One of the best classes I took in divinity school was actually more of a book club. I know I’ve mentioned it to many of you before - because the experience of it was so impactful. It was two groups of women - many different ages and backgrounds. We read 5 different books and simply discussed them throughout the semester.
What made the class so impactful? Was it because of the books we read? Nope...actually, I only remember one of the books. It was because the two groups of women were a group who were students at Duke Divinity and a group who were incarcerated at the women’s prison in Raleigh.
On the first night of class, the group of women incarcerated were already seated in the room, which was a multi-use space for classes, training, and meetings. The desks (the old school kind with a desk connected to the chair) were arranged in a circle. The women who lived at the prison were intentionally seated - in every other seat. So, as we, the students from grad school, entered, we had to sit every other seat.
When first walking in the room, I was so taken aback because many of the women in front of me were nothing of who I thought to encounter there.
I am not condoning the actions that resulted in the women doing time in prison. However, I learned a huge lesson in not making assumptions or passing judgements that evening and in the resulting weeks.
And I wonder if this is the goal that Jesus had in mind when instructing his listeners to invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind... and the author of Hebrews had when telling the believers to remember those in prison.
We’ve reached the end of Hebrews this week - we’ve reached the end of our direct study on faith - on belief or trust or however you will word it.. These are some of the final verses of the letter. It’s where the author tries to hit the homerun, right? To make any final points that will remain with the reader and audience.
So, what is his final point? I believe it is that faith is an action.
What we just read is a little different than the past few weeks...the past three weeks have been explicitly about having faith in God - it’s been a bit more theoretical or philosophical - talking more about drawing from the experiences and lessons of the past to propel the readers into the future and encourage them to stay committed to what they’ve been taught.
In the previous chapters we’ve read, faith is implied as being a verb - as resulting in action. These verses, though, leave nothing to the imagination on the connection between faith and behavior.
A classic debate in Christian circles is “is faith without works dead?” In other words, can you claim to have faith in God and the teachings of Jesus, change nothing in your life, and still fairly claim Christianity? (Technically, people can do whatever they want, but is this a fair stance to take?)
For the author of Hebrews, though, having faith in Christ’s teachings flows directly into taking actions on those beliefs.
An important action for any of us to take is to put ourselves in another person’s shoes - to put ourselves in their place - to imagine what it is like being them, being raised the way they were, etc.
I saw this past week on Facebook multiple times a graphic that showed a line marked “what we know about a person” and “everything there is to know about a person.” Clearly, we only know a small piece of each person’s life.
A very clear action that should come from our faith is to remember others as we would want to be considered. it’s the Golden Rule - treat others as you would want to be treated.
Considering the words from Luke and from Hebrews, it is saying that taking in Jesus’ teachings motivate us to open ourselves to the world (sometimes in scary ways) and behave in such a way that we recognize the universe does not revolve around us. We recognize. and then act upon knowing, that other people are raised in different cultures and different households, that other creatures live on this earth, that we are all connected.
We take action on our beliefs.
Knowing you all - knowing this congregation - I am assuming you agree. Y’all are some active people. You are people who want to take action on things that matter to you in this world - ranging from care of the environment to serving those without homes to wrangling little humans (otherwise known as teaching...prayers to all of you started the school year on Tuesday).
The struggle enters when determining how to act on our Christian beliefs. For instance, we, at LCCC, believe in radical hospitality - welcoming all who enter the doors of this building. And yet, I bet we have a lot of different opinions on what to do if someone were to come in intending to do harm - perhaps with a gun or other weapon.
Most of us agree with Jesus’ teachings about welcoming the stranger, making sure you aren’t serving others only expecting something in return. Most of us would agree with the author of Hebrews that we need to share what we have and not neglect the needs of others, and essentially put ourselves in another person’s shoes.
HOW we go about that is going to cause some debate.
(Kathryn Matthews, sermon seeds, ucc.org) The 1986 film, The Mission, provides a good illustration of the tension in Christian ethics. In this case, it shows the conflict between love that stands firm in non-violent resistance to evil and love that stands firm in whatever it takes to protect the innocent from harm.
The character, Father Gabriel, starkly contrasts that of Rodrico Mendoza, the former slave-trader-turned-Jesuit who is beside himself at the thought of the Portuguese and Spanish troops taking over the mission and carrying the Guarani people into slavery. The disagreement between Gabriel and Mendoza is hightenend, yet in the end, neither can stop the troops authorized by the authorities of the priests' own church.
Jesus’ instructions in Luke and the words from Hebrews are teaching us to love. You want to love one another? Put yourselves in their place. Imagine what drove them to make the decisions they are making. Let us be kind to the stranger and let us be kind to the person we know very well sitting next to us but thinks differently than we do.
Love & faith are not simply feelings and thoughts in our heads. They are actions. They are how we live.
When we make ourselves vulnerable to others - when we open up with one another - we gain understanding. We are more connected to one another and we live more fully into being one in the Body of Christ.
Henri Nouwen writes: "Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair…. loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world."
When the Scripture says that faith will save us, I believe this - what Nouwen describes - is what we are saved from. By letting our faith turn into actions that connect us to one another and pushes us to place ourselves in someone else’s shows, we are saved from loneliness, broken relationships, feelings of emptiness and uselessness. We are saved from hatred and lack of compassion. We are saved from experiencing a deep hell on earth. (Not to say there aren’t other experiences of hell on earth out there…)
Nouwen goes on to say that "God's first love" is "without any conditions or limits," unlike the "second love" of human beings in our lives, a love that is "limited, broken, and very fragile." ..."The radical good news is that the second love is only a broken reflection of the first love and that the first love is offered to us by a God in whom there are no shadows…" (In the Name of Jesus).
May we do our best to be a bright reflection of God’s first love.
Scripture: Luke 14:1,7-14; Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16