In a Word: Love

Sermon preached  at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time .

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember 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. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep 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.” So we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?”
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. … Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

***

There is a sort of standard folk tale, told in different ways in different places, that goes like this: we have a hero. The hero, longing for something greater than his ho-hum life, decides to go on a quest. The quest inevitably takes him to dangerous places and through dramatic situations, across oceans and up mountains, talking to kings and wizards and monsters, until finally he reaches his goal, and thinks he is going to find out the great secret of life. (This scene usually takes place in a hut on a mountaintop with a wise man with a lot of facial hair.) In a great twist of fate, what our hero almost always discovers is that the secret to life isn’t anything magical or mysterious but something simple and mundane—usually something along the lines of be good to the people around you and always do the right thing. It’s generally really beautiful—because the secret of life is something we can all share—but also a little bit disappointing, because the hero went through all this trouble and found out that what he was searching for was at home the whole time.

This is where we are with today’s scripture—beautiful, sure, but maybe, if we’re really, really honest, a little disappointing. If you remember the scripture from the last few weeks, the chapters of Hebrews leading up to this, you’ll remember that we’ve been on a journey as dramatic and dangerous as any folkloric hero. We’ve had floggings, torture, races, invisibility, mountains of smoke and flame, assemblies of angels and spirits, phantasmic cities, and last of all, a God who is a consuming fire. At the end of last week, it seemed like we were up on that mountaintop, having battled our way to the peak, ready to learn the secret of what God has in store for us. I wish we had time to read a bit from last week again today, because then you’d feel the full effect of what I felt reading the book through this week: whiplash.

Hebrews is 12 chapters of Lord of the Rings followed by one chapter of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. Or, musically speaking, 12 chapters of Handel’s Messiah followed by a quick refrain of Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. Okay, I may be exaggerating, but not much. There’s a definite shift in tone here, one that’s caused some scholars to think that this last chapter wasn’t originally part of Hebrews, but tacked on later. But I tend to agree with the scholars who think these verses absolutely belong to Hebrews, that the author of Hebrews knew exactly what he was doing, working his audience up into a passion, getting them ready to do anything for God, anything to reach that heavenly city, anything to avoid getting burned by that consuming fire, and then handing down to them a set of rules that go right back to the basic tenets of their faith. Love your family. Love the stranger. Have solidarity with the oppressed. Be loyal to your partner. Don’t be greedy, but grateful. Trust God. Find leaders to help you on the way. Praise Christ. Do good. Share.

It’s a beautiful list—and strikingly comprehensive for its brevity. Any one of them would make a great meme, especially typed over a picture of a flower or a sunset. Together, we’ve got a solid listicle—Ten Ways to Please God. There really are ten. It’s fate.

But isn’t there something… I don’t know, just a little disappointing in these instructions? After the angels and the fire and the clouds of witnesses and the rituals and the sacrifices and all the hoopla? Shouldn’t the secret to pleasing God be something a little… more? Something fancier? Something more esoteric, less commonplace?

Do good. Share. Please, we learned that in kindergarten. Where’s the set of rules for grownup Christians?

We all know folks—and maybe, at one point or another in our lives—we’ve all been folks— who want there to be something more to faith. Who want there to be a phase two, a next level, something involving miracles and excitement, something involving less work and more mystic sweet communion with the divine. But the truth of the matter is, the rules from today’s scripture are what we’ve been given to follow. Faith isn’t a verb—I’m too much of a grammarian to lie to you about that—but it’s a lot of work nonetheless. At the end of the day, God always calls us back to the basics. Love. Be loyal. Empathize. Do good. Share.

I have to say, I suspect that any person who brushes these rules aside as too simple—as child’s play—has never really tried to live by them. For being such commonsense guides to life, these rules are mind-bogglingly hard to actually live out. I suspect that is why God keeps repeating them to us, in different ways, over and over throughout scripture—it takes that much repetition to convince us they really are important.

Let’s take just the first two verses. They sound easy enough on the surface, even pleasant. “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Sounds great, right? Hug your kids, set out the sweet tea, and you’re set to go. Two commandments down, eight to go.

Well, not so fast. Let’s look a little deeper. That phrase the NRSV translates as “Let mutual love continue” could also be translated, “Love each other like family.” The Greek word there is philadelphia. If you’ve ever visited the city of Philadelphia, you may have heard that it means brotherly love—or the love siblings have for each other. The phrase “love each other like family is beautiful”—I know that at the end of the day there is nothing I would not do for my family, and nothing they wouldn’t do for me. That’s the kind of love I think of when I hear of family love—unconditional, ain’t-no-mountain-high-enough love.

This is the kind of love we’re called to have for each other. Except if I’m being honest, I’m not always even that good at loving my actual family like family—not the ideal way I would like to. Loving other people that way? That’s a tall order. Think back to a time when you were in crisis. Think about who came to your aid, who dropped everything to support you—I pray that someone did. Think about the difference that made, not being alone. Think about what that kind of love felt like, love that put you above everything else.

Now imagine if that’s how we all treated each other, all the time. Beautiful, right? But also exhausting. Some of us find it easier to show love than others, but all of us have out sticking points. Loving each other like family would take a lot of energy. It would disrupt a lot of routines. It’s a huge commitment, a huge command. And yet still, that’s what scripture asks of us: love each other like family.

And if you think that’s hard, just wait: the next verse doubles down. We are not just called to philadelphia, family-love; we are also called to philoxenias, stranger-love. The NRSV translates philoxenias as “hospitality,” which feels a bit weaker, a bit safer, to me: hospitality conjures up images of welcoming people into our homes, on our turf, and while that is a beautiful and meaningful gesture it does not fully express just how radical philoxenia is. Xenos is the Greek word for stranger, foreigner, alien. Do you know the word xenophobia—fear of foreigners? (And usually, fear of foreigners coming here.) Philoxenia is the exact opposite of xenophobia—love of strangers, love of foreigners, love of “the other.” Loving each other like family—it’s a tall order, but we know how beautiful it would be if we could just get it right. But loving strangers? That’s a whole other kettle of fish.

What are some of the earliest lessons we teach our children? Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t trust strangers. Or more, pithily, stranger danger. Now there are good reasons for those lessons, and I am not encouraging you to teach your children to hop into anybody’s car at any time. But I do believe that those lessons get under our skin, and we grow up to be adults who are fully capable of taking care of ourselves and yet are still, deep down, scared of strangers. And that fear isolates us—it keeps us trapped in bubbles of folks who look like us, shop like us, cook like us, worship like us. It keeps us from getting to know God through the stories of all God’s children. It limits our ability to love—because how can we claim to love the stranger if we do not stop to get to know them, if we do not open our doors, either to let them in, or to let ourselves go out and meet them? How can we extend hospitality not just in our homes but in our hearts as well, welcoming the stranger in wherever we meet them?

Now, if your brain is busy coming up with a million reasons why it’s a bad idea to get involved with strangers, my brain is one step ahead of you. I’ve seen the same scary news stories and been raised with the same anxieties and suspicions, and I’m introverted to boot. I would like nothing more than to take a little white-out to this verse, but I can’t do that, not if I take scripture seriously. “Do not neglect the love of strangers, for by doing so some have hosted God’s messengers without knowing it.”

I was glad to be reminded by our youth a couple weeks back that we are all works in progress. I know I’ve got a lot of progress to make when it comes to loving strangers—in real, actual ways, not just theoretically or spiritually. If you’re in the same spot I am, I hope we can walk the road together.

Love each other. Love strangers. Philadelphia, philoxenia. I have a sneaking suspicion that if we could just get these two down, the rest of the commands from our scripture today would tumble into place all on their own—be loyal and compassionate and generous and the rest.

These rules… so simple, and so hard. So commonsense, and so radical. So ordinary, and so astonishing.

This is the big secret to the Christian life: love. It sounds cliché. And yet there it is: love. But not just the kind of love that makes you feel good, the easy love, the sane love, but love that’s hard, love that’s unexpected, love that’s scary. Love that breaks down barriers and leads us out of comfort zones. Love that winds its way through our lives until finally, finally, there are no strangers left, but only family—the loving and beloved family of God.

If you were looking for something harder to be the secret to Christian living, I hate to be the one to break the news, but there is nothing harder than loving like this. There is nothing harder than opening our hearts to a world that is so good at breaking them.

But if you are willing to try, if you are willing to take up the adventure, then we do have a guide: Christ Jesus, who loved the world beyond limit, beyond reason, beyond safety. Christ who died and rose again out of sheer, pure, radical love for us, us works in progress. Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever—Eternal Love that keeps our own hearts beating.

Love each other like family. Love the stranger. Have solidarity with the oppressed. Be loyal to your partner. Don’t be greedy, but grateful. Trust God. Find mentors to help you on the way. Praise Christ. Do good. Share.

It’s as simple and hard as that.

Amen.

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