No, it’s not the beginning of one of those ‘walked into a bar’ jokes. And if you think one of them believes the other is going to hell, the joke’s on you.
You know the famous quote from George Bernard Shaw about England and America being two countries separated by a common language?
It’s that way with Jews and Christians, who are divided by a common person: Jesus, says the Rev. George Mason, senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church on Abrams near Mockingbird.
“He is a Jew, and he was a Jew, and we both claim him in one sense, but we claim him in different senses,” Mason says. “Everything about our differences probably comes about from our understanding of who Jesus is.”
In a nutshell, Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and Jews generally do not. The resulting disagreements between mother and daughter religion are “the topic of at least a semester course,” says Rabbi David Stern, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El on Hillcrest near Northwest Highway, who points out differing views on everything from earthly life versus afterlife to sin and salvation to monotheism and divine embodiment.
In addition to being plentiful, the differences often can be hurtful, such as some Christians’ belief that Jews will spend eternity in hell.
So how did Stern and Mason — a Jewish rabbi and a Baptist preacher — come to be such good friends?
Well, for one thing, they don’t try to proselytize each other.
“It is not at all Rev. Mason’s goal or my own to convert the other, but rather to add to the understanding of the other,” Stern says.
To say that it would be God’s will for Mason to come to believe as Stern does, or vice versa, “would be an arrogant position to take,” Mason says. “All faith is provisional. It’s always open to learning more and understanding more, so we should always hold our faith with great conviction but with open minds and hearts, too.
“The ultimate goal is that God converts each of us in whatever way necessary,” Mason says, adding that he expects there would be “far more people who will think I’m wrong for not trying to convert him to my position” than people who fault Stern for the reverse.
As for eternal destinies, “neither one of us wants to make the claim for God about the eternal destination of someone else,” Mason says. “We simply make our own confession, and call people to live in light of that confession.
“God does the sorting out in the end.”
A Jewish sermon on a gospel text
The subject of sorting happened to be the topic of Stern’s sermon on an autumn evening when he took the pulpit at Wilshire Baptist — a strange scenario for a Jewish rabbi, but stranger still was his chosen text for the evening’s service: the New Testament gospel of Matthew.
The particular story, from Matthew 25:31-46, is about sheep and goats, the former being the “good guys” in this parable. That’s because of the way the sheep treated the “least of these” — the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.
Jesus, who is telling this story, informs both the sheep and goats that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The reward for the sheep’s compassionate acts is eternal life; for the goats, the consequence of apathy is eternal punishment.
Stern began his sermon by addressing the uncharacteristic audience before him — members of his own Temple Emanu-El congregation mingled with members of Wilshire Baptist Church, who were hosting this gathering. On its face, it was a peculiar combination, Jews and Baptists gathered under one steepled roof. But as Stern reminded them in his introduction, this was not their first time to meet.
In fact, the two groups had grown somewhat accustomed to each other.
“It’s a little subversive. How? Because it’s ordinary,” Stern said. “Too often, we apply the label ‘interfaith’ to high-profile ecumenical one-shot deals. Too often, we settle for the superfluous and symbolic when it comes to interfacing with each other.”
In contrast, he said, Wilshire Baptist and Temple Emanu-El “return again and again to the circles of sharing.”
However, not everything about the gathering was commonplace.
“What isn’t ordinary at all is for a rabbi to preach on the book of Matthew,” Stern said with a smile. “I approach my task tonight with some degree of trepidation. I’m grateful for the Q&A period when you all and my good friend George can set me straight.”
Mason’s flock had arranged for the gathering to culminate in a potluck, the Protestant tradition of a covered dish smorgasbord. The church’s community hall overflowed with Jews and Baptists sipping unsweetened tea and eating forkfuls of potato casserole and chocolate layered dessert, while the two religious leaders positioned themselves in the middle of the crowd, ready for questions from the audience.
One of the first that needed answering was how Stern wound up speaking on Jesus’ story in Matthew 25.
“The reason for the selection of the passage is that your pastor has an alarmingly and annoyingly good memory,” Stern ribbed Mason.
During one of their many prior conversations, Stern says he had let slip his admiration for that particular text. “You know,” he had told Mason, “if there’s one passage in the New Testament that speaks to me, it’s the ‘least of these’.”
Preaching from the New Testament, however, wasn’t the most challenging part of the service for Stern. The biggest obstacle, as it turned out, was a New Testament verse engraved on Wilshire’s wooden pulpit, which begins: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ …”
Stern confided to his friend before the Q&A session that he had spent the evening trying to push his notes over the engraving. When this was shared with the entire room, it exploded into laughter.
“So there you have it,” Mason says, “this is what happens in real interfaith dialogue.”
Beginning of a beautiful friendship
“It’s not as if we sort of met on the racquetball court,” Stern says, now away from the limelight and relaxing with Mason in his Temple Emanu-El office.
The two men each found their way to Dallas in 1989 — Mason as Wilshire Baptist Church’s senior pastor and Stern as one of Temple Emanu-El’s assistant rabbis, later becoming associate rabbi and then, in 1996, senior rabbi. They are comparatively young leaders (Mason is 54, Stern, 49) of prominent congregations — Wilshire Baptist, with 3,000-plus members, is one of the largest in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and Temple Emanu-El’s 2,800 families makes it the largest reform synagogue in the Southwest.
“We were both very young when we took the senior office of our parishes and congregations,” Mason says.
Stern says that in periods when he needed guidance, “George has been a rabbi to me.”
Mason, seeming humbled by this statement, thanks Stern and says the relationship is “mutual”.
Soon after arriving in Dallas, Mason joined an interfaith group that met monthly for breakfast, and through it he formed relationships with Temple Emanu-El leaders. Mason and Stern also began receiving invitations to interfaith panels at high school auditoriums or community colleges.
As they got to know each other, something just clicked.
“We get along because we get along,” Stern says. “I think that there is so much more conversation among diverse clergy than congregants expect.”
It’s not a traditional friendship, Mason says, in that “it’s not like we have dinner together every Friday night.”
“We wish we did,” Stern interjects, but what’s more important is that “we know we’re there for each other.”
Days like this, then, in which they have a few minutes to catch up face-to-face, are rare — even if a reporter and photographer are present for most of the meeting.
What makes this occasion even more unlikely is that it takes place during one of the busiest times of the year for each clergyman. It is Holy Wednesday for Mason, with Palm Sunday behind him and Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter quickly approaching, while Stern celebrated the beginning of Passover the night prior with his congregation in a three-hour Seder.
“How did we get you here during Holy Week?” Stern asks Mason, inquiring as to whether Mason has his sermon prepared for Sunday.
“It’s the same story every year, David,” Mason retorts good-naturedly about the Christian holiday celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. He then asks about his friend’s Passover Seder.
“Did Elijah show up?” The question refers to the Passover tradition of setting out a cup of wine and opening the door for the prophet Elijah.
“No evidence as of yet — the world is still broken,” Stern says.
“Oh, it surely is, isn’t it?” Mason agrees.
Getting comfortable with discomfort
“When you listen to and see someone else’s practice, it’s like holding up a mirror to your own,” Mason says. “You see the richness of someone else’s and the poverty of your own, and sometimes you see the richness of your own and the poverty of another.”
The two men’s forthright discussions about their differing views are “some of the richest I’ve ever had,” Stern says.
Their greatest satisfaction, however, is not in the dialogues that take place within their respective offices, but in the way their friendship has impacted their two congregations.
“If I wanted a success photo of these years of dialogue, it would not be George and me under the lights on the stage at Brookhaven,” Stern says, referring to the interfaith panels in which he and Mason have participated.
“It would be that night at Wilshire with people climbing over each other and mushed together.”
Such a relationship between a Jewish synagogue and a Baptist church has been more than a decade in the making. In the late ’90s, Temple Emanu-El began inviting Wilshire folk as honored guests to its annual interfaith shabbat services. Mason participated in the Torah discussion, and the Baptists were invited to sing in the Jewish choir — blue robes mixed with white robes. Mason, in turn, has invited Stern to lead classes and lectures at Wilshire, and most recently worked with Stern to arrange the combined service at Wilshire.
These days, they’re focusing on such congregation-to-congregation gatherings, and doing “less of the dog and pony, intentionally,” Stern says, referring to formal interfaith programs. Usually in such contexts, “the focus will tend to be what you agree upon,” Stern says. “We’ve moved through and past that. I believe that the depth of our dialogue is the result of the depth of our relationship.”
And though their congregants may not feel confident enough to engage in the same kind of in-depth conversations, Mason says, “they are always happy to see it modeled for them, and that makes it easier for them somehow.”
Wilshire members probably feel more comfortable attending a bar or bat mitzvah, for example, or after attending a number of interfaith Shabbat services at Temple, feel welcome to visit on their own. Some Temple members worship at Wilshire on occasion, and one in particular meets Mason in the narthex almost weekly with a “clarifying question,” Mason says.
“A Jew from Temple Emanu-El would not worry that if they came to a Good Friday service at Wilshire, I would be blaming the Jews for killing Christ,” Mason says. “We would not take the easy road with that. We would wrestle with it and include ourselves in the complicity.”
Humor never hurts to break the ice, either, and Mason and Stern are kings of the one-liner.
When Temple members visited Wilshire, Mason announced that “we will, because this is a Baptist church, take an offering later in the service,” which garnered a few laughs, but not as many as his smirking confession that “we considered an altar call, too.”
Afterward, during the discussion in the community hall, Mason was momentarily sidetracked by a conversation that reminded him of a movie he wanted to see, and he suggested Stern accompany him.
“I’ll like it better than the last one we saw together,” Stern said pointedly. Mason thought for a second, then smiled and told the two congregations: “That would be ‘The Passion of the Christ’.”
Such witty candor is no doubt what encouraged Wilshire and Temple members to pose such questions during the potluck dialogue as: “Most of my knowledge of Jewish faith comes from the TV show ‘South Park’. In what ways might daily life be different for Baptists and Jews?” Or, “Jesus was born a Jew, so when did he become a Christian?”
Where it gets trickier for Wilshire and Temple congregants is when their leaders begin to express jealousy.
“When we start talking about what we envy in the other’s tradition, then you start to see people fidget in their seats a little bit,” Stern says. “You tend to want to see your religious leaders in the ramparts saying, ‘Go team!’ ”
Some congregants have asked if Mason and Stern couldn’t just abandon the dialogues and return to solely sermons.
“I took it as a huge sign of success because they’re starting to make people uncomfortable,” Stern says.
The theological abyss
Just as Mason may be criticized more than Stern for his failure to proselytize his friend, he also takes more heat for his interfaith efforts.
“Reform congregations expect reform rabbis to do this kind of stuff,” Stern says. “But when George shows up somewhere, he’s a Baptist minister, and for that reason he always has to wear a bit more of a flak jacket than I do.”
It benefits Mason that his Baptist brethren are not of the Southern ilk but of a self-professed progressive strain that broke away about the time the senior pastor took the pulpit at Wilshire. Plus, Mason has a different background than most Texas Baptists in that he, like Stern, is a New Yorker. Staten Island, where Mason grew up, was more than 90 percent Catholic, and his family was Protestant. He attended public school, but remembers playing in baseball games that routinely began with the Hail Mary.
“And I would have no idea what they were talking about,” Mason says. “I had much more experience knowing what it was also like to feel like ‘the other’, and I do think that makes a difference. I don’t know who I would be if I had grown up in Dallas.”
New York also had a strong Jewish cultural footprint, and Mason had Jewish friends living across the street. It gave Mason a different perspective than most of the Christian community, he says, many of whom assume that engaging in dialogue with a Jewish rabbi means conversation will be polite and placatory with watered-down convictions, rather than seriously addressing differences.
In his own experience, Mason says, “that’s simply not been true.” He and Stern disagree, sometimes emphatically. But their disagreements take place in the context of a friendship.
“The relationship with David and I, we have no ulterior motive, [as in] if we could just get each other to do x or y then we will have succeeded,” Mason says. “Love doesn’t have ulterior motives. It simply gives itself out of a desire for well-being, and that’s the difference, I think.”
Finding such a relationship consists of “feeling your way through to the right partner where it’s someone you can learn from,” Stern says.
That’s why his friendship with Mason “doesn’t strike me as unlikely at all. I don’t want to dismiss it as common, either,” Stern says, but “all sorts of things make it make sense.”
There is one strong belief difference, however, that threatens to drive a wedge between them.
“We do come apart over the fact that I was a Mets fan,” Mason says.
“It’s a huge theological abyss,” says Stern, a Yankees enthusiast. “I love George. I know he’ll come around.”
Audio from the combined service last year between Wilshire Baptist Church and Temple Emanu-El:
• Welcome by Rev. George Mason
• Prayers of the people
• Call to worship
• Reading of Matthew 25
• Rabbi David Stern’s sermon on Matthew 25
The sheep and the goats
In Wilshire Baptist Church’s community hall after the combined service, Rabbi David Stern and the Rev. George Mason spent some time discussing the sermon and text. Here are excerpts from their discussion:
Stern: There’s always a risk in interfaith dialogue to cherry pick and, in doing that, disrupt the integrity of the whole. … As a Jew, [I chose to] tread lightly on final judgment and sheep and goats … The magnet for me was the set of criteria [rather than the end result].
Mason: The passage is intended to be read by the covenantal community who should be doing the reading … It’s written to people who are already themselves insiders … As you read the New Testament, the harshest judgment is always reserved for those who consider themselves insiders [the “included” are first, then the “excluded”] … The assumption is we’re already here; now will your life reflect this, or will you miss this by your own choosing?
Stern: The sorting felt too tidy for me. What kept jumping out at me was the past tense: Everyone’s already in, and you have to sort of screw up to be out. What about the kind of existential, sometimes we have sheep days and sometimes we have goat days? How do we hear this as an ongoing challenge instead of a summary challenge?
Mason: If you look on a hillside grazing, can you tell the difference between the sheep and the goats? The shepherd knows the sheep from the goats; the sheep may not know, and the goats may not know. We are not to spend our time deciding who are God’s children, but being God’s children, and leave the sorting up to God. … What does it mean to believe in Jesus but not to do what he says for the least of these? Do you really believe and not care for your neighbor? Clearly Jesus is saying, “No.”
South Park Jews and Sunday Christians
After the sermon discussion, audience members had the opportunity to quiz Mason and Stern on various aspects of their differing faiths, and the two clergy responded off the cuff. Here are excerpts from the Q&A:
Q: Most of my knowledge of Jewish faith comes from the TV show “South Park”. How might daily life be different for Baptists and Jews?
A: Rabbi Stern answered by describing himself as “terminally uncool” and saying he doesn’t watch “South Park”, but that “you at Wilshire know that ‘Baptist’ means a lot of different things in this town, and ‘Jew’ does as well.”
Q: Jesus was born a Jew, so when did he become a Christian?
A: “When we made him one,” Mason says. “Christianity comes after the church was founded. We believe Jesus inaugurated the coming kingdom of God” and that Jesus is the “anointed one”, “the one who is to come”. The word “Christian” enters the language “a full generation after Jesus himself,” Mason says.
Q: Why are Christians more focused on the afterlife than Jews?
A: “In conventional Jewish reading, there are only a few late and scattered notions of afterlife in the Hebrew Bible,” Stern says. The consequences of sin in Hebrew texts are more “earthly — agricultural, military, having to do with safety and security of family … Covenant relationship for us is so much about this earthly realm.” However, he points out, the Jewish notion of afterlife has been around 2,000 years, and “we could probably stand to emphasize it a little more.”
A: “Christians are all over the map about the afterlife,” Mason says, reminding the audience that “Jesus says, ‘Behold, I make all things new,’ not ‘I make all new things.’ Immediate afterlife is more Greek thinking. It is the restoration of all things here that we look forward to.”