The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday, September 1, 2019.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Sex, power, money, suffering, and Jesus. These are some of the key themes in today’s reading from Hebrews. Oh, and hospitality. Hospitality is definitely in there as well. Hospitality is also a key theme in our gospel reading. As it is throughout the entire Bible.

The Greek word that is usually translated into English as “hospitality” (philoxenia)literally means “love of the strange,” which is a lot more challenging than the definition I suspect most North Americans think of when they hear the word “hospitality”: this event will have coffee and doughnuts.

Hospitality is a practice that opens us up to “love the strange,” to love people and things that are different than the people and things we are used to, and our reading from Hebrews contains a number of examples of how to practice hospitality.

And I do mean practice. Hospitality isn’t a theory, or a value, or an abstract idea. It’s a practice. Something you do.

The reading begins, “Let mutual love continue,” and then the writer of Hebrews provides us with a list of ways to do just that. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it includes a call to love strangers, to care for prisoners, to honour marriage, and to resist the temptation to fall in love with money.  (1-4)

Timothy L Adkins -Jones notes that the common theme in this list is the importance of “building solidarity in relationships. Mutual love means sharing power. Following a Saviour has been defined throughout [Hebrews] by the sacrifice that [Jesus] represents for us all, we are called then to join in the sacrifice of our own position in order to build relationships. The host must put themselves on the same level as those that they host, seeing to the needs of those that enter their home before their own. Those that are free must put themselves in the position of those that are imprisoned.”

And not just to make sure the needs of people who are in prison are provided for as a tasteless chore you can perform at a distance and then check off your to do list.  The writer of Hebrews challenges us to remember people who are in prison as if we were in prison too. It’s a call to empathy, to feel their pain as if it was our own and then to act.

Roman prisons were more like detention centers where people who had been accused of actions worthy of punishment waited until their fate was determined. Oftentimes, they were not provided with the basic necessities required to survive while they waited – food, clothing etc.  They had to rely on people’s hospitality in order to survive.

It would be wonderful if we could simply say that that was then and this is now, but we know that these sorts of practices are happening at this very moment. People who have been accused of a crime often wait incredibly long amounts of time before their trial and the news has been full of horrific accounts of people and children – children – being housed in cages at the U.S. border without access to basic hygiene and other necessities of life.

And it’s not just in the United States, recently at Theology by the Glass we discussed an article that looked at the Canadian prison system and some of the ways we also fail to provide people who are incarcerated with the basic things they need to live as well.

The writer of Hebrews is calling us to express mutual love for people in prison.  To care for them as we would want to be cared for. As if we were caring for ourselves.

It’s easier to look away, to pretend these things aren’t happening. It’s easy to try and distance ourselves by making blanket statements about “those people” or suggesting “they all deserve it” but in doing do, we are suggesting that some lives matter more than others, and we are missing out on the strange and difficult but heartbreakingly beautiful things that happen when we “let mutual love continue.”

Show hospitality. Care for prisoners. Respect marriage.

What does the writer of Hebrews mean when they say, “Let marriage be held in honour by all?”

They probably meant a lot of things, but there are two I want to mention tonight.

The first, is that in a patriarchal heteronormative culture the call that marriage is to be honoured “by all” is a radical statement that levels the hierarchical nature of traditional relationships between men and women.  This verse is in a list of calls to action that began with the words, “Let mutual love continue.” Mutual love. Men are being called to honour women and women to honour men. Equally. That is a huge deal.

Secondly, we are told that God will judge those who do not honour marriage. God will judge. It’s God job, and we should be wary of any attempts, by ourselves or others, to take on that role for ourselves.

And the work of mutual love, of showing hospitality, caring for prisoners, respecting relationships, those really should keep us busy enough that we should be delighted that we don’t also have to bear the burden of judgement, we should be happy that this task has been delegated to God because we have enough on our plates as it is.

And we haven’t even gotten through the entire list yet.

The list continues, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have…” (5)

Loving God and loving people instead of loving money is always good advice. The phrasing, “keep your lives free from the love of money” points to what we experience when we love money – we are no long free, we are enslaved.

The call to “be content with what you have,” is also good advice. Our society’s drive that nothing is ever good enough is exhausting and unhealthy and also enslaves us.  The drive for more status and more money and more stuff is killing us and our planet.

But in our unequal system one person’s love of money typically also enslaves other people and in that context, the meaning of these verses can be twisted in an attempt to maintain that inequality.

In a consumer society most of us can learn to be more content with what we have, but this call to “be content with what you have,” has also been used to tell enslaved people that they should not fight for freedom, or women who make less than their male colleagues that they should not demand equal pay, or people who work in sweatshops to take whatever they are given without complaining and in those contexts, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “No, I am not content because what is happening to me is not right.”

It’s easy, when we don’t consider relationships, when we don’t “let mutual love continue,” to think only about how our choices benefit us. I mean, shouldn’t we simply buy the cheapest coffee we can find or the coffee we think tastes best? Do we really need to worry about the working conditions of the people who are growing that coffee or the effects it is having on the environment?

Those are questions that are much easier to ask so long as our products are made in places far away that we will never visit by faceless, nameless people we will never meet. But what if we did meet them? Would we be able to look the poorest of the poor in the eyes and tell them, “be content with what you have?” Would we see the way they live and still be able to go back to our own consumptive lifestyles.

American writer and activist Christopher Heuertz tells the following story in a book he co-wrote with Christine Pohl called “Friendship at the Margins:”

Christopher had travelled to South India and was enjoying lunch with a family he had first met about fifteen years previous when he was doing development work in the area.  He used to play with the children and was often invited to join the family for a meal or to share a cup of tea on the dirt floor of their home. Gradually, he began to feel like he was a part of their family.

On this particular return visit, the oldest daughter in the family, Sujana, noticed the shirt Christopher was wearing, a red button down he had purchased at the Gap.   “I think I made that,” she said and sure enough, the label read, “Made in India.”

Sujana was very proud of her work and asked how much Christopher had paid for the shirt.  “My heart sank,” he wrote, “I felt ashamed and uncomfortable. I knew that the forty dollars I had paid for that shirt was more than she earns in an entire month… Sujana and her sisters work for pennies an hour to clothe folks who can spend between $40 and $120 on a shirt… The global economics are complicated, but it is not hard to see that the overall system is still dependent on plundering the poorest.”

Christopher had come to love that family, but he could see that many of his spending choices were not reflective of that love.  Was there anything that he could do to “let mutual love continue?”

Like more than one billion of our global neighbours, Sujana and her family live on less than a dollar a day.  Christopher reflected that he found it hard “to comprehend their precarious economic situation. They are so hospitable, gracious and strong while they are also desperately poor.”

And somehow, when it’s a billion people, it’s easy to distance ourselves from the situation, but when Christopher was sitting with a child he loved who proudly proclaimed that she had made his shirt, he could no longer look away.

I think this is why the writer of Hebrews challenges us to do things like care for prisoners as if we were in prison ourselves, we need to break down the barriers of distance that allow us to dehumanize other people.

What Chris chose to do in order to live in “mutual love” with Sujana and her family is intriguing and encouraging.  He didn’t start sewing all of his own clothes, he did try a few things that failed. He bought stock in the Gap hoping to give the profits to Sujana and her family but the stock actually lost money.

Then on a subsequent trip to India, he asked Sujana and her sisters about their jobs.   Sujana and her sister Bhindu had been working at the garment factory at that point for ten years, they worked ten hours a day, six days a week and made roughly the equivalent of  twenty-six cents an hour. One of their younger sisters, who had only been working at the factory for about four years, made twenty two cents an hour. They didn’t just make clothes for the Gap, but for a long list of major retailers, so the solution wasn’t just to boycott the Gap and shop elsewhere either.

The girls were also grateful for those jobs since even that meager pay is more than they would make doing just about anything else.  So trying to convince the girls to try and find work elsewhere or attempting to get the factory to close down weren’t solutions either.

So he kept shopping at the Gap and other similar stores, but he also reconsidered just how many shirts he actually needed and bought less. He went to thrift stores and purchased things second hand more regularly, and, he decided to do something that he described as “small and personal.”

He created a Personal Retail Equality Tax.  Every time he shopped at a store that purchases clothes from the factory the girls worked in he decided to charge himself a 12% tax on those items and at the end of the year, he cashes out the fund and sends the money to Sujana’s family.

He sees it as more than just sending money to a poor family. He sees it as a way of continuing to build a relationship with folks who have become his family. He sees it as a way of making a direct connection between how he lives, what he consumes, and what his lifestyle and consumption costs other people. He knows it’s an awkward way to make sure that one family comes closer to having a living wage, but he also knows it will make a difference from them, and for him.

Christopher says, “When we get to know people who are vulnerable, we are challenged to take more seriously the power and opportunities we have. We might need to rethink our vocations in light of God’s purposes for the world. Can we more consistently use our training and skills for human good? Can we use our leisure time in ways that more fully reflect our love for Jesus and his friends? Friendships with people who are poor make our lives bigger and invites us to enlarge our circle of responsibility. They remind us that our small lifestyle decisions matter – they matter to God, to our spiritual identities and to our friends.”

In our gospel reading we are told that we should never sit in the place of honour because someone who is more distinguished than us might arrive and put us in the embarrassing situation of having to move to a seat of lower honour to accommodate them.  How much better is it, the gospel writer asks, to take a lower seat and then to be told, “Friend, move up higher.” (10)

And that does feel good, and it’s a practical way to avoid feeling embarrassed in public but how much better might it feel to intentionally choose a sit of lower privilege so that you can turn to someone else and say, “Friend, I have chosen to have less so that you can have more, please, move up higher.”

Christopher’s decision to tax his clothing purchases and give that money to Sujana’s family is one way to choose that lower position in order to say, “Sujana, friend, move up higher.” I don’t expect that we all will walk out of this room with the commitment to create own own personal clothing tax but I do hope we feel challenged to think creatively about ways that we too, in our own lives can find ways that are appropriate to our own situations to resist the temptation to hold tight to our privileged positions, to release some of that privilege and move down a few seats so that you someone else can hear those wonderful words, “Friend, move up higher.”

May we all seek to let mutual love continue.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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