Practical Advice from One of the Oldest Sermons (Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16)

September 2, 2013

The Letter to the Hebrews is a very unusual piece of Scripture. In fact, it is unique among all the books of the bible. It’s not a book of prophecy, it’s not the story of Jesus’ life, and it’s not actually a letter, although scholars believe it was later changed to make it look a bit like a letter. The Letter to the Hebrews is originally a sermon, a homily that was written down and later distributed. Paul’s letters, remember, were written when he was away from his community, and they followed a specific literary style. But the author of Hebrews probably knew what was going on in the day to day life of the community. Hebrews is also one of the most elegant writings in the New Testament. The author had probably been very well educated. And it seems to be old: most scholars think it was written around 63-64 AD, or about 30 years after the Crucifixion. This is a window into the life of one of the earliest Christian communities.

So this piece of Scripture should be easy for us to relate to. We hear sermons and homilies all the time. This one follows the same format that most preachers use. There are two components. There is an element of teaching about the faith, and there is an element where the author explains how this teaching plays out in the Christian life. This passage that we hear today comes at the very end, and it sums up all of the practical advice. This is Christian living 101. It’s intensely practical; and it’s all stuff that we can actually do. There are two bookends which really sum things up. At the beginning, the author says, ‘Let mutual love continue’, and at the end, ‘Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have.’ This is the summary.

So then we have some practical examples: show hospitality and generosity. This is about trusting that God will give us enough and we will have enough to share with others. Then we are told to care for those in prison. We are told that people who make mistakes are still children of God and worthy of our respect and care. We are told to be one with those who suffer because we are all part of one family.

We are told to respect marriage. Apart from the obvious recommendation to support each other’s marriages, we can see a broader recommendation. We are called to support each other in the commitments that we make to one another. We’re not alone; we can and should help each other. And sometimes this means having the humility to accept help.

The author also warns us about the love of money. People have always been attracted to money and the comfort that comes from having money. But things haven’t changed too much in the past few thousand years. People tend to crave money in an unhealthy way, and they lose sight of the gifts they have right in front of them. We are supposed to do our best to be content with what we have.

Remember your leaders, and follow their example. This one is a bit of a double edged sword because it assumes that our leaders are living blameless and holy lives, which is not always the case. So this piece of advice is also a bit of a warning to the leaders as well. But this does bring us back to the message of mutual love and support. By the way, this isn’t really about the clergy either. We have lots of leaders here in this parish we can look to (and those leaders should remember that people are looking to them).

The author of Hebrews offers practical advice: Recognizing that we are all children of God and worthy of dignity. Seeing the face of Christ in the least and the most marginalized people. Supporting one another in our commitments. Cultivating gratitude for our gifts and not being chained to material things. Doing good in the world is a sacrifice to God.

The important part of this is that simply doing the work that we are supposed to do can lead to a change of heart. Too often we often think that if we intend to change or intend to do good, then we’ve done the hard part. And sometimes that works. Sometimes we are inspired to change our lives. But other times, we don’t really want to change. Perhaps we know we ought to do a bit more, but deep in hearts, we don’t really want to. The message of the author of Hebrews is that if we just get on and do the work, then we might find our hearts have come along without our even noticing. If we get to know a stranger or we care for someone who is suffering, then we’ve seen more of God. If we listen to someone who needs our help, or if we decide we don’t really need the best of something, we’re seen more of God.

About 1950 years ago, a preacher stood among the congregation with this message. Perhaps one of the most amazing things about this advice is just how relevant it is. With all of the changes in our world, we can look at this advice and see how we could do these things every day. These are things that we can really do. And if we can do them, and if we can start to do them a little more, then we will find that our hearts turn more and more to God. Before we know it, we will be able to say “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

– Michael Tuck+

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