“Beguiled by Beauty: Gratitude”

Exodus 16: 1 – 15Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN

Our Wednesday evening Lenten Study is entitled “Grateful” and is based on Diana Butler Bass’s book with the same title, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. This past Wednesday evening, I found the discussion to be particularly stimulating as we discussed Butler Bass’s connections between tables of abundance and gratitude. That is, we experience the God of abundance at the table and our response is heartfelt gratitude. In all of my years of studying scripture, I have never consciously viewed the Bible through the lens of the table, but Butler-Bass does just that.

She begins with today’s scripture passage. The ancient Israelites leave slavery where Pharaoh controlled every movement of their lives. With the Passover they leave slavery and go to what becomes the Holy Land, the land flowing with an abundance of milk and honey. They Passover from scarcity to abundance. At first, the Israelites are dancing and singing and clapping their hands. But on day 3, they become afraid. “Who’s going to take care of us now? We’re going to starve to death. Let’s go back to Egypt. Yes, we lived as enslaved persons and they stole our children, but at least we had food to eat. There is nothing out here to eat. “After all,” complain the Israelites, “can God set a table in the wilderness?” In the words of Diana Butler Bass, “God says, ‘Damn right I can” and manna falls from heaven and water comes from the rock and there all of a sudden is abundance.

“This story,” says Butler-Bass, “is being replayed on Thursday night of Holy week before Jesus dies. It’s a story about people passing over from slavery into the freedom of abundance…Jesus is saying, ‘Just in the same way God took your ancestors out of slavery with Pharaoh, so I’m taking you out of slavery from Caesar to the new age, the age of freedom, the Exodus, the liberation.’” Butler Bass goes on to say, “So often we get hung up with what happens on Good Friday on the cross, but I think for the disciples, the real insight, the depth and power of what was going on happened the night before. It happened on Thursday.

“Thursday night is the Last Supper of a world of oppression and violence and control. It’s the Last Supper of all that. But it’s the first feast. It’s the first feast of the world that God has always dreamed of. Good Friday becomes such a devastation not only because they are watching the murderous violent execution of their friend. But in fact what Rome is doing by destroying Jesus’ body is destroying the table. Rome does not want a table where all people are fed. Good Friday is not just Jesus’ body dying on the cross, it’s literally Rome coming in and taking axes to the table and making sure that that table is never set. Because if they table is set, Rome is doomed and the pyramid of hierarchy is demolished. Good Friday is about the destruction of a body, and the destruction of a table, the destruction of a feast.

That’s why Easter Sunday becomes so extraordinary because God says, “Enough. You’re not going to do it. You’re not getting away with it this time. There have been too many acts of violence that destroyed my table. No more Pharoah. No more Caesar. Instead, I’m going to reset this table.”

And sure enough, when we look at the post-resurrection accoutns of Jesus, almost all of those appearances happen around a table. Jesus breaks bread on the road to Emmaus. Jesus shows up at a table where the disciples are gathered and breathes a prayer of peace upon them. And Jesus feeds the disciples on a beach with fish.

There is somewhere between 10 and 15 post-resurrection accounts and the majority take place around a meal. Jesus does not come back and say, “Hey, look at the cross. Look at the violent instrument of death Caesar tried to use to stop all this.” Jesus does not point to the cross. Jesus points to the table. And so says Butler-Bass, “We should not wear crosses around our neck. We should be wearing circles that represent tables, because that’s the point.”

Wow! “We should not wear crosses around our neck. We should be wearing circles that represent tables, because that was Jesus’ point.” Extraordinary. Until this Lenten series I had never read scripture through the lens of the table. And yet, tables are everywhere throughout the Bible. Tables represent abundance, provision, a place for everyone. And our response to these tables of abundance is gratitude!

Now, I personally would not go so far as to say, “Don’t wear a cross around your neck.” For some people, the cross holds significant meaning and I want to honor that…but in the midst of the cross, let’s elevate the table to its rightful place in scripture, to its rightful place in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For our God sets a table of abundance, even in the wilderness.”

We know something about wilderness, don’t we? It was a year ago this weekend that we first canceled in person worship. It happened right in the middle of Lent. We expected that our building would be closed for two weeks. Two weeks. At the time, that sounded extreme to me. But our Lenten wilderness did not last for two weeks. It did not last for 40 days. No, our Lenten wilderness has now extended to a year.

We have called this Lenten wilderness “unprecedented.” Are you tired of hearing the word, “unprecedented?” Of course, there have been other times in history that have been unprecedented. The Israelites in the wilderness was unprecedented. Noah and the Ark unprecedented. Daniel and the lion’s den unprecedented. The good news is that we worship an unprecedented God…a God who rebuilds what has been destroyed, who gathers what has been scattered, who knows us better than we know ourselves or our situation. There are times in our lives, moments in history, when things get unimaginably hard and we don’t know what to do. But the good news is that we worship an unprecedented God…a God who sets a table of abundance even in the wilderness, a God who beguiles us with beauty even in the most unlikely places.

I experience God’s table of abundance through our extraordinary virtual worship services, through our meaningful education events for children, youth, and adults, through the creativity of the Mystery Artist, through the care of mask makers, through the compassion experienced in our Drive By Showers of Love, through the competency of our Board and committees, through the tenderness of our Shepherd groups, through the generosity of our givers, through the vibrancy of our music, through the unity of our members…and the list goes on.  A year ago I found myself asking, “Can God set a table in the wilderness?” And God said, “Damn right, I can.” Let us give thanks that during these unprecedented times, we worship an unprecedented God who sets a table in the wilderness! Amen.