June 18. 2017
Last year I was in a city called Hebron in Hebrew and Al-Khalil in Arabic, an ancient city in the West Bank that has been home to Jews and Muslims for generations.
As I was walking through the old city, near downtown, I saw a sign that said, “Mamre” pointing into the distance. A man selling dates noticed me looking at the sign. “The oaks of Mamre,” he explained to me, “where Abraham and Sarah met God.” I asked him if it was far and before I knew it, he was taking me to a taxi and telling the driver to drive me to Mamre, the site of the story we just heard from Genesis 18.
The taxi drove me to an industrial zone on the outskirts of the city, and dropped me off at a metal gate. I pressed the buzzer and waited. After a while a young man let me in, an orthodox monk. Dimitri. He walked me up the hill to the old chapel, where he lit candles so I could see the icons. He showed me his favorites. Then he took me down a path, and I saw them—the oaks of Mamre, two huge trees, their dead trunks winding toward one another. As we stared at the trees, I asked Dimitri how long he planned to live here, in the monastery, tending the church, offering his prayers, contemplating the icons. “If there is no war,” he said, “the rest of my life.”
His life is year after year of praying and waiting for visitors—a solitary life, made up of long hours of waiting. And that seems to be where we find Abraham and Sarah in the story—both of them waiting there by the oak trees, waiting for God knows what, and their waiting opens their lives to the surprise of God, a visitation from God.
“The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre,” the passage says, “as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three people standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.”
Abraham and Sarah are at their tent, sitting under the oak trees, shaded from the heat. When they see three strangers wandering nearby, Abraham runs out to them and bows his body to the ground, greeting them with reverence. He welcomes them to the tent, to rest in the shade—and he washes their feet, and Abraham and Sarah make them a small feast: calf stew and bread.
This bowing before a visitor, this reverence towards a stranger, reminds me of a passage from the Rule of St. Benedict, a book from the 6th century—a guidebook on how monks should conduct themselves in their community. “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,” it says, “for He is going to say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Matt 25:35)… Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons” (RB 53:1-2, 7).
These directions from St Benedict seem to remember our story from Genesis 18—as Abraham bows low, laying prostrate on the ground, an act of devotion, of reverence: a posture of welcoming the divine.
A month ago I visited a masjid in our community, a local mosque. The imam welcomed me and set a chair near the back wall of the large room. I watched the people stream in, filing into rows, all of them seated on the carpet, close to one another, as close as possible to make room for all the others. I saw a father lead his son to one of the rows, and they sat beside each other, with all the others, resting on their knees on the ground. The little boy was carrying a toy Tyrannosaurus Rex, which he set beside him, making a space for the dinosaur to pray. The boy leaned toward Tyrannosaurus and whispered, perhaps explaining the prayers to the dinosaur—when to kneel, when to sit, when to stand, when to lift hands to ears, when to whisper “Allahu akbar,” the words spoken at the beginning of their prayers.
Soon the imam’s song filled the room with the call to prayer, and the father and son and all the others in the room stood and bowed and kneeled in a synchronized movement of reverence—before one another and before God, waiting for a visitation of God, like Abraham waiting in the shade of the oaks of Mamre.
That’s what we do, as a church, when we worship. What we do here is an education in reverence — the way we listen, our patience with one another, our gentleness, our desire for honest words about God, for truthfulness about the world and our selves, being present, vulnerable, humble as if bowing down before God and one another, without defenses, without pretense, as we offer our gifts to God.
Worship is an education in reverence before God — a reverence that stays with us as we go, a reverence for the God who comes to us in human form, in someone we would never expect to be a friend of God. Hospitality is our worship—the way we open our spirits, the way we open our lives as we wait for a visitation from God.
I should tell you why I was at the mosque. I was sent by our Sunday school class, by the seven and eight year olds. Several months ago they made cards for our Muslim neighbors—because we were worried about the Islamophobia infecting our country. So I gave them paper and envelopes, crayons and markers. And they wrote notes, like this one: “I’m sorry,” one card said, “I’m sorry our president says mean things about you.” Another one had a big heart with three words inside, “We love you.”
I delivered those letters to the members of the mosque, after their prayers, presenting them on behalf of our Sunday school class. And they said to pass along their gratitude to our children—to say thank you for thinking of them, for welcoming them, for wanting to be their neighbors. It seemed like every person in the room came up to me afterwards, giving me hugs, shaking my hand, overwhelming me gratitude and warmth.
We are like Abraham and Sarah, seeking out strangers to welcome as neighbors. We are like the Russian orthodox monk, there by the oaks of Mamre, waiting year after year for visitors—occasions that might turn out to be visitations from God.