Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
13Let mutual love continue.2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.3Remember 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.4Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.5Keep 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.’6So we can say with confidence,
‘The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?’
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.8Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.15Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.16Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
“Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”
At the end of my first year of ordained ministry, I was required to attend a conference for new pastors in the Synod of the Northeast. Called “The Early Ministry Institute”, the goal was to bring new pastors from all over the Northeastern United States together once a year for three years to help equip them for their new calls and roles. It was a positive experience overall, but after the first year; I was not so sure I wanted to go back for the second and third years. Our speaker that year was a former moderator of the General Assembly, and the topic we were examining was “The Emerging Church”. I was excited at the prospect of learning more about this worship movement that was, well, emerging at the time. But what stuck with me were the dire statistics about the church in general – not just Presbyterians, but mainline denominations. I remember hearing that 50% of women ordained under the age of 30 would not be serving in ministry 5 years later – I beat that one, I’m happy to say. What struck terror in the hearts of us as new pastors was the statistic that in 5 years the church as we knew it back then, in May of 2007, would no longer exist. Multi-staff pastorates would become a thing of the past, and most ministers would be serving in congregations of fewer than 100 members, pastors would be part time, having to work in another vocation to pay the bills so they could live out their calls in fewer than 20 hours a week. Many of us were left in shock – what was going to happen to us? Where would we go? How would we feed our families or pay our student loans? Then my cohort leader, a wise woman who is now serving a congregation in Binghamton, NY read us a portion of today’s scripture passage: “remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate the faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Those words served to ground us in a time and place where everything felt like it was moving too fast for us to control or process.
To quote the great philosopher Ferris Beuller, from the movie Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Sometimes it seems like everything in our world happens so quickly. We rush from work to school to after-school activities and back home. We give our time for worthwhile causes. We drive, we fly, we run for exercise, and race as a hobby. So often we catch ourselves saying, “I don’t know where the month went”, or “How is it Labor Day weekend already?” Information flows quickly in our age of technology, children learn more at an earlier age, and we live longer than we have before. The rate of change is astonishing. There is a scientific principle called the “Knowledge Doubling Curve” developed by a man named Buckminster Fuller. The general idea is that the more we know, the faster we know more. Knowledge volume undergoes exponential growth, doubling and redoubling over time. Up until the 1900 it was said that the accumulation of knowledge doubled every century. At the end of World War 2 every 25 years. Today – well anywhere from 1 to 1.5 years to – Nanotechnology they say every 2 years – Clinical knowledge every 18 months.i
Just in my lifetime – 35 years – we have moved from a society of rotary phones to computers that fit in our pockets. Air conditioning was not a standard feature in most cars, and now many have computers to tell you where to go, how to get there, and will guide you by satellite. You can have a book delivered to your Kindle or iPad in seconds, and connect with thousands of people from across the globe without leaving the comfort of your couch. I remember the big deal that was the Wide World of Sports on Sunday afternoons – the place to hear and see the news about the sports that your local channel did not carry. Now, we can watch those same sporting events beamed onto our phones or TV’s as they happen, and not have to wait for the recap. 35 years.
It’s no wonder that we can find comfort in the passage from Hebrews today. In the midst of all this change, both in the world and in the church (the place that is supposed to be stable and our shelter in the storm), we can find peace in knowing that Jesus Christ will never change – he is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It is nice to know that in our world some things don’t change. It’s powerful to know that the foundation of who we are and what we believe will not change. The oldest profession of faith is “Jesus is Lord” and we still affirm that today. If my group had really listened to the lecture at EMI rather than being shocked at hearing we may be a group of unemployed pastors before 2013, we would have heard good news as well. A closer reading of the passage shows us three ways the church – in whatever form it takes – will always be the church.
From the time of the ancient church, to the time when Christ returns, there are three vital elements necessary for us to participate in the kingdom of God. Worship, fellowship, and ministry are the three spoken of as the letter to the Hebrews draws to a close.
Those who heard this letter read aloud when it was received probably would not recognize what we do here on Sunday morning as worship. Those fancy modern instruments – an organ! Set liturgy or an order of service – how very forward thinking. The Lords Supper isn’t a full meal? And it’s served not reclining at tables, but by passing plates or coming forward and breaking and dipping? The scandal! “How does any of that connect to worship?”, those churchgoers might ask. Worship is described for us in verse 15: “Through [Christ], let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God. That is the fruit of lips that confess his name.”
How do we offer a sacrifice to God as our act of worship? We sacrifice our time. As a pastor, I will hear “Sorry I missed church on Sunday – I overslept” or had another obligation, or needed a slow morning at home, or something else. I get it. Being here at 9 or 10 or 11 on Sunday requires you to give God something that is precious – your time. Your time that could be spent sleeping, playing, eating, shopping, preparing. The sacrifice of your time is part of our offering to God. We also offer our identities. We sacrifice ourselves as we open our mouths to sing and pray, we sacrifice our insecurities, our wondering “what will they think about me?”, our desires to be invisible. We sacrifice our hearts and minds, offering our prayers and praise. Worship is a place that can be transformative. So often, folks say that they want sermons and worship that will move them to be better people, to change their lives and be better Christians. And, no matter how well Ted and I prepare liturgy and preach, no matter how holy and gorgeous the choir sounds, or how powerful the songs in the Upper Room, worship will not change your life unless you are open to the transformation. Part of being transformed is letting go of who you were to allow God to mold and shape who you are becoming. It is our confession that Jesus is Lord which connects us across time and space to all who worshipped before, and to all who will worship. We imitate the faith of our leaders, those who came before, and pass that faith along to those who follow.
Second, no matter how the face and shape of the world changes, we are called, as a church to fellowship. We cannot be part of a church community alone. Yes, Jesus went off to be alone to pray, and we can do that sometimes. However, we cannot be the body of Christ by ourselves. We are called to fellowship with one another as Christians, to nurture and build the relationships that offer a foundation for us as a community of faith. “Let mutual love continue” is how our passage from today opened. Typically, I take a global approach with this – that we are all connected and called to love one another, no matter who or where we are. But, those of you who were here last week might get bored if I preached that again so soon… So let’s look at mutual love at a different level. The community based love that believers have for believers. Chapter 13 is the “in conclusion” portion of this letter. In Chapters 10 and 6 we learned about this kind of love – today we are being reminded of it. This is love that requires us to want the best for one another. This is love that requires us to act as much as we feel. This loves calls us to show hospitality to one another, and all who come through our doors. This is the love that we saw on the prairies when a community would gather to raise a barn or build a church. Today we see this love on a Wednesday night when close knit groups invite a new family to sit with them, or when the Parents of PreSchoolers gather together for mutual support as they raise their children. It is in Fellowship that we get to learn who we are, and how we can support one another. While the methods of support may have evolved from barn-raising to carpooling to camp, we see the continuity of Christ whenever we are gathered together. Just as Jesus did not send the disciples out into the world alone, he does not send us alone either – we go together, bound by the relationships we built through our fellowship together.
To me, the last element of the church feels the most nebulous, and also feels like the biggest. “Ministry.” What’s that? Some weeks, my list of what I call ministry looks pretty scattered and busy – list-making, meeting coordinating, writing, reading, visiting, talking, listening, finding To-go boxes for Friendship Table and paper-towels for the bathroom, updating Facebook, and holding babies. A good deal of that is the church work part of any minister’s call, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. But I’m not sure that’s what the New Testament authors had in mind – at least not all of it. As people who are part of any organization, we can be drawn into the details, the logistics, the many moving parts that must function for us to do what we do here. We can neglect to see the larger work of ministry. Ministry looks like showing hospitality to strangers, remembering those who are in prison or tortured, and not neglecting to do good. In this letter, remember does not mean “occasionally think about”. It means visit and feed. We are called to go to the places we are scared to tread and bring food and company. We minister when we count the homeless. We minister when we feed the hungry. We minister when we unite as a community through partnerships such as Family Promise and feed and house those who have no place else to turn. We pray. We minister when we hold the door open for someone, speak to one another, or acts as servants to one another. We minister when offer hospitality to strangers, and entertain angels, unaware.
Lanny Peters tells a story about entertaining an angel. Peters was driving alone on a trip, and saw a hitchhiker on the side of the road. Now, I don’t know about Peters, but I was taught to never pick up hitchikers. He either ignored the rules, or was feeling brave that day, and he pulled over and let the man in his car. The man had a snaggletooth grin, and was waving when Peters pulled over. He limped to the car and climbed in. As the door shut, he extended his hand, saying “Thanks, my name is Henry.” As the miles passed, Henry started talking. Perhaps he was lonely. Perhaps he had not had someone to listen to him for a long time. He told his story and asked Peters about his life, as well. As they visited, Peters learned that Henry did not own a car and was trying to get to a hospital several hundred miles away to see his child. Peters was only going about halfway before he had to turn in another direction, but offered to take Henry as far as he could. As the miles passed, Henry began telling Peters about this restaurant near the place where they would part ways. Peters was sure that Henry wanted a meal, and began to calculate how much he could afford to give him when they arrived. Suddenly, Henry pulled out a worn, ragged billfold and began looking through it. “Yes,” he said, “Yes, I think I have enough here to buy us both supper.” Peters tried to decline, and Henry said no – he wanted to buy the meal. They went into the roadside diner, and enjoyed a meal together around the table. The waitress knew Henry by name, and they had an enjoyable time before Peters had to leave. To this day, Peters is sure he was entertaining one of God’s angels without knowing it.
The good news of early Christianity was not spread by professional evangelists, but by travelers along the way. They carried letters of introduction, so that those they encountered at the end of each day would know that they were safe to allow in to share a meal and offer a place to sleep. The phrase “offering hospitality to strangers” was a reminder to Christians to offer food and shelter to any who came by – whether they could produce a letter or not. The work of ministry, then as well as now, is offering hospitality. I am moved every year when during Holy Week several members of our congregation gather at the Bartow Street Vestibule and offer bottles of cold water to those participating in the march for immigrants that crisscrosses the state each spring. We don’t ask who they are, we don’t check papers or ID, we offer them a cool drink of water, a chance to use the restroom, and encouragement as they continue their journey. That’s ministry.
The three elements together are what make the church. In worship we offer our sacrifices together to minister to others in the name of Christ. We come together to develop relationships that are strengthened by time spent laughing over a meal or playing a game. As those relationships strengthen and grow, we minister. And when we minister, we return to worship to offer our praises to God. That may look different in different places and at different times. We draw on the faith and the lessons we learned from those who preceded us, and who lead us today. The early churches look vastly different from the cathedrals in Paris, which are different from huts in Africa or our buildings here. The music may be Gregorian chants or tribal singing accompanied by drums or maracas. The words spoken or proclaimed may be as familiar as your own name, or spoken in a language you don’t understand. But all that aside, wherever people gather in the name of Jesus and proclaim that he is Lord, the church will exist. When the people of God come together in worship, ministry, and fellowship to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, the church remains. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Jesus Christ is Lord, and Jesus Christ remains. Thanks be to God, Amen.
Rev. Julie A. Jensen
First Presbyterian Church. Cartersville, GA