Sunday, March 8, 2015

“Give Up Going It Alone” - March 8, 2015

Text: Hebrews 10:19-25

One of the cultural values that Americans tend to share is individualism.  We believe that everybody has a right to their own opinion, a right to make their own choices.  We celebrate the rugged individualist, the self-made person.  “Making it on your own” is a great achievement, and depending on others is often viewed as weakness.

Think about some of the common expressions we hear.  “It’s a free country…” “I have the right!” “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”  “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do!”

Individualism impacts society in all sorts of ways, and it certainly impacts religion.  An emphasis on individual choice is the reason there is a smorgasboard of religious options out there.  As Baptists, we have a strong emphasis on personal faith.  We believe that every person has the right and responsibility to choose whether and how to worship, and that we each choose to follow Jesus for ourselves.  This is signified in believer’s baptism, as we freely choose to follow Christ. 

Over the years, there has been an increasing emphasis on personal faith and individual choice in faith groups in our country across the board.  Church historian Martin Marty famously called this the “Baptistification of American religion.”

Both religiously and otherwise, there is much to applaud in this focus on the individual.  Individual freedom helps to encourage creativity and achievement.  It is good to think for ourselves.  But life is not lived alone, and as individuals, we need the wisdom and support of the community.  We can fall into this trap of believing that self-sufficiency is the highest good and that we don’t want or need anything from anybody.   

Our text this morning from Hebrews helps us as we think about this relationship between the individual and the community.  Now, Hebrews is probably not the most popular book in the Bible.  The letter to the Hebrews does include what is called the roll call of faith in chapter 11 and after this list of heroes and heroines of Israel, chapter 12 begins with a familiar passage, speaking of the way we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  There is also a great benediction at the end of Hebrews that is sometimes used in worship, and we will use that benediction today.  But beyond that, Hebrews is not all that familiar, certainly not as familiar as other New Testament letters like Romans or I Corinthians.

Maybe the reason for this is that Hebrews is not an easy book for devotional use - or for sermonizing, for that matter.  It involves a long, sustained argument that refers frequently to Israel’s wilderness journey and the Jewish sacrificial system.  Priest, altar, sacrifice, atoning blood, cleansing rituals, priests of the order of Melchizedek, the curtain of the temple – these terms and ideas are not familiar to us and this makes Hebrews rather tough to understand. 

We do not know who the writer is.  Hebrews was traditionally attributed to Paul, but this was questioned from the very beginning, and the literary style and usage of Greek is unlike that of Paul.  Some have argued for Barnabas, or Silas, or Apollos, or Priscilla, but we really don’t know.

In light of all this, you may be asking, “Well Dave, since we are talking about things to give up, why didn’t you just give up Hebrews?”  Which is a fair question.  But the reality is, the Bible is not always easy and maybe it isn’t meant to be easy.  We can benefit from digging into some of the tougher parts of scripture.

And so, we jump in today toward the end of an extended argument about the nature of Christ.  The priest makes sacrifices on behalf of the people but must do this again and again, over and over.  Another sacrifice is always needed.  But now, Jesus is the great high priest who has made a sacrifice for all time.  The writer quotes Jeremiah and says that God has made a covenant with us and written it on our hearts.  Faith now is not so much about the externals of religious practice, but the inward working of our hearts.

In light of all of this, we may confidently approach God.  Since we have been cleansed and our hearts made pure, we are to draw near to God with a sincere heart.  We are to hold unswervingly to the hope we profess.  Hebrews was written to a church in a time of crisis.  Maintaining the faith in a time of growing persecution was difficult, and this letter is intended as encouragement.  Through Christ, we may approach the God whose covenant is written on our hearts and we may hold on confidently to our faith.

This brings us to what I really want to look at today, verses 24 and 25: “Let us consider how to provoke 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.”

There is a word here for those of us who are inclined to be do-it-yourselfers not just when it comes to home projects or car repairs, but do-it-yourselfers when it comes to life.  We may live as free individuals, but we need the community.

First, we are to “provoke one another to love and good works.”  I love that.  We usually think of provoking someone as a negative thing, but here it is very positive.  We are supposed to provoke, to incite one another to do good.  We need the community to spur us on to live out our calling as Christians.

I read a great story about a pizza place in Philadelphia.  Mason Wartman worked on Wall Street and was doing well but didn’t really enjoy what he was doing and decided to make a change.  There are a number of dollar-a-slice pizza shops in New York, and he thought that the concept would work well in Philadelphia.  So he opened Rosa’s Fresh Pizza.  (I guess Rosa sounded more authentic than Mason.)  He opened this pizza shop, a simple place with a simple menu serving good pizza, and it was doing OK when one day, a customer came in for a slice and asked if they ever had homeless people come in for pizza.  Mason told him that sure, they did, and the customer gave him a dollar and said Mark should use that to buy a slice for a homeless person.

Mason jotted it down on a sticky note and posted it behind the counter.  A couple days later, a homeless guy came in.  He had 55 cents on him.  Mason told him to hold on to his change and gave him the sticky note to pay for the pizza.  And soon word got out.  At Rosa’s, you can pay it forward on a slice of pizza, and if you don’t have money for a slice, it’s OK, somebody has already bought a slice for you.

One woman said that she gives about $5 a week paying it forward on pizza, but one day she came in for a slice and realized she had left her wallet at home.  She kind of felt bad about it, but it was OK, she went ahead and had a slice that somebody had already paid for.  One regular said that he had been homeless for seven years.  He had got things together and had been off the street for three years, and now he was glad to be able to come in to Rosa’s and pay it forward to others.

Philadelphia has one of the highest poverty rates among our largest cities, but there is a dollar a slice pizza shop there that has found a way to make a small difference in the lives of people who are struggling, and has found a way to provoke others to love and good works.  The wall inside the place is now littered with a rainbow of brightly colored post-it notes representing pizza slices already paid for, many with a cheery note from the donor. 

The text says, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to good works.”  Well, let’s do that.  Let’s consider this.  How can we spur one another on to doing good?

And then, our passage speaks of the importance of worship.  “Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.”  This was included in this letter because it was an issue.  We don’t know for sure, but later chapters in Hebrews suggest reasons some may have been absent from worship – fear of persecution, feeling that the group was not really essential to personal faith, tensions among leaders in the church.  There are some of those same issues today, along with a lot of folks who feel that they have more important things to do or who just can’t seem to make the time in their busy schedule, or maybe they find the church irrelevant or they have been soured on the whole thing and have given up on church.

Spiritually speaking, we can be tempted to feel like we can go it alone, but faith is not intended to be an entirely personal enterprise.  We need the strength and guidance and wisdom and support of the community.  We may feel like we are doing just fine, but when illness or crisis or pain comes along, we need the community.  When the trials of life come along, when there are times of uncertainty, when there are times of struggle, we need one another.

And it is not simply that we need others; others need us.  None of us can really go it alone; we all need one another.  We gather for worship not just for ourselves; we come for the sake of others.  And we need to gather together to connect to the source of love, the source of goodness, the source of our lives.

In the same vein, the writer says that we are to encourage one another.  There are so many places where we need encouragement, and where going it alone just doesn’t work very well.

Do you ever feel like you need to get with it on an exercise program?  I could raise my hand here.  When you are part of a group, whether it is playing basketball or golf or tennis or working out at the gym or doing water aerobics, it makes a big difference because we can encourage one another.

Have you ever had physical therapy?  I have had physical therapy a few different times.  In each case, there were exercises that I could do at home, and I did them, but it wasn’t the same.  Going it alone did not work nearly as well as having the physical therapist push me and encourage me.

I was listening to the radio in the car this week when a woman was talking about a group for those who had lost loved ones in airplane accidents.  This woman had lost her father in a plane crash, and the grief was deep.  And it was hard talking to people, she said, because she felt like nobody had been through quite the same thing.  But then she ran into someone else in the same situation.  They started this group, and it turned out there were others going through the same thing.  The group was a place where people found healing and encouragement.  Being together worked a lot better than going it alone.

It is true for all sorts of things.  Whether you are battling an addiction or caring for someone who is seriously ill or learning to ski or doing a home project or planning a big event, it works better if you have help and encouragement. 

Susan and I are a part of the Ames Area Religious Leaders Association, a group of local clergy, as well as an American Baptist clergy group with members from around central Iowa.  Each group has meetings and programs, but for me, the more important thing is connections with others who serve in ministry.  There are those who have more of a Lone Ranger approach, but a long time ago I learned to give up going it alone.

It is easy to feel like we can handle our problems by ourselves, that we don’t really need others.  And for a lot of us, it can be very hard to accept help.  Many of us here are the ones who provide help.  We are quick to lend a hand, we are dependable, we want to be there for others.  But it is much harder to accept help.  We don’t want to be vulnerable.  We don’t want to be needy.  We see ourselves as self-reliant, self-sufficient, and we want to handle our problems by ourselves.  But we all need help sometimes, and refusing to let others help, refusing to be vulnerable, putting up this wall, this front of having it all together, denies others the chance to share, to care, to encourage. 

We are all in this life together, and we are not made to go it alone.  This truth extends beyond our circle of friends, beyond our church community.  There is a sense in which this extends to the whole world.  We are all in this together.

The London subway is not the most elegant of places.  Way too many people are crowded into a confined space, and getting on and off the train can be an ordeal at times.

A few weeks ago, a man was waiting to board the subway train and was not in the mood for politeness or pleasantries.  Another man stood in his path, so he shoved him out of the way, and just so that there was no doubt as to his intent, he told him to go…  well, he used a vulgar expression.  Apparently this was morning talk for “Excuse me, sir, I need to get by.”  Maybe the man who had shoved and cursed thought nothing more of it.  He went about his day and he even had a job interview later in the afternoon.

But when he walked in to his interview, he realized immediately that he had made a huge mistake.  Because his interviewer turned out to be the very man he had cursed at on the subway. 

Matt Buckland was the interviewer.  You might think that he would reciprocate the man’s greeting from earlier in the morning, but he told BBC, “I approached it by asking him if he’d had a good commute that morning.  We laughed it off and in a very British way I somehow ended up apologizing.”  They went through with the interview but not surprisingly, the guy did not get the job.

It might be helpful to remember that we are indeed all in this world together and that it does not serve us well when we go it alone.  It’s not that you need to treat other people well for what you get out of it, because it might help you land a job - though that might be true.  But more to the point, living with a sense of connection with others, a sense of connection with God’s world out there, is simply a better way to live.

Doing life on our own is not God’s design.  After all, within God’s own self we find community.  We speak of God as Creator, as Christ, as Holy Spirit – there is interdependence and community modeled even within the nature of God.  And then, God calls us to be God’s hands and feet on this earth.  Together, we are the Body of Christ.  Apparently, even God doesn’t go it alone.

And if God doesn’t go it alone, then maybe we shouldn’t either.  Amen.

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