Provocation

November 14, 2021/Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25

Do you ever sit here in our sanctuary on Sunday morning and wonder where everyone is?  In March of this year, the pollsters at Gallup issued a report stating that, for the first time in its polling history, less than half of Americans claimed membership in church.  While some 40 percent of Americans claim they attend church regularly, the actual number probably hovers somewhere around 20 percent.

The Presbyterian Foundation does its own tracking of membership and attendance at Presbyterian churches across the country.  Its findings support the notion that church membership has been in a steady decline for the last several decades.  In the last 15 years, membership in Presbyterian churches has fallen by almost half, with average attendance hovering around 50.  On average, about 43 percent of members participate in worship each week; here at Providence, that figure is little more than a third of members.

Well, everybody is busy.  We’re all very busy.  And there are so many things to do on Sunday.  Things we can’t get to during the rest of our very busy weeks.  And we’re tired.  So very tired.  So we sleep in a little later, linger over our morning coffee a little longer, throw a load of clothes in the washing machine and wipe down the kitchen counters and the next thing we know, it’s nearly 10:30 and it’s far too late for us to gather the kids and spouse and get everyone spit-shined and loaded into the car to make it to church on time.

So we stay home.  We’ll go next week.  Or next month.  Or on Christmas Eve or Easter.  It doesn’t matter, we think.  It doesn’t really make any difference whether we show up or not.

Does it?

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews must have worried even in that day about the folks who were staying home from worship.  He says so, right there in the last verse we read, pointing out that some people were in the habit of  neglecting to meet together.  You can almost hear the reasons, can’t you?  “I had a really busy week, and I’m just exhausted.”  “I overslept.”  “I just really want to stay home; I’ll pray and meditate and that’s just as good as sitting in church for an hour.  Maybe better.”

The writer of Hebrews doesn’t really leave an opening for excuses like that.  We should be faithful – hold fast to the confession of our hope – because God is faithful.  “God keeps his part of the covenant whether we keep our part or not.”[1]  God has promised to stand with us, to be present in our hard times as well as the good, to support us and lift us up and just be there.  So why can’t we just be there?

Christians are called to “face the challenge of living faithfully during this ‘in between’ time,”[2] a time when the world clearly demonstrates to us each and every day that it continues to wait for the final defeat of all God’s enemies.  “Christian hope is practiced against our outward circumstances.  It is rooted not in human effort, but solely in the faithfulness of God.  We are able to hold fast because the one ‘who has promised is faithful’”[3] (v. 23).

The writer of Hebrews urges believers to gather, then, in order “to provoke one another” (v. 24).  “We are to stir up – if necessary, irritate – each other into fulfilling our baptism.”[4]  “We need one another, we need Christian community, to remind, buoy, stand with one another that we do have hope.”[5]  We gather “for mutual encouragement and support.  The gift of Christ is not one that we receive and keep to ourselves.  It is meant for the building of the whole body.”[6]

Minister Elizabeth Forney writes, “In many ways, we have become a culture of personal piety, with little or no communal accountability for our Christian walk.”[7]  How, then, are we to provoke one another, to use the language of Hebrews, to live the sanctified life we are called to live?  We need the encouragement of other disciples if we are to wrestle with the calling to practice our faith.  Our worship and fellowship together create a bond that makes it possible for us to “provoke one another” into Christian service.

Unfortunately, this sermon is very much a case of “preaching to the choir.”  After all, if you’re here, well, you’re here.  You’re already living in community with your brothers and sisters in Christ.  But maybe those of us here today can work on our skills of provocation.  How long has it been since you reached out to someone who is not here – and hasn’t been here for a while – and asked them what’s keeping them away?  Or whether they turned in a pledge card?  Or if their giving is up-to-date with their paycheck.  How long has it been since you irritated someone into living into their baptismal promises?

For some eighteen months, a virus kept us away from each other.  Today, thanks to growing knowledge about how the virus is transmitted along with the availability of highly effective vaccines, we can gather safely again.  When we look to the future, when we wonder what God has in store next for this community of faith, maybe it’s also time for us to provoke one another.  To ask of each other in Christian love, what have you done for God lately?


[1] Frederick Buechner, “Covenant,” The Frederick Buechner Center

[2] Jane E. Fahey, Feasting on the Word B/4, 304

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rebecca Davis, “Announcing our hope in God,” Presbyterian Outlook, November 8, 2021

[6] Elizabeth B. Forney, Feasting on the Word B/4, 304

[7] Ibid.

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