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?
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.
“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.
“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.
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)
“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.
Newborn Child, give us imagination to see who’s missing and bring them right back in.
In his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. glossed the parable of the Good Samaritan. He described driving from Jerusalem to Jericho during a trip to the Holy Land. Having traveled that winding road, he said he could imagine the fear of the two men who didn’t stop to help the bleeding victim in the ditch.
Dr. King imagined them asking themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
Then he turns to the Samaritan. Dr. King imagines him asking a different question, the reverse: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’
The first question is full of fear, but the second creates Beloved Community. The first distances, the second closes a gap. It’s full of the empathy that is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples, the lens through which they view every moral decision. It’s the most important question of all.
There is a third question we could ask ourselves when cries for help assault us, however. It’s not the empathetic question of what will happen to the suffering person if I fail to help, nor the fearful question of the peril I could be in if I do. It’s the existential question of what happens to my humanity when I pass my neighbor by. We could frame it this way: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will I become? What will happen to my soul?”
Our nation’s current immigration policies are creating horrific trauma. The violence being done to our neighbors by the people who ordered this policy, who are implementing it, who are passively or actively supporting it, and who are failing to do everything in their—our—power to stop it, is incalculable and lasting. And so is the violence we are doing to ourselves. Soul damage. Heart damage. Conscience damage. Damage to our humanity. This self-inflicted trauma also corrodes and corrupts for generations. No one escapes its consequences.
What harm could befall me if I stop to help my suffering neighbor? This is a question of fear, creating even more suffering, alleviating none.
What will happen to my suffering neighbor if I fail to help? This is a question of empathy, creating solidarity, healing, and hope.
What will I become if I pass the suffering by, if I ignore it, if I inflict it, if I condone it, if I participate? This is a question of truth, acknowledging that, act by act, omission by omission, I harden or soften my heart, I awaken or deaden my conscience, I become more human or much less, I live a soulful life or die.
Then the devil took him to the pinnacle of the temple,saying, “If you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”—Matthew 4:5-6
Even the devil can quote scripture.
Shakespeare said it, but Jesus dealt with it—a Bible-toting devil tossing out passages with practiced ease. “Look,” he says, trying to get Jesus to jump off a building, “It says right here, and here, and here: ‘Nothing bad will happen to you.’ You can do it. Jump!”
The devil is proof-texting, cobbling together verses to argue his case, cherry-picking psalms to make Jesus think it’s “biblical” to do a really reckless thing, knowing that if Jesus takes the bait, he’ll end up dead.
It wasn’t the first nor would it be last time demonic intentions to do harm have come cloaked in biblical authority.
Now, the devil isn’t the only one who proof-texts. In the heat of moral battle, even ‘progressives’ disturb their Bibles for the right passages to prove him wrong. And themselves right. It’s a game we all play.
But while our government is busy traumatizing little lives, and too many citizens are obscenely proud of being indifferent to their pain—“They brought it on themselves! They broke the law!”—batting the Bible back and forth across the barricades misses the moral challenge by a thousand miles.
To do justice perseveringly it’s not enough to be armed with better scripture passages. The struggle isn’t about scripture. Not even about religion. It’s about humanness. The times require empathy, not verses; compassion, not one-upping; the retrieval of lost fellow-feeling, not “biblical” mouthing-off.
If we’ve been taking the Bible as seriously as it deserves to be taken, we’ll see that the best thing we can do at crucial times is to lay it down—quit the unserious game of dueling verses, and work harder, so much harder, at becoming fully human than at being right.
Thank you for the gift of Scripture, O God. May its wisdom teach us to put it down so that we can see each other and learn to care.
I mean no disrespect, and I have a ton of appreciation for all the hard working preachers out there lovingly laboring over their Holy Week offerings, but as a person less and less in the pulpit and more and more in the pews, I have to say it: If I hear one more moralizing sermon in Holy Week–or in any other week– I think I’m going to scream. Can’t you give moralizing a rest and for a change try inspiration, illumination, pathos, identification, awe, contemplation, devotion and love, gratitude, and praise?
Not every sermon has to be an urgent call to become better Christians, or an examination of those places in my life where I have denied Jesus, or the ways in which I’m fickle and pivot from crying ‘hosanna’ to crying ‘crucify him’, or some such thing in which it’s clear I’m not doing what a good Christian should be doing and I need to do better. Not every bible passage is about us and our moral lives, no matter how earnestly a preacher stands up there trying to wring from it some principle or lesson for human betterment. They’re not all about what I should be doing for God, but every last one of them reveals something about what God in Christ has done–and is doing– for me. Every last one of them is primed to get me lost in the world of grace, disoriented by mercy, and remade for a new world no one sees yet, but in which somehow I’m living even now. And about that astounding possibility and promise, I hear so little. And I long for it.
I know your preaching teacher told you to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, but I don’t need every sermon I hear Sunday after Sunday to relate to some obligation or cause or issue or item in the news. Sometimes I just want help gazing at Jesus. Sometimes I just need to be stunned by the odd attraction of the Story. Sometimes I am converted simply by a preacher making me feel in my flesh the ineffable beauty of the vast accomplished grace around me, the bewildering shame and glory of a love that loves me anyway. I don’t always need to be exhorted. But I always need an encounter. I always need a door. And your sermon could be that door if it’s not slammed shut with moralizing and demand. So give me some inspiration, illumination, pathos, identification, awe, contemplation, adoration, love, gratitude and praise every now and then. Please.
And don’t worry about turning me into a self-absorbed navel-gazer unconcerned with the condition of the world or the plight of my neighbor. Please don’t think you’re being unfaithful somehow, that you’ve fallen down in your duty by not being bold or prophetic in calling me to the barricades of justice every week. I know I’m stubborn and hard-hearted, but it really lacks imagination just to tell me over and over, even artfully and creatively, that I’m lacking something and need to do much better. It also misses the point, because when all else is said and done, the thing that will best turn my heart to the just purposes of God is a grounding, confounding experience of God.
I know you can’t give me that experience, you can’t make an encounter happen, that’s the Spirit’s job; but you can create the conditions of possibility for it by drawing out beauty and awe, pathos and praise, identification and love from your own spirit, from the deep places where you yourself feel captivated and astounded by that Face, and simply tell me about it. Just contemplate the scriptures and speak to me of God. I hunger for that, and I don’t think I’m alone. As an old, funny, faithful guy sitting in the pew behind me once muttered, after yet another moralizing harangue from the pulpit, “I think I know by now what God wants me to do. What I really want to know is, who is the God who wants me to do it?”
I’ve heard countless sheep and shepherd sermons over the years. Some have informed me that sheep are the world’s stupidest, smelliest animals. Others insisted that they’re smart creatures, clean and good-natured. One preacher read us a long excerpt from a biblical encyclopedia article about shepherding as a disreputable profession in Jesus’ day. Other preachers referred to the same information, only a bit more artfully. In one oddly memorable sermon, an older preacher regaled us with his youthful escapades around sheep on a hippie commune. Still another shared a travelogue of her recent trip to Ireland where, she assured us solemnly, ‘you can see a lot of sheep.’
All these sermons eventually meandered home to their various points and conclusions, some of which were worth the wait. Still, every time this text comes up in the Lectionary, I find myself praying that preachers will resist the temptation to indoctrinate or entertain us with lore about sheep, lest they and we be led, like sheep, astray.
They do this, I think, because they believe that, lacking real-world knowledge of sheep and shepherding, we’ll fail to grasp what Jesus is getting at, so they contextualize, ‘splain, describe, and illustrate. The irony is that Jesus’ audience had way more sheep culture than we do, even after we’ve heard a dozen sermons on ovine IQ, yet they had trouble grasping his message, too. Notice that about halfway through, Jesus seems to register some perplexed looks, some unspoken confusion. ‘You’re a shepherd? Funny, you don’t look like a shepherd…’ It appears that they have no idea what he’s talking about. So he re-winds and changes the metaphor. ‘Okay, not a shepherd; this time I’m a gate. The sheep gate. Got that?’
We progressives say we’re not literalists, but the truth is when things aren’t straightforward and clear, we get as nervous as the next person, as eager to nail things down as any fundamentalist. We say we prefer heart over head, yet in our need to get to the factoidal bottom of things, we cling to our commentaries and seminary notes, forgetting to feel. But in texts like these, the thing is to feel, and to try to help other stubborn literalists to feel, too. Forget sheepy information and encyclopedia articles, one to one correspondences, the sheep equal this, the gate means that, God is represented by X, in Jesus’ day a sheep pen measured so many square feet… We’re not in that world, we’re in a different world, the realm of acute, converting feeling.
We’re also not in the world of ethics. At least not immediately. It may be true, for example, that identifying oneself with a shepherd was not an endearing comparison, that it probably had the same upending shock value as identifying with a Samaritan. If this is right, it does suggest some compelling ethical applications to the church’s mission to stand with the outcast and oppressed. Yet as important as moral applications are for provoking conversion and commitment, they’re not the only means to that end. What happens when we routinely resort to moralizing is that our exhortations eventually go the way of all churchy language—in one ear and out the other.
The best-kept secret of preaching, alas, is that people are capable of coming to deep ethical conversion and courageous commitment by way of awe as well as (and maybe more than) moral exhortation. But we hardly ever give them awe. The most important stories don’t work by explanation or exhortation. They work by imagination, goose bumps, nerve endings. Explanation has its place, but only just enough to set the stage for wonder. Too much, and we’ll end up with heads full of animal husbandry and hearts bereft of mystery, truth, and power. No one was ever converted by knowing the exact dimensions of a sheep pen in first century Palestine.
We might be converted, however, if we suddenly felt the overwhelming fear in the text: the trembling terror in lurking bandits, thieves and strangers; all that looking-over-your-shoulder for killers. We might be saved if we go down through the fears we can articulate—money woes, our children’s futures, illness, aging, and diminishment—to finally touch the fears we cannot speak or face—that maybe no one knows our name, that maybe no one could ever want to “own” us, that we could be picked off at any moment and no one would care.
We might be converted if our nerve endings start to twinge in longing for recognition and dignity, safety and nourishment, belonging and life, in sync with the same desires of other human beings, and of all creation. We could be saved if we’re led by imaginative preaching to hear in the air the name-knowing voice that echoes in this text and in all the scriptures, beginning to end–the ancient litany of tender and insistent calling that resounds in the church’s heart deeper than any fear.
Instead of trips to Ireland and seminary notes, we might be changed by a mirror held up to the vivid Jesus in this text; by a long, loving gaze at him as he works his poet’s heart out attempting to capture our imaginations, trying out one metaphor after another in an ever-turning prism of meaning and possibility, until some glint off one of its surfaces ignites a small flame in us, and something shifts to make way for a little more light. And then a little more, until everything is fire.
“If you do not hate your father and mother… you cannot be my disciple.”—Luke 14:26
I know a professor who’s delightful in the classroom. His courses routinely overfill. But he loathes those huge classes. He suspects many students come for his style, not his material; to be entertained, not educated. He can’t get a personality transplant, so he’s revised the course requirements—now it’s a killer. This semester, the crowds thinned out fast.
“You must hate your family…” That’s a killer, too. Jesus sounds tired of being the teacher everybody likes but nobody learns from. Tired of crowds that come for surprising stories and clever banter with lawyers but remain unchanged. Maybe he’s stiffening the requirements to thin them out.
Or maybe he’s having a smelling-salts moment, head snapping back as he comprehends, with mind-clearing clarity, how much it’ll cost him to love what is most worthy of love, and to love it in and above all other loves. Maybe he’s saying it aloud to make it real for himself as well as for us: “I will have to loosen every tie that binds.”
Here’s a horrible vision of life: I’ll love you and let you live if you’re like me; I’ll hate you and kill you if you’re not. It’s the ruling vision of our world. We know the ferocious consequences of its demonic irrationality. The question is whether we have any sense at all of the sacrifice it’ll take to destroy it and create the boundless fellowship of God.
Jesus says, ”You want to be my disciple? Then don’t come to me casually as if we were going to a picnic in the woods instead of a pitched battle in the anguished heart of the world. Read my syllabus. Read it again. Then come, follow me.”
I’ve read it, Jesus. I’m not sure I can do it. Give me courage and grace.