Our reading from Hebrews begins with a surprising exhortation. We ought to show mutual love. But not only that, mutual love includes showing hospitality to strangers because we may be entertaining angels without knowing it. The letter expands this relatively simple command for showing love to one another, fleshing out what that looks like. Not only are we to love to the people we already know and love, our family and friends. We are to show hospitality to strangers not knowing if a stranger might be an angel. In other words we are to welcome strangers with the same love we would welcome the divine, the same way in which we would welcome Jesus.
The circle of those included in the command of mutual love expands even further. Not only should we love strangers, but also prisoners. Timothy L. Atkins-Jones reminds us that prisons in Ancient Rome do not include care for the prisoner. They were simply a holding place until a punishment was decided upon. It was up to a prisoner’s family and friends to supply a prisoner with food and other necessities.
Again the letter writer takes things a step further. Not only are we to take care of prisoners. We are to remember prisoners as though we are prisoners with them. We are to remember those who are tortured as though we are tortured with them. This is a high degree of empathy. The treatment of prisoners and those who are tortured become an intimate responsibility for us. Not only are we to pray for them, but we empathize as though we are right there with them. This requires a higher level of hospitality and mutual love.
Marriage & Money
The exhortations toward mutuality continue for marriage and also with money. We are to love our spouses on an equal footing. Mutual love means no hierarchies, no one wielding power over another. This disrupts a patriarchal order in which men held greater privilege and power over women. Mutual love with response to money means we ought not desire having more money. This also presupposes that our hospitality for one another, including strangers and prisoners, is such that no one is lacking anything. This is a high bar.
The letter does not specify how we are to organize a church and society in order to accomplish mutual love in these various ways. It does however suggest that how we organize our society matters very much, so that one of our organizing principles in terms of governance ought to be mutual love. We ought to organize healthcare, schools, and prisons, such that they reflect this level of hospitality. And these cannot simply become tasks we relegate to government and then afterwards ignore how they are administered.
Not only do we need to set up systems and structures to provide hospitality for others, but we will need to stay engaged with people in these institutions. We will need to visit people who are sick, who are in prison, who are suffering. This is something familiar to us as church, organizing people to visit those who are sick or suffering in any way.
There is also the call for us to remain politically attuned and alert that our society continues to be organized based upon the principal of mutual love. When our structures fall short, part of our calling as Christians is to speak out and organize a response to try making things right. Because we are told this is what God wants from us, to help make the world filled with mutual love.
Flip side: becoming numb
Mutual love sounds like a simple principal upon which to base our society. And yet we struggle so much with actually doing this. One reason I heard suggested the other day by Michael Poellet, the pastor at King of Glory Lutheran Church in Saskatoon, is the numbness factor. We simply become numb in the face of so much suffering and an endless repetition of news cycles.
I think about the phenomenon that has happened since the 2016 election south of the border is the constant barrage of reporting on things that either Trump or a White House official says. Contributing to the numbness factor is the constant barrage of Tweets and outright lies, describing women, people of Mexico, world peace, white supremacy, mass shootings, protection of endangered species, climate change, on and on. There is such a barrage of lies and misinformation that it becomes a struggle just to keep up. And that is by design. The effect of this barrage can paralyze us for action because there is just too much. There are too many wars on too many fronts that we feel overwhelmed. We feel the need to disengage for our own wellbeing. And not only do political actions have effects in the US, but we have seen near immediate responses within Canada as well. Signally that it’s okay to be overtly racist, homophobic, and transphobic south of us resonates with political leaders and individuals in Canada as well. We see greater boldness in political campaigns and in everyday behaviour. More cell phone footage of people yelling horrible things at people in public spaces becomes commonplace.
Do not be afraid
How do we respond? How do we build one another up in the midst of feeling numb and overwhelmed? One thing is we gather together as we are doing now with praise, song, prayer, and proclaiming God’s word. We are reminded and emboldened that God’s word is more powerful than the words of the powerful who dissemble and manipulate for their own ends.
Hebrews gives us key reassurance here. The writer asserts: “God is my helper. I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” These are bold and courageous words. They are also faithful words. It is reminding ourselves that come what may, whether illness, suffering, slander, abandonment, that God is with us. God never leaves us. We are never alone. The same letter writer who asks us to imagine torture a few verses back, in the next breath asks, “What can anyone do to me?” These would have been powerful words for early Christians who were persecuted for their faith. —> And we know there are Christians today who continue to be persecuted in other parts of the world. Whereas those of us here can leverage our privilege to help those with less privilege.
The writer goes on reminding Christians to remember the leaders who came before them. Think about people who kept the faith. We are not the first ones to experience adversity. Today we can think about relatives who lived through WWI or WWII. Those who survived repeated phrases like “never again.” We grew up wondering how some of the horrors could have happened in the first place. Today I hear more admissions of understanding, watching people turn towards fanaticism, people who fall under the thrall of cruelty and injustice, listening to people chanting, “build the wall” or anti-immigrant slogans.
What does mutual love look like?
What does mutual love look like today? Lenny Duncan, Lutheran pastor at Jedu’s Table in Brooklyn, cites this reading from Hebrews, as one basis upon which the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has recently adopted for becoming a sanctuary church as a denomination. The ELCA has publicly declared that it’s congregations are free to offer sanctuary to refugees and migrants fleeing deportation. We’ve seen too much cruelty already seeing the way that children are separated from parents. We hear accounts of children dying in custody from preventable and treatable illnesses like the flu. There have been reports of child abuse. And while a good number of people are troubled by this, largely the response has been one of numbness. There is fear of persecution from law enforcement if they organize mass rallies that there will be retribution. There have been laws adopted in some states that a driver will not be found at fault if they happen to run over protesters who impede the path of their vehicle. It helps when a church body makes a declaration about becoming a sanctuary church because it sends a message of mutual love and hospitality. The message was so bold that even Fox News reported on it in a critical way, which led some bishops to become afraid that the church would become the subject of backlash. And yet Hebrews reassures us to trust in the faith, not to be afraid, that God is with us.
Sundays of Creation
Today we are beginning our Sundays of Creation emphasis, remembering the wonder of creation. We also remember God calling us to be stewards of creation. We could add creation to the call in Hebrews for mutual love. We are called to show all God’s creation hospitality and care. What does it look like to become a Care of Creation church?
In Canada we are facing a doubling down on political and industry forces turning their backs on creation. While for a time we were making progress on environmental protections, in recent years the tide has turned. Emboldened with the undoing of social compacts, this has included a weakening of environmental protections in the US which have had a ripple effect here in Canada. In BC we hear about opposition to building pipelines but so far that has not impeded other provinces, the federal government, and the courts from saying we’re going to keep building pipelines including through traditional indigenous land. More tankers in the Salish Sea. All we need to do is follow the money. Billions of dollars are at play with energy projects and that’s often the point at which the land acknowledgements and care for future generations ends.
Except that it doesn’t have to be this way. There is still time for us to live into our gospel calling, time for us to heed the words proclaimed to us in Hebrews: “Let mutual love continue.” At Church of the Cross we are becoming a home for mutual love. We are already a home for mutual love with refugee welcome and supporting Shelbourne Community Kitchen, among other ministries. What would it look for us to become a home for mutual love for Care of Creation? In many this issue is tied up with our other emphases around mutual love. Saying a land acknowledgment each time we gather is a refocusing on whose land we stand. As well welcome of queer folks and people of colour are also connected with Care of Creation. It’s about disrupting the status quo that has sidelines and excluded all those who have been left out. Let us be bold in our Care for Creation as well.
Wrapping up let us remember mutual love. Know that as we welcome strangers we may be entertaining angels. And take heart because we do not go forward on our own but rather knowing God is with us. Do not be afraid. What can anyone to do us? Jesus’ love is with us no matter what.