Cease and Desist

Inspired by Deuteronomy 5:12-15

According to Wikipedia, “a cease and desist letter is a document sent to an individual or business to stop purportedly illegal activity and not to restart it. The letter may warn that if the recipient does not discontinue specified conduct, or take certain actions, by deadlines set in the letter, that party may be sued. When issued by a public authority, a cease and desist letter, being ‘a warning of impending judicial enforcement’, is most appropriately called a ‘cease and desist order’.”

My friends, the commandment that I just read to you from Deuteronomy, is God’s cease and desist order to you. So, I guess the appropriate thing for me to say right now is, you have been served. Today we begin a three week series on the topic of Sabbath, before we begin year two of the Narrative Lectionary on September 8th. Over the course of these three weeks, we are going to read selections from Deuteronomy, and Genesis, and we may even hear what Jesus had to say about the topic.

I find the topic of Sabbath to be of increasing importance in today’s society, for reasons we will get into later. But I thought the timing of this series was odd, at the end of summer and not at the beginning. You’d think they would have selected this series as everyone was gearing up for some rest and relaxation, as we were planning our vacations, our weekend getaways, our road trips. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized the wisdom in talking about this now, at this time of year. I don’t know if it was intentionally designed that way but I should probably start by telling you just a bit about the word Sabbath. Simply put it’s the proper name for a day of the week, what we know as Saturday. But like all Jewish names, it has a meaning beyond that.

The root word, shabbat, is often thought of to simply mean rest, as in relaxation. But that’s not as accurate as we’d like to think. A more accurate translation is to cease or desist, to stop, and specifically, to stop working. It doesn’t necessarily mean to rest and relax, meaning to do nothing. It can, don’t get me wrong. But there are other things that God had in mind to fill our time when ordering us to stop working. But before we can even get into all of that we need some context. So, our reading from Deuteronomy comes from the Ten Commandments. That’s right, keeping the Sabbath made the same top ten list as “Do not murder!” If that’s not enough to make us take it seriously than I don’t know what will. And in this commandment, God makes this seemingly strange connection between Sabbath and their slavery in Egypt.

The Ten Commandments were given after the Israelites were rescued from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. They were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. Many, many generations had endured life as a slave of the grand empire of Egypt. Now, just ponder the ramification of that for a moment. Generations had grown up knowing nothing but a life of slavery. That was their whole identity. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, a homeland, all but a distant memory at best, a mere footnote in their oral history. And now, they had to redefine who they were, how they related to each other and the rest of the world, and it wasn’t going to happen overnight. So, God helps them out a bit, and gives them these ten commandments, guidelines, redirections, to help them do just that.

This is what makes our reading for today, which is the third commandment, so powerful. This was more than just God’s way of saying, “Take a day off.” This was God helping them to reinvent themselves. This was God’s way of saying, “You have been slaves for a long time, but I have rescued you from that life, so stop living it. Stop being slaves. You have been created for more than that. You have been made into something new.” They knew no other way to live, it was all they had been for so long! But now, they could do other things than just work. In other words, what they did for a living, slave or free, shouldn’t define who they were. “There is more to life than work!” God was trying to tell them! But even more important than that, God was saying, “Don’t allow one thing, especially something painful, like their years in slavery, to be the thing that makes you who you are.

So let’s widen our lens a bit now, because I’m sure you’re already connecting the dots in your own life. This certainly has a lesson for us too, even though we aren’t Jewish, nor have we been slaves, not the literal type anyway. There’s a lot of applications for us. The first thing that comes to mind is a council meeting at my last congregation. I’m not sure how we got on the topic of work hours but one of the council members, the vice president, said that he had never been successful in a job working less than sixty hours a week, many times it was eighty he said.

The president then chimed in and said, I can’t remember the last time I used a vacation day! And they both laughed and patted each other on the back. They were proud of these things. I sat there speechless, knowing that both these guys had a wife and children. And I couldn’t help but wonder what their reaction would be had they been there to hear that.

Look, I love being a pastor, I love being your pastor. But when I die, I don’t want my wife and children and grandchildren, standing at a pulpit at my funeral saying how good of a pastor I was or how dedicated I was to my job. I hope, first and foremost, that I will be remembered as a good husband and a good dad, and a good grandfather, before I’m remembered as a good pastor. Because there is so much more to life than work, so much more than the uniform that you wear.

If I’m remembered for how much I worked, how many hours I put in, how little vacation I used, then I will have failed at this thing called life, especially because God called me to be a spouse and a parent long before calling me to this pulpit. Have you ever noticed how one of the first questions that two people who just met ask each other is, “What do you do for a living?” That comes from this same thing. We are so quick to identify ourselves by our work. God says, there’s more to you than that. Cease and desist.

This also applies to life experiences too. Though I’m going to tread very cautiously here because some life experiences take a long time to get through and I would never rush that process for anyone. So, I will only speak from my own experience. The pain and heartache that I have experienced in my life, the incidents that I have had to endure, could have easily been the identity that I took on. But with patience, and family support, not to mention some great therapists and pastors in my life, those painful experiences were not allowed to lay claim on my identity.

Like the Israelites who were no longer slaves and had to learn a new way of being, we too have to learn a new way of being after painful experiences. We are not called to stay back there and live as if we were still there, but to cease and desist. But again, we all travel that road of past hurts at a different pace, what I am talking about is the end goal, the end goal of giving yourself a Sabbath from it, the end goal of allowing yourself to be given a Sabbath from it.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” Jesus knows! Jesus knows what you carry because Jesus carries it too. Jesus knows the burdens you bear because Jesus bears them too. Jesus knows your struggles because Jesus struggles with them too.

And Jesus wants to lighten that load for you, ease your burdens, assist with your struggles. Jesus wants to give you rest if you will but take it. Jesus wants you to take a Sabbath from them—cease and desist—even if it’s just for a day, even if it’s just for a moment. So that you can remember that you are more than what you do, you are more than what you feel, you are more than what you’ve experienced in this life. You are God’s beloved children—and nothing or no one can take that identity away from you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Faith Doesn't Have To Be That Hard

Inspired by Hebrews 11:1-16, 12:1-2

We made it, to the end of our five weeks in the letter we know as Hebrews. It has been fun for me to get this opportunity to preach on a part of our Bible that doesn’t get the attention that it probably should, at least not in worship. I hope it has been meaningful for you too. As I mentioned five Sundays ago, our author is just in love with Jesus, simply in awe, and uses this letter to count all the ways that make Jesus so amazing! In order they were: Jesus’ eternal nature, humanity, accessibility, and Jesus as the key to the treasure that is God’s love and acceptance. Today we come to number five, and if you thought the other four were pretty awesome, this last one is really the crème de la crème. But before we get into that, I’d like you to think of people that you have known that you have always thought of as having a great faith.

In fact, close your eyes, and picture in your mind’s eye, these people of such great faith. Maybe they’re long gone, maybe they are still a big part of your life. These are people whose faith you have really looked up to. Ok, open your eyes, thank you for humoring me. Most likely, those people that you pictured are those people that we often say things like, “She had an unwavering faith” or “he was a person of great faith” or “she is a pillar of the church” or “I wish I had as much faith as her.”

Sometimes we say those things at their funeral but we often say them when they are still alive too. Either way, to me, it always sounds a bit odd, but I think I have a bit of a different view of faith than most. I don’t see faith as something that’s quantifiable, as something you can measure, because as soon as you do that, faith then becomes a competition.

And we humans love to compete against one another, don’t we! I don’t know about you all but my family is extremely competitive! There’s no such thing as a casual card game or board game in my house. We go for blood no matter what. But it’s all in good clean fun. We’ll call them healthy tantrums! However, when it comes to faith, competing against each other is more often than not, detrimental to our faith rather than good clean fun. Here’s what I mean by that.

Think again about those people that you pictured while your eyes were closed earlier. I’m guessing, and correct me if I’m wrong, but most if not all of you probably figure to yourself that you will never get to that “level” of faith, that it somehow takes a really special person, like the ones that you thought of earlier, to reach that “level.” Can you relate to what I’m saying?

So, if that’s the way that we go into this faith business, for those of us who don’t think we’ll ever reach that “level”, we go into it already defeated, already done before we even get started. And what I, and more importantly, the author of this beautiful letter, is saying, is that this defeated attitude towards faith is completely unnecessary, not to mention that it does more harm than good, and can actually hold you back from doing the things that God calls you to do because you think you’re just not able because you lack the “proper amount” of faith. Raise your hand if at least one of the people in your life that you consider to have a great faith is in this room. And I’m guessing we’re not all thinking of the same person!

And I bet you those people would be shocked that you’re thinking of them right now, right? They’d probably say, “Me, no, I struggle too much with my faith” or “I’m not good enough” or “well behaved enough” or, you fill in the blank. And yet, they are people whose faith we look up to. That’s really the message behind our reading for today. Our author’s topic is faith, and what she does is give a laundry list of names from throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and just so you know, the list doesn’t end with our selection but continues on. We didn’t even read half of it!

But if you know anything about any of these Bible characters then you know that these people were anything but perfect, but rather were people who made mistakes, who sometimes made horrible decisions, who would laugh at the idea of being included in a list of faithful people in Holy Scripture. Well, you know Sarah would laugh! Did you see what I did there? Sorry, Bible nerd joke.

Anyway, this list is not meant to cast judgment on your faith, it’s not meant to show you how your faith is lacking, instead it’s more like the author is saying, “Look at these jokers! If God can honor their faith, faults and all, then your faith is just fine the way it is, and you can do wonders with it too!” The whole point of this section of the letter about faith is to relieve your stress about faith not add to it, to relieve your tension about faith. Faith is not about how well-behaved you are, or how much you pray or read your Bible, it’s not about how much you do for others or how much you sacrifice. In fact, it’s not about you at all! And that’s where our author lands in this section on faith—that it’s not about us when it comes to faith, it’s all about Jesus.

True to form, reason number five of what makes Jesus so amazing for our author, is Jesus’ faithfulness. Not our faith in Jesus, but rather, Jesus’ faithfulness—Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s will, to God’s creation, to us. Because here’s the cold hard truth, if faith could really be measured, and God was somehow keeping track of it and running the numbers on a regular basis, whew!, we’d be in a world of hurt at the end of the day. But faith doesn’t have to be that hard.

Our author and Jesus have been trying to tell us that there’s no need for any of that. There’s no need to compete against each other. There’s no need to worry about our faith. There’s no need to feel like we have to achieve something with our faith in order to do what God is calling us to do. Jesus has got this faith business all taken care of which is why our author compels us to, “fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer, and perfecter.”

So, we’re done, that’s it. Now, to come full circle; five Sundays ago I mentioned that one of the reasons why our author wrote this letter was to help a group of Christians fight the apathy that had crept into their community. And the best way to fight that apathy was to help them remember why they fell in love with Jesus in the first place. And so, she gives them reason after reason, hoping that one or more of them will stick and jar them out of that apathy.

Personally, for me, this letter basically sums up why I’m still a Christian, why I haven’t given up on this faith business. God knows my patience has been tried over the years. But at the end of the day, if we can remind ourselves, or allow ourselves to be reminded, of why we fell in love with Jesus in the first place, we too can fight apathy whenever it raises its ugly head. Thanks be to Jesus. Amen.

Jesus is Key

Inspired by Hebrews 9:1-14

One of my family’s favorite movie genres is adventure movies, and one of our favorite subgenres of adventure movies is any movie involving a treasure hunt of some kind. Movies like National Treasure and Indiana Jones are two that come to mind. We love the history behind the stories, the crazy adventures, treasure maps, and the joy in trying to figure out the mystery before the characters do. And the fact that my family likes these movies also tells me that I’ve done something right as a parent.

I remember getting a text years ago from one of my daughters as I was leaving work that said, “Hey dad, when you get home do you want to start the Indiana Jones movies with us?” I almost cried! I don’t know who I was more proud of, them, or me! Anyway, if you read today’s passage from Hebrews with the Indiana Jones theme song in your head, it sounds an awful lot like a treasure room, what with lampstands and chests and gold altars and a wooded staff that miraculously budded! Not to mention this secret hidden room at the center of the temple called the “holy of holies!” So mysterious!

It has all the makings of a treasure hunt movie! And in fact, one of these items did just that, the chest, also known as the Ark of the Covenant, was the basis for the first Indiana Jones movie. So, I couldn’t help but read this passage and think of it as a treasure hunt! Only this treasure hunt was for possibly the greatest treasure the world has ever sought after, God’s love and acceptance.

Since the earliest days of civilization, even before we began our infatuation with material wealth, back when we first dreamed of the existence of a god, we immediately dreamed of how we could earn that god’s favor. In general, we humans have always thought of ourselves as the greatest of all of God’s creations but in spite of our overinflated egos, we have always imagined that we had to earn or somehow acquire God’s love and acceptance, that God wouldn’t just give that away, that somehow a transaction had to occur to get it.

And if that transaction didn’t take place, then God would get even angrier than God already was, and punish us…to death. Now, I don’t know about you, but when you hear that said out loud, it’s easy to see why there are so many alternate theologies concerning how God loves and accepts us. The academic term for this kind of study is soteriology. And believe me when I say that it’s ok if you have one of those alternate views. They’re all biblical. It just depends on how you view God.

But for the ancients of our faith, it only made sense that God would demand payment of some kind and so a sacrificial system was soon put into place. They would sacrifice anything from plants and grains to the ultimate sacrifice of blood, meaning an animal of some kind. Some, like my own ancestors, the Aztecs, went so far as to sacrifice humans. But no matter the area of the globe, blood sacrifice meant they’re life for our life. That was just the way they saw the world, it was the only thing that made sense, and so it stuck.

Blood became the key to the ultimate treasure for humans. In the movies, there’s always a key of some kind, in addition to the map, a key is always needed to get to the treasure. And those keys can come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes in the unlikeliest of forms. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the key turns out to be an ancient Egyptian staff. In the movie National Treasure, it turns out to be an old smoking pipe from colonial America. Here’s a short clip of that moment from the movie because, well, we can, so why not? Roll it, Shelby...

Who doesn’t love a good Nicolas Cage movie, right? Some of them are so bad they’re good! Anywho, just like the keys in a treasure hunt movie, our faith ancestors saw the sacrificial system as the key to God’s love and acceptance.

And then Jesus appears on the scene. And those who saw the divine in Jesus, who once saw animal sacrifice as the key, plugged Jesus right into that system. It just made sense to them, and so then they saw Jesus as the key to end all other keys, the ultimate key to the ultimate treasure in the ultimate treasure hunt adventure the world has ever partaken in. This is number four of five reasons that made Jesus so amazing to the author of this letter we now call Hebrews.

She—for those of you who weren’t here two weeks we talked about how this letter was likely written by a woman, namely Priscilla, if you missed it I refer you to that sermon—she saw Jesus as the answer that the world was looking for but just didn’t know they were. Because we thought the sacrificial system was just fine the way it was and then theologians like our author came along and said, “No, Jesus is the key. Period.” Nothing else, no one else.

And ever since, Jesus has been the key to unlocking God’s love and acceptance for people all over the world. And it gets even better than that! We, you and I, get to share that treasure with everyone, using that same key our author did, Jesus. How amazing is that! We get to be the clues that others find on their treasure map as they search for God’s love and acceptance. And keep in mind, some of them may not even know they are looking for that and that’s where we come in.

Now, for the past two thousand years, the church has done this with varying degrees of success, and that’s putting it lightly because sometimes it’s been with varying degrees of outright failure. There have been times when we have intentionally withheld clues from certain groups of people. There have been times when we have sent certain groups of people on wild goose chases, rather than leading them to the treasure that we have found.

And why have we done that? Oh, a little thing we like to call sin, in the form of our egos, our lust for power, for control, for wealth, for being number one, you know, all those human tendencies that we aren’t exactly proud of. We’ve gotten so good at it we don’t even realize when we are doing that anymore. And now churches all over the world are wondering, “Where did everybody go?” Well, thanks to the information age that we live in, much of the world wised up to that game the church has been playing and have walked away. Can’t say I blame them.

Which is why it is more important than ever, maybe since the early days of the church, to help people who are on the great treasure hunt, to point people in the right direction, towards Jesus who uncovers a loving and accepting God. Which is why I’m glad to be part of a church like Bethlehem and the ELCA, who loves to love people, with the same kind of love that comes from God, without condition, no strings attached. Granted, because of the past behaviors of the church over the last two thousand years, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us convincing people of that. But I like to think of it as yet another adventure, another treasure hunt of its own, guiding people to the greatest treasure of all time, the amazing savior we’ve come to know in Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Misanswered Prayers

Inspired by Luke 11:1-13

This is a sermon I preached at another church in a nearby town with whom we engaged in a pulpit swap.

The Lord’s Prayer has become a staple of the Christian faith since the earliest days of our existence. I highly doubt that Jesus meant for us to recite it word for word but that’s just how important and meaningful it has become for us. Those first Christians just couldn’t help themselves and so here we are two thousand years later reciting this beloved prayer. And for good reason, Jesus knew what he was talking about when it came to teaching about prayer.

As one of three members of the Holy Trinity, Jesus knew intimately what it meant to be in communication with God, better than anyone! And that’s what prayer is really, right, communication with God? We know that it’s not an endless supply of wishes. We know that God is not a Genie in a bottle. We know that God doesn’t have a giant bucket in the sky to hold all of our bucket lists.

Communication is what prayer is all about. It’s about having someone to talk to wherever you are, whenever you need someone, whatever the need or circumstance may be. God never tires of listening, God never tires of guiding…God never tires of correcting us either but that’s for another sermon. Point is, God is always available to us, period. But that’s not exactly what I want to talk about today. That’s just the foundation of what I want to talk about. I’m also not going to talk about the Lord’s Prayer line by line. I’m sure you’ve heard a gazillion sermons like that already anyway. What I want to talk about is how God responds to our prayers, to our communications, because that’s what seemed to be on Jesus mind.

Right after Jesus finishes teaching them the prayer that we recite every Sunday, he doesn’t end there. He goes on to talk about answered prayers and misanswered prayers. Notice I didn’t say unanswered prayers, but misanswered prayers. And I don’t think misanswered is even a word, I’m probably just making that up but just go with me on this. If you take a look at everything that Jesus taught about prayer in all of the Gospels, the idea of an unanswered prayer doesn’t seem to exist for Jesus, it’s just not a thing in Jesus’ mind.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you might be scratching your head after hearing that. I’ve been a Lutheran Christian my whole life, and have said a lot of prayers over my forty-four years of existence, and have asked God for a lot of specific things, and yet, have not received all that I have asked for.

So, how can I stand up here and with a straight face, tell all you fine people, that there’s no such thing as an unanswered prayer? To answer that, let’s return to our Gospel reading. As I said before, Jesus didn’t stop after teaching them the prayer that we now recite. It’s important to keep reading after that because he goes on to talk about a friend in need who doesn’t get his need filled in a timely manner. He then urges us to “ask…search and…knock”, assuring us that God will indeed respond. From there he does something very interesting and you kinda have to read between the lines to catch this. It’s one of those moments when it’s just as important to note what Jesus did not say as what he did say.

Jesus gives us this not-so-real-world example of a child asking for a fish or an egg, and a parent knowing not to give a snake or a scorpion to the kid. Seems like common sense right, when a child is in need the response should never be to put the kid in danger. But what I want you to take note of here is what Jesus did not say. Jesus did not say that the child was going to get that fish that she asked for. Jesus did not say that the child would get that egg that she asked for. All Jesus said was that parents know how to give good gifts and not harm their children and so how much more does God know how to do the same? So, raise your hand if you’re a parent. Keep your hands raised if you gave your kids everything they ever asked for. As expected, not a single hand raised. Wow, what a bunch of terrible parents we are, aren’t we?

Why don’t we give our children everything they ever ask for? Well, because we know better than they do, most of the time. And so, when they ask for their first bb gun at age six we say, “Mmmmm, maybe someday, but not today.” When they ask for dessert before dinner we say, “Maybe on your birthday but not today.” When they ask to go to their boyfriend’s house while his parents are not at home we say, “Maybe never, and not today!” Point is, if we know how to do these things, if we know how to not only give good gifts but give them wisely, how much more does God know how to. And Jesus makes the connection between this and prayer. Why? Because Jesus knows God doesn’t give us everything we want, when we want it, or how we want it.

And so, it was important for Jesus to remind them of this right after he just told them to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for their daily bread, for forgiveness of sins, for protection from trials. It seems like common sense to say of course God doesn’t give us everything we want, when we want it or how we want it. Our knee jerk reaction to that is to agree. But then we walk out those doors and reality hits us in the face like a ton of bricks when we pray for healing from cancer for someone only to find ourselves at their funeral months later, when we pray for our children to attend church as adults only to see them one by one drift away, when we pray for our church to grow only to find ourselves debating on where else we can cut the budget next year. Any of that sound familiar? I can tell you it does to Bethlehem.

Jesus knew, Jesus knows the world that our prayers walk out into. And so, wanted his followers to be prepared, and he did that by being real with us, by being truthful with us, by not sugar-coating his teaching. Jesus assures us that God will indeed answer our prayers but it may not be exactly what we wanted, when we wanted it, or how we wanted it. And that simple concept has been told in Bible story after Bible story since the beginning of our faith. The Israelites prayed for deliverance from Egypt only to find themselves wandering the desert for years on end. Job was one of the most prayerful people in the Bible, yet he still lost everything he held dear. Esther prayed for God to help her people only for God to ask her to do the same. Jesus prayed to be saved from the cross only to find himself hanging from it the next day.

The Bible is full of these kinds of stories and never do we say that God abandoned any of these people, although, as many of us know, it can certainly feel that way sometimes. But we believe that God never leaves our side, and not only hears our prayers but responds to each and every one of them. Maybe just not the way we thought God would, and that can be a bitter pill to swallow. Bethlehem has had to swallow many of those bitter pills. One example of that is our prayer for children and families. Every church wants more children and families right? And so, that’s what we prayed for. Did they come? You bet, but not the way we thought they would! We were expecting those children and families to come in the form of new members but God said, “I’ve got something else in mind.”

It started five years ago when Bethlehem began hosting Mt. Cross’s summer day camps. And each year for a week in the summer we have a thriving ministry for children and their families who cannot wait til next year when they get to do it all over again! Then, two years ago, Growing Peace Camp, which is a week-long camp for young people that inspires them to bring peace and justice into the world, lost their hosting site and were desperately looking for a new place to hold their annual camp.

They showed up at our door and we now have well over a hundred kids and their families on our campus for a week each year. But it doesn’t end there, this year, a tutoring and education center that caters to local homeschooled children lost their home. They showed up on Bethlehem’s doorstep and beginning this Fall we will have around 150 children and teens and their families on our campus every week.

We prayed for children and families. God delivered. Just not the way we wanted God to. Now, could we whine and complain about not getting our prayer answered the way we wanted it to? Sure. And sometimes we do, just like the Israelites whined and complained in the wilderness. That’s ok, God can take it! But at the end of the day, we have to acknowledge two things, God heard us, and God answered. To do anything else, would truly be sinful.

I know you here at New Hope have prayed many prayers for yourselves, for your church, for your community. Believe me when I say, I wish I could stand up here and say that God will answer each and every one of your prayers exactly the way you want them answered. I really do. What I can say with confidence is this. God is by your side, God hears you, and God will respond. And for that, I am so very grateful for. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Christmas in July

Inspired by Hebrews 2:10-18

We continue our five-week romp through the letter of Hebrews with this selection from chapter two. In case you weren’t here last week, we talked about how this letter is a love letter of sorts, because this author is in absolute awe of how amazing this Jesus is, and so, uses this letter to expound upon all the different ways that Jesus is the greatest thing the world has ever or will ever see. Over these five weeks, we will explore five of those different ways. Last week, our author began with the eternal cosmic nature of Christ. And this week, our author makes a 180 from that position but before we get into that I want to say a few more words about this letter and I may give you a few tidbits about it along the way over these five weeks because you may not be as familiar with this letter as other writings of the Bible.

Last week I mentioned that we don’t know who the author of this letter is. It was assumed that it was Paul but it didn’t take long for that to be questioned by the early church and now scholars are pretty sure that it was not Paul. They can just tell by the way it was written. Think of it this way. Imagine trying to write a letter to someone, posing as someone else whom the recipient knows well. When they get the letter, they’re gonna know that this is not from them. The phrasing, the vocabulary, the syntax, is all going to be wrong. They’ll just know that this is not from who it says that it’s from. Now, of course, it can be more complicated than that but that’s one of the main reasons they know that this was not Paul who wrote this. So, if it wasn’t Paul, who was it?

Well, over the centuries there have been many theories. Barnabas was one; Luke was another, both contemporaries of Paul. But the one that fascinates me most is a theory that claims that this may be the only writing of the Bible that was written by a woman! First proposed by a German theologian in 1900, Adolf von Harnack believed this to not only be written by a woman, but by a woman of great renown in the earliest days of the church, Priscilla.

Priscilla is mentioned multiple times in the Bible, by both Luke and Paul, and may have been the first female preacher of our religion. Scholars now believe that her identity was intentionally withheld, because if it was known that it was written by a woman, it would have died in obscurity. And this letter was just too good to allow that to happen. So, her authorship is what was allowed to die, and not the letter.

I am both saddened by that, and grateful, because this has become a favorite of Christians over the centuries, and for good reason. It is a fascinating letter that I am excited to get to explore with you. So, for the rest of our time in Hebrews, I’d suggest to you, that you keep in mind that everything that you are about to read in this letter, may be coming to you from a woman’s perspective.

And I thought that this information about authorship was particularly important to share with you on this Sunday because of the topic. And that topic is, Jesus’ humanity. That is the second reason that our author gives us as to why she thinks Jesus is so amazing. He was human, in every way, shape, and form. She began with Jesus’ divine, eternal, cosmic nature in chapter one, and then quickly turns our attention to Jesus’ human, ordinary, earthiness.

Why? Because she was a sound theologian. Since the beginning of our religion, we have been wrestling with Jesus divine and human nature, and have claimed both as truths of our faith, as contradictory and mysterious as that may be. But this may be important for another reason. If this letter was indeed written by a woman, who may have had children, who knows your humanity better than the person who birthed you?

And I’m not talking about motherhood in the larger sense, I’m just talking about the physical act of birth, of seeing you at the most vulnerable, weakest point of your life. And the only person that can claim that kind of relationship with you, is the one that birthed you. They’re the ones that knew you when you were at zero, nothing but a crying mass of flesh and blood. That is a relationship that no man can even speak to, let alone truly understand.

And so when I read this author write about Jesus’ humanity, knowing that this author may have intimately known the birthing experience and what that reveals about our humanity: our vulnerability, our weakness, our neediness, our suffering, our fearfulness—I can’t help but think of the nativity. I know, this is a weird time of the year to be talking about Jesus’ birth. Think of it as Christmas in July! Without the presents, or trees, or lights, all the things that we think make Christmas so amazing right? But we know better don’t we, like our author did, that those things aren’t it. What makes Christmas so amazing, is the humanity of Jesus, that this same Jesus that she wrote about in chapter one, came to us with all our humanity that we experience—all of it!

The miracle of Christmas is not that a divine being came to see what it was like to be one of us. It wasn’t a tale of some royalty posing as a commoner just to see what life was like for them. This wasn’t like Princess Jasmine disguising herself in the movie Aladdin. No, Jesus was truly, in every way, completely, fully, human: one of us. Mother Mary, held within her arms, the most extraordinarily ordinary human being that the world had ever, or will ever meet. And no one knew that better than the one who birthed him. Now, why does this make reason number two in Priscilla’s list of reasons why Jesus is so amazing?

Have you ever noticed how, when meeting someone new, as soon as you find that one thing in common, the conversation takes on a whole new dimension? I encountered that with someone not too long ago. I was talking with someone at a party and I was getting the feeling that we were not going to find anything in common. And just as I was about to give up on this conversation, he was vulnerable enough to share that he had recently had a family member attempt suicide.

My heart went out to him not just because I felt bad but because I’ve also had that same experience with a family member. And as soon as I shared that, bam, the conversation took on a whole new life. We connected, and recognized a bond that was there the whole time and just didn’t know it, until one of us was vulnerable enough to share it.

Remembering that conversation made me think of how the Me Too movement exploded a couple years ago. People from all over the world bonded over their shared experience of sexual harassment and assault. They recognized a bond over this that had always been there but it wasn’t until people started sharing it publicly that they knew of it, and that requires vulnerability. Likewise, when I encounter other people of color, we don’t have to say anything to know that we have a shared experience living as people of color in this country, we just know, the bond is there. The difference is, the color of our skin is visible, sexual harassment and assault is not.

Here’s the bottom line, whatever shared experience you may have with others—sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, mental health stigma, or life’s everyday aches and pains—you name it, Jesus’ humanity is God’s way of saying, “I know your pain, and I’m experiencing it right along with you.” Why? Because that’s how much God loves you. God is not content to just be by your side while you experience all that life has to throw at you, but through Christ, God is willing and able to experience it with you. That is the good news of Christmas that often gets lost in all the tinsel and lights. That is the good news of Christmas every day of the year, even in July. Thanks be to God. Amen.