Earlier this month, I attended a brilliant presentation by Petra Alsoofy, the Outreach and Partnerships Manager from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). You may not be familiar with ISPU: it’s an organization based in Dearborn, Michigan, which was founded after the attacks of September 11, 2001. According to their website, “ISPU provides objective research and education about American Muslims to support well-informed dialogue and decision-making.”
ISPU seeks to help everyone understand more about what life is like for American Muslims. That was the emphasis of Petra Alsoofy’s presentation a few weeks ago. She shared lots of information with about fifty of us who gathered together at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Midland. (You can watch her presentation at this link; enter the passcode Xffx&8s9 and you’ll get access to it.)
After Petra’s presentation, I signed up for the ISPU email list. It’s important for me to hear perspectives that are outside my tradition. That’s why, among other things, I have listened to the podcast Inspired (by Interfaith Voices) every week for around fifteen years.
I found these three practices today in a book written by Brian McLaren. It’s called “A Generous Orthodoxy” and was published in 2004. In a chapter titled “Why I Am (Ana)baptist/Anglican,” he explores the reasons why he is attracted to both the Anabaptist and Anglican traditions within the broader Christian family.
The Anglican tradition offers these three practices, which McLaren summarizes in a few paragraphs. These practices speak clearly to what I want to be about as a Christian and to what I believe is important during this season of life in the Church of God and, more broadly, in Christianity (at least in America). Continue reading →
Two remarkable things happened in my life this past weekend: card games and a choir rehearsal. Now, in and of themselves, playing cards and singing with others are not unusual activities for me. But the specific things we were doing? Those were noteworthy to me:
On Saturday evening, we played euchre in our church’s fellowship hall. On Sunday evening, we had the first rehearsal for the upcoming “Lamb of God” choral/orchestral production.
The last time both of those things happened was three years ago, immediately before the covid-19 pandemic began.
Today I would like to introduce you to a little-known Christmas carol called “The Christmas Candle.” Its lyrics were written a century ago by an American poet named Anna Hempstead Branch. These lyrics were set to music by another female American, a composer named Roberta Bitgood, in 1937.
I discovered this carol when Tara and I sang it with the church choir at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bay City during their Christmas concert this past Sunday afternoon. I can’t find an online recording of the carol for you to listen to, so we’ll have to make do with just the lyrics. But they are powerful enough by themselves. Read them slowly, thoughtfully, carefully: Continue reading →
In this comic, a few people are walking down a paved sidewalk, surrounded by trees and shrubs in a public park. A couple of strands of white Christmas lights are hanging overhead across the sidewalk. In the foreground, we see an adult and a child – perhaps a grandfather and grandchild – walking hand-in-hand down the path, away from us, as if we are following them on their outdoor walk. They are looking over to the side, where, away from the path and in front of a low brick wall, a young family sits on the ground, huddled together with a few blankets. This family consists of a father, mother, and young child, and they are arranged in such a way that a passerby (like the grandchild) might notice a similarity to the familiar Christmas scene of Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus lying in a manger.
“No, honey, that’s not a manger scene.”
Take a few moments to sit with that comic, and think about it. I’ll share a few thoughts below. Continue reading →
Last night, on Jeopardy’s “Tournament of Champions,” the Final Jeopardy category was “New Testament.” As a student of the Bible and an ordained pastor whose work revolves around this collection of writings, I would have bet everything on this last clue. But I would have lost everything…because the “correct” answer is, in reality, incorrect.
Here’s the clue: “Paul’s letter to them is the New Testament epistle with the most Old Testament quotations.”
The answer that was deemed to be correct: “The Hebrews.”
This is understandable, but it is incorrect, specifically because Paul did not write the letter to the Hebrews. That’s the overwhelming consensus of biblical scholars. Yes, Hebrews contains the most Old Testament quotations of all the epistles (letters) in the New Testament. But Paul didn’t write that letter.
How do we know?
Three main reasons:
First, the letter to the Hebrews is anonymous. Usually, when Paul wrote a letter, he put his name on it, often at the beginning and the end of the letter. This was common practice for people who wrote letters in the first century – the equivalent of putting your name and address in the upper-left-hand corner of an envelope when you send a letter in the US mail. Check it out for yourself: find the very first word of Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. In every instance, each one starts with the word “Paul,” the author of these letters. (There is scholarly debate about Pauline authorship of, for instance, Ephesians and Colossians, but that’s another story.) But Hebrews has no authorship designation, no introductory material at all. Hebrews jumps right into some heavy content: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”
Second, the content of Hebrews is quite different from Paul’s writings. The perspective of Hebrews is substantially different from Paul’s letters. Hebrews is a deep, complex theological treatise. It does not address moral and ethical situations like Paul often does. Hebrews uses language differently than Paul does. Hebrews is concerned with different topics than Paul is. Besides, Paul considered himself to be an “apostle to the Gentiles” – so why would he write a long letter to Jewish folks? Paul’s letters are almost always addressed to Gentile churches or to people who worked with them.
Third, the order of the New Testament letters is significant. The New Testament was assembled through a lengthy process over many years in the fourth century. What emerged from this process is, more or less, the New Testament that we have in our Bibles today. The structure of the New Testament is deliberate:
The Gospels are first: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
A book of history is next: Acts.
Then we have Paul’s letters: Romans through Philemon (see the list above), arranged in descending order of length.
Then we find the other letters: Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, arranged in descending order of length.
Finally we arrive at Revelation, which is unique among the books of the New Testament.
The 27 books of the New Testament have stood in this order for centuries. Long, long ago, Hebrews was considered to be one of Paul’s letters, but students of the New Testament gradually came to understand that Hebrews was not written by Paul. Otherwise, they would have included it in the block of Paul’s letters. Instead, Hebrews is the longest of the letters that were not written by Paul. That’s why it appears after Philemon, the shortest of Paul’s letters. (For more information, read this summary about the authorship of Hebrews.)
But what about King James?
Yes, I know, the King James Version of the Bible gives the full title of Hebrews as “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” And many people, especially today’s older adults, grew up with the King James Bible as their primary (or only) Bible. Even today, some Christian groups are “KJV Only,” meaning they reject any other English translation in favor of the King James.
However, remember that the King James Bible was created in 1611, long after the New Testament was finalized. (The KJV has several serious textual problems and translation mistakes, but that’s another story as well.) Remember also that the titles of books of the Bible are not divinely inspired. Neither are chapter and verse numbers, section headings, footnotes, or any other study aid. These devices have all been added to the biblical text as an aid to readers.
But just because the KJV says Paul wrote Hebrews doesn’t make it true. (The same principle holds for the five “Books of Moses,” the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Once again, that’s another story.)
Why does this matter?
I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and the sacred text that guides my spiritual life is the Christian Bible. I need to be familiar with this book, to study this book, to understand how this book is constructed, to recognize what this book teaches. I need to put into practice all the literary principles that I learned in grade school, college, and seminary. This includes considering authorship, context, language choice, genre, character development, and many other characteristics of literature. I don’t just assume that Paul wrote Hebrews because someone taught that to me once, or because I read those literal words in a certain translation of the Bible.
If I am locked into a literal reading of the phrase “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews,” then I might be locked into a literal reading of, say, Mark 16:18, where Jesus himself says that his followers “will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.”
I need to take this book seriously, to handle it carefully, to know it deeply. I need to be open to this text, to exploring this text, to accepting facts about this text that might seem counterintuitive to me.
You can read them in Luke 16:1-15 and Luke 18:1-8. They are sometimes called “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager” and “The Parable of the Persistent Widow.” And they are strange teachings from Jesus.
In the first passage, Jesus tells a story about a manager who is being fired by his employer because he was accused of wasting the employer’s possessions. In his final few moments of work, he makes friends among a few clients by reducing the debts they owe his business – some by 20%, some by 50%. This dishonesty is celebrated not just by the employer in the story, but by Jesus himself!
In the second passage, Jesus tells a story of a widow who went to her local judge to beg for justice against her adversary. The judge denied her request, but she kept asking over and over and over again. Finally the judge gave in, not because he changed his mind, but because he wanted to get rid of this nuisance of a woman!
This morning, I watched a livestream of the final committal service for Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle. This took place two days after I led a funeral service for a lady in our community. Two very different people who lived very different lives; each died and was remembered by loved ones through the distinctly human practice of funeral services.
Sometimes people shy away from talking about death and funerals, because those events often evoke painful and difficult feelings among us. Yet I believe that grief can be a good thing (see our recent sermon series called “Good Grief” for reasons why!). Of all the species of life on this planet, we human beings have the most developed and intricate celebrations of life, expressions of grief, and rituals around the deaths of our neighbors. This is important and needs to be respected and acknowledged.
Just then someone spoke up from the crowd and said, “Master, you should tell my older brother that he has to divide the family inheritance and give me my fair share!” Jesus answered, “My friend, you can’t expect me to help you with this. It’s not my business to settle arguments between you and your brother – that’s yours to settle.” Speaking to the people, Jesus continued, “Be alert and guard your heart from greed and always wishing for what you don’t have. For your life can never be measured by the amount of things you possess.” (Luke 12:13-15, The Passion Translation)
We often read this story from the perspective of the brothers or the people in the crowd. This time, let’s take a look at it from Jesus’s perspective. In this section of Luke, Jesus is on his long journey to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. He has just spoken a number of “woes” against the Pharisees and other religious leaders because of their hypocrisy. And here in chapter 12, Jesus is encouraging his followers to remain faithful and not to fear or worry about what those religious authorities might do to them.
In the midst of all this, someone comes to Jesus with this strange request to mediate a dispute about their family inheritance. The request is strange to our ears, but it was typical in that time for rabbis like Jesus to weigh in on disputes like this.
Watch how Jesus responds, though: “It’s not my business to settle arguments between you and your brother.”
I used to love playing the board game called Puerto Rico. It’s a well-designed strategy game in which each player builds a mini-civilization on their own island of Puerto Rico. Various crops can be raised (like corn, sugar, and coffee) and then shipped back to Europe or sold at the local trading post. Many buildings can be purchased and built, which enhance a player’s production, shipping, and trading. The gameplay mechanic is really fascinating, too: there are a certain number of “roles” that players can choose from each round, such as settler, trader, captain, or builder. When a player chooses a certain role on their turn, that player gets a specific bonus, and then all the players can take the actions of that role.
I love strategy games like Puerto Rico. The dynamics of the game, the strategy of how you will try to amass the most victory points, the choices that affect not only your board but the boards of other players – I find that kind of game really enjoyable.
But there’s a problem. I said at the outset that I used tolove playing Puerto Rico. I don’t anymore.
Why? Well, I’ve left out one key part of the game. For any of your settlements or buildings to function, you need to staff them with people. Otherwise, they will sit empty and not do anything at all. In this game, the people are referred to as “colonists” and are represented by small, round, brown tokens.
Brown “colonists.” They literally arrive on a ship and are put to work on your island of Puerto Rico, working in fields or buildings as you direct them. You can shuffle them around, but they never leave your island.
There is another word for these brown colonists, a word that the game’s creators conveniently omit: slaves.
Because that’s the real history of Puerto Rico and so many other locations in the western hemisphere. Brown “colonists” were brought over on ships from Africa and were made to labor at their masters’ discretion. But they were not colonists at all. They were slaves.
You may have seen on the news recently that a new federal holiday has been approved by Congress. That holiday is called Juneteenth, and it celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth occurs on June 19 every year, because it was on June 19, 1865, that slaves were proclaimed free in Texas by the victorious Union Army.
To be honest, I had never heard of Juneteenth until about two or three years ago. I never knew about this important day in American history and this important celebration for African Americans – for all Americans. I grew up in Indiana, and Juneteenth simply was not part of the education I received, either in school or at church or in society. But I’m starting to learn, a little bit every year, just how significant Juneteenth is.
The point of all this is to say that I need to grow and change. I need to learn. I need to listen. I need to ask questions, seek answers, and knock on doors that I never even knew existed. I need to join in celebrating Juneteenth and to continue the pursuit of liberty and justice for all.
I probably will never play the board game Puerto Rico ever again. But I look forward to celebrating Juneteenth with every passing year. And I hope I keep learning to uncover the blind spots in my vision – or, rather, the planks in my own eye. (Matthew 7:1-12)