Thanks to the generosity of many generous donors, my seminary has a pilgrimage program for seminarians in their third year. So about ten years ago when I was in my third year, I was able to spend about two and a half months in the Holy Land – a month in Bethlehem, a month in Jerusalem and about two weeks in Nazareth.
Among many neat places was the Dead Sea. The salt content of the Dead Sea is so high that it is toxic to all life. There is so much salt that the floor of the sea is covered in rocks of salt, the size of your fist. Our guide warned us that staying in the water overlong wasn’t advisable, and that we should be especially cautious of getting the water in our eyes. Too much and our vision could be damaged – to the point of blindness even.
But swim we did, because there is another, neat thing about the Dead Sea: buoyancy! You practically can’t drown, as even a person with the lowest possible body fat will float with ease. I have a picture of one of my classmates sitting in the water, feet up, with a newspaper in his hands looking for all the world as if he was in a recliner.
Though interesting, these are just details. See, the most significant thing about the Dead Sea is it’s location: it is the site of Sodom and Gomorrah.
If you know a bit about the history of warfare, you might have heard about a particularly thorough method of wiping out one’s enemies. After conquering their soldiers, after burning their villages and farms to the ground, armies would then salt the earth. In this way, they made even their enemy’s land useless: nothing would grow for quite some time after.
This is what has happened at the Dead Sea, and for thousands of years!
Knowing that this is the site of Sodom & Gomorrah, it seems wise to find out what prompted God to deal out such a serious and lasting statement. What were the actions that cried out to God for a response?
If you were to continue to read Genesis past the passage of our reading today, you’d quickly see the nature of the sins – they’re sexual sins. When Abraham and his companions (later revealed to be angels) arrive in Sodom, the entire town accosts them. That’s not hyperbole, by the way: the Scriptures are careful to highlight that every townsman was guilty.
These are the sins that still exist today. So often we dance around sexual sin, so let’s take a moment to name some of the more prevalent sexual sins in the world:
These are the sins of Sodom & Gomorrah, and the sins of our time. And they cry out from earth to God for a response.
What is God’s response? We know how Abraham thought God was going to respond – with a blind vengeance that would strike down both innocent & guilty.
There’s a real temptation in that presumption, one that we’ve seen played out over & over. People have heard this story and come to the conclusion that they are empowered, sent forth even, to go out and strike down, to condemn, to vilify anyone who has been part of, anyone who has participated, anyone who has even been tempted by sexual sin.
I know that there are people in our parishes, perhaps who sat next to us at Mass today, who struggle with sexual sins, for whom the sins named above or other sins are an ongoing battle, who are enmeshed in temptation, in a relationship outside of marriage, in a lifestyle that on one hand is clearly sinful and yet on the other hand seems inescapable.
To you first I want to speak. Because it is an undeniable fact that many within the Body of Christ, perhaps even in positions of authority, have made you to feel condemned, have told you that you are not welcome, that you are ‘other’. To you I want to say – on behalf of the Church, on behalf of Her clergy, and on behalf of Her members: I am sorry. For every time that you have been made to feel less than fully welcomed and at home here in this community, I apologize. This is not the message God has for you, or for anyone.
So what is to be our response to grave sin – to the sins that call out for a response? We can look to today’s Gospel, at this moment of Christ’s disciples petition Him to teach them how to pray. And so He teaches them the ‘Our Father’.
Take a moment to consider just those first two words: “Our Father”. How could God bestow His fatherhood on us? We, who are guilty of so many sins – grave sins, no less? The betrayal of misusing God’s gifts, of perverting the treasures He has entrusted to us – these deserve castigation and punishment.
This is the goodness of God on display. In the face of terrible, grave, awful sin – sin that calls from the earth to the heavens for a response from the Creator, His response is ‘I choose you to be my beloved child. I choose to adopt you.’
How do we reconcile this assertion, implicit in the ‘Our Father’, with the reality of Sodom & Gomorrah, with the salted, ruined earth that even when covered in the Dead Sea still now stands lifeless?
I suggest two things for our consideration. The first is this: grave sin doesn’t just destroy our earthly lives – though we can see that it does indeed do that as we observe the rampant depression, suicide rates and ruined families that sexual sin leaves in its wake. But more than that, grave sin destroys souls. God, seeing that grave sin was eating away at the very essence of His beloved children, takes away their earthly lives so that their eternal souls might be saved.
But that isn’t the end! Because we must also consider the prayer that we pray with every rosary – the Apostles Creed. Recall the part where we talk about Christ descending into Hell. We believe that! We truly believe that Christ went into the depths of that inferno, and offered to all who had preceded the Word becoming flesh the chance for salvation.
Those same townsmen who attempted to molest Abraham’s companions, who were destroyed by God, we also chosen as His adopted sons.
This is the response of the Lord. This is what we assert, affirm and celebrate each time we pray the ‘Our Father’.
I’d like to offer three invitations. The first is directed especially to anyone steeped in grave sin, especially sexual sin. To anyone who has wondered if they’re lovable, to anyone who has questioned if God would really forgive the terrible things of their past. To you especially, I invite you to come to confession.
People at my parishes know that this is my favorite invitation to make, and that I make it often. As a priest it is a special privilege and a particular joy to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation. But even before I was a priest, I was – am – a sinner. I too know what it is like to question God’s love for me, to carry the secret shame and sorrow of grave sin, and live in a shadow of doubt. Because of confession, I also know the great joy and peace of having those doubts – along with my sins! – washed away. This gift is available to us all.
The second is to those who are living in an irregular situation, in a relationship that is contrary to God’s call. To you I want to extend the invitation to come talk to a priest. Find a priest, your pastor, the parochial vicar, the priest you’ve heard good things about – any priest! – but find one and go speak with him about how the Church can help you, can support you, can assist in making the irregular regular.
And finally to all, the invitation is to pray. Whatever your situation is – whether you’re struggling with sexual sin, whether you’ve never been tempted or you find yourself no longer tempted – the invitation to prayer is universal. Pray that we overcome the temptation and the scandal of divisions against each other. Pray that we may never make anyone ‘other’, that we may never say ‘You aren’t welcome here’ to another person. Pray that those suffering in our very midst may never doubt that God’s love and our love is available to them.
May we reflect the Father’s adoption of us as His by claiming each other as our brothers & sisters. God does hear the cry of the poor, and as we call upon Him as our Father, may we support each other in receiving & rejoicing in His mercy.