Around the Table: a Maundy Thursday Meditation
What we’ve done tonight as we’ve listened to Rev. Janka read the gospel text from Mark’s gospel is, in effect, peered into the dynamics of a family dinner.
You know those, right?
They are the dinners where, from the outside the scene can easily be described objectively, like that famous Norman Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone is leaning in over the table glancing happily at each other. The mother is proudly bringing in the turkey with Dad gazing on happily, ready to carve. It all looks so blissful, like a, well, like a Norman Rockwell painting.
We see the shiny outside and can objectively tell how many people are sitting at the table, if they look happy, how brown the turkey is. But (and you know this) if you’re on the inside, if you’re IN THE KNOW, well, then, you have a good sense that what appears to be the case from the outside is really a situation with many more layers, fully known and understood only by those who are around the table.
From the outside you wouldn’t know, for example, that Aunt Elizabeth has recently become a vegetarian and is furious that the family has decided to go ahead and serve turkey for Thanksgiving anyway . . . or that cousin Nancy and her boyfriend (who nobody likes) have just made an announcement that they’ll be getting married this summer . . . or that Mom insisted on using her grandmother’s silver, which means everything—even your favorite green bean casserole—tastes vaguely of silver polish. Yes, all of that subtext is there, sometimes making dinner especially uncomfortable and sometimes making it particularly wonderful. But despite the subtext and layers of private understanding, everybody shows up to dinner because they are a family, and gathering around the table is what families do.
This was what the group gathered that night was like . . . long-time friends, once upon a time strangers, even the betrayer and the betrayed, and they had become a family because they found commonalities in their hopes and dreams, ideas and promises around which they could gather, promising opportunities with this man Jesus whom they wanted so desperately to follow.
They had found, as different as they each were, that following Jesus was something that healed them, gave them hope, that had become so critical to who they were that they were going to show up for dinner, no matter what.
And this was the thread that tied them together when they all brought to the table such radical differences, such disparate perspectives, such strong personalities, such promise and potential, such pain and failure.
Yes, the meal we read about tonight is a family occasion on which they all gathered around the table, eyes focused on Jesus and they believed, even if only in passing spurts, that their differences were incidental, that the subtext of their life together was secondary to the greater purpose for which they were gathered around the table.
They probably didn’t know it at the time, of course . . . they didn’t know what was ahead of them that night and in the days to come . . . terror and fear, wrenching goodbyes and deep regrets. They certainly didn’t know that 2000 years later we’d be gathered here, peering through time into their family dinner, trying to make sense of the events ahead of us.
Yes, we don’t know all the subtleties of what was going on with Jesus and his disciples that night in the Upper Room. We can read the text and the accounts of the other gospels and make objective observations about foot washing and bread sharing, but we’re not really in the know.
The one thing we do have, though, is experience being part of a family. Specifically tonight I don’t mean our Thanksgiving Dinner families but rather our faith families, our community here at The Riverside Church.
We know that Easter’s on its way; what we don’t know is what difference the determination to follow Jesus here, in this place, around this table, might mean for us.
So we’ll gather around this table together and we’ll serve each other in memory of that meal we’re reading about tonight. And as we do, we’ll be very aware of the subtext around this family dinner table.
We’ll know the sadness of loved ones we’ve lost this year; we might even feel a little fear or anxiety about what the days, months, year ahead might hold for us or for those around this table we can’t bear to think of losing. Still, we gather around the table because we are a family, and that’s what families do.
And as we gather around this table we’ll feel hopeful, excited, maybe a little scared. We’ll glance side to side and realize there are some people around this table we hardly know at all, because there are so many new faces here and our lives are so busy and we don’t always take the time we should to invest. But we gather around the table because we are a family, and that’s what families do.
And when we come to this table tonight, we might even feel discomfort, anger, annoyance. There are perhaps some faces we’ll see that take the role of betrayer, folks who have let us down. (That happens in every family, you know.) Still, we show up anyway, we gather around the table, with all the characters in this family because…that’s what families do.
And tonight, at this meal, folks on the outside looking in might not know, but we know, that times around here are challening and exciting, uncertain and promising right now. The pace of change in this past year has been brisk. How will we honor the past and plan for the future? How can we take steps into what will be, all together, so that everyone feels honored and included as part of this family?
We may feel all of those things. But, we’ll gather around this table because families live through joyful times and uncertain times, and they hold on for what’s ahead. We’ll gather around the table, through tradition and change because we’re a family, and that’s what families do.
Welcome to the table of Christ, the table that recalls that meal so many years ago, when the very first followers of Jesus set out into the adventure of trying to live a life of discipleship. Come and gather around this table and bring all of the pain, love, uncertainty, fear, anger, and hope that you carry. And be nourished by the knowledge that around this table we receive a serving of grace and courage that will fortify us for whatever is ahead.
And tonight when the darkness falls, we’ll leave to follow Jesus with courage and conviction into what is ahead, because we’re a family of faith, and that’s what families do.