Sunday, August 29, 2010

Missional Memory: Hebrews 12:28-13:16 Sermon Text

By far my favorite breed of canine is the Beagle. My wife and I now have two that we adopted a few years ago from a Beagle Rescue in State College, twins in fact, named Copper and Jax. Now, if you know anything about this particular breed you know that they are not exactly known for the long-term memory or an ability to stay focused for very long- except for when they are on the hunt. This has been particularly challenging for one of the twins, Copper. While he is almost five-years old, the world around him always appears new and different. This has made taking him out to do his business a little difficult at times, time consuming to say the least. It is as though he forgets why I am taking him out each time. And just when I think he is about to go he spots a flower, a butterfly, a blade of grass with a tasteful amount of morning dew, or a breeze with a likeable fragrance that causes him to tilt his nose upward. I have to remind him over and again what he is outside to do. His short-term memory, or even complete lack thereof, has prevented my Beagle from completing his task- even if it is to water our small bushes. But we, especially my wife (who is a Social Worker and Therapist, conveniently), love him.

We can extend this theme of memory into the main plotline of the current box-office smash, Inception. The premise of the film is for agent Dom Cobb to enter into the subconscious minds of those sleeping, intercept their dream worlds, make alterations that they are unaware of, and cause the victims to alter their behavior after they awake without knowing anything took place in their slumber. Again, memory is twisted, if not lost altogether, which directly corresponds to the inability to act with proper intentions.

We come to today’s text from Hebrews and are confronted with the concluding portions of an anonymous letter that also addresses the memory of a particular people. Most probable Jewish Christians, they were scattered about in the first-century Roman Empire, fleeing persecution, and living outside the confines of their home camp of Jerusalem. Their faith and conviction to live into it was a daily decision that, when they stepped outside the sanctuary of their homes and local meeting places, could result in severe, if not fatal, consequences. It is in this light that Hebrews was written as a letter to spur the faithful to a missional memory; to remember the story of which they are a part, the history of God’s faithfulness within that story, the climactic event of redemption and liberation that came in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and the forward-moving, in-breaking promises of God that are both already here and yet fully to come. It is as though the writer is saying, don’t forget, don’t be distracted, guard your memory, and stay faithful to the story and unshakeable kingdom of Jesus.

We are not completely unlike those addressed in this letter. We, too, as 21st Century Christians, are scattered throughout the globe. Some face similar persecutions and fears when they leave their homes and are challenged to remain faithful. If you visit the PCUSA website you can read about these ad infinitum, without end, and then pray for their lives and witnesses. However, more often than not, the pressures we face stem from a different source. We are tempted to allow our personal politics, ethics, ideals, and life narratives to be tilted away from the gospel and intercepted and twisted by the culture. We then either forget who and why we are or live into a storied memory that has less to do with the gospel and everything to do with pop-icons and new-age ideals. It is to this end that Hebrews is also a letter to us that calls us to a missional memory where we remember the story of which we are a part and the future that is to come, both which hinge on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

I was talking to the staff this week about how this portion of the letter struck me as awkward. It is far more fragmented than any other section of the letter, almost as though the writer is a preacher who knows his time is just about up and needs to quickly tie up the loose ends before the organist begins the final hymn and the associate pastor pulls the preacher, new to sanctuary-preaching, out of the pulpit by the hem of the robe that he is not used to wearing. It’s a little rushed and if we are not careful we can miss the main chorus. In seemingly Trinitarian language, the writer slips into Hebrews 13:8 a well-known verse that echoes the eternal nature of the name of God, Yahweh, by penning the phrase, “Jesus the Messiah is the same yesterday and today and forever.” This is the central chorus, the hinge upon which this entire segment pivots and calls the faithful to live into with a missional memory.

A quick reminder of how we got here… A few weeks ago we read Hebrews 11 and the famous collage of faithful characters from the Old Testament narratives, those who lived in response to the faithful promises and liberating activity of God. Abraham, Rahab, Moses, and David, along with others; a motley crew of witnesses that culminated in Jesus as pioneer of the faith. It is as though the writer of Hebrews was setting the stage for the grand finale of this letter, and spurring the scattered on, “Remember the witnesses, remember God’s past activity and faithfulness, remember your history; let it comfort you, encourage you, even transform you. Remember, God, unveiled to us in Jesus, is the same YESTERDAY, today, and forever.

What is beautiful about Scripture is there can be observed patterns and parallels that help us to explore the richness of meaning. Hebrews 12:28 and 13:14 are brilliant illustrations of this. The writer moves from a call to historical memory to a now future expectation and anticipation. If the readers and hearers were looking behind them for hope and strength, now their attention was on the distant horizon. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God…” and its counterpart in 13:14, “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise.” The parallelism reminds ancient and contemporary readers alike that God’s promises cannot only be heard from the whispers of past witnesses, but also hoped for and expected in God’s future when God will make all things new and right. Again, remember, God, unveiled to us in Jesus, is the same yesterday and today and FOREVER.

Unfortunately, this is where we often stop as evangelical Christians. This may serve as our only point of emphasis…the future. Even worse, this becomes our evangelistic tract to convince others to faith, “Do you know where you are going to go when you die?” I remember years ago the home visits on the missional projects to the Dominican Republic with a ministry team I was leading. We would walk the streets of a poor town on the Western border and hear the stories of those who lived there. Without fail, at the end of these conversations a member from our team, with eagerness and confidence, would tune in just in time to ask that very question about their eternal destinations. Sitting in the front of their house, sheet metal roof, no running water, racial tensions, rationed food, and little education, they would be led to pray a prayer that ensured the evangelist of their future security. Forever was the only horizon for this particular individual’s question; the present struggles of the local community served only as a platform for the suggested real concern of the hereafter.

But God, unveiled to us in Jesus is the same yesterday, TODAY, and forever. So we move further into another set of parallel lines, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Yet still, the counterpart in 13:12, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate…Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” Our memory of God’s past and future activity is to move us towards a new kind of missional presence in and concern for not only those inside the walls of this faith community, but also and especially those outside the camp, no matter what the cost. And we do this remembering that this was the vocation of Jesus, who endured the cross, scorned its shame, and rose from the grave for us and the whole world (Heb. 12:1-3).

It is easy to read this section of Hebrews and solely focus on 13:1-3. The author reminds us that at the crux of Christian community is a mutual love for one another. Pastoral care is certainly a strength of Westminster as pastors, staff, elders, deacons, and others visit and care for members of this faith community in their time of need, illness, sorrow, etc. I have been blessed by this “mutual love” and I am sure many of you have, as well. We are excellent at loving those within this camp and within this faith community. Yet, how many of us dare to image the love of Christ outside the confines of the sanctuary, the security of our church committees, and the familiarity of our fellow congregants. Do we love the stranger? I wrote to our youth this week:

Love is easy when we love those who can return the favor. Love is easy when we are confident that we will be rewarded in our “generosity.” But what about the stranger? What about those on the fringes of the cafeteria? What about those in the back corner of the classroom? What about the one who walks to class alone or is pushed around by another? What about the poor, the homeless, the abused, or the immigrant? Do we dare love them even though we may not only not receive something in return or worse, may jeopardize our reputation and be disgraced? May we be a people who reflect the prodigal love of Jesus by extending love and hospitality to the strangers of the world, for in doing so we may discover that they were more than strangers, maybe even angels, at least our neighbors, whom we were called to love and “entertain” all along.
I love the quote on the front of the bulletin. [1] But what I love even more is the memory behind the statement and the story behind the person. Jurgen Moltmann is one of the premier contemporary theologians, former student of Karl Barth, and famous for his work Theology of Hope. However, what is not often discussed is his personal history that led to his transformation of knowledge and his awareness of mission. In 1944, Moltmann was drafted by the German army to serve as a soldier at the height of World War II. After the bombing of his camp, he was held as a prisoner of war, three years spent in Belgium, Scotland, and England. His heart and mind continued to be flooded with both theological and existential questions that tormented him day and night. However, though he was a stranger in a foreign camp, the soldiers that held him captive treated him with love and grace, especially an army chaplain who handed Moltmann a copy of the Bible that he began to read. It was Psalm 39 that would forever change his life, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry…For I am a stranger, an alien, like all my forbearers.” Not raised in the Church, Moltmann would forever be transformed and go on to write some of the more influential, missional, and liberation theology of the twentieth century. He would even become active in the Confessing Church movement that spoke against the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Little did those soldiers know, little did that chaplain know, that by extending love to this particular stranger that they were entertaining a future agent of God’s revelatory grace.

This brings us full circle to our central chorus: Jesus the Messiah is the same yesterday and today and forever. We are called by this text to remember the story that we are a part of, the history of God’s faithfulness, unveiled to us in Jesus the Messiah, and the pending future of this unshakeable and everlasting kingdom of God. Until that day, we are also reminded that TODAY we are gifted with the Holy Spirit to remember our mission as participants within this unfolding story as we let mutual love continue, especially with the poor, the prisoner, and the stranger in whom the angels of God are masked and entertained. Amen.

[1] “Awareness of history is awareness of mission, and the knowledge of history is a transformatory knowledge” (Moltmann, Theology of Hope 89).  See links on post, J├╝rgen Moltmann and the Theology of Hope, for podcast interviews.