Sunday, August 28, 2016

Like family . . .

Hebrews 13:1-8     Common English Bible (CEB)  

13 Keep loving each other like family. 2 Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it. 3 Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place. 4 Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery. 5 Your way of life should be free from the love of money, and you should be content with what you have. After all, he has said, I will never leave you or abandon you.  6 This is why we can confidently say,

The Lord is my helper,
    and I won’t be afraid.
What can people do to me?

7 Remember your leaders who spoke God’s word to you. Imitate their faith as you consider the way their lives turned out. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!

There is a picture (aka a meme) going around on Facebook at the moment that says, “I told you to Love God, your neighbor, yourself, those who love you, your enemies.  Doesn’t leave you a great deal of wiggle room, does it?  That’s the point.”  and at the bottom it says, “Jesus, only slightly paraphrased.”  You’re intended to laugh, and then to seriously think about it.  Apparently Christians have always had trouble with the love commandment.  Because here is Paul . . . well, not really Paul.  But someone who was probably a student of Paul’s, and writing in his name, which was a perfectly acceptable practice at the time . . .

Sidebar:  for those who haven’t already heard this a thousand times.  In those days, and even up through the Renaissance period and beyond, it was common for a student to imitate his teacher’s work and even put the teacher’s name on his own writings or works of art.   This was because until that student had mastered his craft everything he produced reflected on the master/teacher, and therefore had to be attributed to him.  Kind of like when a child tries to leave the house wearing clothing that her parents totally disapprove of, and her mother says, “Oh, no you don’t.  No child of mine is going out in public looking like that!”   As a result, a number of the letters we commonly attribute to Paul really weren’t written by Paul, but by one of his students who wrote them in his name. Sometimes those writings say things that are the total opposite of things the authentic Pauline letters said, in which case the letters may have been written in Paul’s name to give these new ideas authority.  

Anyway . . . in this part of this particular letter, which wasn’t even really a letter but rather a sermon, the writer is trying to help his audience understand the love commandment a little better.   He says, “Here are some things that constitute “love.”  Do these things.”  He doesn’t say, “And lots of other things.  These are just a few of the things you should do.”  But, let’s just look at these things he named.

The first one is “Love each other like family.”  That’s seems easy enough.  Unless you have a really dysfunctional family, an abusive family, an absent family.  What if you were raised in the foster system?  Not to give away much from next week’s message, but Jesus did at one point say, “if you do not hate your mother and your father, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, you cannot be my follower.”  I think, therefore, that “love each other like family” means “love these new people in your lives, these church people, these Jesus following people.  Love them warts and all.  Be honest with one another, care for each other’s welfare.”  Do you know how in 12 Step meetings (that you’ve probably seen on TV) the speaker will say, “Hi.  My name is Harriet and I’m a whatever,” and everyone else says “Hi Harriet.”  Sometimes Harriet will respond by saying, “Hi Family.”  Because in 12 Step groups we tend to think of ourselves as a family.  We don’t all like each other, but we all care about each other in a very special way.  If I get a call from someone having a rough night, even if I really dislike them, I’m going to listen and help the best I can.  That’s loving each other like family.  That’s how church is supposed to be, too.  Love each other like family.

Don’t neglect to open your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.”  This is a pretty clear reference to Abraham, who provided hospitality to two strangers who turned out to be actual messengers from God.  Anyone could be a messenger from God.  From the beginning of time, hospitality - opening one’s home to guests has been the most consistent and important rule for all peoples.  I know that we all say things like, Italians will feed you till you burst, or you can’t get out of a Mexican household without being fed, or an African American house, or a Filipino house.  My grandmother from Ireland used to say, “You can always drop another potato in the pot.”  In fact, I don’t know of any nationality that doesn’t brag on how hospitable they are when guests come by.  Not everyone who comes by will be an angel.  Maybe none of the people we welcome will be angels.  Nevertheless,  we need to open our doors - our church doors and the doors of our hearts - to all comers, no matter who they are. Love each other like family.  

Remember prisoners as if you had been in prison with them.  In Pomona there is a UCC/DOC new church start called Urban Mission.  This church really was founded as a missional congregation.  They started doing their mission work in a rough part of Pomona - distributing food and clothing, providing hot meals, and working with prisoners -  months before their first worship service.  One part of their mission involves working with prisoners.  Not in what we think of as “traditional” prison ministry but in helping prisoners get integrated back into the community when they are released.  They hold job fairs, they work with probation officers and courts, they offer a variety of seminars on how to live outside, how to re-establish family ties.  They do amazing work - and they care as if they had been in prison together with these men and women.  Love each other like family.

remember …people who are mistreated as if you were in their place.”  The victims of rape, domestic violence, verbal and emotional abuse.  The mentally ill and developmentally challenged.  Victims of hate crimes - no matter what the reason, whether it be on account of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or whatever. Victims of oppression of any kind.  It is very hard for us to imagine what it’s like to be someone we are not, to imagine being in the place of someone so very different from us.  But I suspect everyone here knows someone who is “different,” or has been victimized, or bullied. Care for them as if you share their same story, their same pain, their same fears.  Love each other like family.  

Marriage must be honored in every respect . . . because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery.”  As I am sure you all know, Marrying for love is a relatively new thing.   In the time this sermon was written, marriage was a matter of one man purchasing a woman from another man.  Adultery, at the time, was less about sexual impropriety and more about property rights.  Sleeping with another man’s wife or unmarried daughter was stealing his property just exactly as if you had helped yourself to his cow’s milk instead of buying it.  (That saying didn’t just come out of nowhere, you know.)  Stealing is not a loving thing to do.   Mistreating someone else’s property is not a loving thing to do.  A member of the military who gets a terrible sunburn can be punished for mistreating Government property, because he doesn’t belong to himself while he wears that uniform, and it is his responsibility to make sure the Government’s property is taken care of properly.  It was likewise for a woman who gave a man not her husband the use of her body.  Her body didn’t belong to her.  She had no right to give it away.  It really makes little sense to us today, but it was the reality then.  In Christian marriage today, vows to be faithful are made before God.  God is a part of the loving relationship to which the two persons being married are committing themselves.  To commit adultery, then, is to dishonor the vow one made to God, to take God’s name in vain.  So even though we no longer consider a woman to be property, adultery still involves breaking two different commandments - and all of the commandments are about how to love God and our neighbor.  (For more on that topic, see last week’s message on YouTube.)  Love one another like family

Your way of life should be free from the love of money and you should be content with what you have.”   This is a tough one for us.  We live in a culture where having the right stuff is important, or at least, seems important.  If our children don’t have the right kind of shoes the first day at a new school, terrible things could happen.  (I’m really not kidding here.  Terrible things can happen if our children don’t conform to whatever the rules are that have been set by the kids in charge of status.  Bullying is the cause of as many as half of all suicides among young people.)  It is difficult to separate ourselves from that culture.  It is easy to decide we need to have a bigger (or smaller) car, a new outfit for that special occasion, the newest techie gadget, tools . . . (Who else thinks that Best Buy, Office Max and Home Depot are adult toy stores?)  In my house is a sign that says Simplify and I really have to look at it whenever I am tempted to get more unnecessary stuff for the house.  I LOVE to spend money on stuff. It makes me feel good. It helps fill that hole inside when I am sad or lonely or depressed.  I think things can make it better.   We know that’s not true.  Paul said, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10)   

When I am content with what I have, I can share more easily with others.  I don’t try to keep everything I have for myself, but can open my home, my heart, my life to friend and stranger alike - and maybe even angels.  When I am content with what I have, God is filling that empty space inside.  When I am content with what I have, I am much better able to Love one another like family.

Our family may not look like we do.  They may not be of our same blood, or tribe, or even species.  We may look as out of place together as this cat who seems to have adopted or been adopted by, this little flock of fuzzy chicks.   But she has clearly made them feel welcome and safe to come into her space.   She has allowed these chicks to treat her like family, when they could just as easily have become dinner.  

Love one another like family.  The love commandment is the one commandment that overrides all the other rules, all the regulations, all of society’s strictures and expectations.  Although it is very difficult, following the love commandment is what identifies us as Christians, not as members of this church or that denomination, but as followers of the Jesus way.    Today, love everyone like family - friend, enemy, those who love you, and those who don’t.    Today, be a Christian.

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