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What's a Symbol of Your Religion?

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, first black woman in congress

A teacher tells her class of young children that they should bring a symbol of their religion to class the next day, for the purposes of cultural enrichment.

The next day, the teacher begins to go around the room, asking children to show what they brought.

The first little boy says, "I'm Jewish, and this is a menorah! We light it to celebrate Hanukkah."

"Very good!" says the teacher. Then, turning to the next student, "Now how about you?"

The little girl stood up and said, "I'm Muslim, and this is a prayer mat. I kneel down on it, facing Mecca, to pray."

"Wonderful!" said the teacher, "Anyone else?"

A young girl stood up, held aloft a dish, and declared, "I'm a protestant, a Methodist, and this is a casserole for our potluck dinner table.”

 Recently Reverend Diana Butler Bass wrote a blog about the importance of the table in Christianity. I think it’s an important argument for everyone, even if you aren’t a Christian, but first let’s explore what Bass is saying to Christians.

Bass argues that the table is a more significant, perhaps the most significant of Christian symbols…including the cross! If you stick with her, she makes the case that Jesus never goes back to the cross after his resurrection; but rather after resurrection, he’s still doing what he did in life. Meeting people, greeting them with “Peace be with you,” and getting them around the table to eat together.

Bass speaks of how the disciples were around the table when they shared Passover together in what has become known as the Last Supper. She points out that despite what we may think, Passover meals were joyous and fun, not somber affairs. She makes a note of pointing out how Jesus is always getting people together to sit around the table with a meal.

In the tapestry of human experience, few acts hold as much significance and power as the simple act of eating together around a table. Throughout history, the table has been a symbol of unity, community, and shared humanity. Yet, it has also been a battleground for divisions, exclusions, and prejudices. From ancient times to the present day, societies have grappled with questions of who is worthy of sitting at the table and who is to be kept apart.

Really you don’t have to go back in history to know how the table can be a place of exclusion.  I have mentioned watching the movie, Mean Girls, with a couple of my granddaughters.  We watched the most hurtful scenes, a new girl walking nervously past the lunch room tables…holding her lunch tray. She is looking out of her peripheral vision for a place to sit.  She sees kids putting backpacks on empty seats and negative nods of the head. There is no place at the so-called cool kids table, not the table with the jocks, not even at the so-called nerds.

Then there are times when a girl is shunned from sitting at the table for trumped up reasons like she didn’t wear the right color for the day.  And conversely, it’s a big deal when a girl might be sought out, motioned to, particularly invited to sit at someone’s table – especially with the popular girls.

In Jewish tradition, the table holds central importance in the celebration of Shabbat and other sacred feasts. It is a place where family and friends gather to share stories, blessings, and the abundance of God's provision. Yet, even within Jewish history, there were divisions and exclusions based on ethnicity, gender, and social status.

Similarly, in the early Christian communities, the table became a focal point of fellowship and worship. The breaking of bread and sharing of the cup in remembrance of Jesus' Last Supper became central sacraments of the faith. However, divisions soon arose within the Christian community, with debates over who was worthy to partake in the Eucharist, often excluding marginalized groups.

It is against this backdrop of division and exclusion that the story of Jesus’s life and teachings stand out. Jesus' ministry was characterized by radical inclusivity, a willingness to break bread with sinners, outcasts, and those deemed unworthy by society's standards.

Jesus challenged the religious and social norms of his time by dining with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other marginalized individuals. He’s demonstrating that God's love and grace know no bounds. In the Gospels, we see Jesus repeatedly inviting all to the table, regardless of their status or background.

And here’s the interesting piece that Bass offers to Christians and those who feel the story is saying something important even if they don’t practice Christianity nor are religious. Rev Bass writes that when Jesus first appeared to the disciples AFTER resurrection it was in that same Upper Room where they had eaten around the table.  She writes this.

Jesus loved meals. The disciples knew that. They’d shared so many. Go back through the gospels and see how many of the stories take place at tables, distributing food, or inviting people to supper. Indeed, some have suggested that Jesus primary work was organizing suppers as a way to embody the coming kingdom of God. Throughout his ministry, Jesus welcomed everyone — to the point of contention with his critics — to the table. Tax collectors, sinners, women, Gentiles, the poor, faithful Jews, and ones less so. Jesus was sloppy with supper invitations. He never thought about who would be seated next to whom. He made the disciples crazy with his lax ideas about dinner parties. All he wanted was for everybody to come, to be at the table, and share food and conversation.

That is the call we, whoever we are, are nudged to emulate if we want to live in a good, joyful, fair world according to Rev Bass. Get everyone around the table.  Do a potluck. 

We are giving that idea a go at the Cashmere community dinners each Thursday. It opens tables to all comers. We get to know people we might not normally see – the homeless, the poor, the mentally unstable, the mayor, the doctors and dentists, the teachers, the single parents, the Catholics, the Baptists, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Rotarians, the Kiwanians, the Republicans, and Democrats, the soccer and basketball kids, and groups of all sorts. And everyone's cooking and serving. It’s a sacred act to eat together.  And it’s a reminder, a practice, a symbol that all are welcome – all… without exception.

I once knew a minister who insisted that everyone be around the table.  She meant that in several ways.  One way was literal. An unending pot of soup seemed to follow her around…searching for landing place – preferably a table of the rustic sort, and some people to enjoy the soup with her.

Speaking of tables, John and I saw an impressive one made of limestone when we boated to Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. It sits under an open-air rotunda. Around the table are thick stone chairs representing the members of the McMillin family (their ashes are inside).  It was meant to represent the family dinner that the McMillins would gather around. And there’s an empty space at the table. Supposedly it represents a place for an estranged son.

The huge McMillin table strikes me as a way to remember the utopian ideal of the human family seated together…with a place left for anyone who might want to join. It seems to be what the story of Jesus demonstrates in both his life and in his resurrection …literal and metaphorical tables of radical hospitality and inclusion where we break bread together, share stories, and build bridges of understanding, compassion, and reconciliation, and experience transformative love. Peace be with us.

So, my friends, if someone asks me about a symbol of MY religion (by the way religion scholar and renowned theologian Paul Tillich describes religion as that which makes up one’s ultimate concern; he says everyone has a religion) here’s what I’m thinking…

that maybe I’ll hold up a crust of bread, or a cup of wine, or a casserole (probably from Costco) or a pot of soup... actually, the best one may be an image of a family seated around a table… with an empty chair…and I’ll be whispering or perhaps I’ll be bold and brave enough to shout, peace be with us.

Why am I bringing this all up now? It's supposedly the highest holy day in Christianity tomorrow. Many of us may be going to church or are watching folks go to church. That brings up thoughts about what we stand for in our (Christian) religion.

How about you, what's the symbol of your religion? What is your ultimate concern? How might we journey together to the Good Life by considering what our religion, our ultimate concern, is - and how we might hold it in a symbol?

(all "artsy" images are made using Dall-e with public domain art)



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