by the Rev. James B. (Jim) Craven III
In the name of God-Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
A reading from the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews? We just heard a reading from the letter to the Hebrews, but it wasn’t introduced in that fashion. Why not? Well, for one thing, there is probably not a Biblical scholar today who believes that the letter to the Hebrews was written by St. Paul. It was once otherwise.
Many of us a certain age grew up with the King James Bible or the Authorized Version of Holy Scripture, and the letter to the Hebrews was then attributed to Paul. James I of England and VI of Scotland, who succeeded his cousin Elizabeth to the throne, and was the son of the martyred Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots, commissioned a group of 47 Biblical scholars, the greatest in English Christendom, to bring forth an English translation of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek for use in the Church of England, our mother church. The scholars finished their work of translation in 1611 and presented their masterpiece to the King. And it surely was a masterpiece. The King James Version is one of the most important books in the English culture and very much a driving force in the shaping of the English speaking world. It may be the most widely printed book in history.
It was said that the King James Version “lives on the ear, like music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church bells.” Once can scarcely imagine the English language today without Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible.
But, and isn’t there always a but, truly more ancient texts of Holy Scripture have come to light and been discovered since the King James Version was first published 411 years ago, in 1611, than were known to be in existence then. Think about that, for it is truly remarkable. The oldest or earliest of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946, and those that have surfaced thus far date from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD. And I am confident that more ancient texts, of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, have yet to see the light of day.
Because so much more is known now than was known in 1611, Biblical scholars are now unanimous, or certainly almost so, in believing that Paul did not write the letter to the Hebrews. And their reasons are compelling. The Greek vocabulary and style are different. The structure of the letter is different, with the intermixing of doctrine and exhortation. The manner of introducing the Old Testament citations is different. And with the exception of the short First Letter of John, Hebrews is the only New Testament exposition that begins without a greeting mentioning the writer’s name. I like to teach in my preaching, or try to. And if you learn something there is no extra charge. And I learn something in every sermon.
Some years ago, a teenage girl here told she went home and spent Sunday afternoon reading all 66 chapters of Isaiah. Also the Bible is meant to be read, preached, questioned, and thought about, not just to gather dust on a table in a seldom-used room which when I was a child was called the parlor. And I can tell you from experience that I can read something in it 18 times and spot something in the 19th reading that I had never noticed or thought about before. I remember, indeed can never forget, hearing the Beatitudes read on the Galilean hillside where Christ first read them to the assembled crowd.
So, as much as I love the beautiful language of the King James Version, we must move on now that we are well into the 21st century. In the same way, is it not time to stop referring to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church as the new prayer book? In times past, when daily Biblical readings were required by law in public schools, a number of states, including North Carolina and Texas mandated that the daily reading be from the King James Version. That may explain why Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, Governor of Texas from 1925 to 1927 and 1933 to 1935, famously vetoed a bill requiring two years of a foreign language for a Texas high school diploma. She explained that “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas!”
So, although we really have no idea who wrote the letter to the Hebrews we do know something about that magnificent letter. Scholars today believe the author was a Jewish Christian of Hellenistic or Greek background. We see it in the consistent use of the contrast between the heavenly and earthly spheres of reality, and it is clear that the author was familiar with Plato. Probably the letter was written sometime after 70 AD, but not long after.
The portion of Hebrews we heard today began with the exhortation “Let mutual love continue.” That’s hard to argue with, to love one another. I was in a parish some years ago when there was much controversy over the current rector. For more than a year truly every vestry meeting began with a motion to fire the rector. Never was there a second to the motion. A diocesan canon, interestingly a Naval Academy graduate and a decorated Marine who told me he decided to go to seminary when surrounded by the Chinese in the 40 below cold at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, conducted a parish meeting in which he said something that has stayed with me, “You do not have to like one another, but you do have to love one another.” And we do.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have encountered angels without knowing it.” I have heard of folks visiting churches, I hope not St. Luke’s, at which no one paid the slightest bit of attention to them. “Hi. Tell me your name. Stay for coffee. Who brought you here today? Have you met our rector? Please come back. We do this every Sunday.” And I often tell newcomers that we have fun here, and we get the job done, because the real work is done outside these walls, in being the hands and feet of Christ in the here and now. We have welcomed Cambodian and Afghan refugees here at St. Luke’s, and may that continue. We do not assemble refugees on buses here in Durham and send them off to Lafayette Square in Washington or to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York for others to care for. Human lives are not to be manipulated politically or played with. I don’t know if the Governor of Texas has children or not, but I would not want my children treated in that fashion, and I cannot believe Christ would approve of all those one way bus tickets either. Remember WWJD, What Would Jesus Do? When we first started hearing references to WWJD, I honestly thought it was a radio station, but I understand it now. It doesn’t hurt to remember also that except for American Indians, all of us here are immigrants. I remember years ago at the prison sitting in the sweat lodge one night and observing that I had never heard of any of my Indian parishioners use the term Native American. One old Navajo said, “Jim, only, white social workers say Native American.”
“Remember those in prison, as though you are in prison with them.” Most of Jesus’ apostles and disciples did time here and there, some on death row. There may be more, but I know one person here at St. Luke’s who has regularly visited those in prison, and several more also have written to the one St. Luke’s member I know of who is in prison now. I remember one member here with whom I had communion at the Durham County Jail on Christmas morning. And you know what? Most people coming out of prison do well, but they don’t make the headlines. Our parish’s Blue and Gold Faith Teams do a wonderful job of working with folks getting out and reconnecting with the world. Our own Ted Triebel can tell you all about it.
My grandfather, a Methodist clergyman, who baptized me at Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton in early 1943, was walking out of the Gaston County Jail once after taking Communion to a couple of guests there. A woman in his congregation asked him “Aren’t you embarrassed being seen coming out of the jail?” he said “No, I would be embarrassed at not being seen coming out of the jail.” When I was ordained priet here in 1995, the warden out at Butner let me borrow about 20 women prisoners for the occasion. They came in a van, chaperoned by the Jesuit chaplain. As I recall one read a lesson and another was one of my presenters. And I would have to point them out to you, because they look just like the rest of us. And truly, in no way are they radically different from us here this morning. I remember that night talking with one presenter before the service. A woman in the parish came up and sort of breathlessly said “Is it true there are ex cons here?” I said, “Yes, here’s one right here”, and I then introduced him to her. He went to Yale for heaven’s sake, and dressed like it!
I wish I could attribute my long enthusiasm for prison ministry to either the 13th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews or the 25th chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew (look it up!), but I cannot. Parenting philosophy was different, probably everywhere but certainly in the small mountain town where I grew up. When I was in the second and third grade, I would ride my bike back and forth from school. Times were different then, when Harry Truman was President and there was no big league baseball west of St. Louis. Leaving school every afternoon, I cut across the courthouse lawn to the jail, right across the street from the movie theater. The jail guests would give me 15 cents to get them a bag of popcorn and a Coke from the theater. Sometimes there were several trips back and forth. And we had good conversation. If they were a little short I would contribute my allowance. I had already figured out at that young age that I could collect my allowance from either of my parents or my grandparents. No one was keeping score, and it was for a good cause.
Remember those who are being tortured, as are the Ukraine POWs, now in Russian hands or those in North Vietnam eventually released almost 50 years ago.
Let marriage be held in honor by all. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for as he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” I heard my father say a zillion times, and I can hear him now, dead 45 years, “Hell, it’s just money,” meaning as opposed to something of genuine transcendent value. Remember your truly loving and Christian leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.
To do good and distribute, forget not, for with such sacrifice, God is well pleased.
We still don’t know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews 1,950 odd years ago, but to that person we surely owe a great deal of gratitude. Thanks be to God.