A sermon by, Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
September 1, 2013
Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Jeremiah 2:4-13; Luke 14:1, 7-14
The typical title, The Epistle to the Hebrews, is something of a misnomer. Calling this a letter is a stretch. New Testament epistles have an author and a recipient even if we don’t know them by name and yet Hebrews is strangely missing both. Since it’s not a gospel, and it’s not an epistle, and it’s not a historical writing, and it’s not a prophecy about the end times, Theologian Raymond Brown lists Hebrews politely as a part of “the other New Testament writings” I think it helps us understand it by knowing what kind of literature it is. So what is it?
New Testament scholar H.E. Dana described it this way: “(It) begins as a treatise, proceeds like a sermon, and closes like an epistle.” In my reading of Hebrews, it walks and talks like a homily, a sermon given so the Christian community can understand and integrate its Jewish roots, keeping the vitality of Jewish tradition, integrating that rich tradition with the reality that Jesus the Messiah had come.
Read Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
When the last words of Chapter 12 are uttered, the sermon is over. It ends with a flourish, “Our God is a consuming fire.” That’s it, that’s the end of the sermon and now the writer ends the book with a typical ending with the look and feel of any first-century letter. We preached from the closing points of his sermon a few weeks ago and now we’ve read the personal notes written as an addendum to the sermon.
When the 13th chapter opens, the writer lets us know that attached to the end of his sermon is a laundry list of “last words.” A good bit of the New Testament, and especially the writings of Paul, seems to write in the “laundry list” literary style, viz., in short nuggets of wisdom, terse comments of warnings and pointed phrases and idioms often written directly to particular people.
But there is a thread that holds all this together. In my reading and studying for this morning, the idea of integrity kept coming to mind. Integrity is built upon all the little things in our lives. Integrity is almost never measured in the big, dominating things, but rather it’s known by those things we do when no one is watching. It’s made up by the insignificant habits of character that don’t openly show themselves. Our integrity is something that people uncover in the process of deepening the relationship beyond surface issues.
T.B. Maston virtually pioneered the Baptist field of Christian ethics. He taught for years at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and helped shape several generations of ministers who specialized in the field. Upon his death, his pastor said of him at his funeral:
“There is about every human being two things which define us: The first is our essence, and the second is our image. Our image is what we project to others of who we want them to think we are. But our essence, our essence is who we really are. For most of us, the distance between the two is a great gulf fixed. But for the one we’ve gathered to remember, they are one and the same.”
Could it be said by those who know you best, that your image and your essence are one and the same? I think that’s very much in the spirit of what the writer of Hebrews wants to share with us. The goal of Christian maturity is to bring our image and essence together as honest expressions of our best selves. It’s a goal toward which we march. It’s a gift we offer to God. It’s the direction toward which we should be headed and an end we should desire.
Catholic worker Dorothy Day rightly asked, “People say, ‘What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see … we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.”
First, we’re called to love. God calls us to the truest nature of love, to a mutual love hoping to give as much love as we receive. We hold out hope believing we might receive love because we’ve been free enough to love others. It takes integrity to sustain love in the community of faith. The writer of Hebrews encourages us, as the church, to think creatively of mutual love. He encourages us to keep expressing that kind of love continuously with one another.
A story is told of two brothers who were very close. Each had great love for the other. Each took good care of the other, and showed great, high regard for the other. As it happened, their father died and left each of them a sizeable inheritance: two huge grain bins full of grain. The brothers were deeply grateful for their father’s generosity, but each was concerned the other was not bequeathed enough of the inheritance, that the other had come out on the short end of the stick.
So every evening, after nightfall, each brother would quietly sneak bags of grain from his own bin to his brother’s bin. All of this was done under the cover of night, neither aware that the other was doing exactly the same thing. As a matter of fact, after several weeks of clandestine activity, they began to wonder why their bins were not being depleted! But late one evening, they bumped into each other in the darkness, each finally discovering the loving scheme of the other. Utterly surprised, they dropped their bags and embraced one another in deep brotherly affection.
The call to mutual love forces us out of our self-love to a love that wishes good for our sisters and brothers. Love that real can only come from integrity. Who knows? In acting out this kind of love, “some have entertained angels” we’re told.
That kind of love turns into a form of empathy where we see the plight of others as our plight. “But by the grace of God, there go I,” we say. Our empathy is extended to those we could easily withhold Christ’s love rather than seeing them as those in the world needing Christ’s love.
Second, Hebrews calls us to be faithful with one another. To be quite specific, we are to be faithful to our partners. The word used in the commitment of marriage ceremony is “fidelity.” It comes from the Latin word, fideles, which means loyalty. In my counseling with couples wishing to be married, we discuss the nature of the vows that are exchanged during the ceremony. I make it a point to let them know it’s my belief that those vows are not merely words meant to beautify the moment as though they were poetry but not significant. The words exchanged are sacred promises made to each other and before God and witnessed by all those gathered for the ceremony that a sacred relationship is being established and that the words spoken are symbols of a relationship that is to be trustworthy. It takes a person of integrity to keep those vows. Our chosen partnerships are mutual and committed and considered a sign of the sacred.
The point made here is quite specific in case you are drawn to loopholes or technicalities. The marriage bed, as a symbol of everything sacred about a committed relationship of love, is to be considered with the same sense of holiness one might think of the temple itself. No loopholes are offered. The word, “undefiled,” comes from the Greek word, amiantos, which means to be free from contamination. It implies purity. It is used earlier in Hebrews to describe Jesus himself as the High Priest who is holy enough to offer the sacrifices of the people to a Holy God.
Third, the theme of integrity is continued in the area of material possessions. Sex and money … Can you think of two topics more in tune with life in the twenty-first century? The fact that both of these topics are mentioned in the same breath is not surprising, because they grow from the same spiritual problem. They both seem to grow out of unrest deep within us where most of us are seldom honest with one another.
The Old Testament wisdom literature reminds us that it is “the little foxes that ruin the vineyard” (Song of Solomon 2:15). So it is with us, our attention to the little details determines whether we are people of integrity and whether our image and essence are one.
 Rev. Glen Edwards’ comments about T.B. Maston at Maston’s funeral
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).