Life Outside The Walls
| Hebrews 13:1-16
||Sun, August 29, 2004
Rev. Doug Goodwin
|I have to admit I was greatly distracted by the Olympics when I should have been preparing for this sermon. Work got in the way once or twice, too, but it was mainly the Olympics. I don’t know, John, how you managed with a friend and fellow boater competing… and winning silver, too, right? It is too bad I did not have one of those “run the good race” texts to preach from – I would have lots of Olympic stories to talk about. But then, so does every commentator on CBC and in the street and on every bar stool. We can all tell moralizing or uplifting stories drawn from athletes’ successes or failures. Nothing wrong in that; it might even be good stuff. It just isn’t gospel.
So today we close our eyes and forget Athens – if only briefly – and turn off the tv sets still in our minds and all those inner voices that already know what is right and good and true and we try to hear that strange, surprising voice of God that somehow often seems to be heard best when we attend to the scriptures… and today from a rather obscure part of the scripture.
Actually, it is not all that obscure. Two well-know, well-quoted pieces of scripture come from these few verses… always out of context, of course, but at least they are quoted. The first is that one that says to show hospitality, for by doing so some “have entertained angels unaware.” I like that one; so do a lot of other folk these days – angels still seem to be all the rage, although not quite as popular as a couple of years ago when they made the cover of Time magazine. The second one is this: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” I am not sure about that one. It always seems to be used as a rallying cry for those who don’t want anything to change… but that is not what this whole text is about so I doubt that is what it really means. But we will get back to that later.
I want to first look at the passage as a whole. Read through it and you notice the mass of things it mentions: love, hospitality, prisoners, the tortured, marriage, money, contentment, confidence in God, leadership, faithfulness, strange teachings, sacrifice, insiders and outsiders, suffering, the future, lasting city, the city to come, praise, worship, sharing. Lorraine pointed out one verse in her note on the web blog – that new-fangled way on the internet to share thoughts – and said I could preach a whole sermon on that one verse… which I could. Based on the insights of her note, she sure could, too! Maybe next time this passage pops up in the lectionary. But there could be whole sermons on every verse. This would be a good passage for Ed to use when he finally gets the courage to try that three hour sermon he has been promising. There is a lot in here; it would be easy to fill three hours… especially for Ed.
But read through it and you also catch the sense that this is not just a list of “stuff” to remember, or the miscellaneous file of leftovers that got thrown together at the end. Coming at the end of this book of Hebrews, you get the sense that these are important last words. The writer is desperate that while something from chapter three or seven might be forgotten, that these things should not. Time is running out… or the paper or papyrus or whatever the writer was writing on was running out so it was time to get to the heart of the matter. Your child is heading off overseas for a year and you have one last, short car ride to the airport to say the last things that need to be said. Time to get focused.
The passage builds in intensity as it goes, starting with short little reminders – important ones but also pretty familiar ones, then and now – but quickly getting to the trickier but more interesting point where the author needs to dig a little deeper and do a little arguing in the same way arguments were done throughout the rest of the book, by comparing our Christian life to that part of the worship life of Israel that involved sacrifices.
Interestingly, this is the part of the passage that the lectionary left out – verses 9-14. I am always intrigued by the parts the lectionary leaves out. Sometimes it is pretty clear why and it makes good sense; at other times you just have to wonder. This is one of those times. I think I know why these verses were skipped. From those opening verses that we can all agree with – love one another, show hospitality, remember those in prison, keep marriage honourable, do not live for money – these verses suddenly talk about those obscure, no longer practiced sacrificial rites involving blood and dead animals and burning bodies and sacrifice and suffering. Who needs them? They seem to detract from those clear, moral, and thoroughly understandable opening verses. Those opening verses make sense, whether we are Christian or not. You don’t really need Jesus in order to know we should “let mutual love continue.” I am guessing these verses about blood and sacrifice and city gates and being sanctified were left out because they are too strange, too weird; they don’t immediately fit our world… and we don’t immediately fit into their world. If we actually read and ponder them we might end up too different from our neighbours… and that would be a bad thing, especially if you think our present world is just about as good as it is going to get.
Well, sometimes the distractions, the obscure parts, the hard parts are where we may actually hear God speak most clearly. Ed and I decided long ago when we talked together about preaching that we would not avoid the tough parts of the scripture that we did not understand or like but instead would dig there because there always seemed to be something to be heard, some new life to be learned, something that might put the familiar parts into a new light… something that might even change us.
I think that is the case here, too. Lorraine noticed it in her note. She went straight for this part of the text that the lectionary left out and saw how central it is. In these verses there is a comparison being made: just as the blood of the goat that was sacrificed as a sin-offering cleanses from sins, so does the blood of Jesus… and just as that goat is not eaten by the priests (as most sacrifices are) but burned outside the city walls so, too, Jesus suffered and died and was left outside the city walls.
But then the comparison stops and the text makes a surprising move. If the comparison was to continue it would go something like this: just as those who burned the goat outside the city walls then ritually cleansed themselves and reentered the city, so, too, we Christians after seeing Jesus should make ourselves holy and rejoin the rest of the world, better than before, improved a bit, cleansed, ready to be better people.
But the text doesn’t do that. Christian disciples are not asked to cleanse themselves and become more holy; instead, we are called to join Jesus and his disgrace, his suffering, outside the city walls. Not holy, but disgraced. Just as Jesus became an outsider, we are to become outsiders. He doesn’t get back in again. His suffering, his sacrifice, did not make him pure and holy and somehow a better person but separated him from his world, from his people, from the safety of the camp and city walls. And we are to be with him.
Think of being in the midst of a hostile world but safe behind castle walls, and you look out over the walls into the threat and chaos of the wilderness where death might be behind every rock, where there are hungry people, where beggars might grab at you, where your bank savings might be threatened… and there you see Jesus… and he says, “come out and join me.” And he says it while hanging suffering, dying, upon a cross. Inside the walls, you in an easy chair with chips and pop close at hand and the Olympic highlights on t.v. Outside the walls… the cross of Jesus and who knows what awaits. It reminds me of a summary of the gospel that William Willimon wrote that goes something like this: “We are sinners; we have a problem; Jesus is the answer; now we really have a problem!”
Our new home… outside the camp, outside the city walls, in the wilderness, in the midst of trouble, beyond any protection our human communities erect for us… out where the outsiders are, the cast off, the forgotten, the uncultured and uneducated, the shepherds and caravan drivers and robbers… and all the rest of society’s lepers.
Now those opening verses of our text make a bit more sense, carry a bit more depth. “Remember those in prison”… not to be nice or good citizens but because those are our people, our family. “Remember those tortured”, not because torture is against our human rights or is uncivilized but because the tortured are our sister and brothers. “Show hospitality to the stranger” because we know ourselves to be strangers here. We do not show hospitality in order to entertain angels. That may happen, just as it did to Sarah and Abraham a few millennia ago, but that is not why we do it. We do it because strangers are our neighbours, our mothers and fathers, our aunties and uncles, our children.
In real estate the mantra is “location, location, location”… which is not a bad thing to think about for a disciple church. Where are we located? Inside the city walls or outside? The foundations of a civil society, here to make sure our society is a decently caring one – which is more or less where the United Church has seen itself through its history? Or a colony of cross-bearers? Maybe it is just the rural guy in me that a year in the city has not erased yet but can you hear in these verses that being in the city, in that safe, very civilized, very comfortable and easy place behind the walls that keep the riff-raff out is not the place we are to be? It is not our home.
And then comes this next amazing verse. I can forgive the lectionary makers many things but not the lapse of judgment that suggested we should not read the following verse this morning: “For we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” This city – and remember, when the text speaks about “the city” is does not mean a place where a lot of people live close together. It means that place of safety, comfort, familiarity, satisfaction, complacency, familiarity… this present life – this city is not our home. In this world we have no home, just as Jesus had no place to lay his head. It is not that this present place is terribly evil. You and I know it is not so bad. It is not our home because we know it will not last, even though the rest of society thinks it can keep on going in the same way forever. It is not our home because our real home is coming. This world is not our home but we are not homeless. We are looking for the city to come, the city promised by God, the city God is even now bringing.
Outside the city gates, looking for the city of God that is even now looking for us… that makes us pilgrims and the church a pilgrim community. Pilgrims – people on the move, not at home but on the road, vulnerable, relying on the good will of others, looking always for the destination… except in this case the destination is also looking for the pilgrims. I do not know anything more about the experience of black slavery in the States other than what is popularly known, but it seems to be they had a strong sense of being pilgrims, people literally chained to the land but not at home, pilgrims looking for a new destination that they did not have the ability to run to and certainly not build but one they had confidence would come.
Knowing we are a pilgrim community helps put many of the other verses from this text that I haven’t mentioned yet in a different light. “Let mutual love continue” – “mutual love” is philia, brotherly love, like Philia-delphia, the city of brotherly love, the love of comrades caught up in a close community – the men’s or women’s eights in rowing might be philia. Pilgrims need each other. The safety of pilgrims lies only in how they can love each other, and their neighbour, and even the threatening ones who approach.
“Keep you life free from money and be content with what you have”… not because money is evil but because money ties pilgrims down to the old city, the one that is not going to last, and blinds us to the city to come. As every country person knows, the place to make a pile of money and get ahead is the city… so pilgrims, instead, must be content and not get tied up in that whole, old, dying world.
Scary? You bet it is! Which is why the words of God in scripture are quoted: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” And we can reply “with confidence”, Hebrews says: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” How much “confidence” do we have, I wonder. I expect, not much. I also suspect that is why the writer put in those words, to remind those first readers and us that we can have confidence, even when our vulnerability makes it difficult. It is encouragement, the kind pilgrims need to hear and be reminded of daily… because pilgrimage is not easy; it is not natural; we need strong words of encouragement. We need to be reminded constantly of how God walks with us always.
And that verse about marriage. I had thought I might avoid this one; I am not one to speak with much authority about marriage. But luckily you pilgrims are listening for what God has to say, not me… and for pilgrims honouring marriage and being faithful in marriage is right up there with letting mutual love continue and staying free from the love of money. Because when you are outside the safety of the city, when you are vulnerable and without safety nets, when you are living as pilgrims on the road, you need to be faithful, you need to trust one another, you need tight, disciplined bonds that will not break. I can’t help another Olympic image: imagine pairs canoeing where the two in the boat do not trust one another totally. Or any of those sports, actually, if there is no trust. When your life is on the line, you need each other. I wondered when reading this verse whether marriage is in difficulty today partly because life in the city is so easy. We can enter marriage pretty easily because we feel so secure… and we can leave it pretty easily for the same reason. I don’t know. But I have a feeling that as pilgrims far from the security of the city and looking always ahead to what God has in store, we might cling to each other just a little bit more.
Just a few verses more now… and I don’t want to leave these out because they are the ones that I thought a few days ago I might actually focus on. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” A pilgrim church is not a church that wanders every which way. Nor is a pilgrim church one that decides what a good thing to do might be and then goes about to do it. That is why Ed and others are so suspicious of “mission statements” for congregations. Christian pilgrims do not chart their own routes but do these three things:
remember: pilgrims are well grounded in the word of God; it is our world; it is the nearest thing in this life we have to “home”;
consider: pilgrims use their heads and learn from the stories that shape us;
and imitate: good news here, folks: you do not have to invent your lives! You don’t have to be an individual! You are not forced to be the person you want to be! You do not even have to be everything you can be! We can imitate. We can learn from others. We can be disciples, not constant innovators. I hope you hear some relief in those words. The burden of making our own lives is lifted; we can imitate the faith.
And finally, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Pilgrims want things to change; pilgrims know things will change: “here we have no lasting city”… but pilgrims know our confidence is not grounded in an unchanging world but in Jesus Christ. Even as the foundations of the world are shaken, our foundations are not, because our foundation is Christ. Vancouver… Alberta… Australia….. when you do not feel grounded because the ground under your feet is changing – and it is always changing – remember our foundation, the same yesterday, today and forever.
A pilgrim people, living outside the city walls, not content with this present world but looking always for the city God has promised. We live eager for the coming new world God has promised, that God will bring, that God is bringing about. It would be great if we could build this new world, as so many in our church thought we might or still chide us constantly to do… but I know I don’t have the strength or wisdom for that. I doubt our church does. I don’t know who does.
But to know that this city, this world, this system we have set up that promises Olympic dreams of equality and peace and prosperity only to have them shatter when reality hits, to know that this city is not lasting, but that a new city is to come, a city from God, a life that reflects the life of Christ… living in that knowledge, in that truth, is a wonderful gift.
Which is why this text ends with a call to praise, lips confessing God’s name, worshipping, confidently sharing and doing good, because in the end it is God who acts, God who saves, and not us. If it was all up to us, well, “eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow you die.” But it is not up to us; it is up to God, and God will not leave or forsake us. We live as pilgrims outside the gates not by sheer force of will and determination but by the grace of a faithful God who promises new life.
As we travel as a congregation, as a church, as individuals wherever we may go, travel as the pilgrim people of God, knowing that God is traveling to us, leading us right to the place where God will meet us… and in some marvelous way, that meeting place will look strangely familiar, something like the place of the cross, something like Jesus Christ… something like home.
Thanks be to God.