Sermon: Sunday 1 September
Dr Edward Bampton
Readings: Jeremiah 2:4-13/Ecclesiasticus 10:12-18
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15, 16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
It is somewhat daunting returning here to preach, not least as things have moved around and I have never actually preached from a proper pulpit. To make it worse I cannot help but remember what Julie Ann said about her experiences of falling down the steps of pulpits… but if I do, at least will know I am in excellent company!
After a year of studying Theology at Queen’s, there is so much I have learned and much as I would love to share everything with you, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear I won’t attempt that. Although doubtless you would have loved to hear about the beautiful rhetorical Greek that is used in the book of Hebrews, full of paronomasia, ellipsis, isocolons, hendiadys and litotes (to name but a few of the literary devices used) and all the detailed discourse about who the letter was written to and indeed who wrote it, I am not so sure that is what is useful as we attempt to live out our Christian lives day by day (although it might impress some of your more nerdy friends).
However, all that stuff does lead me to the first question about the letter to the Hebrews, which I want to focus on today – is it really a letter? All that fancy writing actually suggests it was something to be read out and indeed towards the end of the book, in verse 22, the words of the book are referred to as an exhortation. What an exhortation asks of you is that you do something, and the beautiful language of Hebrews is designed to persuade us into that action. But what is it that we’re being asked to do? Part of the answer lies in the reading from today, following on from what came in the previous few chapters, which asked for us to persevere in our faith. Now we are asked to live out our faith and that calls us to act in love to one another in all things. Notice that love is to continue, assuming that in Christ we already try to live in love. However, this is not an exclusive love between Christian brothers and sisters, but is to take in the ‘outsider’ too. What follows are paired exhortations which expand on practical aspects of what it is to live in such a love – to be hospitable, to remember those in need, to be faithful in our relationships with one another and not to make an idol of other things that get in the way of our relationships. It is this last exhortation illustrated by love of money and what follows that I think is worth dwelling on further.
It is likely that Hebrews was written to a group that was experiencing some form of persecution – this was not uncommon for the early Christians and hence the example given in verse 3 about remembering those in prison. Another aspect of such persecution was loss of material goods and property (this is referred to explicitly earlier in the book in 10:34). Their natural reaction (as might well ours be) is to seek material wealth even more eagerly to replace what is lost and to create a surplus to create a feeling of security. However, such a response is not what the writer to the Hebrews suggests, but rather that against the prevailing culture they, and we, should trust in the Lord to provide for our needs. This is all very well and the Bible is full of such advice – Paul talks of money as being the root of all wickedness (1 Timothy 6.10), the farmer who stores up riches on earth dies before he can enjoy them and the rich young man is to sell all he owns and follow Jesus, to name but a smattering of examples. This last one is fun, as it seems to cause the Prime Minister, David Cameron, some headache when faced with it during a radio call-in. But it easy to criticise his response, until we realise ours would be much the same, albeit on a different scale.
Indeed, it is easy to say, ‘Don’t worry, the Lord will provide’, but so much harder to trust in that and to live it out. But that does not need to mean we need to give away all we own even though for the rich young man that may have been what he had to do for his own sake. It can be OK to have money and possessions, but at the same time we need to find contentment in what we have. Indeed we believe in a generous God who fills our cup to overflowing and, whether we believe it or not, it may well often be that we do have more than we need. This brings to mind the story A Squash and a Squeeze, by Julia Donaldson of Gruffalo fame. It is based on an old Jewish folktale. It tells the story of a little old lady who thinks that her house is too small. ‘My house is a squash and a squeeze,’ she complains to a wise old man. He advises her to take various animals into her house – first a hen, then a goat, then a pig and finally a cow, who dances on the table. The old lady is at her wits’ ends until she follows the old man’s next piece of advice: ‘Take them all out.’ Once she has the house all to herself again, it feels enormous! Perhaps there is a practical lesson here for us too. Try living without all those things you consider so important for a while and when you bring them back into your life, it may well fell like you do have more than you need.
However, we can get too caught up with the specifics of material things and take readings such as today’s without thinking of the wider gospel message. All good gifts come from God and we need to remember not to think just in terms of money and possessions. There are so many other gifts we may be given, in our very nature – compassion, teaching, organising, hospitality, leadership and so, so many others.
But why is this important? The answer lies at the end of the reading from Hebrews, where we are called to worship God with our sacrifice of praise. Part of the practical outworking of that praise is to share what we have – do not neglect to do good, for that is the sacrifice God asks of us. Indeed this is seen in the gospel story today as well – share what you have with those who need it, with no expectation of a return of the favour, inviting the poor and the lame to your banquet. Or indeed using whatever gifts you have for the common good. There is a hint that we might still be doing this with the expectation of reward though – that we might gain a share in God’s kingdom at ‘the resurrection of the righteous’. The story before this also seems to suggest that we deliberately humble ourselves so as to be exalted before others. However, the centre of the gospel message is the other way round. We do these things because we have been transformed by the love Christ has shown us in his death for us and our response in sharing what we have is the outward sign of that inward transformation – there is no earning your way into heaven!
I cannot talk of sharing what we have without mentioning the IF campaign, not least with my wife, who works for Christian Aid, a key player in the campaign, in the congregation. Here is a modern vision of living out the gospel message and the message of the writer of Hebrews, taken from the IF campaign website:
Enough Food For Everyone IF we give enough aid to stop children dying from hunger and help the poorest families feed themselves.
Enough Food For Everyone IF governments stop big companies dodging tax in poor countries.
Enough Food For Everyone IF we stop poor farmers being forced off their land and grow crops to feed people, not fuel cars.
Enough Food For Everyone IF governments and big companies are honest and open about their actions that stop people getting enough food.
There are other things I can think to add at this time, such as enough food for everyone if the displacement of people by the horrors of war is averted, such as we are seeing in Syria.
Now, as I mentioned I am studying at Queen’s and if there is one thing it is known for, it is for its emphasis on social justice and positive Christian action. It is all well and good for me to stand up here and preach about what God asks of us, to share what we have and help those in need. But I cannot just preach it, I too am called to live it. If we believe that God will provide what people need, from where does that provision come? It comes from us. And in writing this, living with the messages in today’s reading, I cannot help but be moved by God’s call to action and I hope that actions do speak louder than the paucity of my words – I’m not as eloquent as the writer of Hebrews and I’m not sure I managed a single isocolon or ellipsis! My wife doesn’t know exactly what I am about to do and I hope she’ll forgive me for keeping her in the dark. So I offer my services much more proactively to Christian Aid, in whatever way my own gifts can be used – I’m sure she can find plenty for me to help with, beyond just money, such that my heart and soul are connected with the work they do which I believe is for the common good. The writer of Hebrews calls you to action. May you look at the world around you, nearby or far away. What moves you? Perhaps the Israel-Palestine situation. Perhaps the horrors of the war in Syria. Perhaps human trafficking on our own doorsteps. May you give help where your heart, entwined with the love of Christ, leads you to offer your sacrifice of love and praise with the abundant gifts he has given you, whatever they may be.
© Dr Edward Bampton