The Sacrifice of Praise

Hebrews 13:1-8;15-16
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

There are three reasons I have never selected this text in twenty years of preaching. First, as I said in the weekly email this week, I’ve found the line “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and tomorrow” off-putting because I heard it quoted by rigid Christians who wanted to cling to the “old time religion,” being open to no new idea, no diversity of thought. The second reason I would not choose this text in the past was I was afraid of offending people who have had marriage trouble. There’s a verse about defiling the marriage bed, and God judging fornicators and adulterers. And finally, this text also brings in the issue of loving money, so in just a few verses, we’re covering politics, sex, and money, and I don’t relish conflict. Thus my avoidance for 20 years.

But for some reason I was drawn to Hebrews 13 this week. I was drawn to the phrase, “Let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God.” It calls me to show forth in my life what I profess to believe. It made me think how easy it is to profess faith but not really live it. It made me think about how the church, unpopular as it is these days, finds itself in a culture in which professing faith is not at all easy any more. It is a sacrifice.

Then I began to see this scripture as being a sort of summary of all that we struggle to be, as a church. We try to profess our faith and live it out. I started to see how every one of the 5 goals of Peace Presbyterian -- goals of inspiring worship, authentic relationships, nurturing discipleship, compassionate outreach, and responsive stewardship -- could be spotted in this text.

So I invite you to hear these words with an open mind and fresh ears.

Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16

Let mutual love continue.

2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,

for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

3 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.

4 Let marriage be held in honor by all,

and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled;

for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.

5 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."

6 So we can say with confidence,

"The Lord is my helper;

I will not be afraid.

What can anyone do to me?"

7 Remember your leaders,

those who spoke the word of God to you;

consider the outcome of their way of life,

and imitate their faith.

8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

15 Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God,

that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.

16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have,

for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

New Revised Standard Version

Authentic Relationships. Mutual love – If anything is true at Peace, it is that if you invest yourselves in the relationships of this community, it will be an experience of mutual love. Oh sure, we have our little tiffs among us. We speak before thinking sometimes, we do sometimes hurt one another’s feelings, we misunderstand what another meant. We are not perfect in our relationships, but we’re never intentionally excluding or mistreating anyone – quite the opposite. We are serious about being the body of Christ together and living in mutual love. Authentic relationships challenge us to sacrifice what feels good for what is good, to sacrifice our desire to do what is easy for taking the path less traveled. Authentic relationships are valued relationships, and valued relationships take time and energy.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, our text tells us. They may be angels. Any stranger who walks in the doors of our gathered community better be ready for relationship. We believe in the power of authentic relationships, lived out in a focused way through our ministry teams of fellowship and congregational care.

And it is in the context of trusted friendship that we can speak about the value of love and faithfulness and the disaster of lust of faithlessness in all our relationships, especially ones in which we have made sacred promises. We are not judging those who have had marriage trouble. We are not saying that divorce is always wrong. But we are joining with this text in saying that being unfaithful, sleeping around is wrong because of the trust which is damaged. God forgives but deeply wounded relationships are nearly impossible to heal, like a body full of crushed bones and internal bleeding. Only God can work those miracles of healing.

Compassionate outreach is a hallmark of Peace. We are a missional church, which means our entire identity as a church is shaped by reaching out. So we reach out to those who would make a home with us, showing hospitality to strangers, but we do not forget those who are not with us. Today’s text invites us to remember those in prison, as if we were in prison too, to remember those who are tortured as if we ourselves were tortured. Is that not the definition of compassion? to suffer with. So we make the sacrifice of our own comfort to suffer with, to reach out to those who need compassion.

That’s why it is not enough for Peace to send money to Mission Beth-El. Until we pack food in bags or deliver Christmas gifts to those without, we are not really thinking much about what it means to go without. Until we feed the homeless at Family Promise or try to get a night’s rest with them, we are not with them in their pain. We can’t easily go to Pakistan but we can read about and support our friends the Trimbles and be more connected to their daily struggles to bring hope to Pakistani people. With knowledge of their situation, we can choose to send money or to pray for them, as the damage of flooding affects people in that country.

Nurturing Discipleship. Remember your leaders and imitate their faith. Oh, that people would see the outcome of our faith and want to emulate us. It is said that faith is not taught but caught – that it is a contagious faith, which is lived out bravely and generously, that inspires others to faith. We call this nurturing discipleship, understanding that all of us, at every age, need to be encouraged or nurtured toward greater faithfulness – following Christ in all that we do. That’s why we offer lively learning for all ages every Sunday. We understand that we need the faith of Christian throughout the ages, to help us interpret the life of Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, though we see and understand different aspects of the fullness of discipleship at every age and stage of life. So you see the way I understand Jesus being the same is not that I should have a static, unchanging faith. NO, my faith should be growing such that I focus on new and deeper understandings of Jesus Christ all along the path of life. It is not that Jesus Christ is changing, it is that my faith in him is broadening.

Responsive Stewardship. The more I love Jesus Christ, the more content I am and the less I love money and what it can do for me. Then I am liberated to share. When we are responsive to God’s love, then our gratitude for all the gifts we have been given leads us to generosity. Such sacrifices are pleasing to God. Stop and think about it. Because of your sacrifices, there is a church called Peace with over 100 members. It did not exist a few years ago. Because of your sacrifices, thousands of farm worker families in Wimauma who were hungry were able to pick food and have a little hope. Because of your sacrifices, homeless families in Manatee County have had a place to lay their heads. Because of your sacrifices, more than twenty children and youth at Peace are growing strong in Christian faith and more than 120 children have a deeper understanding of what it means to live peaceably in this world of ours through Peace in the Park.

If you are still willing to make sacrifices, to be even more generous than you have been before, then this growing congregation may just be able to afford to lease a space as a ministry outpost all week long, attached to an auditorium which seats 300 people in chairs or 180 people around tables for a meal. If you are willing to make more sacrifices, we may be able to have to have a visible location with signage on Lakewood Ranch Blvd where we can connect with more people to grow our congregation. But it will be a reach requiring more of all of us. To have a permanent home for 3 years from which music programs and youth programs and mission programs and educational programs could grow would be a wonderful bonus. But the space and programs will require sacrifice.

I heard a stewardship guru at presbytery yesterday. He said, “Don’t ask people to give. Offer them an opportunity to make an investment in something that really matters.” They invest their money in other things that matter to them – houses, cars, clothes, season tickets, vacations, college education, leisure activities. So friends, I am offering you a wonderful opportunity to make an investment in developing this church for the next three years, an investment that could make the difference in the long term viability of the congregation. Can you imagine one day, people hearing about the early pioneers of Peace Presbyterian, people who made sacrifices in the first five years to go from a small group to a chartered church with a quarter million dollar budget. I hope they will go on to say that this chartered church, after stalling a bit in growth for a year, moved to a new more visible and functional location, making even greater investments in the future of God’s church by growing to 250 members. And that then a couple of years after that, they made even greater sacrifices of praise in a capital campaign to build a facility on Lorraine Road where they kept reaching and growing until they were a church of 500 people and could begin to dreaming of sending 100 out to start another new church in Parrish in 2020.

It is no sacrifice to give what you have left after acquiring all the house, car, clothes, and vacations you want. Real sacrifice is to commit to give God your first tenth of income, right off the top, allowing yourself to use what’s left. Not everyone can do that immediately because of prior commitments, obligations made before the tithing commitment set the priorities. Just like someone out of shape needs to work at dieting and exercising gradually, slowing chipping away the calories, making many small healthy choices, so those who are not tithing, need to gradually increase giving, chipping away at the waste of money on frivolous things. Gradually sacrificing more, being more and more generous, percentage by percentage, week by week. Making sacrifices for God is risky. Starting new churches is risky. Moving churches to new locations is risky. Having building campaigns – risky. Being a Christian in the 21st century – risky. It is a sacrifice to praise God in today’s world. And that leads to our final but first goal – to offer God our worship, inspiring worship.

Inspiring Worship. I believe we can take the risk because we know that God will never leave us or forsake us. So we can say with confidence, as the writer of Hebrews and the Psalmist did, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. We worship a God whose promises are trustworthy. We worship a God who has transformed our lives. We worship at God who has brought us this far, not to leave us, but to carry us all the way to the finish line. We worship a God who calls us to keep the faith, finish the race. Keep the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Keep the faith because we have a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on. Keep the faith because Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the God of our ancestors in the faith, will not let us down. Keep the faith because the Lord is our helper. What can anyone do to me?” Say after me. “The Lord is my helper” “I will not be afraid.” No matter how difficult your life’s situation is you can still say, “The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid.” Let us offer a continual sacrifice of praise, a sacrifice of praise, a sacrifice of praise because the Lord is good. Blessed are all who put their trust, their whole trust in God, so we must continue to be a blessing to others by sharing this truth, that God is worthy of our praise, even at sacrifice of less valuable things. No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve been doing, the Lord wants all of you, your sacrifice of praise. So let us say today, we put God first in our lives. We sacrificed all our idols to make God first, to worship the Lord with all that we have and all that we are, so that others may know the joy and the peace of being able to say, “The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid.”