Our first reading comes from the book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) which is found in the Apocrypha. I am always pleased when we have a reading from the Apocrypha because these books are part of the true King James Bible. The Bible we find in most other Protestant Christian churches is the result of the Reformation on the continent of Europe and the rise to power of the Puritans during the Commonwealth under Cromwell.
Roman Catholics term the Apocrypha the Deutero-Canonical books. Deutero meaning other. Canonical meaning authorized body. Clearly much of what is found there is inspired by God and as Jonathan alluded to in his sermon last week, one cannot understand the Jewish holiday of Chanukah unless one reads of the Maccabean revolt against the Greek occupiers. Most of these books come from the period of Jewish experience between the end of the Old Testament canon and the New Testament.
This passage opens with the startling statement: The beginning of Human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker. Judaism of the time was heavily influenced by Greek thought and hubris, human pride, would bring the wrath of the gods faster than anything else. But stop and think. When we decide we don’t need God help or God’s guidance are we not expressing human pride? We find the attitude that I can do it myself everywhere, and some of us even cringe when a professional athlete thanks God for his or her superb performance as a testimonial.
The early Christian custom of testimony is almost unknown in Episcopal churches. We get around it by telling stories and perhaps that is a truer response than making a time in every service for testimony as is found in some churches.
When we welcome the stranger who is God’s guest and share our love of God, we are providing the strongest kind of testimony.
We can learn a great deal from the epistles in the New Testament as to what is going on in the churches that have been founded by Paul and other missionaries. Our reading from Hebrews demonstrates this.
It is addressed to Jewish adherents who are living in the pagan societies of the Roman world. Let mutual love continue is another way of saying that we should emphasize mutual love. If we are asked to provide hospitality to strangers, it must have been a problem.
If we’re asked to visit those in prison or think about those undergoing torture, it is obvious that Christians wind up in jail and this exhortation about marriage indicates that these believers are surrounded by a promiscuous society in which anything goes and some are falling victim to the temptations so readily available.
Like the world of today, the world of the time of the Book of Hebrews had trouble with making the possession of money central in their lives. Love of money supplants love of God and is a form of idolatry as is a focus on what money can purchase which in many ways is an issue today.
The writer makes a pitch on behalf of the spiritual leaders of the communities and goes on to urge the praise of God, confessing his name. ‘Do not neglect to do good and share what you have should be seen as a sacrifice to God’—not just doing good for the sake of being good.
In this narrative about Jesus, the underlying theme also has to do with pride. It is pride in oneself that causes someone to feel self important enough to feel entitled to the best seats. We’ve all seen it, and Jesus speaks from the experience of seeing people taken down a peg. And many of us have seen it as well.
It seems to me that pride is involved in Jesus’ final words to his host. When we always invite people that think we’re important, with the implicit understanding that they will reciprocate then it smacks of pride. But to invite those who cannot repay, whose presence does not confer status is truly selfless and is exactly the kind of act that God wants.
Christian mission and ministry are about focusing on those who cannot repay but are in need. We tend to see the mission field as in a foreign country but mission is as close as the street outside. The weekend feeding program at the Good Shepherd Soup Kitchen is an excellent example.
I tend to end with the dismissal: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. It reminds me of Jesus’ call to us for mission.