Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16
It feels so good to be back with you all, and back in the pulpit! I do indeed have so many stories to tell, but my plan is not to tell too many of them today. After all, I have some time next week at the presentation, and then I hope to engage over the next several weeks with a series that I have titled… So today, I want to take a brief look at this passage from Hebrews, and see what it might have to say to us.
First of all, there is a lot of stuff in there. And that’s after the lectionary cuts out a bunch of verses about animal sacrifices outside of the camp and Jesus outside of the city gate and some kind of weird stuff. Even then, there are all these lessons, these exhortations. You’ll know if you have your own Bible open that this is the last chapter of Hebrews, and it feels like the author is trying to get all the rest of the ideas in that he didn’t share for the first twelve chapters. Hebrews is a pretty theological book, and so for twelve chapters the author has waxed eloquently about the theological position and role of Jesus in the world and in history. Now, in the last chapter, there are all these practical lessons about how to be healthy Christians and how to be healthy Church. “Be kind to strangers and those in prison…don’t forget to worship…respect your leaders…don’t sleep around.”
It feels a little like when you put your kids on the bus for summer camp. “Don’t forget to brush…be nice to your tent-mate…respect your leaders…don’t sleep around.” There is this tendency to want to tell them all the things. All the things you don’t want them to forget. All the things that they probably already know. That’s what I think the author of Hebrews is doing here. “Don’t forget to do this and this and this.” The life of faith can be complicated, and the author wants to make sure and leave them with a practical word. It almost reads like a chapter from Proverbs: practical advice for living. It’s not just about the theology – though the theology is important – but the pragmatic “how-to’s” of the faith.
So, exploring this passage today is a little backwards, isn’t it? I mean, we all just got back from summer camp! You all have had this experience without me here and I have had this experience without you, and so we are reading this passage at the wrong time!
But let me suggest that maybe this is the best time to read this passage. After all, when the kids come back from camp, you check in. You ask them if they brushed their teeth and whether or not they respected their leaders. I think that this is a great time for a check-in. How’d you do while I was gone? So let’s look at a few of these practical lessons from Hebrews and check in.
Let’s start at the beginning, in verse one: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” As always, you knocked this one out of the park! This church is always a welcoming church, so this doesn’t come as a surprise. You all hosted Family Promise in July. There were 3? families and by all reports the week went well. Many of you know that we are one of the favorite churches in the Family Promise rotation. They love that we have showers – and that we let guests use them. They love that we give them their own rooms and don’t just partition off the gym. They love that we cook good food! And they love that we have folks who genuinely care about them. They name Wendy and Stacey and Anne and others by name as caring, loving folks who go out of their way on Family Promise week to make this feel like home. You show hospitality every quarter, and you do it without being told you are “supposed to.” And that’s not all. You continue to host Troop 60 of the Boy Scouts, and Pastor Cheryl told me that she just celebrated with a couple of the scouts a couple of weeks ago as they received their Eagle Award. Troop 60 is coming up on 100 years with the church, and it is yet another example of showing hospitality. And that’s not all! There are these quieter moments…things we don’t broadcast from the pulpit on Sunday morning. People that you go out of your way to help. To host. To give a little space when they need it. Food pantry guests that you sit down with and listen to their story. Individuals who are hurting and need a little something from the church. Your staff often does this on your behalf, but they do it because that is the culture of this place. That is what we do. That is who we are.
And so it seems normal and the right thing to do, but don’t take for granted. The author of Hebrews makes a point to say “this is the way of Christ.” When we host these folks, when we go out of our way, we are not only being nice or neighborly. We understand that this is a Christian value. In his famous Rule for Christian living, St. Benedict tells those of his order that they must treat everyone that comes to the door of the abbey as if it were Christ himself. There is the story told of an old monk who was weary of guests and visitors once when the knock came on the door in the middle of the night. It was a stranger there for the first time, but when the monk opened the door, he smiled and said “Oh, it’s you again.” Every new face, every stranger, is the face of Christ. Or as Hebrews tells it, “angels unawares.” When we show hospitality, we are being Christian, being Church in the most fundamental sense. And you do it brilliantly.
Number two. From verse 15: “…let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of the lips that confess his name.” In short, never stop worshipping. And again, you all did an amazing job at this one, too. I will have to admit I missed up. When you leave for sabbatical, the conventional wisdom is that you are supposed to leave preachers who aren’t really very good. That way, when you come back, you look pretty good in comparison. But I did the opposite! By all reports, this has been an amazing summer of worship! John kicked off the summer and ended it up on fire. In fact, all the preachers did a phenomenal job. The worship leaders and organizers were amazing. The music was wonderful. The worship was creative and different and fresh. Jenny and Cheryl shouldered a lot of the behind the scenes load that I usually take care of. I have not yet had the time to sit down and start listening to sermons, but I know that I missed up. I have some pretty big shoes to fill.
Of course, in all seriousness, I could not be happier to hear how meaningful worship has been this summer. You have “continually offer(ed) a sacrifice of praise to God.” Again, Hebrews reminds us that this is central to who we are as the Church, and as a congregation. And you all do it incredibly well. I have always known that it wasn’t me that made you all good worshippers, but it was you all that make me look good. Thank you for naturally, genuinely, offering a sacrifice of praise in your worship this summer. Thank you for the ways you do it every week. And a special word of thanks to all those who organized worship this summer. I am deeply indebted to Pastor John for the time he gave, and Pastor Cheryl and Jenny for the extra roles they took on, and to all of the leaders over the course of a powerful summer of worship.
Finally, one last verse. Verse 7: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you.” There is a word that I need to share about my sabbatical this summer. Many congregations offer sabbaticals. I have a lot of colleagues who have taken or who are planning sabbaticals, as their churches understand how important it is to the health of the pastor, and really to the health of the whole congregation. But here is the difference. For a lot of those pastors, their sabbaticals are required. There is something in the denominational structure that requires congregations to offer sabbaticals and sometimes requires pastors to take them. Meanwhile, I have other colleagues who wished they could take a sabbatical, but know that it is a lost cause with their congregation. Here is where you are different. This is something that you did, not because you had to. But because it is who you are. Because you “remember your leaders.” Because you care about your staff and you love your ministers. The author of Hebrews has to remind his readers of this because it is not a foregone conclusion. But here, it is. Because it is in your DNA. It is who you are.
And after seventeen years without a sabbatical, it was time, and you all saw that. And I am deeply grateful. Grateful to folks like Sandy and the staff relations team. Grateful to folks like Joanna and the Spiritual Leadership Team. Grateful for the ways that you remember your leaders, and you care for us. Again, this was a gift, but it was also an investment. You all are wise in knowing that this is the best way to care for the long-term health of the pastor and the congregation. And you all did it well. I wasn’t getting a ton of phone calls or knocks on my door. You gave me space. You gave my family space. And for that we are deeply thankful.
Remember your leaders.
As I expected you would, you all did an amazing job this summer. It’s who you are.
Now, don’t get a big head, or rest on your laurels too much. We still have work to do, and Hebrews reminds us that we cannot stop being what the Church needs to be. You are. But keep it up. There will be more guests who knock on our door. There will be more Sundays for worship. There will be leaders and staff that need your support and love.
But taking a step back from the church I have seen how you do this well. One last metaphor. How many of you all know the game “Mad Libs?” We played a lot of Mad Libs on our many car rides this summer. If you don’t know what I am talking about, it is a pad of paper where you insert various words. It asks for “Adjective” or “Household Object” or “Name.” And then you fill it out a word at a time into a narrative, a story. All of your individual words make sense in the big picture. Sometimes not a lot of sense, but you see what I am saying.
I feel like that is what I have done this summer. Usually, I am living church life in a way that is a lot like the “word-at-a-time” Mad Libs. Sunday worship. Tuesday staff. Wednesday supper. Write a sermon. Visit the hospital. You just see a word at a time. But taking a step back, I have seen more of the big picture. And it helps me see who you are. And it reminds me how well you do this. Of course, sometimes we probably look a little bit like Mad Libs to some folks…maybe we are a little quirky or weird. But it’s a good weird. It is a “Hebrews weird.” And I have been reminded this summer how thankful I am to be a part of your weird. Let’s keep this up for a while. Let’s be weird together. Amen.