This is a sermon I preached Sunday, September 1. The reading was Hebrews 13:1-16.
Love one another as sisters and brothers. Show love to strangers. Remember everyone who is imprisoned or suffers in any way as if you were suffering with them. Show honor and respect toward marriage, and don’t treat sex casually. Don’t be greedy, but be satisfied with whatever you have. Do good deeds and share what you have with whoever needs it.
Basically, our New Testament reading offers a summary of the last six Commandments, telling us how to live with one another. We need the reminder, too, because we are far from perfect people. We don’t want to put in the effort it would take to love one another, let alone strangers. We forget the suffering when they are out of sight, and a single glance at a tabloid shows just how little our society values marriage. Consumerism drives us to want more and newer and better. We don’t do good deeds; frankly, we quite often do exactly what we know we should not be doing.
No, it seems quite clear that we are living outside the bounds of God’s plan for human behavior. We are sinners and find ourselves outside of community, separated by misunderstanding and hurt and grudges. We need a way to get back in, to join the community God has created.
The reading from Hebrews references one of the Israelites’ main strategies for renewing the community: sacrifice. Sacrifice was a huge part of Israelite religion. I know that talking about sacrifice can make some people feel a little bit squeamish, but it’s important to understand what is meant by sacrifice to get an understanding of this passage. Our reading talks about altars and animals and sacrifices for sin; it sort of makes you wonder what is going on.
First, a quick reminder about Israelite religion: the Israelites were very concerned with purity and holiness. This was not, as we might imagine, because they wanted to create hurdles to jump or division, but because they recognized that God is a holy God and demands that same holiness from God’s people. Anyone who was unclean became an outsider to the community until she performed the appropriate rituals and was restored to the people of God. Often, that ritual involved some sort of sacrifice. These sacrifices were not intended to impoverish the people; in fact, there was a sort of sliding scale, so that if a person could not afford the required goat or sheep, he could use a pigeon instead. Their intricate system of sacrifices and festivals seems strange to us, but to them, it was simply part of the way they assured holiness in God’s presence.
With this background, I have two thoughts to offer about sacrifice. First, sacrifice is not our attempt to bribe God by giving up some of our hard-earned possessions. Sacrifice is sometimes portrayed as a bribe, buying off the anger of a bloodthirsty deity. On the other hand, we believe that everything we have is God’s abundant gift to us, and you can hardly bribe God with something that’s already his. Sacrifice is not about us giving up what is rightfully ours to avoid God’s displeasure. Sacrifice is about giving God what is already his. Still, that might sound a little unfair to us. God gave to us, right? How can God come along and demand that we return what is now ours?
Well, it turns out that God knows exactly what we need as his creatures, including worshipping our creator through prayer, praise, and, yes, sacrifice. The Israelites saw sacrifice as a part of their rhythm of life, with particular sacrifices for harvest, the birth of a child, or other times of thanksgiving in addition to functioning as a recognition of sin and the need for repentance. In this light, sacrifice is seen as our actions that are pleasing to God, returning to God what we have been given, for our own sake as creatures worshipping their creator.
So, when we talk about Jesus giving up his life as a sacrifice, we are really saying that God has gone so far as to provide himself to be the sacrifice. Remember that I mentioned the sliding scale for sacrifice, that the Israelites paid what they could afford? God knew that none of us could afford the cost of salvation, so Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice. He has made himself into the ultimate outsider and the ultimate sacrifice, dying a shame-filled death on a cross, because God knows that this is what it takes to transform us from outsiders to insiders. We need to be changed.
I live about a mile from the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, where, according to their website, just under two million people congregate every year for “Twelve Days of Fun Ending Labor Day.” It’s the biggest event of the year for many Minnesotans, with concerts, displays, contests, and anything-you-can-think-of-on-a-stick. Attendees jostle one another on their way through the displays, while police and fair security try to keep some kind of order at the crosswalks and entry gates. Stands selling lemonade, cheese curds, and deep-fried Snickers bars fill the sidewalks. Fair-goers’ cars clog up the streets, circling around the neighborhood looking for parking. From our apartment, we can hear the nightly fireworks display and sometimes even the crowd cheering at a show. It’s such a big deal that even the weather reports I hear on the radio evaluate the temperature relative to how pleasant it will make a day spent at the Fair. The Great Minnesota Get-Together is, by any standard, a huge party.
Come Tuesday, though, those “Twelve Days of Fun” will have ended. Parking lots will be empty, candy wrappers will blow across the pavement where food stands used to be, and the carnival games will have packed up to move on to their next gig. I won’t have to fight traffic to get to Target. Summer will be over, and Autumn will have begun. Students are on the way back to school, and summer hours are changing back to what they were before Memorial Day. It’s a time of change and transition. Some changes are easier than others; I kind of like when the fair ends and I can stop avoiding certain roads. Some people enjoy the cooler weather; other people herald this time of year as Allergy and Cold Season.
Times like this are a good reminder that just about everything changes. The seasons shift; birthdays come and go; buildings are constructed or torn down. Like the State Fairgrounds, we experience times of fullness and times of emptiness. Nothing stays the same, even for we Lutherans, known for our resistance to change. I imagine you’ve heard the joke, “How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change?! My great-grandmother helped install that light bulb!”
There are plenty of reasons to embrace or resist change. Fear of the unknown, satisfaction with a system that works, happiness at the way things have turned out, unwillingness to try something new, and more keep us from disturbing the status quo. Sometimes the change that God demands, that we love each other and care for people in need and are satisfied with what we have, feels like change we would rather not go through. In fact, it’s a change that we can’t go through on our own. Because of our sin, we are outsiders to the community of God’s people. We can’t stay good enough all the time. The change we cause in our own lives is, quite often, a change for the worse. Our attempts to live up to God’s demands begin to feel sort of hopeless.
Or does it? In our lives, in this world, things are constantly changing. Despite the change all around us, Hebrews tells us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Even when we change for the worse, Jesus Christ does not. He remains faithful to his promises, given to you in water and wine and word. He is always our savior, our comforter, and our friend. He will never stop reaching out to us, going into the messy, sinful, hidden places in our lives, making us holy with his own blood. When we fail to love one another, when we are hostile to the strangers among us, when we are on the lookout for the latest new thing to buy, God’s forgiveness is the same.
This is the faithful God who promises, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” This is the holy God who transforms outsiders into insiders. This is the welcoming God who invites you to come to his own table, to meet him in bread and wine and one another. And because you know this faithful, holy, and welcoming God, you become a faithful, holy, and welcoming people, knowing that no matter how far you think you’ve fallen, this God will never leave you or forsake you.