A sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, September 1, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
That sentence is the culmination of the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is deep assurance of God’s steadfastness in love for us—that the Jesus we know doesn’t change, he can be relied upon to be there for us, if we are but ready to understand him as he is. But what is going on in our reading for today?
Hebrews is an anonymous discourse, written in the first century. Of all the writings of the New Testament, its writing is the most literary and polished. The more polished a piece of writing is, the more difficult it is to convey in translation, because every word is carefully chosen to fit together with the words around it. I realized this when I looked at the Greek to see what word was translated as “mutual love” in the first sentence: “Let mutual love continue.” There is nothing wrong with the translation that we have—it translates the words and sentences accurately. But on first reading, it can appear that it’s just a list of good things to remember, not particularly connected with one another. But in Greek, these exhortations are tied together by related words that show us the progressive logic of the Christian life of love.
Let me render this in awkward English to illustrate: “Let brotherly/sisterly love continue, but don’t neglect love of strangers, for hidden in that, some have entertained angels. And remember the prisoners, as though suffering the mistreatment they receive along with them in your own bodies. (And speaking of being in one shared body) keep the marriage bed undefiled. Be not-silver-lovers but be content with what you have.”
This passage weaves together the different kinds of love and not-love that make up the everyday Christian life and experience. It starts with the familiar: the everyday experience of love of the sisters and brothers who we know well and care for. This kind of love isn’t less than other kinds—it’s pretty much the foundation.
But what’s being emphasized is that Christian love doesn’t stop there. Christian love isn’t just for insiders. Even more important is the love of strangers, which is what that word “hospitality” really means—the stranger. Not the ones we know and have social obligations and relations with, but the wanderer on the road, the one we will never see again. By illustration the text alludes to Abraham, who received his greatest blessing—that is to say, the promise of his son and a legacy of a great nation—he received that blessing by stopping and welcoming three strangers on the road on a hot summer’s day.
But it is not just the strangers who we may encounter, but also those who are locked away and out of sight. This could refer to Christians, who like St. Paul found themselves imprisoned because their witness to the Gospel challenged those in power, so that they seized people and locked them up. Or it might recognize that people were seized for arbitrary reasons and held in terrible conditions unless they had the wealth or influence to gain release. That was in the Roman Empire – but it still happens today – for example to people whose immigration papers don’t convince the authorities, even to children in the hospital for cancer treatment. These distant people who we can’t see; we are one with them as well, as if we are one body with them as we are with Christ.
Next, there’s the reference to a shared experience in the body, the text circles back from the most distant and invisible of relationships, to the most intimate and familial— “Let the marriage bed be held in honor by all.” All this love of brothers and sisters and strangers and far-away prisoners does not reduce one’s obligation to those closest or change those obligations. No other kind of love exempts us from the basics of cherishing those in our own household and maintaining the integrity of those relationships. After this exhortation is another word that contains “love,” but in this case it has the prefix that means “not”—literally, a “not-lover of silver,” is what the readers are exhorted to be. The opposite of being one in flesh with another is to focus your love, your life and your future on dead metal, on cash. Chasing money will not take care of insecurity or of anxiety about it.
This is a simple summary of the Christian life, but Hebrews continues: “God has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’” So, when this text says, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever,” it is this simple Christian life of love that it is referring to, living in generosity, with care for others, near and far, and with responsibility to one another, not looking for shortcuts through greed or self-indulgence.
In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus has occasion to observe some people in a situation that they probably thought was hospitality. But rather than love of stranger, or even brotherly love, the gathering was quite the opposite: everyone was jockeying for power and prestige, looking for the best seats, seats that would indicate their proximity to power and that would command high regard. And the host was a big part of this—the guest list was compiled with an eye to enhancing his prestige in the community and perhaps even his wealth. Lives more akin to silver-lovers than stranger-brother-sister-lovers. And Jesus—who is the same, yesterday, today and forever—gives them advice: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.”
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.