Awesome

dream

Jacob’s Dream, Adam Elsheimer, 1600 

Genesis 28:10-17

In his dream Jacob is presented with a vision of a ladder. Its bottom rungs are set on the earth, and its top rungs reach right into heaven. Going up and down it freely are God’s messengers, the angels, who in the Bible often take human form, and who are as much at home here with us as they are in paradise with God.

Jacob is mesmerized by this commerce between heaven and earth, by the easy movement of messengers. He even speaks to God, and God speaks to him. In their conversation, they reaffirm the ancient covenants of love, obedience, territory and protection.

This is heady stuff. No wonder that when Jacob wakes up, the first thing he blurts out is the Hebrew equivalent of “Yikes!” He is astounded that “God was in this place,” and even more astounded that he didn’t know that God could be in such a place—astounded and perhaps a little afraid, since if God had indeed been there, in the place where he was sleeping, where else might God have been without his knowing it? Maybe Jacob is wondering now whether he’s been asleep all his life. Maybe now that it is dawning on him that God might be anyplace, and everyplace, he will never be able to sleep again.

“Yikes!” he says, and, overwhelmed with awe, he looks around for something tangible, something big and permanent to mark the place of this stupendous experience, the place where God was at home, which is roughly what the name “Bethel” means, and the name by which that spot eventually became known to later generations. Jacob sets up a stone, and that stone serves as a memorial and as a foundation for the pilgrimage shrine that subsequent generations will build there.

This ancient story about Jacob’s dream is often chosen as the text for dedications of new church buildings. You can see why. We refer, after all, to churches as “houses” of worship, a church is God’s house. As such, church buildings usually have a distinctive feel; the last thing church designers and builders want is to make them ugly and forbidding, such that congregations, upon beholding them, might say, “Surely, God is not in this place!” Rather, they hope people will come into these buildings, look around, and echo Jacob at Bethel, “Surely God was here, is here, could still be here!” Church buildings are like Jacob’s stone, set up for the awed remembrance of a vivid encounter, helping to return people to that experience time and again, and to create the conditions in which new encounters might take place.

As soon as the early Christians were permitted to build buildings for worship, they set out to make them awe-inspiring. They adorned them with marble, alabaster, and shimmering mosaics, all to show that the distance between heaven and earth is not so great; that up through high ceilings, more porous than they appear, angels easily come and go from the feet of God to our feet and back, transacting the business of divine mercy. In those early Roman basilicas, Christians attempted to capture their original experience of the majesty of Christ and the mercy of God, and to help others have it too.

Now, this sort of spiritual aesthetic can get out of hand. We humans tend to stop short of depth in almost everything we do, so that instead of falling in love with the God they point to and whose beauty they try to help us imagine and feel, we fall in love with the gorgeous things and the pleasing rituals with which we adorn our churches. We become preoccupied with the beauty of beauty, and forget its Source and End. And that’s partly why, centuries later, the Puritans decided that instead of aiming to find that necessary awe in church buildings, they would try a little harder to encourage it in church people. It was the people, after all, who were the Body, the congregation, the Spirit’s living temple – called, gathered, sanctified and sent.

For the Puritans, the angels of God came down and went up transacting the business of grace not so much on ladders, but via covenants of mutual affection and accountability, of unity and faithfulness to the gospel journey, covenants freely entered and assented to by free people. Their “ladder” ascended to heaven and descended to earth again not from a sacred piece of beautiful real estate, but from within the union of sincerely-converted hearts; from within consciences bound only to the Word of God and to each other in covenant; and from within a life in the world characterized by responsive, grateful and earnest duty.

So Puritans stripped their buildings and adorned their people – adorned their minds, souls and hearts with the Word of God, presenting to them an awesome vision of God’s otherness and sovereignty, the great and consoling beauty of God’s mysterious will, the “soul-ravishing” love of the Savior, and the transforming, sanctifying work of the Spirit.

This they tried to do through biblical preaching and teaching, the singing of psalms (mind you, no organ and a plain unvarnished melody line), devotional reading, persevering self-examination and frequent mutual counsel and admonition. They did not call the places of worship they constructed “churches,” they called them “meeting houses,” and they kept them plain.

Today, those of us in the Reformed tradition still call the spaces in which we gather ‘meeting houses,’ although many of our sanctuaries are far more ornate and colorful than our ancestors would have approved. We have traveled a long way from their aesthetic sensibilities, as well as from many of the tenets of their theology. Some of our 19th century buildings especially are so adorned that first-time visitors often ask whether they were originally Catholic churches. Those who built them were moved by aesthetic fashion more than theology—people at the time were fascinated with old things, especially medieval European remnants.

Given the ethos of rational moralism in which they lived, the builders of these fancy Protestant buildings may have been hoping, through their rich adornment and massive scale, to be moved, to recover some kind of awe, to elicit some kind of life-changing encounter with mystery, some kind of responsiveness and gratitude on which to draw for their religious lives.

And in the end, that’s the point, isn’t it? No matter whether our churchbuildings are aggressively plain or fine examples of the most ornate Gothic Revival, what matters is that there be people in them in whom God can induce Jacob’s visionary sleep, people who want to dream about strange ladders, transactions of mercy, easy commerce between God and creation, God and us; people who will awake with excitement to testify to the world, “Yikes!” God is in this place; and if in this one, then surely in that one too; and that one; and now I know it, and so can you!”

What matters most is that a church building, ornate or plain, doesn’t become just another stone monument we set up to remember someone else’s experience, while never experiencing anything fresh of our own. What matters is waking up awed ourselves, not enshrining someone else’s awakening. What matters is keeping the ladder up and operating, the access of heaven to us and the access of us to heaven in good working order now.

No matter their style, what matters is that our churches—and by this I mean our congregations—embrace a calling to be awestruck and awesome, that we shape churches in which each action, witness, decision, ministry, bold word and gesture of mutual caring begins in awe and ends in awe; begins in grateful adoration and surrender to God’s mystery and returns to that place where God is at home in beauty and delight.

Ninety-Nine Bottles on Beer on the Wall: A Reflection for the 4th of July

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Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Matthew 4:43-48

Every country has a story about its beginnings that gives you a sense of that nation’s ideals. You know some of these stories. There was a reference to one in our first reading. The Exodus story—the one in which God acted powerfully to free the Israelites from Egypt and fashioned them into a people in the wilderness. By telling and re-telling this story, Jews learn that to be a Jew is to be a people saved from oppression, and therefore a people that must be engaged in repairing a world broken by tyranny.

The Roman Empire had a founding myth too—a story about twins fathered by Mars, the war god, who left them to die in the woods. A she-wolf found them and took them in. But when they grew up, they became bitter rivals. Remus was murdered by Romulus, who’d become powerful through warfare. Eventually the great city he established ruled the known world. Romans who heard this story learned to pride themselves on military might. They learned that to be a Roman meant never to shrink from the destruction of your rivals.

America has a founding story too. Nancy Taylor is the pastor of Old South Church in Boston. That’s the church of the patriots that gave us the original Boston Tea Party. When she was installed in 2005, Nancy’s sermon began with a re-telling of America’s origins. Here’s what she said:

As you know, the Pilgrims … were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.

I didn’t learn that beer-run story in school. l learned another story, that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom. Here they built a shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope to the world that became a nation of unique and superior virtue with a sacred responsibility to extend our aspirations to other nations. The story I learned set our country apart from other countries. It conveyed the conviction that America was exceptional.

Now, there’s a lot of truth in this idea of an exceptional America. America’s ideals are a unique gift to the world. Even our enemies acknowledge that here, against the odds, we have shaped a civilization that is freer, more enterprising, and more socially and politically dynamic than any the world has ever known.

But our story also has sorrowful downsides—manifest destiny, jingoistic nationalism, economic selfishness, disastrous military adventures, periodic spasms of fear and hatred of the outsider, especially the immigrant.

Our foundational self-understanding is dicey in another way too. From the start most Americans have believed that our preeminent position in the world is divinely ordained. America is on an errand for God. Many Christians in America sincerely believe that an ardent patriotism is basic not just to citizenship, but also to Christian faith.

I did a survey of church websites around the 4th of July a couple of years ago. Turns out that many churches began their services with a parade of American flags. There were sermons in support of the wars and great reverence expressed for ‘the ultimate sacrifice.’ One congregation heard a sermon entitled, ‘God, the Greatest American.’ I imagine that many people left worship more persuaded than ever that to pledge allegiance to America is to pledge allegiance to Jesus, and to stand up for Jesus is to stand up for our country. The founding story of America has given rise to a vision of America not only as an exceptional nation, but also as a Christian nation. We gather around a cross draped in the Stars and Stripes.

Jesus, meanwhile, pledged allegiance only to God. At least that’s the way I read the gospels. He taught that loyalty to God did not mean standing apart from others. It meant standing in solidarity with them. It didn’t put you above other people, it put you alongside them, especially in their pain. And that’s why for Jesus allegiance to God demanded that he align himself daringly with the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, the stranger, and the weak.

The gospels show me a savior who was singularly unconcerned with singularity. He was concerned with commonality—with shaping a beloved community. He didn’t care much for privilege; he didn’t cling to his own. And he knew all too well the brutality of a great empire that regarded itself as the best and most virtuous the world had ever known. The banner of Rome demanded Jesus’ allegiance, but he refused to bend his knee to its pride and violence. It cost him his life.

Now, I love my country, and I love the Fourth of July. I intend to celebrate today with a reading of the Declaration of Independence and fifty hot dogs, one for each State! Well, maybe thirteen for the original colonies. I will contemplate and give thanks for the America that was and is; but I also plan to contemplate and pray for the country we might have been, and the country we still could be.

One thing I’m going to ponder is what our country might be like today if our foundational story had been the beer run story, not the exceptionalism story. What we’d be like as citizens if we’d all been taught from our childhoods that we became a people when we were running low on life’s necessities. That we are simply a nation of people with ordinary and urgent needs, like all other peoples of the world. A people with a mighty thirst, hoping to find the means to quench it.

If the beer run had been our founding story, instead of the one that says we are different from everyone else and better than all others, maybe we would have grown up more alert to our kinship with the majority of the peoples on this planet who, among other things, have no reliable water to drink.

Maybe if we’d seen ourselves all along as having arisen from an effort to satisfy the same basic needs everyone else has; if we’d understood our unity with all who thirst—for dignity, for justice, for well-being and happiness—maybe we would always have acted wisely and decisively to ensure that basic commodities and the freedom that comes from mutual respect are always abundantly available to all.

Maybe instead of our tendency to place ourselves apart and above, we would habitually have stood shoulder to shoulder with the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the enemy, as our scripture readings today emphatically command us to do.

I don’t know which patriotic songs you’ll be singing in honor of our freedoms today, but between the hot dog course and the watermelon, I plan to belt out every last annoying verse of ‘Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.’ And I plan to down a few.

Now, beer-drinking is not something I can or should encourage you to do, especially if you’re not of age, or can’t drink safely. But I do hope you will have a Fourth of July filled with love of country, and with ardent prayers for our leaders. And I hope you will also take a moment to pray for the profound conversion of all Americans—of you and me—to a resolute path of justice, solidarity, and peace in a world where everyone else loves their country too.

And in this spirit I will say, and mean it with all my heart—Long live the beer-run, and God bless America!

 

 

Easy to Please [Luke 24:28]

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–Duccio di Buoninsegna

Luke 24:28  As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther.

What a revealing line: Jesus was fishing for an invitation! Here he is risen from the dead, enjoying a brand new life, yet he’s still hanging around his slow-witted friends, unable to shake off his desire—his need?—to be near them. So he acts as if he intends another journey to some other destination. But he’s really hoping they’ll notice and say, “Wait, don’t go! Stay with us!” You can almost see his heart leap out of his chest when they do.

After he goes in with them and breaks the bread, they know him. They also recall that their hearts were burning as he explained scripture to them on the road. But long before their hearts burned, Jesus’ heart was on fire—on fire with friendship renewed. Glad beyond words to be back beside us on the road. Glad to be sitting down with us again as evening falls and the lights come on. So very glad to taste again the special flavor bread has when shared with those you love.

Jesus is always angling for an invitation. Ask him in, he’ll come. Even to the likes of us. He’s easy to please. It takes so little to make him glad. We, on the other hand are more wary of strangers, far less inclined to press one to stay, to sit with us, to dine. What joy might we be missing? What burning heart? And what delicious bread?

Prayer  So many travelers on the roads of the world, O God! When night falls, they press on alone. Teach us to say, “Stay with us! Stay and share the meal, the joy, the great good news, the blazing heart.”

Sealed with A Kiss [John 20:19-23]

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Most of Jesus’ friends abandoned him after his arrest. They found a place to hide, locked the doors, dragged over the couch, and piled up chairs. They were afraid the authorities would find them and arrest them too. But they got found anyway. By Jesus.

Somehow he got through the barricade and spoke to them.

What did he say?

“You cowards!”

No.

“I’m disappointed in you.”

No.

“It’s payback time.”

No.

He said, “Shalom.” “Peace be with you.”

As if nothing bad had happened three days before. As if they’d never hurt him.

He said, “Shalom.” “Peace.”

Now “Shalom” was an ordinary word. A way to say, “Good morning,” or “Good-bye.” It was an all-purpose greeting, as normal as “Hi, how are you?

Picture it, then—Jesus walks through doors to be with friends who never expected to see him again. After what they’d done to him, they probably hoped they never would.

Now he’s here. They’re thinking, ‘Oh, no.” But he’s saying, “Hi.” Shalom.

And with that one ordinary word, their hearts fill up with blessing as beautiful as the blessing God said over creation in the beginning.

With that one, everyday word, their dreary hiding place turns into the Garden of delights Adam and Eve enjoyed before they listened to the Snake.

When Jesus says that unexpected, ordinary little word, it’s like the first day of creation all over again. Morning breaks like the first morning, blackbird speaks like the first bird, and there’s dewfall on the first grass.

“Peace,” he says, and his beleaguered, frightened, wounded, confused, self-protecting, weak, vacillating, sinful, fair-weather friends are made new.

Shalom.

In other words, “It’s over. It’s past. We begin again.”

And then, the story says, he breathed on them.

Just like when God breathed into a lump of clay once upon a time, and the first human came alive, Jesus breathed on his lumpy, lifeless friends. He moved around the room and breathed on them.

It was like he planted a big breathy kiss on each of them.

Or like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which makes sense, since he was on a rescue mission. His disciples were as good as dead. Worry and shame had sucked the life right out of them. So he kissed them with God’s breath. The breath entered them, and they came to life.

Shalom.

And then he commissioned the “kissees” to become “kissers.” To go and breathe God’s healing breath on the whole wide world. He made them emissaries of breathing. People who’d do for others what he’d done for them—to show mercy where no mercy is expected; to pardon when no pardon is deserved; to go around the circle of the world planting God’s kiss on everything.

The early Christians also took that kiss and turned it into a ritual. They practiced it among themselves when they gathered on Sundays to worship. They did it every week so that no one would ever forget the new lease on life Jesus gives us; so that no one would ever forget his command to share his life with the world. They passed the peace.

Now in ancient times when a worship leader said, “Share with each other a sign of peace!”, people actually kissed. And some church members liked it so much they smooched their way around the circle several times. Some tried to practice exotic kissing techniques too. Church leaders had to make strict rules about the kiss of peace. But they never did away with it.

We’re still doing it. Every Sunday. Minus the exotic smooching. Handshakes and hugs are more our style.

Most of us like this time in worship. But some people don’t. They’re bothered by all the hubbub. Some worry about germs. Sometimes people who have suffered unwanted touches feel a little unsafe in all the hugging and handshaking, even thought they know they’re among friends. One woman in my former church didn’t like it because she sometimes fought with her husband on the way to church, and by the time they got to their pew they weren’t speaking. Then, ten minutes later they had to turn to each other and say, “Peace be with you,” and mean it.

It can be awkward. It can require some safeguards. It can be annoying. But we keep doing it. We can’t do without it. Because the more we do it, the greater the chance that what it stands for will come true. The greater the chance that Jesus’ refreshing life will become our own. The greater the chance that over time, a little word and a human touch will bring us back from all the places in our lives where we are dead or dying, restore us to the Garden, to the land of the living, to the ranks of the dearly loved. And the greater the chance we’ll also heed the call to be emissaries of pardon and peace in the world.

It’s not important how we do it—shake hands, hug, nod, good eye contact. What matters is to stand in the midst of a broken world and in the midst of an imperfect church, say “Shalom,” and mean it. What matters is that we assure each other, “It’s okay, it’s over, we can begin again. Jesus is with us.”

It’s important, this moment when we turn to each other and really intend the healing peace of Christ for people we know well and love a lot, for people we know too well and dislike a lot, for strangers we don’t know at all, and for the one who always picks a fight on the way to church.

The promise in this practice is that Sunday by Sunday, Christ’s peace will resurrect us from the little deaths of anger, anxiety, resentment, shame, fear, and narrowness we die each day. Sunday by Sunday, giving and receiving peace will become a habit, so that wherever we go, whomever we meet, our first and last word to all will be, “Shalom.”

Jesus once burst into a hiding place and said to his ashamed disciples, “Shalom.” In this room today, some of us are ashamed of something, or restless about the past, or anxious about the future, or fearful that God is mad at us, or doubtful about God’s care for us. Some of us are just tired. We have broken hearts. We worry about family and friends. Life is hard. We need all the life we can get.

Lucky for us, it’s here. In hugs, handshakes, and a holy word. Peace.

Christ is among us. No barriers we build can keep him away. No fear or shame of ours can overcome his eagerness for us, the apple of his eye, the loves of his life.

Every week he comes into our midst and gives us the ancient gift again. Shalom. Peace.

A new day. A new chance. A new beginning. A fresh and durable hope.

Shalom. Peace.

Receive it with joy. And pass it on.

 

Preaching the Thomas Text (John 20:19-31)

In the traditional reading of thiDoubting_Thomas_sms post-resurrection appearance, Jesus rebukes Thomas for doubting and commends believers who come to faith without requiring the “proof” of nail marks. This reading still stands up, I think, even if many preachers these days like to present Thomas as a model for people who struggle to believe, reassuring their listeners that doubt is a normal, even necessary, part of a life of faith that is honest and maturing. Hardly any of the post-resurrection stories in the New Testament ignores the vexed nature of Easter faith (see for example, Lk 24:41; Mt 28:17). It is only fair and helpful, then, to point out that if we have trouble believing, we are not the first, and we are not alone.

What a “doubt is a good thing” reading of this story may miss, however, is its ecclesial dimension. When one looks at the story through that lens, Thomas may not be guilty so much of incredulity as he is of singularity. Asking for evidence (the same evidence Jesus had already granted to the others in v. 20) is not his biggest problem; refusing to trust the witness of sisters and brothers is. He doubts the resurrection of Jesus, but more significantly he doubts that the church has faith and wisdom to give him to supply his lack. Thomas wants a private experience, a revelation of his own, prefiguring not so much our modern intellectual rejection of particular articles of the creed as our unwillingness to grant the tradition any wisdom that does not first pass the test of private reason, personal experience, and emotional comfort. Thomas was “not with them” (v. 24) in more than a geographical sense.

Jesus does not commend unseeing believers (v. 29) because they accept the “fact,” much less the doctrine of his resurrection, but because they trust the church’s testimony. They open-heartedly receive the tradition of his rising. They are “together” in this handed-on faith that is not the private accomplishment of any one of them. The communal way in which we come to faith is an important preoccupation of this story, and of many others that were recorded, John says, so that we might come to believe (v. 31); but believing as such is not the final goal. The reason the evangelist is eager for us to believe in the first place is “so that [we] might have life” (v. 31), life with Jesus—a life found most richly and mysteriously through insertion in the fellowship of disciples. It is not for nothing that the other readings this Sunday focus on the fellowship (Acts 4:32-35; Ps 133; 1 Jn 1:1-2:1) and aim, in part at least, to impress upon us “how good and pleasant” (Ps 133) a company it is.

In contrast to the idea that a person comes to faith through an individually-achieved struggle for private conviction in this small moment now, the preacher might present coming to Christian faith as a shared project of trust and mutual traditioning in an ample fellowship of believers of all times and places who, by the grace and power of the Spirit, edify one another in strength, and supply one another in lack.

We might speak of the church in this season of Easter as a company of disciples learning to pool the gift of faith, eagerly inquiring into and trusting each other’s experience of God, and ever building thereby a great storehouse of small faith and great, new and seasoned, questioning and serene, from which we borrow and to which we lend, generation to generation, until he comes again.

Another tack for preaching the text is to remove the spotlight we always shine on Thomas and put it back on Jesus, the first born from the dead. His bodily appearance is full of mystery, to be sure, and one could get sidetracked attempting to explain the physics of his penetration of that locked door or the funky nature of resurrection bodies. Better to ponder instead the tender condescension of the Living One. He knows his disciples are afraid for their lives—he grants them encompassing shalom. He knows they need his continued presence and power—he breathes Spirit into their flagging hearts. He knows they have lost their sense of purpose—he commissions them to a ministry of witness and reconciliation. He knows they can hardly believe he is their Jesus, the same one who was nailed to the cross—he shows them his wounds. He knows Thomas is missing—he comes back the following week to make sure the Twin is not left out. He knows the last thing they need to hear is that they failed him miserably and he is disappointed—he utters not a single word of recrimination.

It is not surprising that in the presence of such immense tenderness, our text says (in what has to be one of the biggest understatements of the Bible) that the disciples “rejoiced.” The preacher could frame Easter in these terms, as the in-breaking of a new age to come in which there will be only compassion, peace, and restorative love like this, for all.

The preacher might also wish to inquire into the ethical edges of the text. A starting point might be Jesus’ refusal to blame and exact his due, thus breaking the relentlessly violent cycle of revenge by which the ordinary world turns. One might also explore further the text’s stunning image of a Risen One who in the life of glory does not leave his wounds behind—the signs of his passion for us persist in his new flesh, such that when we see similar scars in the flesh of the neighbor, or on the body of the world, we will recognize him; and as we place our hands in mending on the wounded ones he loves, we too will exclaim on awed and bended knee, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).

Watching at Graves

 

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Mark 15:46-47

After Joseph bought some fine linen, he took Jesus down and wrapped him in the cloth. Then he placed him in a tomb cut out of rock, and rolled a stone against the door. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were watching. They saw where he was laid.

Reflection

Jesus’ death has weighty theological meaning, but when all is said and done, it is also, simply, the death of someone we loved. That’s why Joseph, who gives Jesus’ body a decent burial, is remembered so affectionately in Christian tradition.

We care about the way our beloved dead are treated. We attend devotedly to the practicalities of their deaths, performing for them the last loving services affection requires. Because Joseph does these things for Jesus, all four gospels make sure we know his name.

But Joseph isn’t alone. Two women who loved Jesus watch where he is laid. They take note. They remember the place. They will come back with spices in the morning.

Jesus’ death was cruel, but at least it was noticed and mourned. Countless other deaths, the expendable refuse of indifferent empires, go unnoticed and unmourned. Deprived of the loving obsequies of friends, no one knows where their bodies are. No one can come back to them with spices in the morning.

On this holy Saturday, Jesus sleeps like a seed in the earth. We know where they placed him, and we’re keeping vigil there. It’s a good day to ask who is keeping vigil with the rest.’

Who is taking note of bodies not interred with tender care, but flung aside by hatred, power, and pride? Who is tracking down the precious places where they sleep? Who is brave enough to go there, resolute enough to stay, witnessing, until the dear Life that tomorrow raises Jesus from the grave summons them up also from the dead?

Prayer

Remember the dead, known and loved, O God; and the dead injustice casts aside and willfully forgets. Make us watchers with you over every body, finders with you of every grave, life-givers with you to all who lie unnoticed behind such heavy stones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No “Christian Seders,” Please!

155NOTE: In March 2013, I posted a series of Facebook Notes about so-called “Christian Seders” and the special obligation Christians have in Lent and Holy Week especially to be vigilant about the way our observances may have an impact on Jews, Christian understandings of Judaism, and related matters. I have been asked by several colleagues to re-post these reflections this year. I am happy to do so. I need to make it clear, however, that I am not an expert on these matters. What I say below is my take on controverted questions, born mostly of my own reading and of my interfaith relationships. Please take them as such.

No “Christian Seders,” Please!

With Holy Week on the horizon,  many Christian congregations have started announcing Seder dinners to observe Maundy Thursday. People of good will recognize this as a devout and well-intentioned attempt to honor the Jewishness of Jesus, and the Jewish roots of the Christian communion meal which was, Christians say, “instituted” by Jesus on the night he was handed over–a night that fell, according to the gospel accounts, during the annual Passover observance. It is understandable, therefore, that Christians would desire to commemorate this institution with a nod to its original context.

There are many difficulties with the practice of a Seder meal by Christians, however (the biggest being that a Seder is simply not for Christians, but we’ll get to that later). The other biggie is that we really do not know for sure what the “original context” of Jesus’ ‘last supper’ was.  We think we do: since Sunday School we’ve been taught it was a Passover meal, or Seder; but scholars continue to debate the precise character of the meal Jesus shared with his disciples that night. One thing we know for sure, however, is that, although it may have been a Passover meal of some sort, it was not a Seder in the modern sense. We know this because the introduction into Jewish ritual life of the Seder we know today came after the time of Jesus.

Modern day Jewish celebrations of the Passover are a melding of traditions that arose shortly after the destruction of the Temple (70 CE), through Late Antiquity and into Middle Ages. It is a developing tradition, too, with additions being made to the haggadah even to this day. Ironically, some scholars believe that the modern Seder developed in part at least as a reaction and resistance to the growing influence of the Christian church and its sacred meal. If that is true, Christians celebrating a Seder (as Jews celebrate Seders today) are celebrating, at least in part, a meal that was meant to criticize them and establish the distinctiveness of Jewish rites over against Christian ones. This anti-Christian critique is no longer prominent in contemporary Seders, but this curious history of the Seder still makes for a polemical mish-mash that, if known by the organizers of “Christian Seders,” might take away some of the romance of the night!

So… to hold a Seder as a way to commemorate the “background” meal Jesus shared with his disciples and which he “turned into” a Communion meal (as I have heard some Christians say) is anachronistic—it is a tradition Jesus did not know. More precisely and significantly, however (as I said above), it is a tradition that developed into its present forms after Jews and Christians had taken separate religious paths—a tradition, therefore, that Jews and those who became Christian never shared in the first place. It belongs to Jews only and distinguishes them as Jews in ways that make any Christian usage of it seem presumptuous, especially given the fraught and violent history of Christian usurpation and replacement of all things Jewish that we call “supersessionism.”  Given this history and this ongoing supplanting of the Jewish covenant, I wonder if we would do better to spend our time reflecting on what often befell Jews in Holy Week in many places in medieval Western and Eastern Europe—the pogrom—than to spend time appropriating one of their characteristic rituals and making it our own.

Holding a Seder in a Christian church as a Christian event during Christian Holy Week is dicey, then. Dicier still is  celebrating a Eucharist in the course of the Seder or finishing the Seder with Communion. This  sends an unintentional but real message that the important thing about this Seder is what (we suppose erroneously) Jesus did to transform it and make it into something else. In other words, what we imply is that the Seder’s real value is to point towards or usher in communion– that communion is really what it’s all about, when all else is said and done. This is to write Jews out of their own story. We have already succeeded in writing them out by the way we often use Old Testament texts in preaching and teaching—let’s not turn their meal into our meal for our devotional agendas, just because it feels more authentic or rootsy for us to do so.

Ritual is, after all, lodged in/ and best arises from a community’s corporate experience; and in this case, it is the experience of suffering and liberation, slavery and salvation that Christian share with Jews in a kind of mythical and mystical sense, but not in fact: we are not Jews (the vast majority of us, anyway) and we cannot and do not celebrate a Seder out of anything remotely resembling the lived experience of Jews, or with the theological and spiritual worldview such experience generates. We can appreciate it, revere it, admire it, learn about it, even participate in it (for example, when invited into a Jewish home during Passover), but it is and never will be ours, and we ought not treat it as if it were. Just because we are a “successor tradition” doesn’t mean that everything that “they” have is or should also be ours.

There is a danger that in a well-intentioned attempt to honor the church’s Jewish origins, and (we think) do what Jesus did that night, we may end up caricaturing the Jewish ritual we claim to honor. It can be a kind of pious play-acting that is a very far cry from the profound communal anamnesis that is proper to “this night unlike any other night.” Only Jews can experience Passover in such a way that those who ate in haste and fled the Egyptians through the Sea have no spiritual  advantage over those who sit at the Seder table today.

Beyond all this is the basic question of why some of us feel we need to hold a Seder in Holy Week in our Christian congregations in the first place. The treasure chest of Christian liturgical ritual that pertains to the Paschal season is so enormously rich that one wonders why we would turn to someone else’s. Perhaps it is because so few of our churches celebrate this range and depth of options that we cast around looking for something meaningful and rich like we imagine a Seder to be.

What could Christian do instead during Holy Week if we take seriously the objection that a “Christian Seder” is anachronistic, a contradiction in terms, and a potential offense to Jews today for whom the Passover rituals are a living tradition, and not a sort of curious antiquarianism?

If we really want to understand the mysteries of Jesus’ last days, we might consider participating in the classic liturgies of the Great Three Days of Maundy/Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. It is there, in the experience of the powerful liturgical traditions of those three days, that we encounter the meaning, depth, and power of our salvation. In the ritual of the Passover, the Jewish people recount their story of redemption. In the liturgies of the Great Three Days – and especially the Easter Vigil – the Christian community recounts and relives our story of redemption.

In the end, congregations that hold “Christian Seders” may simply desire to learn about Judaism, better understand their Jewish neighbors, and grapple with the Jewish roots of Christianity—all of which is commendable, even urgent. They should go ahead and do so, not with a Christian Seder, but with a visit to their local synagogue for a talk with the Rabbi about how they can facilitate that understanding with respect. Perhaps the Rabbi would come and talk to a group in that congregation about what a Seder entails and what it means to Jews. Or perhaps a Jewish friend might have an extra place at their Seder table for some folks from the Christian congregation this year.

And if Maundy/Holy Thursday still cries out for a meal, hold a potluck, an agape meal, a love feast, an elaborated communion service—choose from the Christian repertoire of feasts to celebrate with— but let the Jews have their feast. No Christian Seders, please!

 

More on “Christian Seders”

At the risk of overdoing it (I am not in fact persuaded that we can ever overdo this), I want to add to my previous Note about “Christan Seders” the following precision:

On Maundy/Holy Thursday, many “mainline” Christian congregations hold “Christian Seders” in conjunction with Tenebrae, Holy Communion, and other liturgical commemorations of the night Jesus was handed over.  They give various reasons for doing so, but in general they use the Seder as a way to recall and explore the Jewish roots of our faith, to honor the Jewishness of Jesus, to lend historical context to the institution of the Christian Eucharist, and to learn about Jewish ritual practices (i. e.., “teaching Seders”) in an open, interfaith spirit.

In some cases, these Seders are led by Jews—a local rabbi, or Jewish friends of the congregation—but the majority are not. They are a wholly “in-house” affair, for Christians by Christians. My objections are directed primarily at these in-house kinds of  “Christian Seder” celebrations.

Congregations that borrow or adapt the modern Jewish Seder for their own devotional purposes on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week need to understand that what they are doing is not a neutral act. Apart from other significant theological and historical objections that should be made to a “Christian Seder,”  [see my previous "Note”] the long, violent and painful story of Christian appropriation of Judaism itself—replacement theology or ‘supersessionism’—should be enough to make us think twice about doing it.

It is no accident that many a medieval pogrom erupted during Holy Week. It was a time rife with anti-Jewish preaching that placed the blame for Jesus’ death on Jews—not just on the ancient Jews, but on all Jews— and, in some cases, directly called for unsparing violence against them. Whenever Christians celebrate a “Christian Seder” that includes or culminates in Holy Communion, it is also chillingly instructive to recall that one of the great medieval slanders against the Jews is that they routinely committed sacrilege against the communion wafer in all kinds of horrific and bloodthirsty ways. This is the history we ineluctably carry with us whenever we do something like celebrate a “Christian Seder.”

My objection to the “Christian Seder” is not so much about the potential it has for offending Jews. It has that potential, and it does offend many Jews, and avoiding this offense is a good thing to want to do, and  I do want us to avoid giving it! But a bigger issue for me is the insidious impact it can have on us Christians.

Let’s face it, despite years of interfaith  efforts, many Christians continue to assume reflexively that Christianity has supplanted Judaism in God’s plan and affections. We might not say it that way, but it shows in the way we use certain biblical texts, talk about a God of Love (Christian) and a God of Wrath (the “Old Testament God”), and juxtapose Law and Grace—in these cases and others, the clear implication is that Christianity has not only succeeded Judaism, it has superseded it.

In their everyday dealings with Jews (if they have such connections), most mainline Christians probably don’t regard the religion of their neighbors, friends and coworkers as inferior to their own; but in church, in the course of hearing scripture and sermons on scripture, during certain liturgical seasons, and in devotional conversations, an old reflex asserts itself. Our inner Marcionite emerges, and as long as no one corrects us, we continue to operate in the universe of stereotype and slander that for centuries made it possible for Christians to see it as a religious duty to defame and slaughter Jews. And the fact that we do so often unwitting makes it all the worse.

This is my point: not only because we have a long history of appropriating Judaism for Christian  ends, making of it a mere preparation for the true faith and regarding its characteristic practices as mere foreshadowing and symbols of the real things, we are still doing it today. The practice of a “Christian Seder” is a prime example of just how unexamined this fraught relationship remains, and thus how easily its consequences could be visited on our neighbors again, even in our enlightened, interfaith, tolerant and inclusive age.

That it could never happen here, that it could never happen again, that we would never do that—these are the lazy assumptions that allow us to meander through Holy Week up to our necks in the dangerous waters of supersessionism, plating out again and again the old patterns of reflex disdain.

Contempt takes many forms: I think the celebration of a Seder by Christians for Christians for our own Christian agenda is one of them. It may seem devout and altogether benign, even constructive, on the surface; but it is just one more in a long sad line of things we have tried to steal from Jesus’ people in his name, as we have systematically written Jews out of their own story because, we say (not without truth), it is also in a deep sense our story too. And if it is also our story (and here we go wrong)we can do with it whatever we please.

Although holding a Seder (for Christians by Christians for a Christian agenda) may seem like a devout and constructive thing to do, and no doubt for many Christians it lends meaning to the Holy Week journey, it is an unavoidably fraught activity. Our anti-Jewish history has “earned” us a particular responsibility to make sure that our embrace of the Jewish heritage is serious, respectful, self-conscious and well-considered. We may not borrow, play-act, adapt, or otherwise appropriate anything Jewish like a Seder without carrying with us into that activity this whole history.

Remembering and telling the Jewish story is one of the Seder’s most characteristic features. Maybe instead of holding a Seder we should make time in Holy Week remembering and telling our own story, lamenting and repenting the sad history that haunts us still, and looking to Christ for the grace to change it, once and for all.

 

Postscript on “Christian Seders,” supersessionism, and reading Scripture

Some of you asked me to make more widely available this comment I left in a thread about the “Christian Seder” business. It concerns supersessionism and the Bible. Here it is:

I do not mean to say that we Christians cannot read texts from the Bible (”Old Testament”) and find in them Christological meaning. I think it is perfectly appropriate for us who hold (and have tenaciously held since the days of Marcion) to both testaments as one Bible to read ‘backwards and forwards’ in this way.

Within the household of the Christian church, I believe we can own and interpret Hebrew Scripture faithfully, without  contempt, even when the meaning we find in the texts is not its “original” meaning for the people who gave the world the Bible.

I don’t think it is necessarily a usurpation of a supersessionist variety for us to cherish, for example, the suffering servant text as having something to do with the way we think about Jesus, or the text about the young woman conceiving as having something to do with the way we think about Mary, as long as at the same time we also know that it doesn’t have to do with Jesus or Mary, and that it has a meaning of its own not only for the Jews “back then,” but also for the ongoing community for whom the Book is a living testament.

What we cannot do is say ‘This (Mariological or Christolical reading) is THE meaning of the text.” We must say instead, “This is the way we (Christians) read it in the light of our religious experience and tradition.” There’s a difference, I think, between reading the ‘Old Testament’ in a Christian way and circumscribing its universe of meaning to the Christian reading.

In short, no Christian in the pew should ever come away from a sermon on the suffering servant text thinking it is a Christian passage, even if they’ve been helped to see that, while it does not refer to Christ, it can and does help us think about, know and love him.

To avoid “writing Jews out of their own story” when we engage in a “Christian” reading of the Old Testament, then, we need to operate on two levels at once: on the level of the text as an expression of a particular people’s religious experience, which is not ours; and on the level of the text as the Church hears it in the context of its its particular experience of Christ.

This double-vision may oblige us, for example, to refrain from a too-easy juxtaposition in liturgy of certain texts, OT and NT, that suggests that the NT text explains or fulfills the OT text in a way that exhausts all other possibilities of interpretation (this happens way too frequently in some lectionary pairings).

It may oblige us to speak of certain figures and events in the Hebrew Scriptures less as archetypes, allegories, or foreshadowing of Christ and his ministry, and more as evidence of the consistent pattern of God’s activity throughout ”salvation history,” with which our Christian experience of God in Christ is wholly consistent .

 

It may simply mean that we take the time to put a short note in the bulletin giving the original context of  the text, or explaining the way the texts are used in, say, The Messiah or other Christian sacred music.

 

Before all else, however, it means that we have to spend more time as pastors,  educators, leaders in and of Christian congregations helping people to love the Bible, read the Bible, and to read it with prismed glasses, since for Christians, no one lens suffices.

 

Of course, this is a super-challenging activity for many contemporary Christians who barely know the Bible at all any more, let alone its hermeneutical complexities, but we can’t expect anyone to read “without contempt” if we don’t teach with urgency.