Sermon for New Song Episcopal Church in Iowa on June 14, 2020:
I know it’s practically heresy to say this as an Episcopalian, but I’m sometimes envious of those churches that have projection screens in their sanctuaries. You know the kind—those big screens where the songs are written out and a little bouncing ball shows you what words to sing.
Well, I’m actually not a fan of those bouncing balls, but I do love having images to accompany our worship. It’s been a silver lining of the pandemic to have beautiful works of art to start our Zoom services. Each week they’re chosen by the liturgy team from a set of images suggested by Christine, who is herself an artist.
So this week I’m going to base my sermon around a work of art: a Russian icon of The Holy Trinity. Before Linda puts it up on the screen, though, I want to give you a little background on icons, which can seem a little strange and off-putting, as you may have noticed from the one that began our worship this morning.
In the Orthodox Church, icons are not mere paintings, but actual windows into heaven. That’s where our term “computer icon” comes from, in fact. When we click on a computer icon, it leads to something else. That’s true for religious icons as well.
In Orthodox churches, icons fill the sanctuary with a blaze of colors—deep reds and blues and greens, all accented by shimmering gold. Here in Iowa City, you can visit St. Raphael Orthodox Church to see some beautiful examples of icons. Each of these works of art is created, or written, as the correct terminology has it, through a set of rules handed down through the millennia. Both the act of creation, and the act of meditating upon them, are considered holy acts. It’s believed that icons hover between two worlds, expressing things that cannot be understood only with the intellect.
I’ve come to love icons, in part because of their strangeness and mystery. They require us to look deeply into them, to get beyond the surface image. On my home altar I have three icons, including one of the Holy Trinity. Its meaning relates to the first lesson for today, which I’ll read now. It’s from the eighteenth chapter of Genesis:
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 favor 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.”
Here’s the icon based on this story:
I’m sorry that this picture doesn’t do the icon justice—the original icon glimmers with gold and has an almost other-worldly quality about it. But even in a reproduction, it’s still a powerful image, one that’s considered one of the crowning glories of Russian art.
This icon was created in the fifteenth century by a Russian monk named Rublev to illustrate the theological doctrine of the Trinity. To do so, he uses the story from Genesis in which three men—who are later revealed as divine messengers—visit Abraham and Sarah.
For Rublev, these divine messengers become a symbol for the three-part nature of God and a way to visually express the doctrine of the Trinity. This image has captivated countless believers through the centuries, because the more you meditate on the icon, the more layers of meaning you can see.
Look at how these figures, though wearing clothing of different colors, are identical. Their eyes are joined in loving communion, and through the composition of the image a circle is formed, a universal symbol of eternity and perfection. In the upper left is an open door, symbolizing the church that is open to all. On the altar sits a cup representing the Eucharist. The tree in the background is the tree from the story of Abraham and Sarah, but it also hints of the tree that became the cross.
It’s said that the figure on the left represents God the Father. He is the only one of the figures to sit upright, and the other two bow in deference to him. His robe is a blend of several colors, because the divine is multi-faceted.
In the middle is God the Son. He wears a red garment and a blue cloak, which reflects his blending of human and divine natures.
And on the right is God the Spirit. His garment is clear blue like the sky and water, and he wears a robe of spring green. That’s because the Holy Spirit moves through sky and water and earth, breathing life into all of creation.
And while I’ve referred to each of these figures as male, they also have an androgynous quality about them, as if they are both male and female.
Notice, too, that a sense of connection flows between them. The Father points to the Son, who points to the Spirit, who points to the Father, thus completing the circle.
It’s curious that these divine figures have staffs. Some theologians have said it’s because they are always ready to walk with us on earth, rather than remaining in heaven. Instead of flying with wings, they walk with us who are limited by our weak human bodies. Because of this they have learned what it is like to be be tired and weak and in need of rest.
Richard Rohr is one of the many people who have reflected deeply on this icon. He sees it as the perfect embodiment of what he calls the Divine Dance of the Trinity. And he points out a small detail in the icon that I had missed in all my years of contemplating it.
In his book The Divine Dance Rohr writes: “At the front of the table there appears to be a little rectangular hole. Most people pass right over it, but some art historians believe the remaining glue on the original icon indicates that there was perhaps once a mirror glued to the front of the table. It’s stunning when you think about it—there was room at this table for a fourth [figure].
Yes, you—and all of creation—are invited to sit at the divine table.”
Ever since I read Rohr’s book, I often think about that idea when I’m sitting in the window alcove where I do morning prayer. I’ve got my cup of coffee, and outside it’s still dark—or at least it is on most days, because I’m an early riser. And I think of starting the day at this divine table, conversing with these luminous beings.
Especially during these past months when it’s often seemed as if the world is spinning out of control, I’ve come to treasure that time of quiet and serenity, trying to soak up the peacefulness of the icon before returning to the ordinary world again.
And reading the story of the divine messengers visiting Abraham and Sarah makes me recall, too, the glorious absurdity of their promise to Sarah, that she will have a son even though she is in advanced age. It’s so ridiculous that she laughs at their words. But they are right, of course, which is a reminder that when God promises you something, you’d do well to believe it, even though it seems very unlikely.
Right now, we would do well to remember that God has promised us that love will win in the end, and that justice will prevail, and that when we feel most alone is when God is most present, waiting for us to notice him. Sometimes he comes in the form of strangers seeking hospitality. Sometimes he comes in the form of disciples saying that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, as we heard in the Gospel lesson for today. And sometimes he comes in the form of beautiful art created centuries ago that still speaks directly to our hearts.
And remember the question asked by one of the divine messengers in the Genesis story: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” To this we must answer, no, there is nothing too wonderful for the Lord, and for this we give thanks.