Reflection and Hymn: Vine and Branches

“I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me, and I in you, you will be fruitful.“—John 15:5

Jesus calls himself the vine and his disciples branches that bear fruit. The Church has always heard a reference to Communion in this saying, especially to the cup we bless. 

From ancient times, the cup has stood for the lifeblood of Jesus circulating through the church’s vine and branches like nourishing sap, uniting Teacher and disciples in one common life, generative and strong, a holy communion. 

But the metaphor of vine and branches is not just about communion with Jesus and each other. It’s also about communion with nature. To belong to the One who took our flesh, and to belong to all our human neighbors, is also to belong to the earth. Earth and heaven are not opposites, and the more entwined we are in each other, the healthier and more fruitful we become.

It’s not for nothing that every Christian ritual of inclusion, acceptance, pardon, peace, and nourishment requires us to touch the things of earth and to let them touch us. In Baptism, it’s water and, in some parts of the Church, salt, oil, and beeswax. For healing, anointing oil. In Communion, it’s wheat and grape. For worship, flame and flower. Through these earthy things the grace of loving Pesence materializes. By these earthy things we learn how precious and loved we are, in body as well as soul. 

We are not the only stewards of God’s creation. The earth cares for us as much as we care for the earth. It’s an irreplaceable gift to our whole selves, mediating divine healing and peace to every part. Without these gifts, we would never know the sight, taste, smell, sound, and touch of the invisble God. 

We owe earth care not just because it’s in our self-interest, although it surely is, and so we must; but also because she is the beloved medium of God’s self-showing, the indispensable partner of God’s adoring attention to us, the one who reveals the Holy One to our senses, in beauty, in nourishment, in joy.

When We Eat Bread, We Eat the Soil and Sun

10.10.10.10

Words: Mary Luti

Tune: SHELDONIAN

Alternate tunes: CLIFF TOWN, CHILSWELL


When we eat bread, we eat the soil and sun,

the quiet winter rest, the surge of spring;   

we eat the summer’s heat, the cloud and rain,

and every breeze that makes the meadows sing.


When we drink wine, we drink the soil and sun,

the tendril’s climbing curl, the pruning’s grief;

we drink the blue, the dusky purple, and the pale,

the swelling cluster and the shady leaf.


When we receive Communion’s wine and bread,

the Earth enfolds us as her very own;

we eat and drink the Life that gives us life; 

by every sense is Love Eternal known.


When we eat sun and soil and drink the vine,

and praise you, God, for Earth and all its care,

may awe and reverence ripen in these hands

we lend to her protection and repair.

_______

For SHELDONIAN, see https://hymnary.org/tune/sheldonian_taylor

Reflection and Hymn: Medicine of Heaven

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I tell you, the bread of God is that which comes from heaven and gives life to the world… Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.’”—John 6:32-34, 51 (NRSV)

Jesus Mafa, The Lord’s Supper

Early Christians thought Jesus was talking about Holy Communion here. Of course, at this point Jesus didn’t know what Communion is—he hadn’t given us that gift yet. But our forebears heard that meaning in Jesus’ words anyway.

They’d come to experience Christ’s Body as truly life-giving and even spoke of Communion as medicine for what ails us. They believed that partaking of the Bread shored up and mended our frail human condition. To approach Communion was to be diagnosed, admitted, treated, and released to a new regimen of health, body, mind, and soul.

Regularly partaking also vaccinated you against the estrangement that destroys human solidarity. Being in communion with the Healer and all our convalescing siblings in the church staved off deadly infections like a divided heart, moral indifference, and an evasive life.

Communion was also a foretaste of the permanent health of the life to come. Exactly what such a fully wholesome life would be like, no one knew, but it had to be at least something like Communion— the beloved as one in the Beloved, feasting.

But the most important thing was how you knew the medicine was taking. The proof lay in service. The church’s body was healing when it found itself caring about and tending the bodies of others. It could claim health only when it was putting its own body on the line.

Which is why examining the life we lead in our bodies has traditionally preceded Communion. It’s a wellness check, and if it shows we’ve been indifferent or hostile to our neighbors’ bodies, we know we need to come to the table again. And again, to eat the Bread that heals us go and do otherwise.

BREAD OF LIFE FROM HEAVEN’S HAND

Words: Mary Luti

Tune: DISTLER (TRUMPETS)

Bread of Life from heaven’s hand,

nurse our pain and sorrow.

Pardon for our aching past,

healing for tomorrow.

Bread of Life from heaven’s hand,

brace our weak condition.

Keep us from all sin and harm,

guardian, physician.

 

 

Bread of Life from heaven’s hand,

fill our friendless longing.

Seat us at your table home, 

feed us with belonging.

Bread of Life from heaven’s hand,

end of all our fasting,

life as it was meant to be:

wholeness everlasting.

 

 

Bread of Life from heaven’s hand,

in the body find us.

Towel and basin at our feet,

neighbor love, remind us.

Bread of Life from heaven’s hand,

bond of flesh revealing

countless wounds to kiss and mend

with you, Jesus, kneeling.

_____

For DISTLER, see https://hymnary.org/search?qu=distler

“Weary of All Trumpeting”

Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal, No.428

The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 442

Reflection and Hymn: The Most Delicious Bread

“It is written, ‘God gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Then Jesus said, ‘I am the bread…’”—John 6:31-35

During a class on the sacraments, a student, Carol, told this story: After a snowstorm, only a few folks who lived within trudging distance made it to church, including Carol and her daughter, Melanie, who was four. The service was simple, a hymn, scripture, Communion. 

Melanie had never received Communion, but she was there, and no one was stopping her, so she held out her hand. With everybody else in the reverent circle, she ate. Then she broke the hush: 

“Mommy!” she cried, “This is the most deliciousbread!”

Adults overthink everything. Especially Communion. We divide into theological camps over it. We exclude people deemed morally, denominationally, doctrinally unfit. We bar little children until they’re capable of abstraction. We understand everything about bread except that you’re meant to eat it. 

But Melanie tasted what we forget—before all else, communion is food, delectable Presence, Jesus’ sweet surrendered self. It is the most delicious Bread. 

You don’t need to be grown-up or confirmed to know that something tastes good; to savor a grace of exceptional flavor; to sense that this is a mercy and no ordinary thing; to be surprised at it, grateful; to cry out, delighted. You need only be there, extending your hand. You need only eat.

And so, by the way, if communion isn’t delicious in your church, if it’s gummy Wonder white or sawdust gluten-free, why not replace it with something less disagreeable? It’s hard to believe you’re at heaven’s feast when the meal tastes like cardboard and glue. When choosing an edible sign that Christ is truly with us, always go for flavor. Do not disappoint Melanie. 

And don’t disappoint the world that needs us, who eat the bread, to be more than a thin starchy presence for the hunger of bodies and souls. That needs us, who drink the cup, to spill out onto its thirst a love more generous than a thimble cup. That needs us, who have known the meal’s delight, to be delicious.

 

THE MOST DELICIOUS BREAD

Words: Mary Luti                  

Tune: FOREST GREEN

 

O Christ, you knead your love for us

in most delicious bread,

with milk and honey, yeast and salt,

the tastes of heaven wed;

and even little ones enjoy

the flavor of your wheat

and join the circle of your guests

at mercy’s welcome seat.

 

 

Communion’s mystery is deep,

there’s much to learn and teach,

but knowledge cannot satisfy

and theories cannot reach

the cravings of a hungry heart

for most delicious bread,

the warm and fragrant gift of you

at heaven’s lavish spread.

 

 

Make us, like you, a honeyed loaf

to answer hunger’s cry.

The hope of people everywhere

knead us to satisfy.

No ordinary gift we’ll give,

as justly all are fed,

but pure delight, uncommon love:

the most delicious bread.

 

Alternate tunes: SALVATION, FIDUCIA (Robinson), KINGSFOLD

Ninety-Nine Bottle of Beer on the Wall

A Reflection on the Fourth of July 

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. It’s probably apocryphal, but most origin stories, are, so…  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 idealsarea 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—slavery and racism, 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 4thof July a few years ago. Turns out that many churches begin their services with a parade of American flags. There are 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 nation the world had ever known. The banner of Rome demanded Jesus’ allegiance, but he refused to bend his knee to its pride and violence. That may have 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 have been like today if our foundational story had been the beer run story, not the exceptionalism story. What we would 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 had 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 21 or can’t drink safely. But I do hope you will have a Fourth of July filled with a clear-eyed and chastened love of country, and with ardent prayers for our leaders, as the Bible commands. 

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 freely say—and mean it with all my heart—‘God bless America.’ 

Sign Value: It’s A Thing

During the pandemic, some congregations began using all-in-one containers of bread and juice that look for all the world like holy Keurig cups, or those little crinkly plastic coffee creamers you get in motels. You peel back a lid of plastic film to find a perfectly round, perfectly white, stiff and starchy stamped out wafer, and underneath, a precisely measured prim little thimbleful of juice. Exactly the same for everyone, compact, sanitary, not cheap, but very convenient. 

I devoutly believe that the contents of that little contraption, duly blessed and consumed, were true Communion for all who partook of them. Which simply confirms my suspicion that Jesus has a quirky sense of humor and an infinite store of humility to be pleased to come to us by such fleshless, bloodless signs. That’s what you’ve got? Yuck, but good to go. Not even plastic can keep me away.

Still, judging by all the meals Jesus enjoyed that earned him a reputation as a glutton and a drunk, I think he might be just as glad to get back to being present with us in real chewy, slurpy, unprepackaged food, so that, having consumed his ample life, we might be present to the world in real chewy, slurpy, bodily, ample unprepackaged (and even unsanitary) ways, a kind of holy excess of real presence to all who hunger for the taste and mouth feel of companionship and compassion, not pale, plastic, finicky facsimiles thereof.

And judging from the miracles of multiplication Jesus performed, I wonder if he might not be just as happy to get back to being present with us in food distributed not according to strict, uniform, and teensy parity, but according to the measure of real hunger and need and the human right to a share of enjoyment of all earth’s goods, with doggie bags when we’re done, so that, having consumed his life, we might be present through food banks and soup kitchens and doorstep casseroles and loud table whacking advocacy in the halls of power for economic justice for those who starve amid plenty. 

And judging from all the stories Jesus told about plowing and sowing, owners and workers and wages, I think he might be just as pleased to be present to us again in food that’s recognizable as food that labor actually produced, food that somebody sowed, reaped, milled, kneaded, baked, pruned, plucked, pressed, refined, bottled, and transported, so that, having consumed his life, we might be present to those who do all that every day yet whom we deem essential only when there are mortal risks to run and they’re the ones running them for us, present to them with a living wage, better conditions, and other effective affirmations of labors’ worth and workers’ dignity.

And judging from the gospels where Jesus is never depicted as eating alone, I think he might be just as glad to get back to being present with us in, with, through, under (or whatever you believe) signs that have to be taken, touched, broken, poured and passed from human hand to human hand, not personally packaged for antiseptic private ingestion, so that, having consumed his life, we might abandon the aloof isolation, self-protection, and self-delusion in which we often operate, reading and discussing the latest powerful book about issues and the people who have them but not rubbing bodies with anybody in hard won relationship, and be present to the world like he was and still is when we obey him, among and within and beside and wholly given away.

The holy Keurig cups were a necessary fallback (and they can still be useful for home visits and the like), but in my view the fact that they have been sold in bulk for years and widely used in many Protestant churches as a safe convenient delivery system for the Lord’s supper long before Covid came along, with its prudent precautions, betrays a fear of mingling and contamination that, were you to take a hard look at the history of such things would turn up no shortage of racism and xenophobia, a horror of a different sort of viral and uncontrollable infection, the hordes and all that.

Then there’s the sacramental minimalism they represent, the not so subtle embarrassment that we have to “Do this” as Jesus commanded, so we do it a little grudgingly mostly because he said we should, and even as we talk a good game about the feast, God’s abundant banquet table, the bread of heaven, and y’all come, we don’t have to bless and serve food that any basic regular person would recognize as such, and we don’t have to love it or enjoy it, much less be it or become it or live what at Christ’s table we say we do, re-member, and become one bread, one body, one flesh and blood.

The coffee creamer container with the tiny wafer (you can’t make me call it “bread”) and lipslip of juice were OK as emergency rations, but you can’t escape the possibility that they conveyed nothing of the lusty tasty gospel Jesus but rather a miserly, private, flavorless Jesus, convenient to use in the comfort of your own home or in a sanctuary where everyone can remain where they are and need not bestir themselves in any way to take and eat or to go and do likewise in this God-beloved world that so desperately needs abundantly-communionized people to communion all of life in Jesus’ holy and abundant name.

We like to say that a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. True, but not just of inward things. Sacramental signs point to outward reality, too. Who we think God is, who we think we are, what we think we are doing in Jesus’ name as Christ’s Body fed with his life, what we are called to become, how we think the world was meant to be, how it was meant to feel and taste and smell and sound, and where that meant-to-be world is breaking in around us with justice and celebration, pardon and healing, reconciliation and joy. 

People read signs. What are we giving them to read? 

People feel meaning, they suss it out almost unconsciously from ritual actions and words. What are ours conveying?

No Christian Seders, Please–One More Time

On Maundy Thursday, Christians remember the supper Jesus shared with his disciples “on the night he was handed over,” a night that fell during the Jewish observance of Passover. The synoptic gospels recount that during that meal, Jesus gave thanks for bread and wine, spoke mysteriously of them as his body and blood, and shared the loaf and cup with his friends. He also told them to “do this” in his memory. Thus, Christians believe, he instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion.

To mark this special night, some churches hold solemn Communion services, others mount joyous Love Feasts. Many stage a moving service of light and shadow called Tenebrae. And in some churches, members wash each other’s feet, emulating Jesus’ humble act of service to his disciples, as recorded in the gospel of John. All these are traditional practices drawn from the rich storehouse of Christian liturgy. 

Lately, however many congregations are adding a new observance to the standard repertoire—a Passover Seder. Sometimes a rabbi or a Jewish family is invited in to lead the Seder, but mostly these “Christian Seders” Seders are put on by Christians for Christians, without Jews. Churches that hold these meals do so sincerely and devoutly, aiming to honor Jesus’ Jewishness, explore the Jewish roots of Christianity, deepen their appreciation for Communion, better appreciate its origins, and educate themselves about the practices of their Jewish neighbors. 

Commendable as their intentions are, however, a Seder by Christians for Christians is rife with difficulties. The first problem is simply historical. Despite what Christians have been taught, historians aren’t certain about what sort of meal Jesus’ Last Supper actually was. Apart from the ritual sacrifice of “unblemished” lambs in the Temple, we know very little about other customs pertaining to the Passover Festival in Jesus’ day, especially practices that people may have observed at home. 

Jesus shared a meal with his friends during Passover, a meal layered with significance for him and his friends. That much is clear. But whatever that meal was and meant, it was not a Seder. We can be sure of this because the Seder was introduced into Jewish ritual life generations afterJesus’s lifetime. The Seder Christians have adopted is a blend of traditions that were developed in the diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. With the traditional focal point of Jewish religious practice in ruins and the people dispersed, Temple sacrifice became impossible, and rabbis began developing new forms of ritual life to define and anchor Jewish identity differently in changed circumstances. The Seder was one of those new forms.

Ironically, some scholars believe that the Seder developed in part as a reaction to the growing dominance of the Christian church and its sacred meal, the Eucharist. If this is true, Christians who celebrate a Seder today are celebrating a meal that was meant at least in part to criticize them and to draw a sharp line between of Jewish rites and Christian ones. An anti-Christian critique is no longer a feature of contemporary Jewish Seders, but the polemical history of this tradition should alert us to an important fact about rituals—they do not exist in a vacuum. There is a context to everything we do, and in this case, the context is complicated and fraught. 

For starters, then, when Christians hold a Seder for themselves, hoping, among other things, to do what Jesus did on Maundy Thursday, they are engaging in an anachronism. Neither Jesus the Jew nor any pre-70 CE Christian ever practiced a Seder of any kind, let alone celebrations like those that many churches today hold to “reenact” the Last Supper. But the Christian Seder is problematic for much more consequential reasons than this historical slip. Chief among them is the stubborn persistence among Christians of the ancient doctrine of supersessionism, sometimes called “replacement theology.” 

In its simplest form, supersessionism asserts that Christianity has replaced or superseded Judaism in God’s plan and affections. There is now a New Covenant that replaces the Old. Jesus and the Church have completed and perfected what Judaism lacked, rendering it at best merely preparatory, and at worst obsolete. Despite years of interfaith efforts, supersessionism continues to shape our Christian thinking. We may not be conscious of it, and if we become conscious of it, we may reject it; but we draw on it whenever we adopt a defining ritual of Jewish identity and instrumentalize it to illumine and explain Christian beliefs. 

This happens frequently at Christian Seders. Christians are told, for example, that the lamb on the Seder plate represents the sacrifice of Jesus, who is the Lamb of God; the bitter herbs point to his crucifixion; and the greens speak of his resurrection.It’s also common to interweave Jesus’ “words of institution” with the traditional Seder blessings of bread and wine, in effect celebrating Christian Communion as part of the Jewish meal. When we lay Christian meanings on the Seder in this way, especially when we insert Communion into the ritual meal, we send a message that the truly valuable thing about the Haggadahis the way it points to Jesus. The Christian Messiah, not the Exodus, becomes the “true” focus and “real” meaning of the night. The Jewish meal is nice, but it is also somehow less until Jesus perfects it, turns it into something new, something better, something more. 

This is to write Jews out of their own story, replace them with Christians and the Christian story, and relegate the Seder’s ongoing significance for Jews to the distant background as a mere shadow of the real, a pallid preamble to the main act. 

Congregations that hold Christianized Seders also urgently need to understand that what they are doing is not a neutral act. The long, violent history of Christian appropriation of and contempt for Judaism should make us think long and hard about doing it. It is no accident, to cite just one example, that throughout the Middle Ages, bloody pogroms regularly erupted precisely during Holy Week. These murderous rampages were often prompted by rabid anti-Jewish preaching that placed the blame for Jesus’ death squarely on Jews—and not just on ancient Jews, but on all Jews throughout the ages— and demanded unsparing violence against them. 

Before inserting Communion into a Jewish Seder, it would also be bracingly instructive for Christians to remember that one of the great historical slanders against the Jews was the accusation that they stole consecrated Communion wafers and pierced them with sharp objects, subjecting the Body of Christ to the same torture they inflicted upon him on the cross. This is the shameful history of falsehood and contempt we inescapably carry with us whenever we engage in something like a Christian, or Christianized Seder. 

If Christians knew this history better, we might show more restraint. But many of us do not. As a consequence, although few of us consciously think the religion of our Jewish neighbors is inferior to our own, this old reflex continues to assert itself; and we continue to operate in the universe of stereotype and unwitting slander that for centuries made it possible for Christians to believe it their religious duty to defame, forcibly baptize, exploit, expel, and murder Jews. 

The Christian Seder is a prime example of just how unexamined the fraught relationship between these two faith traditions remains, and thus how easily the consequences of ignorance could be visited on our neighbors again, even in our supposedly enlightened, interfaith, inclusive age. That it could never happen here, that it will never happen again, that good liberal Christian folk would never do that—these are the lazy assumptions that allow us to meander through Holy Week innocent of our history, still acting out inherited patterns of disdain. 

Remembering and retelling the story of the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt is one of the Seder’s characteristic features. Maybe instead of holding a Seder in Holy Week, we Christians might devote ourselves to remembering and retelling our own story in a way that does not ignore or downplay its bloody chapters. With lament and repentance, we might turn to the Jewish Jesus for the help we need to close that shameful book forever.  

It is a good thing to want to learn more about the Jewish roots of our faith and to honor the Jewishness of Jesus; but performing Jewish rituals absent actual Jews is the worst way to accomplish those goals. Ritual is inescapably contextual. It arises from and is lodged in a particular community’s experience. We are not Jews, and we cannot celebrate a Seder on our own out of anything remotely resembling the actual experience of Jews, or with the theological and spiritual worldview such experience generates. 

Canadian educator, Paul Olioff, puts it this way:

“TheHaggadahJews read around the Seder table is not an abstract story. The Jewish customs which some non-Jews are now embracing were practiced for years under the worst conditions, where every lit candle and every prayer risked being disrupted by the violent arm of authority, and entire communities prayed not only for a future homeland in Jerusalem, but for their very existence in that temporary space to last until the holidays the following year. It’s not just an aesthetic, but a tribute to a people who survived against all odds for centuries as a perceived enemy and a geographical minority. When I go to a Seder, I am always initially amazed the tradition has survived for this long.”

Christians can appreciate the Seder, admire it, be moved by it, learn about it, even joyfully participate in it when invited by Jews to do so. But aSeder will always ring hollow if practiced apart from the very people who have been layering it with meaning year after year after year. Adrift from its moorings in the complex web of Jewish spirituality, family life, and centuries of struggle and joy, it can only be a caricature, little more than pious play-acting. 

To put it even more pointedly, a Christian Seder is a kind of theft. We may justify it by saying that the Jewish story is also our story; and in terms of origin, texts, and traditions, there is indeed much we share. But it is not onlyour story. It is first and forever also the ongoing, defining story of a people, a people we are not. We cannot do with this story whatever we please. We especially may not dilute or denude it of its specifically Jewish character to make it mean something Christian. We Christians urgently need to understand and accept that Jewish practices have vitality and meaning beyond their relationship to Christianity. We would do better to advance the project of understanding not with a Christianized Seder, but rather through building sincere relationships with Jews to discover together how best to learn with honesty, care, and respect. 

To this end, congregations could invite a local rabbi to visit and talk about what a Seder means to Jews. She might even lead an instructional Seder for the church. (Just don’t invite her to do this during Passover when she is as busy and frazzled as your pastors and musicians are during Holy Week!) Or members could engage in a small group study of modern Passover rituals on their own, reflecting together on various versions of the Haggadah, but refraining from actually doing the ritual. 

If members of the congregation are lucky enough to have Jewish friends or know families who would invite them, interested folks might participate in a Seder in a Jewish home. This is the best way for Christians to experience the Seder, both because it is properly grounded in Jewish family and relational life, and because it is humbling. As a Christian blogger married to a Jew observed:

“Sitting as a minority at a table full of people who are part of a community that has celebrated Passover for hundreds of years, many of whom have eaten these foods every year since they were born, with individuals who look forward to this holy feast with the same anticipation Christians feel for Christmas, Christians might sing Dayenu (“It would have been enough…”) and feel that the blessings that God has extended to you are truly enough, and you do not need more.”

Christians could also choose to attend a public Seder. Many synagogues and Jewish community centers offer these meals every year, particularly on the second day of Passover when it is customary to welcome anyone to celebrate and learn, as the words of the Haggadahdeclare: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Christians should accept.

Whatever the avenues for learning and participating, the guiding principle should always be that the Seder is Jewish, and Jews must be the ones who choose to share it with us. That they will often do so happily and generously should encourage us even more to avoid the offense of borrowing their distinctive practices without permission, then baptizing what we borrow.

The fact that during Passover Jesus gathered his friends, ate supper with them, commanded us to love each other, gave us a new way to know him in bread and wine, and humbly served us by washing our feet matters mightily to us Christians. The great drama of Maundy Thursday cries out for enactment, for remembering and ritualizing its wondrous scenes and their surplus of meanings. Most of all, it cries out for a meal. We can and should do what Jesus did that night by holding warm intergenerational suppers, great messy potlucks, happy love feasts, and solemn celebrations of Holy Communion. But not Seders. 

We have our own feast. Let’s let the Jews have theirs. 

No Christian Seders, please!

The Fires of Hell

At the end of the age… the angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire.”—Matthew 13:49-50 (NRSV)

There’s a reason Christians have traditionally depicted Hell as an inferno. The horror of fire is meant to deter us from sinning. To burn forever in flames, who’s not afraid of that? 

Not many of us, apparently. Sinners are hardly an endangered species. It’s Hell that’s in trouble. These days, a lot of us just don’t buy it. We can’t believe that Jesus wants us to live moral lives based on fear. How could a truly loving God consign us to eternal fire? Hell may exist, we joke, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s there. 

Meanwhile, toxic darkness falls hours before the sun sets in Australia, Borneo, and Brazil. Countless creatures flee towards extinction. Flames siphon life-assuring oxygen from the air. Politicians and profiteers steal indigenous peoples’ agency and place, dignity and livelihoods. Unique ecosystems vanish, unrecoverable. 

Maybe Hell is due for a revival, at least as a bracing metaphor; although even hellfire seems too pale an image for what we deserve, we who disbelieve metaphorical flames while remaining oddly indifferent to real ones. 

Even eternity in Hell seems too light a sentence for us who’ve convinced ourselves that firestorms happen only far away, and who don’t mind that things burn as long as it’s not us.

It was a world-changing day when humans discovered fire. It’ll be a world-ending day when we’re no longer afraid of it. It’s a soul-damning day when God calls desperate from a conflagration, and we whistle blithely in the blistering wind. 

Prayer

Deliver us, O God, from the fires of Hell.

O Holy Night

December 24, Christmas Eve

“For the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken; for a child is born to us… the Prince of Peace.”—Isaiah 9:4

It’s the O holy night, the silent night, the all is calm all is bright evening of our dear savior’s birth. 

In the realm of heavenly peace, jittery angels wait for God’s signal to depart.

In the midnight sky, the Star positions itself over the manger, dimming its light until the big reveal.

Around fires in the hills, shepherds swap bawdy stories, scratch at fleas, glad for quiet, no wolf or thief. 

In the little town of Bethlehem, strangers who came to be counted lie four to a bed in bad motels, grateful for any bed at all. Innkeepers and beggars count the bonus coins of these last days, a temporary gladness. Crouching at corners, hard soldiers familiar with blood are tossing dice, muttering curses, ears cocked for trouble. 

In Jerusalem, Herod sleeps in a velvet chamber, sheets of Egyptian cotton tucked under his chin, digesting a dinner of lamb and mint, dreaming of music and wine. 

In a nasty shed, Mary labors, Joseph is silent, the cattle are lowing, and little Lord Jesus will soon be asleep on the hay.

Then the angels will sing and the shepherds will run and see and the Star will explode and people in town will wonder why there’s so much noise in that back alley, ‘though not enough to call the soldiers, who are still tossing the dice, muttering and cursing, waiting for much bigger trouble.

It will come.

Sleep on, all you Herods. It will come.

Prayer

Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,  And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise his holy name. (“O Holy Night”, v. 3)

Missing

December 24, Christmas Eve

“This will be a sign for you …a child, lying in a manger.”—Luke 2:12 

We know all we know about the first Christmas Eve from a few gospel stories, all written decades after the fact, all different in detail. They have this in common, ‘though—no animals are mentioned at Jesus’ birth. No lowing cattle, no braying donkey, no stamping sheep, no droopy-eyed dromedaries parked outside. 

Which is why, when it comes to Christmas, imagination is more reliable than Holy Writ. Christians know what to do with the bare bones of a good story: add flesh. 

No animals? But there’s a manger, so there must’ve been animals! The evangelists probably just forgot. Surely God wants this corrected. Henceforth, then, let us sing about the donkey in the corner stall, paint loveable lambkins into the scene, arrange cattle in crèches where they belong and, while we’re at it, throw in Godzilla and a cat. 

Thus have animals become gospel. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

I once got a card showing Little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. An ox muzzles at it, stink-eyeing the babe, as if to say, “You’re cute, little boy, but you’re lying on my dinner.” Ugh, I moralized, there it is on a Christmas card—humans monopolizing all the space, making life hard for every animal but us. 

But I also felt glad. Glad the ox was even there. Glad that we humans, so self-centered most of the time, noticed for once that a vital part was missing and rushed to paint, write, and sing it back in. Glad, too, more than I can say, that tonight is born for us the One in whose bright realm no one is ever missing, no creature great or small left out of Love.

Prayer

Newborn Child, give us imagination to see who’s missing and bring them right back in.

“And All The Merry-Hearted Sigh”

From the UCC StillSpeaking Writers Group Advent Devotional 2019

The earth dries up and withers…
The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;
for they have broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore…the wine dries up, the vine languishes, and all the merry-hearted sigh.”—Isaiah 24:4-7

Not everyone can drink safely. Alcohol is deadly for some people. So not everyone responds well to the use of wine as an image of earthly wellbeing. Still, for as long as humans have cultivated grapes and drunk wine, imagination has made the metaphorical link: fat grapes heavy on the vine, free-flowing wine in ample supply, merry-hearted people singing—all’s right with the world. 

So when a poet speaks instead of withering vines, shriveling grapes, and wine in short supply, we stop in our tracks. When erstwhile flushed consumers sigh, when all they do is sigh, our blood runs cold. 

The trouble is moral before it is ecological: breathtaking human fecklessness has sickened everything. Our arrogance, greed, and violence have us in a death spiral. All creation is swept into the vortex with us. There is no wine.

In Advent, we kneel in this devastated wasteland of our own making and thirst and thirst for want of wine until we finally feel how much we need a savior; until our hoarse sighs turn Heaven towards us with the gift of a joy-maker who knows we have no wine and comes earthward anyway.

He will soon be arriving to our sagging feast. When he appears, he will take immense jars of countless bitter tears and turn them into song. He will draw out wondrous drink and re-start the wedding. It will be safe for all, and he will consume it with us, merry-hearted. He will make us well, the Earth well, and all manner of thing well.

Prayer Marantha! Come, Lord Jesus!