Sermon for 6/4/20: Unanticipated Outcomes of Hospitality

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Psalm 116: 1, 10–17; Genesis 18: 1–15; Romans 5: 1–8; Matthew 9: 35–10:8

Is anything too hard for the Lord?  (Genesis 18: 14a)

I.  The Backstory: Art tells a Story
When I matriculated at my undergraduate college, I declared myself to be a pre-med major, not that such a major existed.  One could major in one of the sciences, or even in a non-science discipline, as I came to discover, and still gain admission to a medical college.  Still, as a pre-med major, my schedule did not allow for non-essential courses, of which art history was one, not that I had come to college with a dislike for pictorial art per se.  Rather, my interests in the arts lay much more in music: choral, violin, and organ.  However, as many pre-med major before and since my time would come to recognize, so came I also to realize that college, especially a liberal arts college, has a way of insinuating into one’s view new ideas, new subjects, new heretofore unformulated questions that need answers.

Still, paintings were for me just paintings until, a few years later during a two-year study in Germany, I wandered—as if to fulfill an obligation to pay respect to ancient cultures— into a museum.  And in the medieval wing, being somewhat of a religious bent and loving medieval history, I came across a painting [that] caught my eye and [that] has compelled me on subsequent trips to return to that museum and stand before that painting in wonderment.  The painting, I subsequently learned, is a pictorial rendering of an icon created by the medieval Russian monk-painter Andrei Rublev (ca. 1360–1430).  As a non-art-history major, I cannot do justice to the icon itself, housed in a place [that] I have yet to visit, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, nor to the reproduction [that] fascinated me in the museum.

To appreciate the original icon or the reproduction, one [must] revisit the story told us in today’s Old Testament reading, Genesis 18: 1–15.  While tending his herd, Abraham, no longer a man of tender years, receives a visit from God in the form of three men.  Abraham does not call the men God or gods but understands immediately they are representations of God in human form.  This encounter takes place under the Oak of Mamre.  Moreover, this visitation was totally unexpected [because] Abraham had not posted his family compound as an inn or B&B.  Nevertheless, Abraham rushes immediately to offer these strangers hospitality.

Biblical history mentions nothing of the outer wear of the visitors [that] would perhaps indicate class or status.  No mention is made concerning a mode of transportation, [such] as camel or horse, [that] would most assuredly point to a higher class.  No mention is made of culture or ethnic or tribal or racial heritage of the strangers.  Abraham accords to them the courtesy [that] he would have shown God if God could have been seen in human form.  (As I stood before the pictorial icon, I [did] not resist the temptation to draw comparisons to the Magi, or Three Kings, at their appearance millennia later in the stable in Bethlehem.)

Abraham does what was expected of one human being toward another, [augmented in this case] by two.  He offers to wash their feet, a menial if personal task, presaging the act [that] Jesus performed for his disciples; he begs them to rest while he sends a servant to bring his bread, as well as to prepare a calf for their meal.  He welcomes the strangers into his presence, not fearful that total strangers might be armed and bent on robbing or destroying his way of life because they were heretofore unknown or different.  Biblical history does not indicate that or whether the three visitors offered initially, or upon their departure, to reimburse Abraham for his efforts.  And nor does Biblical history instruct us that Abraham demands payment.  It was honor enough that Abraham should receive visitors, and so he performs with enthusiasm what his humanness and what his culture required of him.

Abraham does, though, get something out of this visitation.  An unanticipated outcome of his hospitality is a son, from whom grows a great nation.  This unimaginable outcome is record[ed] in scripture, thusly:

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.  So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure.’ (Gen. 18: 11–12)  And as Abraham and Sarah, and subsequent generations, were to learn: ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?’  (18a)

II.  Reality collides with Art
The icon, which one can see in art history anthologies, is spellbinding because the three visitors are equal in size, shape, and appearance, and they are seated around a table.  Because of its configuration and because Abraham believed them to be “the Lord,” i.e. God, the icon has been described as a rendering of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I can and do accept that interpretation.  However, that is not what grabbed my attention when, now decades ago in that museum in Frankfurt, Germany, I stood in front of that pictorial rendering of the medieval icon of Andrei Rublev.  Nor is it that which begs our thoughts as we come [in] 2020 to terms with the pandemics of COVID-19 and the centuries-old pandemic of institutionalized racist behavior here at home and abroad.  What struck me then and what stands out now—after all, the icon has not changed!—is that, at the table, the place nearest the viewer is vacant.

And, as you have come to expect of me, I place at least one question per homily.  Also, as you have come to know of me, I, like you, wrestle with the same issues and uncertainties of our own day, for which I, like you, have usually no immediate employable answer.  And so, today I raise the question: Who is not here at the table?  And, forgive me, maybe even a second question: Is the place reserved, or can anyone pull up a chair?

During one of my sabbatical leaves, as a requirement of the German Government from which I had received my grant, I was required to visit Berlin, a trip accepted with great anticipation—the usual round of meet-and-greets with high governmental dignitaries, filled with receptions and dinners.  This was still during the period when Germany was divided into East and West.  On the evening prior to my return to West Germany, I wanted to be alone to digest the experiences of the several days of meetings and excursions.  As I sat alone in a quiet restaurant just off Ku’damm, a gentleman approached me and inquired in accented German whether he could join me as he, too, was alone.  As this was also prior to contemporary seating arrangements, it was not uncommon that strangers joined tables [with] vacancies.

After introductions, I was astounded to learn that the stranger was an official—I recall not his name nor rank—of the Polish Government whose mission it was to seek out used dialysis machines [because] Poland under Soviet domination had not yet the capability of producing its own, [nor] could the country afford to purchase new ones produced in the West.  When I pressed on with my questions,[ ]whether he had considered remaining in the West during one of his trips, my table companion responded emphatically but politely and plainly: Nein (No)!  His mission was to improve the lives of his fellow countrymen and -women and were he to defect to the West, not only would his own family suffer repercussions, so would his compatriots not get the care [that] they so desperately needed.  To defect would have been a selfish act.  He was there to use the hospitality of the West in a situation when others could not receive it personally.  Before we parted ways, I, as an American, was not spared similar questions, the answers to which our nation has not openly addressed but so desperately needs now.

III. Art: A Path to a hopeful Reality
The seasonal lengthening of days, the songs of birds, the lush new greenery have, after a long period of physical distancing, awakened in us a hope that those gifted by nature or through education will continue their pursuit of vaccines [to] combat COVID-19, which has claimed too many lives, lives [that] have been lost to advancement of knowledge in the broadest sense.  The protests, some marred by unsanctioned and unacceptable violence, [that] call our attention to centuries-old wrongs, have awaken in us the hope that the voices of the downtrodden and abused and neglect will be heard and will provoke a concerted effort toward the elimination of another too-long existing virus that has taken too many lives, lives [that] have been lost to advancement of knowledge in the broadest sense.

The interfaith commission, which years ago planned our triennial lectionary, could surely not have anticipated the conditions in which we in the year 2020 find ourselves.  The story of Abraham and Sarah could not come at a more desperate time, a time filled by anguish and fear and despair, for it sets before us a possible solution.  I have this week read and re-read this story of God’s intervention in the history of humankind.  I have smiled and, although alone, been tempted to raise my right arm with a clenched fist of affirmation of the goodness of creation.  While reading the Abraham story, I was reminded of what a parishioner, with whom I visited just prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, said: “Sometimes we just need to remember who is ultimately in charge.”

God sought a people who would carry out the Divine Plan set at Creation by the Holy Trinity.  Abraham and Sarah were the least likely contenders for this assignment: old, settled in, counting down to the end of their days.  Not expecting a [visit] from a stranger, but receiving three, Abraham offered hospitality, expecting nothing in return except the honor and privilege of hosting them.  Sarah, understanding human limitations, [even laughed] at what was being proposed.  And God’s response was a simple question: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”  As a person of faith, I believe that God continues to search for those among us who are open to creating things anew.EpiscopalChurchWelcomesSign

Outside many Episcopal churches hangs the iconic sign: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.  We do.  With or without clericals, I have never been turned away at the door and, had that happened, I do not believe that I would have stood outside holding a Bible, which, as an Episcopalian, is housed safely away in my home library or the office.  I have been elated to find that sign in Paris at the American Pro-Cathedral, in Frankfurt outside Christ the King Parish, and in those cities and states in the United States [that] I have visited.  But I raise my prior question: Is the seat at the table reserved or can anyone ask to be seated?  Is that Episcopal icon a true representation of the Good News of Christ?  Abraham, if Biblical record is correct, had not hung a sign at the entrance to his compound.  He did not feel it necessary to broadcast his hospitality.  He knew that he was in God’s presence.

Icons can give us direction.  Icons can cause us to image what can be.  So, let us keep the sign.  I have no quarrel with signs that openly display my allegiance to the Good News of Christ.  But the sign cannot be the sole indication of our faith.  Therefore, as we begin to contemplate reopening our parish doors, not only here at St. James but across our diocese and the nation, it is my thinking that we must be open to the possibilities [that] show our genuine appreciation for and understanding of the diversity [that] God has given us in the created order.  One would think that hospitality is its own reward.  However, Biblical history teaches people of faith that exciting, unexpected good things, redeeming things, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually fulfilling things, can break forth when open and selfless hospitality is extended.

As we begin to contemplate reopening our doors, we have a unique historical opportunity to burnish our icon and to present the Church as the earthly icon of the Holy Trinity, whereby the Church, strong as refined and polished steel, states that there is sufficient place at the table where the Trinity sits as God the Creator, God the Son—once earthly representation of Creation—and the Holy Spirit—as giver of breath, the sustainer of life—waiting to welcome and to share with all who come to the feast, a feast [that] is none other than life itself.  God has already left for each of us a place.