One of the highlights of church camp back in Nebraska—which I understand is also one of the highlights of the camping experience at our own church camp at Cane Ridge West—is tubing down the river. I know that here in Montana it is not called tubing, but a “float”. There in Nebraska we would load the kids up in vans, haul them up to the community of Burwell, portage them there on the Calamus River, and then head back to camp where they would eventually end up. It was a blast to just float down the river, enjoying the sun and scenery. And, that is what was done . . . floating using the river’s current and flow. It did not take a whole lot of effort on anyone’s part because everyone was going with the flow.
Now I know that every summer the Hs take a “float” down the Yellowstone River from Columbus to either Laurel or Billings . . . and, I know that they have a blast. It is one of the highlights and joys of the summer . . . just going with the flow, floating down the river. But, I wonder how popular that annual adventure would be if B were to suddenly announce that the trip was going to be from Laurel to Columbus . . . I think B might end up taking that trip by himself. That would be going against the flow . . . against the current. It would take a lot of hard, tiresome work to get from Laurel to Columbus going against the flow of the Yellowstone River.
We all know that it is easier to go with the “flow” than it is to go against the “flow”. One involves just floating along, while the other involves lots of hard work. The letter to the Hebrews was pastoral one encouraging this group of believers to hang in there despite increasing pressure from the broader society to conform to their ways. The society in which this particular congregation was based was pushing for uniformity and conformity of those who called themselves followers of Jesus . . . they wanted them to quit going against the flow. The writer of Hebrews is encouraging them to hold on.
This pastoral letter of encouragement ends with what are a set of ethical teaching. A set of teachings that form an interconnected series about how to live as a community of faith in an indifferent or even hostile world. They provide practices that set the community apart from the broader culture. They are the means to go against the “flow”.
Our reading this morning is marked by several key practices, of which, the first mark is the foundation to the rest. That mark is love. Of course, as the followers of Jesus, we already know how much he emphasized love . . . did he not tell everyone—including us, today—that we are to love God, love our neighbor? Did he not tell us to do everything in love? Because of this, none of us should be surprised that the writer of this letter begins with love. “Keep on loving each other . . .” As a community of faith, we are called to love one another as a family loves its own . . . we are to nurture and strengthen our relationships with one another.
But, the writer—like Jesus—sees that it is not enough to have internal love amongst the followers . . . it is not good enough to just love one another, and the heck with the rest. No . . . the writer extends that love beyond the walls of the community of faith to include loving those on the outside . . . to love those on the borders of the church and society. Love that is based on hospitality . . . based on welcoming . . . inviting. The followers of Jesus, despite always going against the “flow”, are never meant to wall ourselves up as a distinct group that is separated from everyone and everything else. No, it is called upon to be hospitable . . . welcoming . . . and, inviting.
This is that idea of being in the world, but not of this world. In other words, Jesus calls the shots for us . . . through his words, teachings, and actions—not the world. We are to do God’s will as demonstrated by our Lord and Savior Jesus. Which often times puts us going against the flow . . . we are kind of like that one shopper at WalMart that insists on going the opposite way in the aisle.
Another mark is that of showing care in times of distress. One of the means of any society to get people to change and march to the same beat is to punish them . . . to lock them away . . . to torture them. This was happening at the time of this letter being written, followers of Jesus were being imprisoned and tortured . . . they were suffering. Here the writer underscores the depth of compassion by telling us that we must not ignore those who face difficulties and hurts, but that we must journey with them . . . that we suffer with them . . . that we let them know that they are not alone . . . to let them know that we care.
Fidelity . . . fidelity—honoring the ties that bind us—is the next mark. Though it would seem that the writer is only concerned with honoring the bond that is marriage, it means more than just that. We are to live up to that which we profess to believe . . . our words and actions are to be congruent . . . are to be one and the same.
Next comes contentment . . . contentment with what we have. We are not to get caught up in the race for “bigger and better” or more than the Joneses in order to feel safe and secure. Rather we are to trust in God’s promises of presence and protection through the journey of life . . . remember that will never desert us in the journey of faith. “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” To have God is enough.
Loyalty and constancy are the fifth mark . . . we are to remain loyal and constant to our faith in God through Jesus. We are to remember those who have come before us . . . remember their example for us of how and what it means to be faithful. And, we are to remember the ultimate example of what it means to be loyal and constant in faith . . . we are to remember Jesus who “. . . is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
The last mark is worship . . . worship based on thanksgiving for the blessings and gifts of God’s presence in life . . . worship that is open to receive, and also give . . . worship that reaches out to use that which God has gifted and blessed us with . . . to fling wide our hands and arms to not only receive the love and grace of God but to give it to others. It is a worship that goes beyond the walls of the church to the way that we live life each day. It is to infuse all of life.
Thus it is that the way that we love one another, love the stranger, care for those in crisis become a form of worship. In our sharing that reflects our trust in God rather than possessions, we are worshipping God. In our faithfulness to our words . . . our covenants . . . and, in remembering those who have gone before us, we are worshipping God.
Thus it is that the writer of this letter to this particular congregation . . . and, to us . . . is encouraging everyone who follows Jesus to hang on . . . to keep on going against the “flow”. We are to embody this way of life . . . this way of living—not because we have to, not because the writer says to, but because God’s grace and love will transform and empower us. God, through Jesus, has shown us a new way to the kingdom . . . a way that may seem to go against the flow of the rest of the world around us, but a way that brings to us confidence. God will take care of us even as we go against the flow . . . God will take care of us. For this we should offer our praise and the witness of our lives . . . we should worship. Amen.