by Michael Usey; Hebrews 10.19-25
It’s the first Sunday of Lent; Lent is the 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays. There are 6 Sundays in the lenten season, each of which is considered a little Easter. Lent (a word that means springtime) is a time for getting our bounce back, testing to see how resilient our faith and our lives have become. As we’ve said many times, Lent is spring cleaning for the soul, a moment to clean up our mental hygiene. It’s athletic training for our spirits, renewing our best spiritual practices that help us reconnect to God, the power outside of us, to our fellow humans, to other animals, and to the rest of this remarkable creation. It’s not a shame or guilt or renunciation per se, but it’s about life abundant. It’s also about hearing the cries of the hurting, about recommitting ourselves to doing the difficult work that God’s wild spirit has called us all to do.
Our theme for this year is Allalon. “One another” is two words in English, but it’s only one word in Greek: ἀλλήλων (ah-LAY-loan). It’s used 100 times in 94 NT verses. 47 of those verses give instructions to the church, and 60% of those instructions come from Paul.
When you look at these verses, a few more common themes show up. One third of the one-another commands deal with the unity of the church. This is going to be a challenge to talk about since the Christian church in North America is anything but unified. One third of them instruct Christians to love one another. This we can always use more practice with. About 15% stress an attitude of humility and deference among believers. Humility doesn’t come naturally for most of us, especially in America. And there are another dozen random passages, from which this morning text comes. We’ll be looking at these texts on Sundays and Wednesdays during Lent, asking, how can we better one another each other?
Random question: What’s the most mysterious book of the NT, in your humble opinion? Most would probably say Revelation, which is a good but lazy guess. Others might offer Colossians, which purports to be from Paul to his friends in Colosse, but the letter is so cosmic and out there that it might have been written under the influence of a foreign substance. It’s a wonderful letter, just filled with remarkable phrases and verses, so it actually might be the most mysterious book in the NT. You should read it if you haven’t lately. But my vote for the most mysterious NT book would go to the book of Hebrews.
No one knows who wrote the NT book we call Hebrews. There are some hints that it might have been written by a woman, and, if so, it would be the only one in our NT authored by a female. Who knows when it was written? Perhaps after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. The writer is using the temple as a metaphor for Jesus, but it’s clear that she’s never visited the actual temple; she only knows it from its description in the Hebrew bible, not the actual physical temple. Hebrews begins as a sermon, a riff on some of the Psalms; the middle is a theology lesson, and yet it ends like a letter. The book has the best Greek usage of the entire NT, on a par with Luke and Acts: the Greek is precise, elegant, and sophisticated. The addressees seem to be on some kind of journey, maybe to the temple itself?
And the theology is wild. The writer wants us to see that Jesus Christ is everything we need, so she portrays Jesus in a confusing kaleidoscope of Jewish images: Jesus is the high priest offering the sacrifice; he is the altar itself, and Jesus is the sacrifice too. Jesus is the one to whom the offering is being made, and the one receiving it. And finally Jesus is God’s holy temple too. Wait, what? Reading this dizzying christology makes one want to shout, block that metaphor! There are too many in fast succession, all of them equaling Jesus. I think I somewhat understand her point, but it’s almost overkill. So the book of Hebrews is the WandaVision of the NT: compelling but impossible to understand fully.
In chapter 10, she has just laid out her complex Russian-puzzle-doll theology, when she exhorts her readers,
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the One who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Such a lovely, simple, and unique phrase: Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. There is not another verse just like it in our bible.
Granted, hearing the verb stimulate calls to mind many other things (and for once I’m glad Roland isn’t in Greensboro to elaborate). But what it most reminds me of Joe Bob Briggs, the world’s only drive-in movie critic and alter ego to John Bloom. Ann and I read Joe Bob’s humorous movie reviews each week faithfully when we were in Texas, and often he would talk about his girlfriend, Wanda Bodine. Wanda loved jewelry, and Joe Bob scoured the lone star state looking for stimulated diamonds for Wanda. We left Texas before Joe Bob found such a necklace. Myself I’ve never seen a stimulated diamond, but I did promise Ann that if I ever found one, I’d get it for her. [And if you google stimulated diamonds you’ll get a number of hits from spelling-challenged jewelers too.]
In the verse in Hebrews 10.24, the Greek word used in the phrase “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” is paroxysmos, which is used here to mean to spur, to provoke, to amp up, to energize, to abet, to fire up, to arouse. All of these are fantastic ways of translating this word, and it has a bit of aggressive connotation. Be. Aggressive. B.E. Aggressive. Let’s push ourselves, let’s impel one another to love and good works. Let’s foment agape love and divine deeds. “Love and good works” is a wonderful way to summarize the Christian churches’ entire reason for existing in the world. This is literally our raison d’etre.
I’m a Jesus follower, so I can find many excellent reasons to be at a church. But perhaps the best is this: I will act on so many, many more good works because I’m with a group of fellow Christians who are electrifying one another to actively love, continually thinking of new ways to love and creating endless opportunities to do good here and now. Alone, I would not do a tenth of what you all impell me to. We enegerize each other for agape and good deeds, and we do so very much more because we are together providing opportunities, ideas, and information about how best to love this city.
Just off the top of my head, consider all the love and good works people at College Park were about just this last week. Jerry and Terry were collecting contributions for Greensboro Urban Ministry on Mardi Gras. Terri and Grey were at Special Blend coffee shop so that special adults could have a delightful job. Blair was tutoring needy students; Beverly fed people literally on the street. A group led by PJ and Eileen are getting ready to cook dinner tonight for a hundred plus people who are not yet sheltered. Deb, Wendy, Alison, Jessi and many others were finding forever homes for rescue dogs. Jerry and Adam were working at our building to get our phones working again. James and Alison spent the week planning for national youth camps to let young people know they are loved by God and people. Lin and her cohort led an impressive youth group in discussions and fun. Kari, Nancy, and Lisa taught kids about the wonders of books and libraries. Lauren, Ann, Mike, Susan, Chris, Edna, Gary, Melissa, Mike, and Carmen, and too many others to count tried to teach kids from kindergarten to grad school via Zoom and in person. Kathy and Sheryl counseled people who are hurting, while Zach, Nate, Michelle and Grace did the social work. Lisa is singing with our children. Randy, Jeri, and John are volunteering with Out of the Garden.
I could go on and on; you could too. I say this NOT to pat ourselves on the back, but to say, this is exactly how we stimulate one another to radical love and creative good works. Keep up the good work!
Obituaries for Rush Limbaugh this past week brought me back to the ‘80s and the career decision that led me to College Park. Growing up in San Diego, then in Waco at Baylor and Louisville for seminary, I spent years surrounded by Evangelical Christians and their fiery leaders, not all of whom turned out to be very Christlike.
Up close, I realized that they are actually driven by an apocalyptic worldview, that Jesus would be coming back soon. Evangelicals always depicted themselves as the righteous remnant that stood against the forces of secular humanism which threatened Christian orthodoxy and introduced a dangerous moral relativism exemplified by feminism, the so called gay agenda, and the like. This sharp juxtaposition between ‘true believers’ and ‘the world’ allowed their preachers to vent their spleen oratorically, making preaching much more entertaining to watch.
But I realized early on that they actually lived out of their anger more than most people realized. Anger, in the voice of righteous indignation, drove a sense of grievance that their “traditional family values” were being displaced by liberal humanists. It was ‘us’ against ‘them’ in a spiritual battle that would continue until God intervened directly in history and vindicated the true believers.
At the time, that sense of grievance had a secular voice as well in the newfound genre of outrage radio led by Rush Limbaugh. For 3 hours a day, he vented about the headlines and encouraged his listeners to join him in moral outrage. I was only 26 when I graduated from Southern in Louisville, but I decided that I wasn’t going to live out of my anger. Spiritually, I knew it was deadly. I remember thinking about Rush Limbaugh (as well as Mark Levin), “How can you wake up every day, so angry, so ready to tap into your rage as the source of your spiritual energy and focus?” I won’t recount for you all the terrible bigoted and racist things he often said.
But I wasn’t entirely surprised that they were as popular as they became. Just take the back roads from Murphy to Manteo and you pass town after town time has passed by. There is a lot of frustration and disappointment across the middle of our state and the heartland of our country and hate radio tapped into that artery.
WaPo noted that Rush was married four times, a reminder that leading with your anger doesn’t work well at home. And I decided that I didn’t want to raise my family that way either, so we decamped for Greensboro and College Park, where I’ve been able to work out of the positive spirituality that is exemplified in the actual Jesus of history. And I’ve been free to blend the insights of science with the anecdotal wisdom of our spiritual tradition, rather than have a faith that is threatened by education. I’m so grateful to have spent our time together developing a vision and dreaming of what is possible when we release the divine creativity that is within us. We have stimulated one another to love and good works, and we can continue to do so. We have been more devoted to synchronicity rather than conflict, harmony rather than aggression, with Christ as our guide and lord.
You can gain great notoriety in a perpetual state of rage. Media pundits love to cover a fight: it sells! But it is not a profound way to live. And ultimately, we are looking for truth in our religion and faith. We are hoping to discover a deeper, fuller way of being in the world in the short time we have left on this planet. It’s better than diamonds, real or stimulated.