March 9, 2014/Celebrating the Gifts Of Women Sunday
When I was in college, a good friend of mine lost her family home to a fire. We were at school when it happened, so it was a few days before she could go and see the reality of the fire for herself. I drove her home. I'd never seen anything like it. It was hard to recognize that it had ever been a house. The only pieces of the house were some charred timber from what I guessed was the framework. When we pulled up, my friends' mother and father were trying to sort through the ashes to see if anything was left or salvageable. There was nothing.
It was the first time I'd ever seen my friend cry. She put her head on her mom's shoulder and sobbed. Her mom repeated over and over that everything would be all right. They'd only lost possessions; they hadn't lost each other. My friend knew that. She knew that had anyone in her family been trapped and killed, the devastation would be so much greater. She understood that things could be replaced. But there were memories tied to her things. Pictures. Yearbooks. Letters. Old toys and album and books. Yes, all of them were inanimate objects, things, possessions that could be replaced. But they were hers, and each one told a part of the story of her life.
The time came for us to leave. We had a couple of hours drive ahead of us. Her family was staying in a motel until they could find more permanent housing, and there was nothing more that could be done at the site. As we were walking back to my car, she turned and looked back one more time. At that moment I couldn't begin to comprehend what she must have been feeling and thinking. But looking back at that moment, I imagine she was seeing her life in that house. I believe she was reliving different moments. I suspect she was seeing every room; everything that once was. She had to look back because she had to find a way to say goodbye. She had to look back.
I think it's fair to say that all of us, at some time or another, have had to look back. We have had to stare, whether physically or mentally, at what was in order to turn our gaze to what lay ahead. I know that there have been many times in my own life when the only way I could find my path forward was to spend some time looking back. Just like Lot's wife.
I realize that hearing a sermon on this particular story is not that common. Lot's wife isn't one of those characters that we see proclaimed very often, or portrayed with any depth. But Lot's wife is one of the many women in the Bible that I think gets a bad rap. It’s always seemed bitterly unfair to me that this woman, whose name we never know, should be punished so harshly merely because she wanted to look back.
Why shouldn’t she? Why shouldn't she want to take just a moment and look back at the home she was leaving? The movies make this a scene of chaos and destruction, and I'm sure it must have been. Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities that are being destroyed in this story, are on fire. That fire is raining down on them from the heavens. Everyone in Lot's family is running; fleeing the devastation and destruction behind them. Everyone is panicked. In the movie versions, Lot's wife stops in the midst of this chaos and does the opposite of the angel's commands. Lot's wife -- this disobedient, willful woman, turns on an impulse to see what's happening behind her. In an instant she is turned into a statue of salt, then crumbles and blows away in the wind. That is her punishment for disobedience. The idea that this is a punishment implies that the only reason she turned around was out of ghoulish curiosity; like people driving by the scene of an accident and staring, unable to look away.
In Hollywood’s version, Lot’s wife looks back just so she can see Sodom and Gomorrah burn. But maybe she looked back for the same reasons my friend did. Perhaps she looked back just as I have or you have. A million memories could have been running through her mind as she watched her home burn to the ground. She might have been thinking about neighbors and friends, all the people she knew who were no more. She could have been picturing the home she'd shared with her husband and children. Maybe she was remembering a woven rug she'd learned to make under her mother's tutelage, or pottery that she'd shaped herself.
Perhaps she looked back, not to be disobedient but because she wanted to say goodbye. She needed to say goodbye to everyone and everything she had left behind. She looked back to grieve.
I find other problems with the traditional interpretation of this text. I'm unconvinced that Lot's wife was actually being disobedient; not only because of the case I've already made, but because of the specifics of the story. Lot pleads with the angels to let them flee to the small city of Zoar. The angels grant permission, and it's true that Lot was instructed not to look back while they were fleeing for fear of being consumed. But nothing was said about not looking back once they made it to safety. The angels tell Lot that they, the angels, can do nothing until Lot and his family reach the city of Zoar safe and sound. When Lot's wife turns for her final look, Sodom and Gomorrah were on fire. There was nothing to see but death and destruction. So what does this tell us? What I hear is that they had reached the city. They must have. The angels told Lot they could nothing until the family reached Zoar safely. If Sodom and Gomorrah were going down, then Lot and his family were safe.
The final word that we have on Lot’s wife is that when she turned and looked back she became a pillar of salt. There’s no other explanation. Her story ends with that sentence. She became a pillar of salt. But what does that mean? Did she literally turn into a statue of salt like the movie version portrays? Or does it mean something else?
What is a pillar? We talk about people being pillars of strength. Individuals are often referred to as being the pillar of a church or a community. When I toured the Middle East and its many Roman ruins, pillars were often all that was left of entire buildings, even towns. So a pillar is a strong and sturdy construction. A pillar stands its ground, seemingly immoveable.
And then there’s salt. Salt is a seasoning. Salt adds flavor. In the Sermon on the Mount, which we've been working through these past weeks, Jesus tells his listeners that they are the salt of the earth. Salt can sting in a wound. Too much salt takes its toll on our bodies, yet our bodies are comprised of a certain amount of salt. Some salt is necessary in order for our bodies to function. Salt is in our perspiration. Salt is in our tears.
Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Is it possible that when Lot’s wife looked back at all that she had lost, at all that she left behind she became a pillar of strength, awash in the salt of her tears?
I know that this is a radically different way of looking at Lot’s wife. It seems to me that what happened to her might not have been the punishment most of us have always assumed it was. But if we can see Lot's wife in this way, maybe it makes more sense to you why I chose her as the subject of a sermon -- especially on the Sunday when we celebrate the gifts of women. Seeing Lot's wife as a pillar of strength as well as a pillar of salt makes me think of the strong women I have known in every church I've served. Lot's wife is among the women who not only sit in the pews on Sundays, but who sit on committees. Lot's wife is among the women who show up at sick beds and organize meals when a new baby arrives. Lot's wife is among the women who run the fundraisers and plan the potlucks and sing in the choir and visit the visitors. Lot's wife is the woman who stands by the grave of a loved one, and she is the woman who is wheeled into the nursing home. Lot's wife is the pillar of strength that keeps every church I've ever been a part of alive. Lot's wife is the pillar of salt who looks back at what has been lost, yet finds the courage to move forward.
As we move fully into this season of Lent, retracing the steps of Jesus in the wilderness, may we have the courage of Lot's wife; the courage to look back at where we have been, at what we have lost, at how we have failed and faltered. In this season of Lent, may we also have the courage to look forward with hope at the abundant new life we have in Christ. May each of us, like Lot's wife, find within us our pillars of strength, our pillars of salt. Let all of God's children say, "Amen."