This Sermon was delivered at St Mary the Virgin’s, Diss at the Sung Eucharist on the 1st September 2019. Readings: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1,7-14.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we find ourselves coming to the end of summer and the start of Autumn, we also find ourselves coming to the end of the letter to the Hebrews. The letter has covered a lot of ground, and we’ve naturally heard more sermons on the Gospel readings than on the Letter to the Hebrews. As such the key themes and the structure of the letter probably aren’t at the forefront of our minds. But it’s okay, because as this letter enters its final chapter it gathers together and ties up each of the threads into a helpful kind of summary so that we, the hearers, can hold onto and be encouraged by its conclusions.
It seems to me that there are five key principles or ideas at play here.
One: What does it mean to be the Church?
What does it mean to be the church community here at St Mary’s?
What are we to do?
“Let mutual love continue.”
It’s as simple and as complicated as that. Let me tell you, when I started to think about those four words it quickly became clear to me how expository preachers end up taking hours to expand single verses of scripture.
“Let mutual love continue”.
We are to love our neighbour as ourselves and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Mutual love means that this isn’t our responsibility as an individual to love everyone as much as we can. It’s not about warm fuzzy feelings or being nice to people. It’s about supporting and being supported by others.
“Let mutual love continue”.
Continue – we can’t allow ourselves to withhold support from one another because of petty grievances. The life of our Church Community is found in the continuing, ongoing love for one another. A love which is sustained, often, by meaningful acts of repentance and forgiveness.
This is the standard which the letter to the Hebrews holds us to: Let mutual love continue.
It’s by being a part of the Church; a part of the worshipping community, that we come onto the question of how to be a good person.
The letter says: “remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them, remember those who are being tortured as if you were being tortured with them.’ This resonates strongly with the words of Jesus in our Gospel today where we heard him strongly encouraging us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to our banquets, our feasts. That is, in our hospitality we should not prefer to invite the ‘great and the good’, those distinguished people whom we can name drop into conversation in order to gain social clout. Instead we are to be mindful of those whom it’s easier to politely ignore.
I wonder how we do on this front? Personally I think that all of our sidespersons do a wonderful job of welcoming people as they come into our buildings and share in our services. I know that many of you happily invite people to sit with you and to point out the hymns and which page to be on. We also have the foodbank, which should be commended. Perhaps we’re comfortable with what we do. Perhaps, though, we could do more to connect with those who rely on the jobcentre a stone’s throw from our building? Perhaps we could do more to welcome in those who depend on Solo Housing?
We are to draw them into our sphere of mutual love within the presence of God. As it says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality for strangers for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it”.
There’s a couple of other things this letter to the Hebrews encourages us to do which I think we do do well. The first is to be content with what we have, and not to let our lives be governed by a love of money. A sign of a healthy relationship with money is the generosity with which people share it with charities and indeed with the Church in order to help us to continue to bless others as we ourselves have been blessed by the gifts others.
The second is to respect and uphold the institution of Marriage. One of the joys I’ve had since joining you here has been to hear stories from those of you who have been married for 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years or more. We’ve seen people renew their vows and I’ve now conducted my first wedding and have two more coming up soon. It’s at this point where you’ll have to forgive my self-indulgence but you may have noticed on the screen before the service a couple of pictures of Linnea and I from our wedding, as today is actually our first wedding anniversary! And we have certainly felt loved and supported by all of you as we start our married lives together.
However, marriage isn’t always easy. Life happens, relationships can break down and come to an end; leaving emotional wounds which take time to heal. The Church isn’t only for those who are married, but it’s for those who need and value the continuing mutual love and support which can be found within the Church.
A love and support which is not grounded on human sympathy, but which is underpinned by the living reality of the Gospel promise of God to encounter those who are hurting, to comfort and strengthen them so that they, with all the Church, may say:
“The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?”
In a few verses which the lectionary omitted in the middle of our reading today, this theme of the living reality of what Jesus has done for us is emphasised, comparing it with the sacrifices of the Old Testament. It also reintroduces this idea that our focus is not just on what can God do for us, but how can we be with God; what can we offer to God.
It says, Let us then go to Jesus on the cross and share in the abuse which he endured. More than this, it continues Therefore let us continually offer him a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.
This may seem counter-intuitive, let us approach the abuse he endured and worship?
Yet this is what we do every week when we come forward to receive the sacrament; we make our pilgrim journey from our birth at the font up to the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ; through this act of receiving and consuming our actions acknowledge the pledge of God’s love for us continually pouring into our very selves, sustaining, strengthening, healing and redeeming us for his own. This is what it is to encounter Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Our worship is the fruit of confessing Jesus Christ is Lord; for by saying so, by believing so we find ourselves inevitably drawn to worship him through reading scripture, singing hymns, and participating in the sacramental life of the Church which is characterised by our continuing in mutual love.
The Church is at once the mystical body of Christ throughout the world which is united by the Holy Spirit, but it is also our Church here. Sometimes we may be drawn to share stories and testimonies of what God is doing in other churches to the point that we can perhaps overlook the ways in which we are each encountering him here in St Mary’s. The author of the letter to the Hebrews recognised this, he was writing to a scattered church, and having tied together what it means to be a Church, what it means to be a Good person. Having emphasised the reality that God is with us, and for us; and that in response we should pursue him, worshipping him unceasingly, he writes:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing – for that would be harmful to you.
It could be easy to mishear, or misunderstand these words as a bossy demand. We who have the privilege of serving not just St Mary’s but also the wider Diss Team Ministry are placed in the spotlight; not of glory but of scrutiny. You are to consider our lives, and indeed our faith. We are to live as examples to you just as you are to live as examples to your neighbours and those who encounter you in town, the stores or in cafes, pubs and restaurants.
We also have the privilege of journeying alongside you as you grow in your faith. We have the joy of praying for you all, of blessing you and welcoming you to receive the sacraments. I know that I speak for Tony, John, Maggie and all our retired clergy when I tell you that we love you. We really do, and we want to see you continuing your journey as you become more and more the person God desires you to be.
Yet we can only help when we know there’s a need. We can only visit if we know that someone is unwell. We can only pray for specific situations if you ask us or write it down by the St Nicolas Chapel
Help us to help you and ask for what you need.
Trust us and, most importantly, pray for us so that we may serve you with a clear conscience and act honourably in all things.
And so, as I, like the summer and the letter to the Hebrews, draw to a close let me end with the concluding prayer of this letter:
Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever.