Last week after church, Doug Wall and I were talking about the beautiful 15th century icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, which places the Trinity in the context of the story from Genesis that you heard this morning, the visit of the three “men” to Abraham near the Oaks of Mamre. Rublev sees Abraham’s three divine visitors in this story as the Trinity, and a lot has been written about how the careful placement of the three figures is loaded with theological significance. The Father is on the left, looking toward the other two figures, whose faces are both turned toward the Father. The figure in the center is the Son, and there is Eucharistic imagery included. There is significance to the color of their robes, who is touching who, which way their feet are pointed…I have a very small reproduction of this icon in my home; I considered bringing it with me this morning to show you, but you wouldn’t be able to see the details from the pew. I encourage you to find a copy of it, or remind me to bring my icon in sometime so you can take a closer look.
The seating arrangement is intriguing, because they are not evenly spaced around the table. The fourth side is left open—looks a little like the way family dinners in TV shows always seem to have one seat open so that none of the actors has his or her back to the audience. But in the case of the icon, it’s done as an invitation to us. We are to take our place on the fourth side, to join in the community of the Trinity.
This is not going to be another Trinity sermon, I promise. But the timing of the conversation last week and that reading popping up this week was too coincidental to ignore. As I went to refresh my memory about that icon, I discovered that while its primary name is Troitsa, The Trinity, it is also referred to as “The Hospitality of Abraham.”
In those ancient days of sparse settlements in very large, inhospitable landscapes, there was nothing more important than welcoming the stranger, even if it meant putting your own family’s well-being in second place. Any person who was traveling in the desert and came upon an encampment could count on being welcomed, fed, refreshed and made to feel at home. There were cultural expectations placed on the visitor of course, they were not to harm the family there and they were not to overstay their welcome. The guidelines for hospitality were deeply-ingrained in the people of that time—and among many cultures still living in that part of the world today. We would think it odd or even dangerous to call out to a stranger on the street and invite them in, offer them food and water, allow them to wash and rest for as long as they needed, but in Biblical times, it would be odd NOT to do so. We see these rules at play in the stories of Abraham and his offspring throughout the book of Genesis.
We regularly misunderstand many of the stories of Genesis (as well as other parts of the Bible) because we live by a different rule now. Instead of greeting the stranger with hospitality, we more often greet the stranger with hostility. In Abraham’s time, to meet welcome with violence was the gravest of offenses. Over the next few weeks you will hear stories from Genesis which show what happens when a community fails to uphold a doctrine of hospitality to everyone. As you hear the story of Sodom and Gomorrah next week, remember that at the heart of it is a failure to show proper hospitality to the stranger; that is why they are condemned—because they have lost the basic understanding of how to treat one another.
Too often in our culture, the word “hospitality” is immediately followed by the word “industry.” We have reduced that sense of responsibility to the stranger to the business of hotels and restaurants. If we do expand it beyond that, we still tend to think of it as making a space in our homes for family or friend who come to visit us.
So I want to introduce you to the Greek word for hospitality. Philoxenia. Love of the stranger.
You are probably much more familiar with its opposite, xenophobia, fear of the stranger. It’s word that gets thrown around a lot in discussions about immigration, refugee resettlement programs, and such. Just once I’d like to hear that conversation include the word philoxenia, and see what happens.
Philoxenia, hospitality, is a Christian virtue as well, but it goes deeper than just making a space in our pews or our homes or our community. It is about making space in our hearts and minds for those who are different than us, with different viewpoints or different ways of doing things. It’s about praying for those we might not want to pray for, seeking the well-being of those we consider adversaries or even enemies. But on an even deeper level, it’s about keeping our eyes open for seeing how God may appear in our midst in the most unexpected people.
Abraham calls out to these three men and invites them to join him for a meal—not because he somehow recognizes these three as divine visitors, but because that’s what is required of him. Abraham made a place for them in his tent. But he also made a place for them in his heart and mind. He took in what they said about his wife Sarah having a child in a year, even though it was preposterous and impossible.
Through Abraham’s willingness to receive these visitors and their crazy ideas, God was able to create a people for God’s own self. That child was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that God would make him a great nation, one that would worship God in a new way and lead all people into the life God had planned for them before the beginning of time. Sarah laughed at the story, but Abraham believed it. And when that child was born they named him “Isaac,” which means, “laughter.”
Isn’t it wonderful to think that the people of God have their roots in “Laughter”? Perhaps, at the heart of hospitality, is the belief that despite our differences, there is always something we can take such delight in that we can sit and laugh together. There is something reconciling in such moments.
Today’s readings urge us to make room for the stranger—in our homes, in our churches, in our communities, but most importantly in our hearts and lives. You never know who you might be welcoming into your midst. You may suddenly discover that you are in that fourth seat, in the very presence of God, and receiving a far greater blessing than anything you could imagine.