Sermon; Proper 17C; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Today is the last of our four readings from the Letter to the Hebrews. Two weeks ago when I preached on Hebrews I neglected to give some background information, so here's a little of that for you.
Hebrews is one of the great mysteries of the Bible. It may have been a letter, but it reads more like a sermon. It's entitled, “To the Hebrews,” but nowhere does it say to whom it is addressed. There is no identifying signature, so we don't know who wrote it. We don't know if it was sent to believers in a certain city, or if it was designed to be passed around. Nor do we know if it was sent to Jews, Gentiles, or a mixture. Additionally, we have no way to date it, so scholars guess at anywhere from 60 – 100. And because of all of this, Hebrews may just be the most contemporary and always relevant book in the New Testament.
My sermon on Hebrews from two weeks ago focused on faith – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, and how various people, despite their failings, attempted to live into that faith and conviction. We live into that faith and conviction not for our own glory, not in the hope that we will become great in our lifetime, but in the faith and hope that God will fulfill his promise at some point in the future. We do what we do here not only for the benefit of those immediately around us, but with the conviction that those in the future will find their way to God through the light we shine.
And today is the summation of all of this. We live with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. But that doesn't mean that we sit around and wait for God to take care of everything. Within this faith and conviction is the call to action.
Abraham and Sarah, by faith, set out from their home in Haran to follow God's promise. Gideon, for all his doubts, worked to remove foreign idols from Israel's presence. David, for all his faults, worked to unify Israel after Saul's disastrous reign. The apostles were sent out to preach the Good News. When the disciples wanted to stay on the mountain after the Transfiguration, Jesus led them down in order to minister to the people. And after the resurrection, Jesus told the disciples to witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Our faith and our conviction calls us to action, it doesn't call us to sit and do nothing.
What does this look like? What does doing for God in faith and with conviction look like? It looks a lot like these closing words from our reading today.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels.” This obviously refers back to Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre, but it also refers to many other instances. Throughout scripture God is concerned with the well-being of strangers and others, including in today's gospel. If we are to be Godlike and imitate Christ, we must welcome the stranger. What does it say about us as individuals, as a church, or as a nation, if we spend our time, money, and efforts separating us from, or locking up, God's angels?
“Remember those who are in prison and being tortured.” This is not just addressing these two specific examples, but is addressing our ministry to all who are wounded. I have somewhat jokingly said I'm not called to prison ministry; but that was before one of our parishioners was arrested. And torture doesn't necessarily mean those in Guantanamo Bay. People are tortured in relationships, by mental illness, by spiritual crises, and more. Jesus entered fully into the human condition, ministered to the suffering, and suffered himself to the point of death on the cross. By following Christ we too must be willing to minister to the wounded and suffering; and we must be willing to sacrifice and suffer ourselves for the sake of the gospel.
“Be free from the love of money.” Money, in and of itself, isn't bad. But the love of money takes us away from the love of God. How much is too much? Once we begin focusing on money, and how we can acquire more, we lose our focus on God. Everything becomes a financial transaction and we spend our time seeking out the best ROI rather than what is best for the world around us. Add to that that, as one commentator said, the love of money isn't about greed but about abandonment and fear. Acquiring more and more is based in a theology of fear, the fear that we won't have enough. But if we are focused on God then we are focused on love; and true love casts out fear. This loving focus on God allows us to focus not on acquiring or serving money, but on deepening our ties to God and serving others.
“Remember your leaders . . . and imitate their faith.” In the context of Hebrews there was some dissension in the congregation, or some diversion from the faith. It reminds me of the struggles Paul had with a few of his congregations following something other than what they had learned from him. But for us today, I would ask you to interpret it this way: Remember your leaders, know that they are trying their best to live lives worthy of their callings. Pray for your clergy, vestry, and commission leaders on a daily basis. Know that disagreements happen, but strive to love them as Christ loves you.
And finally, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have.” By sharing what you have, you are doing good. By sharing what you have, you offer life to others and yourself. This is sort of the culmination of everything above.
The Sea of Galilee drains into the River Jordan, which then flows into the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee is where the disciples fished and made their living. The Sea of Galilee is alive. The Dead Sea, on the other hand, is . . . well . . . dead. Nothing lives there. The Sea of Galilee is alive because it has an outlet, it shares what it has. The Dead Sea is dead because it has no outlet, it only keeps and hoards what it receives. It may seem like sharing our wealth, giving of our time, and using our talents for others are onerous commands and sacrificial; but in the end it is the giving away, the sharing with others, that will keep us alive.
This anonymous letter to an unnamed Christian congregation is one of the most relevant books of the Bible. It asks us to live in faith with conviction. It reminds us to focus less on ourselves and more on others, ministering to the needy, wounded, and outcast. It tells us where our priorities should lie. And it challenges us to always attempt to live into the words and actions of Christ.
As we move forward, let us continually offer our sacrifice of praise to God, never neglecting to do good, and live with the hope and conviction of things yet unseen.