Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. The whole reading from Hebrews today is full of instructions, but when the Bible gives us instructions, they are always an expression of some divine truth that makes the instructions possible. And that line, that truth, is priceless: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
That’s not a platitude. It is the reality that makes the Christian way of life feasible. When we come to this altar, when we read the Bible, when we serve Christ in the poor, we are encountering the same living Jesus Christ who walked the roads of Galilee. His teaching has not changed. His power has not waned. His style, his M.O., the way he approaches people and life is just the same as it has always been. And his heart still beats with love and mercy for this world and always will.
We see this in lots of ways. If we take time to read the four Gospels straight through, something every Christian should do, we’ll find the Jesus they describe to be the same person we worship. If we hopped on a plane to meet fellow disciples from across the world, as our Bishop did this summer when he attended the Lambeth Conference with Anglicans from 165 nations, we would discover that whether they live in Angola, Albania, or Azerbaijan they are following the identical Son of God we follow.
Or if we could go back in time and consult the great saints like Julian of Norwich or John of the Cross, we’d discover there too: it’s the same Jesus. He’s still real. He’s still alive. Same truth, same power, same person, for everyone, everywhere, every when. Of course, we change. Our culture changes. Our perception of truth can be unreliable, wavering and fading in and out sometimes. The needs and questions and situations are in flux. But it’s still Jesus who’s standing with us, risen from the dead, alive forevermore, the same yesterday and today and forever. Without his living, consistent presence, Christianity falls apart.
Today’s reading is the closing section of the letter to the Hebrews. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews, but whoever it was is concluding the letter with some words of advice. All of them are things you could try to do in your own strength, although some of them I doubt anyone whose priority was to rely on their own strength would have much motivation for. But the author doesn’t expect the community to do these things in their own strength. He or she expects them to use a strength which comes from Jesus, and because of that is the same yesterday and today and forever.
So what’s the advice? First, Let mutual love continue. If your ability to love a fellow Christian is rooted in ways that you are humanly similar – educational or cultural or economic similarities, say – it will not extend across dissimilarities and disagreements. If your mutual love comes from the fact that Jesus Christ is within each of you living his life through you, that love is founded on something unchanging and much more important than any current differences of human opinion.
The passage also says: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. This is often a hard thing to do for a Christian community, especially when that community is already good at the mutual love part. It’s hard to remember that on Sunday part of your job, if you belong to Emmanuel, is deliberately not to talk to your best friends or get some church business done, but to look around and notice people you don’t already know, people Jesus has called here and needs you to how love and hospitality to. Talk to your friends the other 167 hours in the week. When you’re at Mass, show hospitality.
Where do we get the power to remember that we may be entertaining angels when we show hospitality to strangers? From knowing that Christianity is about us and our friends and our church, but about the loving mission of Jesus for the world, the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
The author of Hebrews continues: Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Now if you believe in everybody earning their own way in life, you’re just not going to obey this, because you’ll think you earned something better and they deserve what they got. But if you believe in grace, if you have grasped how much you need mercy, you can have the empathy to say: “that could be me. Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever, was merciful to me, a sinner. He cares for all my fellow sinners too, and honors me by letting me share his love and empathy with them.”
And then the reading goes on to deal with two things that are uncomfortable to talk about. Things that most people who are not trying to live a spiritual life really would like those who are living a spiritual life to avoid mentioning: sex and money. In our dominant post-Enlightenment Western value system, those two issues are considered private, nobody else’s business. Scripture disagrees.
The passage says: Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. I know that verse is hard to hear for many people, just as much of what Jesus said in the Gospel reading last week was hard to hear. And if you don’t feel accountable to what God has revealed (which most Americans don’t, of course, and that is certainly their prerogative), this verse and the many similar passages throughout the Bible will not be of much interest to you. But if we value what God has revealed in Jesus and in the Scriptures, at the very least we must take seriously that God’s call goes all the way down to what our American culture mistakenly thinks of as the most quote, private, unquote levels of your being. Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever, and there is nothing about you that’s none of his business.
And so the passage goes on with an equally uncomfortable topic we’d really prefer to keep private. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." Again, for people who are not trying to structure their lives by what God has revealed, this principle of being content with what you have won’t make sense. Because it flies in the face of what our culture believes about always trying to get a raise, and buy a a bigger flat screen TV, and all the TV shows about dream vacation rentals and high end real estate and celebrity chefs. We are constantly formed by everything but God to always want more…. even though we are already the richest nation that has ever existed and the poorest person in this room is wealthier than 90% of the globe.
But again, if you want to be a Gospel person – maybe you don’t, but if you do – the Gospel must be taken seriously as having something to say about how you use the financial resources God gives you. It did yesterday, it does today, and it will forever. Because Jesus, who embodies the Gospel, is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
And then we get a beautiful reminder: as we live this life, a life that inspires us not to fear, not to focus on finding and expressing your own identify but on discovering the identity you have in Jesus, not to live by a secular post-Enlightenment vision but by a Biblical one, what does it produce? It produces people who can proclaim that verse near the end with integrity: The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid, what can anyone do to me? Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
And finally, our author encourages us to rely on models, people who are already wholehearted disciples, people who mentored us as Christians. She or he says ,“consider the outcome of their way of life.” In other words, bring to mind some person, any person, who really lives out of mutual love for their sisters and brothers in Christ, who exhibits steady hospitality and empathy for the undeserving, who lets God have the last word even on issues secular people consider private, and who radiates confidence in Jesus who is the same yesterday and today and forever – Imagine that person, and consider the outcome of that way of life.
Or, imagine a group of Christians who lived that way, and what the outcome would be. Imagine the outcome of that way of life. Imagine the outcome if a parish were so convinced the way Jesus showed us is the way to live, that they just did it -- showed hospitality and empathy and mutual love and accountability and generosity -- no matter what else was going on. Imagine that.
Or if you like, maybe you won’t have to imagine, because after all, it’s possible. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
This woman knew what it meant to suffer. For 18 years, she had been bowed down by a crippling spirit, her back broken under its weight. Long gone were the days when she could trade smiles with a friend or admire the color of the sky. Her world was upside down and full of pain; and she was alone in bearing it.
Until she encountered Christ.
Walking into the synagogue, she wouldn’t have seen him speaking. She wouldn’t have thought or even imagined anything unusual or special happening that day. But then a voice called her name, and she suddenly found herself the center of attention. A wandering rabbi named Jesus had seen her. He had called her to him, grasped her shoulders, and said, “Stand up. You are healed.”
And for the first time in almost two decades, the woman rose to her full height and looked this man in the eyes. And then she left, praising God.
I could almost stop the sermon there, this story speaks so well on its own. God is a God of healing and redemption, more devoted to restoring his beloved creatures to wholeness than to preserving his own life. The end. But I won’t stop there because I think there’s something about this brief tale that we might not realize at first. And that is simple. We are or have been or will be that crippled woman.
Each one of us knows that the world we live in can be hard and even cruel. Tragedy can strike even the healthiest of families. Debt can accumulate in even the most responsible of households. Anger can rule even the kindest of people. These things happen; and whether or not we have thought of it this way before, the grief or sorrow or worry that results from those kinds of situations can stay with us. Can stay on us. Before we know it, our spiritual and sometimes physical backs bend, and we are bowed down, our eyes glued on whatever problem is before us.
That spiritual posture is in just as much need of divine intervention as the woman in our Gospel text today — and that’s because God doesn’t want us to be fixated on the products and consequences of Sin and Death. He doesn’t want us obsessing over how we might pay the next bill or how we will ever be happy again without this person or that comfort. What God wants for us is freedom, freedom to look him in the eyes and see who he is: A good and merciful God who redeems our lives from the grave. Who satisfies us with good things. Who is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness (Psalm 103).
The God we worship is a God of healing and redemption. He delights in raising fallen, sinful human beings out of the grave so that they — so that we — may live lives of peace and wholeness with him.
Imagine what it must have been like for that woman to walk home and see how the world around her had both changed and stayed the same: how the children had grown up and started their own families, how the night sky held the same, innumerable stars. Imagine the hope she felt for the first time in years. God had saved her. She was free. And though she couldn’t know what the next days would hold, something about the way that rabbi had looked in her eyes, something about the way his voice sounded gave her the feeling that everything would turn out alright in the end.
Everything will turn out alright in the end, even if the freedom we experience in the present life looks and feels different than the miracle we heard today. When we encounter Christ in this life, our burdens may not disappear. We may not suddenly stand tall, having shed every last trace of anxiety or worry. But Christ nevertheless sees us and speaks, reminding us again of the work that he has done and is still doing.
We are a people meant for freedom. For rest. For peace with God. Jesus ensured that this hope could become our reality. He put his shoulder under the cross, bent his back, so that we might be called friends and children of God. And in so doing, he has lifted us to the heights of the earth, so that we might see the future before us, and hope for it. And love it. And believe it is coming.
And in a different kind of way, that is a miracle. All those spiritual blessings will slowly but surely transform our lives. When we come together to hear and speak the words of Holy Scripture, to taste the Body and the Blood of Christ, to share our burdens and cares and victories with those around us, we are changed because those experiences are an encounter with Christ himself. He is here with us now, bringing joy to the sorrowful and healing to the broken. Though we may not see him, he calls us, saying: “Stand up. Be free, beloved child of God.” AMEN.
This has been quite a summer for weather. We’ve had an incredible heat wave or two, a few really severe thunderstorms, and lots of days where we all keep loading the weather app on our phones to figure out whether we can go to Sholem or Meadowbrook in the next few hours or not. We have access to all kinds of weather information these days. You can zoom the radar right in to your street, you can set text alerts, you can check hourly temperature predictions… All the data you could possibly want, just waiting for you to interpret them.
And it’s not just “the appearance of earth and sky,” as Jesus calls it today, that we can easily get input on interpreting. We also have access to all kinds of other sources which tell us what’s happening around us. Load Twitter, turn on cable TV, google it, and you can get all the signs of the times you can handle. If 1500 flights were cancelled last weekend, when should you get to the airport? If we may be looking at a recession, how much of an emergency fund should you keep on hand?
Nor is being able to interpret the data important only in public arenas. There is also the whole area of interpersonal data, what some have called “emotional intelligence.” Being able to interpret things on that level is a somewhat different skill. If an employee leaves a meeting early with no explanation, the boss has to interpret it. Is the worker challenging his authority and ought to be confronted? Does the staff member’s behavior fit in with a pattern of lack of investment in the mission, or unreliability? Or was there a genuine crisis?
And of course, there’s one more kind of interpretation, the whole area of figuring ourselves out. Interpreting things about our own psyches, what motivates us, why we make the same mistakes over and over. Even those who don't do that formally in therapy, usually do something similar from, say, reading self-help bestsellers or following Instagram influencers.
We’re interpreting all the time, whether it be hard data, or interpersonal behavior, or our own emotional lives. Being good at interpreting what’s going on in all three of those areas helps us make good choices -- about our values, our behavior, our vote. Still, in the ending section of today’s Gospel – which really is two little stories, one about division and the other about his rebuke of the crowds – I think Jesus is suggesting that the list we’ve made so far is one short. Jesus rebukes the crowds in our Gospel for not being able to interpret the unique moment of opportunity he offered, not being able to read the signs of what God was doing right in front of them. The missing ingredient, he suggests, is spiritual interpretation.
My first reaction, when I read about Jesus scolding the crowds here, is to wonder what he expected them to know? What indicators should they have been able to use to recognize what was happening around them on a spiritual level? And the question can be as validly asked of us. If you had to name signs you look for to help you figure out where God is in a situation, what is going on on a spiritual level, what would they be? I don’t mean to be flip, but what are the spiritual equivalents of the Dow Jones industrial average or Doppler radar?
As I pondered that question, I thought of one example from my own life. I’ve learned over the years that one fairly reliable indicator of how I am doing spiritually is how I react to Scripture. I pray the Daily Office regularly, both here in the chancel and wherever I happen to be when the hour for the Office comes up, and sometimes the Bible lessons seem relevant, worth slowing down for and ruminating on. Other days I blow through them like junk mail and can’t remember, half an hour later, what they even were.
It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the difference between those two experiences is mostly caused by me. Where I am, spiritually, strongly influences how meaningful I find the Bible. Now everyone has times of dryness in their spiritual life; those aren’t what I’m talking about. I’m just saying that being able to receive the Word of God as a real Word from God has a lot more to do with the shape my receiving abilities are in, than with the Word of God itself.
That’s one personal indicator in my life. Another is whether I react with impatience in a grocery store line or at a traffic light or with someone who calls the church for help with a power bill. If I feel myself getting negative about small things over which I have no control, that signals me that I am closing myself off to the influence of the Spirit. So that's one more indicator.
I wonder what some of yours are? How do you know when you are on track in your spiritual life? How do you know when you need to take time to rekindle your connection with God? How do you know when you've wandered too far from where, deep down, you really want to be? And there's one more question about spiritual indicators. Because of course the spiritual life is not merely a personal or private thing. All Christian life is corporate. So how do we gauge, for example, what is happening on a spiritual level with a congregation, without confusing that with other external indicators like “attendance is up or down,” or “more or fewer people have pledged this year”? This will be an important issue for you to deal with as you begin discerning your next steps after I retire. Where is Emmanuel spiritually? What does Emmanuel need? How do you know?
Now sometimes it's crashingly obvious what God is up to. One night at a leadership meeting at a parish I used to be rector of, we paused the meeting to pray that God would help us get in touch with the needs of people in our area, and just then a woman in need literally walked in the unlocked door and asked for our help. Doesn't take much skill to figure that one out. But some of the signs of God's action among us, his followers, require much more prayer, thought and discernment.
“When you see a cloud rising in the west,” Jesus told the crowd, “you immediately say it’s going to rain. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say there will be scorching heat. You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Using the image of a weather forecast, Jesus reminds the crowds in our Gospel how important it is for them to grasp what’s going on in the unique moment of opportunity he offers, the signs of what God is doing right in front of them. And to us, his contemporary followers, he continues presenting opportunities and signs. Opportunities to hear from him, to rethink our priorities, to act in his name…. signs of his will, of his love, of what he needs me, and you, and your parish, to do.
How much difference will it make whether or not each of you pays attention to God, reads the signs of his involvement and direction, and takes action accordingly? Well, let's put it this way -- enough difference to change the forecast.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
One of the nice things about working at the church during the week is that something different is always happening! Often those coming to the door are interested in just a sack lunch or a bottle of water, or perhaps new socks. Other days there is some crisis looming and they seek prayer or other forms of help. One recent day a man came to offer his thanks to God for waking up that morning! It was a simple prayer and yet so filled with joy. He knew others who had not awakened, and he wanted to give thanks for another day of being alive to enjoy God’s creation.
I wonder, how many of us remember to cherish the gift of each day?
Sometimes I imagine we do but at other times we move quickly to the day’s responsibilities and forget the grace of each day. Following the daily office is one way to regularly help us mark the day through prayer. And, of course, as we approach the end of our lives on earth the importance of each day becomes more apparent.
The followers of Jesus that Luke wrote for in his gospel lived at a time when most thought Jesus’ return to earth was imminent. Today’s passage gives the message to that beloved group to be prepared for that coming, to live each day as though it could be their last.
Fast forwarding to time now, while we know that Christ will come again it does not seem quite as imminent. For most of us, we put that out of our mind, living our lives on earth as though time is endless.
This works until someone close to us has died or is seriously ill. For those entering hospice a single day is very precious. Some at that state of life may actually make a list of what they want to do in their time left on earth.
Those lists contain simple things like sit outside at dusk and wait for the lightening bugs to come; come to church on a Sunday; eat watermelon; sit in a hot tub; see some blooming yellow flowers; listen to particular pieces of classical music. Mostly these are pleasures done often in daily life, things we take for granted but for those making such a list these are things they would like to do one more time.
Often these lists are a recording of names. These are people they would like to see and talk with one more time. Perhaps there is unfinished business, people whom they have wronged or have wronged them. Perhaps they are people whose company they have enjoyed throughout life. Most often they are people whom they love, and they want them to know that in their own words. These lists can bring purpose and meaning to final days.
An Emmanuelite I knew some years ago kept a prayer book and a 24-hour votive candle near the bedside when they joined hospice. Each morning they would light the candle and say a prayer of thanksgiving for being alive another day. As the flame burned down into the night, it reminded them of the precious nature of that particular day.
God’s sacred gift of one day is something we often take for granted. These examples are ones from which we can profit. Life is a gift and not one of us knows exactly how many days we will be given. However, we do have the choice of how we will live each day—whether in joy and gratitude or in fear and desperation.
How might you live today or tomorrow if you knew that it might be your last? What would be on your “most important” to do list? It is an interesting exercise and can lead us to an appreciation of what God has given, bringing us to joy and gratitude versus fear and desperation.
Right now in our world, there is much to fear: the economy, global warming, Covid and other disease, poverty, hunger, random acts of gun violence, terrorism to name a few major fears. Perhaps some more minor ones might be how will I buy that next tank of gas or who will be the next rector here. The list goes on and we know it.
Into these fears and across centuries we hear the beginning of today’s gospel. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We are reminded that God is the one in charge. Our fears that come with earthly living are not how we define our life. God will give us his kingdom that is never ending.
Today’s gospel passage gave that message to those early Christians just as we hear it today. Do not be afraid. The reading instructs them and us to be ready and watchful for Christ’s return. They were told as are we that we need not fear that event because we belong to God. And God always wants the best for us.
Jesus’ words to that early group were to reassure them as well as to challenge them to value the lasting things, the God things, in life. There is a great comforting promise in today’s gospel as well as the admonishment to keep ready.
Make no mistake, the message is there, vigilance is vital. There is no getting around the fact that we are called to live each day, each moment as though it could be our final chance.
So perhaps the exercise of thinking how we would use a final day is a good one.
But if that is personally difficult, then we might look at another phrase of the day’s gospel. What might treasure in heaven look like for us? How would we define heavenly treasure?
I am certain that it includes the love of those around us, but I am also sure it is more than that. Heavenly treasure is based on love and is filled with love but it is more.
Put another way, what do we want in life that is good; what is our godly passion? Is it justice, or faithfulness, or perhaps beauty or compassion? What heavenly treasures do we want to amass? After we have identified our “treasure in heaven” we must then structure our lives with actions to achieve them.
Thinking of how we would spend a last day or personally defining heavenly treasures gives us a clearer understanding of what has lasting value.
So often life’s challenges beat us down, and just making it through each day becomes our objective. This gospel gives us opportunity to remember the larger picture and to focus on what is most important. We are called through this gospel to remember what is eternal and lasting and to put that at the front of our thoughts and actions.
One of my favorite theologians, Evelyn Underhill has said, “The people of our time are helpless, distracted, and rebellious, unable to interpret that which is happening, and full of apprehension about that which is to come. This is largely because they have lost their sure hold on the eternal. It is the eternal which gives to each life meaning and direction and with meaning and direction gives steadiness.”
She goes on to say that focusing on the eternal does not allow us to escape from our problems or to avoid the difficulties of actual life. Rather remembering that our ultimate security is found in the eternal, brings an acceptance and a joy to life as it is.
So, as we engage the words of the scriptures today, may we find hope and joy in the promise they contain.
God invites us into his kingdom. He desires us to live each day knowing we belong to Him. His blessings are boundless.
Our loving God wants to provide good things for each of us; may we be ready to accept the life he offers
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”