This last and final section from the book of Hebrews -- which is is sometimes called a sermon -- is a series of instructions for how we conduct ourselves as Christian people. And I’d simply like to reflect on this list of instructions with you...here at the end of the summer and the beginning of a new academic year, in the midst of another highly divided political race in our country, election in November, in the midst of global strife, natural disaster, personal and professional troubles perhaps…
There are moments when we might want to throw up our arms in despair or disgust, and cry out, “What am I supposed to do?” Well, the Hebrews sermon has got some suggestions:
Here’s what we’re supposed to do:
1. Show hospitality to strangers.
How many of you have a story about entertaining an angel without knowing it? Remember my favorite movie Field of Dreams, when Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones), who are at the end of their rope, pick up a young man hitch-hiking, who ends up saving Ray’s little daughter from choking to death? That’s an illustration from the movies, but a great image of people, who really don’t know what to do next...so they do something good. We’re called to open our doors to the least likely, to the vagabond and the wanderer. When we don’t know what to do next, God calls us to do something good for someone else. AMEN?
2. Remember those who are in prison and those who are being tortured...as if we ourselves are in prison or being tortured.
This one speaks for itself. But boy, words are easier than actions. Who was the last person you visited in prison? If any? Who was the last person you prayed for who was in prison? How about torture? Know any survivors of torture?
There, I think, thanks to my predecessor Pastor George Falk, this congregation has some access to working with and reaching out to those who have been tortured. This organization Survivors of Torture International, that he and Kathi Andersen founded is a great start for remembering.
But torture and prison, here in Hebrews, in its context, is also a reference to those who are being persecuted for practicing Jesus-following. Notice: I’m being careful not just saying “those who are persecuted for their faith”. They were persecuted for their faith, but that’s because it was a faith-in-action. If the early Christians were “just talk” -- just benign, secret (or not-so-secret) groupings around the ancient world that didn’t really do anything, there’d be no threat. But the early Christians were radically counter-cultural in their justice-seeking activism -- advocating on behalf of the poor and the outcast. Remembering those who are in prison and tortured, is remembering those then (and recently) who put their faith in this One-whose-name-is-Love, and therefore took risks, took action for civil rights, stood up against facist regimes, welcomed the foreigner, fed the outcast, loved their enemies…
Risk-taking -- not safety-ensuring -- is the Christian virtue, and it has consequences...like prison and torture. AMEN?
3. Let marriage be held in honor.
Sadly this is instructive for us too. And it extends far beyond just not having affairs. We break trust in our marriages, let one another down, sneak around with bad habits and even addictions all the time…if we’re honest. You don’t have to be committing adultery to receive a warning -- and in that way, a blessing -- in this passage. In what ways is your marriage defiled? When we don’t know what else to do, put the phone down, turn the tv off (or whatever it is that’s distracting you), and spend time with the one you love. AMEN?
4. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content...for God has says, “I’ll never leave you.”
This is at the heart of our passage -- right in the middle! Our money says exactly what we have such a hard time doing: “In God we trust.” Be content with what you have. I’m betting none of us would admit to “being in love money”, [pause] but all of us could be accused of it...given the decisions that we’ve made at one time or another, right? But God says, “Let it go.” I posted on Facebook this weekend a picture of Katie and Heather at our kitchen table after dinner with a piggy bank: I wrote, “Today's a big day: This is the day Heather taught Katie what tithing means. H: ‘Now, out of 10 dimes, what does God ask us to share with the church?’ K: ‘Only 1 dime?! That's a deal!’
I was corrected: she actually said, “Can we give God more than just that?” And I reflected, “Maybe she’s the one teaching us.”
“I’ll never leave you,” God says. Maybe this should be the theme for our stewardship campaigns...
5. Remember your leaders and imitate their faith.
We Lutherans can get a little touchy, and even “judgey”, about “worshiping the saints”. But we’re sitting on a goldmine of forebearers in the faith, and even those who are still alive. Remember your leaders and imitate their faith. My leaders are the Margaret Johnsons and Lois Hellbergs, the Bob Koskinens and Helen Roberts. The faithful witnesses through the years -- our years -- who just keep “showing up”...for God and for us. And we’ve got volumes of saints who have gone before us. I’ve started listing them in the back of our bulletins. This week we commemorate Augustine, Moses the Black, Nikolai Grundtvig. Learn about them, imitate them, be strengthened by them. They’re looking down on us with love, rooting for us.
If our body’s a temple, a sanctuary, I like that image of the saints as those who are sitting in the balcony of our sanctuary cheering us on -- encouraging, instructing, and smiling peacefully and lovingly upon us.
And finally our passage today concludes:
6. Do not neglect to do good and share what you have.
We’ve heard this. Hebrews is driving it home. Do good and share. I’ve said before: Jesus’ entire message for how we should live our lives can be summed up one word: “Share.”
A lot to swallow today -- maybe we need that. “Thank you, God, for this dose.” These instructions are actually a blessing. For one thing, these instructions, admonitions even, can be a real gift: Our lives will be better when we do these things. Guarantee. The poet George Herbert once observed, “There is no greater sign of holiness than the procuring and rejoicing in another’s good.” That’s what Hebrews is inviting us into: “...the procuring and rejoicing in another’s good”.
But friends, in the end, and at the heart, is God’s promise: “I’ll never leave you.” What if we do mess these up royally? What if we bomb at showing hospitality to strangers, never visit anyone in prison, jack up our marriages, worship money, forget the saints, and hoard things to ourselves like selfish toddlers (or any number of adults, frankly, that we can all think of). What if we fail at every single one of these six instructions? Is God going to walk out on us, like we’ve walked out on others?
This is the Gospel: Jesus is gonna love us/you anyway! What!? And because of that, when we know that, when we ingest it, when it seeps deep into our bones, then we’re actually flung into this new lifestyle of sharing and caring, and working for justice, and living in peace. We don’t just throw our arms up in despair and disgust, anymore; we throw our arms up now -- having met this one Jesus on the road -- now we throw our arms up in joy and praise and thanksgiving for a God who never leaves us. AMEN.