A sermon at Ketchikan Presbyterian Church by George R. Pasley
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” Remember your leaders, 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.
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Gospel Luke 14:1, 7-14
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable:
“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.
But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.
But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Do not forget to show hospitality…
We do not know MUCH about this letter to the Hebrews-
Or, not as much as we would LIKE to know-
We do not know who wrote it, and as far back as anybody can determine we have always argued about who wrote it. Most of our opinions are merely guesses.
Nor are we certain who it was written TO-
Certainly to Jewish Christians, though there is room for expanding that audience-
But were they in Jerusalem?
Or scattered about?
But we are certain that it was written within fifty years of the first Easter,
Written to a community of believers
Who were poor
Who were often hungry
Who were often in prison
Who were perhaps slaves
And if not slaves, widows,
Or women married to indifferent husbands.
It was written to people who were not in control of most of the circumstances of their daily lives, Let alone their destinies.
We are certain of that, because 65% of the population of the Roman Empire in those times was indigent.
And more than 99% of the first Christians came from those ranks.
And THIS, we know for sure: whoever they were, wherever they were, they were sharing what they had with each other- their churches, based out of what we would call apartments, had food pantries, and clothing pantries. And somewhere in whatever passed for a parish, they gathered almost every day to share a meal.
And they WERE shared
Even if what they shared was day-old bread.
The gatherings were egalitarian- slaves, women, widows, and the occasional people who were more better off- they had no rank.
So this letter of encouragement- which is what it calls itself- was written to encourage them to keep doing what they were doing!
But more, “Do it for strangers, too.”
And they did. But it must have been like telling somebody who was running a marathon to run another one.
Keep going, do not stop.
And they did it. Jesus did it, and they were taught to do it, and they did it.
But not because they were taught to.
We know a lot about them, because they wrote a lot about what they did.
The few who could write, wrote for outsiders, and said,
“We seem weird, but this is who we are.”
But mostly they wrote for the teachers: “Teach this.”
They wrote to each other to encourage each other.
Here’s some of the things they wrote- in widely separated churches in Carthage, and Jerusalem, and Egypt, and Rome:
Our members memorize the sermon on the Mount, and the New Jerusalem passages from Isaiah, and we practice doing what Jesus taught us to do.
They didn’t write about what they believed, they wrote about what they did.
Because what they did was proof of something, if they did it from the heart.
And their GOAL was to do it from habit, because that’s who they wanted to be.
Oh, they were never perfect. Most of their bishops and teachers wrote a few grumbles about the ones who didn’t listen, or slackened in their practice. But for the most part, even though they were small and poor and afraid, they did these things with a passion.
One scholar discovered that in some communities, some Christians actually sold themselves into slavery, and gave the money to help the poor.
And another scholar discovered this, “And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast for two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.” (Apology of Aristides, mid-second century)
When a plague struck almost any city- and plagues came often in those filthy cities- citizens panicked. Sick people might be carried into the street, and left.
But Christians prayed, and carried food to the sick, and sat by their side much to the astonishment of everybody else.
That’s what Jesus did, wasn’t it? And that’s what they were taught to do, in a long and thorough baptism class.
“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
There’s a clue there, as to why- and how- they could do it.
You will be repaid, and you will be repaid by God.
Well now, it’s only a clue. Because they believed something more than that, something better than that.
They didn’t do it expecting reward.
And what they did impressed their neighbors, but as one scholar says, it was not a “calculative evangelism.”
They did not do it to IMPRESS their neighbors (Even though it did).
They did it because they were citizens of a different world, a world that was governed by God.
And that’s what the writer of this letter was encouraging them to KEEP DOING, no matter how hard it might be.
One of the leaders of the early church, a man named Justin, wrote a simple comparison of how people lived- Romans to Christians.
The non-Christians, he said, suffered from four addictions- something he blamed on evil spirits, which enslaved those who did not know God.
The four addictions were
Wealth and power
And violence and xenophobia (fear and hatred of strangers).
And here, in Hebrews, we see confirmation- Christians were explicitly encouraged to live different lives:
Hold your marriage in honor.
Keep your lives free from the love of money.
Put your trust in the Lord, and
Show hospitality to strangers.
The thing is, those things are hard to do.
It was a bit hard for me yesterday when a stranger called and asked how to get into the church.
“Go around back, down stairs,” I answered.
“I was down there she said, but there aren’t any doors.”
Hospitality is hard.
And giving away my money is hard.
And sex, well. Today is something called topless Sunday in America.
And trusting God is hard, when I have no idea what God has planned.
If there is a plan.
It’s hard, because it’s different, and because WE want to be in control of all of it.
But remember, those first Christians- they had very little control over their lives.
But they had heard who does: God.
God, who raised Jesus from the dead, and who has given us vision of a heavenly banquet here we’ll gather together in joy.
So they trusted their lives to Jesus, even in prison and under a sentence of death, they trusted Jesus.
But trust is the hardest thing of all.
That’s why we hang on to our money, or our fears, or our hatreds, or our lusts.
Because trust is hard.
So what they did, to build trust, was to practice.
They practiced first by memorizing the stories of Jesus, and the prophesies of Isaiah.
Then they practiced by sharing their food, and their clothes, and their precious little time.
Then they practiced by loving each other without rank.
They practiced humility before each other and the world, which was a way of practicing their trust in God.
And then they practiced a sacrifice of praise, which was and is a way of opening our eyes to another reality.
Praise God, because God’s in charge-
Not Barack Obama,
Not Bill Walker,
And not Congress or the legislature either.
And not my boss.
And the more they practiced, the more they trusted God
And the more they trusted God, the more they were at peace
And the more they were at peace, the more filled they were with joy
And the more filled they were with joy,
The more they were raised up, and blessed by God.
So today, we serve the Lord’s Table.
And tonight, there will be people sleeping on the street. Maybe even under our porch roof.
And tomorrow, plenty of folk- young and old- will wake up and have no place to go for coffee or a bathroom.
Because this world is still filled with strangers
And people who are enslaved to addictions
And our addictions are fear
But God is still inviting us to trust
And Jesus is still saying, follow me.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.