This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Sunday, 9/1/l9. The text is Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16.
Hebrews presents quite a picture for us in our second lesson. The framework of the picture is mutual love; meaning the building of solidarity in relationships. This is played out in the actions the church is called to. For love to be mutual, it must happen in community. The church is the community of mutual love.
Hospitality is the first action within the framework of mutual love. Can you imagine the people you extend welcome to being angels? You might think of some people being that, but others? This recalls the Old Testament example of Abraham’s hospitality to three visitors (Gen. 18:1-5), who ended up being angels with a message for Abraham. Who are the angels of our time? Could they be immigrant children or those who have been bullied or victims of racism or other isms? Could our angel be a political or theological opponent with whom we pause long enough to listen and find the better angels of both our natures? To not neglect hospitality is to make sure that it is carried out. Hospitality and concern for strangers were so important that it became a criterion for leadership in the churches (Titus 1:8) as well as determining who could be assisted financially by the churches (1 Tim. 5:10).
The language concerning prisoners is bold; an exhortation to not only remember those who are in prison, but also a call to act as if we are in prison. It is about eliminating the distance between ourselves and those who are suffering, steering clear of the fear of receiving the same punishment as those who are locked away or being tortured.
Mutual love is continual solidarity with the stranger and those imprisoned. In the time of the writing of Hebrews, Romans used prison as detention centers until punishment instead of being punishment in and of itself. Prisoners were often denied food or clothing from the prison itself; having to rely on the hospitality of others to survive. The community of Hebrews was being exhorted to put themselves in the place of the imprisoned and to treat them accordingly. This magnifies the depth of the call being issued by the author.
Out of the framework of love is a high view of marriage and remaining faithful to our spouses. It’s a matter of faithful relationships. The call for the marriage bed to be undefiled levels the relationship between spouses. In the patriarchal society of that time, the call “for all” to honor the marriage bed meant that both husband and wife shared the responsibility of honoring each other in their marriage bond, causing them to be in sacred solidarity with each other. Marriage was so highly regarded that it became an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph. 5).
Instead of naming the love of money as the root of all evil, Hebrews tells us because of the promise of God’s presence to never leave us, we can abstain from the love of money. Love becomes the motivating factor. It is the love relationship with God that gives us contentment. We can rely on God rather than money. This frees us to live generously. Additionally, love of money disqualified one from a position of leadership in the church (1 Tim. 3:3).
“The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” The answer is, a lot! And yet in the midst of all that can happen to us, God is with us, helping us, keeping us from fear.
Even the call to remember our leaders in the faith reminds us of the need to trust in God’s solidarity with us. The readers are encouraged to trust in God because they were able to witness what lives committed to Christ look like. Think about all the faithful people who have lived among us here at St. Timothy. How can the witness of those who have gone before us in the faith help us to love one another today?
Mutual love is the foundation of being in relationship with God. Confidence comes as we love God. We can declare with the author of Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” God was faithful to the people of Israel throughout the Old Testament. God was faithful to the people of God and followers of Jesus in the New Testament. Throughout the many years after that, God has continued to show his faithfulness. That is how Jesus Christ is the same. He is the same in compassion and mercy and love—and that’s how he relates to us today!
Right on the heels of the proclamation of the never-changing Christ is the call to continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God. This connects to the primary theme throughout Hebrews that Christ has replaced the Jewish temple sacrifices. For us, literal sacrifices, as in the killing of animals as gifts to God are replaced by a sacrifice of praise to God and giving to the poor. Our celebration of the Eucharist is the only table to which not only friends and relatives are invited, but also the crippled, the blind, the maimed and the oppressed. We can come in wheelchairs, with broken and tormented hearts; even our enemies can come. At the table, we already experience a vision of the future in which all those who are humiliated and discriminated against are exalted. God’s grace, through the holy supper, levels the playing field for us all.
The last verse in today’s reading sums up mutual love in this way, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Many of the directives, including this one are counter-cultural. Who, in our society lives like that? Those of us in Christ are now a community of care. Believing that God will never leave us and that Jesus Christ is always the same is such a contrast with the temple and its sacrifices, which pass away. This call for hospitality to strangers and for sharing with others goes well with our gospel reading.
This is Labor Day weekend. Maybe our daily labor is one way we can demonstrate the continuation of “mutual love.” You may work or volunteer in a place where love is evident or in a place where it is lacking. I’ve experienced both.
What is one thing you appreciate or appreciated most about your work? When I was working in Rochester for one of the hospitals, my particular supervisor had her favorites and I was not one of them. Over time, this became very difficult and I wasn’t paid that much either. However, I had a part-time job that was a joy. At that job, after every shift, supervisors would thank us for coming in. This blew me away and encouraged me. It was such a contrast to what I experienced during the day.
In the narthex are 3”x5” cards. I would like you to write down what one thing you most appreciate or appreciated about your work, whether it was paid or not or volunteer. Then to celebrate Labor Day, we’ll put these comments on our website. Thank you for helping us to celebrate!
Have any of us ever felt afraid or abandoned? Have we you ever felt like our whole world was coming apart at the seams? I have. I know I’ve told this story before, but the time I experienced that the most was when my first marriage was breaking up. I could not grasp how my world could be falling apart so much. Of course, at that time my faith was much more black and white than it is today and so I thought:
Scripture says that God hates divorce.
It can’t be God’s will that we divorce.
So, I’m just going to pray that God will change my husband so we don’t divorce.
Since I’m praying according to God’s will, God will hear and answer my prayers.
And God did answer prayer, but not in the way I expected. God did not change my husband but restored hope into my life because God promises, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (v. 5). This is the ground of our confidence. Jesus was with me through all the heartbreak. Jesus is with you, with us all through all the difficulties of life, whatever they may be—worry over relatives deployed in the military, finances, heartbreak, literal storms, the stress in our current culture. You name it, Christ is there with us.
Through today’s scripture readings, God calls us to look beyond ourselves and to be open to the holiness and worth of others. They challenge us to see everyone and everything through the lens of God’s love. As a healing community, we recognize our finitude and imperfections even as we aspire to make God’s reign come alive “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Let us pray. Ever loving God, we pray that everything we say and do may be framed by the power of your love. Reframe the instances when we have been unfaithful instruments of yours. Be glorified in our lives each and every day. In Jesus’ name we pray and all God’s children say, “Amen!”
Thomas L. Adkins-Jones, workingpreacher.org
Bruce Epperly, pantheos.com
Eric Fistler and Robb McCoy, pulpitfiction.com
Carl R. Holladay, Preaching Through the Christian Year C
Gail Ramshaw, sundaysandseasons.com
Edward Schillebeeckx, OP, God Among Us: The Gospel Proclaimed