St. John’s Kirkland
August 28 2016, Proper 17C
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
I remember when I was a child my Mother looking at me very seriously and saying: You don’t have to like the other kids at church, but you do have to love them. Which made no sense to my six year old brain. In my mind love was just really liking a person a lot.
When Tim and I were going through pre-marital counseling, all aglow with new love, Father Jameson told us: love is not an emotion, it is an action, a choice. Of course right then I was all starry eyed and crazy with new love hormones, I might as well have had bluebirds circling my head and pixie dust shimmering our days, that seemed horribly unromantic, but a couple years into marriage I’m beginning to understand what he meant.
Today we read about love from the anonymous early sermon that has been titled “Hebrews.” The author of this particular epistle was not Paul, and it probably isn’t even really a letter though we call it that. The congregation was clearly not even purely Hebrew, but a mix of Hebrews and Gentiles. Scholars infer that they had well respected leaders, and a pretty good track record as a community (though they weren’t perfect by a long shot, which is reassuring for us!). What is important though isn’t really who did or didn’t write this piece, but the contents of this early Christian writing. Which are all about that mysterious “love” my mother, various priests, and the Holy Spirit herself have tried to teach me for the whole of my life.
Our reading today starts with a simple sentence “Let mutual love continue.” Which sounds sweet don’t you think? Love is always a good thing. Cue the singing animals, and some sparkly stars, and warm fuzzy feelings. Until of course you are stuck in the pew next to the person who drives you absolutely crazy, or the person who always complains but never steps up to fix the stuff they complain about, or that person you live with who just left their dishes inches from the dish washer for the 10th time that week, or asked you where her phone was for the 50th, or the teenager who knows exactly which of your buttons to push… And so the author of Hebrews goes on to describe what mutual love actually looks like. And sadly for walt Disney it doesn’t include singing animals or star crossed lovers. It is, like Father Jameson said, a choice, and often not an easy or comfortable one.
Mutual love is counter intuitive: it looks like a congregation who is facing danger and persecution welcoming strangers. Strangers who could be angels, or could be looking for names and faces to turn over to a hostile Roman crowd. Mutual love isn’t safe. It means empathizing with those in prison, so much so that you visit them, bring them food, advocate for them. The opposite of most of our first reactions to anyone behind bars. Our translation obliterates the grit of the original Greek for the next bit so let me paraphrase: love means being in the skin of the person being tortured, practicing compassion so extreme that you experience the suffering of others yourself. Which is probably going to demand that you do something about that torture. Love changes you, love demands things of you, love is action. Love is making the choice to act for those who are in danger, who are powerless, who are other. Love is a risky choice that will change who we are at our core.
The reason is simple: we are made in the image of a God who is mutual love. God of course does it perfectly, the three diverse persons of the Trinity chose freely to act for one another, to make room for one another, to chose always the best for the Beloved and in turn the same is done for them. Perfect mutual love in which all persons pour out themselves perfectly for the other. That One who made us so got inside our skin and felt our struggle that God truly got inside our skin. It doesn’t get more compassionate than that, more loving. God took on real risk to be with us, experience our lives, show us with God’s own hands a different way of living a way of choosing to love. Even if it meant suffering, even if it meant conflict, even if it meant death.
But to be clear, we are not god, nor are we perfect, as individuals and as a community. Human love will never be that perfect dance of free choice for the other, of perfect emptying of self for the other that exists within God’s self. Because human beings fall prey to greed and sin. Here’s where I need to make an important distinction: God willingly took on the suffering of others from a place of power, freely and without coercion. There are two different types of humans: those who have power in a situation and those who don’t, whether individuals or communities. And those who don’t are in no way being called to suffer for “love.” Whether that be an abusive relationship between two people or the oppression of a group. The suffering of the one with less power is not God-like or holy.
That sort of suffering love is not at all what is being advocated for here in Hebrews. The author of this beautiful church instruction manual is seeking instead to help this congregation build a community where the vulnerable are cared for and safe, where the powerful give of themselves for the good of all. It is kingdom building work and it can be incredibly difficult and very, very practical. And the key to all the authors injunctions is action that builds welcoming, mutual, loving community. The warnings the author gives against such scandalous sounding things as fornication really comes down to avoiding those things that destroy community and relationship.
Because love is acting to support those in our community who have made commitments to one another, (this is why in Episcopal wedding ceremonies the congregation takes a vow to support the couple!) and because the relationship is mutual there is something for each couple to do as well, those who have made life long commitments are called to let their lives be a blessing to the community. Love if you notice is always about our relationship with others, the actions that will draw us closer to others, that will knit together a community. That will bind individuals into relationship with each other, and with God.
It’s been said that what we love is what we become. If we love money, we become hard and cold and never satisfied. If we love power we become fists ready to strike. If we love security we become inward looking and suspicious. But if we chose God, if we set our eyes on the person of Jesus and the whole of the Trinity then we slowly begin to look like love in action. Our worship becomes less of something we do for an hour and go home, and instead a sacrifice of praise and love that changes who we are. Our community becomes mutual, self giving, sacrificial. Our ministry becomes less about doing what we’ve always done and more about transforming the world into the Kingdom of God.
We are called by love to make choices for the health and well being of our world and our own lives. To chose love is to chose to act in a way that gives life to all. Sometimes that means welcoming the stranger who is in danger, afraid, hated by others. Sometimes that means allowing ourselves to be the stranger who is welcomed by others out of our danger and suffering, to be raised up and cared for in a community of love. But always, always love is a choice we make to be a community moving toward mutual love. To be people who practice mutual love.
Love is a choice, we are free to walk away from it (because if we weren’t it wouldn’t be love). We are free to chose an easier way, probably a more comfortable way. That way lets us chose just the people we like to surround us, and only do activities with them that we like, and resist any change that might crack us open to otherness, or newness. We have that choice. Perhaps that’s what makes Christianity so hard. It is not in fact hard to believe a set of dogma. Not hard at all the recite a specific set of words. But those things do not actually make us a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. None of those things mold our whole lives into a Christ shaped wholeness.
We are called by God to chose to act toward others in ways that builds wholeness, and healthfulness in ourselves and our communities. It’s life long work, it’s Kingdom work. It is work we can only do together, with one another and with the God who made us and continues to call us into God’s life.