Preached by Michael Cheuk, November 15, 2015
Taken from Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
Today, we gather with heavy hearts as we watch and hear the continuing news about the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday. We mourn for the family and friends of those who were killed and injured. We pray for them and for all those who are dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy. During times like this, we see the worst that human beings can do to each other. But it’s also helpful to remember the words of that great philosopher, Mr. Rogers. The children’s television host remembered that in moments of tragedy or grief, his mother would tell him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Mr. Rogers explained, “To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” When we look for the helpers in France, we can find medics or investigators or military personnel, and we are thankful for all of them. We can also see everyday people stepping up to offer help. For instance, since the French borders have been closed, Parisians have taken to the internet to broadcast that they have an extra room or a sofa where stranded travelers can stay. On social media, they use the hashtag, #PorteOuverte, or “Open Door.” And closer to home, Americans are using the hashtag #StrandedinUS to offer a place to stay for travelers who are unable to return to their home in France. Those are small gestures of sacrifice offered to strangers in need.
These small signs of help and provision and sacrifice in the face of evil are appropriate as we read this morning’s New Testament lesson from the book of Hebrews. As I’ve said before, this book is an extended sermon that reminds us that Jesus is our ultimate help, our eternal refuge. He is both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice, once and for all. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are fully forgiven by God. The preacher of Hebrews reminds us that because of Christ’s perfect priesthood and sacrifice, a new and living way has been opened up for us. So, in light of Christ and his saving sacrifice, how then, shall we live? And we might ask ourselves, in light of yet another senseless tragedy in our broken world, how then, shall we live?
In this passage from Hebrews, we are given three exhortations or encouragements that begin with the words “Let us . . .”
First, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart. First and foremost, a new way of living in Christ is not defined by rules and laws. A new way of living is defined by a heart-felt relationship with a loving God. While this verse calls us to draw near to God, the truth of the matter is that God has already drawn near to us. Even back in Old Testament times, it was revealed to the prophet Jeremiah that God desired to renew an intimate relationship with God’s people. This took place during one of the most traumatic time in Jewish history. Jerusalem had been invaded by the Babylonians, who not only destroyed the Temple and massacred thousands of Jews, they also captured many of the survivors and took them back to Babylon as slaves. It was understood that God had forsaken the Jewish people and left them to suffer in the hands of the enemy. In the midst of this dark, traumatic time, Jeremiah 31:33 records, “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
Minister and therapist Wayne Muller has spent the last thirty-five years working with people suffering abuse, alcoholism, poverty, illness and loss. I just finished his book How Then, Shall We Live?, and many of the illustrations of this sermon will come from the book. Muller notes that many of us are shaped by trauma. In his experience, many of us tend to identify ourselves by our past experiences or our previous failures. Yet Muller argues that while we can’t escape our past, our history is an incomplete lens. Our past experiences and disappointments “cannot describe our true and deepest nature.” Instead, he contends that “We are children of God, of spirit, and we inherit the grace and courage and wisdom of all who have gone before. We have been given a previous and potent gift. We must reclaim the richness of the miracle of being alive.” In Christ, our true and deepest nature is that of a child of God, and we are the people of God, no matter what has happened to us in the past. We embrace our truest identity when we draw near to the loving God who calls us to be God’s own.
When we are secure in our identity before God, we are better able to embrace the second exhortation made by the preacher of Hebrews. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for God who promised is faithful. Despite the heart-wrenching headlines in the paper, our hope is not based on wishful thinking. Our hope is based on the promises of God, who is faithful. In the same section of the book of Jeremiah that I reference earlier, God made a promise, the same promise that is the basis of our stewardship theme this year. In Jeremiah chapter 29, God told Jeremiah to proclaim a promise to the exiled Jewish people who were living as captured slaves in the city of Babylon: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” In dark times when our past has been traumatic and our future looks dim, God calls us to draw near with a sincere heart and hold unswervingly to the hope we profess in faith. We do that by seeking God with all our heart and placing God in the center of our lives.
What [or who] is at the center of your life? Perhaps the best way to answer that question is by looking at our daily schedules and our check books or credit card records. Reading them, we can examine where we spend our energy, our time, or our money. This is what receives our care and attention—and, by definition, our love. Whatever [or whoever] we are giving our time and our attention to, day after day, this is the kind of people we will eventually become. In other words, we become what we love.
That’s why, in response to the question, “How then, shall we live?”, the first two answers do not tell us what to do; rather they encourage us to remember who we are in Christ and to be clear about who or what we love. Finally, we get to the third exhortation: let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, but encouraging one another– and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
For the preacher of Hebrews, the “day approaching” most likely referred to the final Day of Judgment at the end of the world, but for us, I think it can also be applied to the final day of our earthly lives. We don’t know exactly when that day will be – it may come unexpectedly, like the victims of the attacks in France; it may come sooner or it may come later. However, we do know that day is approaching. How then, shall we live in light of that day?
Muller’s book tells the story of one his patients, Paul, who was dying of cancer. Paul was not afraid; he knew it was time. But he also wished he had ten more years to live, free of this illness. Muller asked Paul, “What would you do if we could give you those ten years?”
Paul spoke easily and certainly, “I would be kind. I would live my life with kindness. I would teach my children to be kind, too. This is all ever really wanted to do, just to be kind, to be loving.”
Paul continued: “A few months ago, when I was still feeling strong, I thought I would treat myself, so I walked into a bakery and ordered two of my favorite cookies. I told the girl behind the counter that they were my favorite, and she said she loved them, too, but they were very expensive. When I left, I thought about it for a minute, and then I went back and bought another cookie, and gave it to her. ‘This one is for you,’ I said. She was so surprised by my kindness. ‘You are such a kind man,’ she said. I felt absolutely wonderful. Such a small thing, such an easy thing to do. This is how I would live my life, if only I had more time.”
You, me, we do have more time. So how might Paul’s experience and insight spur us on toward love and good deeds? At this season of the year, our church offers so many opportunities to demonstrate love and undertake good deeds. Those of you who were at church two Wednesdays ago were able to see our season offerings laid out on tables, from shoeboxes for children to Christmas dinner in a bag for families to toiletries for women at the Fluvanna Correctional Center, plus many more. Seeing all those opportunities together made me thankful again for the many ways our church members spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Seeing the many opportunities laid out together also reminded me that no one church member need do everything – working together, we each take on the projects that call to us, and as a body, we can have a tremendous impact locally and beyond. Even so, I love the way that throughout the year, we have different projects and emphases, so that continually, almost habitually, we spur one another on to love and good deeds.
Our love and our good deeds are intimately related to God’s plans to give us hope and a future. Remember what I said earlier about Jeremiah 29? It was written to God’s people who were taken to captivity in Babylon. You would expect Jeremiah to tell God’s people to shun their captors, to curse Babylon, to wish death and destruction upon that city. Instead, listen to what God says in Jeremiah 29:4-7: 4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Three verses later, God says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, plans to give you hope and a future.” God was instructing God’s people to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon, to pray to the Lord for that pagan empire, home of present-day Iraq.
In the aftermath of Paris, how then, shall we live? What ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has done in these terrorist attacks is to provoke us, to spur us on NOT toward love and good deeds, but toward hate. Just as ISIS harmed and killed indiscriminately, we can’t be provoked to hate and blame indiscriminately all Muslims for the acts of extremists. Because just as we become what we love, I believe we also become what we hate. I’m reminded by the words of Martin Luther King Jr., whose words from the 60’s still have wisdom today: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
How then, shall we live – as individuals and as a church? In these dark and traumatic times, many of us simply do not know. But what if our “don’t know” is not a signal to just react, to just do something, but rather an indication that it is time to be quiet, to listen, and to draw near to God and to hold on unswervingly to the hope we profess in God? What if the answers to our questions about life and mission and practice are already speaking to us, and in our rush to find them, we miss the easy, gentle wisdom that would teach us all we need to know if we simply center ourselves and be still for just a moment? Maybe that’s the value of the habit of meeting together as a community of faith, to rest and take in a Sabbath, to slow down and be still enough to engage God and others with the important questions of life.
As we meet together on this Sabbath day, it is good to be reminded that we, as individuals and as a church, have already been given everything that we need in Christ. All we are is a result of the One who has loved us wholly, completely, sacrificially, and unconditionally. And even though we may not fully know our future, we have a sure hope in the One who holds our future, even in these dark and troubling times.
Therefore, during our stewardship emphasis, we ask these questions:
“Who or what do you truly love?”
“Who or what holds my future, your future, our future?”
“How is God calling us to respond to God’s presence … in our lives and in our church?”
“In light of Christ’s sacrificial love, how then, shall we give?”
“In light of Christ who is making us holy, how then, shall we live?”
 Wayne Muller, How Then, Shall We Live? Kindle edition, location 269.
 Ibid., location 388.
 Ibid., location 1337-1338.
 Ibid., location 2175-2186.
 Ibid., location 2644-2650.