The Wonder Table

September 27, 2020
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Exodus 7:1-14; Luke 13:10-21

A friend once told me about his childhood pre-school that encouraged creative, imaginative play. The experience had such a profound impact on him that he remembers it even now, as an adult.

Each room in the pre-school was set up in such a way that children were invited to play freely wherever their imagination and curiosity took them. One room had building blocks and things that could be stacked and knocked over; another room, blank paper and crayons and colored pencils; another room, lots of books; another room, pillows and rugs on the floor for quiet time. The children were not guided through a structured day. They found their own way.

In one of the rooms children could go to the Wonder Table – a large table holding things that might provoke curiosity and exploration. Using a magnifying glass, they could look at a bug or leaf, a rock or flower, or other common object and see them in ways that were new. At the Wonder Table they would find things they thought they knew about, and then learn that there was more to them. The Wonder Table was teaching their minds to watch and listen for truth not readily perceived

In scientific terms, they were discovering structure and pattern and connection. In spiritual terms, the Wonder Table was teaching them immanence – examining the bug or leaf as they could observe it their hand immediately in front of them – and transcendence, peering beyond the object into the mystery behind and beyond. Wonder and curiosity were the tools that opened them to possibilities they would not have seen or heard otherwise. The experience was designed to help children learn to trust their wondering. Science and religion both begin – and overlap – at the Wonder Table.

Some of us do our best wondering in the realm of nature. When asked about our spiritual life, many of us speak of the wonder that stirs in us outdoors – these days, when we look closely at the red and orange leaves of fall with their yellow ribs and curling edges; or when we smell the very earth heaving up its slowly changing season; or when we stand in stillness to watch the sunset across a glassy lake. Our wonder can also be released by experiencing the beauty of the arts – the swell of a symphony or reverberant voices sounding in clear harmony or the magnificence of human bodies in choreographed movement.

We can go to the Wonder Table, you and I, but it often takes real effort, especially in these times. It can take a hard struggle sometimes, to see beyond what is and what is happening now around us, and sense what else there might be.

In a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks described his conversion to Christian faith after decades of atheism. “About seven years ago,” he writes, “I realized that my secular understanding was not adequate to the amplitude of life as I experienced it.”

Brooks sounds like Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, when he famously recounted his experience one day on the corner of 4th and Walnut in downtown Louisville, when he suddenly realized he loved all the strangers he saw around him, and they all seemed to be shining like the sun.

Brooks writes,

“I was gripped by the conviction that the people I encountered were not skin bags of DNA, but had souls; had essences with no size or shape, but that gave them infinite value and dignity. The conviction that people have souls led to the possibility that there was some spirit who breathed souls into them.” (How Faith Shapes My Politics; NYTimes, 9/24/20)

Like Thomas Merton before him, David Brooks had gone to the Wonder Table.

Unfortunately, one of the casualties of our time may be our capacity for wonder. We can now search for instant explanations of virtually anything. Definitive interpretations of reality are just a few keystrokes away. Our lives tend to be suffused with already-decided outcomes and pre-formed opinions that invite minimal curiosity and allow even less mystery.

Christian faith – or any faith, for that matter – requires more than the here-and-now and the readily perceived and predetermined rules. Coming to faith is not merely a matter of accepting a particular creed or doctrine or theological affirmation on its merits. It requires wonder, and for some of us wonder is in short supply these days.

There appears to be a connection between power and wonder – the more we have of the former, the less we are likely to have of the latter. Those who are comfortable and satisfied, whose lives are defined and controlled by their privilege, may find it risky to go to the Wonder Table, to take up the magnifying glass and examine what might lie behind and beyond, the more complete story. Wonder can threaten the way things are, because it takes us outside ourselves. It causes us to listen and to see in new ways. It shakes up the way we have concluded the world works.

The Bible is replete with stories of people whose lock on power cuts them off from their own capacity to wonder.

Look at what happens to Pharaoh when Moses and Aaron show up in the Egyptian royal court. They’ve come to seek the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery, but Pharaoh doesn’t listen to them. Moses feared that would happen. When he was called to go to Pharaoh out of the burning bush – a wonder-filled experience if ever there were one – Moses complained he didn’t have the right words and no one would listen to him.

But the problem isn’t in the words of Moses; it’s in the heart of Pharaoh.

In order to try to persuade the Egyptian king of the power of God, Moses perform signs and wonders:

“When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a wonder,’” God says to Moses, “Then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.’”

Pharaoh asks for something beyond the norm as if he could be convinced by it – but he’s not serious about changing his mind or opening his heart. Aaron dutifully throws down his staff, and, sure enough, it becomes a snake. Pharaoh summons his magicians, who do the same thing, but the Moses snake gobbles them up. Pharaoh is not impressed by this rather remarkable scene.

“Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened,” the text says, “And he would not listen to them.”

A hard heart will not be moved by wonder. A hard heart will have limited, if any, imagination. It will not see things differently. It will not listen to new ideas, to dreams, to hopes for justice or liberation. Maybe it’s too much to expect of Pharaoh, but certainly in a democracy a good leader has a heart that is not irretrievably hard, a heart that has room for empathy. A hard heart will protect its power, at all costs.

That’s what happens in the synagogue one day when Jesus is preaching. In the middle of the sermon he notices a woman who’s been unable to stand up straight for 18 years. Jesus pauses and looks at her. In my mind, I see Elizabeth, a woman with severe osteoporosis in our congregation in San Francisco, who over the years was slowly forced to bend over when she stood and walked. We all watched it happen; it looked so painful.

That day in the synagogue Jesus sees Elizabeth. He stops what he’s saying, and out of compassion, he reaches out and heals her.

“Woman,” he says, “You are set free from your ailment.”

Immediately, Luke tells us, she stands straight and begins praising God.

The reaction of the leader of the synagogue – a kind of latter-day, mini-Pharaoh – is quite different, and predictable. It’s the sabbath when no work is permitted, so, he concludes, the healing violates the rules. Never mind what a wonder-filled moment it must have been for all who witnessed it. Never mind the suffering of the woman now alleviated. The leader’s heart was hard – hardened, perhaps, by years of being in charge, of keeping the rules, of running the system. Power can do that to us.

Jesus calls out the hypocrisy, noting that if the synagogue leader’s donkey or ox needed water on the sabbath, he would untie them and lead the animals to where they could drink.

Jesus then takes the wannabe Pharaoh to the Wonder Table, where he picks up a tiny mustard seed and a magnifying glass.

“Look at this little speck of a seed, and then use your imagination and see beyond it, what will come of it – a mighty tree in which the birds of the air will make their nests. Or look at these small measures of yeast. When mixed with flour they will cause the dough to rise to many times their size. God’s reign is like that – and when this woman was healed you caught a glimpse of the reign of God, if only you had eyes to see and ears to hear.”

Jesus is defending the connection between wonder and faith in God. He’s standing up for our human capacity to see the way things are – a nation enslaved in Egypt, a woman needing healing, a country riven by hatred, a republic overrun with anger, a people ignoring injustice – our human capacity to see the way things are, and then begin to imagine how they might be. Wonder connects us to hope, and we need that connection today, we need that hope, because hope keeps dreams alive.

You and I, all of us, need to spend more time at the Wonder Table.

At Westminster we said this would be The Year of Listening. Listening, true listening, makes wonder possible, and opens us to new possibilities.

There’s a lot to listen to in the world today. The news, updated minute by minute, is especially troublesome right now. It drags us into dilemmas we cannot resolve, questions we cannot answer, and arguments we cannot win. Richard Rohr recently wrote a reflection this past on the information overload in our times, suggesting we all try to limit our intake of news from any source to one hour a day for the next four months.

The problem, of course, is not having something to listen to, but, rather distinguishing between that which is worth listening to, that which builds up – and that which distracts and depletes us. We often find ourselves caught by the latter. Listening to anxiety-inducing noise only hardens our hearts and shuts down our capacity for wonder.

At its best, the church is a soft-hearted community. Like the children in my friend’s pre-school, we see what is, and are willing to open ourselves to that which cannot yet be seen, and embrace it. We watch and listen for the immanent and transcendent God.

You and I, we have caught a glimpse of the reign of God, and we know it is not what we see around us. That vision, of a world where goodness prevails, where truth is told, and where hope is fulfilled, is what we find at the Wonder Table.

And it is the world God imagines we will one day create together.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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