Have you ever found yourself reacting to statements of facts or so-called “laws” supporting actions that just don’t make sense? Buying more and more at Christmastime, even if it means maxing out your credit cards is the only way to save our economy. Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the only way to end World War II. .Fracking – hydraulic fracturing is the best solution to ensure American independence from other nations even though it shakes the foundations of God’s good earth and may irreversibly damage major aquifers that provide our fresh water not to mention the risks to air quality and noise pollution. We must start killing people in Syria (or Afghanistan, or Iraq, or you name it) because their governments have been killing people. We must insure that more countries of the world are democratic and “free” so that American multinational corporations can move in and take their resources cheaply, sell goods to us at “low, low prices” and set up McDonalds on every corner of every land in the world. Sand is no longer good enough, South Walpole Community preschool needs to purchase mulch now, and really should have running water in each classroom and adopt a procedure for each child to brush his or her teeth if they stay longer than four hours so that we can compete with the for profit preschools that are wealthy enough to lobby the State government and put these ridiculous regulations in place. This makes the for profit preschools seem more attractive to unsuspecting new parents who put their trust in Government standards. The Salvation Army can’t take Grace and Salem’s perfectly good crib and mattress, or their pack n’ play that could bless a low-income family because of government decree.
Though I didn’t understand it then, I can see now that the tension I was experiencing in high school, the tension you might feel sometimes too, is the tension all Christians are apt to feel between trying to be citizens of modern nation-states and citizens of the Kingdom of God.
The letter to the Hebrews has something to say about this. The Bible has something to say about government power, imperial power, which is out of compliance with the laws of the Kingdom of God. It has a name for God’s covenant people who turn away from Christ; apostates. It has a name for the act of a Christian aligning one’s life instead with the gods of the world; idolatry. Again, as we have had to do for this whole series, we need some knowledge of the Old Testament passages quoted in Hebrews to fully see the statements it is making about idolatry.
Today’s passage from Hebrews starts by quoting Deuteronomy and Habakkuk. “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’” The writer of Hebrews concludes, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” And a little further down he quotes God in Isaiah and Habakkuk saying, “My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back.”
The writer of Hebrews assumed that the readers/listeners in the congregation would know the Bible so well that they would recognized that these quotes come from discussions of Babylon – the empire that invaded the Kingdom David had built for God, destroying Israel, Judah and the Temple in Jerusalem. While the Bible says God used Babylon as a punishment for the Jews who had been unfaithful, this was only meant to be a temporary discipline. In the end, in both the Old and New Testaments the Babylonian Empire (and any worldly empire like Rome) came to represent the powers of evil, diametrically opposed to the Kingdom of God in every way. And God’s final plan of victory includes judgment against imperial powers and all who have turned to their idols of wealth, power, and immediate gratification.
“Vengeance is mine” means that God intends to rite all the wrongs that Babylon has committed. God will take care of this. God’s Messiah will bring true justice and peace to the world. No one else can. No good empire can overcome an evil empire even if they claim that the force is with them. The Bible claims that all human empires are inherently evil.
“The Lord will judge his people,” reminds us that as citizens of God’s Kingdom we will be judged if we turn to worship Babylon’s idols. The first two commandments given to God’s people are serious. 1) “You shall have no other gods before me.” 2) “You shall not make idols for yourself, you shall not bow down to them or worship them for I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.”
Modern ethicists often ignore these first few commandments, preferring to focus on what they like to think of as more “universal” rules to live by – you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not lie, you shall not commit adultery. They tell us these are all wrapped up a “golden rule” that all peoples of the world live by. Common though is that if you keep these you are a “good person” and it doesn’t matter when, where or whom you worship. But from the point of view of the Bible the first commands are the most important. Idol worship is the supreme act of apostasy, the supreme covenant violation against God. Idol worship is also associated with an inordinate identification with worldly culture, which leads us to compromises with ‘lesser’ aspects of covenant life stipulated by God like keeping the Sabbath or sharing all we have collectively for the common good. The wealth and power offered by the empire around is the most dangerous attraction of all because the more Christians assimilate into pagan imperial culture the more likely we are to commit idolatry.
If you are unconvinced spend some time recalling the “slogans” and ad campaigns of some of the American multinational corporations represented on our bulletin cover. When you do, I believe you’ll see that in our lifetime these seats of imperial power have been flaunting their idolatry – GE “we bring good things to life.” Contrast that with Genesis 1 “In the Beginning God brought everything to life and called it good.” Or remember the old 70s Coke ad – I do. A bunch of peaceful hippies representing the whole world singing, “in perfect harmony – I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. – It’s the real thing.” Really?!
Hebrews, in chorus with Moses and the prophets assures us that even while imperial power rules oppressively over God’s people, it is subjected to God’s judgment. God speaks against any imperial power that accumulates wealth by despoiling other nations and subjects them to public shame.
What political alternative does Hebrews offer? The church. Not the church of the Holy Roman Empire, or even that of Colonial Massachusetts, which were tied to and often co-opted by the empire. Not a church that is relegated to the private sphere of personal beliefs that have no place in public discourse. But the church, which, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, is necessary for the salvation wrought in Christ. “The church was not and is not a people gathered together in order to remember an impressive but dead founder. Rather the church is those gathered from the nations to testify to the resurrected Lord. Without the church there world literally has no hope of salvation since the church is necessary for the world to know it is part of a story that it cannot know without the church.”
Only the church knows that our only hope of salvation lies in God. “The Lordship of Christ must guide critical value choices, so that we may be called to subordinate or even to reject those values which contradict Jesus.” “The church – exactly because it does not seek to rule through violence, though it necessarily manifests God’s rule – triumphs by remembering the victory of the Lamb through the witness of the martyrs.”
Remember the martyrs, Christians who died for their faith. I described them, and the confessors – those who were persecuted for their faith but did not die – in my first sermon in this series. The author of Hebrews was writing to a people who did not have “freedom of religion” and were actively being oppressed for their faith. It is not clear whether the community had experienced martyrdom but they surely knew what it meant to suffer for their faith. They suffered in two ways. First by enduring it directly through verbal abuse (reproach, derision and taunt) and physical abuse. The abuse was public so the suffering included humiliation and shame. And Hebrews says their property was plundered – which could mean seizure by the government, mob violence, or burglarizing the homes of believers while they were in jail. But the church also endured suffering indirectly by refusing to abandon fellow believers in their sufferings – not just sending a sympathy card but through personal visits, providing food, running errands, interceding. Christians showed the love of Christ by risked further verbal and physical abuse. Christians of the early church chose to suffer rather than serve the gods promoted by the empire.
And this suffering is the opposite of what citizens of America believe is their right – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Hauerwas says, “God in Jesus has defeated the powers so that as disciples we can confidently live as a cruciform community in a world that has chosen not to be ruled by such love.”
We learn from reading Hebrews that being a follower of Christ did not end hardship but began it in new and intense ways. And the letter has been written to encourage the members of the church to endure, not give up, not become apostates. Hebrews warns that God’s soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back from covenant loyalty. In the face of imperial powers Hebrews encourages Christians to:
Live by faith as ones who are saved – do not shrink back!
What does this look like? Hebrews uses Moses as an example. Remember he was born into an Israelite slave family in Egypt, but raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses chose a life of suffering as one of God’s people rather than a life of wealth and status in the court of Egypt. Hebrews reminds the church that:
Like Moses the Christian community experienced the displeasure of its culture. Like Moses, it was looking forward to its reward from God…Moses’ struggle is specifically related to the temptations of temporary prosperity in Egypt and of fearing the king’s anger. It is not difficult to imagine similar temptations and struggles among the audience of Hebrews living in Rome with its pagan imperial culture. The affluence and mobility that identification with pagan culture offered Jews and Christians was a powerful incentive to compromise their Jewish and Christian covenant loyalty (Kraybill 1996). Such attraction was even stronger in light of the negative pressures the pagan culture placed upon those who maintained exclusive covenant loyalty to God and his people.
Live by faith as ones who are saved – do not shrink back!
Yes, but what about today, what examples do we have around us. Let me offer one Christian community among many – the Catholic Worker. This organization was founded in New York City at the height of the Great Depression by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, Catholic lay people. They not only thought about how to live in the Kingdom of God while surrounded by an empire, they put it into practice. I learned of them while I was in college, spent a summer living among them on the Lower East Side and writing my senior thesis about them. There are many ways the Catholic Worker resists the empire. They refuse to keep any bank account that gives them interest, citing the biblical law against usury – or gaining money that did not come from work. The people in the house share everything in common just like in Acts – if someone needs a new pair of pants, they take it from the clothing room. As a group that focuses on works of charity and works of justice, and relies solely on the donations of others they refuse to file the paper work that would make them a 501c3 non-profit. When I give money to them I can’t claim it on my taxes. Why - because the government can dictate to such non-profits whom they can help and how. I had first hand experience with such government interference when I worked with the United Methodist churches of Lynn at our joint food pantry. Because we were giving out government surplus food from the Food Bank, we had look at documents and keep records about every person who came to get food. If they didn’t have the right documentation we were supposed to ignore Jesus’ command to feed the hungry and refuse to give them food.
The Catholic Worker seeks to be with the poor and suffering; to suffer with them. When I was there some of us spent nights in a park where the homeless were being persecuted in the name of “gentrification” of the city. At the Catholic Worker distinctions between “clients” and “helpers” are broken down – everyone who lives there is equal in the community. There are no bosses or directors. Everyone who lives in the house is welcome at the house meetings where decisions are made by consensus. The homeless are known by name and valued as children of God, ministered to and encouraged to minister in every way possible. I can only scratch the surface here – but if you want to learn more there is a wealth of books, and their own newspaper which still sells for a “penny a copy” as it did at the first. Take a look for yourself at what it can look like for a Christian community to live together in a way that actively resists the powers of the empire.
Live by faith as ones who are saved – do not shrink back!
Of course the Catholic Worker and all Christian communities who seek to stay true to our Covenant with God by resisting imperial power look to Christ as the prime example. I attended evening prayer when I was at the Catholic Worker and they used an old Catholic prayer book. One prayer that we said every evening mentioned Christ our high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Who is he, I wondered? As I shared with the kids, Melchizedek was both a king and a priest in Abraham’s day. Hebrews uses him to say something about Jesus who is the high priest in the order of Melchizedek. As high priest Jesus made sacrifice. But unlike the priests who followed Aaron and sacrificed animals, Jesus sacrificed himself for our sins. As the name Melchizedek means, Jesus is the King of justice. As a high priest Jesus prayers were heard by God the Father. But even so salvation came through Jesus’ suffering on the cross.
This is the story we rightly remember every time we take communion; the story of the righteous king who sacrificed himself for our salvation. When Christ comes in his full glory we believe Babylon will fall to rise no more and the Kingdom of God will prevail. In the meantime being members of the Church means having confidence in the priestly ministry of the resurrected Christ and obediently saying no to any powers that operate outside of God’s providential care even if that means suffering.
Let us remember all of this today as we accept Christ’s invitation to his table. Let us repent of our sin, turn ourselves fully toward Christ, let us seek to live in peace, in God’s shalom, according to the laws of the kingdom of God with one another and with the world, even if doing so will bring us some measure of suffering. Let us accept our incorporation into the priesthood of Christ. The priesthood of all believers who steadfastly refuse to worship any other god but the God of the Covenant. Let us pledge our allegiance to Christ, and to his church above all other allegiances as we sing the next hymn, I Love Thy Kingdom Lord. Let us live by faith as ones who are saved – do not shrink back!
 After Christendom? p. 36 All following quotes from Hauerwas are from this book.
 Most of the exegesis of this sermon comes from Fred Craddock’s chapter in the New Interpreter’s Bible, and Jason Whitlark’s scholarship on Idolatry in Hebrews.