Monday, August 22, 2016

Knowing Hebrews

There are a lot of hats that a priest is suppose to wear--pastor, preacher, liturgist.  One of the most important hats that I think a priest should wear is that of a teacher or theologian.  Perhaps it's because I am the son of an educator, but I figure that we spend all this time and money to get a big fancy degree, so we ought be able to teach people something, right?  For that reason I'd like to talk to today about the Letter to the Hebrews.  Our Sunday lectionary is nearing the end of Hebrews, and I wanted to take a few minutes to examine this unique piece of our Scriptures. Who knows, perhaps you'll learn something new, and when it comes back around the lectionary cycle next time you'll be ready for it!

Portrait of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews.

The first thing that is always striking about Hebrews is that we don't actually know who wrote it.  Unlike the letters of Paul, Jude, Peter, James, and John, there is no name attached to Hebrews, the originally Greek title is simply "to the Hebrews."  If you own a King James Version of the Bible you probably notice that Paul's name is attached to it, but even in the earliest days of the church nobody actually knew who wrote it.  Augustine of Canterbury said that Paul couldn't have written the letter because the christology of Hebrews was so different from the rest of Paul's letters.  Clement of Alexandria did believe that Paul wrote it in Hebrew and that Luke translated it into the Greek; which would mean that Luke's translation is the one that ended up in the Bible.  Tertulian thought Barnabas, Paul's companion and the one who welcomed him into the fold of the apostles in Jerusalem, wrote it.  During the Reformation Martin Luther believed that Apollos wrote it because he was a Jew and would've known the Law so very well and could've made the connections between the Law and Jesus that we see throughout Hebrews.  Perhaps the most romantic argument came from the German scholar Adolf Von Harnack, who suggested that Aquila and Pricilla, two of the early female leaders of the church, wrote it between them. This might explain why no name is attached to the letter; after all, no woman would have been able to put her name on such an important document in those days.  Ultimately we must agree with the historian Origin, who said almost 1800 years ago, "With regards to who wrote the epistle (to the Hebrews), God only knows."  Literally.

So if we don't know who wrote it, why does my KJV Bible call it one of Paul's letters?  In the mid-late second century, as the canon of the Scriptures was beginning to take shape, there were many letters and books that were considered.  The aforementioned Clement even had a few letters that were strongly considered, as were the so-called gnostic gosels of Thomas, Peter, and Mary.  The Letter to the Hebrews, which was dated around the time of the Temple's destruction in AD 70, was already extremely popular and was being read in Christian congregations all over Asia Minor.  The men putting the Scriptures together, who were trying to figure out what should go in and what should not, ultimately made this stipulation:  every piece of the New Testament should either be attributed to a known disciple or to a community that knew said disciple.  Given its popularity, it was widely understood that the Letter to the Hebrews HAD to go in.  But where could it go if no one knew who wrote it? Thus, people began to attribute it to Paul as a means by which the letter could get in.  But where should it go in the order of New Testament Scriptures?  If you pay close enough attention to Paul's letters, you'll notice that they are placed in order of longest-shortest, starting with Romans and ending with Philemon.  So where do they stick Hebrews?  After Philemon.  Had the letter been one of Paul's its place would've likely gone between II Corinthians and Galatians, based on its length.  As a compromise it was put here, after Paul's known letters, still attributed to him by some.  Furthermore, if we look at the composition of the letter, the style of Greek that is used, the way the letter opens and ends with very little fanfare, we can see some big differences between Hebrews and the letters of Paul.  So, in short, Paul may not have written it, but it still managed to get into the canon of the Scripture on the grounds of its own reputation among the early Christians, and that's pretty remarkable.

What's also interesting about Hebrews is that it isn't really a letter, per say.  It's true that nearly every Bible lists it as an epistle or letter, but really it's more like a sermon.  There is no salutation like all of the other New Testament letters.  It is actually best for us to understand Hebrews as an anonymous sermon written to encourage an early Christian community to continued faith and hope in the face of hardship.  This community was made up overwhelmingly of Jewish followers of Jesus--hence the reason it's titled "to the Hebrews," and for that reason we find comparison after comparison in the letter's 13 chapters between the Law of the Old Covenant and the Jesus of the New Covenant.  Throughout the letter (or sermon) we see the author interpret the Law and everything that Moses, David, and the Prophets said in light of the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah.  So the main point of Hebrews, and the reason why it got put into the canon in the first place, is that it, more than any other piece of New Testament writing, interprets the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus within a Jewish context.  Considering that so many members of the early Church identified themselves as Jews--Paul included--we cannot separate the two narratives of Judaism and Jesus.  And that's why we have Hebrews.

So we know why it's there.  We know a little more about the controversy surrounding it's author, as well as the fact that it's more of a sermon than a letter.  But what does Hebrews give us today; after all, we are not a community made up of Jewish followers of Jesus.  For starters, it  teaches us, as it taught that community long ago, what faith looks like.  Remember my entry from a couple weeks ago?  "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  That's chapter 11, verse 1.  Like the early Church communities, who struggled so mightily with different interpretations of who Jesus was and persecutions on every side, we too are in need of the reminder that faith is the thing that we hold on to in our most difficult hours.  It is not something that can be quantified, instead it is something that burns deep inside us, something that hopes in that which is ultimately beyond our understanding--namely the nature of God.  The author also reminds the community that they are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (chapter 12, verse 1). This is not only a reference to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also the early saints and martyrs who showed the church what faith looked like.  The author offers this line to the community to remind them that they are not alone, they have the examples of the saints to guide them, and they need not be afraid because the faith of those saints is the faith that the Holy Spirit stirs in them.  The same is true for us.  All those that we love but see no longer, they are part of that great cloud of witnesses, continuing to pray for us, continuing to love us and support us. This is, of course, why we pray with the saints, knowing that they are watching over and praying for us. It's no wonder that these two lines from Hebrews are quoted so often.  They are as relevant now as they were then.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Hebrews, though, is how it interprets Jesus.  The author draws many comparisons between Jesus and the Old Covenant.  One such example is when the author brings to mind the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai.  In that moment on the mountain we saw God as a God of sheer majesty, a God who was absolutely unapproachable and unknowable, and a God who struck terror in the heart of the people.  But Jesus changes this, says the author.  By coming into the world as one of us, by taking on our sins, and by dying and rising again, Jesus has made us worthy to approach the altar of God.  The unknowable God is made known in Jesus Christ.  The majesty of God is seen in the lowliness of Jesus.  Because of this, humanity and God are brought together like never before.  Whereas the blood of Abel had cried out for vengeance when it hit the ground, the blood of Jesus cried out for reconciliation.  Once, humans were under the terror of the Law, and there was an unbridgeable distance between us and God because of our sin.  But Jesus came and lived and died, thus God, who had been distant and unapproachable, was brought near.  The community of Hebrews knew, as we know, that God can sometimes feel so very far away.  Yet when we know and see Jesus, says the author, we know and see God. We need only reach out our hands and meet him at the holy table.  We need only see the Christ light that shines in our neighbor and we meet him.  We need only see the person on the street and give aid to our brother or sister and we meet him.  We need only listen to his still small voice, and we will hear the very voice of God. 

There is so much more that we can say about the Letter to the Hebrews, but I don't want to be writing all day long!  So, as we begin to move away from this wonderfully mysterious piece of our Scripture, my hope is that we learned something new about it.  From it's anonymous author to its unique style to the good news it brings us about faith, about the assurance that we are not alone, and about the inescapable fact that we ALWAYS have Jesus close by.  So now you know the Letter to the Hebrews.  And knowing is half the battle.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

He Came to Bring Division (and That's Not a Bad Thing)

"Jesus said, 'I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:  father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.'"
--Luke 12: 49-53

I'll be the first to admit that this is a really, really hard Gospel.  Like many of you I prefer to concentrate more on Jesus' promises of love and forgiveness, rather than judgement.  But as Christians we are not suppose to ignore the difficult texts of Scripture or pretend that they don't exist.  Instead, we must sit with them, ponder what they truly mean, and still manage to find good news  n them, even if they ruffle our feathers. 

Jesus said that he came not to bring peace but division, that he came to bring fire.  Fire is often used as a metaphor for judgement in Jewish thought and writings, thus we have Jesus calling for judgement on a generation of people whom he refers to as hypocrites because they can interpret the weather but not interpret that the kingdom of God is in their midst.  This was hardly the way the Messiah was meant to speak; he was suppose to usher in a golden age of prosperity and peace, not bring about the divisions within households.  This was, after all, a culture wherein kinship ties played so crucial a socio-religious role.  Jesus' message would surely have been suspect and would've filled many with fear.  Furthermore, if we think about Luke's Gospel as a whole, we will remember that it is Luke who has the Angels announce peace on earth and goodwill to all way back when Jesus was born.  So why would Luke have Jesus use such divisive, and even scary language?

As Jesus shows, not only in Luke but in all of the Gospels, the realization of God's purpose will inevitably engender opposition from those who serve a contrary view.  Think of all the time Jesus spends with sinners and all the times the Pharisees or others in authority gripe at him for it.  So often he pushes against the social norms--whether it is speaking in public to women, or using a Samaritan as the example of what a faithful person looks like--and those pushes do, indeed, cause division.  Being a witness of God's love and mercy does not always look like standing around a campfire and singing Kumbaya.  Sometimes it looks like pushing against social norms, losing a part of the comforts of your old life, and maybe even losing someone you care about--as many early Christians lost loved ones over issues such as being unable to serve in the military because it went against their Christian principles.  Still, standing in that witness eventually leads to something new being born, a new family emerging, and a new way of thinking and living taking shape.

There is a story I'd like to tell you about how that happened in the Episcopal Church.  It's a story I've blogged about before, but it's the story of one of my favorite saints.  His name was Jonathan Myrick Daniels.  

Blessed Jonathan Daniels.

He was a native of New Hampshire, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, and a seminarian at Episcopal Theological School (now Episcopal Divinity School) in Cambridge, Mass.  In March of 1965  Dr. Martin Luther King made a public call for folks to come to Selma, Alabama in support of the cause of civil rights, namely voter restrictions that had been placed on African Americans.  Jonathan was in Evening Prayer one night, praying the Magnificat, (from, of course, the Gospel of Luke).  He heard those powerful words:

"My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior,
for he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.
He hath showed the strength of his arm.
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel,
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed forever."

And he knew he had to go.  He and a group of students traveled to Selma shortly thereafter.  They intended to stay just for the weekend, but by Divine providence they missed their bus and stayed longer.  He marched, he faced down Selma police, and on Sunday mornings he picked up young black men and women and took them to the local Episcopal Church where they were not met with a great deal of hospitality..  After returning to ETS in time to finish his final exams for that school year, Jonathan came back to Selma in August.  He and others went to the town of Fort Deposit to join in picketing three local businesses. They were arrested and held in the county jail in Hayneville for six days until they were bailed out. (They had agreed that none would accept bail until there was bail money for all.) After their release, four of them, Jonathan included, went to a local shop, and were met at the door by a man with a shotgun who told them to leave or be shot. After a brief confrontation, he aimed the gun at a young black girl in the party named Ruby Sales. Jonathan pushed her out of the way and took the blast of the shotgun himself.  He was killed instantly. Today is his feast day.

Jonathan Daniels, a white man from the north, came to the south and found a new family, a new way of being, because he knew what it meant to stand in the love of Jesus Christ. After his martyrdom the Episcopal Church found a new way of being, too. The Episcopal Church had long been considered the "rich white man's church" (in some places it still is).  The church that once had denied African Americans a place in our General Convention, whose parishes and cathedrals were, many of which, built by slaves, took a long hard look in the mirror and said, 'We were wrong.'  And that admission has not been without division.  The Church has since been on the forefront of social change.  The Episcopal Church ordained the first female priests in North America in 1974, but many were angry and left.  We made Barbara Harris, an African American, the first female bishop in western Christianity, but many were angry and left.  We made Gene Robinson and Mary Glasspool the first openly gay bishops, but many were angry and left.  Yet we have not stopped!  As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry--the first African American leader of the Episcopal Church--reminds us, we are part of the Jesus Movement, and that Movement is never, ever going to stop fighting for the sake of the marginalized, even if it means we have to change or that members of our family may leave, because the Jesus Movement transforms us into something better than we were before.

(L) A few of the Philadelphia 11, the first female priests in the US.  (R) The Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, the first female bishop.

Jesus was exactly right.  His coming into the world shook it to its very core.  Everything the world had known about who was worthy of God's love was turned upside-down.  We shouldn't really be so surprised that he would say that he came to bring division.  That's precisely what he did.  Yet he calls us, even when it seems like the world is crashing around us, to keep standing on our principles.  It may lead to a breakup in our church family, or even our actual blood family, but sometimes that is the price we pay for walking the way of Jesus, the way of one who pushed so hard against the social norms of his own time that those norms finally killed him for it.  Yet even death could not destroy God's promise of love and mercy, and so from his death comes resurrection, and from the deaths that we die daily--both personally and systemically--we are resurrected and born anew as individuals and as the Church.

So there is good news in Jesus' message today, and it is that while Jesus may have come to bring division, it is division that is sometimes necessary so that injustice can be addressed, so that the world may truly see God's love and mercy, and so that our hearts can be changed and we can become more than what we were before.  We cannot expect to follow Jesus and not be spat upon or shouted at or beaten or killed.  To follow Jesus means being willing to stand in the love of Jesus, as folks like Jonathan Daniels did, even if it means losing everything that we have held dear.  Families may be divided, but the Jesus Movement goes on.  We, along with all of those great trailblazers who have stood in the love of Jesus and faced the harsh reality of division, those who have fought for social change and stood on the principle that all are not only worthy of God's love but that each person's experience should be honored, we are a part of that Movement.  Regardless of division, regardless of opposition, the Jesus Movement ain't never, ever, ever, gonna stop!  And that, brothers and sisters, is good news, indeed!  

Monday, August 8, 2016

Ya Gotta Have Faith

"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
--Luke 12: 34

"Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
--Hebrews 11: 1

"The LORD brought Abram outside and and said, 'Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.'  Then the LORD said to Abram, 'So shall your descendants be.'  And Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness."
--Genesis 15: 5-6

90s pop icon George Michael.

George Michael sang about it. Ya gotta have faith!  He was singing about having enough faith to give his heart over to someone and love them without fear of being hurt.  Faith is a step out into the unknown, scary, and full of unpredictability, especially when we place our faith in something like loving someone.  We can’t know for certain that that person will love us unconditionally, we cannot know for certain that our love for them will endure through difficult times.  But we try to love, we try to trust, because we have faith.

Faith, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  It’s one of the most quoted lines of the New Testament.  The Greek word ὑπόστασις, which is translated as assurance, can also be translated as reality.  Faith is the reality of things hoped for, thus those of us who walk in faith walk in the reality of an invisible world, a world of unpredictability, a world we cannot see or fully understand, yet we walk in it because we know that it is a world in which God dwells. 

Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Obi-Wan Kenobi once said, ‘Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.’  He was talking about faith; of course, in his case it was faith in the Force, but we can learn from that wise old Jedi’s saying.  Faith is being able to look at a given situation and say that, while my eyes may tell me one thing, I choose to trust not so much in them but in my heart, my gut, my soul.  Rather than relying on my outward senses to explain away everything, I choose to trust in that which I cannot fully comprehend. I choose to accept what the Divine is doing with me, rather than expect the Divine to do something for me. This is exactly what our ancestor Abraham did.  *It should be noted here that Father Prime fully endorses the idea that Abraham was, in fact, a Jedi.*

This past Sunday we found Father Abraham the 15th chapter of Genesis, having just won a great military victory over some eastern kings.  He’s been blessed by a king/priest named Melchizadek, a follower of the one true God, which prompted him to give the king 1/10th of all the spoils of his victory (a precursor to our ritual of tithing).  Here he is called Abram—which means “exalted ancestor.”  Abram laments to God that, though he has won in battle, he still does not have a true heir to carry out his name, only some guy named Eliezer in Damascus.  Abram is frustrated and pours out those frustrations on God, who responds with the great, grand, and unbelievable promise that Abram will be a father, and not only will he be a father, but his descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky.  The last line of our reading says “Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  In the ancient world righteousness meant being true to one’s social obligations and commitments.  Thus, a righteous person was one who kept his or her social obligations and commitments.  God had made a commitment to Abram, a sign of righteousness; in fact, some ancient versions of this text remove “the LORD” from the last part of that sentence, meaning that Abram is the one who reckons righteousness to God by way of his own faith, certifying that he fully believed God would be true to the commitment God had made.  Two chapters later, Abram , at the age of 99, will be given a new name, Abraham—meaning “ancestor of a multitude”—and four chapters after that, Abraham’s son Isaac will be born.  God had made the commitment, Abraham had had faith in it, and that faith was brought to its fulfillment. 

A mosaic depicting Abraham and his son Isaac. 

There is a reason why Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are called the Abrahamic Faiths.  It is because our faith begins with his faith, which sets in-motion these three great relationships with God.  Whenever Christians, Jews, or Muslims speak of faith, we all point to Father Abraham, to the one who trusted in a God who took him and his family on a remarkable adventure from their home in Ur of the Chaldeans to the land of Canaan, and to Salem, Hebron, Beer-Sheba, Dan, Sheckem, Damascus, Haran, and Kadesh.  The God who promised a great nation to a wandering old man and his barren wife.  Thus, when the writer of the Hebrews gives us an example of what faith really looks like, the person cited is, of course, Abraham.  There is, quite possibly, no greater example of faith than his.

We need to be reminded of Abraham’s faith.  As children of the Enlightenment, we tend to place our faith in the things that can be quantified, things that can be seen, heard, and felt.  We place our faith in things about which we can make reasonable expectations.  So we place our faith in money, houses, stocks, and other investments.  We place our faith in sports teams that we cheer.  We place our faith in people, whom we expect to act in a certain way, but then we get angry when those expectations aren't met.  We place our faith in systems that weave false narratives to us and reassure us that they know what’s best.  Maybe this isn't the way to go.  Maybe we can learn from Father Abraham, who accepted far more than he expected.

Abraham did not know what to expect from God when God called him to leave his home, and he certainly didn't know what to expect when God promised him a nation of descendants.  Yet he accepted where God was leading him.  He accepted God's promise to him and his wife Sarah.  Even when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac (another topic for another blog post), he accepted whatever it was that was being asked of him.  I wonder what would happen if we accepted more and expected less.  Perhaps our faith might shift, and we might focus less on things and more on God.  It could be that we may find ourselves caring less about the things we physically see, hear, and feel, and more on the One who overcomes all of that to move and speak to us in ways that we cannot fully understand.  

Too often it seems our faith is placed in the things of this world. We cannot, we dare not, place our faith in such things.  This is what Jesus means when he tells the crowd in the Gospel reading “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Jesus told them to sell everything, give alms, focus all of your attention on God, placing your faith in God, and waiting expectantly for the Day of Resurrection.  We live in a time not that much different from Jesus, when folks are looking for quick fixes to problems or run away when times get tough because they see no solution in sight.  And like the crowd he spoke to that day, we need to be reminded where our heart really lies, where our faith really lies.  It isn’t in the stuff of this world.  It is in God. It is in the One who, though we cannot fully understand, brings meaning and purpose and Resurrection out of the worst set of circumstances.

Abraham’s faith was, indeed, rewarded when his son Isaac was born, but we must not put our faith in God expecting something in return, that’s not what faith is about. Faith is about hoping in something bigger than ourselves, the kind of hope that tells us all manner of things will be well, the kind of hope that offers that peace that passes all understanding.  This is not a faith that rewards us like some sort of cosmic vending machine.  This is a faith that accepts more than it expects.  It is a faith that reminds us that we are loved, always and forever, beyond our wildest imaginations, and that nothing, even our own sins and wickedness, can separate us from that love. That’s what faith in God, faith in the Lord Jesus, looks like.  With that kind of faith we can step out into any danger without fear of being hurt.  It’s scary, and it cannot always be predicted, but that kind of faith can lead us to changed hearts and minds, which will then change the world, as Father Abraham’s faith changed the world.  I wonder what it might look like if we had THAT kind of faith.

Ya gotta have faith, brothers and sisters. Ya gotta have faith.