Year C, Proper 17, The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
August 28, 2022
Year C: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1; 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8; Luke 14:1; 7-14
The Christian life is a little like walking a tightrope. Our success depends a lot upon whether or not we maintain a proper balance.
Balance is something that the writer of Hebrews is cautioning the community about.
This is the fourth week in a row that the Year C Lectionary has us looking at the last three chapters of Hebrews. Running through these verses is rich material about the shape of the Christian faith.
No one knows who the Hebrews audience was or even who wrote it. It’s a riddle.
For the first 1,500 years of church history, most Christians believed Paul wrote Hebrews. However, the resurgence of Greek scholarship at the time of the Reformation revealed serious questions about Paul being the author. And doubts about its authorship go as far back as the 3rd century. The early church father Origen said, “But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows.” We still haven’t solved the mystery in the 21st century.
This isn’t even particularly a letter in the traditional sense. Most commentaries agree that what we read and hear in Hebrews is more indicative of a sermon or a series of sermons.
But what we lack in knowledge about the origins of Hebrews is made up for in its importance as a call to both the Gentile and Jewish communities of the apostolic era. It encourages the early Christian community to continue faith and hope in Jesus Christ, even in the face of hardship. The author is making a case for Jesus Christ.
Those who heard and read Hebrews in apostolic times heard a message about the significance and message of Jesus Christ. It’s a message for followers of Jesus living in an increasingly tense situation.
The people of the first century faced real and urgent pastoral problems. The author of Hebrews is addressing people who are exhausted. They are tired – tired of serving the world, tired of worship, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and whispered about in society, tired of the spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayer life, weary even of Jesus.
Might these same struggles face communities of faith today?
The verses we hear in Chapter 13 might sound like a laundry list of bullet points. For example, “Let mutual love continue; do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers; remember those who are in prison; let marriage be held in honor by all; keep your lives free from the love of money; remember your leaders; Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
But these aren’t merely a laundry list of bullet points or a random collection of “ethical injunctions.” Instead, the writer gives examples of what Christian life might look like in the life of the person following Christ in first-century Rome or Athens or even twenty-first-century America.
And I love that it isn’t about improved group dynamics, conflict management techniques, reorganization of mission structures, or worship services. Instead, Hebrews is about the nature and meaning of Jesus Christ in the world and living a life in faith.
Don’t be overwhelmed by these virtues. It is a bit simpler than the rhetoric of Hebrews would make us believe. All the virtues listed in Hebrews flow through the Gospel we just heard, pointing us to hospitality and mutual love for others.
Members of the church are to show “mutual love,” not only for one other, but a love that makes a place for the stranger and invites everyone to a place of honor at the table.
And that love must increase for us “true religion.” Every year on this late summer Sunday, we pray these words, “increase in us true religion,” in the Collect of the Day, the prayer that began our worship this morning. And every year, I think these words might be the origin of that adage: “Be careful what you pray for.”
I think it’s a phrase that we need to pay some attention to.
“Increase in us true religion.”
What does it mean for us to pray for an increase in true religion when one of the significant challenges we face in our nation and our world is the polarization and division between people who are so convinced that their religion is the “true one” that they’re willing to victimize, villainize, and even terrorize those who believe differently than they do?
When we reduce our religious beliefs into weapons to harm other people, we arguably miss the whole point of what we call religion.
What is true religion? What was true religion for the Hebrews?
It’s sometimes been said that Christianity is about worshiping Jesus.
But look at scripture. There is no instance where Jesus said, “worship me.” Instead, we hear Jesus saying to those whose lives he touched, “follow me.”
Follow me. Walk with me.
Jesus is telling us to walk into and share his vision and dream. The dream of his Father, the dream of our Creator. Jesus invites us to the banquet and tells us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
True religion can transform lives.
Unfortunately, when you talk to so many people in today’s world, especially young people, they say, “I don’t like religion; I like spirituality.” If you ask folks what they mean by that, they describe the pain, the anger, and the frustration of how religion is perceived, often for a good reason. You’ll hear that they’re sick and tired of the restrictive rules found in religion, the judgmental spirit, the racism, the xenophobia, and the power plays.
But, the true religion we are called to in our epistle and our Gospel and our Collect is about the Good News of Jesus Christ, the most beautiful of all things. True religion is about making room for God’s love without being mean to one another, about loving one another and not trying to show off or be more fanatical.
The word religion comes from the Latin re ligare, meaning to bind, to connect. It’s the same root as ligament, the structures that bind and connect bones.
I believe our religious GPS in the Episcopal Church points us to a love that binds us together and in the Gospel.
Increase in us true religion.
When we pray for an increase in true religion, what we’re praying for is to follow Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth who stood up, spoke out and challenged those in his generation whenever he was confronted by rule-makers, gatekeepers, and power brokers who used religion as a weapon of oppression like those who complained he was healing on the Sabbath.
Will you love the stranger? Will you extend hospitality? Because we are entertaining some angels without knowing it. Some may even be in this room.
Love the Lord your God. There you have it: the essence of true religion.
And when we can entertain the stranger, we can perhaps find the spiritual balance Hebrews calls us to.
 A. Louth ed. & G. A. Williamson trans. [Origen quoted in] Eusebius, The History of the Church (London: Penguin, 1989), 202 [book 6.25].
 Hebrews 4:8-10, NRSV
 Cf. Hebrews 7:11-25, NRSV
 Long, Thomas G. 2012. Hebrews. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 3
 Cf. Hebrews 13:1-8, NRSV.
 Niehof, Thomas. 2012. Review of Balancing the Spiritual Diet: Suggestions for Preaching from the Book of Hebrews. Calvin Theological Journal 47, no. 2 (November).
 Long, p. 3.
 Cf. Hebrews 13:1, NRSV
 Episcopal Church, and Prayer Book Society. 1980. The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church : According to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America : Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David. Louisville, Ky.: Prayer Book Society Pub. Co., p. 181, p. 233.