Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11), rcl yr a, 2020
St. John’s in Pandemic
GENESIS 18:1-15; PSALM 116:1, 10-17; ROMANS 5:1-8; MATT 9:35-10:8
There’s a strange thing in our Genesis reading this morning—in this story about the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah. The story begins with a report: “The Lord [Yahweh] appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.”
Or is it the Lord? Because almost immediately, a curious thing happens in the story—first we hear that “The Lord,” Yahweh, “appeared,” but then, that when Abraham “looked up” from the entrance of the tent, Abraham saw “three men standing near him.” Then, when Abraham “saw them,” he “ran from the tent entrance to meet them,” and in a gesture of worship Abraham “bowed down to the ground,” now calling them Yahweh, “My lord.”
So which is it? Is the Lord, is it Yahweh visiting Abraham? Or is it three men?
Much of what we call the Old Testament is drawn from a number of different ancient sources, and sometimes these different stories get woven together. We have two creation stories, for example—the seven day creation story about a powerful God bringing all things into being, and another creation story, this time of a more personal God who walks through the garden of Eden and chats it up with Adam and Eve.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say that about the story of Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre. But that’s not happening here—it’s not a two story mash-up, one story about the Lord visiting Abraham and Sarah, and another about three men visiting, and then badly edited together. This is not a jumbled text; there is something mysterious, and intentional, going on here.
One early Jewish interpreter saw here three aspects of God; other early Jewish interpreters saw one Lord, and three men or angels. Some early Christian interpreters, after reading John’s Gospel, see Jesus as the Lord here, but with two angels. Because in John’s Gospel, Jesus says something that would lead us to think that Jesus could’ve been there: “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am,” says Jesus; and that “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; [Abraham] saw it and was glad.” These Christians saw in the Lord who visited Abraham, the Lord Jesus whom they worshipped. A more speculative reading, though, would see in Abraham’s welcoming of three—but worshipping one—a Trinitarian shape to the passage. “Abraham saw three, but worshipped only one,” as Origen puts it in the 3rd century.
It’s the Trinitarian reading of this episode that finds its way into Christian iconography. Orthodox iconography is very conservative when it comes to the depiction of God—Jesus can be depicted, because he was a human being, flesh and blood, after all; but God, as Trinity, cannot have any visible representation. And so it’s this scene—of the Lord, as three angels visiting Abraham and Sarah—that gets depicted. Rublev’s is the most famous, and when you see it, you’d recognise it—an icon of three angels, sitting at a table, each one looking upon and blessing each another.
But there’s also, in this iconographic tradition, many icons that depict the Lord as three angels or servants, but also include Abraham and Sarah, serving the table. And they aren’t just icons of the Trinity, they’re also icons of hospitality—of human hospitality, of welcome to three tired travellers, of provision of food and rest.
So where does one go from here? There is no easy explanation, this morning; I cannot say that “it’s all well settled! Obviously the story is about God and three angels,” or about one Lord and two others, or about a mysterious visitation of God in Trinity. Nor can I say, in the not-so-venerable modern tradition, that it’s all the fault of a sloppy editor.
No, there’s something important here, something that even the earliest readings of this story wanted to preserve—that there are no easy way of even speaking of God as one Lord; that God can come to us not just in an ineffable one-ness, but also as three hungry, thirsty, tired strangers on the road.
And it’s this that I would like to highlight—not so much the difficult of keeping the count at one, or of counting up to three—but that it is the Lord, it is Yahweh, that this story speaks about; and that the Lord God himself presents to us as three hungry, thirsty, and tired messengers, ready to be served by Abraham and Sarah.
This has its own challenges, if it is God here, presenting as hungry, thirsty, and tired. What could God ever ask of us? What could we ever provide for the Lord? What would we ever have to give, that God and the angels wouldn’t already have for themselves?
But the Lord does appear here, God arrives hungry, thirsty, tired, and apparently in need of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality—with the Lord’s hosts faithfully providing water, cakes, a tender calf, and curds and milk. Abraham and Sarah provide rest, washing the feet of the Lord arriving as three messengers, in the shade of an oak tree.
Even more yet, though, is asked of Abraham and Sarah—this “old” couple, “advanced in age,” are told they would be parents. And this isn’t about the miracle of childbirth, nor is it simply about the blessing of Sarah with a pregnancy.
This is about the salvation of the world.
Abraham, we will learn, will not only be the blessed with more descendants than the stars. More importantly, in Abraham all the nations of the world would be blessed—a blessing made real in Jesus.
So this isn’t simply about fertility. This is about God asking great things of Abraham and Sarah, telling them that they would have a special part in the salvation of the world. They would be the ancestors of all Israel, and in Jesus, they would be the ancestors by adoption of all the peoples of the world. Abraham and Sarah would be the way God makes children of all of us, and heirs of God’s kingdom.
So of course Sarah laughed. What an absurdity! First, the absurdity that her and her old man would have a child (although it seems the funnier part was that her old man would give her pleasure.) And second, the absurdity that God would have need of her and her husband; that she, and Abraham, would somehow be of service to God—not only in refreshment, but in God’s way of salvation.
This, I would think, is true for most of us as we contemplate serving in the church and serving in the world. What in the world do I have to offer God? Could God really have need of me? The answer is yes: God is inviting you into his service—and to serve God is precisely in serving those who are hungry, and thirsty, and tired and in need of rest. It’s not that we give to God something that God doesn’t have as his own—it’s that when we serve the hungry, the thirsty, and the tired, we are serving the Lord of all.
And when we serve one another in church, we are serving God too—there is no task we do as a church that can ever simply be thought of as just setting a table, or just cleaning a linen, or just sweeping a floor, or just cuing up some music, or just clicking your Zoom mute button, or just speaking a kind word to a friend or a stranger in a breakout room, or just in saying prayers or in reading a lesson, or just in picking up the phone to make a call to a friend, or just in doing the books, or just in singing, or just in cooking food or dropping off a meal for someone.
There is no “just”—because there is no task undertaken in the service of others, in the church and without the church, that is not serving God.
And so Sarah laughed, because it’s all crazy talk. But it’s true. We are invited to minister to God as we serve others—and as we do so, we take a part in the salvation of the world, given to us, in Christ Jesus and as his body.
And what a blessing that is, for us—and for the world God loves.