Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Sensitive Subject

For some twenty-five years, the congregation I served had a remarkable relationship with a neighboring synagogue. From time to time, members from both places would assemble to study Scripture or debate the role of faith in public issues. At least annually there were opportunities for the clergy to swap pulpits and the congregants to worship together in each other’s liturgical homes.

In preparing for the services which we knew would include our Jewish friends, we were self-conscious at first. Obviously they would not acknowledge Jesus as we do, so the temptation was to edit our services to minimize the awkwardness.

In picking hymns, for example, we thought that “The God of Abraham Praise” would be a good choice, or maybe “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” rather than an explicitly Christ-centered song.

Or maybe we’d think about phrasing the prayers differently, instead of “in the name of Jesus Christ” we might say instead “in the Lord’s name.”

All this in an effort to be nice and not offensive to our Jewish friends.

The first time we did such a worship-exchange, however, we discovered that this was one big mistake. Such editing, to our Jewish friends, was considered to be disingenuous. As one member of the synagogue put it, “When we come to your place, we expect to experience your worship, not some watered-down version that’s been altered to please us. If you do that, we won’t trust you.”

I remember talking to the rabbi on another occasion about the liturgical fad in some Christian churches to refer to the Old Testament as the Hebrew Scriptures. He gave me a bit of a scowl and said, “To us they are ‘Hebrew Scriptures’—they’re your ‘Old Testament’. Why would you ever want to use our term? Keep them straight.”

Candor in worship is essential. We are who we are, and when we worship with people of other faiths, even with other Christians, we do well to be our true selves. We can do that both honestly and graciously.

I was reminded of all this when I saw “A Note on the Readings” in the Good Friday Service bulletin of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston. It started out, “Of all the worship services in the Christian year, the Good Friday liturgy poses some of the most difficult and painful problems for us in our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters. That is a special concern in our use of the story of Christ’s Passion as told in John’s Gospel. John refers repeatedly to ‘the Jews’ as those who ultimately are responsible for putting Jesus to death.”

The note continues with two explanations: The suggestion by some scholars that John placed more “blame” on the Jews because it was more prudent than blaming the Romans; and that John’s reference to “the Jews” was only to a small group of Jewish leaders.

The note concludes: “In short, ‘the Jews’ in John’s account are you and I, or those parts of all of us, who out of self-protection, hard-heartedness, and fear of change or surrender, deny our Lord.”

It struck me that there was in all likelihood not one Jew in the room that Good Friday to read the note. It was clearly addressed to the people there that afternoon, and to every Christian. I hoped that the worshippers would snatch up an extra bulletin or two on the way out and use them as opportunities for discussion with their Jewish friends.

Furthermore, I was impressed by the candor of the note in acknowledging a problem, or a potential one, and trying to head it off at the pass. This is not a small issue, either, in our relationships with Jews, and the leaders at Trinity Church know it.

The explanations given were not apologies but acknowledgements. The honesty of the note was rock-hard in its admission that John may have been scapegoating the Jews to save his and other Christians’ skins. There was no disingenuousness that suggested the note was saying one thing and meaning another.

It is only with this kind of clarification and candor that worship can take place “in spirit and in truth”. In this day and age it is increasingly important that we Christians reach out to others in shared worship and common prayer—especially with our Jewish and Muslim cousins, descendants as we are of Abraham. We should be a straightforward and guile free as possible.

Does your congregation have opportunities to worship with congregants of local synagogues or mosques? Does your congregation have opportunities to welcome Jews and Muslims to your worship? Have you experienced pulpit exchanges with rabbis and imams?

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