Exodus 19:23 ‘The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, “Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.” ’ 24The Lord said to him, ‘Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let either the priests or the people break through to come up to the Lord; otherwise he will break out against them.’ 25So Moses went down to the people and told them.
The passage from Exodus today is pretty straightforward. It is setting the stage for the revelation of God’s commandments. Setting the stage by setting apart the moment. Something special is about to come down. Setting the stage by setting apart the space. Setting the stage by setting apart those who will hear from the Lord directly from those who will hear the commandments from God’s chosen prophet, Moses.
Setting the stage is one way to signal something special is occurring. To set limits and boundaries around an event separates ordinary events from extra-ordinary ones. In our everyday lives we each have times and events that are de-marked – delineated from others to indicate something special is happening. Birthday celebrations. Baptisms. Weddings. Funerals. And throughout the day, dinner at the table distinguished from dinner on the go for example.
And this setting of the stage – setting the limits – is at play in God’s church. Most delineate (from Websters, dilineate: to indicate the exact position of a border or boundary) Sunday worship, the Lord’s Day, from other weekday gatherings. Limits are set around the ‘mountain top’ to keep it holy so that each who participate in the worship experience the holy. We honor and praise God. We participate in the great mystery. We reverence His holy Word. Confess. Pray together. Come together at God’s table. We say special words on Sundays. We move our bodies in special ways, kneeling, standing, bowing.
I marvel at God’s wisdom in this seemingly little thing – showing us how to maintain the holy nature of a space by establishing some limits and boundaries. God is present in all – the ordinary and extraordinary – to be sure. But it is a delight to see that God knows to instruct Moses on the how-to’s of keeping a holy, extraordinary, space, here on earth – as in heaven.
I have a fond recollection of Thanksgiving Dinners in my childhood home filled to the brim with family and friends. The dining room table was pulled out to its full length with six leaves and in a corner of the room, the kid’s table. Typically a card table draped in a table cloth, fresh flowers, place cards and set as the grown-up table, complete with silver and candles. But. Not quite the same. It was the kids table after all.
The dining room table was set apart. It was special. Different conversation took place there it was imagined. Important things. Maybe holy things. Things we would hear about later from one of our parents. Only adults would find their names on the porcelain place cards. No one questioned who was in, who was out, but every year the child closest to age 16 entered dining room with hope and anticipation that this was their year, the year they would be invited into the inner circle and find their name at the big table.
I continued the tradition with my own children when my home became the gathering spot for extended family and friends at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. But it only worked this way for a few years. By age 8 my daughter put up a stink. Why did she have to sit at the kid’s table? After all, she was helping prepare as much of the food as “you momma.” Indeed she and her brothers were setting the tables and making the table decorations and participating as hosts on par with me on every level. I was homeschooling my kids at the time and I used occasions like Thanksgiving to teach my them about hosting, about meal planning and cooking, about wearing special clothes for special occasions, about table manners and conversation.
My sweet but determined daughter made two final points; the dining room table was big enough for one more place setting and she was, after all, the oldest of the young people. Older than her two brothers and her cousins by, well, years! In kid time being the oldest by 3 years is a lifetime.
We changed the tradition in our home after that. No more kids table. Because of the number of guests we always had two tables – or more – set up in the dining room. But we blended the group. My kids learned not only how to prepare special feasts but also how to seat everyone, to recognize the blessing of sitting one person next to another, and to sit through the entire meal until everyone was done – probably the biggest challenge of all given how slowly the ‘old folk’ ate. They became wonderful conversationalists, fully engaged in the extra-ordinary, special event that was now without limits, but still set apart. Not to say they wouldn’t have had we not switched up the tradition by loosening the boundary lines on who sat at what table. But at the end of the day, our Thanksgiving fellowship was nothing but enriched by the inclusion of all at the table – the space and time holy and the presence of God experienced by one and all.
Some of our church traditions, too, have changed over the years. Boundaries loosened, limits reduced. Some of those changes have been uncomfortable for those raised up in the church in the old school ways, as I was raised up with a kids table at Thanksgiving with no questions asked.
At the end of the day it is the simple wisdom found in today’s Word from Exodus that we are to set apart some things to facilitate reverence and holiness. Though God is present in the ordinary, the particular, the mundane, it is a good thing to elevate, separate out, and set the stage for some moments and events to keep holy the space or event – to keep us in touch with the awe-inspiring, glorious, holy God. Better to distinguish our worship, our tables, our fellowship on certain occasions in meaningful, even ritualistic ways and invite all into that communion than to dumb-down, regularize and blend the boundaries to bland in-distinction to what is to be holy.
Wednesday Daily Office Readings: