The story begins with the phrase: “The Lord appeared to Abraham.” But what is not clear is how the Lord appeared. The text says that Abraham saw three men standing near him. Three strangers wandering over to his tent in the heat of the day. Three travelers. But then when Abraham speaks the text says “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.” Then he proceeds to offer the strangers rest and refreshment. He welcomes them and extends hospitality urging them to stay for a while and be refreshed, which hospitality they accepted.
There is a lot of ambiguity here. Three men show up in front of his tent and in this encounter Abraham experiences God. Maybe so much is left out because when any of us experience God it is always a matter of faith. Such encounters are always ambiguous. Such encounters only make sense to the one who has the experience and can always be interpreted in other ways. Stories like this prepare us for the Christian teaching of incarnation where we meet God in flesh and blood, in human lives and experiences, just as Abraham meets God in the lives of these three men.
Thomas Merton had an experience that changed the way he looked at others. It was 1958 (the year of my birth). He had been in Louisville meeting with a publisher. Afterward, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, as he walked through the shipping district of the city, he was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that he loved everyone around him. In his words, he came to the realization “that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” He said that he saw the “secret beauty of their heart.” He wrote, “It was if they were all walking around shining like the sun.” That was his experience, and it had a profound transforming influence in his life.
The writer of the Gospel of John in his prologue says that the true light which shone so brightly in Jesus, the Word made flesh, is present in all of us. The Gospel writer says the true light is the light of all people and enlightens everyone. There was a window in time when the veil was lifted for Merton and he could see the light of God radiating from each person. Merton wrote, “If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty no more greed . . . I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
That last line of Merton’s is intriguing. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. In John 10 there is a passage that Richard Rohr suggests may be the most highly enlightened text in all the Bible. Jesus is being accused of blasphemy by the Jewish leaders because he claimed to speak and act on behalf of God and thus in their minds was making himself equal with God. In rebuttal Jesus quoted the Psalmist in Psalm 82. In that Psalm the Psalmist hears God say to God’s people: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan (notice – not just show them mercy, rather, give them justice. Fix the system) maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” But someone might say, “By what authority do we do these acts of justice?” The Psalmist writes “I say, ‘You are gods.’” Who are gods? The Psalmist says, “You children of the Most High, all of you.” The Psalmist then clarifies: Even though you will die like mortals, you are nevertheless gods. We have the authority to represent God in doing mercy and contending for justice.
Lest we think the Psalmist has lost his marbles Jesus quotes this very Psalm in John 10. To the Jews who were accusing him of blasphemy because he claimed to speak and act for God Jesus says, “Your own scripture says that all children of God are gods. So how is it that you accuse me of blasphemy simply because I claim to speak and act on behalf of God as God’s Son?” Let that sink in for a minute. Yes, we are mortal, but we bear the image of God. The light of God dwells in us. So yes indeed, we can speak and act on behalf of God who seeks justice for all people and calls us to be his representatives and agents to enact justice and do mercy.
Abraham seems to be aware of the Light, the Divine Presence in the three strangers. It’s quite fascinating how the storywriter describes the actions of Abraham. Abraham “hastened” into the tent. He told Sarah to prepare some bread cakes “quickly.” He then “ran,” not walked, but ran to the herd to find a calf, not just any calf but one “tender and good.” (Reminds me of the father in Luke 15.) He took the calf to his servant who “hastened” to prepare it. This is the language of urgency. It’s as if Abraham knows instinctively or intuitively the sacredness and fullness and momentousness of this experience. So everything is done with haste, with a sense of urgency, as if he knows this is a window of time for a revelatory encounter with God.
When was the last time you felt such an urgency of the moment as if a window in space and time had opened up for you to experience some new revelation from God? Or maybe you have never had such an experience. Abraham was awake to the moment. He was not going to allow this moment, this experience to pass by. That’s the expression he uses in the text: “My lord, if I have found favor with you (if I have truly met a God of grace), do not pass by your servant.” He seized the moment. He redeemed the time. He laid hold of what was before him. This was a time to act, and he sensed that it would be through an act of hospitality and welcome that he would encounter God. (And that is a theme that runs through scripture. We especially see it in the life of Jesus.)
Are we open and awake to such experiences? Do we live with any sort of expectation that we might have a life transforming encounter with God today? And I wonder how many windows have opened in time that we have failed to even notice? I wonder how many burning bushes we have never turned aside to see? Many of us tend to spiritually sleep our way through life. No wonder the biblical writers tell us to “Wake up” and pay attention. Paul or whoever wrote Ephesians said, “Sleeper, awake. Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” I wonder how many possible resurrections in our lives we’ve missed because we were asleep?
I love to tell the story of the monk who was away from the monastery on a pilgrimage. He was making his way through some wilderness and could see in the distance a huge, mammoth tiger. He could tell the tiger had his eyes on him as prey. So he picked up his pace and went he did the tiger made its move. A little ways in front of him was a steep cliff. He ran to the cliff, pulled out his rope and tied one end to a stump close to the cliff, and then managed to leap over the side just as one of the vicious paws of the tiger swept pat his face. His rope was not very long, so he found himself dangling about one third of the way down. At the basin of the cliff were large boulders and jagged rocks. As he hung there he managed to get his feet lodged into the side while he tied the rope around him. Then immediately in front of him he noticed growing out of a little dirt patch on the side of the cliff the largest most luscious strawberry he had ever seen. He reached out and touched it. He then plucked it from the vine. He turned it around in his hands. He brought it up to his nose. He took in the sweet aroma. And then he bit into it savoring the bite. He then said to himself, “Without question this is the most delicious piece of fruit I have ever tasted.”
Now, how many of us would have missed that moment. We allow our fears and worries and insecurities to so get to us that we tend to miss these revelatory moments in our lives that might just make all the difference in the world.
Maybe Abraham’s actions hold the key to opening our hearts to receive God’s word to us. Abraham acts in love. He bestows welcome and hospitality. He gives them rest and nourishment and refreshment. He cares for them. He acts in mercy and grace. If we will be quick to respond in mercy and grace to those who need our hospitality and welcome perhaps then we will be ready to receive a word from God. Then, we too, like Merton, might see the light within every child of God. We might know that we all belong. We might just see how great and inclusive God’s love really is.
Love is at the heart of who God is and what God is about. For us Christians Jesus’ death has redemptive power in our lives. The reason it has redemptive power in our lives is because we see Jesus’ death as Paul describes in his letter to the Romans as a revelation of God’s love for all of us. This is not love we have earned, but love we are freely given simply because God loves us. Because Christ was committed to God’s cause and lived for God’s kingdom on earth, because he acted on behalf of the needy and powerless, because he did works of mercy and justice, because he broke down boundaries and crossed lines of separation, the wrath and violence of the powers that be was poured out on him. Nevertheless, he bore their wrath without returning it and thus revealed to all who have eyes to see the all-inclusive, all-embracing, magnanimous love of God.
If we will walk in love as Christ has loved us, if we will engage in acts of mercy and justice, if we will welcome and show hospitality to the stranger, then our hearts will be open to receive God’s word, to see God’s light, and to hear God’s voice. By the way, we can’t just show hospitality to the neighbor down the street and then support policies that turn away helpless refugees who need hospitality and welcome from our country. I can’t imagine how God would approve of that can you?
It is Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality and welcome that paves the way for the revelatory word that catches them both by surprise. One of the guests says to Abraham, “Your wife is going to have a son.” Sarah was listening at the tent entrance and found this quite amusing. Sarah and Abraham are really old folks and Sarah says, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” She is saying, “We have no potency and no competency in what it takes to make a baby. Look at us for heaven’s sake.”
The Lord asks Abraham why Sarah laughs. (We assume that God is speaking through these three strangers.) I don’t read this as a rebuke. I read this interchange in a playful kind of way. This is holy laughter and sacred surprise. In chapter 21 when their son is born Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” I think God loves our laughter. Especially when we can laugh at our humanity. I have a saying on my desk, “Laugh often and much.” Then this wonderful question is posed, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord.”
When was the last time God surprised you? If you say you can’t remember, then I would ask, “Why not?” Maybe we have forgotten how precious life is. Brother David Steindl-Rast tells about visiting in Africa a place that had been through the horrors of war. In his visit he came across groups of children gathering on busy street corners after dark, setting up small alters to pray. The children were completely undisturbed by the hustle and bustle of adults all around them. Steindl-Rast was told that children started this custom during the bloodiest weeks of the war. One generation of children had handed it on to the next generation for more than a decade. He says it dawned on him that “only a heart familiar with death will appreciate the gift of life with so deep a feeling of joy.” We should do whatever it takes to nurture in our minds and hearts an awareness of just how precious life is.
Mary Oliver is an award winning poet. She offers I think a beautiful formula for living with surprise, laughter, and gratitude. She says: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: To love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it, and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
Can you love what is mortal? Can you see the light of God within what is mortal? Can you see the stranger as your brother, as your sister? Can you welcome them and make them feel at home? Can you offer them hospitality and refreshment? Can you accept them as your own? We all belong. We are all one. If we could just see the light in the stranger.
Can you hold on to them with the love of Christ? Can you hold on to the hope of God’s kingdom? Of a world of mutuality and equality, of mercy and justice. This is a real challenge today isn’t it? When we see people in power abuse it over and over. Can we hold on to God’s dream of a world where everyone has enough to thrive, not just survive, when we see how the system is rigged so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Can you hold on to love, to peace, to faith and hope?
And when the time comes to let go, can you let go?
Our good and gracious God, let us wake up to the light in all of us, and wake up to the grace and goodness all around us. Let us wake up to your love so that we might be channels through which your love can flow to others. Let us not give up on doing good, doing acts of mercy and justice. Let us forgive and seek forgiveness for wrongs done. So that we might live fully, so that we might know laughter and surprise, and be filled with gratitude for all the wonders of this life.