Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Christians and Seders




The other day, I read a blog post being circulated by Bruce Reyes-Chow.  It was written by J. Mary Luti, a UCC pastor.  In it, she begged Christians to please, please stop having Christian seders.

I'm a Presbyterian pastor who is married to a Jewish woman.  I've raised two Jewish boys.  I've married into the family of Moses, rather literally, given that my wife's last name is Mosher.  And from that perspective, I had two reactions to the post.

First, I think Luti is dead on.  Many Christian communities that are interested in having seders do so as a way of celebrating Maundy Thursday.  The "meal" we celebrate on that day is the remembering of the institution of the communion meal, which may or may not have occurred on Passover.

As well meaning as the Christian seder is, Passover is a different event.  There's a specific context being remembered, and a specific reason for the ritual.

I attend a seder every single year, usually at the home of my in-laws.  There, we read through the haggadah, and drink the four cups, and taste the herbs and the salt water, and retell a very specific tale for a very specific purpose.  It's the Exodus story, the story of deliverance from slavery and oppression.  It is told for a particular reason, to remember a particular and archetypal event in the history of the Jewish people.

When Christian communities fuse that telling with our own narrative about Jesus and the Lord's Supper, we muddle the story, decoupling it from its original purpose.

And sure, yeah, Jesus delivers us.  There are powerful resonances between the story of Moses and the Christian story of spiritual and existential transformation and liberation.  I get that.

But the story of Moses and the escape from Egypt has integrity on its own as a faith narrative.  The story of the Passover needs to be given voice to speak on its own.

In my own congregation, we do an agape meal, a recounting of the Last Supper that does not confuse the stories.  It feels clearer.  Less muddled.

When I think to the integrity of the story of the Passover, though, I find myself in a place of difference from Luti.  She suggests that the story of the liberation from Egypt is a uniquely Jewish story, that can only be understood from the context of Jewish identity.

This feels off.  

It's well intentioned, in an NPR sort of way, but off nonetheless.

The story of liberation from Egypt is unquestionably the story of the Hebrew people, but it is also a narrative that speaks powerfully to the human condition.  When Jews tell this story, it speaks into the hearts of any who hear it, to the promise of liberation.  Wherever human beings are suffering or oppressed, that story speaks to the yearning for freedom.

Around the seder table on Monday, I was reminded of this.  We read and recited, and we sang in Hebrew, tunes and words that I have learned over the years.  But at one point in the haggadah, we also sang a song in English.  My voice mingled with the voice of my Jewish son, as Christians and Jews around the table sang that old spiritual together.

Go down Moses, we sang, way down in Egypt's land.  Tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.  It was the song of a people oppressed. They were not Jews, but heard the Passover tale as their own hope.

If you are oppressed, this story speaks the truth you know.

This truth is fundamentally integrated into the Jewish telling of the story.  In every recounting of the liberation from Egypt comes a reminder: there are those who still yearn for deliverance, and all who retell this story are called to remember what it means to suffer. It is a story that builds bridges of understanding.  Wherever human beings experience political, racial, or economic oppression, this story has a voice.

And for those of us blessed with liberty, it says: Remember that you were once strangers in the land of Egypt, it says.  Make sure you're not being Pharaoh, it says.

Which is why the story is worth retelling, and honoring, no matter what your tradition.