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"Provoking One Another" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on November 18, 2018 by Kathy Miller

Provoking One Another

Scripture—Hebrews 10:11-25

Our scripture reading this morning comes from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, chapter ten, verses 11-25.


Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,

            “This is the covenant that I will make with them

                        after those days, says the Lord:

            I will put my laws in their hearts,

                        and I will write them on their minds,”

the Spirit also adds,

            "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more."

Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

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.

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.



On a random day in December in of 2012, a customer in the drive-thru line at a Tim Horton’s in Winnipeg, Manitoba, paid for her order and then paid for the order of the person in the car behind her. The person in the car behind her, upon hearing of this kindness, proceeded to pay for the order of the person in the car behind them. The chain continued, each person paying the bill of the person behind them, over and over for 226 cars. It was a three-hour chain of kindness.[1]

While prior to moving to Wisconsin, I might have believed that every city with a weird name was located in Wisconsin, I now know both that this is not the case and that Winnipeg is actually in another country, a good 11 hours of driving from Racine. So unless you happened to be frequenting a Tim Horton’s in Manitoba in December of 2012, it seems unlikely that any of us here today were affected by the decision of that initial customer in the Tim Horton’s chain of kindness. Indeed, unless you happened to have read the article “The Science of Paying it Forward” in the Sunday Review of the New York Times in March of 2014, this is likely the first you’re hearing of this particular incident.

Yet, I suspect that none of us are unaware of the event that happened in Philadelphia two weeks ago when Robert Bowers killed 11 individuals after he opened fire in a synagogue during sabbath services, and Philadelphia is even further away than Winnipeg. And, I would be surprised if there was someone here who is unaware of the fires currently raging and claiming lives in California, a good 30 hours away from us. We know about the recent and controversial hearings for the latest Supreme Court seat, and the migrant caravan working its way north from Central America. Most of us heard about the shooting in a college bar in California ten days ago and the ongoing war and resulting starvation in Yemen.

But how many of us are aware of the man in Texas who picked up a stranger walking in the 95 degree heat and, when he heard this man had to walk 3 hours to and from work every day, bought him a car? Or the local businesses that heard about that kindness and put out donation boxes and raised enough money to cover a year’s worth of insurance, oil changes for two years and $500 for gas?⁠[2]

Or the thousands of people who responded on Twitter to a father’s request for birthday wishes for his 9-year-old son who was being bullied at school?⁠[3]

What about the white Texas Trump supporter who, when visiting D.C. for the inauguration left his African American waitress a $450 tip for a $27 breakfast along with a note that read, “We may come from different cultures and may disagree on certain issues, but if everyone would share their smile and kindness like [you did], our country will come together as one people. Not race. Not gender. Just American.”?⁠[4]

Or the 9-year-old boy who used his birthday money to pay for a police officer’s breakfast and wrote a note on the receipt saying, “I want to be like you when I grow up. Thank you for your service.”?⁠[5]

Or the school bus driver in Washington who buys hats and gloves to give to kids without any on his bus route.⁠[6] Or the boy in New Mexico who had his mom make him two lunches every day so he could give one to a classmate who didn’t have a lunch.⁠[7]


In a world where there are so many tragedies, so many horrendous acts of violence, unintentional accidents, and unforeseen disasters, the stories of kindnesses, whether big or small, often get overlooked or under-reported. And when we do hear about or notice acts of kindness, our brains are wired to pay less attention to them than to stories of disaster or danger, which, our brains reason, could pose a threat and thus require further consideration.

This past Tuesday, November 13th, was World Kindness Day. Introduced in 1998 by the World Kindness Movement, a coalition of international kindness NGOs and just one of many organizations dedicated to promoting acts of kindness both globally and locally, World Kindness Day is celebrated around the world in an attempt to highlight good deeds and recognize the everyday kindnesses we can offer one another.⁠[8] This upcoming week we have the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving, a nationally-recognized opportunity to be intentionally grateful for all that we have been given. And so, this Sunday, our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews feels particularly appropriate.

Written 30 to 60 years after Christ’s death, the author of Hebrews is writing to a community of Jewish Christians who are beginning to drift away from the faith. Having endured persecution and failing to see how Christ, or their faith in him, was making any difference in the world, their numbers were dwindling—the text tells us that some of them were in the habit of no longer meeting together. And so the majority of the letter to the Hebrews is a reminder about who Christ was and how Christ was, and is, greater than anyone and anything that has come before. It is theological encouragement to stick with the life of faith even though they have been persecuted, even though their faith does not seem to be impacting the world they way they thought it might, even though they are discouraged and tired and ready to throw in the towel.

And at the end of the letter, having laid out why they should live a life of faith, the author of Hebrews offers a few pointers on what exactly a life of faith should look like.

First, hold fast to the confession of your hope because the one who has promised it is faithful. Not, you will note, hold fast to your faith or your certainty or your belief—a life of faith isn’t about certainty or belief, it is about hope. Hold fast to your hope, your desire, your fervent wish, that God is about to do a new thing. Hold fast to your hope that the way you live your life makes a difference. Hold fast to your hope that God is at work in the world even though the headlines seem to deny it. Hold fast because the God who promised it is a God who has been faithful.

And, as you hold fast to hope, consider also how you might provoke one another to love and good deeds. Notice that it doesn’t say, you do good deeds and love more, nor even consider how you might do more good deeds or love more. No, consider how you might provoke one another. This might be one of my favorite verses in scripture—how often are we given permission to provoke one another? As an older sibling, one of the refrains of my childhood was, “Stop provoking your brother.” Admittedly, I was very obviously not provoking him to love and good deeds, but still, the mischief-maker in me takes great delight in imagining all the ways we might provoke one another to love and good deeds. The ways we might instigate acts of kindness or inspire greater care in the world.

According to a Jewish Talmudic legend, at any given moment, there are thirty-six people practicing acts of lovingkindness in the world. And, without these acts, without the people who are performing them, the world would collapse under the weight of human selfishness, anger, ignorance, and greed.[9]

The legend leaves open whether or not the 36 people performing these 36 acts are always the same people—36 angels who keep the planet going—or if the 36 people performing these 36 acts rotate and change—if, sometimes, it might be you, holding the door open for someone, who is keeping the world on its axis, balancing someone else’s hateful comment with your act of kindness.

  1. Hold fast to your hope,
  2. Consider how you might instigate acts of kindness and love,
  3. Meet together,
  4. And encourage one another.


These are the four actions the author of Hebrews lays out for a community struggling against the tides of apathy and the overwhelming evidence that, if you will excuse both my language and the cliché, the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. Hold fast to hope. Instigate acts of kindness and love. Meet together. Encourage one another.

Our world is not so different from the one addressed in the Letter to the Hebrews. Practicing Christians may not be persecuted in the United States, but we are no longer the norm. We, too, are seeing declining numbers, in part, I suspect, because it’s hard to see how a life of faith makes any difference these days, and, all things being equal, a lazy morning at home can be far more attractive than the struggle of getting everyone out of the house and to church on a Sunday morning. Frankly, some weeks, it is only because I am paid that I get myself out the door and to church on a cold, Sunday morning. Some weeks, it is only because I have a sermon to write that I look for ways in which a life of faith matters, that I seek out signs of God at work in the world. Holding onto hope—that there is good in the world, that God is at work in the world, that how we live our lives matters—often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is not for the faint of heart.

But I know the squeeze of warmth I get when someone holds a door open for me even though they don’t have to; I know the lift my mood gets when someone leaves me a small gift or sings my praises; I know the small joy and sense of connection I feel when a stranger smiles at me on the street or picks up something that I’ve dropped. And, I know the delight and mood lift I get when I can do something nice for someone else, especially if it can be sneaky and anonymous.

When I worked with youth, there was no activity I saw middle schoolers enjoy more than leaving gifts on people’s doorsteps, ringing the doorbell, and running away. And there was no activity that we did that elicited so many notes of appreciation. People were so grateful that someone had thought of them, nevermind that the gifts left were clearly made by inattentive tweens. The gift didn’t matter, the action did.

There is so much in this world that rightfully elicits our grief or outrage—so many tragedies, so much that is wrong and needs fixing. There is a lot of hate and even some evil, and goodness knows the negativity is enough to drown us all. But there is also all of us. And perhaps what the world needs, what the church needs, is just a little more evidence that we exist, that kindness exists, that love is real, that goodness has not given up. Rather than celebrating World Kindness Day once a year or practicing random acts of kindness, what if we practiced intentional acts of kindness every day. If we found one small (or big) way to instigate love and kindness? What chain of reactions might we provoke? What love might we create? What evidence might we leave that God is at work in the world?










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