Texts: Genesis 18:1-15; Luke 6:17-21
“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.” This is a story about an appearance, a visitation. “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.” And any story that features trees in the opening line is bound to be a good one.
It’s a good story for the moment we’re in, and for Christian Education Sunday.
Ask Mark, or anyone who’s ever served on Christian Education Commission, or anyone who’s ever been a teacher of any kind, and they’ll tell you that the work of education, the work of formation, is slow. It’s gradual. It’s cumulative. The formation of our minds and hearts takes place over the course of years and decades. It’s a journey, we like to say. We when go off to Sunday school we know this is the kind of work we’re doing.
And yet…when we look back there are certain experiences that stand out as especially formative, sometimes life changing. Sometimes something as simple as the right phrase, spoken by the right person at the right time when we were especially ready to receive it, can be a signpost we reference the rest of our lives. Like that time my mom said to me sometime during my childhood growing up on the farm: “Joel, your brother and sisters bring stray animals into the house, but you bring stray people.” So the seed of being a pastor was planted early. Thankfully, I’ve since given up on saving stray people and am much more interested in enjoying them and, in the process, becoming a little more stray myself.
There are moments, phrases, experiences that stand out as formative. Educational.
This is a story that invites us to consider those kinds of experiences. It’s a story that has some similarities with the kind of experience we’ve had the last two weeks in opening our church as sanctuary. It’s a story about an appearance, a visitation.
And it’s printed in your bulletins if you want to have the text in front of you.
Genesis 18: “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”
This is what the narrator tells us. But there’s no hint that Abraham knows what he’s getting himself into. It’s a hot day, and he has set up camp under the shade of some oak trees. He’s sitting at the entrance of his tent, doing not much. It’s a leisurely opening that also tips us off to something Abraham does not yet know: The Lord is about to appear.
What this actually looks like is described in verse two: “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him.” What the appearance of the Lord looks like in this story is people, in the form of three travelers.
With this surprising leap from “the Lord” to three people, it was probably inevitable that later Christian tradition would read back into this Hebrew story a foreshadowing of Trinitarian theology. God in three persons: Person 1: The Creator, Father/Mother, Boundless Source of all that is. Lover. Person 2: The Word, the Son, Beloved, that which eternally proceeds from the Source and bears its very nature. Person 3: The Spirit, The breath, the gaze of Love between Lover and Beloved. Together an endlessly creating, loving, self emptying and filling Whole. Talk about something that takes a lifetime of slow growth to understand, there you have it.
The image on the bulletin cover is from the 15th century painter Rublev, considered the most famous of all Russian icons. It is called The Trinity and is based on this story, the three visitors as angels sitting down for a meal under the oaks. One of the beautiful features is the way the postures flow in a circle. Follow the direction of their relationship, each leading you toward the next, and you join in the eternal flow.
But that’s a much later layer of interpretive tradition. To Abraham they are three hungry travelers with dusty feet.
Upon seeing them, Abraham runs to greet them, bows before them, and in good Middle Eastern fashion, makes them feel like they’ll be doing him a favor if they only accept his hospitality. Water for dusty feet, rest under the trees, and bread for the stomach.
They accept the offer.
From a leisurely opening, there is a noticeable change of pace. Abraham runs to greet the travelers. After they agree to stay, he hastens to find his wife Sarah who hastens to make cakes from the best flour on hand. Abraham then runs to get a servant to slaughter a young, tender, choice calf. This is the heat of the day, remember, and everyone is running and hastening. This is a mad frenzy of hospitality in full motion. Even the servant hastens to prepare the calf. Abraham gathers all these things together, and brings them to the three visitors under the shade of the tree.
This tale of hastening and hustling for hospitality, feels very much like the story of our last two weeks of speeding and sprinting for sanctuary. Our visitors came in the form of Edith Espinal and her family. Our short time frame between being aware of the need for sanctuary and the deadline to decide led to what has to be close to a church record for processing a major decision in a short amount of time. I’ve said this a number of times now to different groups, and I can’t remember who even initially said it, or if it just emerged from group conversation, but during this experience I believe we’ve discovered a hierarchy of values. A very high value is thoughtful or thorough process, and it serves us well. An even higher value, it turns out, is protecting the vulnerable. CMC hierarchy of values: very thorough congregational process (high). Protect the vulnerable and process as you go (higher). At least that’s the order for this experience.
So even though we did our best to gather multiple times for sharing information and questions and concerns before making a decision for sanctuary, we are still retroactively processing what it means. This would be the case whether Edith were still here or currently living at home. It has been two weeks of hastening and running, and planning and installing and arranging and plumbing and interior decorating and singing and welcoming and showing up in green shirts and keeping quiet and spreading the word and…being educated. It’s been one of those experiences, and it’s hard to know what it all means when you’re still in it.
As someone in the privileged position of being able to witness much of this unfold in real time, it has looked like a series of miracles. It has looked like people being the hands and feet of the Lord. It has been an unanticipated Divine appearance. The Lord has visited in the form of one person named Edith and five people named the Espinal family, and a team of supportive organizations, and 10 and 50 and 200 Mennonites, and many more community members. And the cumulative effect is that we have sat together under the shade of sanctuary in the heat of the day. Or should I say “are sitting together,” present tense.
The visitors eat their fill, but that’s not the end of the story. When the Lord appears, the story never ends where you think it might. The visitors will not go before they leave a gift.
The next phase of this story starts in verse 9 with a question: “Where’s Sarah?” And with that, our attention shifts from one partner, Abraham, to the other. Sarah had been in the background, donating time and skills without visibility. But the gift can’t happen without her. Despite her being “advanced in age” which is a great phrase, by the way, for education Sunday. I’m not old, I’m in the advanced class of aging. Despite the opening of this story failing to mention that the Lord would appear to Abraham and Sarah, it is she who will be the bearer of the gift.
The gift, of course, is the promise of a child. In a culture so focused on biological lineage and the worth of a woman tied up in how many children, preferably male children, she bears her husband, this means everything. Without a child, the story ends for Abraham and Sarah. In a broader sense, detached from mere biology, the promise means that something new is about to be born. Something with a life of its own. Something unexpected and even miraculous. It’s akin to the New Testament experience of resurrection. The trajectory of death gets interrupted, and in its place is a brand new life. The visitors receive the gift of hospitality from Abraham and Sarah, and they leave a gift.
This story begins in leisure, transitions into running and haste, finds rest and sustenance in tree shade, and moves through doubt of something new being possible, and ends, with laughter. The story is evenly split between focusing on Abraham and then Sarah, and half of the Sarah portion has to do with laughter. There’s the laugh itself, the question about why she laughed, the denial of the laugh, and the delightful ending out of the mouth of the visitor, confirming the laugh. In the words of the NRSV. “Oh yes you did laugh.”
The child to be born will be named Isaac, which is the Hebrew word for laughter, and so the heavy focus on laughter – No I didn’t, yes you did, no I didn’t, Oh yes you did – becomes a playful prelude to an impossible pregnancy that will give birth to “laughter.” Yes you will.
I wanted to pair this story with the reading of Luke’s beatitudes, and I’d forgotten that they also include laughter. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
Our and Edith’s experience of sanctuary so far has included both weeping and laughter. Edith was able to return home with a big smile on her face, but the immigration system is not as reliable as a promise from the Lord. It’s much more of the back and forth no you can’t, yes you can for now, no you can’t, and less of the timeline for wondrous fulfillment that Sarah is given.
And yet, “blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh.”
And blessed are those who like Abraham make haste to extend hospitality, for, like Sarah, they will give birth to new life. What that life will be we don’t yet know. It does appear to be already conceived and growing, a baby bump on the congregational body. And, as we celebrated three weeks ago, we are 55 years old, so miracles do still happen. But I better not endanger my wellbeing here by saying that those who are 55 qualify as being advanced in years.
As we enter a time of silent reflection, I invite you to do so with Rublev’s trinity painting in front of you. It is the visitors who are the Lord who appear, receiving and giving gifts. As you look at the image, allow yourself to move from one of the guests to the other, in that endless circle that the painter encourages through the postures. And as you enter that circle where there is only love, consider how you are being drawn into the Divine life. A life characterized by hospitality and generosity, a life where there those who weep are blessed. A life with room for laughter.
After the silence we will sing Caminamos en la luz de Dios, We are marching in the light of God. This is the song we sing to welcome newborn Isaacs into our congregation during child blessings. It’s the song we sang this past Monday evening to welcome a visitor into sanctuary in our building.