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“The Tie that Binds”
Hebrews 10: 11-14, (15-18), 19-25
November 14, 2021
The year was 1867. Two years after the end of the Civil War, the small settlement that had sprung up around the Manassas Railroad Junction had grown, and by May 1867, 13 blocks of the new village of Manassas had been sold.1 Encouraged by that growth, on July 7, 1867, a small group of Presbyterians—four men and ten women—gathered at the home of Catherine Hornbaker to declare themselves Manassas Presbyterian Church. They purchased a lot in the newly settled area, worshipping in a government building that was already on site.2 The church was formed before Manassas was chartered as a town, which happened six years later, in 1873.3 Two years after that, the fledging church constructed the brownstone building that would be the congregation’s home for the next one hundred years.
Today, on Heritage Sunday, we give thanks for those who went before us, giving us the church we have today. Today, Manassas Presbyterian Church has 123 Heritage Members, designated as people who have been part of the church for 25 years or more. The longest tenured of those, Nancy McKenzie, joined MPC in 1966, and the next longest tenured, Ed and Mary Flournoy, Gretchen Day, and Norm and Nancy Weaver, became part of MPC in 1972, followed in 1973 by John Mitchell, Nancy Bentrem, and Lew and Dana Reninger. They and others like them remember worshipping in that old brownstone building downtown on Church Street. When the church outgrew that building, the members took a leap of faith in purchasing this lot on the hilltop that had been Rosemont farm, and constructing the wonderful building which we enjoy today.
The lectionary scripture text today from Hebrews is a wonderful passage for Heritage Sunday. It says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the One who has promised is faithful. And 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.”
When the church moved to this location in 1977, Ashton Avenue was much different than it is today. Al Haight shared that Ashton Avenue was just a dirt road back then. When it snowed, Al would bring in a tractor and plow the entire road so that people could get to the church.
Gretchen Day also remembers the lack of paved roads. In a previous history effort, she wrote, “I remember when we broke ground for the new church and when we dedicated the completed building. Presbyter Ed White came for the dedication. Marywood wasn’t built yet, and there was nothing but mud to Crestwood Avenue. Mr. White rode a motorcycle and got stuck in the mud. As a result, he walked down the church aisle with mud dripping off his shoes.”
The building has undergone changes through the years. Gene Barndt said, “My best and fullest memory of MPC was when we were refurbishing the sanctuary, and we had to worship in the fellowship hall for several months. That was a time of sparse surroundings but very intimate spiritual oneness in our congregation.”4
The Heritage Members have been faithful through all the years, that brought changes to Manassas and to the world. We give thanks that they “did not neglect to meet together,” as Hebrews says.
In order to understand this passage, we have to understand what comes before it in Hebrews as well as the context into which the person who authored this book was speaking. In his commentary, Tom Long describes the three and a half chapters leading up to our passage as a “long Christological journey” explaining how Christ has brought us near to God, so that the old sacrificial system is no longer needed. In the temple, only the priest could go through the curtain into the Holy of Holies, where the intimate presence of God was said to dwell. With Christ as the great high priest, the veil has been torn, and we have access to God, for as verse 12 says, “Christ has offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins,” and therefore, verse 19 concludes, “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain.”
Because of that, Tom Long said, the passage must answer the “question that hangs in our minds.... what shall we do in response?”
“The answer? Get ready for worship,” Long said.
When we truly understand the gift we have been given---access to the Holy One, the divine Creator of the universe, not through priestly rituals or perfect sacrifices, but through God’s love in Christ---there is nothing we desire more than to accept that gift, to come into God’s presence and experience God’s love. Long said, “The high priestly ministry of Jesus has made it possible genuinely to worship—not just to sit in the pews and go through the motions, but truly to have access to the Holy Place, to be brought into communion with the merciful and generous God of all the Ages.”5
And here is the key piece: we do not do this on our own. The passage makes clear that worship is a communal activity; just as water is not water with only hydrogen or oxygen alone, but to be water requires the conjoining of two elements of hydrogen and one of oxygen, so it requires the coming together of people for worship to be worship.
We now have new models of coming together for worship. Technology allows us to create communal worship while being physically distant. And that is a wonderful thing for those who are not physically able to worship here in this sanctuary. I know that many of you want to be here, long to be here, and that very longing brings us together through the power of the Spirit to be the Body of Christ together, to enter the Holy of Holies and truly worship.
Long before the pandemic, however, all the way back to the very earliest churches, Christians have been tempted to forego worship for other pursuits. That, after all, is the point of this passage: the writer exhorted, How can you take this wonderful gift of access to God’s presence for granted? “Let us not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some,” the writer said, all the way back in first century.
Even farther back, Ecclesiastes warned of the folly of God’s people being solitary: “Two are better than one....for if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.... Though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
We are stronger together than we are alone, encouraged by one another, stirred up to love and good deeds. And yet, too often, Christians give in to the temptation to neglect worship.
Again, this is not a new phenomenon. As I was preparing for this sermon, one commentary I read was written back in 1972, when I was a wee child and some of you were not even born. The commentary pointed out, This passage contains a “solemn warning against setting a bad example by abandoning public worship.....Encouraging one another reminds us that one must consider the discouragement he brings to the Christian church when he deliberately absents himself from its service.”
“God’s people are to receive courage from one another by gathering together in worship. Many are defeated in the Christian life because they abandon the assembly of dedicated men and women who hold fast to their faith and live out their days in the splendor and courage of Christ himself,” the commentary said.6
Many of you have seen sequoia trees, those magnificent trees that are the most massive in the world. Sequoia trees can grow more than 200 feet tall, but did you know that they have very shallow roots? How do those towering trees keep from falling? The secret is that they have interconnected root systems. According to John Ed Mathison, “They grow near other sequoias so they can intertwine their roots, brace each other, and hold each other up. Individually, they may fall, but collectively,” they stand.7
In his commentary, Tom Long noted, “It is easy... to lose sight of [the value of communal worship], to let go of the truth that the little company gathered in a local congregation are gathered into the presence of the Lord, ... and thus it is hard to maintain the practice of worshipping together...The disincentives to corporate worship are many.” Some people say they would rather worship God “alone on a deserted beach or...under the canopy of stars rather than in the midst of the ragtag assembly that shows up for church.”
Long said, “The only thing about that,” according to Hebrews, “is that while we are in the beach chair filling out the crossword puzzle, the faithful in [worship] doing the best they can with their off-key voices to belt out ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ have been gathered by a mystery beyond their own seeing and knowing into the great choir of the angels...and the saints singing ceaseless praises to God. Things are not what they seem. What looks like leisure turns out in the end to be exhausting, and what appears to be the labor of prayer leads to ‘a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last,’” he wrote.8
The old hymn rings true: “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.” The words echo this passage and the words from Ecclesiastes: we are bound together in Christian love by the power of the Holy Spirit, and together, we have strength, encouragement, hope, the ability to live the Christian life, to perform acts of love and good deeds. If you feel exhausted, depleted, in need of strength and hope and meaning in your life, remember what happens when we come together for worship. Come to be renewed, recharged, as we hold fast to our hope in Christ, the source of our strength and the ground of our being. What we are together is so much greater than the sum of the individual parts. A threefold cord will not be broken.
There is an old story about a father, near the end of his life, who wanted to leave a lesson for his sons. He gave each of them a stick and instructed each one to break his stick in two. The sons snapped the sticks with no difficulty. Then he gave each son another whole stick and instructed them to put all their sticks together in a bundle. They did as he asked. Then he said, “Now try to break the sticks.” The sons could not break the sticks in a bundle.9 We are stronger together. We need the “ties that bind.” Today, as we give thanks for the faithfulness of our Heritage Members, we are inspired by their example to live according to the words of this passage. May we unite in the body of Christ as unbroken cords. Blest be the tie that binds. In the name of God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church