had brought my mother-in-law and my Rabbi friend. We didn’t tell the Issas Linda was a Rabbi because we weren’t sure how they would react. But after a few hours at the home, she was ready to tell him. And when she did, they were surprised, and then completely delighted. They began to call family and friends and tell them they had a Rabbi in their home who loved Palestinians. This was a really big deal to them. The wall behind their home — the one separating them from Jerusalem — was still there, but we were watching other walls being torn down as we shared our lives together. There is hope for us to change.
The last day of food distribution at Frazer (Pa.) Mennonite Church’s garden recently took place. I’ve loved being out there every Saturday, meeting neighbors and sharing the bounty of the garden. It feels good to tell our neighbors, “Take what you need, there’s plenty.” It feels good to see that there is always more than enough for us and them.
And our neighbors bring things too. Yesterday a Chinese neighbor brought moon cakes from their recent festival. A few weeks ago a Moroccan woman brought tea and fresh bread she made. Other neighbors like to sit with us, one friend to another, as we share stories about our lives. We promise to pray for them as they are facing housing transitions, difficulties with families and uncertainty about job prospects. It felt good — and holy — to stop our busyness and share our lives together. There is hope for all of us to be the hospitable people God created us to be.
Hospitality that we share and receive is life-changing. It’s what God wants for us. The hospitality that God expects from us is because we are very good in God’s eyes and we are called to reflect that goodness. When we start acting like we are God, and when we make the strangers among us less in our eyes, God is angry. Because God loves them too. God also created the stranger as very good.
God loves us. God calls us very good. We know that from Genesis 1. God cares about us, deeply. We know that from Genesis 16, the story of Hagar. And that love demands something of us. God demands our hospitality. God asks us to open our doors, to unlock our gates, to expand our hearts.
That is an ongoing process, and as we open ourselves little by little, we get to know God more, and we see that God is among us, in the stranger, in the messenger, in our neighbor.
Amy Yoder McGloughlin is pastor of Frazer (Pa.) Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. This is a sermon she gave based on Genesis 19, first posted on Stories from the Red Tent.