Return to Index or Sermons
Trinity 9, Yr C, Tr 1, Proper 14, 8/8/04, St Mark's
Isaiah 1.1, 10-20: learn to do good; seek justice, rescue oppressed, defend orphan, and plead for widow.
Ps 50.1-8, 23-24: our God will come and will not keep silence; offer thanks, keep in my way
Heb 11.1-3, 8-16: 'faith' = Pauline 'hope'; perseverance.
Luke 12.32-40: be ready, for Son of Man comes at unexpected hour.
Collect: that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace.
Post Com: gather people of every race and language to share in the eternal banquet (1063-96=967)
Summary: Persevering trust: Hebrews' meaning of 'faith' is part of our calling..
How do you gear people up for the long haul?
We are coming to the end of a long interregnum here at St Mark's. I would not use the analogy of our having been in the desert, because we have done some very good things in the meantime. But I would say that we have been in the woods, and the simple advent of a new priest will not of itself get us out of them. If we have persevered thus far, we are going to have to continue to persevere without the luxury of sitting back and taking it easy. In other words, we are going to have to continue for the long haul.
And it is in this situation that all of our readings this morning, including the psalm, might be applied to the theme of carrying on. But it strikes me that of them all the most appropriate reading is the one from the letter to the Hebrews.
We may by tradition call it the Letter to the Hebrews, but unlike a real letter, the writer does not begin with an opening salutation. He instead immediately jumps right into arguing his case, so to speak. And it reads like an extended sermon, which is probably what the author intended, since he himself calls it "a word of exhortation". Despite its being nearly 5,000 words long, he says what he has written is "brief", which may be relatively true. After all, the Book of Acts tells of Paul talking so long that at midnight a young man named Eutyches dropped off to sleep, fell out a window, and had to be revived by Paul (Acts 20.9). Luke indicates that after the breaking of the bread, which probably means the Eucharist, which was followed by eating, Paul continued conversing until dawn. So, in first century terms, "brief" it is!
The unknown author of Hebrews and those he was addressing, perhaps in Alexandria or Rome, were in all likelihood Jewish Christians, as is indicated by the acquired title, "To the Hebrews". He and they are steeped in the scriptures, and they are definitely living in the Gentile world rather than in Palestine.
The situation the author is facing is this. The year is somewhere around AD 85. Those whom he addresses have been Christians for quite some time. He says that in the past they have experienced public abuse, persecution, dispossession of goods, and some of them have been imprisoned. Like the Israelites in the wilderness who thought of going back to the fleshpots of Egypt, so some of them wonder if it might not be just as well or better if they went back to their old ways, which probably would mean a return to the Jewish synagogue.
And so our author argues that they are in a much better life-quality than before on the basis of what God has done in and through Jesus, the great high priest, and the need now is to persevere because they are on a pilgrimage, moving toward their goal.
You have all heard of the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Well, our author addresses his community in terms of their being on a pilgrimage. There are four major elements to the typical pilgrimage that apply to Hebrews' audience:
Pilgrimage starts out with a separation, a leaving home. They were separated when they were baptized into Christ, and they experienced further separation when they were persecuted.
A pilgrimage has a goal, a sacred place toward which they are journeying. If the Muslims go to the Kaabah in Mecca, then the Hebrews are going to the city of God.
A pilgrimage has a fixed purpose. In the case of the Muslim hajj it is purification and the forgiveness of sins. For Hebrews it is the attaining of the final "rest" and the beatific vision of God.
Pilgrimage involves hardship, for physical difficulties and religious trials make the threat of failure a grim possibility, and the Hebrews have certainly had some trials.
Thus to complete the pilgrimage that they are on, the Hebrews need to persevere to the end, and this is the message that is stressed in today's reading.
Whenever I read Hebrews, I am reminded of Humpty Dumpty's saying, "Words mean what I say they mean." For the word 'faith' is used in the writings of the New Testament with at least three, if not four, different meanings. For Paul it is obedient trust in God who has acted in Jesus as witnessed to by the scriptures. For Mark one will only have faith as one goes in the way of the cross, for that is the only way to know Jesus. So for Mark the content of faith is similar to Paul. For Matthew the disciples already know who Jesus is, but what they lack is the obedient trust, and this obedient trust becomes the content of faith. By the end of the first century as in the Pastoral Epistles of 1st an 2nd Timothy and Titus, 'faith' has largely become what is believed, that is, credal belief: what the Epistle of Jude calls 'the faith once delivered to the saints'.
And here in Hebrews we find a fourth use: faith as trusting perseverance, a persevering in moving toward a goal that is yet ahead and unseen. It is rather akin to what St Paul means by 'hope'. It looks to the future and in modern parlance, it continues to 'hang in there'.
And that, in a nutshell, is where we are and what we need to hear today at St Mark's. So let us, in the words of today's Collect, remain steadfast in continuing to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace.