Oh, Hebrews. What a book of the Bible you are. We don’t know exactly who wrote you – although your words have at times been attributed to Paul. We don’t know quite when you were written – but probably before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70AD, otherwise you would most likely reference that incident since you like to talk about the practices of the priests so much. You have come to be called Hebrews, in part because, even though it seems pretty clear you were written to a specific gathering of a community of faith in need of some wisdom, you didn’t label yourself by being directly written to a specific geographical location – like Ephesus, Galatia, or Corinth. We even sometimes call you a letter, but you’re more of a sermon.
So how does one preach a sermon about another sermon?! I suppose a place to start is to consider what purpose a sermon serves. Which can be a lot of different things to different people, so I speak from my own perspective and context here. When I craft a sermon what is it that I am hoping people will receive and hear within it? I think I hope people will hear something new, or something familiar in a new way, or perhaps find something to relate to or think about in new ways, to feel a moment of connection with something or someone, be challenged, be nurtured, or encouraged. It feels like a bonus when a sermon finds a way, even for just a moment, to take a text, particularly an ancient text that feels outdated and not relatable to modern times, and make it applicable and meaningful to this time and place of life in some way.
That is, in part, what the writer of Hebrews is at work doing. The writer of Hebrews is using older scripture texts to create a connection to the audience of their day. And the scripture texts being used are some of the same ones we still grapple with today! In play are the stories of the Israelites time in the wilderness which included receiving the guidelines by which a tabernacle would be created and the priests, who would be chosen from the house of Levi, would offer sacrifices to God to atone for the people’s sins.
There is also Jeremiah 31, which is not just referenced, it is actually quoted in this selection:
” ‘This is the Covenant I will make with them when those days arrive,’ says our God:
‘I will put my laws into their hearts and write them on their minds.’ ”
Then she adds, “I will never again remember their sins or offenses.”
For a good portion of this book and culminating in our scripture selection today, the writer of Hebrews is laying a foundation of scripture and memory to build a bridge of connection for its original audience between, what would have been to them, the familiar sacrificial practices of priests within the community and the act of Jesus as an ultimate High Priest offering a sacrifice that forgives sin once and for all.
And I think it is right there that the scripture loses a lot of us modern (or perhaps better to say post-post-modern) day readers. When I first took a look at the lectionary scripture selections for this day as I was preparing to preach, I admit I was not thrilled to find this Hebrews text as one of my options. This language of Christ’s sacrifice is not the lens through which I prefer to view and engage my own Christianity. I lean heavily into a Christianity that emphasizes the life and teachings of Jesus far more than his death as salvation. And so the language that is being used by the writer of Hebrews to draw this connection between the practices of the temple and Jesus’ death is not easy for me to understand.
Our current culture is not one that has a strong system of ritual rites and sacrifices and so in many ways, this language is not for us. And, for me, it is in that acknowledgement, that I really don’t have a good experiential framework to understand this language of sacrifice for myself that I can begin to more openly explore and try to understand what it may have meant to the audience of its day. I can let go a bit and start to explore and learn what it meant to them, and perhaps then, once I begin to get a picture of the meaning in its original context, I can start to find a way to translate it into meaning in my own time and place. I might not end up using the same language – but I might find that I am having a similar experience of God’s presence in the world.
Which is ultimately what scripture is about – it is telling the story of how God has been and is present in the world. And this scripture in Hebrews doesn’t only talk about how God is present in the world, it also explores what it means for people to be living examples of God’s presence in the world. It calls us to a life that is lived with authenticity, hope, love, and service to and with one another in community.
And that is language I do understand – or at least language I am excited about exploring. If we look to the last few verses of the Hebrews selection today we find some wonderful words of wisdom and counsel.
Let us enter [the presence of God] with sincerity [authenticity] in our hearts.
I experienced a tangible reminder of the power of this as I reflected on the life and work of Stan Lee, who died this past week. For those who may not be familiar with him, Stan Lee was a comic book writer, editor, and publisher. He was the co-creator of many of the Marvel comic book heroes which may be familiar to you: Spider Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and the X-Men to name just a few. I clearly did not know Stan Lee in person, so I can’t fully attest to his character as a human being. However, the characters he created through his artistic voice were characters that were flawed, unique, social outcasts who struggled with the nature of their identities and then chose to offer their authentic selves in service of others, even though their culture would prefer they be ostracized.
As a young queer person growing up in a slightly conservative environment, I didn’t have a lot of voices offering me encouragement to come to terms with and accept my identity as a unique and marvelous creation of God. But I did experience that encouragement through Stan Lee’s creation: the X-Men – a community of mutants who each have unique skills and abilities, which make them outcasts in general society, but that they get to explore, accept, and celebrate in the environment of Professor Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters. To have a positive example of a community that fully embraced and empowered the individuals within it to be their authentic selves encouraged me to embrace myself and work for a world where all people can have the opportunity to live their life in wholeness.
The words of Hebrews continue:
Let us keep firm in the hope we profess, because the One who has made the promise is faithful. Let us always think how we can provoke each other to love and good works.
How strange it sounds to hear scripture instructing us to find ways to provoke each other. Provoke is a strong word with usually negative connotations such as irritation or anger. Yet here it is being used to prod us to acts of love and good works. On the surface it seems counter-intuitive and yet, as people of faith, we are often provoked to love and good works when we see injustice in action in the world around us.
Several weeks ago, after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA there was fear present for many Jewish communities as they gathered together for their weekly Shabbat services. One such community, in San Francisco, California, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav shares their sacred space with the First Mennonite Church of San Francisco. As Shabbat services started, a group of Mennonites from the First Mennonite congregation gathered in a vigil of protection outside the doors of the building offering an embrace of prayers and songs for the community at worship within the building. This was an act of love, provoked by an act of hatred on the other side of the country. It was a holding out of hope in the face of fear.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland of Sha’ar Zahav wrote about the experience in an article for the Jewish News of Northern California*. She said this:
“The Mennonites are returning tonight to sing outside our doors once more as we observe the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” when attacks on Jews and synagogues were carried out by the Nazis. Of course, we don’t expect our friends’ presence at our door to be a permanent solution to a complex, ongoing problem…But in the short term, I’ll take 20 Mennonites over one armed security guard any day.”
I don’t think the writer of Hebrews is suggesting we provoke each other to these kinds of acts of love and good works by perpetuating violence and injustice, but I do think that there is a truth and power in the naming of injustice that can provoke others to acts of love.
Stan Lee, who I spoke about earlier also used this methodology of working for justice beyond the pages of his made up stories. From 1967-1980 there was a box on the back of his comic books called: Stan’s Soapbox. It was on this platform that he spoke out against the real injustices of racism and bigotry in the world that couldn’t be magically resolved with a zap from a ray gun or stretchy arms. Instead, in a soapbox write up from 1968 he said, “the only way to destroy them [bigotry and racism] is to expose them – to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”
Whether we are being provoked by outside sources, or at work provoking each other to remain vigilant and hopeful through love and good works, we are also reminded by the Hebrews text to be intentional in nurturing and supporting each other in living out God’s love in the world.
Don’t stay away from the meetings of the community, as some do, but encourage one another;
It’s clear from this statement that the community the writer of Hebrews was addressing was having some sort of trouble and that part of that trouble was keeping people away from the community gatherings. Our congregation may not be having a crisis of this sort right now, but we live in a time that is full of troubles and the reminder to face those troubles together is applicable to us. We already talked about the power of community and encouragement experienced by the congregations in San Francisco as they have chosen to journey together with hope in a time of fear. We’re learning that here in our context too as we have people reaching out and relating to refugees, working on sanctuary and deportation issues, attending to racial justice conversations and actions, providing meals for people in the local community through Community Cafe and the Day Center, and as we meet with each other on Sunday mornings and in other times to be community together. The more our society tries to drive wedges of separation between different groups, the more powerful it is to resist by gathering together and building bridges of connection and encouragement.
I was reminded of the power of a gathered group of people this week when I saw a brief video about the literal bridge building tradition of the Q’eswashaka rope bridge in Peru [thank you Crissie for drawing my attention to this]. The bridge is one of the last remaining suspension bridges from the Inkan roadway system and has been rebuilt yearly for over 500 years…out of grass. Yup, each year or so around 700 people come together and weave small ropes from a local long stalk grass almost like hay – those small ropes are then braided into bigger ropes, which are then braided into even larger cords, which are stretched and pulled from bank to bank 124 feet across the river. The old bridge is cut down and master bridge builders work from each end weaving the floor of the new bridge from the edges till they meet in the middle. The whole process takes 3 days and when the bridge is finished, the two communities from either side of the river gather together for celebration. There is a modern bridge that has been built just up the river from this bridge, yet still the community gathers to renew the bridge, pass the knowledge and skill set on to the next generation, connect with each other, and celebrate together.
When we gather together, we are building bridges, bridges that allow us to connect across chasms of differences. It can be a fearful journey – the master bridge maker of the Q’eswashaka bridge has to cross the new bridge by foot on the cable stretched over the ravine – he says many people ask him if he is afraid – he says there is no space for fear – if fear was given space it would be over – so he just goes for it. Likewise, Rabbi Copeland of Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco also wrote this in her article: “My chief hope since the shooting has been that we will refuse to live in fear. There is a famous passage by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav that reads, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important part is not to be afraid.” Sometimes we do have legitimate reasons to be scared. The key is that even when there is cause to be afraid, we refuse to be overcome by it.”
When we cling to hope, act in love, and work together, we are building bridges of nurture and making space in the world for God’s love and justice to thrive and bring about wholeness for all of God’s creation.
May it be so.