Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Second Sunday of Lent 2016
Start Date 21st Feb 2016 10:00am

The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

On 11th December 1979, Mother Teresa, the 'Saint of the Gutters', went to Oslo. Dressed in her blue-bordered sari and shod in sandals despite below-zero temperatures, the former Agnes Bojaxhiu received that ultimate worldly accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance lecture, Teresa, whose Missionaries of Charity had grown from a one-woman folly in Calcutta in 1948 into a global beacon of self-denying care, delivered the kind of message the world had come to expect from her. 'It is not enough for us to say, "I love God, but I do not love my neighbour,"' she said, since in dying on the Cross, God had '[made] himself the hungry one—the naked one—the homeless one'. Jesus's hunger, she said, is what 'you and I must find' and alleviate.

Yet less than three months earlier, in a letter to her spiritual confidant, Michael van der Peet, made public after her death, she wrote with weary familiarity of a different Christ, an absent one. 'Jesus has a very special love for you', she assured Van der Peet. '[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see—listen and do not hear—the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak … I want you to pray for me—that I let him have [a] free hand.' Extraordinary as it may seem, her private correspondence revealed a person to whom God had been hidden for over fifty years, revealed 'neither in the heart nor in the Eucharist'.

So, how does God 'show up' in your life? One experience, which would put you in good company with Mother Teresa and many other faithful Christians, would be that he doesn't. For many of us, the glimpses are occasional or fleeting at best; passing insights, whispers of the Divine.

But as part of a series of sermons I am giving this month on Abraham the Patriarch, following Meg Warner's 'Abraham: a journey through Lent', the narrative we heard from Genesis 18 about gives an entirely different insight into how 'God shows up', not least because for the first half of the Chapter Abraham and Sarah do not recognise who their guests are, and when their hospitality is reciprocated in the offer of a generous gift, the two of them fall about in ridicule and laughter. So in this third sermon of the series, following addresses which have looked at the Call of Abraham and the Promise made to him [both available on the Abbey website], today we hear about the Visitors who came to him at the Oak of Mamre.

Let's look a little closer.

At one level, the story is a classic Middle Eastern hospitality narrative:

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.

The code of hospitality was immensely important then as now: on the one hand, having been a traveller himself, it was essential that travellers, for whom there were no supermarkets or inns in the desert, could have access to the necessities of life. But this hospitality had another intention: it prevented a traveller who was tired and hungry, perhaps at the end of their tether, from stealing; it made an ally of them by putting them in the host's debt and stopped them from posing a danger. In other words, this was enlightened self-interest.

In exchange, the traveller was honour-bound to offer a gift back, to repay the hospitality, not I like-for-like but out of respect. In token. It wasn't the case that Abraham and Sarah would be hospitable in order to gain a gift in return, but nonetheless it was to be expected.

And of course, in their case the gift was truly unexpected. The gift was to be their own child, Isaac.

Wind back a few chapters and we recall that Abraham had been promised that through him the nations would be blessed, he would be the father of many nations, but Abraham and Sarah remained childless. In their desperation, they look for the possibility of surrogacy and turn to Hagar, their Egyptian slave. This ends badly and Hagar uses her new-found status to belittle Sarah, and she is driven out together with her son, Ishmael.

As well as hospitality, the story is also about divine revelation. Understandably, for many in the Christian tradition, the inclusion of three visitors but reference to 'The Lord' in the singular has prompted from early days the idea that this was a revelation of the Divine Trinity. The Russian iconographer Anton Rublev working in the fifteenth century transforms this scene into one of Eucharistic hospitality in which the members of the Trinity are seated on three sides of the table, inviting us, the viewer, in on the fourth.

Certainly, the idea of gradual divine revelation was well-known in the ancient world, of meeting God in a complete stranger and not realising until later. Hebrews 13: 2 reminds us:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

So what might Abraham and Sarah's encounter with their visitors at Mamre be able to tell us about our own encounter with God?

Firstly, that what they did in offering hospitality was entirely conventional and expected. They pitched their tent at a religious site—the Oaks of Mamre—and they offered hospitality in the way that they had received many times on their own journey from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran in Turkey, and from there to Shechem.

It was in that very ordinary, entirely expected act that the moment of revelation came. And note: it did not come in a Damascus Road-like experience. The text itself never reveals the precise moment. Rather it was a gradual dawning.

But secondly, as we saw in the first of this series when we looked at the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, the gift they received was unbelievable, quite beyond the bounds of their ability to credit, but was what they had themselves being striving for for so many years. They had known the pain of childlessness, they had taken the initiative in surrogacy, they had assumed this could never happen. And then the most extraordinary thing did happen, and they fell about laughing.

And that perhaps leaves us with the third conundrum of this precious text. Many, if not most, of us will have lived for years with unanswered prayers, unrequited longings which we have laid faithfully before God. Abraham and Sarah were answered, but most are not.

Perhaps in that regard the example of Mother Teresa, who knew nothing of the presence of God for fifty years yet continued her tireless work, is a both comfort and a challenge.

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