Trinity and Hospitality

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 18 May 2008

A reading for Trinity Sunday:

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. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, 'My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on - since you have come to your servant.' So they said, 'Do as you have said.' And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, 'Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.' Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, 'Where is your wife Sarah?' And he said, 'There, in the tent.' Then one said, 'I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.' And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 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?' The Lord said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh, and say 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.' But Sarah denied, saying, ' I did not laugh'; for she was afraid. He said, 'Oh, yes you did laugh.' Then the men set out from there, and they looked towards Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way... 

Genesis 18:1-16 (NRSV)


Have you ever considered just how weird this passage is? God appeared to Abraham, but not in a vision, or a voice from a cloud. The Lord turns up as three men, who are just suddenly 'there', standing outside Abraham's tent in the middle of the day. Abraham clearly recognises them as people important to serve...not only does he go running out to them, and insist on them staying to be refreshed, he does much more than he says he will in providing for them. Is that because they seemed wealthy? Or supernatural? Or Angelic? Or God-like? Or is Abraham's hospitality simply this good to everyone who passes by his tent? The visitors stick around long enough for bread to be baked, a calf to be cooked, and to eat the same. Do you remember how Jesus eats a piece of fish after his resurrection, in order to show the disciples that he's not a ghost or a vision? Well these three visitors manage to down an entire meal...suggesting physical humanness. They have to be told that Sarah is in the tent - again, a limited human perception - but they somehow know that she's been laughing to herself even when she denies it - special angel powers? They seem to talk in unison, referred to as 'they', except the one who plans to 'return' and see to it that Sarah gets pregnant. The speaker there is an individual - 'then one said, 'I will surely return...' Which one is he? And is he still the Lord when he's acting on his own? And who, really, is the father of Sarah's this a prototype of the Joseph and Mary situation?

Some people say these three visitors are actually 'messenger angels'. In what way are the angels representative of God? Are they in fact real human people on a mission from God? How is God contained within them? It's all very mysterious.

This passage is about as confusing as discussions about the nature of God as Trinity - three persons in one. So it's no wonder that this incident has actually made its way into the Christian tradition as some kind of early rendering of the Trinitarian God. Remember that the Trinity is not a named concept in the Bible, and it's a Christian, rather than a Jewish idea. The theological speculations that gave rise to the Trinity doctrine are pretty abstract and involve lots of long Greek words. This story by contrast is very down to earth, very physical. God turns up to visit with Abraham. Three men turn up to visit with Abraham. God turns up to visit Abraham in human form, as three strangers who act in unison.

Maybe the dynamics at play here are meant to show us that God isn't some separate supernatural being sitting out in space, occasionally putting a finger into the world to shift things around like pieces on a chess board. If this passage is anything to go by, maybe when God interacts with human affairs, it's more like this story - God is present in several persons, engaging with Abraham as participants in his life, responsive to Abraham's choices, but still with influence to effect certain outcomes. I don't know. I'm speculating. This isn't the main point I want to draw from this passage this morning.


Andrei Rublev wrote/painted this icon of the Trinity, tying together Christian symbolism of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with the oak tree and the building that represent Abraham's dwelling at Mamre. Abraham's table has become the altar of the Godhead, with the chalice of shared sacrifice and communion. The most remarkable thing about this icon is that we, the viewer, are included in the dynamic between the three figures. They make room for us. Their positions open up a fourth space at the table, which is ours, to come and drink from the cup of God's hospitality, and join the circle of adoration that the three figures form.

One of the key features of the Genesis story is the hospitality of Abraham to the strangers. Rublev picks up on this hospitality theme and locates it not so much in Abraham, but in the posture of God. And in this way, Rublev's icon explains why those of us who claim to be connected with God, ought also to be connected with others through hospitality. We are hospitable, because God is hospitable. We find our freedom to serve others in what God is like, and who we are in relation to God.

Abraham sees three strangers in the desert in the heat of the day and insists that they take shade and water and stay for a meal with him. By the time he sends them on their way, they have given him and Sarah the promise of descendants...a promise that leads to the formation of the people of Israel. In this interchange, we can see that hospitality isn't a one way street. As the writer of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament comments - 'Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.' While hospitality ought never to be offered for cynical reasons - 'I'm doing this for what I might get out of it' - what those who practice hospitality discover is that their own lives are enriched even by those who seem to have nothing to offer. Especially those who seem to have nothing to offer.

At this point, I'd like to point out that hospitality as I mean it here doesn't have too much to do with having your friends over for dinner. The hospitality of Abraham, and that mentioned in the book of Hebrews is hospitality to the stranger. Also, hospitality doesn't necessarily mean having people come to your house (although it might.) And it doesn't have to involve food, (although it might.) Hospitality is a practice of the heart first and foremost - a willingness to be open to the stranger...even one who seems like a total alien, or who offends us in some way.

The practice of hospitality is a spiritual practice, because participating in it is - in a mysterious way - participation in God. How does this work? Part of what the Trinity doctrine does for us is helps us to understand that there is inter-dependence at the heart of God. Wherever and whatever and whoever God is, relationship is there at the core. A relationship of self-emptying, self-giving love, of pouring out and openly receiving. In becoming human, God invited us into the midst of this circle of relationship. God became like us so that we could become like God. We become inter-dependent with God as we are loved by God and love in return.

The more we relate to God, and commune with God, the more we fan into flame the spark of God that we each carry within us. This increases the fullness of God's presence in the world. Thomas Merton wrote: 'At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion...a point or spark which belongs entirely to God...This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us...It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and the blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.' (Quoted in Bourgeault, Centering Prayer...)

It's not quite enough to come to see God as dwelling within myself. I also need to learn to see God as equally indwelling all other people. This is the beginning of hospitality. Q: What is that person over there? A: Someone who bears the divine image. And therefore someone who brings a dimension of God to me, and to this world.

Merton also wrote: It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God...gloried in becoming a member of the human race!...There is no way of telling people that they all walking around shining like the sun...There are no strangers!...If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed...' (Quoted in Chittister, A Passion for Life)

If I open my heart, and my door, and my concern to the other, I am opening my heart, and my door, and my concern, to God. And what if the other is crusty, smelly, annoying, rude or suffering? Then in them, God is bearing the crust, the smell, the annoyance, the rudeness and the suffering. Christ says: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was a stranger, I was sick and in prison. What did you do for me? You did not know it was me, you just saw a hungry, thirsty, naked, strange, sick and captive person. But it was me, Jesus, the presence of God in the world.

This is the meaning of incarnation. If Christ was willing to bear it, who are we to refuse it?

But we do refuse it, all the time. It's a feature of our modern lives that we are passionate seekers...not of God, but of ease and comfort. We are busy. We feel tired. We lack energy. Our personal resources are scarce. So in our tiredness and our lack of energy we feel we only have room in our hearts and our lives for people like us...and then only a few, and only under strict conditions that don't demand too much from us.

We're also afraid. Some of us fear being physically hurt, or affronted in some way. Most of us, though, fear being taken advantage of, being challenged or changed, being emotionally hurt. We fear having our lives disrupted. We fear damage to our possessions and our peace of mind. Or we fear being bored, of being expected to waste our time and emotional resources engaging with the slightly monotonous guy at the party, when we could be talking to people who more readily stimulate us. All this fear leads to a failure of hospitality, and therefore a rejection of God.

The NZ public are great 'nimby'-ers: people who say 'Not In My Back Yard' about any initiative that presses on one of the fears I've just mentioned. Housing for the poor? Jolly good idea. A shelter for the homeless? I'll make a donation. A school for delinquents and gangster teenagers? How wonderful that someone's doing something. A centre for refugees and migrants? It's important that they're helped to integrate. WHERE DID YOU SAY? In my street? Next to my child's kindergarten? In my church? Heaven forbid. My life might change. I suddenly feel a little bit more unsafe. Difference, possibly harmful difference, is about to encroach on my comfortable zone. And out come the letters to the editor, and the lobbying at the public meeting, and the petition. Because while we want to be liberal minded and we want our government or our culture to make a humane response to issues of refugees and migrants, mental illness, homelessness, and delinquency, we don't want that response to touch on our lives in any way.

The hospitality of God, and the hospitality of Abraham is anything but 'nimby.' God saw our need and came right into the midst of our struggle. Abraham saw some strangers in the desert in the heat of the day and went running to offer them food and shelter. Hospitality says - yes please, my back yard is just the place for the stranger - even the difficult stranger - and I will go out to greet them, with an open heart. Hospitality says - who lacks daily bread? How can I give them some?

Hospitality says, who feels neglected, rejected, lonely, or confused? How can I give them welcome and safety? Hospitality says, who offends me? How can I be open to their humanity, not in theory, but in the practice of interaction and vulnerability?

The dangers are real. Boundaries are important. Sustainability is important. Staying safe from people who want to harm us is a good thing. But I think, mostly, we hide behind concerns about danger, and boundaries and sustainability because in reality we either don't know what to do or we feel scared to do it. And, because we don't quite trust God or ourselves to provide what we need in the situation.

I confess, I don't know how to put this kind of hospitality into practice. I can see why it's important, and I've just expressed some ideas about who I think needs my hospitality in my current social world. But what, actually, is the best thing to do? In the face of so much need, and so much otherness and alienation, and so much suffering, what is a meaningful or compassionate action on my part, that's not just a few more dollars in a collection envelope? I don't know.

The only thing I know how to do at the moment is to ask God to create in me a hospitable heart, and to help me to learn to practice more openness and generosity to those people I already come in contact with day by day. To ask God to help me see those glistening points of light, which is the presence of God in the midst of every 'other.' To learn to be slightly less busy so I have time to stop and greet others, to hear their stories, to see what needs to be noticed in a situation. And to learn to create a semi-permeable membrane out of the walls of my house - not to live without walls, but not to use my walls to keep the world at bay either.

And then, if God, or some angels, want to turn up in the guise of strangers who need my hospitality, I hope I will be practised enough to offer it, and to receive their blessing in return.