Sermon preached August 29, 2010
Text: Hebrews 13:1-7, 16
What do these things have in common?
Newspaper and an embarrassed skunk – black and white and red/read all over
Cars, trees, elephants – all have trunks
Men and mascara – they both run at the first sign of emotion
Harold Stassen and Brett Favre – they keep coming back
Jack Dempsey, Mick Fleetwood and me – same birthday, June 24
Waltz and Polka – three step dances
Well, like the waltz or polka, one can think of the Christian life as a three-step dance, each step necessary if you are to have the dance. Where might one get an idea like this? From the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews.
The writer of Hebrews, who goes unidentified throughout the essay, assumes that his audience is comprised of people who have begun the Christian journey. They have already decided to follow Jesus, to trust God’s grace known in the Jesus faith. In the words of our baptismal vows, the people to whom the author is writing have already confessed Jesus Christ as their savior, put their whole trust in his grace and have promised to serve him as Lord in union with the church.
The book of Hebrews is mystifying in many places, but by this point in the writing the author is trying to speak in very down-to-earth terms to Christian communities still figuring out what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian. And it is here that we encounter the three step dance of Christian life – its waltz, its polka. All three steps are required if you want to have the dance. If that image doesn’t grab you, how about the image of a check-up. When you go see your physician for your annual physical exam you would find it strange if all he did was examine your feet and asked you to walk around, telling you you seem to get around fine, and then do nothing more. Good health is more than mobility. We want our eyes checked, our heart listened to. The writer of Hebrews is giving us a check-up list for a healthy and vital Christian faith and life. If you like that image, I hope it helps; I’m sticking with the dance image today.
Step one of the dance is paying attention to what is happening within and in our closest relationship. A healthy Christian faith and life is one in which we are being changed inside, and demonstrating that in our most intimate relationships. Let mutual love continue. Keep your lives free from the love of money. When we open our lives to Jesus, to the Spirit of God, we are being changed. Our hearts are becoming more loving. We are being freed from compulsions that can harm us and damage our lives.
In one of her books Anne Lamott writes about one change of heart that was part of her journey of faith. At thirty-four, she became pregnant, and the relationship she was having with the child’s father ended badly. Anne gave birth and kept the baby, Sam. “I didn’t even think to trying to find John” (Plan B, 34). When her son, Sam, asked about his father she would tell him a little something about him. “I told him I had two photos of John he could see if he ever wanted to, and that I’d help him if he ever wanted to try to find him. And I really, really hoped he’d never want to” (35). But Sam eventually wanted to and Anne prayed – prayed to find John and prayed for what might happen if and when she did. She did, and here are her reflections on some of her inner change. Things are not perfect, because life is not TV and we are real people with scarred, worried hearts. But it’s amazing a lot of the time. Where there was darkness, silence, and blame, there’s now a family, and that means there’s mess and misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and sighs. But it is a family.
Inner transformation – transformation toward love, transformation away from those inner compulsions which can do harm. The language of Hebrews is a little disconcerting. “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” The message we often get is the exact opposite. Don’t you want a new car, new home? Aren’t you up for an exotic vacation? Want to have some fun and pursue a little extra cash? Yet I don’t think the author of Hebrews is telling us that following Jesus means complete disregard for our economic well-being. What I think he has in mind is balance. Writing about desire, therapist Mark Epstein says, “This seems to be one of desire’s primary functions; to keep us off balance, in between, on the verge, or just out of reach.” (Open to Desire, 61). Desire, including desire for an economically better life is not wrong in itself, but we don’t want to live enslaved to that, we don’t want to live off balance, with life always just out of reach. Christian life should be filled with times of gratitude and rejoicing for what is, because God’s grace is a part of what is.
And the inner transformation which is a part of the dance of Christian living is meant to show itself in our closest relationships. “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled.” The Christian life asks us to pay attention to our closest relationships because God cares about our well-being, and those relationships are vital to our well-being. Christian faith here is not prudish or priggish or scolding or moralistic. It is recognizing the deep hurt that can come when our closest relationships are frayed or fall apart. Elin Nordegren, the former Mrs. Tiger Woods has said she has been through hell in the past number of months as her marriage has come apart.
Inner transformation toward love and away from runaway desire. Tending to our closest relationships. How are you doing? Is that first step of the Christian dance a smooth one?
But Christian life is not only inner transformation, important as that is, and it is more than caring about our closest relationships – parent, spouse, partner, friend – important as those are. Christian life is life lived with others in a new kind of community. A couple of years ago when we read through the New Testament, I was deeply struck by the community focus of the writings that were grappling with what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Hebrews is no different. Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Following Jesus means opening our lives to God’s Spirit so we are different, and it is coming together with others to create a new kind of community – one characterized by mutual love and hospitality.
In another one of her essays, Anne Lamott writes about why she makes her son go to church. I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want – which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy – are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith…. When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home. (Traveling Mercies, 100)
It is not enough, it is never enough, in the Christian life to simply be working on our inner life or our closest relationships. We are also to create community with others. That’s what God in Jesus has brought us together to do here – create a place of mutual love and hospitality, a place where we can share a little light, a place where we can tie a knot in the end of the rope for each other when that is needed. We are called together to create home.
So how are we doing? Are we bouncing up and down on a pogo stick, just one step in our dance of Christian life, or are we getting some one-two action? And in our own lives we need to be asking how it is we are helping make this place a place of hospitality and love and care and light.
But the Christian life is not just one-two. It is one-two-three. The communal values which we build here cannot really stay contained here. They are intended to change the world, even if a little. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers… Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have. As followers of Jesus we not only concern ourselves with inner transformation and our closest relationships. As followers of Jesus we are not only about creating a new kind of community within the church. As followers of Jesus, we work with God’s Spirit to make the world more loving, more caring. We seek to do good and to share good things with others. These are not simply wonderful words. They challenge us as we look at a world filled with hurt and hostility. What might it mean to share in a world with a Haiti still recovering from an earthquake and a Pakistan reeling from flooding? What might it mean to show hospitality as we debate immigration policy or the building of an Islamic center? Are we gliding well into the third step of the dance of Christian life?
But maybe this is the step we do best – reaching out into the world, feeding, caring, giving. If so, we cannot neglect the other steps. In his book Money and the Meaning of Life Jacob Needleman writes, One can “do good” with such agitation, violence, and hidden egoism, or with such dreaming self-satisfaction, that in certain essential aspects one’s life proceeds no differently than that of an individual caught up in the most degrading or trivial of activities. (271) Inside, together, in the world – the journey with Jesus makes us different in all these ways. It teaches us to dance to the tune of God’s music. If our dancing is a little awkward, well, there is always room to grow and improve. We do that by getting into the dance, and I hope we dance. Amen.