Genesis 18: 1-14
Matthew 9: 9-13
based on Rubley’s icon “Trinity”
Today, we celebrate Choir Sunday (with our children’s, adults, and bell choirs) while exploring the idea of hospitality. Biblically, music has always been a form of hospitality – think of David’s playing the lyre and writing the Psalms as a way of comforting King Saul. Or consider those choirs of angels as those that tenderly lead us upwards toward heaven at our death. My guess is the music – more than anything else – makes people feel welcome – or unwelcome – in churches or synagogues. We can put up with lousy preaching, but we’re not going to feel that we’ve been in worship unless we come away comforted and uplifted by the music. In this – as in every other parish I’ve been a part of – music can be the lightning rod for other dissatisfaction. Why? Because music is a key component of hospitality. And thus, we are absolutely thrilled by the gifts of our own church choirs, and we’re also delighted to have played a role in spawning the Children’s Choir. Thank you, Shanti. Thank you, singers and musicians all.
More broadly, hospitality means welcoming the stranger, by which is meant the foreigner or alien person, not necessarily the weird. And I believe that hospitality also means opening our hearts and minds to the strange idea, as well as the alien person. So, rather than use music as the medium for this message, I’m going to ask you to open your hearts and minds while I use visual art as the vehicle for our theological journey. Brace yourselves; we may be in for a wild ride. But I trust that you’ll enjoy it.
One of the mottos of the United Church of Christ is that “whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” You may have seen that slogan with the controversial bouncer ad in which people who are outside the norm for some churches – that is, those who are not lily white, heterosexual, and financially secure, are refused entry into the church. The United Church of Christ insists, like Jesus, that God welcomes all and that the church should be open to all.
We read in the first lesson from Genesis of the incredible visit by three strangers to Abraham and Sarah. There are two points that I hope you picked up on. First, the identity of the stranger isn’t clear – the pronouns and verbs morph from singular to plural – sometimes it is clearly God (Yahweh, translated as Lord, or Jehovah, translated as My Lord) and sometimes it is three men. Traditionally, people talk about the three angels that appeared to Abraham. While angels appear to Abraham and others throughout the book of Genesis, the word angels does not appear in this passage as such.
One can only surmise that, in the beginning, Abraham saw three ordinary men. However, he treated them with such incredible hospitality (which is the second point – think about the effort that Abraham went to on the strangers’ behalf) that they were revealed to him as God. But, there’s a lot of uncertainty; we’re in liminal space between this world and God’s world.
The importance of Abraham’s hospitality – and of hospitality in general – is a key theme in the Bible. We remember that Abraham is the founder of three religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and that they all put great stock in welcoming the stranger. In the Hebrew Bible, we often hear the admonition to love the stranger, because the Jews were strangers in the land of Egypt. We hear this also in our second lesson from the gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus insists on an open table where all are welcome – particularly those estranged from society.
We hear it in the letters of St. Paul: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” And we hear it also in the Koran and in Islamic poetry. In fact, there is a particularly lovely poem by the Sufi poet Rumi that encourages us to be a guest house for all of the people and ideas that come our way.
I think that Andrei Rublev, perhaps the most loved of all of the great Russian iconographers, captured this theme with exceptional insight and brilliance. And so I urge you to examine your bulletin cover, or this poster, as I explain some of the themes to you.
First, icons are consider a window to the sacred; they are not worshipped, as some people think. They are venerated. As such they are not the divine, but they open a path to the divine. Like the visit of the three strangers, they represent liminal space, they are a portal between this world and God’s world. Their role is to open our hearts and minds to a larger reality. Their role is to make the strange familiar.
In this famous icon, Rublev depicts the mysterious story where Abraham receives three visitors as he camps by the oak of Mamre. Notice the oak tree at the top center of the icon, and the faint house at the top left, where Abraham runs – an act of great devotion – out to greet them. Notice also that the three strangers are clearly angels, for they all have wings.
On one level, this picture shows three angels seated under Abraham's tree, but on another it represents the Trinity. Rublev takes the idea of hospitality – which is as important to Judaism and Islam as it is to Christianity – and expresses it in a uniquely and ingeniously Christian way though the nature of the Trinity. Looking from left to right, we see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Unwittingly, we are asked to consider what God is, how God approaches us, and how we approach God. The power of the image is that we are invited into it. The table is open where we will seat. We are present in spirit even though we are not part of the picture.
And this is just the beginning. The colors are chosen with profound grace. On the right, the Holy Spirit has a garment of the clear blue of the sky, wrapped over with a robe of a fragile green. So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth.
In the center, the Son has the boldest colors; a heavy garment of the reddish-brown of earth and a cloak of the blue of heaven. In his person, he unites heaven and earth, the two natures are present in him, and over his right shoulder (the Government shall be upon his shoulder) there is a band of gold shot through the earthly garment, as his divinity suffuses and transfigures his earthly being.
The Father seems to wear all the colors in a diaphanous fabric that changes with the light, a color that cannot be described in words. And this is how it should be. No one has seen God, but the vision of God fills the universe.
The wings of the angels or persons are gold. Their seats are gold. The chalice in the center is gold, as is the roof of the house. Whether they sit, whether they fly, all is perfect, precious, and worthy. In stasis, when there is no activity apparent on the part of God, the way is golden. And in the bowl – the chalice – the sacrifice – at the center of all things, the way is golden.
The haloes around their heads are white, pure light, because gold is inadequate for expressing the glory of God. Only light will do, pure light, and that same white becomes the holy table, the place of offering. God is revealed and disclosed here, at the heart, in the whiteness of untouchable light.
Now let’s look at the composition. All three persons are more-or-less equal, with Jesus in the center being just slightly taller than the others. They are also curiously feminine, accepting, non-threatening, perhaps even vulnerable. What does this say about God? There’s nothing aggressive, powerful, or Zeus-like in this depiction of God.
Notice that each person holds a staff, which cuts the picture into sections. Why should angels with wings need staffs for their journey?
-- My guess it that, in approaching and opening themselves to us, these three persons enter into the slow, cumbersome walk of humanity. As such, their feet are tired from traveling. And so, we are reminded that God is with us in the weariness of our humanity. The traveler God sits down at our ordinary tables and treats us to a hint of heaven.
We approach the divine by going counter-clockwise, from the Holy Spirit through to Jesus and finally to God. All the faces point that way. And then there is God, whose eyes are directed to the empty space, in the front. Yes, God sits there, waiting for us to sit down at the table.
The table or altar lies at the centre of the picture. It is simultaneously the place of Abraham's hospitality to the angels and God's place of hospitality to us. This ambiguity lies at the heart of our faith, the heart of communion, the heart of worship. Whenever we open a sacred place for God to enter to be welcomed and adored, it becomes also God’s place. And then it is we who are welcomed, it is we who must “take off our shoes” because we are on holy ground.
Also present at the center is the slaughtered lamb, a sign of death. It represents both the meat which Abraham fed to the visitors and God’s gift of sustenance to us in the form of bread during Holy Communion. All movement points to this space, to this mystery. And at the center of the table, at the center of God, we find hospitality. We are welcomed in. The empty space at the table is on our side. God wants us to join in the feast.
What does all of this mean for us? On the one hand, the idea of God as trinity means that God is not solitary but relational. God is experienced only in relationship with others. This is true for each member of the Trinity and for us. Even more to the point is the concept that knowing God is contingent upon our being hospitable. Hospitality runs counter to our materialistic, fear-driven mode of operation, which is always pushing us to separate the “us” from the “them.” However, God and the God-nature that is within us survive only with radical hospitality. We welcome the stranger – sharing all that we have with the “other” – sharing all that we have with “them.” One explanation of hospitality is that it is the process which expands the “us” in the “us/them” equation. As the “us” expands, the “them” disappears. This idea is central to the story of Abraham, and to all three of the religions which claim Abraham as their father in faith. Sadly, none of us do a very good job of practicing what we preach.
As Rublev makes clear, God wants us to complete the circle, to join the dance, to complete the movements of God in the world by our own response. Below the altar, a rectangle marks the holy place where the relics of the martyrs were kept in a church. It invites us to come into the depth and intimacy of all that is represented here. Come follow the Spirit up the hill of prayer. Come, live in the shadow of the Son of God, rest yourself beneath the tree of life.
The table is spread, the door is open. Come. Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome at God’s table. Come.