September 1, 2019
Last week's reading from Hebrews was confusing to say the least. This week's reading is much more straightforward; “Let mutual love continue... show hospitality to strangers... Remember those who are in prison... let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.. Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you... and imitate their faith... Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have... continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God.” The author shares a list of ways we ought to live. And smack dab in the middle of our passage, he tells us how we can manage to live like this, “The Lord is my helper.”
I do want to talk about some of these traits, but it starts with what's inside us. We can try to do on these things on our own, and we will fail. We can seek after the Lord Jesus and center our lives around him, and we will still fail... to live perfectly. But the key to some level of success is having our heart right, the proper source of the good we can do comes from inside as we claim the promise that the Lord is our helper.
There's a sticky note that's been taped to my daughter's bedroom door for so long I forget it's there. So I was taken by surprise when a recent house guest came downstairs repeating, "Live big inside." He was impressed that a young lady might be so moved by a simple saying that she'd tape it to her door. As we enjoyed a cup of coffee and watched the morning come up, he explained the value of repeating aphorisms.
He said, "Self-talk is key to success and a tool to learning." He went on to explain, "Simple words, phrases and cliches repeated on a regular basis plant the seeds of achievement in your mind. Your subconscious responds to the positive and negative impulses it hears in self-talk." It was an engaging conversation, and the perfect complement to the coffee, but I wasn't aware how the topic began.
Then our house guest asked when Sara [my daughter, now a college graduate] taped the sticky note to her bedroom door. I thought for a moment. Sara? Sticky note? Bedroom door? I was clueless. After a moment's thought, I realized what he was referring to. When my daughter was in high school, a friend of hers gave her a bug in a jar to complete a science project. To make sure no one opened the jar, this friend put a note on the lid that read, "Live bug inside." Sara, thinking the note was a fun "warning" for anyone who might dare to enter her room, taped it to the door and it's been there ever since.
We both got a great chuckle from the irony of the conversation, yet I walked away repeating the misreading he originally thought was so insightful, "Live big inside."
A good lesson for us is what he friend said about self-talk, “simple words, phrases and cliches repeated on a regular basis plant the seeds of achievement in your mind. Your subconscious responds to the positive and negative impulses it hears in self-talk.” I'm reminded of the computing phrase, Garbage in-garbage out. What the programmer puts into the computer determines what they get out of it. Our mind works in a similar way. So putting good things in helps us to produce good fruit. One reason I like our practice of a verse of the month is it allows us to plant seeds of promise and praise in our minds. What we put into our minds, our “self-talk” referred to in the story, makes a difference in how we live. We want good news to be entered into our subconscious, our inner being. Then we can live big inside and outside, live the things we profess to believe and that God is calling us to.
Let's look a little closer at today's specifics. “Let mutual love continue... show hospitality to strangers.” Mutual love and hospitality go together. We demonstrate the love we've been shown when, we show hospitality to strangers. Jo Bailey Wells suggests that we need to define that word stranger. As we consider the stranger, the newcomer, the immigrant, the visitor, this is a good definition: “the stranger is anyone in whom I have yet to recognize God’s gift.” So much of the trouble in our world comes when we see the stranger as an enemy or adversary or as competition. Can we adjust our thinking a bit and look for God's presence in the stranger?
Another way to consider this and the call to mutuality, what about when we are the stranger? We are to allow hospitality to be shown to us as well. Our gospel reading shows how we should not presume upon our welcome. Jesus instructed the guests that seeking honor often leads to being invited ignominiously to go and receive a less honorable welcome. As a guest or as a stranger, we do not presume honor that has not been bestowed on us. As Jesus said, you will be removed from the place of honor. He went on to teach that we are to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” Hospitality and mutuality in love. We are to show mutual love when we are the host and when we are the guest; the stranger. And if we use Well's definition of stranger, then it behooves us to live so that we are God's gift waiting to be seen and known by our hosts even as we look for the gift of God in the stranger.
Hebrews continues, “Remember 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.” It is important to note that the author doesn't just call for compassion for the prisoner... “as though you are in prison with them.” There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy indicates that you feel sorry for them, empathy says you feel their pain. I discovered in the deaths of people close to me that I could empathize with those who lost a loved one whereas before I felt sympathy, sorrow for them. Empathy is what Hebrews calls for; don't just feel sorry for those who suffer but put yourselves in their shoes and know their pain. And that's what Jesus did; he came to earth to know our sorrows and pain. And that's what Jesus does, being our intercessor with an understanding of what we go through. Earlier in Hebrews, the author wrote this about Jesus, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” We can't know the pain of everyone or every experience. But as we walk through this life, we will have common experiences and we can share how we survived with those suffering right now. Sympathize when that's what you can do, empathize when you know the pain and can help bring comfort in their pain.
Too much in this passage to cover. I want to conclude with this phrase, “let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God.” It's an interesting phrase, a sacrifice of praise, not just offer praise to God. Why a sacrifice of praise?
Sometimes praise comes really easy, life is good, blessings abound. But sometimes we don't feel like praising. Sometimes we are struggling in life and in faith and praise doesn't come easy. I've had times and you probably have when it seems that God isn't listening, or God seems far away. Times when even praying is hard... yet alone praising God. That's when it takes sacrifice to praise; we sacrifice our pride, our self-sufficiency, our doubts and our pains on the altar of praise. It takes a conscious decision; “I am going to praise you Lord, even though I don't understand.” And what just may happen is you will suddenly realize that God is there. You may find again that God hasn't moved away. And you may come to know again the love of God. Praising helps us to remember that God loves us. And Sunday mornings gathered in community become very important in making that connection.
Our hymns today are hymns of praise. Our next one was written in 1864. The refrain goes like this, “Lord of all to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.” But when Folliott Pierpoint wrote it, he was more in the spirit of our passage addressing the praise to God through Christ and using the direct quote from Hebrews. His refrain read, “Christ, our God, to thee we raise, this our sacrifice of praise.” No matter where you find your faith life today, intentionally praising God through Jesus will draw you closer to our God. We sacrifice our selfishness at the throne of God when we can praise even in the tough times.
Our look at Hebrews gave us quite a list of traits to live out. We won't obey those “rules” perfectly. But the practice of praising God will help strengthen us for the good works we seek to do and encourage us in the struggles we will have. Praising God, both in corporate worship and privately, helps that inner voice give you the strength and courage to be your best for the Lord. Then we live big inside and outside, showing mutual love, hospitality, empathy, remaining faithful in relationships, being content with what we have, imitating examples of faithfulness; as we do good, share and continually offer our sacrifice of praise. Amen.
Hymn: For the Beauty of the Earth 473 PH