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to the Faithful"
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Nothing is so easy to give or so hard to take as advice. We all have tons of it to give away, whether anyone wants it or not. And pastors are no exception. Especially pastors. Because we have this book that gives us directions towards living a holy life. And it is part of our job to try to make sense of it.
But when I interpret the advice from this book, I don’t expect you to take any of the advice on my word. I expect you to consider the Biblical word and to try to draw your own conclusions.
Some of what we have in the Bible is very straightforward; other teachings can be quite difficult. For example, Jesus could be very explicit; or he could tell detailed stories and force us to draw our own conclusions.
Last week we were talking about the sabbath, about working on that day, and about keeping it holy. I once heard someone remark, “Isn’t it ironic that pastors do some of their heaviest work on the very day that they tell everyone else NOT to?”
So far be it from me to pretend to be the perfect model. But this morning I would like to draw your attention to a small section of advice in the letter to the Hebrews. We’re in the thirteenth chapter, the final chapter of this letter, and we have a problem. In some respects, this chapter seems to be at least partially tacked on to the other twelve. After reading chapter twelve, when one comes to the first verses of chapter thirteen, one is tempted to wonder, where did this come from? How does this fit here?
Well, I suggest that we not worry about it. Let’s just try to take these passages for what they are worth. The chapter begins:
“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
The first verse is easy to follow. How difficult can it be for us to love those who love us in return? We respond well to people who are kind to us, and we also respond well when we are rewarded for being kind. We’re good at forming mutual admiration societies.
But then the writer tacks on a more demanding piece of advice. I say “tacks on,” because it might read better if he had said, “Let mutual love continue, BUT do not neglect....”
And what IS it that we are not to neglect? “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”
Now, this is going to get sticky, just like trying to figure out how to honor the sabbath. How DO we show hospitality, or NOT show hospitality, to strangers? I confess that I do not pick up hitch-hikers. Am I being inhospitable? Probably. But I do stop for folks who have car troubles, or flat tires, or whatever. I would want them to stop for me.
And the writer gives us a REASON for showing hospitality: some have entertained angels without knowing it. But let’s push this further than angels. We proclaim in the great thanksgiving, “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” How do we know that a stranger in need of hospitality is NOT Christ coming again?
I once heard a hospital chaplain remark, “Whenever you have difficulty dealing with people, you need to remind yourself, these are the people for whom Christ died.”
You may have heard me tell of vacation bible schools filled with children we would see for only one week out of the year. And although the leaders were happy to have them, they were frustrated that we seemed to lose them for the next fifty-one weeks. But on the other hand, we may have been entertaining angels without knowing it.
“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
Okay, so imprisonment and torture are a bit difficult for you to get a handle on. But you do know, and have known, those who go through very difficult times. And the writer is telling us, “Put yourself in their shoes.” Whenever I read about employment layoffs, when a corporation decides to cut thousands and tens of thousands of jobs, I cringe. I know what it is like to be unemployed, to be unable to find work.
And all of us have our own experiences we can use. When we know of those who are in difficult situations, we need to seek to identify with them. In so doing, we are sending prayers to God asking for God’s grace and comfort.
“Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.”
Now, to read this verse, one would think that the honor of marriage was all about sex. But I think there is a higher level at which we can interpret this verse; and indeed, it applies to anyone who is NOT married. When we talk about holding marriage in honor, we are talking above all, about keeping promises. Marriage as a sacred relationship is not about contracts, although some would reduce it to that, but is about covenants. And a covenant relationship is a faith relationship based on a promise.
And even if we are divorced, or widowed, or never-married, we still have relationships with people, and we still make promises, even if they are frequently implicit.
So, let us hold all of our relationships in honor. Let us keep the integrity of those relationships undefiled.
In the seventeenth chapter of the gospel according to John, Jesus prays for his disciples. In the twelfth verse we read, “While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.”
Jesus was grateful for the disciples that God gave him. And he took quite seriously his commitment to care for them. It was a relationship he held in the highest honor.
“Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
It’s easy to be free from the love of money--if you have a lot of it. It’s easy to be free, if you don’t have a lot of bills. But if you do not have a great deal of money, yet you DO have sizeable bills, it is difficult to NOT be concerned with money. Yet, I don’t think that is the point. I think that problems beset us when greed begins to drive our lives, when we lose our sense of values.
I truly believe that these admonitions need to be taken in context, and we need to be careful of what that context is. The writer tells us that we should “be content with what we have.” But what are we to make of Abram, way back in the twelfth chapter of Genesis. God told Abram that if he would “go from your country...to the land that I will show you,” God would promise him great things. So Abram went. But what if Abram, who was seventy-five years old, had said to God, “Hey, I am content with what I have!”
So I think we need to make some kind of exception. If our discontent is with the stuff of the material world--that is, we don’t have enough of it--then we need to double-check our priorities. But on the other hand, if we truly believe that we are responding to God’s call, discontent takes on a whole different meaning. We CANNOT be truly content until we have adequately responded.
And the writer gives us reason to take courage: God has said “I will never leave you or forsake you.” We are reminded of the words of Moses to Joshua, in announcing that Joshua would be his successor. In the eighth verse of the thirty-first chapter of Deuteronomy we read, “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
“So,” the writer of the letter to the Hebrews goes on to say, “we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” And these are the words of the psalmist, in the sixth verse of the one hundred eighteenth psalm: “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?”
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
At this point, the writer has returned to the theme of faithfulness, so strongly developed earlier in the letter. But he has moved beyond the heroes of the past, beyond the children of Adam, beyond Abraham and his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, beyond Moses.
He is calling on the readers to look to THEIR leaders, to THEIR prophets. When he tells them to consider the outcome of the way of life of their leaders, he may well be addressing martyrdom, because many of their leaders and prophets were put to death. But the key injunction here are the words “imitate their faith.” Indeed, martyrdom may have been their end because their faith was so great that they could do not other than speak the word of God to the people.
And how can we find comfort and consolation in imitating their faith? How do we know that this work is worth it? Because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Just as I said earlier that verses one and two should be linked together in a single sentence, so I would argue that verses seven and eight here should be linked. And the message would be that we should imitate the faith of our leaders and prophets BECAUSE Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
But there is another subtle message that links the eighth verse to the previous verses, and it has to do with the permanence of Christ. The opening verse used the verb “continue.” The third verse revealed “remember.” In the fourth verse we find “held” and “kept.” Again in the fifth verse we see “keep.” And then again in the seventh verse, “remember.” And I can hear the writer to the Hebrews calling on the readers to remember and hang on to the values of the past that are deeply buried in faith in God, and faith that now finds new vitality in Jesus Christ.
In the fifteenth verse the writer tells us, “Through Jesus, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.”
And the writer is speaking of prayer, the manifestation of the faith of the people, in the name of Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior.
But their acts of faith do not end with prayer. And we can hear the words of the writer circling back to the instructions to let mutual love continue and keep your lives free from the love of money, when he says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
Now, notice how low-key this verse is. Notice what a soft touch God is. We do not hear DO GOOD, but rather do not neglect to do good. We do not hear sell all that you have, but rather share what you have. And finally, God is not placing demands on us. Instead, such sacrifices are pleasing to God. In the meantime, God’s infinite patience waits for us to discover God’s truths.
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