Entertaining Angels

Hebrews 13:1-3, 20-21
David A. Davis
August 28, 2022
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“Let mutual love continue”.  If one likes to drop in a Greek word, then it reads “Let philadelphia continue”. Mutual love. Hospitality to strangers. Remembering those in prison and those who are being tortured. And then a benediction. “May the God of peace who brought back from the dead the Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do God’s will, working among us, that which is pleasing in God’s sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever.” From mutual love, welcoming strangers, and remembering those in prison to a soaring, theologically jam-packed benediction that concludes the entire letter.  And in between, in between here in the 13th chapter, after mutual love, hospitality, and remembering those in prison and those being tortured, the writer tags faithfulness in marriage, warns of the love of money, quotes a psalm, proclaims Jesus as the same yesterday, today, and forever, points out that the heart is strengthened by grace not dietary regulations, brings up again (as in the rest of the letter) Jesus and his sacrifice, calls for the congregation’s sacrifice of praise, reminds them to good and share what they have, encourages them to pay attention to their leaders and asks for prayer. Mutual love and a memorable benediction and in between a little bit of everything. In between, a whole lot about life.

Several scholars describe the Book of Hebrews as less like a letter and more like a sermon. Throughout the sermon, the preacher defines, identifies Jesus as the Great High Priest. “Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.” The sermon explores the suffering of Jesus and his sacrifice. The Great High Priest sacrificing himself by the shedding of his blood. The sermon concludes with some chapters familiar to many. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” And “therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, let us also aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” And the congregation rises to their feet with shouts of amen and amen. Then the last part of the sermon, the end of the sermon, the last chapter of the Book of Hebrews, chapter 13. From mutual love to the benediction with lots of life in between.

One biblical commentator makes the argument that the sermon ends with chapter 12. The last verse of chapter 12 is a great line to end the sermon. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” Whew. The sermon ends there and the scholar suggests that chapter 13 is more like the announcements in worship. Announcements about church life; the hospitality committee, the refugee resettlement committee, the mass incarceration task force, the stewardship committee, the bible study, adult education, the prayer chain.

The scholar writing that commentary published in the late 1990’s was a seminary professor and mentor of mine. So with all due respect, any preacher who is a pastor in 2022 knows that chapter 13 in the Book of Hebrews was very much a part of the sermon and that’s exactly when that first century preacher started to get into trouble with some in the congregation. After the rousing riff on Jesus the pioneer and perfector of the faith with the congregation no doubt with heads nodding, hearts moved, some shouts of amen, after that oratorical/theological flourish, comes the stuff about faith and life, about discipleship, about how this thesis with such profound Christology, Jesus the Great High Priest and his atoning sacrifice, how all that ought to make a difference in how one lives life. Yeah, that’s when the preacher got in trouble, sometime, somewhere, from someone. It’s a veritable buffet of low hanging fruit for the sermon listener who only wants to be made comfortable: hospitality to strangers, caring for those in prison, talking about torture, and marriage, the marriage bed to be exact. Oh, and money too. Chapter 13, that’s when some would say the preacher in Hebrews starts meddling.

Love one another instead of chewing each other up about health and safety protocols. Advocate for refugees, for asylum seekers, and work against family separation of immigrants at the border. Speak against for-profit prisons, and cash bail, and the state of Oklahoma striving to lead the country in execution by lethal injection and affirm that torture is a moral issue. Say something about being faithful and respectful in relationships and affirm marriage equality for all people. Remind people that a check book or a bank statement or the asset allocation of an endowment is a faith statement of sorts. Warn against strange teachings that twist the gospel and shape it toward prosperity, or to holding onto power and privilege, or seizing a judicial authority to control a woman’s reproductive health care or claiming some kind of frightening, ungospel-like Christian nationalism. Say all of that or just some of that and then end the sermon with a compelling call to lead a life, an everyday life, a work life, a home life, a school life, that reflects the will of God and is pleasing in God’s sight through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Yeah, there had to have been something in Hebrews, chapter 13 that got the preacher in trouble somewhere, sometime, with someone.

Frederick Buechner, the short story writer, theologian, novelist, essayist, observer of faith and life died last week. People who crave reflection and ponder the ways of God and who enjoy a fresh image and yearn to see the holiness of the ordinary have lost an important, generational voice. I used a well-known Buechner quote in a wedding homily last weekend. It is a quote about vocation. Vocation, according to Buechner, is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. I went the shelf this week to look up the quote in context. It is from his book “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC” published in 1973.

Vocation: it comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God.

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Of course, one assumes Buechner is referring to vocation with a capital V as in one’s life work, life calling. His thought, however, maybe better applied to the Christian life, the life of discipleship, our life in Christ.. In that way, it’s not just a definition of an often used term, it is an exhortation and an invitation. Yes, it is a call. To live a life in and with and following Jesus Christ, and finding a deep gladness, indeed a joy, in meeting the world’s need with the faithfulness and ordinariness of your everyday life.

Hebrews, the 13th chapter. Mutual love and a memorable benediction and in between a little bit of everything. In between, a whole lot about life and faith. Yes, I still think the preacher got in trouble at some point. But the exhortation to the congregation was, is,  to live everyday life in response to the call of God. Remembering, that on any given day, somewhere, sometime and with someone, you may just be entertaining angels.