This week a man named Fred Phelps died. You may or may not know who Fred Phelps is. He founded and led a group that he called the Westboro Baptist Church. Now this group was neither associated with any other Baptists and really couldn’t be called a church at all. The Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps became famous or infamous by protesting at other people’s funerals, especially soldier’s funerals who had died in war or other famous funerals that had gotten a lot of attention.
Fred Phelps and his followers, really just his family, believed that the bad things that had happened, such as soldiers dying in war and other things that happened to our country, happened because the United States was being too lenient to the LGBT community, to gays and lesbians. So they would stand outside of funerals holding up horrible, despicable signs saying things like, “God Hates F-gs”.
A few years ago, you may remember, I and a few other people from the church met the Westboro Baptist Church when they came to protest outside the Framingham High School. The school was doing a production of the Matthew Shepard Story, and we received notice that the family was coming to protest. We went and we stood across the street from them holding signs expressing our view that God loved everyone, that love will conquer all, and on our side of the street there were maybe 30 or 40 people from different denominations, from schools, of all different ages. Across the street, the representatives from the Westboro Baptist Church numbered about six. Four of them were children under the age of ten.
Now Fred Phelps and others believe that in some way, they’re doing God’s work. One of the passages that they often hold up in the Bible, saying that God does not agree with homosexuality, is the story of Sodom from the book of Genesis, and the story in Genesis involved a man named Lot, who wasn’t from Sodom but who had lived there for a number of years but was still viewed as an outsider. One day, two strangers came and knocked on Lot’s door and said they were passing through town. Lot said, “Come in. I’ll take care of you. I’ll watch over you.”
Now, the rest of the people in Sodom weren’t very nice people. They weren’t very hospitable, and suddenly Lot found himself with a gang of men knocking on his door. The story in Genesis tell us that it was all of the men from Sodom, and they knocked on the door and they said, “Send out the strangers that are here, that we may know them.”
Now this is one of those situations where ancient languages and ancient euphemisms get to be a real problem, because that term, “that we may know them,” is used in other places in the Bible to mean lots of different things. Literally to know somebody, to know somebody better, and also to know somebody intimately, to have sexual relations with them. Some people look at this story of Sodom and they say, “Look, here is a situation where all of these men want to come to know these two men who are guests of Lot.” And what Lot and the others don’t know is these two men are messengers of God. They’re angels sent to test the city.
And when God sees what has happened, a ruling is pronounced against Sodom and Gomorrah. God warns Lot to take his family and to flee the town because the city will be destroyed, because God couldn’t find even ten, even five good people in Sodom.
This is a story that is often used to say that God deplores homosexuality and this is a story that people like Fred Phelps and others have used, but for me and for others, that doesn’t quite sit right with us. Something doesn’t seem right there. So what I do is I look in other places, in other stories in the Bible. As a Christian, one of the first places I go is to Jesus, and I find nothing that Jesus mentions about homosexuality or about Sodom anywhere. My understanding about Jesus and His teaching is that Jesus saw Himself in the vine of Hebrew prophets that He studied and that He learned from, and when we go and we look at what the Hebrew prophets had to say, we find Ezekiel.
Ezekiel says, straightforward, “The sins are Sodom are that they were arrogant, gluttonous, and lazy, never helping the poor or the needy.” A slightly different translation from the New Revised Standard Version says that, “The sins of Sodom were that they had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease but did not aide the poor and needy.” Many other theologians and Biblical scholars have pointed out that the men in Sodom were being inhospitable. Where God calls us to welcome in the stranger, they went and attacked them.
See, when this large group of men came and said, “Send out these two men so that we know them.” This wasn’t an invitation into a loving, consensual, long term same sex relationship. This was a gang of men looking to commit rape. I see those as two very different things. Now, as an open and affirming Christian, that interpretation obviously makes me feel a lot better. So it makes things a lot easier for me to look at these things and say, “Oh good. I’m much better than these people.”
But there’s still a difficult message in there. See, those sins of Sodom that Ezekiel talks about, about being full of pride, about being arrogant and lazy, about not taking care of the poor and the needy and the widows and the orphans, well, that’s a difficult message, too and something that I fall short from doing often. But we are blessed to have this community of faith, this church, where we can come together and we can talk about these things. Where we can come together and we can look at the Word of God, where we can talk about our experiences of God in our life, and we can seek out to discern what God wants us to do our life.
And when we come together as a church, as an organization, for lack of a better word, we can put forth our faith. We can live our faith in our policies and in our practices. So one of the things that we do as a congregation is when we put our budget together, when we gather our money together, we take nine percent of that money and we give it away to other organizations. Our outreach committee spends time discerning which organizations would benefit from our gifts. Some of these organizations that we contribute to are Our Church’s Wider Mission for the United Church of Christ, which funds relief efforts around the world in times of disaster and provides other help and charity.
We give money to Doctors Without Borders, who go to places in the world where no one else will go to give medical services, and through a foundation called Agape, we fund and have funded for many years now, a child in India who lives with HIV/AIDS. There are lots of other organizations that we fund through our outreach budget. More than that, so many members in our church spend their time and their energy going out locally and volunteering.
You’ll hear later about sign ups for Family Promise, an organization that we support where homeless families come and live in local churches for a week because they’re homeless and they’re looking for jobs and looking for stable housing, and while they lived in local congregations such as Congregation Or Atid and Peace Lutheran or in Wayland, we support them by providing meals to the families and fellowship.
Members of our congregation go out once a month to Rosie’s Place, in Boston, where they provide a meal to women and children who can’t afford to put enough food on the table. We’ve also been working this year to raise money for Habitat for Humanity and as their project in Wayland starts to ramp up more, we’ll be sending volunteers to that site to help.
So there’s so many different ways that we do this, as a church, as individuals, around the world and locally, supporting for the needy, and what we do sets an example for the younger generations, for our neighbors, for our friends. High school students who have come up through Memorial Congregational Church put in more volunteer hours than many others in town, exceeding what’s required for school, and they’re doing it because it’s something they feel called to do.
Sometimes recognizing what Scripture calls us to do and getting ourselves out of our comfort zone can be a little difficult, sort of like walking into church and realizing that the pews have been rearranged and you have to find a different way to find a seat, or like having a full leg cast and having to learn new ways to walk up the stairs and travel around school, but that’s what we do as a church, is we come together to talk about difficult things and we come together to support each other. To recognize that we all fall short. To come and talk about our struggles. To figure out ways that we can do this even better.
As true disciples of Christ, we’re called to do these difficult things, like helping others, getting out of our comfort zone, and doing one of the most difficult things that we are called to do, forgive others. As true disciples of Christ we are called to forgive others, even the most difficult people who have done the most horrendous things, including Fred Phelps, who brought his special brand of hatred to funerals, creating even more sorrow for grieving families. Even Phelps, who so misunderstood the Bible that he taught his children and his grandchildren to worship the God of hate instead of the true God of Love.
As disciples of Christ, we are called to harbor no ill will toward this man, nor hold hatred in our hearts. Instead, we’re called to dig deep down to find love and forgiveness. That kind of radical love will always shine brighter than hatred. That kind of radical forgiveness is how we become better followers of Jesus. That kind of radical hospitality is how we avoid the sins of Sodom. Amen.