Edward Hale, a Unitarian Minister  wrote  the short story, “A Man Without a Country” in 1863 at the height of the Civil War. It was a simple story, patriotic, and became one of the most popular short stories in the 19th century. It is a story about a rash young Army Officer who thought he had found a new identity  and hero in Aaron Burr who wanted to set himself as king of the Louisiana territory. He was caught and tried a traitor. In his Court Martial, he lost his head and cursed the United States. He wished he might never hear of the US again.

The Judge who heard the case was a Revolutionary War veteran himself and thought that since young Philip Nolan had such distain for the US, he would oblige the request. Nolan was put to sea, sailing away the rest of his life with the US Navy. Every captain that took him aboard was under strict orders to never mention anything about the US to him. For 50 years, he traveled just off the coast line, far enough to never see or hear of the US in his lifetime. He dies a broken-hearted man.

One of the stories told of Nolan involves him translating for a group of slaves saved off the coast of Africa. The captain of the ship wants to, for their safety, drop them off at a nearby island. They have none of it, “home, take us home!” they cry. Nolan translates their anguish at being close to home but not able to step ashore. The reader shares the narrator’s discomfort as the irony is in full display.

When it’s done, the usually diminutive Nolan is moved and tells a young ensign to think of home, his family, his country. “Youngster, let that show you what it is to be without a family, without a home, and without a country. And if you are ever tempted to say a word or to do a thing that shall put a bar between you and your family, your home, and your country, pray God in his mercy to take you that instant home to his own heaven. Stick by your family, boy; forget you have a self, while you do everything for them. Think of your home, boy; write and send, and talk about it. Let it be nearer and nearer to your thought, the farther you have to travel from it; and rush back to it when you are free, as that poor black slave is doing now. And for your country, boy,” and the words rattled in his throat, “and for that flag,” and he pointed to the ship, “never dream a dream but of serving her as she bids you, though the service carry you through a thousand hells. No matter what happens to you, no more matter who flatters you or who abuses you, never look at another flag, never let a night pass but you pray God to bless that flag. Remember, boy, that behind all these men you have to do with, behind officers, and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to Her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by Her, boy, as you would stand by your mother, if those devils there had got hold of her to-day!”

It’s a beautiful passage that gets to the heart of “country.” Hale does not define what it actually is – there is no “real America” here, just the recognition that whatever your country means for you is what you need to remember about that country. It is the remembering that is important. Distilling everything that is great about one’s country to the one essential element – and then rushing to it. Patriotism to Hale’s Nolan is not letting the people, bureaucracy, government, ideals etc. get in the way of the essence of “the Country herself.”

Beautiful.

Hebrews ends in a similar fashion.  The book is written for a very specific purpose and to a very specific audience. The readers are Hebrews who have chosen to follow Christ. These would be at least second and perhaps even third generation Christians. They have become teachers of the Way, they have a confession, they are thoughtful and educated. They have ritual and engagement in doctrine. The very complexity of the arguments presented demonstrate this! But the readers are a faith community in crisis. Some members have grown lax in attendance at their assemblies, and commitment is waning. If the writer’s urgings are problem specific, then we have in the letter a painfully clear image of their condition. Christ has been dead long enough to pass into legend. He is not discussed as a person – as he is in the Gospels – but as God. Specifically, “so much better” than all gods. “So much better” than all the systems of worship before. This Christ, this deity is worthy of all adoration and worship. This is this point. Hebrews is heavy. It is theological. It is profound.

Until the end.

The end of the book crystallizes Christianity. Here, the author gets to the very heart of community. Like, Hale’s Nolan, it is as if he says to the Church, “look, beyond all this doctrine, beyond the arguments and the evidences, beyond apologetics and esoteric philosophy – there is the Community itself, your community – you belong to it and it belongs to you.”

This deeply theological book ends with a discussion of faith heroes and then, an appeal to simple community living. The community is everything. I wonder what Christianity has if it does not have community?

I often point out that Wicca has a solitary path. Buddhism has a solitary path. Druidism has a solitary path. Christianity does not. Christianity is at is best when functioning as a healthy community. It is described by Christ as a “body” after all.

Hebrews 13 begins simply – Let mutual love continue. Love that cares for one another. It’s present in the community. It is the basis for mutual respect and affection. Think of it – the old apostle, who has seen it all, traveled, planted churches, mediated fights and helped to shape what this Christian thing is going to look like – says to the young, driven, maturing church, “if you want this thing to thrive: love one another.”

Love the body AND love the Stranger.

Hospitality matters. Bring the Stranger to the table. Do not reject those who are different. They too, are the Body or could become part of the Body. The strangers in mind here are most likely the itinerant Christians who depended on local Christian communities for hospitality. It is understandable, however, why some house churches, either living in an atmosphere of suspicion due to opposition and persecution from society or facing the upheavals created by traveling heretics, would become reticent about extending hospitality. Some even used certain criteria for testing strangers before welcoming them. It makes sense that this would happen – being a Christian was not the most popular thing! However, caring for the Stranger came from the best part of the Hebrew tradition and mattered to the healthy functioning of the Community.

Remember those in prison and those being mistreated. Tortured. Suffering.

All is not well in the Community. Every gathering highlighted who was not there. Who was missing. Community does not end when separation begins. The Body cannot lose a member to suffering and not feel the pain of that loss. The language is so strong here – remember them, as though you, yourself, are with them in prison/suffering. As you are to join those in prison, so you are to be in the body of those being made to suffer. To do so requires more than a sympathetic ache; it means refusing to distance oneself from those suffering out of fear of becoming the target of the same mistreatment, providing for the needs of prisoners (prisoners depended on those outside for food, clothing, and all other needs), even though this meant exposing oneself as a fellow Christian, and being present with the sufferers in every way that might encourage and give relief.

What might this look like today? Clearly, no one is going to prison for being a Christian and, at least in America, prisons (while not pleasant places), provide sustenance. What does it mean for us to “remember the prisoner?” For starters, I believe that we need to recognize that prisoners are often there not because they are inherently evil, but in bondage. Their choices have not come out of nothing! There are reasons they have done what they did and, quite frankly, none of us are far from that.

If I have learned anything from my time in prison, it is that anyone is capable of anything. I cannot think of an exception to this off the top of my head though I’m sure there is – put anyone, put me or you, in a certain set of circumstances; add a healthy dose of pleasure and escape from pain; take away proper oversight or inherent inhibitions; add a dash of unhealthy coping  – anyone reading this is capable of just about anything to include myself.

I don’t judge. What’s the point?

I also don’t equate – I don’t say, “well, there but the for the grace of God go I.” That’s a silly comment – as though you got some special grace that the Other did not. No, I made choices based out of what I had available. There is a reason that I am not a prisoner. However, I also do not hold to any notion that I am a better or worse person for not having gone to prison. I certainly am capable of it. And so are you.

So what? Are we to pretend that we are sex offenders so that we can identify with those in prison?

Lets at least start with seeking to understand. Seek to understand why a person is now labeled a “sex offender.” Seek to understand why a person made the choices they made. Seek to understand so that we can help rebuild and repair. Do we really believe in restoration?

I read an article by a chaplain in the Minnesota State Penal System. He compared how we view sex offenders to how this ancient culture would have viewed lepers. Outcast. Scorned. Unclean. Horrible people needing to be cleansed from clean society. God forgive me for ever using my fear to vote for laws that only help drive predators further under ground and set up a world where no one can get help. Just like there is a safe way to integrate an alcoholic or addict into the Body, there is a way to integrate a sex offender. Jesus was not afraid of lepers because he had the means to cure them, cleanse them, help them become clean again. So. Do. We.

The Apostle goes on – be sexually pure. How can the community thrive if people are afraid that their homes are not safe? That the impurity that so defines how the World interacts will bring itself into the Church.

Finally, he warns against loving money. The destroyer of so many communities. Introduce money to something that just watch the community struggle. Greed that knows no limits. It has even become theologized in the church. As though capitalism is the way of God. Saints, it’s just an economic theory. If we love money more than each other, the Stranger, the prisoner, the suffering, our families – all that has been said in Hebrews about Christ being “so much greater” than all the angels… it’s just so many words. We make it true. We put action to it. It’s just hot air. Fancy arguments. Lovely debates – until it becomes action

What the Apostle is talking about here is action.

Doing.

Living.

This is the Kingdom of God.

Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Chaplaincy, Sermon

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