There’s a famous icon from the 15th century by the Russian Orthodox monk Andrei Rublev. It’s more colloquially known as an icon of the Trinity, but it’s also known as an icon of the Hospitality of Abraham — the story we read just a moment ago. It’s an image of 3 figures – angels, you might say – seated around a table. The oak trees of Mamre are in the background, as is Abraham’s house. And if you look carefully, these 3 figures form a continuous circle. Each angel is positioned in such a way that they’re oriented toward the other two – head leaning toward one, feet and hands pointing toward the other. They are color-coordinated, with elements of blue in each of their robes.
The three angels are so close to identical, and they are positioned with such a mutuality, an equality, depicted that makes it impossible to say which one is the father, which is the son, which is the spirit. There is no hierarchy in this Trinity.
It’s an image of the Trinity we don’t get too often in the West. We might not realize it, but every time we say Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we use words that have an implicit hierarchical relationship dynamic. If this were one of those family stick figure bumper stickers on the back of a car, you’d have a clear image of three figures of descending height: Dad, Junior, and the family pet, Spooky. Each one has more authority than the next. Father, of course, is the head of the family. He’s the adult in the room. Son, well, he’s just the kid, needing Father’s guidance. And Spirit just runs around being cute, and even though it’s Son’s responsibility to feed her and let her out, Father always ends up doing it because Son is still, after all, just a kid, learning about responsibility.
I know I’m dancing close to the edge here on the silliness level, but I want to paint the picture that our words subconsciously write onto our inner spiritual canvas. How we speak about God matters. And how we conceive of God matters. Because God has some authority in our lives… and the way we understand God directly impacts the way we interact with and understand the world.
And we belong to a faith that gave us a God of mutuality, compassion, and equality… but our tradition has often given us a God of hierarchy, dominance, and judgment.
My friends – there is no freedom in that.
The mere fact that people throughout the centuries have studied the Rublev Trinity icon and attempted to explain which one is the Father, which one is the Son, and which one is the Spirit reminds us that we are shackled by our need to define, categorize, put things neatly into systems. Know who is at the head, and the foot – who is at the top, and who is at the bottom.
There is no freedom in that.
This weekend we celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday of freedom and the deliverance of good news. It hits the ears a bit differently today to hear a gospel about sending laborers out into the harvest, when we celebrate the freedom that brought enslaved people in from the fields and out of the hot sun and finally to a place of rest and refreshment and jubilation.
Some of you had ancestors who were enslaved and forced to be in the fields yielding harvests of cotton and sugarcane… and some of you have learned that your ancestors were the enslavers and forced the people they thought to be nothing more than property to be out gathering the harvest for them.
Spiritual leaders of the Episcopal Church defended the practice of slavery. Bishop John Henry Hopkins, who became the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 1865, gave a horrific defense of it, saying that slavery was “fully authorized both in the Old and the New Testament.” Servants of our Trinitarian God in the highest ranks of the church could only see people in terms of hierarchy and dominance – who’s on top, and who’s on bottom.
There is no freedom in that.
As long as we talk about God in terms of some sort of ladder, we remained shackled to zero-sum systems of conquest… and we will live out our humanity in the same way.
But Jesus shows us a different way.
Before the commissioning of the 12 disciples, before Jesus sends them out to “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons,” he does something important:
He sees the crowds of people who are suffering, and he has compassion on them.
The precipitating event to Jesus deciding he needed to organize a team to help him do the critical work of all manner of healing and abundant generosity is when he sees the crowds who are “helpless and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd” – in other words, people who are hurting and vulnerable – and has compassion on them.
Compassion is different from sympathy. The English word “compassion” has its root in Latin and it means “to suffer with” or “shared suffering.”
But even better – the Greek word for compassion is ‘splagnitzomai’ – the root word being ‘splagna’ – it’s an onomatopoeic word that means ‘guts’ – splagna – you can hear it in there. Jesus is moved by his splagna, his guts, his compassion – to share in the suffering of the crowds of people who are harassed, helpless, and vulnerable.
And after he was moved with compassion for the suffering crowds, Jesus said to his disciples: heal them. Set them free. Do something to make it better. That’s the thing about compassion. When it comes straight from the gut, you just can’t help yourself. You have to act. Compassion is compelling. And it is the foundation of who we are and what we do as followers of Jesus.
Jesus shows us the way out of binary, zero-sum concepts of God. He shows us the way to spiritual freedom. And it is, quite literally, a gut punch.
It is impossible to be rooted in compassion for others and invested in a world order that relies on the dominance of some and the oppression of others. Out of compassion comes freedom.
There is one more element to the Trinity icon to note.
The three angels are gathered around a table. Unlike most family dinners, there is no head of this round table. At the center of the table is a chalice – a symbol of the Eucharistic feast. The Trinity is seated at God’s table. At an altar.
It is perhaps the most essential part of this icon. At the center of God is loving sacrifice.
Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. See people’s suffering, have compassion on them, and heal them. And in doing so, set them free.
In the words of the Psalmist,
“O Lord, I am your servant; you have freed me from my bonds.”
It takes guts. But we have the very guts of God that stir within us and strengthen us to do God’s liberating work in the world. There is abundant freedom in that.
May the prayer of each of our hearts today be the Collect of the Day:
“Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion.”