Sermon given by C. Andrew Doyle at Trinity, Galveston. Listen here.
No matter who you are, where you have been, or where you are going…traveling in the wilderness is dangerous…it can be difficult, even painful… the best of times are short lived and the worst of times will bring you to the edge.
It is doubly so if you go it alone.
In point of fact, while many do, walking our broken road alone is not how we work.
We are made to be in community. We are wired, we are created, naturally so, to be in community with people. We are created to be in community with the other - with human others and with God who is other. God has made us so.
There is a story in the bible that illustrates this well. You can find it early on, in the book of Genesis, chapter 18.
By the oaks of Mamre Abraham has pitched his tent. He is resting. God speaks to Abraham. Abraham sees three men. Abraham invites the men to stay and offers them hospitality. God continues to speak to God and the men. In the tangle of verb tenses what we see is that God is present and Abraham is serving his visitors a feast of lamb.
The great Hassidic wisdom teacher Degel Machaneh Ephraim said of this roadside community of God and man, “When Abraham first saw his visitors they were ‘standing above him’. They were angels; he was a human being. When he served them with food and drink, however, he “stood above them”. Kindness to strangers lifts us higher even than the angels.
Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of England, reflected that this expresses, “one of [the Jewish community’s] most majestic ideas. There is G-d as we meet Him in a vision, an epiphany, a mystical encounter in the depths of the soul. But there is also G-d as we see His trace in another person, even a stranger, a passer-by; in Abraham’s case, three travelers in the heat of the day. Someone else might have given them no further thought, but Abraham ran to meet them and bring them rest, shelter, food and drink. Greater is the person who sees G-d in the face of a stranger than one who sees G-d as G-d in a vision of transcendence, for the Jewish task since the days of Abraham is not to ascend to heaven but to bring heaven down to earth in simple deeds of kindness and hospitality.[i]
One of the greatest icon painters Andrei Rublev, a 15thcentury monk, wrote an icon, painted an icon, on this very story. It is called the “Visitation of Abraham.” It portrays the three men, three angels, the trinity, with authoritative staffs and ethereal garments.
The father is on the left, his tunic reflects the light. He is the creator. He raises his right hand to bless the person to his left. His head is lifted high.
That is the son in the middle and God appears pleased with him. He will set a table before all people. He wears blue with reddish purple of his priesthood. His hand blesses the lamb for he is the shepherd, he is the lamb. His eyes are gazing towards the father.
The Spirit is on the right. He wears a cloak of green, of life. He gazes at both.
They sit at a table with the lamb feast before them. There is an open space for pilgrim brother Abraham and pilgrim sister Sarah. There is space there for you. There is space there for me.
Abraham at once serves and is invited to sit. He is, as we are, welcome to join in the intimate conversation.
We are made to be in community. We are wired, naturally so, created, to be in community with people.
Henri Nouwen, was a Dutch Roman Catholic priest, professor and theologian. After teaching at Yale, Harvard, and Notre Dame he would walk away and spend the rest of his life living with individuals who had intellectual and developmental disabilities at the L'Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
Nouwen wrote a mediation on the icon the Visitation of Abraham, he wrote, “We come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle…”[ii]
I wonder when Nicodemus comes to sit with Jesus what is he up to? In the dark night of one’s soul does he come to invite Jesus to bless his goodness, his spiritual score keeping, his piety, his actions, his just work for the poor, his right living? What does he come in the dark to invite Jesus to curse? Another, someone who was unjust to him perhaps? Jesus does not give him any of those things.
Or does he come because he is tired, hungry for a good word, afraid, looking for a bit of light, a bit of spirit?
In other words, did Nicodemus simply come to the table? Because he needed to enjoy, to rest, to be refreshed by sitting at the table with God? He needed some of Abraham’s hospitality?
A table of faith set down before us, from before time, to sit and rest for a while.
You see there is deep theology here. God is not at work patching up creation here and there. God as Trinity, as incarnation, as spirit is not mucking about in creation because of sin. (The Franciscan and Scottish theologians taught us that back in the middle ages.) God is in fact from whom…and through whom…all things are made. The very fabric of our lives is God’s table. And, God sits there with us.
When the table is set a plenty and when it has crumbs.
We are not meant to be isolated individual objects bumping around the cosmos. We are not to be placed in categories, removed from our contexts. We are not oddities for scientists to study as if we were found uniquely on an island home.
That is truly what today is about…. baptisms and all the rest of it.
It is about remembering that no matter who we are, where we have been, or where we are going…traveling in the wilderness can be dangerous…it may be difficult, or even painful…
And, that the traveling is a lot better when we do it together.
We are made to be in community we baptize into community and we confirm and receive…reminding ourselves that we are already made members at God’s family table. And, there is a seat for all of us here…always.
After all, is this not the God who says, “Come unto me all you who travail and are heavy laden and I will give you rest”?
We as a particular kind of table fellowship exist to support one another, to care for one another, and to love one another. We exist to serve those who find us in here. And, we exist to go out into the world to set up a table there too. Like Abraham at the oak, by the side of the road, to make a place where a passerby might rest for a while and sit with God for a spell. Where the hungry may be fed good things…the hurting may find healing….and, the shackled might be released.
We are wired, naturally to see angels and humans as the same. And, to entertain both at God’s table. When we do this, we do it for God. The gospel tells us so.
We are created to be in community with others. With human others and with God who is other. God has made us so.