November 15, 2015 – Provoke one another to love

Pentecost 25 November 15, 2015 Psalm 113, 1 Samuel 1:4-20, Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 10:11-25   Provoke one another to love

**************************************************

Jaime Cardinal Sin, longtime Catholic archbishop of Manila, liked to joke about his name. A ‘cardinal sin’ of course is one of those really bad, deadly sins. And his name really was Cardinal Sin. Christian author Philip Yancey, in his book, Prayer, tells a story that Cardinal Sin also used to tell about himself:

A woman kept showing up at his weekly public audience, telling him that she had a message from God for him. ‘I brushed her off several times,’ Cardinal Sin would say… But she kept coming back. Finally the cardinal spoke to her saying: “We Catholics have strict rules governing visions and messages from God. I need to test your authenticity. I want you to go back and ask God about a particular sin I recently confessed in private. If you ask God and he tells you the answer, I’ll know your vision is genuine.”

The next week she returned and he quizzed her, a bit nervously, “Well, did you ask God about my sin?”

“I did.” “And did God answer?”

“Yes.” “Well, what did God answer?”

“God said that he couldn’t remember.”

I sure hope God can’t remember any of my sins also… And I take great heart in our word from God today about forgiveness – which comes to us originally from the prophet Jeremiah – which we now hear re-mixed and quoted also in Hebrews – (actually for a second time, having been quoted also in chapter 8 of Hebrews). God says “I will put my laws in their hearts and write them on their minds – and I will remember their sins and lawless deeds no more.”

And in Hebrews Jesus is revealed as the once-and-for-all-fulfillment of the promise of a new covenant. Jesus himself is the law of God – embodied in human flesh; engraved now in our hearts and minds. The new covenant in which God not only forgives our sins, but remembers our sins no more. Mighty good news indeed. (And God knows we need good news… in these times…)

Our reading from Hebrews today is one of the strongest, clearest, most affirmative messages in the bible about God forgiving and forgetting… And thanks God, God forgives and forgets all sins – at least when we really turn to Jesus and trust in him. But that hasn’t (I notice) kept me (and some of my friends, family, and acquaintances) from remembering many of my sins (and theirs) over the years. There doesn’t seem to even be a statute of limitations on remembering sins from fifty or more years ago. (I am still not sure I want to attend my 50th high school reunion in two years, if there is one.) Which is not God’s fault. God has forgiven. But it does remind us – even the memory of sin (our own and that of others) can be almost as toxic as sin itself. Like radioactive waste, even forgiven sin can still have a long half-life that makes it dangerous if handled inappropriately… Even when we know we are fully forgiven, we still have much need of grace…

And thanks God, we have grace in abundance… Something we’re reminded of every time we gather together in worship.

All our readings today from Samuel, Jeremiah, and Hebrews are all about worship. And worship is about forgiveness of sins. But important as forgiveness is, its not the only, or even the main, reason for worship. Worship is never supposed to be just about escaping judgement and avoiding negative behaviors and outcomes. (Important as that is.) Worship is always meant to be most of all about experiencing the positive presence of God and God’s amazing grace.

We emphasize forgiveness as much as we do mostly because feeling unforgiven keeps us from discerning God’s presence.

And I mention all this partly because this is what our scriptures are talking about today… And also because we know that we live in times when many people have very little idea of why we worship, why we come to church… And a large part of our job description as followers of Jesus is to interpret God, Christ, worship, and church for those who don’t yet know much about what we believe and why… Our best first answer is usually to say what Jesus says in the first chapter of John when someone asks him what he’s about. Jesus just says “come and see…” Come and see. Come and worship. For God is always present when we worship together in faith… And the presence of God is a most readily felt and discerned for most of us… when we worship God together. (One reason Hebrews tells us to not neglect to meet together is that this is how we help others come to God…)

We all have God-given desire to praise and thank God and share our prayers and concerns with God and one another… Because God has designed us for worship. And we really only flourish as God intends and become the whole people we’re meant to be… through prolonged practice of worship and living in harmony together as people of God…This too is why Hebrews says not to neglect to meet together…

***

In our reading from the book of Samuel, we have what Hebrews calls, “a sketch” of the pattern of spiritual worship. (Hebrews calls virtually everything we do in worship before Jesus comes on the scene a sketch – which is not at all a put-down of Judaism. Actually it’s high praise.) Hebrews constructs it’s case for Christ using sketches – many quotes (30 at least) – and paraphrases (70 or more) from the Hebrew bible. Each quote or allusion brings forth memories which together illuminate our human condition and the presence of God and help God make us to be God’s new creation…

In the story of Hannah pouring out her soul in prayer to God in the house of God we have a sketch, first, of the obstacles that often confront us when we come to worship. (Especially when we first start to get to know God and come to church, the devil and the world always do their best to persuade us to stay home or go the ball game instead…) For Hannah, her annual trip to Shiloh (where Israel worshiped before the Jerusalem temple was built) was not something she looked forward to. She was childless. Peninnah, her husband’s other wife tormented her over her infertility. (A reminder that family life wasn’t any tidier or easier in days of old.) Now Hannah won’t eat and can’t stop crying…The annual pilgrimage has become a dreadful experience for her. (Here’s a sketch of an early Blue Christmas, a thousand-some-years before there was Christmas.)

To make matters even worse, when she gets to the house of God and starts pouring her soul out to God in prayer, moving her lips silently… Eli the priest accuses her of being drunk. We wonder how she finds the strength to pray now… in the house of God. (And we’re reminded not everybody comes to church with pleasant memories of wonderful worship…Even though, thanks God, most of us do now…Probably many of us didn’t always start out this way….)

Yet Hannah continues to pray…Her instinct for worship is stronger than all these obstacles… And now Hannah’s prayer from the heart is affirmed, even by the weak clueless priest Eli, and much more importantly, by God. And as we read on we see Hannah’s son Samuel grow up speaking directly with God and becoming the spiritual leader of all Israel. (He’ll the one to anoint King David king.) And this early sketch of Israel’s worship teaches us to persist in prayer and worship, with confidence that God is indeed present even when things are not going so well…

***

Meanwhile, back in Hebrews now we see….a clearer fuller portrait of Jesus emerging. Jesus, our great high priest has full atonement made. The former temple high priests offered sacrifices of grain and animals every day in the Jerusalem temple – sacrifices which, Hebrews tells us, didn’t take away sin. (In fairness we should note – not all sacrifices were intended to take away sin. Some offerings were for well-being and other purposes. (I was about to say “Consult the book of Leviticus for the details.” But on second thought – reading Leviticus without reading all the rest of the bible wouldn’t make much sense. Do read the whole bible, including of course Leviticus. But read the gospels and new testament letters always along the earlier parts of scripture. Listen to hear how Jesus interprets all the bible.) Jesus is the key to it all. Jesus makes even Leviticus a joyful song…

And as we open the word of God together, and worship together with Jesus… now the word of God is always a word of life…even in the midst of death. In fact we usually appreciate God’s word of life all the more… in times of death and sorrow.

Yesterday we had a memorial service (at Bourne/here)… After the service I met a young 20-something year-old member of the family, who said she really enjoyed the service. She actually said, “this was the best experience I’ve ever had in church.” Of course she then said, “I’ve only been to church something like three times… But this was the best.”

We talked some more, she said she lived in Jamaica Plain. I was able to recommend Methodist churches not far away. She said she’d give it a try. Pray she will get to church. And have an even better experience next time… time after… and time after that…

Because worship is the lifeblood of our life of faith. Worship is the gift of God that makes us whole and teaches and equips us to be God’s people of hope, faith, and above all love…

Which is why the word of God tells us again and again – not to neglect to show up together in love… Why the word tells us – provoke one another deeper into love.

Why the living Word reminds us – live by the law of Love always… even in the darkest hour of night – believing always the dawn of God’s new day is coming…

God has promised.

God is faithful.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.