August 26, 2019
The Proper 17C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 14:1,7-14 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 2:4-13 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 112 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 (Lord’s Day 41)
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Author: Scott Hoezee
Tell any average child that she is forbidden to look at pages 67-82 of the book sitting on the coffee table in the living room and you can be absolutely certain that the first chance that child gets, she’s going to whisk that book to her room and turn directly to page 67! (I mean, I would!)
The Revised Common Lectionary can be like that. Not very often, but with some frequency, the Lectionary editors ask you to skip a few verses in certain texts. In this case, we are asked not to read or ponder Luke 14:2-6. Next week we will jump ahead to Luke 14:25, skipping also verses 15-24. But like a child who knows what she’s not supposed to look at, this only makes me all-the-more interested in those very verses and in what I am NOT supposed to see.
Luke 14:1-24 are clearly all cut out of a single piece of narrative cloth and anyway all took place over the course of a single dinner party. Each flows into the next and only together do they present the real punch and meaning of this story. So in what follows my ideas will also all flow together across all 24 verses. Those who wish to stay with the strict letter of the Lectionary law may happily cobble together from what follows only those parts that apply to the 9 verses that are technically this week’s Year C Gospel lection. But honestly, I think we need the whole thing.
Too often we treat the parables of Jesus as though they float free of any original context. We collect the parables and treat them like chapters in a book–a parabolic anthology rather like a collection of nursery rhymes or fairy tales. The parables, we seem to think, don’t need an original setting but can be pondered in isolation without losing any of their punch. And there is something to that: most of what we learn in the Parable of the Prodigal Son can be gleaned by looking at the story in isolation (though remembering that Jesus was telling also that parable as a counter-punch to a group of disapproving Pharisees is pretty important, too). Most of the time reviewing the occasion that gave rise to Jesus’ parables will deepen their poignancy. Certainly that is true of Luke 14.
Luke 14:1 tells us that Jesus had been invited for a dinner party at the house of a “prominent Pharisee,” which we could literally translate as a kind of “arch Pharisee” from the Greek archon. The adjective refers to a lead Pharisee, someone who was very high up in the Pharisee leadership structure. So it is likely that this man did not live in a modest row house in Jerusalem but probably occupied a ritzy and large home to which, on this particular Sabbath, a lot of people had been invited. In fact, it may well have been the case that a Sabbath noon invitation to this man’s house was the hottest ticket in town.
But why was Jesus invited? He was not a real popular person among the Pharisees, after all. Based on the text, I suspect he was not invited out of love. But I cannot tell just what the motive really was, either. There are several possibilities. Perhaps it was borne out of social necessity–the host didn’t really want to invite him but given his current popularity, etiquette demanded that they not snub this new rabbi. Or perhaps there was an element of vanity in the invitation–precisely because Jesus’ star seemed to be rising just then, having him for dinner would be yet another feather in this Pharisee’s social cap.
More darkly, however, it may also have been the case that they were setting Jesus up. Personally, I tilt this direction based on the fact that in verse 1 we are told that Jesus was being “very carefully watched.” As the mobster Michael Corleone says in The Godfather Part II, the most valuable lesson his mafia father ever taught him was “Keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer.” Sometimes the best strategy to bring down your enemy is to get cozy with him, make him relax and let his guard down. Because then he might slip up, divulge a piece of information he shouldn’t reveal. (Alas poor Fredo in The Godfather! Michael made his brother Fredo relax enough to slip up and inadvertently reveal he had betrayed Michael, leading to the iconic scene when Michael gives Fredo the kiss of death as he tells him he knows the truth now. “It was you, Fredo. You break my heart!”)
I suspect that this dynamic was partly behind this Pharisee’s having Jesus for dinner. As such, it is neither accidental nor coincidental that Jesus immediately encounters a man with dropsy. Dropsy was what today we would call edema, which likely meant his breathing was labored, his face, legs, feet, and hands were swollen because of a cardio-pulmonary problem that caused fluid to build up throughout his body. Likely he looked pathetic and whereas today a doctor would prescribe Lasix or some other such diuretic to make his renal system go full bore, back then there were probably few effective treatments.
In any event, lo and behold this is the first person Jesus meets up with at the pre-dinner punch bowl. And the Pharisees watched Jesus carefully. Could this Jesus, reputed to be a healer, resist the urge (considering it was the Sabbath) to help this fellow? Initially Jesus seems to be the epitome of a polite guest, asking his host and the others, “Would it be all right by you if I healed this man? Is that a lawful thing to do on the Sabbath?”
Did they all think this was such an obvious question it did not require an answer? Or did the way they all fixed Jesus in their collective glare as much as tell Jesus that of course they considered it unlawful. But their silence dared Jesus to do it anyway. So he does. He then quotes some laws from Leviticus and Deuteronomy that allow exceptions to the Sabbath injunctions against not working in the cases of sick children or suffering animals. It was an “in your face” kind of thing for Jesus to say, shaming them for their disapproval of this poor man’s healing and, as the text makes clear, leaving them with nothing to say.
The dinner party is off to a really rocky start! But soon the butler rings his little bell, letting people know it is time to be seated for the meal. And with a wry grin on his face, Jesus takes note of the polite, yet indisputable, jostling that begins as this guest and that guest angles his way toward the seats closest to the host’s chair. Once again it is Jesus who takes the lead. “You know I was just thinking: when someone invites you to a wedding, don’t try to sit at the head table on your own initiative. Next thing you know the host has to ask you to move since that seat had been reserved for someone else and then you will be so dreadfully embarrassed! Just sit in the back of the room. It’s the humble way to go at life and anyway if then the host requests you to sit closer to the front of the room, you will have nothing to feel shame-faced about but will actually be honored.”
Did the people blush? I imagine once Jesus said this none-too-subtle rebuke of all those snooty dinner guests that a lot of them stopped in their tracks and, with downcast eyes, just plopped into the seat closest to them at that very moment.
Jesus is on a roll now. It’s not Emily Post by a long shot, but still he plunges forward. Now he addresses his host directly but what Jesus does is essentially critique the guest list for that very dinner party on that very day! Jesus says, “When you throw a party, don’t invite friends, brothers, and rich people.” (He was describing every last person around the table!) “Instead,” Jesus goes on, “invite the poor, the blind, and the crippled.” And by this point, if I am seated at that table, I am ready to skulk away. The party is over. All anybody wanted to do was leave, and quickly!
So, not knowing what else to do or say, one of the guests blurts out a pious and pithy greeting card-like aphorism, “Blessed is the man who eats at the feast in the kingdom of God!” Although it was related to what Jesus had just been saying about dinner guests and the like, I suspect this man said what he did to try to smooth things over, shifting the topic a bit. Today it would be like dealing with an awkward situation by blurting out, “Hey, how ’bout those Yankees, huh?” or “Interesting weather we’ve been having lately.” The current dinner party was spiraling into chaos, so this well-meaning guest points forward to what everyone could only hope would be a far happier banquet one day by and by in the kingdom of God.
But it didn’t work. Jesus pipes back up and as much as says, “Speaking of the kingdom of God . . .” and then goes on to tell a parable. He tells a story about a situation like the party they were all attending just then. A rich man issues a grand invitation. But every last person who had been invited ends up refusing to come. They all have different excuses, but the implication in this parable is obvious: these guests had conspired with one another to avoid this banquet like the plague. Some commentators think that the fatal flaw of these would-be guests is greed. They are too preoccupied with their possessions and with their pleasures in life.
But that clearly is not Jesus’ intention. Following on Jesus’ words in verses 12-14 about his own preference for dinner parties made up of the blind, lame, poor, crippled, and other such social outcasts, the implication is that the people in the parable who turned down the invitation did so out of fear that they would have to break bread with a blind man or with some poor person with bad breath. Whether the host in Jesus’ parable represents Jesus himself or his heavenly Father, either way we know up front (based on the course of Jesus’ ministry thus far) that it would not be at all unusual if his guest list proved to be much more varied and diverse than the guest list of that Pharisee in whose house Jesus told this story.
The last line of this parable has the host saying, “Those invited will not get a taste of my banquet.” It seems an odd thing to say. After all, neither did they want a taste of it. Yet just that may be the problem. C.S. Lewis once mused that perhaps in the end the people who end up in hell will get there not because God sent them there but rather by their own choosing. If someone lives his whole life without ever once being willing to say to God, “Your will be done,” perhaps the day will come when by virtue of that choice God will say to that person, “Very well then, YOUR will be done. You’ve wanted no part of me and so that is the way it will stay, too.”
Luke doesn’t tell us how that Sabbath-day dinner party ended. But you have the feeling that when Jesus left, his host did not smile and say, “Come again!” In fact, in the balance of Luke’s gospel you will never again read that Jesus was the guest of a Pharisee or any other religious authority. The next dinner party Jesus attends is at the beginning of Luke 15 but this time he is the guest of tax collectors and “sinners.”
We know who Jesus’ kind of people were. The question to ask of ourselves and of our congregations in a sermon on Luke 14 is whether Jesus’ kind of people are our kind of people.
In verse 1 of Luke 14, the Greek literally says that Jesus went to the house of the arch-Pharisee (the archon in Greek) “phagein arton,” or literally, “to eat bread.” Granted that “artos” can mean food more broadly defined and so could be a kind of general word for “dinner.” But since breaking bread was in Jesus’ day symbolic of having a certain solidarity with those with whom you share the loaf, the overt inclusion of “bread” in Luke 14:1 may indeed be Luke’s way of kicking off a passage that will ultimately be all about having solidarity with the least, last, and lost people in this world.
In his book “The Jesus I Never Knew,” Philip Yancey asserts something that I am certain must have been true. Yancey noted that in too many of the movies that have been made about Jesus, the actor who portrays the carpenter’s son from Nazareth often comes across very flat. Most of his words are delivered in a kind of monotone and his demeanor is placid to the point of being dull. But based on the gospels, Yancey says that Jesus must have been a whole lot happier-looking and more outwardly joyful than that. People really liked being around Jesus. He was such a popular dinner guest that when his enemies wanted to say something bad about him, they accused him of being a glutton and a wine-bibber.
People were attracted to Jesus because he exuded joy. However, as Luke 14 reveals, Jesus was not above being the kind of dinner guest you hope you never get! Have you ever been at a dinner party where something happens that makes you want to crawl under the table (if not simply flee into the night)? Maybe there was a political discussion around the dinner table that got just a little too heated. Maybe one of the guests inadvertently prattled on and on in highly critical tones about what a wretched person Mary Jones is, only to find out too late that Mary Jones is the host’s sister-in-law. Whatever the cause, sometimes it happens that a good meal is spoiled when some of the guests get angry, blush in deep purple embarrassment, or well up with tears at some hurtful remark.
At the dinner party in Luke 14, Jesus made any number of remarks that may have made at least a few guests want to crawl under the table! Jesus wasn’t being rude, however, just poignant.
Author: Stan Mast
Last week our study of Jeremiah’s call to ministry gave us the historical setting of his work. Jeremiah prophesied during the last days of the southern Kingdom, after the northern Kingdom had been dragged away by the Assyrian armies. Now Judah was now facing the same fate at the hands of the newly emergent Babylonian Empire, unless they realized their sin and repented. It was Jeremiah’s life calling to identify their sin and call them to come back to God before it was too late. In fact, it was almost already too late, which gave his message a kind of desperate urgency.
That was all a long time ago and a long way away, but Jeremiah gives us the opportunity to address our nations with the same urgency. Now we have to be very careful if we want to apply the words of verse 11 directly to, say, the United States, my country. “Has any nation ever changed its gods? But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.” This sort of application plunges us into that whole “America is God’s chose nation” ideology. You probably don’t want to go there in a sermon on Jeremiah. But in a nation whose national motto is “In God We Trust” and whose roots are at least vaguely Christian, it is tempting to take that approach to our text for today.
A less controversial and more fruitful way to proceed would be to focus on Jeremiah’s definition of Israel’s national sin and apply it to the church. That sin was idolatry. Yes, other prophets focused on the sin of social injustice, but idolatry was at the root of that sin. Idolatry is an old sin, one might say an old-fashioned sin, a sin with which our modern listeners might not be able to identify. That’s why this text is so rich with potential. God speaks of idolatry in terms that should immediately capture the attention of even the most jaded and secular person.
God begins to identify that sin in the verses just prior to our text (verses 1-3), where God reminds Israel of their past relationship with Yahweh. It was a love affair, a newly formed marriage in which God was devoted to Israel and his bride loved him completely. Both would have done anything for the other, and, in fact, did. Yahweh led his bride through that vast and howling wilderness and delivered them from all opposition, while Israel followed God willingly and faithfully. The early years of that covenantal marriage were a non-stop honeymoon, suggests God in these early verses.
But that all changed almost as soon as Israel entered the Promised Land. Indeed, even in those early years there was trouble, as evidenced by God’ reference to “your fathers” in verse 5. What happened back then and what continued to happen up to Jeremiah’s day was that Israel, instead of following Yahweh as they had done, “followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.”
In that same verse, God asks the plaintive question, “What fault did your fathers find in me that they strayed so far from me?” That is the question of a jilted lover, a heartbroken husband. “What did I do wrong? Where did I fail?” Except God knows he did not fail; it was Israel who had found fault where there was none.
But this is not merely a lover’s question anymore. For years, indeed, for centuries God had patiently born with his faithless wife. Now God is going to take legal action against her. That’s what we have in our text—God presenting his case against Israel. “Therefore, I will bring charges against you again, says the Lord. And I will bring charges against your children’s children.” So deep seated was this idolatrous bent of Israel that it would take God three generations to root it out, which is why the divorce/exile would last 70 years.
Here God explains to Israel what was about to happen to them in the form of a legal proceeding. Verses 4 and 5 are a summons to court, an ancient version of the bailiff calling out, “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, court is now in session, the honorable Yahweh presiding, all rise!” Or as these verses put it, “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, all you clans of the house of Israel. This is what the Lord says.” The Supreme Court is in session.
There are two points in God’s lawsuit with that are very relevant to us. First, the question God asks of his unfaithful people is the question we ought to ask ourselves. Why do we wander from God? It makes no sense whatsoever, given what he has done for us. In verses 6 and 7 God reminds Israel of all he had done for them: “brought you out of Egypt, lead you through the wilderness, and brought you into a fertile land.” After all I did, how could you forsake me for worthless idols? Why do God’s redeemed people stray from a God whose love has provided all we need? That’s a question we need to press on our people and on ourselves.
That brings us to the second point, which is the answer to that question. God explains it in historical terms that we might miss if we read too quickly. “But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance worthless.” When Israel left the wilderness and inherited the Promised Land, their love affair with God cooled and they sought other lovers.
Apparently, God was good for the Exodus and the wilderness and the conquest of the land, but once they were in the land, they needed something else, something more. Now that they had the land, they needed someone to guarantee fertility. So, they turned to the gods of Canaan, which were precisely that, gods of fertility. Yahweh worked in Egypt and in the wilderness and in war, but now they needed someone who would work in agriculture. And that meant Baal and Asherah and friends.
The problem was that these new gods were worthless, a word used three times in the NIV translation (verses 5, 8, 11). The Israelites forsook God because they thought these new gods would work better in their new situation, but they didn’t work at all. They did nothing whatsoever, except make Israel worthless.
Another translation of the word “worthless” is particularly helpful. These idols are “what does not profit.” We seek other gods, because we think they will gain us a profit, perhaps more fertile fields, or a more fruitful marriage, or a higher position, or stronger security. But in fact, they gain us no profit at all. They only bring loss.
The leaders of Israel, the priests and the kings and the prophets, should have known better, should have warned the people about the folly of not following the God who had brought them so far. But, in a stinging indictment, God details their failures.
“The priests did not ask ‘Where is the Lord?’” There was no inquiring of the Lord in this new place, because in spite of the fact that the priests “deal with the law” they “did not know me.” They were like contemporary preachers who know all about the Bible and even know how to correctly handle the word of truth (II Timothy 2:15),” but don’t know Jesus himself on a personal basis. So, when they are confronted with new challenges, they go to the culture to find new “gods” to cope and become successful.
Further, the political leaders who were charged with leading on God’s behalf simply “rebelled against me.” They wanted to be “god” for their people and thought that allying themselves with the culture’s gods would accomplish that end.
Finally, even the prophets, those last stand representatives of the true God, prophesied by Baal, the chief god of the land. Everyone, absolutely everyone, has forsaken their first love and fallen in love with these worthless gods that bring no profit.
Once we get in touch with the enormous folly of idolatry we can understand why God would be so, well, incredulous. God appeals to the history of the surrounding nations, the western nations represented by Kittim and the easterners symbolized by Kedar. Go to them and ask if “there has ever been anything like this: Has a nation ever changed its gods. (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.”
Then having surveyed the whole earth, God appeals to the heavens above. “Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror, declares the Lord.” God calls heaven and earth to be witnesses at the Trial of the Bride, the divorce proceedings against a people who have become worthless.
There is one more striking image in our text that shows the folly of forsaking the true God. It derives from the climate of the Promised Land, which had the rainy season (winter) and the dry season (summer). When it was summer, Israel needed a source of water, or they and their crops would perish. The best thing was a spring, a constantly flowing spring. The next best thing was a cistern, a hollowed-out piece of ground, preferably rock, that could store the water that fell in the rainy season. But if the cistern had cracks in it, all the water would seep out and folks would die of thirst.
God uses that well known feature of ancient Israelite culture to convict his wayward people. “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” You had me, a never failing, always flowing spring of life. But you forsook me, because you thought that you could do it better. You had to do it yourself, dig your own cistern, but that is always a useless endeavor. Your do-it- yourself gods always crack and break and in the end are as worthless as a broken cistern.
Preaching a fruitful sermon on this text will depend on your ability to identify modern day idols– things or ideas or methods or practices that promise much but deliver nothing, the “what does not profit” of our culture.
A helpful gospel sermon on this text must not leave people thinking about idols. You must point people back to the “spring of living water” who alone gives life. Call them to repent, yes, but remember that repentance has two movements—away from the sin and back to their God.
Here’s where we need to use the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. All she could think about was slaking her thirst, but Jesus offered her much more. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13,14)
I saw a headline on the internet the other day that startled me. It said, “Two hundred CEO’s say that making a profit is not the most important thing in business.” That stopped me in my browsing, because I’ve always been taught that the profit motive is what drives our capitalistic economy. It is surely what drives our life long search for a god who will profit us in some way.
The arch villain, the ultimate manifestation of evil in the titanic battle between good and evil at the center of the Harry Potter series, is Voldemort, also known as “He who must not be named.” In the Bible, the arch villain, the most tantalizing manifestation of evil in our lives, is the idol, “what does not profit.” To defeat those worthless idols, we must name them and call on the name of Jesus.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Very often the Psalms are actually a form of beatitude. Psalm 1 sets the tone: “Blessed is the one who does not walk with the wicked.” Beatitudes—including the most famous ones of them all from Matthew 5—are very often blessings spoken over people whose lives the rest of the world may not deem to be all that special or blessed at all. Certainly that was Jesus’ theme in Matthew 5: he pronounces beatitude blessings over all the people whom the rest of the world regards as losers. Similarly in the Psalms: in a grab-the-brass-ring world where only the gutsy and courageous succeed, those who lead quiet lives of piety and obedience to God seem to be grabbing for the bottom rung of the ladder. The meek, the brokenhearted, the pious: these folks just won’t get ahead in life.
But Jesus and many of the psalmists pronounce a blessing over those very people because they are in touch with deeper, more lasting, indeed downright eternal truths.
We will get back to that in a bit but first . . . well, the psalmist moves from this beatitude over the righteous to some pretty grand statements that are typical of many psalms, including several we have covered recently in the Year C Lectionary. Somehow, it makes me minded to quote that famous Ronald Reagan line from one of his debates with President Carter in 1980:
“There you go again . . .” Sure, it is true that in the long run the righteous are better off. But no sooner is that principle stated and we get treated to some over-the-moon, grandiose claims that these very righteous people are going to be on easy street. Everything will go swimmingly for them. Their children will be the best and the brightest. They will have so much money they will be able to give generously to the poor. Serenity will attend them day and night. And so to this Hebrew poet I want to say “There you go again” making sunny predictions on the righteous that, frankly, so very often do not line up with everyday realities in this world. What’s more, we are told the wicked will see the prosperity of the righteous and gnash their teeth over it all.
Truth is, in my experience it is very often the righteous who gnash their teeth over the successes and advancements of the wicked, of the crooked, of tax cheats and white collar crooks, of devious CEOs who are given hugely lucrative golden parachutes even after being forced to resign for malfeasance of one kind of another. Psalm 112 may express our fondest wishes for how life should go and it is no doubt accurate in the longest possible run in God’s kingdom. But for now . . . well, there you go again painting a stark black-and-white picture that too often falls painfully short of reality.
Still, in addition to that truth that this will be our ultimate reality—albeit in the sweet by and by perhaps—there are some other truths in Psalm 112 worth savoring and worth lifting up. In particular I like verses 7-8: “They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord. Their hearts are secure, they will have no fear; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.” There is something about that idea of not having to fear “bad news” that strikes a chord.
I think the sense here is not that bad things will never happen to the righteous. We know that also is simply not true. But instead I think this means that they don’t have to worry about being haunted by past misdeeds, sins, or crimes. When you live an upright life, things may or may not go well for you financially or in terms of your health or the wellbeing of your every loved one but you won’t lie awake at night worrying that somebody is going to find out about that horrible crime you committed 15 years ago. You won’t spend nervous hours fretting that all those extramarital affairs you’ve had will come to light and devastate your spouse. You won’t be haunted by secrets, by skeletons in your closet.
How different is the situation for wicked people, this psalm as much as says! They have good reasons to worry. Bad news in the form of some shocking revelation about something from their past could burst forth at any moment. No matter how successful they may be at any given moment, it’s a house of cards they have built and one fell gust of wind could bring down the whole enterprise.
It reminds me of the nefarious characters in the TV series The Sopranos.
Sure, Tony Soprano was a successful mob boss with a gorgeous home, fancy cars, and all kinds of money stashed here, there, and everywhere but he could never relax. He could never be carefree. He could get whacked at any moment and receive himself the very violence he had for so long doled out to others. (And depending on how you interpret the controversial final scene of the final episode, it may well be that Tony got exactly that in the end.) When you spend your life dishing out bad news to others as your way of advancing yourself in the world, you fear 24/7 bad news circling back to you.
The righteous, by contrast, are secure. No ghosts from their past will ruin their present or their future. They don’t have to spend all their time managing and trying to remember all the lies they have told over the years because they have always told the truth. It’s finally exhausting to lead a bad life. Far better to have the serenity and security of having nothing to hide.
The most literal descriptions of Psalm 112 about the righteous being rich and happy and forever free of problems or sickness may not, for now, be true. But the portrait of being secure—or, again, recall the image of Psalm 1 about being a well-rooted tree planted by a stream of water—is surely true even now. That is why they will be “remembered forever” by God while the wicked will be forgotten. When the end of the cosmic day comes, the righteous will be revealed as rock solid while the wicked will be revealed as having all along been finally nothing, chaff in the wind, no substance but only flash and bling that will fade to nothing.
“Blessed are the righteous” Psalm 112’s opening beatitude declares. Yes, indeed, they are blessed!
Here is the conclusion of Frederick Buechner’s summary of Jesus’ Beatitudes from Matthew 5: “Jesus saved for [the last blessing] the ones who side with Heaven even when any fool can see it’s the losing side and all you get for your pains is pain. Looking into the faces of his listeners, he speaks to them directly for the first time. ‘Blessed are you’ he says. You can see them looking back at him. They’re not what you’d call a high-class crowd—peasants and fisherfolk for the most part, on the shabby side, not all that bright. It doesn’t look as if there’s a hero among them. They have their jaws set. Their brows are furrowed with concentration. They are blessed when they are worked over and cursed out on his account he tells them. It is not his hard times to come but theirs he is concerned with, speaking out of his own meekness and mercy, the purity of his own heart.”
Frederick, Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 19.
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Author: Chelsey Harmon
Though the lectionary epistle cuts out the middle verses of this section, the ones we are assigned today tell the church what to do in order to stay together through hardship. If you believe that the text of Hebrews is a sermon, then just minutes earlier we heard the preacher remind the congregation about their experience under persecution and all of the ways that they lived and brought glory to God (Hebrews 10). Now, it seems, times were a little more stable, and the preacher wants them to be aware! It seems to be a universal experience: it’s when times are good that we humans are more likely to be selfish, to be overcome with worry, and to forget others who are struggling. Along this way, our faith may weaken… The preacher wants none of that for the congregation, nor does the Holy Spirit want it for us! So the preacher closes his sermon with echoes of what they have already heard—from him, from the prophets of old, from their own experience, and from Jesus.
The keys to a community that can flourish under any circumstances:
…loving fellow Christians as though they were your own flesh and blood;
…hospitality for people known and unknown;
…empathy that leads to care for the prisoner and others in distress;
…keeping respect for others’ relationships in the community;
…trusting in God because it keeps the heart protected from greed;
…learning from the cloud of witnesses;
…worshipping God with praises and deeds.
Let’s spend a few moments thinking about each of these characteristics.
The preacher uses “philadelphia” to describe the type of love that the congregation has practiced and should continue to practice. This sort of love is literally the kind of love among siblings (Philadelphia is “the city of brotherly love”). Followers of Christ have been made into a new family, a community of people who look after one another, share resources with one another, and love through thick and thin. This is love strong enough to get through hard times and love that enjoys the good times. It doesn’t replace the other loves, but is a key piece of the love mix for the community of faith: people so devoted to one another they won’t walk away.
Much of the spread of the faith occurred as people travelled throughout the Roman Empire, making hospitality crucial fodder. By sharing your home with people, missionary or no, you had the opportunity to create the space for the transmission of the gospel. And if we consider that these early churches met in homes, how much more does opening your home mean to the growth of the faith? The Holy Spirit uses people’s willingness to share their space to light the fire of faith around the world! By living in our modern-Western-individualist world with intentional connection to our neighbours, believers or not, we may entertain angels without knowing.
Recalling Hebrews 10, this community knows what it’s like to be persecuted; they know what it’s like to stand beside the accused; they know what it’s like to make sure that those who are in prison are provided for (family and friends were in charge of making sure that a prisoner had food and clothing). The preacher says turn that knowing into doing! As our modern world continues to become more and more independent, what sort of witness will purposeful connection provide? What sort of witness will we provide in a selfish world by alleviating the myriads of challenges facing people today? Check out the links in the Illustration Ideas section for modern examples of churches heeding the Old and New Testament teachings on caring for others and remembering people in hardship with action.
Though we are like family with one another, there are still lines that need to respected. If the preacher had continued in this section of the sermon, I wonder if he would have made a similar point about marriage that Paul does in his epistles. Namely, that the marriage relationship is a picture of commitment that Christ has for the church and such covenant faithfulness is an experience, in part, of our intimacy with the Godhead through Christ. As such, it is special, it is powerful, it is to be respected and guarded from interlopers who will try to pull one away from the other. And I wonder what would happen if people remembered that above all, their unions were the telling the story of God. It’s one of those things that easy to know… and forget.
Looking again at this church’s history as it is described in Hebrews 10, these people have proven that they can have a right relationship with their belongings. The reminder that contentment is not produced from love of money but from trusting that God is with you always, makes me wonder whether the stability they were presently enjoying (compared to those early years) was leading some of them to hold a little more tightly to their things… just in case. What if the hard times come again and we need to provide for ourselves? What if my spouse is thrown in prison? What if I lose my job because of my faith? What if…? Considering the varying kinds of insurances available to us modern people for all the “what ifs” in life, we can’t blame our faith ancestors for being tempted to be prepared! But the preachers recalls God’s very own promise, made by Yahweh and Jesus, in different words but of the same essence: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” The preacher calls upon the people to respond: “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Comfort comes from a person (God), not things.
Hebrews 11 & 12 outline some of the many leaders of the past that the congregation can emulate. Yet here in the closing of his message, the preacher draws their attention to more recent people that God brought to them—people who actually spoke the words of life to them. These same leaders were people whose lives showed the goodness of Christ to the world in a time and place just like the congregation’s own. These are the people who showed what faith looked like in their here and now. The great cloud of witnesses is made up of people from the very distant past all the way through the present day as God’s people keep in step with the Spirit of God. Jesus is the same always and forever, so his ways can be learned from the faithful people of God in every era. Sometimes, we focus too far in the past as a way of avoiding Christ’s call in the present, ostracizing the modern-day prophets instead of heeding them.
Finally, the preacher describes worship without ever saying the word. Only the heavenly throne room has living creatures who are able to continuously worship God. Yet, through Christ, that is what our lives have become to God (see the rest of Hebrews for how this works!) But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for us to do. The preacher tells them that one of the ways that they participate in this continuous praise is by confessing Jesus’ name with their words in the public sphere—risky business. Another is by continuing to do all the good things that will keep their community strong in risky times. All of the pastoral directives we have discussed above truly are sacrifices of the old life in order for the new to come to life, and this pleases God.
On the sitcom “American Housewife,” teenage Oliver decides he wants to be rich when he grows up, just like the people in the neighbourhood where his middle class family rents a house (his dad has taken an associate professor job at the local college). Eventually he befriends one of the neighbours, Spencer Blitz, and decides to learn from and imitate Spencer’s life. (The problem being, of course, that Spencer was a bit of a crook and very lonely.) Their friendship blossoms and is featured over a number of episodes as Oliver learns some healthy—and not so healthy—tips about the lifestyle of the filthy rich. Along the way, Oliver has the very human experience of following his baser desires and love of money. Other times, Oliver does the right thing for the good of someone else. Spencer’s most influential moment in Oliver’s life, however, comes after he dies. In the days leading up to the reading of Spencer’s will, Oliver makes plans for how he will turn his inheritance into more money. But Spencer doesn’t leave Oliver any money. In his message to the family about the will, Spencer says that he cares too much for Oliver and his family and doesn’t want money to tear them apart. Spencer says that he wholeheartedly believes Oliver will be successful all on his own, especially if he learns about being a good person from his parents. Instead of money, Spencer leaves himself to Oliver—in the form of videotapes full of random advice, and his urn of ashes. Comfort comes from a person, not things.
Similarly, many of us who grew up with aspirations (mostly wishful!) to play professional sports had a role model that we tried to emulate. When we considered what these stars had accomplished, we wanted it! We’d read their bios in Sports Illustrated or on the internet and we started to do all of the practice workouts that they did, ate like they ate, liked the same hobbies as they liked… hoping it would produce the same effect in us. Though most of us didn’t reach those heights, the idea of imitation is sound, according to the preacher. We just need to set our sights a little lower: to the everyday life of the saints who have modelled for us the Christ-filled life and taught us gospel truth. So many of us have stories of Grandmas who prayed, fathers who sang in worship, sisters and brothers who gave of themselves because Christ first loved us.
Use your church’s history to model what the “preacher” in Hebrews is doing. What are the moments when your community has come together and truly lived the love of God in community? What times of faithfulness do you think God wants the people to remember so as to keep up the faithfulness? What are the ministries that create space for the congregation to identify with those being mistreated and to extend hospitality to strangers? Maybe even go so far as to have everyone stand and say verse 6 together!
Consider these recent church stories of remembering that leads to action:
For those in distress from medical bills:
For those in distress from student loans:
For those in distress from payday loan companies:
Rev. Doug Bratt is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2019, but will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters in December.