Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sermon: How to Be Good

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
13Let mutual love continue. 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3Remember 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. 4Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” 6So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” 7Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 15Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

(The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)

Some parts of scripture are really complicated. There are times in which the preacher stands in the pulpit and reads long strings of sentences about trumpets and seals, angels of death and four-headed beasts. And in those times, the congregation hears the scripture and looks to the preacher to make some kind of sense out of this seemingly nonsensical text.

But sometimes we encounter a piece of scripture like this morning’s reading, and I sort of feel as if I should have just read the scripture, taken off my microphone, set it on the pulpit, and just sat back down.

I mean, sometimes it is difficult, but this is not one of those days, right? Show hospitality to strangers, love your sisters and brothers, remember those in prison, honor your closest relationships, don’t put your trust in money, pray for your leaders, rely on the Lord.

It is so simple, it sounds like more than just scripture. It sounds like a sermon, which of course it is. The book of Hebrews is called a letter because of some of the features of the book read that way, but it is really written as a sermon, a sustained argument about how we are called to live as people of faith in a culture that doesn’t take us as seriously as we would like. Does that sound familiar? I don’t know that the original hearers of the sermon to the Hebrews had to contend with the ridiculous antics of tv preachers, but when you start to hold house church meetings and give away all your money and spend time in prayer to an invisible God who supposedly turned into a human, but only for 33 years or so . . . well, you understand how the Hebrews were a little frustrated.

And so, the writer of Hebrews says, here is what you are to do: let mutual love continue. Offer hospitality to strangers. Do good.

I like this. This is easy enough to penetrate my thick skull. It is clear and concise, I like it.

And we like it, all of us, because if there is anything the church likes to do, it is good. We serve the hungry so effectively that we ought to get a medal for it. We raise money to fix problems other people didn’t even know existed. We fix houses so well that not even the strongest, stealthiest storm could undo our handiwork. The church loves to do good, and thanks be to God.

You know, maybe this is a secret minister thing, I don’t know, but I will tell you anyway. Wanting to do good is a big reason most clergy go into ordained ministry. Go on, drive over to Emory and walk into the seminary and ask the students, “what made you decide to go into ministry?”

“Well, I want to help people.” Yes, they will probably tell you about a call from God and all of that, but if you ask them why they want to be in ministry, they will tell you, “I just want to help people.”
I’m not immune to this, of course. I just want to help people. I want God to use me. I want to do good, to let mutual love prevail, to show hospitality to strangers and care for those in prison and all of that. You are probably the same way. It is a natural part of the human condition to want to do good. It is why many people come to church, because we want to be good people. We want to do good things.
I went into ministry to help people, and I arrived at Emory along with the rest of the fresh crop of students, ready to change the world. And that first year, I had the opportunity to work closely with a minister who was doing good in innovative ways, helping the poor and feeding people and visiting those in prison, that sort of thing. I felt like I had won the lottery, getting to spend time with this guy, getting to see up close and personal just how it was that he fulfilled this part of the sermon to the Hebrews.

And so I went out to the church early one morning to meet the minister and follow him around a bit and see how he did things. We talked for a while, and walked around and greeted everybody. And it didn’t happen right away, and it wasn’t something you’d pick out immediately, but over a few visits I realized something was a little off. We’d ride around talking to people who had deep needs, folks who were really on the margins, who needed a little extra grace, and I found myself horrified at the way in which this guy treated these folks. I mean, here he was a minister of the Gospel, and he did not seem to like people. It got so bad I seriously questioned whether I wanted to enter the ministry, if this was the kind of thing I was going to turn into. You can do all the good in the world, you can offer people food and drink and all the rest, but if you do not love people, what good are you?

A couple of years ago my wife Stacey and I were invited to be a part of the New Clergy Fellows program at the Chautauqua Institution outside of Buffalo, New York. Chautauqua is an intellectual and religious center with incredible lecturers and preachers all summer. I liken it to a religious and cultural Disneyland for nerds. They regularly host Supreme Court justices, civil rights leaders, theoretical physists, that sort of thing. Chautauqua is the place in which our modern ideas about adult education were born, and it was begun by a Methodist bishop and a Methodist layperson back in the nineteenth century.

And because religion is a big part of the life of Chautauqua, each year, they invite people new to the clergy to participate in the program for free, to spend time with the speakers who have been on the front lines of American life, to interact with history makers and to be introduced to the idea that the things we believe really do matter, and that we can make a different in the world.

Well, Stacey and I were really honored to be invited, and it was no small deal since they only let something like 12 clergy into the program. They paid for everything, so we were really excited.
And we listened to fascinating speakers and had fascinating conversations with fascinating people. Really, Chautauqua is a special place. If you have an opportunity, you should go.

About midweek, we were in a lecture being given by a journalist who had been kidnapped by the Taliban, and there must have been two thousand people there. And as we sat and listened near the edge of the lecture hall, I could hear behind me the feint sound of a voice, and it as it got closer, it got louder, of course, and the whole section we were seated with turned around to see what was going on.

What it was was an older woman walking alongside a motorized wheelchair carry her son who clearly was dealing with pretty significant physical and intellectual disabilities. He was speaking to her very slowly and deliberately and with some volume, and she was simply trying to hear the lecture like the rest of us, without bringing him into the hall and interrupting everything. And so I turned back to the lecture, embarrassed that I’d looked at all, because everybody knows you are not supposed to stare.

And the man in the wheelchair kept talking, and it was a little distracting, but not awful. I mean, you can let that kind of thing go, but whole sections of people in the lecture hall kept turning around, annoyed, no, furious that someone would interrupt their experience of the lecture.

At one point, in fact, a woman who was seated directly in front of me turned around, looked the woman whose son was in the wheelchair right in the face, and said, SHHHHH!

Wouldn’t you know that in that moment, the woman and her son turned and left, just went away because they were clearly not welcome. Here we were at this religious and cultural Disneyland, this bastion of open-mindedness and the free flow of ideas, I guess as long as you didn’t interrupt the lecture. I learned later that the woman seated in front of me who shushed the young man was the wife of a United Methodist minister. You can do all the good in the world, you can hear amazing ideas and profess to be interested in grand solutions for the world, but if you do not love people, what good are you?

Let me interject here and share that when I talk about love, I am not talking about some natural feeling that either comes upon you or doesn’t. Sure, some people have an easier capacity to love than others, but love is not simply an emotion. This is not an orientation we are born with. It requires work, an acknowledgement that the God who created us is good and lies at the heart of every person. After all, we would not have to be told if it just came naturally.  Love is complicated, it is difficult, it requires soul-tending work. Loving people is so very difficult, and yet it is required.

You cannot separate loving people from loving God. This is what the writer of Hebrews means when he says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” You cannot love God without loving people. And, I would argue, you can’t even really do good without loving people. If you set out to feed people, and you talk down to them and generally let them know that you don’t really care for them, what good have you done? You’ve filled their bellies and bruised their hearts. If you are keeping score at home, that’s basically a wash, except that the belly will be empty again long before the heart has healed.

Now, I’m almost done, but you certainly cannot show hospitality to strangers without learning to love people. Now, I don’t sprinkle my sermons with a lot of Greek and Hebrew, because I think ministers who do that just want you to know how smart they are. But you should know that the word that is translated as “Hospitality” literally means “love of the strange.” I know that you have at least a little of this in you, because you live in Decatur which is itself a little strange, and you’ve embraced me, who is a lot strange. But hospitality is not simply about providing a nice place to come and sit. It is being prepared to love the strange. If you do not love people, this is simply impossible.

Do you see what this means? The business of doing good is vitally important. The writer of Hebrews is insistent that this is the way in which we are to live as we lie in wait, together. It is how we show the world that we are who we say we are, and it is the way in which we show the same thing to God. But you cannot do good without loving people. Not, tolerating people. Not, using people as far as they can get you. But loving people, even when they are strange, maybe especially when they are strange.

It is so simple, and yet it is so complex.

Maybe the sermon is not necessary. Perhaps I should have just read the scripture and sit down. But you could spend a lifetime chewing on this kind of stuff, a lifetime living into that kind of love. And that is precisely the point.

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